Leslie Mann – And Some Fell on Stony Ground

lesliemann-andsomefellonstonygroundIn June 1941, Flight Sergeant Leslie Mann, a tail gunner in a British bomber, was shot down over Germany and taken into captivity. After the war, wanting to record the experiences of the RAF’s ‘Bomber Boys’, he wrote down his inner thoughts and feelings as a fictional narrative, recently brought to the attention of Imperial War Museums (IWM).

Providing a unique glimpse into a deadly profession and traumatic time, And Some Fell on Stony Ground captures the horrors of aerial warfare, the corrosive effects of fear, and the psychological torment of the young men involved. Although presented as fiction, the book’s basis of lived experience makes it ring true – the sights, sounds, smells and above all the emotional strain are intensely evoked with a novelist’s skill, making it a fascinating historical artefact in its own right.

This compelling story is introduced and placed in context by historian Richard Overy, author of the highly acclaimed book The Bombing War (Allen Lane, 2013).

The Second World War has always held a special fascination for me both due to the important role it played in my country’s history and because my dad used to read to me from all sorts of WWII adventure novels when I was little. Since those early years I’ve read a lot of books on the topic, both fiction and non-fiction. When I was approached about reviewing And Some Fell on Stony Ground it wasn’t a hard decision to say yes, since it fit squarely in that wheelhouse and sounded fascinating. A fictional memoir – meaning that while this story was fictional, but that the experiences it was based on weren’t fictive  – the narrative follows the last active hours of an RAF pilot’s career in a close-up, hard-hitting fashion, one that does away with the shining, heroic accounts of such exploits and instead focuses on the bone-chilling fear and danger these young men faced every operation they flew.  

Told in a close third-person point of view over the course of about twelve hours, the narrative is both claustrophobic and a close examination of the emotional state of the novel’s protagonist Leslie Mason. While set over half a day, we get more of Mason’s war experience through copious flashbacks; memories triggered by events, scents, and sounds Mason encounters during his preparations and actual running of the day’s operation. It is a fascinating, stream-of-consciousness-esque way of giving the reader an insight to Mason’s state of mind and the larger scope of the experiences of the Bomber Boys.

The book’s protagonist, Leslie Mason, is somewhat of an anti-hero. The look at his thoughts and emotions is searingly honest; due to the fictional veneer and the fact that what we get are mostly internal dialogues, the story is not concerned with honour and saving face, which means we get the dirt and grit of Mason’s inner life. His story includes a depressing litany of loss, with the majority of the aircrews not making it to the end of the war. A tour of duty was commonly thirty flown ops, a number that at times seemed endless, especially once the raids became a sort of grim routine. Mason describes a strange sort of stasis: no looking to the future or remembering the past, only the endless now to survive. This timeless and harrowing existence wore down most crew members’ ability to cope with the mental strain. Yet most men shared the desperate wish to hide any weakness, in fear of being labelled a malingerer, which let to a lot of repressed PTSD symptoms and lasting mental scars.

And Some Fell on Stony Ground is far more a psychological autopsy of Leslie Mason than a rip-roaring war adventure, which it isn’t meant to be in any case. Yet it illustrates that while Mason is somewhat of the anti-hero, as Richard Overy puts it in his introduction to the book, these young men were truly heroic, facing their fears each day and flying despite the terror and danger. While Mann’s intent may have been to counterbalance the popular vision of the valiant, brave, and fearless flying boys of the RAF with a more truthful account of life as a bomber pilot, he at the same time strengthens the impression of the bravery of these pilots in a way that feels more genuine than most.

A vividly depicted and starkly honest account of the realities of war, Leslie Mann’s fictional memoir And Some Fell on Stony Ground will be of interest to anyone interested in World War II, the psychological effects of combat, and a look at the inner workings of a bomber crew on operation. Published in collaboration with the Imperial War Museums and with an introduction by Richard Overy, which gives context to Mann’s narrative and explains the contemporary attitudes to combat stress-related afflictions suffered by the combatants, And Some Fell on Stony Ground was a gripping read and one I won’t quickly forget.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.