Book review by Fred Lane
Dornan, P. Nicky Barr: An Australian air ace. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest. 2002. Paperback 281 pp. $16 plus postage.
The legendary Andrew W. (Nicky) Barr is well enough known in aircrew circles, but few non-flying Australians know much about his amazing WW II service. This book by Peter Dornan puts this into perspective. Nicky detested war, intensely and vehemently (p. 227), but this did not prevent him from becoming one of the top ten RAAF WW II aces in numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. He accomplished all this despite being shot down three times, forced landing in enemy territory, repairing his engine and flying home. As a POW, he was captured or recaptured three times; and escaped four times. He died recently, on 12 June 2006.
OBE, MC, DFC and Bar
Nicky earned a very rare combination of decorations the hard way: OBE, MC, DFC and Bar. He also became a member of the highly selective Red-eyed Caterpillar Club (parachuted from a burning aircraft) and the Flying Boot Club (returned to operations at his home base after landing behind enemy lines) and he gained a triple “Escaper” qualification.
In September 1940 Nicky Barr qualified as a brand new Flying Officer pilot at RAAF Point Cook. In action in the Western Desert 23 November 1941, he flew Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks against German and Italian aircraft supporting Rommel. Six months later, by 26 May 1942, he was a Squadron Leader in command of 3 Squadron, re-equipped with P-40D Kittyhawks. A month later he was shot down, severely wounded and taken prisoner.
It was amazing that more RAAF aircraft were not lost in the Western Desert. In the early days, Dornan says, they used tactics such as flying in vics or box fours and forming defensive Luftberry circles in the presence of enemy fighters. Giving barely more than lip service to the German-developed imperative of fighting in pairs, RAAF tactics frequently resulted in pairs splitting to attack targets of opportunity. This in turn led to bad habits such as haring off after a target any old time anyone sighted an enemy aircraft. It was rare, it seems, for Barr to return to base after a dogfight as a member of an intact pair. In contrast, some German fighter pilots, in marginally better-performing Me 109s, were shooting down aircraft at four or five times a RAAF squadron’s rate.
Shot down, wounded and captured in the Western Desert, Nicky was sent to Italy, where he escaped from hospital but was recaptured in sight of Lake Como, on the Italian-Swiss border. Tried for the murder of a border guard, who Nicky had knocked unconscious with a rock, he faced an automatic death sentence, until a Swiss official dramatically proved the guard was still alive. Other escapes followed, including one from an SS prison in Austria.
He evaded back into Italy and made his way south, where he fell in with a group of British and American commandos 50 kilometres or so behind enemy lines. This group passed on intelligence, conducted sabotage and herded escapees to safety.
Caught by the SS, he escaped yet again. He had a price on his head but he became the group’s leader. The poor Italian peasants he befriended never betrayed him. All this earned him a well-deserved MC. When he finally crossed into friendly territory he was emotionally exhausted, emaciated, suffering from malaria and had a debilitating blood disease linked to infections in his old wounds. The book describes his slow return to health, his triumphal return to full flying duties and his tender reunion with his wife, Dot, in Melbourne. Discharged as a Wing Commander after the war, he enjoyed a highly successful non-flying career in civilian life. The book concludes with an interesting series of vignettes describing both enemy and Allied characters with whom Nicky re-established postwar contact.