Serenade to the Big Bird

By Bert Stiles, 1952

“It was summer and there was war all over the world. There was war in Normandy and Italy and plenty of war in Russia. The war was going on in the islands and in the sky over Japan. The only war I knew about personally was the air war from England.”

I had never heard of this book until it was mentioned in a discussion on Facebook about war books; the spur for the discussion was a mother, a friend of mine, despairing at her son’s wish to join the armed forces, and his fascination with war.

I have read many books about the air war in Europe (Clostermann ) – but I had never heard of Bert Stiles. He joined the air war in Europe in April of 1944 flying B17 Flying Fortresses in the day-time bombing of France, Holland and Germany, and completed his tour of duty on bombers. He then transferred to fighters and was killed in a P51 Mustang in the late autumn of 1944.

This book is a first-hand narrative and as such has similarities with many others. The intensity of battle, the loss of friends, the poetry of flying, the peacefulness of the English countryside on days off. The feeling of brotherhood with other airmen, also with those of the enemy. This book has very little, if any, machismo, and all the more sadness and wonderment at the utility and futility of it all. Women also have a prominent place – not as warriors, but as objects of love and lust, and the book has a very frank and clear-eyed chapter about wartime prostitution – “Piccadilly Commandoes”. Stiles also sketches his relationships with “dames” he has known, and devotes several short chapters to a “Doll  Named August”. One wonders if she ever read the memoir, which was published by his mother, by the way.

Bert Stiles is a very sensitive soul, and a writing soul. He brings his typewriter with him to England, that is clear from the inventory of the room he shares with his pilot Sam (“are you cold?” – “no, I’m Sam”). He never mentions the act of writing in his memoir , so we are left to work out for ourselves that he must have used his resting time to write, maybe after interrogations, after chow, before drinking and sleeping and “being woked” for the next show. From Wikipedia we can learn that before he became a co-pilot, he was already a writer. He writes very well, too!

Stiles devotes space to reflect on the people who will be killed by the bombs he drops, and it’s clear that his feelings are conflicted; his vision for the future is one in which all humans will come together in the one element that they have in common, their humanity.

“Maybe boundary lines have their uses, and tariffs and visas and all the other barriers built up by men on the ground, but the air flows smoothly over all of them and from 20,000 it is pretty hard to see them or any very good reasons for them”.

A final word – by the time Stiles joined the air war over Europe, the Luftwaffe was largely a spent force. His odds of survival were thus much higher than if he had joined in 1943. The fact he flew many sorties before spotting the first fighters underscores this point. Flak (anti-aircraft guns) were a great danger though, and was probably what killed him in the end.

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