Albany Advertiser, Western Australia March 18, 1993.
Thankfully the reality of war for most Australians will never be experienced first hand. But an understanding of the emotions , camaraderie and courage of those who believed they were defending our country is vital for forming an appreciation of those who have fought and died in war. Even those who were there do not willingly relate their experiences of the war, having pushed them to the back of their mind years earlier, often too painful to relive.
The recent Rainbow Coast Airshow bought to Albany a man who has used writing as a cathartic process to unravel his own memories and experiences from WWII. Tom Scotland served in the RAAF between 1941 and 1945 as a pilot with the 614 Pathfinder squadron. He flew 62 missions in Halifaxes and then Liberators to complete successful raids from a base in Italy over German occupied areas of Europe. For his services he was awarded a number of commendations and the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross. His book, Voice from the Stars: A Pathfinder's Story, relates the intricacies and real life drama of the war in Europe and follows his search for the voice in the stars which so often seemed to help out in times of difficulty.
Described as a war story with a difference - a compassionate true story filled with human emotions in experiences of grief, love, death, beauty, tension, fun and fortitude this book is a personal account of the forces which moulded Scotland's life during those years in Europe. The book took three years to complete and part of its triumph is found in the personal gains which came from its writing. "Through writing the book I gained a relationship with my eldest son," Mr. Scotland said. "He wanted to know all these stories at a much younger age but I couldn't tell him then, so because of the book a relationship between us was born in our adult years." Mr Scotland's wife Laurel, who makes a number of appearances towards the end of the book, says the whole exercise proved to be therapeutic for her husband. "It also has meaning for people who weren't there but who had fathers and uncles who were and they want to know more about it." she said. "We know it has also helped those whose husbands and fathers didn't come back. "They wanted to know what it was like and needed to say goodbye with some memories."
Tom Scotland was not always going to write about his war experience. In 1984 he received a letter from a man in England who had witnessed the crash of Scotland's aeroplane 40 years earlier. The arrival of the letter and the memories it unearthed prompted Scotland and his wife to return to England and reunite with the people of Devils Glen where he had crashed, and with former crew members from his Pathfinder days. It was on their way home from the reunion that Scotland decided to write his account of the war years. "In 1945 I was a flyer going home to an uncertain future to take my part in an Australia still fighting a war in the Pacific. But this time with Laurel by my side. I was going home with a wonderful sense of fulfilment and a determination to share some of that fulfilment in a book..."
The story of Devils Glen is just one of a number of amazing escapes and near misses Tom Scotland and his crew encountered during their time in the airforce. During Halifax flight training at Marston Moor near Leeds in the UK the left wing of the crew's plane caught fire. Scotty (Mr Scotland's nickname throughout the war years) urged the crew to bale out and then began his search for somewhere to land the plane, away from the centre of Leeds which loomed below. In what can only be described as a spectacular landing he managed to bring the Halifax, encircled in flames to a halt in a field beside Drub Lane.
Forty years later the letter which reached Mr Scotland was from Bert Haley. A young man at the time of the crash had run along the lane as the plane descended and offered his help until he could stay no longer because his wife was having a baby! While an extremely personal account, the myriad of events experienced by Mr Scotland during his time in the RAAF make engrossing reading. Mr. Scotland details his life and that of those around him with modesty and humility despite the amazing feats which confronted them during many of their bombing raids and in their training flights.
His story also provides an insight into the frustration experienced at the long delays in firstly getting to the war zone and then once there completing the job and returning home. Mr Scotland's fond descriptions of the people he encountered during his time in the RAAF and the bond which developed between all these people during wartime, is paralleled with his foreboding concern about coming home to an uncertain future in Australia. And while serving his country and doing it proudly Mr Scotland himself questions in a number of ways the meaning of the war. One by one as the book unfolds he hears news of friends from the Forty Club and the 614 squadron who are missing in action or who have died during the course of their duties.
By the end of the war Scotland's crew is the only crew left flying out of Italy of those who trained together at Marston Moor and Upton. "At debriefing we learnt that another of our key Pathfinders was missing. His loss meant that our crew was the only one of six crews from Marston Moor and Upwood to remain flying. We missed their reliable friendship. Our crews had always been there together, sitting at briefings and sharing one anothers problems."
Scotland too stares the reality of death squarely in the face on a number of occasions. "Down, down, down I sank. Would the plane finish up amongst the houses surrounding the valley. I lifted the nose of the Halifax to miss a road. I felt so peaceful. What would death be like?" At times Scotland's depression starts to seep into the reader who can only sympathise from a distance, the pain of losing so may friends.
But almost as quickly as it appears, the feeling disappears replaced with detailed descriptions of flying missions and trips into nearby English and Italian country towns for a number of relaxing sojourns from the pressures of war. With the war in Europe over Scotland and his crew disband and make their return journeys home but this is not where the book ends, in some ways it is only the beginning of his discovery. "Germany's collapse was exciting news, but it brought it me face to face with my own pain with trying to face the future. Somewhere in side me there was a big ache. and nothing I did seemed to assuage it."
In a book filled with such emotion it seems fitting that episodes which unravel after Scotland's return home are filled with more of the same feeling, only this time around it is mostly jubilant. With the end of the war, meeting and marrying Laurel, becoming a Christian and returning to England and Europe to reunite with old friends and relive forgotten memories, Mr Scotland finishes his book positively. "We had survived. We had received back our lives. We could go on with living. The war was over."
Mr Scotland kept document, letters, records and photographs of his war years and relied on these and his own memories to record this account. But it is the voice from the stars, the voice first heard long ago during the war which is the vital clue to the book - a man's search for the meaning and purpose of his life and the voice which bought him these answers. Even if you do not believe in the voice most will identify with their search and some of the obstacles along the way.
Tom and Laurel Scotland are half way through writing a sequel to a Voice from the Stars which they hope will be finished by the end of the year. A second edition of the book should be out within 12 months, not bad going for a book which, in its first run has been promoted largely through word of mouth. "We have done most of the promoting ourselves and while this has meant a lot of hard work it has also allowed us the opportunity to come face to face with personal responses to the book," Mr Scotland said.
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