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The Life of Guy Menzies: The Forgotten Flyer - by Max Wearne

Reviewed by Dorothy - 17/02/06

The Life of Guy Menzies: The Forgotten Flyer - by Max Wearne
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The Life of Guy Menzies: The Forgotten Flyer, the title which Max Wearne has given to this book, is an accurate description of the content as it is a detailed biography based on years of meticulous research, but the book is much more than this title implies. In my view it could justly have been called The Life and Times of Guy Menzies, because the events in Menzies' adult life are set against a background which greatly adds to the impact of the book. I was keen to read it because I had for a long time been interested in the story of the aviator who made the first solo crossing of the Tasman Sea on January 7-8, 1931, and ended his flight crash-landing in a swamp in a sparsely populated part of the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand. When I finished reading the book I had learnt a great deal about the history not only of aviation in Australia in the 1920s and early 1930s, but also of the development of the Royal Air Force from a small group of dedicated aviators with a small number of planes to a force which defended Britain against the Nazi attacks in 1940. The succinct account of the political situation and developments in international relations in the last decade of Menzies' life shows clearly how the memories of the suffering of the British people in World War 1 intensified their desire for peace even when perceptive observers warned of the increasing threat of war. It highlights the value of the work of the RAF in developing a weapon of defence which was to prove of crucial importance.

Dr Max Wearne was born in New Zealand and did his medical training at Otago University. When his limited finances permitted he spent time tramping in the Southern Alps and while in Harihari heard the story of the flyer, Guy Menzies, remembered so well by the local people but otherwise largely forgotten. He later moved to Australia where he practised as a surgeon and is still a surgical consultant. Despite his busy life in Melbourne he became a qualified pilot and developed a keen interest in planes and their history. This made the biography of Guy Menzies an appealing topic and he interviewed people who remembered the landing at Harihari and others who had known Menzies, and has kept in contact with the Menzies family.

The book opens fittingly with Antoine de Saint-Exupery's poem beginning
"Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth ...."

Dick Smith who re-enacted Menzies' flight on the seventy fifth anniversary has written a fitting introduction, and Max Wearne has written a foreword setting the place of the flight in history, followed by a moving chapter entitled Denouement and describing Menzies' death when his Sunderland was shot down by Italian fighter planes in 1940.

The biography is made more interesting and memorable by the choice of details to give a clearer picture of the setting for each stage in Menzies' career.

In portraying the early years of Guy Menzies' life the author selects episodes which show his love of adventure, his daring and the determination which were to be key characteristics in his adult years. Disciplining him was a real challenge for his parents.

Guy's father, Dr Menzies, was a general practitioner in the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne. He was a well-respected doctor and did not appreciate Guy's climbing a tree near the fence and dropping water bombs on passers by who could be his patients.

Max Wearne sums up young Guy's investigative mind.
"The workings of any mechanical toy had to be probed and understood. The questions was not if it worked but how it worked. He loved machinery and the faster it moved and the noisier it became, the more appealing it was to him."

When given a broken down car to investigate Guy managed to repair the engine, but was caught driving it unregistered and without a licence. In an attempt to give him a means of transport which would satisfy him without too much risk involved, his parents allowed him to have a motor cycle, but he used it on the Speedway and after an accident the bike was sold.

The next phase entitled Flying 1926-1930 describes how he gained his flying skills and sought publicity so that he could earn a living by taking paying passengers for joy rides, but also tells of the risky stunts that earned him the disapproval of the authorities. Material about long distance flying in the twenties and the authorities' cautious attitude to granting permission for possibly hazardous long flights gives the setting for the purchase of an aircraft, an Avro Sports Avion, and the next chapter's account of the preparations for the flight to New Zealand and the deceptive announcement that he would attempt to fly to Perth.

With none of the communication equipment that would be used today, no charts to guide him, and no accurate weather forecast he set out on a flight to New Zealand which was to present tremendous hazards because of appalling weather. Max Wearne has included in his book the log that was kept by Menzies during his solo trans-Tasman flight. His factual account of the flight captures the moods of the aviator and conveys the intensity of the storms and therefore the impressive courage and endurance of the pilot.

In The Arrival January 7-8, 1931 the author makes skilful use of firsthand accounts to capture the excitement of those momentous days when Harihari suddenly became the centre of the news throughout Australasia and beyond. Photos taken at the time have been preserved in the albums of a number of local people and are included in the book. The photo of Menzies making the first direct phone call to Sydney from Hokitika shows a tired aviator with Mr Ralph Cox, the Hokitika postmaster. It also shows the different clothing of the day. Menzies made his flight in a suit and tie - a contrast, as Max Wearne points out, with the garb of a modern pilot.

Ralph Cox, the Hokitika postmaster, assists Guy Menzies to ring Sydney with the news.
Ralph Cox, the Hokitika postmaster, assists Guy Menzies to ring Sydney with the news.
Photo source: Peter Clarke, grandson of Ralph Cox
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Menzies was the centre of the news during his triumphal tour around New Zealand after the flight, but the journalists' interest in him was suddenly eclipsed by the devastating Napier earthquake. The concise but vivid description of what happened there is typical of the way the life of Menzies is portrayed in a setting of comment on the wider news of the time.

The aviator returned to Sydney and was once more feted for his heroic achievement, but after that he was not certain what his next move should be until he applied for a short service commission with the Royal Air Force. His application was successful and he left Sydney in April 1931.

Max Wearne comments that Menzies had demonstrated his flying ability and become an accomplished public speaker, but "his knowledge of the United Kingdom, its people and its politics was abysmal." Many of the younger readers of this book will have only a sketchy knowledge of the momentous developments in Italy and Germany in the 1930s and of the part played by the R.A.F. in the defence of Britain. Reading the chapters related to Menzies' life and career and his involvement in flying will give the readers of this book a new insight into the events and the planes of the period and the horrific price paid by the gallant pilots and their crews in the R.A.F. He flew with two fighter squadrons and with a flying boat squadron operating out of Singapore and then returned to Britain. The serious injuries he sustained in an accident at a fighter station could have meant an end to his flying career, but he recovered sufficiently that he was given a second chance in the R.A.F. and after a time he was once again flying Sunderlands with Coastal Command. Haile Selassie. the Emperor of Ethiopia, spent years in Britain when Italian forces invaded and overran his country. When the Italians were driven out and he was restored to his throne in 1940 it was Menzies who was the pilot on the flight from Britain to the Middle East.

During his time back in Britain Menzies met and fell in love with Marcia, the wife of a fellow officer. Again Max Wearne sets their situation in the events of the time. They were faced with a dilemma like that of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, which had made it clear that public opinion in Britain would judge their relationship harshly. They were free to marry only after the outbreak of war. in April 1940, but their marriage was of brief duration as Menzies rejoined his squadron in the Mediterranean and in November his Sunderland was shot down.

The author has drawn on a wide range of factual sources listed in endnotes at the close of each chapter, and clearly produced photographs accompany the text. The bibliography lists works he has consulted and is a good reading guide for those inspired by the book to undertake further study. The index gives concise notes after each name, but I would have appreciated a page number as well.

I recommend this book to readers interested in aviation, in people who have displayed courage and endurance, and in social and political history. Max Wearne's painstaking research over many years and his skilled presentation of the story have brought back to our attention the life and times of a forgotten flyer.

The seventy fifth anniversary of Menzies' flight was honoured in January 2006 with celebrations in Harihari which included a re-enactment of the flight by aviator Dick Smith.

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