Saturday, November 23, 2013

Discrepancies in History by Suzy Henderson

During the course of my research I’ve studied many films, autobiographies and biographies. One of the first discrepancies I came across, hails from the Hollywood portrayal of the ‘Memphis Belle.’

The movie portrays the American crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress, known as the Memphis Belle, who become the first crew to complete their tour of 25 missions, thus being allowed to return home. In reality it was the crew of the B-17 ‘Hells Angels,’ who completed their tour first. They flew their 25th mission on the 13th May 1943, whilst the crew of the Memphis Belle flew their last mission on the 19th May 1943. The difference was that the crew of the Belle were first to complete 25 missions AND return home to the USA. They then took part in the Government’s drive to sell war bonds. The Belle is also credited with being the first Eighth Air Force bomber to complete 25 combat missions over occupied Europe without having a single crew member killed or badly injured. Meanwhile 'Hells Angels' continued on, completing a second tour before returning home to the USA.


It seems so often that in portraying history in films, and sometimes in novels, inaccuracies occur. Sometimes one can tweak facts to make them seem more glorious, as in the Memphis Belle movie. Unfortunately, unless you know that particular aspect of history, then you might very well develop an inaccurate knowledge base, which is in a sense a great loss. A loss because perhaps we might give praise to the wrong people for the wrong things. In order to pay our respects to these great men who went to war, we need to know the truth. It’s so easy to glorify the truth, and to exaggerate, manipulating fact with a touch of gold, conjuring up that old movie magic. This was in a sense exactly what the American Government did in 1943, in promoting Captain Robert Morgan’s crew of the Memphis Belle. Propaganda was key and such a façade was good publicity and an excellent morale boost for the people. The Belle became a legend, a mighty war ship capable of looking after her crew of men up in the clouds, through flak and flames. The infamous machine of
propaganda helped to propel the sale of war bonds, thus assisting with the financing of the war. 

Even today, the Liberty Foundation offer ground tours of the Memphis Belle, and depicts on their website how she was the first B-17 to complete a tour of duty. And so the false legend lives on.
Moving away from aviation, the Hollywood movie, U-571, portrays the American navy as being the first to retrieve an Enigma code machine from a sinking German U-boat. In reality it was the British crew of HMS Bulldog who did so, in the North Atlantic in May 1941. 

In general, probably the biggest discrepancy in movie portrayals is the glorification of war. The portrayal of the hero/protagonist and the romantic sub-plot are generally two of the key ingredients. Reality is different and war is anything but glorious but then I'm sure most of us realise that. As for the hero of the hour, as any of those who served will say, they did what they had to do. Nothing more and nothing less. They took on the might of the German Army and Luftwaffe and they coped with it and there's nothing romantic or glitzy about that. Of course they all remain heroes, and deserve the honour and prayers bestowed upon them. We will always remember them.

About The Author

I'm Suzy Henderson, a writer who lives in Cumbria, England. I've been writing for several years and I'm presently in the midst of completing my début novel. History is my passion, particularly military history and I've chosen to focus upon the Second World War for the basis of my novel. There are so many untold stories from this period, always heroic and always evoking feelings of amazement and awe. 

My inspiration firstly came from my family history and their connections to both World Wars. There after it arrived in the shaping of words written by many authors, in particular, Pat Barker, Hilary Mantel, Ernest Hemingway and Sebastian Faulks.

When I'm not writing I can be found spending time with my family and dogs, walking in the Lake District.


My links:


About My Novel

My love of aviation and my interest in the Second World War led me to the premise for this novel. What began as a historical work of fiction, with the added romance element soon evolved into an in-depth address of the psychological and social effects of war upon Airmen. More directly, I began to examine the care that was given to those who survived the flaming inferno of a plane. Sometimes, the injuries resulted as a consequence of frostbite which could be most severe when flying at twenty thousand feet. Gunners, especially those incarcerated in their turrets were most at risk. Whilst heated flying suits might have provided some protection, they relied upon the electrics of the aircraft. If those were not working then the men were at great risk. 

During my research I encountered the work of the leading plastic surgeons of the day. Faces were rebuilt, noses were reconstructed, along with eyelids and lips. And it was such pioneering techniques that have helped to transform the lives of people over the decades that followed, leading up to the present day. It really was amazing work, with injuries seen during the early days of the war that had never been witnessed before. Those injuries were often the result of burns sustained in the aircraft, such as when the petrol tank of a Hurricane exploded or from flak exploding inside a Bomber.  

One doctor in particular, Sir Archibald McIndoe, honorary president of the Guinea Pig Club, features in the novel. He was truly extraordinary and reading about him compelled me to portray his achievements. McIndoe was a pioneer in his filed and a man of extraordinary vision, skill and strength. Rather than treating the men physically, he found himself concerned with their psychological and social well being, keeping in touch with the servicemen he treated for many years following the war, a direct result of the annual reunions of the Guinea Pig Club – a club which still holds reunions today, although its members are rapidly diminishing, given the number of years that have passed since its inception. Membership of the club which was formed in 1941, was strictly limited to those who had sustained burns and received treatment by McIndoe.  

One such member, Richard Hillary, a pilot who sustained horrific burns, would return to flying later, only to be killed when his Bristol Blenheim crashed during a night training flight, also killing his sergeant radio operator - observer, Wilfred Fison. This happened on the 8th January 1943, at Crunklaw Farm, Berwickshire, Scotland. A short time before the crash, McIndoe had written to Hillary’s Commanding Officer requesting that he be removed from operational flying as he had some concerns. Sadly, due to one thing and another, the letter was not acted upon in time to save Hillary.

McIndoe was in charge of the burns unit at East Grinstead Cottage Hospital in Sussex. He used his charm and ingenuity to secure the treatment he wanted for his patients. All to often there were protocols to follow and McIndoe realised that too long a wait could be harmful to the outcome for his 'boys.' He went to extraordinary lengths with his duty of care and encouraged the people of East Grinstead to welcome these boys into their own homes, to extend their hospitality and make them feel welcome as opposed to alienated. He encouraged them not to stare, and that's exactly what this fabulous town did. It thus became known for being 'the town that did not stare.'

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