Anzacs and the Battle of Britain: author interview with Adam Claasen

Running from early July to the end of October, the Battle of Britain ended in the failure of the Luftwaffe to gain air supremacy over the UK. The German invasion of Britain was called off and Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union instead.

Together Australian and New Zealand airmen made up the second largest Allied foreign contingent in the battle. Their story has been told fully for this first time in Dogfight by Adam Claasen, Senior Lecturer in History at Massey University. In recognition of the 75th anniversary of the battle we spoke to Adam about its Anzac connections.

134 New Zealanders and 37 Australians fought in the Battle of Britain. How do their experiences add to the overall story of this pivotal event of the Second World War?

It’s a story that has never been brought together before. There has been the odd book either side of the Tasman but this is the first time the New Zealand and Australian experience has been combined and told within the four phases of the Battle of Britain.

What I discovered was that the Anzacs had a significant part to play in combat and a larger role in leadership. The Anzacs nearly made up a third of the top ten aces of the campaign and became widely known: Colin Gray and Brian Carbury from New Zealand and Pat Hughes for the Australians. Gray, Carbury and Hughes knocked out close to fifty machines in total over some four months.

Air Marshal Keith Park performed magnificently under very difficult conditions, notably a lack of trained airmen. His leadership and strategy at the time is widely seen as instrumental in the eventual success of Fighter Command the failure of Hitler to gain air ascendancy as a perquisite to an invasion of Britain.

A number of these Anzacs flew Boulton Paul Defiants with 141 and 264 Squadrons. How did this two seater fighter aircraft compare with the with the famous Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane?

The Boulton Paul Defiant was a strange beast. Officially it was know as an ‘interceptor aircraft’ but popularly known as a ‘turret-fighter.’ It looked very much like the Hurricane but with the important addition, directly behind the pilot, of a powered turret armed with four Browning machine guns. In a way, it harked back to the successful two-man fighters of the Great War, for example, the Bristol F.2 Fighter.

Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I. Date [circa 1940]
Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I. [circa 1940], Wikipedia

However, the Defiant was no match for the Luftwaffe single engine fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, because it suffered from two principle impediments: first, a lack-luster climb rate and poor maneuverability due to the added weight of the turret; and, second, it was not equipped with forward firing guns. Once Luftwaffe airman had gotten over the initial surprise of a backward-firing fighter they simply attacked it from below or head on.

Eventually they were withdrawn from the frontline of the Battle of Britain, but not before a number of men were killed in these ill-fated machines, including the youngest New Zealander to lose his life in the battle, eighteen year old Lauritz Rasmussen, a Defiant gunner. In the pre-war period, Winston Churchill had strongly advocated that Fighter Command to be equipped with large numbers of Defiants but mercifully wiser heads prevailed and only two squadrons saw the light of day.

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The multi-talented John Boyne

John Boyne is one of my favourite authors, so I was very excited about having the chance to ask him some of my burning questions this morning. John is an incredibly talented writer, who writes for both adults and children, and he’s probably best known as the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I asked John about his quirky protagonists, writing for children, and how libraries have affected him as a reader and as a writer.

What do you like most about writing for children?

I had never really thought about writing for children. My first four books I wrote were all aimed at adults, so when I wrote my first children’s book (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) it came as a surprise to me. I entered a world I wasn’t familiar with – children’s book festivals, schools, and having to talk to children. I also discovered the wealth of contemporary children’s literature, which I had ignored as a reader since I was a kid.  In the year before The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came out, I delved into that world and discovered what I was missing.  Children’s literature had changed a lot since I was a kid.  It had become more serious and explored adult themes in a non-patronising way.  It felt like a fresh challenge and I thought I could do both, I could write a novel for adults and a novel for children. I thought, why shouldn’t I if I have a story to tell.

How does writing for children differ from writing for adults?

The only main difference is that children’s stories feature child protagonists. They have children at the centre of the story and you see things through their eyes. I don’t change the language at all.  A school I visited in Dublin recently were studying Noah Barleywater Runs Away and the teacher got the children to write a list of words from the book that they didn’t understand and they had to look them up in the dictionary. I was quite pleased that those lists were so long and that they had to go and look them up because it showed me that I wasn’t dumbing the story down and using simple language. My children’s books are always told in third person narration, and when I think of children’s novels, I think I should always write them this way. I feel that I don’t want to put myself into the total mind of one child.

Barnaby Brocket is special because he floats.  If you could have a special ability what would it be?

I think I’d like to be in two places at once, because over the last 6 or 7 years I’ve spent so much time travelling. I like travelling and I like invitations to visit places, but I also like being at home. I’d like to spend all the time at home, in my own house, while at the same time being able to travel the world.

Barnaby meets lots of interesting characters in his travels all over the world.  Who is the most interesting character that you’ve ever met?

It would have to be John Irving. I was a huge fan of his growing up and he was the writer that really inspired me to be a writer. When I published my first novel in 2000, I sent him a copy of the book and wrote him a letter. He read it and wrote back, and we struck up a friendship. We’ve known each other since and when he was on tour in England this Summer I went with him as his interviewer. He has great insights into literature, how novels work, and all the time I’ve spent with him has been inspiring.

Oliver Jeffers has created some fantastic illustrations for Noah Barleywater Runs Away and The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket. Did you have any say in the illustrations or did you not see them until the book was published?

With each book we talked about it in advance and what we thought it should look like. I was very clear with Oliver the first time around that I just wanted him to do whatever he felt was right. I asked him to do Noah Barleywater originally because I love his work and think it’s wonderfully imaginative and creative. He’s very talented so I didn’t want to put any restrictions on him. 

Your characters, particularly your protagonists (Barnaby Brocket and Noah Barleywater) have brilliant names.  How do you come up with their names?

I’d had this name, Barnaby, for a while and I thought it was a great name for a character. I just tried different names and I thought an alliterative name would be good. I also liked the name Noah and the connection with water. You try different sounds and figure out what seems to ring true. You want your characters to be memorable and Barnaby Brocket is a memorable name.

Your heartbreaking novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has just been re-issued as a Vintage Children’s Classic.  How does it feel to have your book considered a ‘classic’?

It makes me feel about a hundred years old! It’s flattering, especially since the book has only been out for six years.  I hope that 50 years from now it feels like it’s earned its place on that list.

How did you find the experience of having The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas turned into a film?

It was exciting.  I had a very good relationship with the director and the producers, which a lot of writers don’t have.  I made a conscious effort at the start that I would be helpful to the process, not troublesome. A lot of novelists make that mistake, of selling the film rights and wanting to control aspect of the film. Whatever happens with the movie, it doesn’t change the book. I think they did a great job and that they really understood the book. 

How have books shaped you and what part have libraries played in this?

A huge part.  I grew up in Dublin and down the road from my house there was this really big library, in this really old building which is still standing.  As a kid, my mum took me and my siblings down there every Wednesday and we would get our three books.  I so looked forward to it!  It was so exciting to go inside this big, old building and I thought it was amazing that you got stuff for free.  The adult’s stuff was on the ground floor and the kid’s stuff was upstairs.  Like most kids, I loved re-reading.  You would go back to those books you loved, and get them out week after week.

How important are libraries to writers?

In a lot of libraries now, reading groups take place, creative writing groups meet, and libraries have become much more of a place to meet and be part of a collective experience of literature.  Book clubs and reading groups have been incredibly helpful to authors over the last 10 or 15 years, and I think libraries have played a great part in that.

John Boyne will also be appearing with Jane Higgins and Helen Lowe at the Why YA? Panel on Sunday at 9:30am.