A Terrible & Terrifying Business: Letters Home to Dinsmore from Pilot Officer Dale Jones RAF, 1939-40

By Payne, Michael; Henry, Christy M. | Manitoba History, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

A Terrible & Terrifying Business: Letters Home to Dinsmore from Pilot Officer Dale Jones RAF, 1939-40


Payne, Michael, Henry, Christy M., Manitoba History


Michael Payne (ed.), A Terrible & Terrifying Business: Letters Home to Dinsmore from Pilot Officer Dale Jones RAF, 1939-40. Ottawa: YF Historical Research, 2016, 215 pages. ISBN 978-1-55383-425-0, $25.00 (paperback)

Michael Payne's A Terrible & Terrifying Business presents a collection of letters by Pilot Officer Dale Jones (RAF 42131) sent home to his family in Dinsmore, Saskatchewan between 1939 and 1940. Written to both his parents, with asides to his two brothers, as well as his sister and her husband, the letters chronical Dale's life from the time he applied to join the RAF in Canada, through his flight training and subsequent assignment to 242 Squadron, the RAF's "All-Canadian" squadron. It concludes with his death, fighting over Dunkirk in May 1940. The book would appeal to those interested in military and aviation history, as well as those interested in public and local history, particularly those with a connection to the Dinsmore area.

The letters are part of a larger archival collection held by the Saskatchewan Archives Board. The collection, which consists of correspondence, photographs, newspaper clippings and articles were saved by members of Dale's immediate family and passed down to successive generations. The correspondence includes letters by Dale, letters by his parents that were returned after his death, and letters to his parents from fellow pilots. The photographs and clippings were collected in scrapbooks to document Dale and his fellow pilots in 242 Squadron.

Payne explicitly states that the letters offer no insight into the mechanics or strategies of war or the creation of 242 as an "all-Canadian Squadron," which are the usual topics of military historians. Rather, he writes, "the material offers valuable information on the RAF's recruitment and training of pilots from Canada, the attitudes of young RAF pilots to the war effort and their place in it, and the lives of these pilots when not engaged in combat.... Even more poignantly they reveal just how strong a hold home and the lives of the people left behind exerted on these young men" (p. 2).

It is hard to argue that Payne fails in his intended purpose of making the public aware of Dale's letters. Nor can one argue that he misrepresents the value of those letters; the letters contain no grand revelations or insight about the war itself or the 242 Squadron. Instead, they represent one man's experience as an RAF pilot leading up to and during the early part of the Second World War, exactly as Payne outlines in the early part of the book. Similarly, it is difficult to criticize the content of the letters themselves. Perhaps what can be argued is that, as one reads the book there is a growing sense of an opportunity missed by Payne. By choosing, not to engage in any significant analysis of the letters, and by instead presenting the letters 'as is' with minimal contextualization, he has left a part of the story unfinished.

The book is divided into roughly four parts. The introductory chapters provide helpful context for the letters themselves, both in terms of providing background information on RAF recruitment and training, as well as the history of 242 Squadron. Payne is explicit in stating that this information is only a brief and general overview, and it is sufficient for its purpose: the primary and secondary sources referenced in the footnotes provide the reader with further avenues to explore if they are so inclined, as well as additional information on people and events touched on in the letters. The introduction also highlights what Payne believes is the value of the letters. He does not make grandiose claims that the book cannot live up to. In reality, in its lack of detail or depth, the book is a supplementary read. Dale's letters are one small aspect of a much larger topic, and as such, the book is most valuable as a text to flesh out the more formal record, or to add the human element to drier military and political analysis. …

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