Writing Joey Jacobson’s War

Joey Jacobson was a personable, athletic, and ambitious young man from upper class Westmount. He was the only Jew on McGill’s 1938 intercollegiate champion football team. He volunteered for the air force in the spring of 1940, and he was buried in Europe before his 24thbirthday – one of nearly 10,000 Canadians who died in the service of Bomber Command.

Joey Jacobson’s legacy, and his distinctive claim on our attention, consists of his letters and diaries preserved by his family.  Between July 1939 and January 1942, Joey recorded in detail what he saw and did, what was happening around him, and what he thought. He wrote about his life in air force training and combat, the purpose and conduct of the war, why he enlisted, and what all this meant to him as a Canadian and as a Jew. He communicated much of this to family and friends, in 240 letters, and he kept some of it to himself in several diaries and notebooks. His father Percy also kept a diary throughout the war: a record of events on the home front in Montreal and of his own hopes and anxieties.  Together these documents constitute one of the most outstanding collections of personal war records anywhere. It has been my privilege to have such extraordinary materials to work with. Without them there would be no book.

How I came upon these materials, and to write this book, is a story on its own.  In 2002, while investigating the war letters of my dad’s cousin Moe Usher, in the Canadian Jewish Archives, I asked the archivist if she had any other collections of servicemen’s letters. No, she responded, but we do have a diary that a gentleman in Montreal kept during the war, and would I like to see it? Much to my amazement it was the diary of my great-uncle, Percy Jacobson. This prompted me to inquire of Joey’s surviving sisters, Edith and Janet, what else they might have. What began as a trickle eventually turned into a flood of letters, diaries, notebooks and photos.  In 2004, Edith suggested I meet Monty Berger, who had been Joey’s closest friend. At the end of a very pleasant lunch, Monty handed me a sheaf of documents. He would not be needing them any longer, he said, but I would. They were the letters that he and Joey had exchanged during the war, and that Monty had saved for sixty years. Some months later I told him that I was beginning to feel like Joey’s biographer. Yes, you are, he replied. He had bestowed on me a treasure, but also an obligation. Later that year I discovered that when the wreck of Joe’s bomber aircraft was found in occupied Holland, the townspeople organized a large civilian funeral ceremony for the crew. This event not only galvanized local resistance to the Germans, it was recorded on film. Wanting to find out more, I was soon on a flight overseas.

Writing this book was deeply personal to me. Joey wasn’t just some otherwise unknown person whose letters and diaries I had stumbled upon. He was my mother’s favourite cousin. His mother – my great aunt – wore his “operational wings” on her lapel until her dying day. Even if he was rarely spoken of as I grew up, I understood that he had been a very special person in our family. I was blown away as I read through his diaries and letters, partly because I already knew the tragic end of his story, but more importantly, because of what they revealed. As well, I could see something of myself in Joey, even if I had never been called upon to do what he had. I could recognize my own thoughts, my own responses, my own instincts, for better or worse, in what he had been writing more than sixty years earlier.

Being Joey’s biographer proved a more challenging task than I had first imagined. I couldn’t just string diary and letter entries together, nor could I simply write a hagiography. Joey was a blood relative, but I had to distance myself from him as revealed only by his own account. I also needed to avoid the historiographic sin of presentism – of assuming that those who lived in another time saw the world the way we do now. I had to understand his time and place, which meant that I had to immerse myself in the world as it was in 1940 and 1941.  For the next ten years and more, whenever the opportunity arose, I was in libraries, in archives, and in the places where Joe’s story had unfolded, whether in Canada, England, or Holland.

The story that emerged was of a young man, Joey Jacobson, who as a teenager hated the idea of war, who matured as Joe, a dedicated and courageous warrior and idealist.  Servicemen’s letters home are often anodyne, on account of both the need to pass the military censors and to reassure those at home that they are OK. Joe’s correspondence is remarkable because it provides much more than a record of his daily life. It addresses existential questions of purpose and perseverance in the face of danger and death. He made no attempt to conceal the risks, even as he sought to reassure his family of the rightness of his task and his dedication to it. Joe’s letters and diaries reveal with exceptional clarity his anticipation, enthusiasm, and fear of battle, and the sources of his morale and determination. We know how Joe experienced and understood the execution of the air war, how he responded to the inevitable battle stress, and how his political ideas developed, because he told us. I didn’t have to speculate, or put words in his mouth, or ideas in his head.

Joe’s unequivocal support for the bombing of Germany’s cities, along with its factories and shipyards, was tempered only by what he perceived as Bomber Command’s tactical and organizational failures. So I needed to understand the Royal Air Force’s doctrines, technology, and tactics during the time that Joe was in training and on operations. My book is thus in part an operational history of Bomber Command’s strategic air offensive against Germany during 1941 – a dismal time when on any given night, more Allied airmen were killed delivering their bombs than Germans were killed on the ground below.

The fatal crash of Joe’s aircraft in Holland in January 1942 galvanized the local resistance, and prompted the development of the life-line that spirited downed airman back to Britain to fight again.  Running through the entire story is the maturation of an intense relationship between father and son in a dangerous and uncertain time.