It was while squeezing through the cramped belly of a Lancaster bomber that Wellington author Max Lambert realised what the experience must have been like for aircrew who knew they were about to die.

That was in Auckland, at the Museum of Transport and Technology, and Lambert wasn't bogged down by a World War II flying suit or bulky parachute. Nor was a prowling German night fighter slamming bullets into the bomber's fuselage thousands of feet above Berlin.

"I could hardly move in the bloody plane, there's bits everywhere and this tiny, narrow passage to move along. You try to imagine getting out of one of those in the dark with the thing on fire, smoke and damage, and going down.

"There's no show."

That realisation is borne out by the horrifying casualties among the 6000 New Zealanders who served in Bomber Command during the war. Thirty per cent - 1850 to be precise - died. Others beat the odds, surviving crashes and aerial combat, although many suffered appalling injuries.

But, says Lambert, 68, the experiences of those young New Zealand airmen have remained largely untold in the 60 years since the war.

His new book Night After Night: New Zealanders in Bomber Command bridges the gap, weaving decades-old anecdotes into a 170,000-word volume.

His sources were the veterans, their widows, families and a mountain of official and personal documents.

He clocked up 20,000km driving to interviews around the country, having found old airmen through veterans' organisations and word of mouth.

Some tales relayed to Lambert are well known, such as Sergeant Jimmy Ward's bravery in clambering on to the wing of his Wellington bomber in flight to douse flames belching from an engine.

Sergeant Ward's July 1941 exploit - tens of thousands of feet above Holland's Ijsselmeer - won him the Victoria Cross. Sadly, he was killed in action just a couple of months later.

Others' stories were almost lost, snatched in the nick of time by Lambert in one of his 200-odd interviews.

"Most of them were pretty happy to talk, I think because they feel they're getting to an age where they've only got a short time to go ... and they want their efforts remembered."

The interviews were often emotional, and Lambert confesses that there were "tears on both sides".

"Ones that had lost mates on a plane going down were very emotional and they sort of felt responsible."

One almost forgotten yarn told in Lambert's book is that of Squadron Leader Phil Lamason's time at the notorious Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald.

"Out, out, bale out!" Squadron Leader Lamason screamed as his stricken Lancaster plunged towards a French paddock in June 1944.

He was nabbed by the Gestapo and, along with 167 other downed airmen, thrown into Buchenwald.

"It amazed me that people could be so inhuman," he told Lambert about the SS guards. "They hung prisoners and bet on how long the victims would continue to kick."

The SS goons were ordered to exterminate the flyers, but Squadron Leader Lamason, the senior Allied officer in the camp, had other ideas.

He quickly built a rapport with other inmates, desperately trying to get word to the Luftwaffe, believing they wouldn't allow Air Force POWs to be held by the SS.

It worked. The German Air Force rescued the rag-tag, emaciated band and took them to a prison camp for downed airmen.

Squadron Leader Lamason "emerged from Buchenwald with a giant reputation", Lambert writes.

"Despite the obvious dangers, he stood up to the Germans and his work as spokesman of the group, his personality, spirit and leadership skills are acknowledged."

Yet he received no recognition for his role in saving the 167 airmen, nor were his efforts mentioned in the official history of New Zealand's prisoners of war.

These points don't rest well with Lambert. "This guy should have had a decoration for that ... I would hope, maybe, there'll be some recognition for him as a result of this."

Among the stories in Lambert's book are ones reflecting the decades-old heartache of wives and former fiances.

Flight Lieutenant Owen Foster met his wife-to-be, Olive Williams, while serving in 487 Squadron in England, where they both worked.

Secret notes were passed between the pair. They thought no one knew, comments Lambert, but the "whole station knew".

Flight Lieutenant Foster was shot down over Amsterdam in May 1943 and Olive kept a lonely vigil for her lost Kiwi boy, "waiting, praying" he would make it home.

He did, after two years in a POW cage. The pair were promptly married.

It's stories like these - and others, too - that Lambert has used to breathe life into the events of 60 years ago.

It was, in many ways, a labour of love, one that dates back to his schooldays when a highly decorated cousin returned from the war.

That cousin was Squadron Leader Keith Thiele, DSO, DFC and two bars.

"His mother took him all around the relatives. She was very proud of him," Lambert says.

"I was only a little guy ... and she had his medals, so there was a bit of hero worship," he says, adding that his study of New Zealand airmen in World War II began there.

"There's been virtually nothing written about these guys ... and most of them never spoke much about it, not to anyone."

Lambert's book fills that void.

* Night After Night: New Zealanders in Bomber Command by Max Lambert (HarperCollinsPublishers, $44.99) goes on sale tomorrow.


Proud record

* About 6000 New Zealanders served in Bomber Command during World War II.
* 1850 died, most killed over occupied Europe.
* Several hundred others bailed out to become prisoners of war.