Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Alien Sky - Andrew Wiseman with Sean Feast

Once again I am busy with magazine and editing work, and have just moved house, so I am turning to a guest reviewer to provide a bit of content for ABR until I can do so myself (I'm looking at another run of five reviews, at least, in mid-October). Zac Yates is a keen aviation enthusiast in New Zealand with an interest in more or less anything that flies.

The life story of Andrew Wiseman is a stunning one of unlikely survival. Born to a Polish father and American mother in 1920s Berlin as Andre Weizman, he was refused a membership in the Hitler Youth ("we don't want any f****** Jews!") and emigrated to Britain to become an air bomber in an Australian Halifax squadron, only to be shot down in 1944 and kept as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III just weeks after The Great Escape.

His stories of pre-war Berlin, aircrew training, learning the English language, and the day-to-day life of No. 466 Squadron (RAAF) left me wanting to keep reading. He easily relates his travels to the fateful operation that led to him becoming a ‘kriegie’ in Nazi Germany, while his co-author, Sean Feast, adds historical notes where needed.

Wiseman was one of the countless POWs who took part in The Long March, an event I admit I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. His experiences in a camp near Berlin in the last days of the war provide an interesting insight into the often volatile relationship between American, British and Soviet forces. His position as a translator fluent in several languages meant Wiseman was privy to a range of fascinating - and sometimes humorous - events among the remains of the Nazi war machine.

This book is billed on the cover as "The story of one man's remarkable adventure in Bomber Command during the Second World War", but it is more than that. I was surprised that the end of the war came before the halfway point of this book, but I wasn't to be disappointed. Wiseman's post-war career as one of the first television producers at the BBC is covered in a scant few dozen pages but would have made for an excellent book in its own right. Likewise his experiences as an official translator for the British Home Office in his twenty-year “third career” are less than two pages. The final part of Wiseman's story is that of his life as a modern-day veteran, revisiting a former camp and attending reunions, and the long-overdue Bomber Command Clasp and Memorial ceremonies. 

Unfortunately I've used the past tense because, as related by co-author Feast, Andy Wiseman passed away just weeks after finishing the manuscript. I have to admit this news saddened me immensely as Wiseman was an excellent storyteller and I feel that An Alien Sky could have been so much more. His fascinating life could have easily filled a book twice as long.

The final forty or so pages are appendices by Sean Feast including biographies of Wiseman's crew on the night they were shot down, selections from the diary of mid-upper gunner and crewmate Bill Lyall, and a brief history of 466 Squadron and its ops record (again with additional content from Feast) from March to April 1944.

With my comments about its short length, I may seem ungrateful or even dissatisfied with this book. Far from it. I am immensely grateful Wiseman and Feast collaborated to record the former’s stories for posterity and our enjoyment and education. The fact Wiseman died so soon after finishing this work gave me casue to reflect on our veterans and how precious our remaining time with them is.

Happy to repeat myself, I'm grateful Andy Wiseman has told his story and it is a highly engaging one worth adding to any enthusiast's library.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Battle Of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited - Christer Bergström

As anniversaries go, the seventy-fifth of the Battle of Britain was obviously a big one. There were ceremonies and epic flypasts and decent, occasionally well-informed, coverage in the media. Add in a few new books and any enthusiast had it made, particularly if they lived in the UK. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many new titles on the subject although there were clearly a few. The hardcover edition of Helen Doe’s Fighter Pilot and the Pen & Sword edition of Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain by Kristen Alexander come to mind but that’s it at the moment. I think that’s probably because I didn’t pay much attention because I spent a fair bit of time with my nose in what just might be the final word on this most famous of aerial battles. Christer Bergström spent more than four decades gathering material for The Battle of Britain, An Epic Conflict Revisited, and it shows. This must surely be one of the last books to be released that will use original, unpublished veteran interviews as source material.

Right from the start the author makes his intentions clear. The BoB, being entrenched in popular culture as it is, is one of those periods of history where myths and half-truths evolve into apparent fact and are spouted left, right and centre by anyone with a passing interest. Alongside legendary exploits such as the Dams raid and the Doolittle raid, the Battle of Britain grabs the attention. There are tales of derring-do on both sides, Britain with its back against the wall, a rampaging Germany stopped in its tracks. It’s stirring stuff and, best of all, it really did happen. Who needs fiction when history is so much better? As time goes on, however, and these things are analysed ad nauseum and different opinions and conclusions put forward, even movies made, the line between fact and fiction starts to blur and some of the ‘faction’ starts to become accepted or even common knowledge and is certainly not helped by being regurgitated by the media. You know about the BoB, you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise. Have a think about these half-truths. What comes to mind? Göring was a bumbling fool. Fighter Command stood alone. The Bf 110 was a sitting duck against the Spitfires and Hurricanes. You know the drill. Bergström sets about proving these to be wrong. Göring, while clearly a man who enjoyed the finer things in life, was an old fighter pilot, and a successful one at that. He related well with his fighter units and understood their desire, their need, to hunt. He was not a fan of tying the fighters to the bombers but had to keep his bomber group commanders happy. He did allow his fighters to go on free hunting sweeps ahead of the day’s bombing raids and these were successful until Fighter Command cottoned on that there were no bombers in the incoming radar plots. It was Göring who had fresh fighter formations, those that had not flown on the returning raids, cover the withdrawal across the Channel. He proved insightful, adaptable and trusting of his men. He had his finger on the pulse but, ultimately, with a rather large commitment to the east requiring attention, the Italians in the Mediterranean needing reinforcing, not to mention a fair bit of angst among his commanders who did not implement his directives in full, he was up against it to achieve the required result especially when the RAF proved so hard to dislodge.

It was such a close run thing, though. Some of the loss statistics are harrowing and you have to remember that there is at least one man involved in each of those aircraft lost. Even in October, when many regard the Battle as more or less having run its course, the Germans shot down more aircraft than the RAF did. At the time much of the daylight activity was centred around fighters escorting fighter bombers in an attempt to draw the RAF up. Within six months, the RAF was trying to do the same thing to the Luftwaffe over occupied Europe. Contrary to popular belief, the RAF suffered at the hands of the Bf 110 crews. It had the range and firepower to be an absolute menace particularly when working in concert with several other ‘110s. As someone who doesn’t read a lot about the BoB, I was consistently surprised, and somewhat disturbed, at the number of Spitfires and Hurricanes that fell to the guns of the big fighter. Some of the Zerstörer units, some of the Luftwaffe’s most effective offensive units, had better kill/loss ratios than some of the Bf 109 units. While units on both sides, and flying all types, were withdrawn to regroup, it was surprising how truly ineffective some of the Luftwaffe’s single engine fighter groups were. It’s not a viewpoint I’ve come across before, partly because of the dearth of recent reading on the subject, but the analysis is due to the author getting to grips with German records.

It is pleasing to see Bomber Command receive regular attention as the author progresses through the timeline. More than just hitting the invasion barges in the Channel ports, the Whitleys, Hampdens, Blenheims and Wellingtons were taking the fight to Germany itself. While they were mere pinpricks compared to what the Germans achieved with their bomber formations, they were a nuisance that led to at least one Bf 110 unit being withdrawn for a rest and conversion to night fighting.

This is as good a discussion of the progression of the BoB as I’ve ever read. It includes the usual formation numbers on such and such a date and losses for the day as expected but, like some books before it, it includes a surprising amount of recollections from the pilots themselves. Again, nothing really new there but these are the product of the author’s own interviews and many were recorded decades ago. Of course, many of the men interviewed are no longer with us.

Chapters are split roughly in to months and the narrative is incredibly detailed when it comes to looking at the machinations of the German hierarchy behind the scenes. The whole thing was really theirs to lose.

This is a book that everyone who is interested in the period should have on their shelf. It is critical, but fair, and pulls no punches. The author is not backwards in coming forwards when it comes to discrediting accepted truths and it is a testament and tribute to his decades of work that everything about the analysis, discussion and conclusions is supported by the most comprehensive bibliography, using sources from both sides (some of which would rarely see the light of day, I imagine), that I have seen. The range of photos used is second to none and include a stunning colour photo section and the ubiquitous profiles. Many of the captions are long and provide excellent detail.

The aircraft are introduced at the start and, weirdly, the Westland Whirlwind is mentioned but the Bristol Beaufighter is not. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Whirlwind included as one of the aircraft that contributed to the Battle of Britain. There are long passages for the Spitfire and the Messerschmitts, little on the Hurricane and the Defiant receives as much attention as the Whirlwind. As great as this book is, this is just one of the odd little things within its pages (and let's not go in to the 'modern' Hurricane on the cover!).

Continuing in this vein, this book needs an edit. A serious edit. It was originally written and published in Swedish and may (I do not know) have been translated in to English by the author. I very much doubt whether this English translation was edited because it really does appear that it wasn’t. There are clumsy sentences and statements where the order of the words is wrong or extra words are included. This occurs on every page. I raised this as I was reading it. Some were not concerned as they felt it took nothing away from the book, and they’re right, while others found it distracting. On top of those opinions, all of which I agreed with, I don’t think it honours the work of the author. Here’s a man who has spent more than forty years collating the material to produce a gem of a book only to have it tarnished by many apparent oversights post-manuscript submission. A full read through edit would have picked up some errors in the captions and some minor double-checking of details in the narrative. I would have no hesitation calling this book the ultimate discussion of the BoB if these errors and oversights were cleared up (and I have a list!) because it would then be near perfect. With luck a further print run or a second edition will clear this up but it will require a good dose of work that should have been done before the book was published.

Don’t let me put you off. This is the book on the Battle of Britain and this review isn’t intended to be a blow by blow account of the Battle or to approach the detail of the narrative. A large, A4 format of 330 pages and hundreds of photos, it takes into account all that have preceded it and gives credit where it is due. It is, however, an entirely original discussion, based on familiar knowledge, that goes beyond anything before it. It is mature, incredibly well-researched and insightful beyond belief.

Epic conflict. Epic book.

ISBN 978-1-61200--347-4

Friday, July 22, 2016

Taking Flight - Kristen Alexander

Aviation today doesn’t often make the headlines unless it’s bad news. Aircraft cross six of the seven continents hourly and usually do so to reach another continent on the other side of a vast ocean. Long distance flying is accepted if you want to see the world yet pilots of all ages still accept the challenge to tackle a route solo. Some do it in modern aircraft, some do it in vintage aircraft with or without a support crew. These flights remain remarkable achievements. If anything, today’s political and security landscape makes long-distance solo flights harder to plan let alone fly. This is especially so when trying to follow the flight path of a pioneer. Destinations have to be carefully picked and diversions assessed for their suitability and safety. Really, not a lot has changed since the early days of aviation. It is still an amazing effort to fly solo around Australia or fly to England in a Tiger Moth but, because of the airliners passing thousands of feet overhead, the mainstream don’t get it. It’s all been done before.

That’s the key point. Being the first to do something can’t be taken away. With the birth of aviation, everything was a challenge. That said, it still took something incredible to be lauded as a pioneer. There are two types of pioneer aviator. Those in the first group remain household names to some extent: Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler, Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Alcock and Brown etc. They have been extensively memorialised, their aircraft, or replicas thereof, reside in museums or attend airshows, books are still written about them and their likeness appears on currency. Then there’s the second lot. The unknowns. Those who have achieved just as much, perhaps more, but have been almost lost to history. Were they the less attention seeking perhaps? They might be remembered on a plaque somewhere or have had a book published, or written about them, that remains long out of print. To me, someone who inhabits the world of historic aviation, but who regularly wears blinkers out of necessity, Lores Bonney is one of the forgotten.

Well, with a bit of luck, and a good book, perhaps this will no longer be the case. One of Australia’s leading aviation biographers, Kristen Alexander, was asked by the National Library of Australia to write Bonney’s story using the library’s Lores Bonney Collection as the core. This collection, among various personal items, includes Bonney’s letters and diaries. Why is she significant? In a time when female pilots were regarded as somewhat of a novelty, Lores was determined to fly and, once she had achieved some semblance of proficiency, immediately started planning long distance flights. She first set a record for the longest one-day flight in Australia (more than 1,500 kilometres) and her second was a mere solo jaunt around the country. She was the first woman to achieve this. Mother England beckoned, as was its wont, so Lores set out to become the first aviatrix to fly there from Australia. Her trusty DH.60 Moth ‘My Little Ship’ was her companion on these first adventures and Lores, being the confident and driven type she was, trained as a mechanic and fitter so she was capable of maintaining the aircraft and effecting repairs. Husband Harry backed her flying financially but was always reluctant to let her go (although he did propose an idea that became her longest flight).

While she is credited with that first flight to England, a prang while landing to avoid weather in Burma’s very southern regions, led to Lores disassembling the Moth on the beach and having it transported, by barge and ship, to Rangoon and Calcutta respectively. It was a journey of more than 1,800 kilometres. Her timetable flew out the window as did her ability to get through the rest of the flight ahead of the known worsening weather en route. In typical Lores fashion, however, despite moments of self-doubt and frustration, she battled through and made it. It was 1933 and something no other woman had done before.

Lores followed the England flight up by becoming the first person to fly to South Africa, her country of birth, from Australia. This time she did it in a Klemm and the relative comfort of an enclosed cockpit. The destination was an inspired choice as, even by 1937, there were few aviation firsts to be conquered. The Klemm was falling apart and once again the weather played a big part in delays. Add in a little dysentery in India (and other health issues on the way) and bureaucratic bungling, and she didn’t arrive in the Union until mid-August, having left in April. What would be her final major achievement had been completed before her fortieth birthday.

Her plans for further adventures were scotched by, first, the loss of the Klemm, now fully rebuilt, in a hangar fire and, second, the outbreak of the Second World War. She continued to fly, but eventually gave it up in her early fifties, and kept travelling overseas exploring the world before her death in 1994.

To be honest, it is quite likely I would not have read this book if it were not for the author’s name on the front. It is outside what I like to think I specialise in (those blinkers again). That makes me a bit of an idiot as Lores Bonney was an unstoppable, albeit shy to a fault when out of the public eye, force of nature, her diminutive size belying an incredible fortitude that even managed to overcome her crises of confidence. With the resources available, I cannot think of a better author to tackle a new book (there is another, much older biography) on this pioneering aviatrix. The Alexander factor, as I like to call it, of teasing out personal minutiae, of tying together an inordinate number of threads, to sculpt an almost tangible image of a flyer long gone, is in full song here. Indeed, given it is a return to the individual biography for this author, after several years working on a collection of personalities, the Bonney work has captured a biographer at the top of her game. Having stepped away from wartime aviation and embracing the finicky, almost artisan, world of pre-war civil aviation, Kristen has got inside Lores’ persona and produced an insightful and revealing book.

A large format softcover of more than 270 pages, the endpapers include a very useful map of Lores’ travels in the Moth and the Klemm. The photos, at least one per two page spread, are reproduced well with the left-hand page being dedicated to either a full page photo (usually of Lores) or a smaller image accompanied by a detailed caption. Many of the better photos of Lores are well-selected, and enlarged, and often speak volumes particularly those featuring the aviatrix elbow deep in an engine or at large in one of her many destinations. The narrative, therefore, is limited to the right-hand pages and effortlessly combines excerpts from letters and diaries with details of Lores’ preparations, innermost thoughts, flying, failures, successes and adventures. It is an incredibly easy read and those personal photos of Lores really make an impression.

Will Lores Bonney’s history-making life emerge from the wilderness and into the mainstream because of this book? Probably not. Aviation enthusiasts will appreciate it and her name and achievements will continue to pop up because they will always maintain their sense of awe. She flew in the time of Johnson, Batten and Earhart, to name the obvious ones, two of whom were published authors, and remains overshadowed by these contemporaries. If, somehow, Lores Bonney does enter the public interest, it will be because of Taking Flight and, who knows, perhaps this book will be the genesis for the release of Bonney’s two unpublished (due to rejection!) manuscripts. Now that would be good news.

ISBN 978-0-642-27886-9

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Special Duty - Jennifer Elkin

Despite my enthusiasm for all things North Africa aircrew-related and, by extension, Mediterranean and Italian, it has been a disturbingly long time since I’ve read anything about the Desert Air Force. Well, specifically for ABR, that is. I’m sitting here sipping a coffee, that really should be a whiskey to get the juices flowing, momentarily interrupted by my son stirring in his sleep, trying to work out how long it’s been. Of course, I could easily check the website but I’ve been distracted enough as it is already tonight. Let’s move to Italy. Ah, Mark Lax’s Alamein To The Alps, Just One Of The Many by Dudley Egles and, from a time before ABR, even Tom Scotland’s much reprinted Voice From The Stars, immediately spring to mind. Even so, as you can see by the dates on the reviews, we’re talking years. That’s just not right so it was pleasing to select (they select me if I’m honest) Jennifer Elkin’s A Special Duty to read and review. The title and the cover are a dead giveaway as to the content but, even knowing the premise, I was surprised by this book. It did, however, leave me wanting more.

This is the tale of the author’s father, Tom Storey, and his Halifax crew. They were assigned to No. 148 (Special Duties) Squadron. Initially flying from Libya, before moving to Italy, the squadron was key to supplying the various partisan groups and SOE missions throughout Eastern Europe. Of course, with the move to Italy, many more areas came within range which really only heightened the danger. Read enough aircrew books and you become familiar with the general approach. Take off with a load of canisters in the bomb bay and maybe some agents and/or loose parcels to let go through a hole in the floor of the fuselage. Fly to the rendezvous and look for the signal fires in the pre-arranged pattern. Drop on these from low level and head home. Read that again and just think of all the variables, things that could go wrong, at night, over enemy occupied territory. Now throw in the countryside to the east of the Alps and look for a dropping ground that, by necessity, had to be hard to get to in a region renowned for its average weather. The drop had to be made as per the cover – low, wheels and flaps down, bomb doors adding to the drag, the Halifax shuddering at such a slow speed and, more often than not, having to repeat the run several times to ensure an accurate drop. The Storey crew did this more than thirty times and there were a number of early returns and failed deliveries on top of that. This was all achieved from the night of their first op, 3 November 1943, to their last on 23 April 1944. That was a fateful night that would bring pain to a family for years after the war.

Over Poland, the Halifax faltered and gradually lost power. The crew were forced to bail out before they could deliver their load. Hunted by the Germans, who took a group of locals hostage until the men were found, five of the seven crew managed to evade because of the exceptionally brave actions of villagers and, ultimately, partisan groups. It was an interesting time with the Russians certainly making their presence felt through their support of selected partisan forces. Other groups were supplied by the western Allies and still others did what they could with whatever they could lay their hands on. While one of the crew found long-term refuge with a local family, Storey and three others were ultimately looked after, and lived with, a Soviet partisan group that only entered Poland several days before the Storey crew arrived by parachute. It was clearly a confused time despite the common enemy. Polish partisans of various persuasions, Russian ones with varying levels of influence over some of the Polish forces (acronyms everywhere!) and, in the middle of it all, some RAF airmen who were just happy to be alive and out of German hands. They were eventually flown out of a cornfield, flattened for the purpose, by a Russian Dakota, in early June and repatriated via Moscow, the first RAF personnel to do so. Happily, all of the crew survived the war.

It is quite the adventure and, I dare say, unique in bibliography of aircrew books. Much shaking of the head ensues both during operations and the time on the ground in Poland. All seven men certainly used their fair share of luck and it is quite refreshing to read a book where the entire crew of a four engine RAF aircraft survived to see peace. That said, however, a pall hangs over ASD from the moment you read the preamble. The author’s account of that day in 1964, exactly twenty years after the crew bailed out, doesn’t break your heart, it rips it out. It is an incredibly powerful, profoundly sad, opening that sets the tone as I said. It leaves the reader with a myriad of questions, some of which can never be completely answered, and a desire to turn the page.

The author endeavours to answer the questions, that she obviously had as well, with in depth research in to the supply dropping to the likes of General Tito’s forces and the SOE missions. Names like Spillway, Lapworth, Mulligatawny, Swifter, Claridge and Autonomous enter the vocabulary as codenames for the small teams of operatives supplied by the special duties squadrons. How these men survived, and many didn’t, behind enemy lines where they really couldn’t trust anyone, nor could they completely rely on a steady stream of supplies, is beyond me. The author has clearly spent a lot of time understanding the purpose, success and sacrifice of these missions and, although further detail is not relevant to the book, she has built a strong foundation to perhaps work on a future title that goes deeper in to their world or, indeed, what would be a valuable history of 148 (SD) Squadron as whole. Frighteningly, I was drawn in to this world and would love to know more but there are only so many hours in the day.

Operations, despite the crew’s experience, only cover about the first seventy pages of this 158-page paperback. The rest is given over to the time in Poland, which includes an unraveling of the crew’s movements and the people who sheltered them, certainly a tricky task. A good portion of the book, however, and it helps complete the picture of the man that was Tom Storey, is given to the author’s memories of the post-war period when a clearly intelligent and loving man was progressively overtaken by forces beyond his control, forces that began to manifest themselves well before his time in Poland, but found their anchor on that night in April 1944. Happily, the family history has come full circle as the author, her mother, and her sisters travelled to Poland and met former partisans and relatives of those who helped the Storey crew in 1944.

The first edition of this book appeared, self-published, in early 2014. It is certainly a fast turnaround for a relatively recent book but the publisher’s touch is evident and this is a story like no other so deserves such backing. Mention The War has produced a typically attractive paperback designed to be affordable and accessible. It is a book that punches above its weight. There are a number of technical niggles and clarifications I would like to see cleared up but these relate to several aviation terms and unit details that aren’t the main thrust of the book. After all, the author came to this subject cold and has understandably concentrated on the special duties aspects of her father’s war. The writing is straightforward, nothing fancy, and to the point. It tells the tale without a lot of embellishment because it isn’t really needed. There’s bravery, sacrifice, tension, triumph and pain everywhere. It is that evident that it doesn’t need to be emphasised.

A Special Duty has healed a lot of pain for the author and her family. It clearly hasn’t healed everything, nothing ever could, but, for a relatively small book, it has raises a good number of issues that we should never forget. The operational side is obvious, as are the aspects in 1944 Poland, but the analysis, for want of a less clinical word, of the struggle that many returned airmen lived through for years, and still do, is sobering. It is told from the viewpoint of one daughter for whom life would always be affected by a war fought before she was born. A special little book that, although there is closure for the family, leaves the reader wanting more.

ISBN 978-0993336072