Michael Smith, what first attracted you to the period you work in?
First and foremost, I’m an aviation geek. Much as I like contemporary aircraft, I’m fascinated by historic aviation. In the context of world history, aviation is a modern-day technology, yet it’s been incredibly momentous. From hot air balloons rising over Paris in the 19th Century, to mankind venturing to the outer reaches of space by the 21st; aviation has literally flown past in the blink of an eye. Most of that development, unfortunately, has come about through conflict. The First World War saw the dropping of the flechette, while the recent invasion of Ukraine has seen the release of bombs by unmanned drones. Conflict aside, in what other period have such dramatic, ground-breaking advancements been made, and in such a short space of time? Aviation history is an encyclopaedia still waiting to be fully opened.
Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?
Obviously the internet has allowed access to archives across the world. While it doesn’t beat holding an original document in your hands, it has made researching a much easier task. The advent of social media has also helped. There are specialised Facebook ‘groups’ that are now proving invaluable in accessing information or individuals.
Prior to writing Bomb Group, I spent almost 20 years researching the story. I started out by writing the daily events of the 381st Bomb Group in diaries for each year of the war. By the time I was ready to write Bomb Group, I’d transferred all that information to a vast Excel spreadsheet. It allowed me to build a clear, chronological picture, which then helped guide me through the writing process. It was exhaustive, but it was a great help. I also visited facilities like the National Archives and RAF Museum, as well as the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Savannah, Georgia. I also spent some time clambering my way through several B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, including the ill-fated Texas Raiders, which sported the markings of the 381st Bomb Group, but tragically crashed a year after my visit.
The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?
To some extent, yes. I do feel there is too much emphasis placed on events like the Dambusters Raid or the Battle of Britain. They’re also generally written by British authors. It’s good to see works like All Quiet on the Western Front being given a new lease of life, even if it is through the medium of film. It’s refreshing when history is written from the opposite point of view. I’m very much enjoying Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall, about East Germany between 1949 and 1990. She’s a wonderful writer who makes a compelling argument from the East German perspective.
Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?
I admire James Holland for his ability to convey military history so well. Unfortunately, I just don’t have his capacity to write the number of books he has. He’s a veritable writing machine. For books covering aviation, I highly recommend Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis, First Light by Geoffrey Wellum, and Combat Crew by John Comer. Three outstanding books by three very brave individuals.
If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?
There would be so many – Eric “Winkle” Brown, Winston Churchill, Douglas Bader, to name but a few. If it had to be only one, I would have to say James Good Brown. Not a household name, but one I’ve come to respect and admire. As chaplain of the 381st Bomb Group (and author of The Mighty Men of the 381st: Heroes All) he has become something of a hero of mine. Bomb Group leans heavily on his book, which was largely written as a diary during the Second World War. Evocative, inspiring and touching in equal measure, the character of the man shines through in his words.
If I could witness any historical event it would have to be aviation-related. The Eighth Air Force’s 760th mission on Christmas Eve, 1944, would certainly have been a spectacle. Imagine clear skies extending all the way into Europe. Now visualise over 2,000 heavy bombers escorted by more than 800 fighters, all winging their way towards western Germany to strike at its airfields and communication centres. This “maximum effort” raid proved to be the largest air strike operation of the Second World War. Every American bomb group and all but two of its fighter groups took part. Despite the clear weather over Europe, it wasn’t the case in England. When the groups returned, bad weather over their home bases forced many bombers to divert. In the case of the 381st Bomb Group, its base at Ridgewell was open. The Essex airfield subsequently saw the arrival of more than 125 B-17 Flying Fortresses. With another 700 mouths to feed, Christmas turkey for the 381st’s men had to be supplemented by plates of Spam. After such a long and challenging day, I can just imagine there was many a glum face at Ridgewell.
If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?
Most certainly the First and Second World Wars. Almost every British family had some connection to those two events. Whether it be the social changes that took place, or the hardships that people suffered, some aspect of each war should be on every school curriculum.
If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?
Probably not advice, more an observation: researching is much easier than writing. Anyone can be a detective, piecing stories together like a jigsaw puzzle, but actually forming it into a coherent narrative is much harder to do. Don’t expect to become rich, either. If I was to calculate my hourly pay for writing my most recent book, there wouldn’t be a calculator capable of recording all the zeros after the first zero and decimal point. Having said that, the reward comes from knowing you’ve told a story that many didn’t know before.
Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?
During the course of researching Bomb Group, I discovered that Ridgewell was the temporary home of 90 Squadron – an RAF Short Stirling unit. The interesting thing about 90 Squadron is that it had previously been the first outfit to take the B-17 Flying Fortress over Germany. During the summer of 1941, 20 B-17s were transferred to the British as part of the US Lend-Lease programme. The RAF reactivated a dormant 90 Squadron to operate the bombers. I’m now working on a project to tell the stories of those 20 B-17s and the crews who flew them.