About The Book

Under a Bomber’s Moon is the true story of a New Zealand navigator-bomb aimer with the Royal Air Force and a German night fighter pilot as they fight for success and survival over night time Germany during the bitterest years of the Second World War. In early 1944, after completing one tour of operations and winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exploits, the New Zealander, Colwyn Jones, was killed during a raid on Berlin.

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About The Night War Over Europe

During the Second World War the night sky over Europe was one of the most lethal places to wage war. By 1945 almost half of the airmen who flew with Bomber Command and a third of the Luftwaffe night fighter crew pitted against them had been killed. Many German cities became moonscapes of rubble, their inhabitants the first to experience the reality of ‘total war’ – itself a glimpse of the destructive potential of the nuclear age about to explode in the Far East.

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Col's Travels in Wartime England

When Col Jones arrived in England in summer 1941, like so many Commonwealth airmen he felt he had 'come home' to the land of his parents' birth, a land he was willing to die for. Under a Bomber's Moon is also a story of why he fought - and not just about the fury of combat. Some of the moments he realised this most clearly are captured in the book, but many others he describes in his letters and diary are not. The following relates a few of these additional episodes, and also of my travels in his footsteps to put my own pictures to his words. - Stephen Harris

Suffolk
Letter to his mother, 17 July 1942.


Yesterday I went to Thetford again. Another chap, one of the fellows in the crew, named John Till, went with me. We went through the town and out to a place called Grimes Caves [Graves]. They are ancient flint workings which were worked by ancient men in the dawn of time. Unfortunately we could not see anything as the workings are all underground, and only archaeological research has unearthed them. The entrances were locked, and will doubtless remain so until after the war.

We were given directions to get there from an old farm wife, and when we had left the road and gone down a grassy track skirting a forest area, we left the world quite behind. We were in a fold in the heath, where everything was just as it has been for 100 years. The sun was sinking lowish, and there was that evening hush. The only sounds were the bleating of some sheep, the cry of some bird I did not recognize, and the faint rustling of the grass in the wind. It was so utterly peaceful. I enjoyed it all, and as I lay back in the grass and smoked a cigarette, I just forgot the war and the turbulent world of aeroplanes.

The crops are all ripening in the fields, so harvest time must be near. This is rural England, seen in a way that many who live in the city never know it. That is the one great advantage of being away in the country here. One gets to know rural areas as intimately as one has known places at home.


My wife, children and I retraced this journey in August 2007 winding down the unsealed farm road to find Grimes Graves. Our guide told us the word “graves” stemmed from the Saxon word for diggings, while it is thought the Saxons anointed them “Grimes” because they believed the strange landscape to be the work of the chief of the gods, Grim.  We had better luck than Col in finding these open; at their entrance an English Heritage helper handed out hard hats and information. We descended the 20-odd steps of a steel ladder to find ourselves in the air cavern beneath the central shaft and from which several lesser burrows radiated outwards where they had been quarried away with picks fashioned from deer antlers. Our guide told us these diggings and the catacombs dotted around the locality date back to around 3250 BC – to Britain’s prehistory.

We continued on to Thetford, where flint really had its heyday: flint houses lined an entire street and on the main pedestrian mall stood a church, St Cuthbert’s, made entirely of flint By Grimes Graves’ standards, Thetford rates as a ‘modern town.’ In a park on its outskirts a large, conical mound ringed by ridges tells of Thetford’s past as a fortified settlement. These mounds and ridges – not unlike some Maori paa – have their origins in the Iron Age. Artifacts found on the site show it was occupied by the Romans and the Danes at various points. Today the two storey-high mound is a steep climb up foot-worn runnels to get a view across Thetford’s rooftops.

The action moved elsewhere over the years. The ruins of a Cluniac Abbey and the Holy Sepulchre church were probably much the same when we saw them as when Col visited and wrote, in a letter to his mother on 17 June 1942, of the mystery surrounding them.

When I wrote last about my flying visit to Thetford I forgot to tell you an interesting fact about it. I think I told you that Thetford is very old. King Canute once had a mint there and it was often raided by the Danes. A lady told me that when some 50 years ago pits were being dug to plant some pine trees – the trees are large now – they came across the skeletons of six Danes, with their war harness still on them.

I met the woman in rather an interesting way. As another chap and I were cycling along the road, we saw some old ruins. When we went along a drive to investigate, we found that the drive led into some private grounds. They happened to belong to a doctor. He and his wife were more than pleased to tell us all about the ruins.

It appears that in the time of the Crusades, an order of monks was founded to care for the temple in Jerusalem. It was not a large order, but they built a monastery. The ruins we saw were the ruins of that monastery. The doctor’s wife, a Mrs Jameson, said that one bright sunny morning, she was planting some flower plants in the garden, when she heard singing. She went into the house to turn off the wireless, thinking that she had left it on; but there was no wireless. Then she listened, and it was the sound of voices chanting. It went on for some time, and then ceased. She made a note of the day and then thought nothing more of it.

Then the next day she happened to meet the town clerk of Thetford, a bit of a local antiquary, and a self-made authority on local history. He asked her, much to her amazement, if the day before she had heard singing. She replied that she had; and he told her that on certain feast days, specially kept by this order, the monks came back to their old chapel. The feast of Corpus Christi was one of the feast days, and it was on that day she had heard it. Since then – and that was some years ago – she had heard it often. The singing, she said, was that of a small choir of male voices. It was chant music.


Photo of Holy Sepulchre ruins, ThetfordI returned to Thetford in May 2008 – five days before Corpus Christi - while in the area to attend the reunion of Col’s 149 Squadron at Mildenhall. I entered the Priory grounds, where recent rain had freshened its scents and deepened the colours of giant chestnuts, splendid in their cream and pink chandeliers of spring florets and towering above what remains of the Priory ruins. Dating from 1104, these are as extensive as the remains of the more-famous sacked cathedral at Glastonbury in Somerset, but not as intact. Thetford’s ruins are distinctive because they were built from flint. Because all the carved stonework was removed and much of it erected elsewhere, the flint gives the ruins a stubbled appearance. The result is to make Thetford’s Priory seem far older than Glastonbury and other religious buildings that fell victim in the 1530s to Henry VIII’s furious reaction to the Catholic Church’s refusal to sanction his divorce.

I left the Priory grounds up a garden path through a gate marked “private.” At Abbey House, a warm and dignified woman answered my knock and readily invited me in, apologising for the snuffling attentions of a low-flying cascade of canine fur called Mutley. Patricia Poel, a retired teacher of high school history and English, had lived in Abbey House for 38 years. She was not surprised by my question. Yes she, too, had heard the stories of the chanting; she had even been to the ruins one Corpus Christi in the 1980s hoping to hear for herself. Although the rocks were silent that day, she had been told of two sisters who lived nearby in the 1930s and who had musically scored what they heard. A tourist office pamphlet on Thetford’s “Haunted Heritage Trail” said the chanting had been heard as recently as the 1950s: “A music teacher scribbled down the chant and spent the next two years trying to research what it meant. She eventually traced it back to the 11th century but no explanation has ever come forward about why – or how – it was heard that afternoon.”

Abbey House was not, however, where Col first heard of this phenomenon from Mrs Jameson, the doctor’s wife. That was at Canons Farm, a cottage across the busy road near the Holy Sepulchre and demolished in the 1960s to make way for a housing estate. Abbey House had been requisitioned as an army billet during the war and Thetford had later written a related chapter in popular history by providing the setting for the television series Dad’s Army, filmed largely in Thetford.

Norfolk
Letter to mother, 20 August 1943, after moving to East Wretham airbase.

I have changed my station and am now up in the north part of Norfolk near the coast. I am navigation officer there, which is a change from bombing leader, which I was near Cambridge. I am afraid that I do not do much flying, because I have so much to do on the ground. If the squadron is operating, I have to prepare the navigational side, and that involves a good deal of work. It is good to be back in the operational atmosphere again, though, even if I don’t fly myself. I am happy here, happier than I was at my previous unit. Once again I am able to hear exactly what goes on over the target, and what sort of a job the raid did on any particular night. It is good fun again.

We have come to a completely new station, and we are just in the process of settling down. There are a lot of things that have not yet sorted themselves out, but they will. For a while we had no furniture in the mess, so you saw the amazing sight of some 50 officers seated on the floor. It was amusing. We did not have many phones connected either, so when we wanted anyone we had to go and get them. The camp is dispersed, too, with considerable distances between mess and bed, and between mess and working place. I am enjoying getting my navigation section organised.

The countryside is lovely. I have at last found those roads about which [romantic novelist] Jeffery Farnol wrote. This part of Norfolk is isolated and unspoiled. I have done a lot of cycling. The machine I bought with the money you sent me for my birthday present has been a godsend. I cycle perhaps 25 miles in a night over all sorts of country. This is hillier too, a change from the unchanging flatness of Suffolk. There are lovely woods on the shoulders of the hills, and lovely valleys filled with corn and golden in the sun. It is just harvest time now, and from the fields, carried by the wind, comes the sound of the reaper and binder.

We are also comparatively near the sea, and I have cycled up to the coast, and smelt the briny tang again after so long, and seen the slaty look of the incoming tide as the light goes. It is good to get near the sea again. I have flown over the North Sea often enough, but it was always so far away – except once, when it was much too near and too large. On the beaches  - they were poor as beaches go – they have little yachts, and I saw a lifeboat. It all brought the Auckland harbour back to me, more than anything I have seen over here yet.

There is a nice little tea shop in the village, which is a welcome change from the mess. The village is only some 5 miles away, a nice comfortable distance to cycle. I am making the most of the evenings now, because already they are growing shorter. It is now dark at 9.45pm, whereas a little while ago it was light until 11 o’clock. I’m afraid this place is going to be bitterly cold in winter, but we’ll wait and see.

 

 

 

Col wrote to his mother on 4 November 1943, after being posted to Little Snoring airbase in Norfolk

In this county you get some curious round towers on the churches. You know the normal church tower is square. Local legend has it that these towers were originally – hundreds of years ago – used as fortresses. This part of England is very old, and the more you see of it the more you realise it. Some of the houses in villages have no water laid on. The entire village uses the village pump. Some of them have no bathrooms. Some of the married officers who have been trying to find accommodation relatively near the camp for their wives tell amazing stories of the primitive conditions under which many village people live. I think Norfolk is one of the most unchanged counties in England. People will tell you that it is one of the more backward. I can believe a little of both.

Some of the villages I have seen have the most curious names. Two are Great Snoring and Little Snoring. There is also a Great and Little Walsingham, though in this case Little Walsingham is larger that Great Walsingham. Great Walsingham was greater in feudal days, though, I believe.


Col had written about Little Walsingham in an earlier letter to his mother, on 20 August 1943, shortly after moving to Norfolk to join 115 Squadron at its new base at Little Snoring.

Now I must tell you about one of the loveliest little villages I have seen. It is called [Little] Walsingham. It is old, so old that you receive the impression of age as soon as you enter it. Dominating the little place are the ruins of an abbey, which was old when Henry VIII was king, and by whom eventually it was despoiled. The buildings are half-timbered as they were when they were built in the days of Elizabeth. In one of the inns, Edward III and his Queen stayed. To a shrine there, one of the most famous in England, that of Our Lady of Walsingham, came many a king and queen, barefoot. Even today, there is a pilgrimage there, when people go barefoot. To end on a note of bathos, there was a recent pilgrimage over a newly tarred road. The result in burned feet was painful.

There is a chemist shop in an old building. It has been a chemist’s shop since the days of Elizabeth. When first opened, it had a licence to sell tobacco. The licence never lapsed. The shop still sells tobacco.

In the village square there is an old well, from which the village folk draw water. They drew water from the same well 1000 years ago. What a picture! I wondered what the village street had seen.”


I was keen to see whether Little Walsingham had changed much in the 65 years since. I could feel the sea in the drum-stretched sheen of the sky; it seemed almost to be taking a breath from the bog-flatness of Suffolk. A concrete pillbox on a shoulder of hill stood as a reminder of when Norfolk lay in the assumed path of the German invasion that never came. Hedgerows of hawthorn followed narrow roads that corkscrewed off out of sight. I entered Little Walsingham and parked across the intersection from the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. The origins of this shrine go back to 1061, when a local widow is said to have been met in prayer by the Virgin Mary and then led in spirit to Nazareth, where she witnessed the Annunciation. Although the shrine survived the Norman Conquest in 1066 it fell victim five centuries later to Henry VIII’s destruction of Catholic property, even though he himself had been a pilgrim there. He forced the monastery to close in 1536 and it was sold to an aristocrat two years later.

Photo pf Little Walsingham town squareIn the town square’s centre was the well Col described, like a tall beehive – obviously disused today, except to prop up a road sign. Monks in both brown robes and the black and white vestments of the Capuchin order glided past occasionally. Just off to the side, the tourist office also served as the entrance to the beautiful gardens of the abbey ruins. I asked the woman on the counter about the chemist shop. She said the last pharmacy that had traded in the town closed some years ago and an ‘every-item-for-£1’ shop now occupied the premises. My hopes of seeing cigarettes displayed on sale beside nicotine patches were dashed – the clincher being the price of fags at well over £1 a packet.

I wandered along the narrow high street, saw the Black Lion Inn, where Edward III had stayed in the 14th century and Chaucer is said also to have been a guest. I turned around at the Methodist chapel at the end of the high street and on my way back was delighted to find myself at the door of the Walsingham History Centre and Howard’s Books. There Howard Fears, chairman of the Walsingham Historical Society, confirmed there had been a shop on the high street, J.T.Moore, Chemist and Pharmacist, that would still have been selling tobacco during the Second World War. The shop, just across the road from where we talked, shared its frontage with the Falcon Inn, which was there during Henry VIII’s time but had since closed. J.T.Moore had expanded and moved into the building along on the corner – now the £1 shop – and had traded into the late 1950s. Now the town was without a chemist. Having verified the tale of the fag-hawking pharmacist, I left Little Walsingham.

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