Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Patrick Bishop's "The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship"

Patrick Bishop was born in London and went to Wimbledon College and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Before joining the Telegraph he worked on the Evening Standard, the Observer and the Sunday Times and in television as a reporter on Channel Four News. He is the author with John Witherow of Battle for the Falklands based on their own experiences and with Eamon Mallie of The Provisional IRA which was praised as the first authoritative account of the modern IRA. He also wrote a memoir of the first Gulf War, Famous Victory and a history of the Irish diaspora The Irish Empire, based on the TV series which he devised.

Here Bishop dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship:
The outstanding character in The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship is Wing Commander James ‘Willie’ Tait, the man who landed the bomb on the battleship Tirpitz that finally sent her to the bottom. He was such an unusual character that it is hard to think of a bygone actor to play him, let alone a contemporary one. Tait was the commander of 617 Squadron, The ‘Dam Busters’ who were formed specially to destroy the great dams of the Ruhr valley, the heartland of Germany’s war industry. Mission accomplished, they went on to perform many other extraordinary feats. Tait was their third real leader. The first was Guy Gibson who led the Dams raid. Gibson [played by Richard Todd in the 1955 movie, The Dam Busters] was brash and vain but also rather troubled and insecure. When taken off operational flying to make propaganda tours of Britain and the U.S. he became depressed, begged to return and was shot down and killed on his first raid. After a stop-gap appointment he was replaced by Leonard Cheshire. Cheshire was an equally great warrior but had a completely different personality showing extraordinary concern and kindess to all his men, aircrew and ground staff alike, and combining great good humour with an almost saint-like aura of spirituality. After the war he set up the Cheshire Homes to look after war victims which have evolved into homes for the handicapped and are found all over the world.

Cheshire was a hard act to follow. But Tait, who took over in 1944, was equally impressive albeit in a different way. Despite his great skill as a pilot, his technical knowledge learned as a professional R.A.F. airman before the war and his outstanding courage, which carried him through more than a hundred operations, a feat which meant in actuarial terms he should have been dead three or four times over, he was almost pathologically modest and shy. He found the beery camaraderie of the mess hard to endure and after half a pint would return to his room to listen to classical music. He internalised his feelings, displaying an icy calm which gave no hint of his inner life. After the war his lack of social skills meant he failed to prosper in the R.A.F. and he left to a new career in the early days of computing with an insurance company. Tait remained an enigma, even to those who had flown with him.

The actor who would be best suited to playing him would be Dirk Bogarde. They share the same slight physique and dark hair and Bogarde I think would be able to capture both Tait’s warrior qualities and his sensitivity and his unease in a world of boisterous men. Bogarde fought in the war himself as a captain in the infantry so had some first hand knowledge. He also played a character remarkably similar to Tait – a young wing commander who disobeys orders to fly a ninetieth mission – in Appointment in London (1953). Bogarde is long dead, of course, and I can’t think of a contemporary actor of the right age who has the subtlety to get Tait right. They simply don’t make actors – or airmen – like that any more.
Learn more about the book and author at Patrick Bishop's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Hunt for Hitler’s Warship.

--Marshal Zeringue