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Book Reviews

The Mystery of Frankenberg’s Canadian Airman

by Peter Hessel

Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2005
248 pages, $34.95

Reviewed by Rory Kilburn

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Book Cover Peter Hessel grew up in Nazi Germany; indeed, he was a member of the junior branch of the Hitler Youth movement – known as the Jungvolk. After the war, he emigrated from Germany to Canada and worked as a translator for the Government of Canada, as well as becoming a writer of Canadian and immigrant history. In the course of writing his memoirs of his experiences in Nazi Germany, he uncovered a tantalizing story – the tale of an unknown Canadian airman murdered after a massive bomber raid.

The book jacket carries a very brief description of The Mystery of Frankenberg’s Canadian Airman: ‘An eye-witness to terror bombing and the quest for truth, justice and reconciliation in Canada and in Germany’, which may give the casual reader the wrong impression of what is contained between the covers. While the author does discuss the morality of the bombing of German cities by Allied bomber forces, the book is, in large measure, a dogged investigation into the death of a specific participant in the attacks. Carefully researched, Herr Hessel’s book is the story of a man reconciling the actions of his adopted countrymen, along with those of his native countrymen, during the closing months of the war in Europe. For students of air power, it is worth the time needed for a thorough reading – both for the story itself and for the appendices and endnotes.

The Mystery of Frankenberg’s Canadian Airman is presented to the reader in two parts: the setting of the stage for the murder and the author’s search for the identity of the Canadian airman, and a reconciliation of the life and death of the airman with surviving members of the airman’s family, as well as with German survivors of the bombing raids. Although described as a ‘whodunit’ in the Foreword, it is really a ‘who was it’.

The book has all the makings of a first-rate mystery. Using a combination of personal stories from those on the ground and in the air, along with accounts of the brutal murder of a prisoner of war, the author builds to an early climax. However, for a reader used to the framework of a mystery, discovering the identity of the unknown airman half way through the story caused me to experience a letdown. It was as if the story should have ended at that point. Yet the author then skillfully builds to the second climax of the book, introducing the reader to the murdered man as a person, and then bringing his surviving family members to Germany to meet with survivors of the bomber offensive.

The book does have some minor weaknesses that do not detract from the overall story. While the author presents a fairly balanced account of the Allied bomber offensive – what the Nazis called terrorangriffe (terrorist raids) – he uses nuanced language that some readers may find disturbing. His description of the Halifax bomber in the RCAF Museum in Trenton as a ‘monster’ is a case in point. His allegation of the murder of hundreds of Allied airmen, based upon anecdotal evidence, also detracts from what is otherwise a well-written volume of factual history.

For this reader, one of the key strengths of The Mystery of Frankenberg’s Canadian Airman is the author’s ability to personalize the impersonal nature of a bomber war. His description of German citizens drowning in the sewage in their basement bomb shelters brings home the human cost of a war fought without usually seeing one’s adversary. And his appendix on the murders of 25 Canadian airmen in the last 10 months of the war, along with describing other unconfirmed incidents, serves as a warning to the combatants of the tenuous nature of civilization in the midst of war. Herr Hessel describes the best and the worst of Germany, from German soldiers protecting POWs from German mobs, to German soldiers standing aside while Nazis – dressed as civilians – murdered captured Allied airmen.

The extensive endnotes and appendices make this book useful for scholars who may wish to further explore the murders of other Canadian airmen. However, Peter Hessel’s experiences make it clear that a non- German would find it measurably more difficult to trace events and identities, and that the journey is both time-consuming and expensive. Still, The Mystery of Frankenberg’s Canadian Airman is an excellent read, and a worthwhile addition to any library. While not a definitive account of the bomber offensive, it is a strong personal story of the investigation of a war crime. Given the relative ease with which one determined individual solved the mystery after nearly 60 years, it should cause any reader to pause and ask why it is so difficult to bring other war criminals to justice. Finally, I would leave readers with this thought: whereas those who participated in the war were not terribly interested in reopening old wounds, I noted that it was those who were the youth of the war that strove to make things right. The human need for truth and reconciliation is a powerful force, unaffected by time.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Rory G. Kilburn is Senior Staff Officer Non-Commissioned Member Professional Development at the Canadian Defence Academy.