Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Memoir of WWII: The Pitcher and the Well, edited by J. D. McDonald

When I set this blog up I also decided to update my "Blogger" profile. In the "Favorite Books" section I paused before including a title named The Pitcher and the Well.

My hesitation wasn't due to diffidence about the book, which has to rank with Serenade to the Big Bird by Bert Stiles as perhaps the most literary and introspective writing by a serving Allied aviator in WWII. Instead, I was convinced the book would be so hard to find -- it's been out of print for decades -- that listing it would be like citing an obscure heroic saga only available in the original language. What would be the point?

I myself had read The Pitcher and the Well only once before, borrowing it from a USAF Base Library in the early 1960s during my military kid boyhood. I was spellbound, but never saw the book in print again.

About a year or so ago idle curiosity and the Internet caused me to Google the title, find the book for sale from an out-of-print bookseller, and wait for it via snail mail. This time I read it from the perspective of a man too old for military service, rather than a kid too young to be drafted. It was as good four decades on as it was the first time.

The book's title comes from a medieval warning against pushing one's luck too far: "So oft goeth the pitcher to the well, that at last it commeth broken home." I think its obscurity has a lot to do with the fact that its author came from New Zealand rather than America, and did not survive his harrowing combat missions as an RAF Bomber Command navigator in Wellington and Lancaster bombers. There's not much potential for wide publicity when the author comes from a small country, is long dead, and remains anonymous to boot.

Perhaps this will change a bit now because the book has apparently entered the public domain and someone had the good sense to scan and archive the complete work online, so that it is now available as a free pdf download.

The young men of the Allied bomber fleets in the RAF and USAAF who flew against Nazi Germany in WWII suffered the highest casualty rates of any Allied military branches in the conflict. If you have the slightest interest in learning first hand how these men lived and died, The Pitcher and the Well is a must read for you.


  1. Thanks for the recommendation. My Grandfather's brother was a bomber pilot over Germany who did'nt make it back.

  2. You might also be interested in a book I wrote about flying combat in B-17s.

  3. Redhand,

    Thanks for the pointer. This treasure will while away a few of my holiday hours!

    "When this war is over there'll have to be some furious thought given to the situations of all those retired officers so firmly planted on the backs of the lesser breeds. You and your kind will have to do the thinking because the retired officers can't. Cerebration is a bar to promotion. Better watch out, my fine feathered friend."(p.18)



  4. I'm sure you'll like the rest! An extra bonus I just found is the recruiting poster that inspired the author to enlist:

    After all, I did somewhat resemble the chap in the poster -- you know the one --
    I must grow a mustache. The fellow on the poster wears one.

  5. Redhand,

    I just read an interesting recent examination of the Allied bomber offensive, A.C. Grayling's, "Among the Dead Cities." I strongly disagree with some of his conclusions, but it is well-researched and worth reading. Have you read it?

  6. "Among the Dead Cities." Have you read it? No but I'm tempted to. I did see it in B&N, and after leafing through it thought it was just going to be another "Wasn't all that area bombing in Germany really, really bad?" book with an easy "anti-bombing" bias. The Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) is a far more complex subject than that.

    If you think it's worth reading I'll look again. Generally speaking, I think the CBO was a strategic necessity, but that Harris should have been sacked for lack of flexibility and insubordination.

  7. Redhand,

    "Wasn't all that area bombing in Germany really, really bad?"

    Sort of, yes, but it's a lot more nuanced than that. The author is an Oxford philosophy professor. I was highly skeptical when I picked it up, but the research is solid. He looks at the moral & military justification for the targeting of civilians in World War 2. But it is explicitly not an attack on the bomber forces themselves. He recognizes their heroism and sacrifice. The argument is a more philosophical/big picture thesis. It covers both Europe and the Pacific, although I thought the Pacific treatment was much more superficial.

    It's one of those books that you know you are probably going to disagree with, but that was still interesting to read.