I've dropped a line recently, to Christopher Jory, author of Lost in the Flames. Over the next few days, I'll blog with some of the answers he gave to my questions. This first reply is particularly interesting as it makes clear that much of the book is based closely on F.O. John Ross, to whom the book is dedicated.
You dedicate the book to a named airman and 55,572 others. Who was Flying Officer John Ross?
Flying Officer John Ross was my grandmother’s brother – something of a legend in the family, known to everyone now as Uncle Jackie. He served in 186 Squadron, RAF Bomber Command. Like Jacob in Lost in the Flames, Jackie trained initially as a pilot but ended up as a bomb-aimer. Jackie and Jacob share other characteristics – they both grew up in country towns, went to Grammar School, as boys wrote of their dreams of flying and in adulthood wrote poems, volunteered as soon as they could, trained in Canada, flew more than one tour of ops, felt some sort of guilt at what they were required to do (breaking down and saying, when very drunk and in floods of tears, ‘These hands have killed thousands’). They both knew they had little chance of surviving for long – six weeks was an average expectation in Bomber Command – but carried on regardless because they had a sense of duty and no real choice. They both left a cigarette stub on the mantelpiece before their last op (I saw Jackie’s for the first time just the other day, when I gave my grandmother a copy of the book), and they both flew the plane home on many occasions because their pilots’ nerves were shot away by the conditions in which they operated. Jackie was killed on his 36th operation, over Dortmund, on 3rd February 1945, aged 21. He could have stopped after thirty ops, but he said they would think he was ‘chicken’ if he did, so he carried on – and perhaps he loved flying too much to stop. I’ve learned these things about Jackie from my grandmother, and elements of many of her anecdotes about him occur in the book, so there is an authenticity to the actions and sentiments described. I also have copies of some of Jackie’s letters, and I have used elements of these too – Jacob’s letter on p.194, for example, is taken virtually word-for-word from a letter Jackie wrote, and I’m pleased that his words can be read – and his photo seen – by those who never met him, nearly 70 years after he died. I think he deserves this recognition, and more.