The City of London is a hectic place on any working day as tens of thousands of people flock into the Square Mile to go about their business. From the time I first stepped out in my working life back in 1975 I must have passed thousands of people and given them little or no thought. It is not out of the question that one of them was an insurance man named Bernard Osborn.
I read an item recently giving the sad statistics of how many veterans of the Second World War pass away every year in the United States and those percentages must surely be similar here in the UK. It is vital, therefore, that the stories of the people who fought and won the war for us, are kept in some form. I am fortunate to know a resolute punk rocker who makes it his business to record their recollections for posterity and his vital work goes on.
Thankfully, we also have tidy little books like this one and I stick to my recent theme that they are as important to the work of ‘A’ list historians as they are in themselves.
Bernard Osborn was a lad from Bromley in Kent who managed to evade being a tank crewman to learn to fly a glider. He took part in Overlord and flew into Holland with the British 1st Airborne Division three months later. Much to his disappointment he was unable to be part of Varsity Plunder, the Rhine crossing of March 1945. He completed his service in Palestine during the chaotic period leading up to the creation of the state of Israel. After that he went home to a life in the insurance business when he may just have passed the younger, spottier me in the streets of the Square Mile. You never know.
This story is presented in conversational style with Bernard chatting away through the course of his war in a typically warm and understated way we can identify as the style of self-effacing veterans. He doesn’t go in for gore and rough language; he just tells it like it was with a minimum of fuss. The result is a calm and ultimately sad book eliciting a yearning for valued friends lost, some of them not so long ago. Mr Osborn doesn’t want to turn the clocks back but he would clearly like them to have run a little slower for some of his friends and I feel for him.
The story of Operation Market-Garden is central to the book and it is here that the relatively drama free experience of Normandy gave way to grim reality of a bloody shooting war. The Glider Pilot Regiment were imbued with the Total Soldier philosophy of men who could do anything and the reality is many of them did. They were educated, committed and really quite tough. Glider pilots suffered terrible casualties at Arnhem and many more were taken prisoner when the operation ended in failure. Bernard Osborn was one of the lucky ones.
This is a brief but well executed book in what is intended to be a series. I would like to see more. The design is straightforward and co-author David Pasley’s unobtrusive narrative to set events in context does not overly intrude on the important stuff. The blend of veteran and historian seems to work well and we are left with a simple yet satisfying concept handled with care and respect.
Bernard Osborn ends his account quite abruptly as the events of then and now catch up with him in the saddest of ways. I found the experience really very moving and I cannot say any more than that.
It is no coincidence that the forward for this book is written by the historian Mike Peters, a man who has brought us a series of superb books on the glider pilot experience. It is clear to see he appreciates the role of books like this and this takes me back into the realms of repetition; so let’s not go there.
It is easy for me to recommend this book. I am quite sure there are many readers and collectors of airborne history for whom this is right up their street. But it also reminds us how ordinary blokes became so special for a time before they slipped back into the anonymity of civilian life. I know some guys who would insist the airborne men were far from ordinary and we can debate that until the cows come home. I would imagine to be ordinary again was all many of them wanted as they returned home to pick up their lives in 1945 and 1946.
Mr Osborn wasn’t demonstrably heroic, but he is a hero to me. Glider pilots were an elite, many of them working class boys eager to fly but disregarded by a Royal Air Force hamstrung with class prejudice. The RAF’s loss was the army’s gain; but in the end we all win.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
I JUST WANTED TO FLY
The Story of WWII Glider Pilot Bernard Osborn
By Bernard Osborn & David Pasley
Baverstock & Pasley
ISBN: 978 1 910097 86 1