From the outset, this new book, I Just Wanted to Fly: The Story of WWII Glider Pilot Bernard Osborn, impressed me – enormously. The foreword by Mike Peters – not only a well-known military author but also a retired major of the Army Air Corps – is superbly written. The subsequent prefaces by David Baverstock and David Pasley simply project enthusiasm from the outset – and a sincere respect and admiration for surviving veterans coupled with a clear recognition and understanding of the need to record and publish veterans’ stories. Indeed, it becomes immediately obvious that Baverstock and Pasley are on a very personal mission, and are passionate about the whole subject – always a good start-line for any read.
Operation MARKET-GARDEN – Field Marshal Montgomery’s bold plan to seize the Rhine bridges and end the war by Christmas 1944, made famous in more recent times by Richard Attenborough’s star-studded 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, was a complex air and ground operation involving a plethora of units. Consequently, the bibliography of ‘OMG’, unsurprisingly, is significant, including strategic overviews and assessments, unit histories and, of course, personal memoirs. Amongst the latter are well-known autobiographical accounts by leading commanders, including General Roy Urquhart, Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett and Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost. The vast majority of British and Polish soldiers, however, who fought either at Arnhem Bridge or within the so-called Hexenkessel (‘Witch’s Cauldron’) of the all-important Oosterbeek Perimeter, remain anonymous. The majority of these airborne troops have not made a written record or oral testimony confirming their experience. A number, however, have, and fortunately, due to advances in technology making publishing more accessible than once it was, further accounts continue to appear. The downside, though, is the incessant march of time, now taking survivors from us in ever increasing numbers, meaning that less remain, should they be so inclined, to record their stories. Here, the burgeoning interest in family history has helped, though, as relatives increasingly understand the significance of and value ancestors’ war service. Taking all of this into account, the likelihood is that the written record of Operation MARKET-GARDEN’s human experience will be further enhanced throughout what time we still have left to do so. I Just Wanted to Fly, therefore, is a very welcome addition to Arnhem’s bibliography – and I will explain why.
Within academic history, oral history has only recently come of age. This is because historians have been sceptical about the value of it, because memory becomes distorted over time and, indeed, accounts are not always entirely honest. This is a pity, because such oral testimony adds a rich splash of colour to the otherwise often dull canvas of history. Fortunately so-called ‘popular’ history does not share this view, there being an insatiable appetite for first-hand accounts. Nonetheless, it remains important to accurately contextualise first-hand accounts - not always adequately achieved. However, David Pasley – who provides informative but succinct and very readable text linking Bernard Osborn’s memories together in a coherent order – has not fallen into this trap. Immediately, therefore, I wanted to read more.
Bernard Osborn was a ‘Total Soldier’ – a Glider Pilot – one of those very special men who flew to battle in unpowered gliders, carrying with them men and materiel. His father was a painter and decorator, and the first section provides an excellent overview of the period’s social history, especially as it concerned service opportunities. Between the wars was, of course, an exciting time in aviation, and many a youngster’s imagination was captured (as indeed it still is) by the Spitfire and Hurricane. Living near Biggin Hill, Bernard Osborn, upon seeing a Hurricane eight-gun fighter for the first time, decided that he wanted to be a fighter pilot. Soon, though, the Battle of Britain raged over London and the south-east, Fighter Command’s pilots destroying Hitler’s ambition to mount a seaborne invasion of southern England. Naturally those fighter pilots – the Few – became heroes of the hour – generating an incessant stream of would-be Douglas Baders to RAF Recruiting offices throughout the land. Bernard Osborn was one of them. There were no vacancies. Called up shortly afterwards, it was not in a Hurricane cockpit that Bernard found himself – but inside a tank. Not exactly what the aviation-minded youngster had in mind, he volunteered to join the Glider Pilot Regiment. This is important. Because of Bernard Osborn’s comparatively ordinary social origins, if not for the war and by his own admission, flying being the preserve of the wealthy, he would never have got the opportunity to do so. In this respect, Bernard Osborn’s memories are already, very early on in the book, an important contribution to the social historical record of the times.
So it was that Bernard Osborn got to fly – in a Tiger Moth biplane at an RAF Elementary Flying Training School, which he describes as ‘wonderful’. He took to flying naturally, and describes the training in detail. By D-Day, Sergeant Osborn was a fully qualified Glider Pilot, piloting a glider to Normandy as part of the Operation MALLARD supply effort. ‘A nice old doddle’, the ‘Germans threw a bit of rubbish about’. Having been sniped at and shelled, Sergeant Osborn returned directly to England – ready for another mission. This first section is an excellent introduction into the life of a Glider Pilot and the regiment’s modus operandi.
That next operation was a while in coming – Operation MARKET-GARDEN. On 17 September 1944, Sergeant Osborn found himself piloting a Horsa bound for Holland with the 1st British Airborne Division’s first lift. David Pasley, as ever, supplements the first-hand account with an excellent overview of preceding events and the overall strategy – presented this in such a way as to be consumed by expert military buff and general reader alike. Assuming that the majority of readers will be those with a strong interest in Operation MARKET-GARDEN, I will not spoil the story by going into detail regarding Bernard Osborn’s experiences on the ground in Holland – suffice it to say that these are as illuminating as they are doubtless understated. Having survived his ordeal in the Kessel and fortunately safely evacuated, a further period of training followed in England before the war ended. Afterwards Bernard Osborn saw active service in Palestine before hanging up his red beret and returning to ‘Civvy Street’. Like many other veterans, however, his association with Arnhem was not over: fifty years after the violent events of Operation MARKET-GARDEN he returned to the Dutch city forever in his memory, and remains a member of the Glider Pilot Regimental Association.
In conclusion, this is a well-produced book of fascinating, often moving, memories from a veteran Glider Pilot. In recording them, Bernard Osborn has done the historical record proud – as has Baverstock and Pasley.
About Dilip Sarkar MBE FRHistS BA(Hons), 6 October 2015
Dilip Sarkar has been inspired by the stories and sacrifice of casualties, and the memories of veterans, since childhood. This obsession has led to publication of nearly forty books on the subject, including Guards VC: Blitzkrieg 1940, Hearts of Oak: The Human Tragedy of HMS Royal Oak, and the best-selling Spitfire Manual. His most recent work, The Final Few: The Last Surviving Battle of Britain Pilots Tell Their Stories was published by Amberley to mark the 75th anniversary in September 2015. Made an MBE for ‘services to aviation history’ in 2003, Dilip Sarkar was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Historical Society in 2006, in recognition of his ‘original contribution to the scholarship’. For further information please see: www.dilipsarkarmbe.co.uk.