Friday, November 27, 2020

Worth the wait - how to do a squadron history


One of the operations for which the de Havilland Mosquito is best known is the low-level attack on the prison at Amiens in France - the Amiens raid. The main striking force consisted of aircraft from two squadrons predominantly crewed by airmen from the Southern Hemisphere. These two units - the Australian No 464 Squadron and the New Zealanders of No 487 Squadron - worked closely during their wartime service, but, until now, save the various books about Operation Jericho and the Leonard Trent biography for example, there hasn't been a detailed treatise of the Kiwi unit. It's been worth the wait.

Like the Australian squadron, superbly profiled in The Gestapo Hunters by Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, 487 began life as a Lockheed Ventura bomber squadron and committed to the RAF offensive over Europe. The Ventura, a replacement for the venerable Hudson, was not ideally suited to the role of medium bomber, but it was available and, like the Douglas Bostons, Short Stirlings, and the Bristol Blenheims before those, it could be used to entice German fighters into the air for the escorting RAF fighter wings to engage. The bombing force on such raids was hardly ever enough to cause significant damage to the targets selected, and the Luftwaffe could choose to engage at its leisure, but there was never any doubt of the courage exhibited by the airmen on both sides. The Venturas are perhaps best remembered for their raids on the Eindhoven Philips factory (Operation Oyster) and the disastrous Ramrod in early May 1943 when only one 487 Squadron aircraft, of the eleven that crossed the Dutch coast, made it home. The type did a lot more than that, of course, but the Aussies and Kiwis were not sad to see the back of the Venturas when they were replaced by the Mosquito, an aircraft ideally suited to the intruder work that epitomised the work of the Second Tactical Air Force.

The Mosquito operations of 487 Squadron are, partly due to their success and also because of the eternal popularity of the Mossie, the stuff of legend. Considering The Gestapo Hunters was published in 1999, it is surprising we've had to wait this long for a similar Kiwi effort. Add issues with the publisher initially selected in New Zealand, believed to have delayed publication for several years, and it's been quite the frustrating wait, especially for 'airheads' in the antipodes (a surprising number in Australia). What we finally have in Through to the End, however, is nothing short of pure unadulterated brilliance. 

This book is a large format hardback of more than 360 pages (bibliography, glossary, roll of honour, index etc included). It is printed on a semi-gloss paper stock that allows the photos to be clearly reproduced throughout. Such a thing is a necessity for a unit history. The multitude of personalities, in particular, need to have 'faces put to names' as the narrative progresses, not relegated to a single glossy photo insert as can often be the case. Similarly, on the subject of images, lovely clear maps are often presented at the start of relevant chapters, allowing for quick referencing should the need arise. These maps are often of the same areas, but the relevant targets for the period are highlighted. Again, this is much preferred over one or two maps placed in fore or endpapers. 

Then there's the story itself. Happily, more than 130 pages pass before the Mosquitos arrive. Considerable effort is made to reflect the impact of the massive losses suffered by the squadron during the Ventura era (and in no way is this discounting the later Mosquito losses). This is what lifts this book above the relatively standard unit history with the Operations Record Book at its heart. Throughout, the writing is evocative, while remaining grounded, and paints quite the picture of squadron life and, combined with the memories of those who were there (in the air on both sides, on the ground, military and civilian alike), makes for the most captivating read. Indeed, in preparing this 'first impression', I was regularly lost, emerging several pages later either wrung out from an operation or shaking my head at just the thought of what these men did. This is the effect of David Palmer and his ability to bring everything together historically, creatively and accurately, tempered from his admitted 'storyteller's flights of fancy' by Aad Neeven's advocacy for 'hard historical fact'. 

Interestingly, some of the chapters are more or less dedicated to a particular airman, following his path to, and life on, the squadron. This is an effective tool as it allows the authors to concentrate on a particular individual, and his place in the unit history, and avoids disrupting the flow of the 'operational narrative' with an extensive biographical tangent.

Through to the End is the perfect literary tribute to 487 Squadron. While its size, and resultant cost, does not make it as accessible as contemporary squadron histories, some recently released, it is the equivalent of Graeme Gibson's Path of Duty and Owen Clark's Under Their Own Flag, and in some respects surpasses the benchmark set by those magnificent titles. I didn't think that was possible. While it took me a year after the book's release to buy a copy, thereby adding to the 'wait', all that time fades away as 487 Squadron is so wonderfully brought back to life.

ISBN 978-9-08264-7-532 

I bought my copy from the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. Given 2020 has not been terribly kind to museums, please consider, if you are in Australia or New Zealand, buying your copy from this organisation. With postage costs as they are at present, the mid-year worldwide increase making things just that much more difficult, and this being a large book, those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, would be best served by ordering from Aad Neeven's Aviation Warbooks (he's also the publisher of Through to the End).

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Landmark title from Avonmore Books


Avonmore Books, now in its tenth year, is probably Australia's highest profile aviation history publishewith an established international distribution network (i.e. stock in stores overseas) and continued and justified accolades for its continuing South Pacific Air War and relatively recent Pacific Adversaries series. The first book from this South Australian-based business was the groundbreaking Zero Hour in Broome, a book that set a lot of things straight and challenged accepted truths about the disastrous attack on one of Western Australia's north-west centres. Not taking things at face value, no matter how entrenched, has been an enduring theme for Avonmore's books ever since.


Tom Lewis was there from the start, co-authoring Zero Hour with owner Peter Ingman. They followed up with Carrier Attack Darwin 1942. Tom published several other books with Avonmore, The Empire Strikes South for example, and Peter joined forces with Michael Claringbould for the South Pacific Air War series (Volume 4 coming soon!). 


With Eagles over Darwin we see Tom return to the very first air combats over Australia as it and its allies reeled in the face of the Japanese onslaught. From the back cover blurb:


A massive Japanese attack on Darwin on 19 February [1942] had left the town and its air base in ruins. An understrength squadron of USAAC P-40E Warhawks had fought a gallant defence but was all but wiped out.

 

Northern Australia was now at the mercy of Imperial Japanese Navy Betty bombers and Zero fighters whose crews were both skilled and experienced. However, help was on the way. The 49th Fighter Group was the first such group to be sent from the US after the start of the Pacific War. Its destination was Darwin.

 

From modest beginnings on make-shift airstrips, the 49th FG entered combat with its feared Japanese adversaries. Its P-40E Warhawks were poor interceptors but were rugged, reliable and well-armed. 

 

Over several months the 49th FG pilots fought a brave and innovative campaign against a stronger enemy that did much to safeguard Australia in its darkest hour. Today, lonely and long forgotten airfields still bear the name of American pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice.


This is going to be an important book when it's released. I don't think much has been written on the subject, about American Warhawks defending Darwin, for a few years, and the last book I can remember reading on the subject was James Morehead's In My Sights. The most recent work I can think of is the well-regarded Darwin's Air War by Bob Alford. The Ferguson and Pascalis Protect & Avenge is perhaps the largest work on the 49th FG, but, a product of the mid-nineties, it's getting long in the tooth now and can be found wanting. Tom Lewis has been investigating Warhawks ops over Darwin for a while now and uncovering new information that will surprise and, as usual, challenge. A vignette of Australia's defence, and USAAC/USAAF history, very much deserving this treatment. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Boy with Only One Shoe - John Henry Meller with Caroline Brownbill

We’ve been fortunate to see some heavily promoted Bomber Command memoirs/biographies see the light of day this year (as mentioned below). One that has been seemingly ‘everywhere’ is The Boy with Only One Shoe. The authors are working on a post-war sequel, which will make a nice companion, that will hopefully provide some insight into how a Bomber Command veteran adjusted to life outside the RAF. He served as a policeman after the war, so perhaps it was a more gentle transition, moving from one institution to another as it were. Anyway, BC historian, oral history interviewer, and long-time ABR guest reviewer, Adam Purcell kindly sent in his review of The Boy with Only One Shoe. You may remember him from his reviews for Norman Franks’s Veteran Lancs and Night Duel over Germany by Peter Jacobs. He also runs the Something Very Big blog about his ongoing research into a relative’s Bomber Command career. Andy Wright

It’s a familiar sort of story. World War II begins. At first, the boy is too young, but he enlists in aircrew the instant he turns eighteen. Basic training follows and he’s awarded an aircrew brevet. Then comes operational training, crewing up, converting onto big four-engine bombers. The new crew joins a squadron, flies on operations and has one or two close calls. Then the war ends. Call it a fairly standard career for a surviving member of Bomber Command. With greater or lesser degrees of variation, stories like this have been told in countless books over the years. Yes, the story of John Henry Meller, in the new book The Boy with Only One Shoe, follows much the same arc, but what’s notable about this book is that it’s been published in 2020, seven and a half decades since the end of the war. It’s the rarest of rare things: a recently written first-hand account by a Bomber Command airman. There just aren’t many veterans left alive these days, let alone ones who still have the drive and skill to vividly write a story about events of so long ago and then publish it.     

To be clear, Meller’s daughter, Caroline Brownbill, a former airline pilot, is credited as a co-author. It’s not clear how much of the work is hers, but that doesn’t matter. The narrative is cohesive and in a consistent voice. Brownbill is also, it seems, doing a lot of the publicity work around the release of the book, which was self-published via Amazon in May 2020. The authors are planning to donate proceeds from sales of the book to the RAF Benevolent Fund, and Meller signs and writes a personal message on virtually every copy they sell, which is a nice touch.

John Henry Meller served as a wireless operator with 149 Squadron, flying operations on Lancasters from February 1945. That experience, and all the bits and pieces that go with it, necessarily forms the core of The Boy with Only One Shoe. This book, however, has so much more to offer too. The early sections about growing up in the English town of Warrington in the 1920s and 30s are detailed, and the descriptions of life as a teenage civilian in the early years of the war are full of life. Post-war, Meller remained in the Royal Air Force for a few years and there are some very interesting sections about postings to exotic places like Egypt and Libya. 

His personal recollections are great, and include some unusual details. I knew that RAF recruits, undergoing basic training in London, ate their meals in a restaurant at London Zoo, for example, but I didn’t know that while there they were also told they would be responsible for ‘protecting or detaining’ any of the zoo animals that might escape as a result of air raid damage. There’s also one of the better descriptions of the training and operational role of the wireless operator I’ve seen in an aircrew memoir. 

These are the sorts of details you can’t easily get from official files and archives; you really need the recollections of someone who was there. There’s a fascinating discussion of a lecture attended during Meller’s wireless operator course, during which it was clearly communicated to the trainees exactly what risk they were taking by becoming aircrew. The fatality rate in Bomber Command at the time, they were explicitly told, was 46%. Common knowledge now, of course, and certainly by the time a crew had been on a squadron for a few months they would have been well aware of the ‘chop rate’, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of aircrew being directly told about it while still in training. It makes their decisions to continue that training all the more courageous.  
The Boy with Only One Shoe (the significance of the title is explained in a short introductory section in the book) came about after Meller’s son-in-law persuaded him to write about his wartime experiences, primarily for his grand-daughter. The book is therefore pitched at an audience that may not have much understanding of Bomber Command and the context into which it fitted. Meller provides a lot of that context with explanations of what was going on in the wider conflict at the time and, while some of these bits aren’t done as well as the parts of the story based on his own experiences, he nevertheless manages to successfully weave his own story into the wider one.

My only criticisms about the book are, I think, a direct result of its self-published roots. The story is great and the writing is engaging, but in some ways the execution doesn’t do the story all the justice it deserves. Editing can be hit and miss, with the occasional superfluous punctuation and, on one occasion, ‘where’ used in place of ‘were’. There are one or two minor errors in terminology that probably should have been picked up, too: cumulonimbus clouds are called ‘Cumulus Nimbus’ on page 175, for example. Formatting inside is a little inconsistent, particularly when dealing with block quotes. There is a contents page, but it’s not very useful: it only lists ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter 2’ and so on, despite all the chapters being individually titled. The cover, though attention-grabbing with an illustration of a Lancaster with an engine on fire, is printed on cheap stock and not very hardy. My copy marked too easily, copping several dings from one or two trips in my bag. 

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked this book, and Amazon’s global reach makes it very accessible to the widest possible audience, but it’s a great shame this story was not picked up by a traditional publisher, who might have had the expertise to overcome the few niggles I had with it. Putting that to one side, though, The Boy with Only One Shoe is a good read. It’s honest, engaging and true to life, and it’s a never-before-heard Bomber Command story, written by someone who was there.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Heaven High Ocean Deep - Tim Hillier-Graves

Last year was quite exciting for a wartime Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm tragic. Hot on the heels of David Hobbs’ then latest work, The Dawn of Carrier Strike, came a book any aircrew enthusiast could get excited about: a title about the Grumman Hellcat-equipped 5th Fighter Wing. A book on the subject was incredibly welcome and, considering some of the recent attention and study directed at the British Pacific Fleet, would bring some of the ‘forgotten’ men of ‘the forgotten fleet’ into focus. Heaven High Ocean Deep certainly does that, but in doing so it ignores everything brought to light in the past three decades (at least).

 

One of the great traits of the wartime FAA was adaptability. This was born mostly out of having to face the odds with aircraft that were either of ‘another era’ or pressed into an environment for which they were not designed. Hamstrung from well before the outbreak of war, due to the RAF’s desire to control military aviation into the thirties, and an Admiralty in love with the ‘big gun’, the Fleet Air Arm did what it could with what it had. What it achieved with its biplane torpedo bombers, hastily converted land-based fighters, and two-seat long-range fighters, in the first years of the war is legendary. The effectiveness and flexibility of the carrier strike force began to hit home and the Americans and Japanese massively reinforced that point in the first year of the war in the Pacific. The British aviation industry, already pushing hard, could not hope to fulfil the FAA’s resulting need for more, and new, aircraft. The US, however, was beginning to pump out aircraft. The Hellcat—with its rugged construction, docile landing characteristics and excellent forward visibility—was a development of the Wildcat (also used effectively by the FAA) and Grumman refined the design as encounters with the Japanese ‘Zero’ were analysed. Its simplicity meant it went from drawing board to carrier deck far quicker than the troubled Corsair, a design that had flown before the US entry into the war. The Hellcat, as mentioned above, settled into the USN easily and became so well established that by the time the USN had carrier qualified its first two Corsair units in 1943 (before the RN received its first Corsairs), commanders in the Pacific didn’t want the headache of another fighter requiring yet another supply chain of unique spares. The US Marine Corps were happy with the ‘surplus’ of Corsairs and, despite the type’s tricky handling, so did the RN, recognising the bent-wing fighter offered a significant jump in capability. Its issues would be dealt with and made to work in typical FAA style.

 

The RN went for the Hellcat at the same time and the 5th Fighter Wing came into being in late 1943. Only two squadrons, 1839 and 1844, made up the Wing due to a shortage of pilots and space considerations on board HMS Indomitable, the assigned fleet carrier. They worked up in Northern Ireland before embarking on an escort carrier in February 1944. The loaded-to-capacity carrier took them to Colombo where they finally met, and started flying from, Indomitable mid-year. The Royal Navy’s pivot to the Indian Ocean, which it had never left despite the reversals of 1942, was well and truly underway (as was its return to a legitimate role in the Pacific). The fleet began to make forays to Sumatra, initially hitting lightly defended targets before going after the oil refineries from late 1944. These raids—the inexperienced Hellcat units were left off the early ones, with the exception of the photo-reconnaissance Mk.IIs—revealed a lot of issues from beginning to end of a strike (excessive time taken to form up, control over the target etc), and these had to be ironed out, to the satisfaction of the Americans, some of whom weren’t keen to bring the RN into ‘their’ theatre, before the fleet arrived in Australia to establish itself as the British Pacific Fleet.

 

That arrival in Australia followed the well-known raids on Palembang in late January 1945. By the end of March the now accepted BPF had begun its attacks on the Sakishima Gunto, an island chain pointing the way to Formosa (now Taiwan) from Okinawa. Its role was to prevent Japanese aircraft, many assigned for kamikaze attacks, using the islands to hop from Taiwan to the US invasion fleet at Okinawa. It was hardly a glamorous job, the fleet’s aircraft, Hellcats included, hitting the same airfields and installations time and time again, and at quite a cost, withdrawing to re-supply from the fleet train, and then returning to do it all over again. This was kept up until late May. The return to Australia, to prepare for attacks on the Japanese Home Islands, meant the end of major operations for the 5th Fighter Wing. Only its specialist photo reconnaissance and night fighter elements would see combat with the BPF to the end of the war. The PR pilots were particularly hard pressed and returned excellent results.

 

The above is a barely potted history of the BPF’s activities. It, obviously, doesn’t include that most vital component of any unit history—the human element; the memories of the people involved. Fortunately, Heaven High Ocean Deep leans heavily on a number of veterans interviewed by the author, inspired by his father and godfather both being wartime naval aviators, during the 1990s. The book is built around these interviews. They span the range of experiences, from joining up all the way through to the end of the war and demobbing, and sees several interviewees quoted throughout the book. There are some valuable passages looking at the operational side of things, and the steep learning curve, but also several that reflect on losses and their impact. Diary entries abound, but there is little, save the acknowledgements, to indicate the extent of other records referenced as there is no bibliography. Indeed, only three secondary sources—in the form of Winton’s The Forgotten Fleet, Hanson’s superb Carrier Pilot and Admiral Vian’s Action This Day—are directly mentioned, the youngest of these first being published in the late seventies. The work of John Winton, who the author was in contact with and whom he received completed research from, appears to underpin the entire narrative. Fair enough, it was a ground-breaking work, but doesn’t stack up to the claim ‘it was and remains the most important account…’ as that accolade now sits with The British Pacific Fleet by the aforementioned David Hobbs. That’s probably the theme of the major issue with this book. All of the research is at least two decades old and a good chunk seems to rely on work from the 1960s. Granted, history doesn’t change, but new analyses and discoveries greatly enhance its understanding and to ignore recent ‘developments’ is akin to sticking your head in the sand.

 

It can also lead to repeating information since disproved or, at least, incomplete. Early on there is a suggestion the RN led the way with the operation of Corsairs from aircraft carriers, even mentioning the nickname ‘Whistling Death’ which has since been understood to be a creation of the manufacturer’s marketing department. As mentioned above, the USN had carrier qualified Corsair units before the RN even received its first aircraft. Yes, the FAA developed modifications and improved techniques to operate the Corsair at sea, but it was not the pioneer. Similarly, there is also a discussion regarding the preference for American types because the USN Pacific supply chain could be relied upon for replacements. One of the requirements for the RN to operate alongside the USN against Japan was it had to be self-sufficient. That’s why there was a mad scramble to assemble supply ships for a fleet train that ultimately stretched from the east coast of the US across the Atlantic to the UK and then east to the Indian Ocean, Australia and beyond. Then there’s the extensive modifications the RN made to its aircraft.

 

Opinions and analysis seem to be largely driven by the comments made by the interviewees. If a veteran says ‘It was a bloody waste of time’ (I’m paraphrasing) in reference to an exercise or raid, it’s taken as gospel. There is no attempt to prove it was or wasn’t. The bigger picture of everything leading up to the BPF was to prove to the Americans the RN was good to go, was capable of effective, standalone strike operations. Similarly, the attitude of some of the veterans to Admiral Vian seems to have rubbed off on the author. I’ve not read a lot about the man, but to say he didn’t care for the men under his command is too much. My first thoughts upon reading that was to recall the efforts he made to recover downed airmen, including sending a Walrus to a Sumatran lake, at a predetermined time and date, in case evading flyers had managed to make it there as briefed. That means keeping the fleet within range, and therefore in danger, so the Walrus could make it back. Hardly heartless. 

 

As usual, a ‘hook’ to open the book—something exciting to draw the reader in—would have been good to see. Hanson’s Carrier Pilot is quoted and that opens with one of the most perfect hooks I have read. The author’s godfather shared a kill during his time as a Hellcat pilot and that would have been ideal to open the book with.

 

This is a beautifully produced book from Casemate. Black and white photographs are liberally sprinkled throughout, many featuring men mentioned in the narrative. There is also a superb glossy colour photo section that brings everything to life. Combined with the veteran interviews and ‘real time’ diary entries, the more than 125 photographs included in this 210-plus page hardback work hard to make up for the out-of-date, unbalanced narrative. Heaven High Ocean Deep could have ranked with the best of the current crop of FAA authors (Hobbs, Willis etc). Sadly, it falls disappointingly short.

 

ISBN 978-1-61200-7-557

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Bomber Command arrivals - how to tell a story

 


Two days, two Bomber Command book arrivals, both written by somewhat removed relatives. Same, same, but different. Two approaches to presenting a similar tale. Both allow the reader to ‘know’ the ‘hero’.

 

Jane Gulliford Lowes’s Above Us, The Stars is one of two new English Bomber Command biographies receiving a good dose of attention at the moment (the other being The Boy With Only One Shoe by John Meller and Caroline Brownbill). Above Us, The Stars is Jane’s investigation of her great-uncle’s experiences with 10 Squadron RAF. Jack Clyde was a Halifax wireless operator and completed his tour in early March 1944.

 

The author uses a creative narrative to tell the story, along with a tonne of references (and ten veterans personally interviewed, one of the first things I checked was the bibliography), and goes to great lengths to accurately portray the world these men inhabited. Little is left wanting in terms of understanding the stresses they went through with what appears to be a good study of the threat of being deemed LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) supported by numerous comments from primary and secondary sources. The members of the crew, and specifically Jack Clyde of course, are also placed in social settings as readily as the familiar operational environment. This allows a greater understanding of their lives and gets them under the reader’s skin.

 

The second book to arrive was Over the Alps by Moonlight. This is a series of letters and aerographs written by Australian Lancaster pilot (12 Squadron RAF) Robert Yell and compiled by Susan Yell (his niece). An older publication, released in 2009, its approach couldn’t be any more different from Above Us The Stars. Instead of building a narrative, Susan wrote an excellent, well-referenced introductory ‘essay’ that sets the scene while also laying out Bob’s journey in detail not included in the letters. Other than single line entries from the logbook, interspersed between the letters as time progresses, Susan lets Bob do the rest. The correspondence is mostly from Bob to his parents, but also includes replies and letters to/from several other relatives. 

 

There is very little in the way of operational detail in Bob’s writing, for obvious reasons, so there isn’t a lot of hard evidence as to how he was getting on. Certainly, he was working and playing hard. He was clearly keen to reassure his family he was okay. There is one indication as to the mounting pressure he was under, however. He wrote 51 letters, averaging one a week, up until he started flying on ops. For the six months of his tour, from 24 July 1943 until he was lost on his 30th trip on 14 January 1944, he wrote just seven letters and preferred the shorter format of the aerograph (seventeen in all, a brand new method for mail to Australia in 1943). No doubt busy on ops and then busy wanting to relax and forget it all on leave.

 

Bob’s letters regularly include mention of what was making news of the time, nicely placing him in context. Other than a few photos, the collection of letters (handed down through the family over time), the headstone at Hanover War Cemetery, and perhaps the DFC he was awarded (for a ‘shaky do’ over Berlin on 26 November 1943), there is little to remember Bob by so this book is greatly valued.

 

As a lovely piece of serendipity, I noted, while flicking through both books, Jack and Bob were both operational at the same time, albeit Jack had a few ops to his credit before Bob got underway. A quick look revealed they both flew on the 24 July Hamburg raid, the first op for Bob and his crew. There may have been other nights when they attacked the same target, but I haven’t gone that deep yet. It was just nice to consider here were two books, written years and half a world apart, deposited on my doorstep within a day of each other, and featuring men who shared the same patch of night sky over occupied Europe on at least one occasion. That the books exhibit two different styles of story telling shows the variety that can be employed if the effort is made to really understand how the subjects lived, the skills they developed and used, what they experienced and how it affected them. That, surely, is the greatest way to honour their memory.

 

ISBN 978-1-83859-555-5

ISBN 978-0-73262-227-5




Thursday, October 22, 2020

Anthony Cooper's latest cover released

 


Several years after his myth-busting Paddy Finucane and the Legend of the Kenley Wing, the next instalment of Anthony Cooper's Australian aircrew books is finally, almost, with us! 

 

Anthony is perhaps best known for his superb Darwin Spitfires. He followed that book with Kokoda Air Strikes and RAAF Bombers over Germany 1941-42 and the aforementioned Kenley Wing title. This new book continues his look at where Australian aircrew were around the world during 1942, when our UK-based Spitfire squadrons were ordered home to defend northern Australia from Japanese air raids.

 

Cooper is an erudite type with a fine analytical mind and a penchant for not accepting things at face value. This approach was most evident with Darwin Spitfires, revealing the moderate successes of the squadrons (as opposed to the raging, almost colloquially so, success that is often repeated) in the face of technical, tactical and logistical deficiencies, and Kenley Wing, again proving all was not as was flagrantly reported and recorded to become legend. It must be noted there is never a lack of respect in these exceedingly well-written narratives, but the discussion is always frank and fair. There is no doubt the same will apply to Sub Hunters.

 

While not so much the stuff of repeated exaggeration, the Australian Sunderlands have not had anything written about them to this extent, excluding a couple of memoirs, since Norman Ashworth's The ANZAC Squadron (about 461 Squadron). The most prevalent story, besides one Sunderland versus eight Ju88s for example, is, of course, the sinking of U-boat U-461 by Dudley Marrows and his crew (flying Sunderland 'U' from 461 Squadron). There is so much more to the two squadrons (10 and 461) than these events. Anthony Cooper's intimate knowledge of the German language will have no doubt been put to good use examining records of such Luftwaffe heavy fighter encounters with the Sunderlands over the Bay of Biscay. 

 

Besides the finely crafted narrative, this Fonthill publication includes a rare thing in this publisher's catalogue of aircrew books - an index! It's the type of book that certainly needs one so it is pleasing to see space was allowed to include it. 

 

Coastal Command is not something I get to write about too often in the context of Aircrew Book Review. I am over the moon I get to now (and again in the future) and that it's from the pen of Anthony Cooper. Alongside the recent announcement of David Hobbs' latest book, we have another much anticipated literary highpoint for a rather challenging year.

 

Andy Wright

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Spitfire Leader - Dennis Newton and Richard Bungey

 


The number of relatively well-known Australian wartime flyers who have yet to have their stories properly told is quite surprising. Airmen like David Shannon and ‘Micky’ Martin, Australia’s best-known Dam Busters (both did so much more than that one raid), have no standalone biography. It’s quite likely a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to some extent given their post-war lives in the UK. Even Ivan Southall’s biography of ‘Bluey’ Truscott, published in the fifties, remains the latter’s only focused narrative despite there being significant subsequent findings about his time in England with 452 Squadron. A man Truscott mentions with reverence is Bob Bungey. Battle of France, Battle of Britain, 452 Squadron CO, air-sea rescue, Dieppe. How on earth has he been overlooked? Well, with Spitfire Leader, he’s not anymore.

 

Two events in Bungey’s life lift him ‘above the parapet’, the most celebrated being his time in command of 452 Squadron and its Spitfires as Fighter Command went on the offensive over occupied Europe. Before then, however, Bob had already done his fair share. A pre-war RAAF trainee at Point Cook, he studied alongside a who’s who of Australia’s early contribution to the air war – Hughes, Olive, Walch and Clisby to name a few. They had the opportunity of a short service commission with the RAF upon graduation. The lure of overseas travel and service, seeing the ‘Mother Country’, and going where the action was probably going to be was too much for the young aviators. Quite quickly, in terms of the book, Bob is airborne with the RAF in September 1937. He was flying Fairey Battles with 226 Squadron by early December.

 

This meant, when things kicked off in September 1939, he was in France. Like other RAF bomber units during the Phoney War, flying was mostly limited to patrols and leaflet dropping with a good amount performed at night, a most valuable skill in the months to come. Familiarity with France proved of little value when the Phoney War period ended as every bomber unit opposing the Luftwaffe discovered. The Battles suffered miserably and the sense of foreboding, if you have just an inkling of how these units were decimated, is strong. Bob’s luck held, however, despite some close shaves. There is a sense he knew his time would come in France, sooner or later, as it had for many of his friends (including great mate Les Clisby), so he went through the motions with an air of inevitability. 

 

He was eventually back in England, however, surrounded by the remnants of the Battle force, flying patrols over Northern Ireland, and volunteering for Fighter Command. He joined 145 Squadron in Scotland in the second half of August, flying Hurricanes, and was soon headed south following the unit’s brief rest period. Bob was soon in the thick of it, leading as a flight commander from Tangmere and regularly flying with the Belgian Jean Offenberg (whose biography is heavily referenced). He was shot down and ditched in early November, but continued serving with the squadron into early 1941 as the unit converted to Spitfires and went on the offensive. 

 

It was June 1941 when Bob assumed command of 452 Squadron, a new, untried Spitfire unit and one of Australia’s Article XV contributions to the war in Europe. It was a natural progression for Bungey who had proven his leadership ability and grasp of the tactical picture with 145 Squadron in late 1940. Despite his apparent forward thinking when it came to managing his forces in a combat arena, he was a stickler for the rules and the young, mostly inexperienced fighter pilots under his care were soon chomping at the bit as he detailed, and led, a seemingly endless period of training. This discipline, combined with the tactical flexibility and leadership, usually at the expense of Bob’s success in combat, led to the squadron claiming an exceptionally high number of kills in the following months and men like Truscott, Thorold-Smith, Chisholm and Finucane regularly made headlines. They were keen and gung-ho, perhaps too much so when making claims in some respects, a subject only lightly touched on in the narrative by reference to statements made by other units at the time and not subsequent research, but, as their public reputations grew, they maintained a reverence for their leader. His care for them, and pride in their achievements, is evident in a series of post-op photos, several included in the book, taken as the men gather around their aircraft.

 

Bob left 452 Squadron before it was sent to Australia. He was at Hawkinge in charge of the air-sea rescue units there by February 1942. This led to his involvement in the organisation of that aspect for Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe landings, and the dry runs and false starts before that. He kept flying, sometimes in ASR Defiants. An interesting leave period followed in Ireland, but this remains a little mysterious and much is read into part of Bob’s luggage containing an excessive number of ‘cartridges’. He finally arrived back in Australia in early May 1943.

 

Bob was a married man throughout much of his time in the UK. His successes made headlines in Australia, particularly in his native South Australia, and his marriage to Sybil, while done on the quiet, eventually followed suit. So too did the birth of their son in March 1942 soon after Sybil arrived in Adelaide, having sailed there to escape the war and be with Bob’s family.

 

The Bungeys were to be reunited for all too brief a time following Bob’s return to Australia. While the media went to great lengths to cover his return, the official welcome by the RAAF was disappointing and his rank, seniority and vast experience were given short shrift. Sybil soon fell ill, exacerbating the weariness and burden Bob was carrying, despite being at home with his beloved. Not long after, and decades before the phrase entered the literary lexicon, their son, Richard, became ‘the boy who lived’.

 

There is a quality feel to this book from the outset. The forepapers are nicely, personally illustrated. That depth of feeling continues even though Bob’s childhood and training are lucky to consume half of the first thirty pages. His two years with the RAF before war was declared, mostly flying Battles with 226 Squadron, consume even less paper before the narrative dives headlong into the deployment to France. Here the author really sinks his teeth in with extensive coverage of the Phoney War period and the subsequent Blitzkrieg. There is more here than needed, but what it does is set the scene and Bungey’s place in it. The years of peacetime flying are a distant memory for Bob and his crew, despite being quality time in which to hone one’s skills, and, like their colleagues in other units, they effectively lurched from one setback to the next. Much of this comprehensive account of this harrowing time, stretching over seventy pages, includes Battle operations as a whole (with a bit of Clisby’s successes in Hurricanes before his loss). This clarifies what Bob was up against when details of his own sorties are light on. Reading about the Battle squadrons in France feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Their sacrifices are well known, and they have certainly been written about, and the aircraft’s inadequacy is stuff of legend, but how often does it pop up in a biography or memoir, especially one that runs through the Battle of Britain?

 

On that point, the late, great Dennis Newton, principal author, avoids getting bogged down in the subsequent summer. He’s written about it in detail before (A Few of the Few, First Impact, Spitfire Ace and A Spitfire Pilot’s Story to name several) so could easily have gone to town, losing Bob in the process. Happily, partly because Bob misses at least half of this period, he does not and maintains the focus on Bungey’s flying and experiences. Some of this is supported, as mentioned above, by Jean Offenberg’s biography, complete with slightly implausible passages of dialogue. Importantly, this, like the candid comments from later 452 Squadron colleagues, adds weight to the authors’ growing profile of Bob. Still waters run deep.

 

While there is no direct evidence of the mental burden Bob carried, so many hid it well, there are some hints as his command of 452 Squadron progresses. The most obvious is the desire to get his wife as far away from danger as possible. A good idea, but then he had to suffer through the time she took to make the voyage. Even following his return to Australia, the pain of personal loss continues or, at least, the sense of detachment used as a coping mechanism is gone. This feels more prevalent than other books like this because, knowing Bungey’s fate, it is highlighted by the authors as a root cause.

 

The omission of Anthony Cooper’s recent Paddy Finucane and the Legend of the Kenley Wing from the otherwise good bibliography (supported by six pages of notes and a decent index) is interesting as that work analyses the claims of 452 Squadron in a measured, non-parochial manner. There is a suggestion Bob was aware (being one of the senior leaders of the Kenley Wing, how could he not be?) some of his pilots were claiming everything they shot at, but his job was to get them there in the first place and to maintain a tactical advantage, an area the Germans usually had the upper hand in by being able to dictate their contact. They were hurting the Luftwaffe to an extent, but at a cost he was unable to control. Perhaps he celebrated and encouraged the apparent successes to maintain morale within himself and the squadron. He bore the brunt so his men could do their jobs. That’s a leader.

 

As good a narrative as this is, and it is a quality read even when Bob features fleetingly, extra or missing words are encountered (or not!) consistently throughout. It’s as if sentences were slightly rearranged here and there, but the work not completed. Add inconsistent or incorrect spelling of specific terms and there is a general feeling the proofreading is below par. This does not, as per usual, take away from the whole experience, or the understanding of Bob’s wartime flying, but, considering the effort made to recreate the world he flew in, little things like this really stand out. What else got through?

 

Spitfire Leader is a 320-page hardback and is illustrated by a traditional glossy photo section. A quarter of the photos are modern colour images detailing Richard Bungey’s journey to discover his father’s wartime career, a nice little vignette to close out the story, but the period photos are relatively familiar and include the standard range of squadron life, family and aircrew colleagues and friends. 

 

If you know the story of Bob Bungey, you will read this differently to someone who doesn’t, although there are hints as the book progresses, including two revealing photos. It doesn’t matter anyway as the quality and breadth of Spitfire Leader is such it creates a hopeless wish for an outcome you know is impossible. That’s a sign a biography has achieved its purpose – to care for, and implicitly understand, the subject. Bob Bungey deserves nothing less.

 

ISBN 978-1-4456-8435-2

Friday, July 03, 2020

RAAF Black Cats - Robert Cleworth and John Suter Linton


Since we've moved to the other side of the country (I know, yet another excuse for the lack of content) in the past few months, I've managed to get some reading done, but life has been dominated by boxes, butcher's paper and looks of incredulity as we discover things we're still carting around with us despite not having needed them for years. Anyway, this review is one I've been sitting on for a while, but was graciously supplied before Christmas 2019 by Peter Ingman, the principal of South Australia's Avonmore Books. I wrote a short review for this for one of the final issues of Flightpath magazine, but can't do much more as I was involved in the publication process. Well, all the hard work had been done by the authors and publisher. I just came in, as requested, at one of the final steps to perform a technical edit. My job was to try to ensure historic and geographic detail was correct, aviation and military terminology and descriptions were on point, highlight surviving typos etc and basically make notes on anything I found 'screwy' (you know the stuff, names and serial numbers changing etc). Not all of my notes, per the review below, were acted on, but the majority were. In doing the technical edit, and therefore having the privilege to read the manuscript before it was published, I discovered some amazing characters and furthered my knowledge on what, among Australian wartime aviation types, is actually quite a well known aspect of RAAF Catalina ops. Andy Wright

RAAF Black Cats tells the story of the fascinating long-range mining sorties carried out by four squadrons of Catalina flying boats (Nos. 11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadrons). Particularly, for the 1944-45 period, these ops were flown deep into enemy territory as far afield as the Philippines and the Chinese coast. With other RAAF squadrons stuck doing morale-sapping ‘mopping up’ in the NEI and New Guinea, the far-reaching work of the Catalinas holds a special place in wartime RAAF history.

The story is based on two decades of research by Bob Cleworth, whose brother was lost when A24-203 disappeared during a mining sortie in the Taiwan Strait in March 1945. Cleworth credits the redoubtable David Vincent (author of Catalina Chronicles, 1978) for introductions to relevant veterans, mainly aircrew, but also key players who set up the initial infrastructure for aerial mines in Australia in 1942-43. It is excerpts from these interviews that are the real strength of the book. The second author, John Linton, is a journalist with plenty of writing experience and, as a result, the book is well written and easy to read.

That said, there are some major weaknesses which will frustrate readers familiar with RAAF history and W.W.II aviation. In between some excellent insights into the mining ops, the authors indulge themselves with strategic discussions of the war in general which offers nothing not already well known and little directly relevant to the main topic. There are mistakes too, such as a repeated reference to MacArthur not allowing squadrons of TBF Avengers to be used for mining operations in early 1943. As MacArthur’s SWPA command never had Avengers, it is difficult to understand how this idea has come about.     

While the crews flying these ops were brave and highly skilled, the authors fall into the trap of lauding the results as having a crippling effect on Japanese shipping and hence a significant impact on the war in general. This is done without questioning the efficiency of the mining itself which was carried out at night and often on unfamiliar targets with very poor charts. As is well-known from the early Bomber Command experience in Europe, the results of night operations were often highly questionable despite the best efforts of the crews.   

The RAAF Catalinas flew 1210 minelaying sorties during the war and laid 2512 mines. This effort is put into perspective by the 12,000 mines dropped by B-29s alone in Japanese waters in the last months of the war. Unfortunately, no other comparisons are provided for mining by other aircraft, including those flying from the Chinese and India/Burma theatres; nor by carrier-based aviation. Neither is there any discussion of the quantity and scope of mines laid by submarines. This makes any analysis of the RAAF effort problematic to say the least.  

Rather, the authors rely on reports written by the RAAF immediately after the war as well as American studies such as those produced by JANAC. While useful, none of these types of documents are the current gold standard for Pacific War researchers. Instead, an analysis of Japanese sources and Japanese ship losses would be most interesting. Unfortunately, Japanese sources are dismissed as “sparse”. Indeed, just one is briefly consulted, that being a post-war interview with a rear admiral who admitted that by February 1945 only wooden vessels were being used in the NEI and the Philippines and that was forced by both the mining and submarine threat. 

Overall RAAF Black Cats is valuable for some excellent insights into Catalina mining operations, but readers well-versed in W.W.II history will be frustrated by the poor overall analytical framework.

ISBN 978-1-76063-306-6

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Race of Aces - John R. Bruning


As I sit down to write this review, having flicked through the book to refresh my memory of the photos among other things, I am overcome by a slight sense of dread. As usual, it has been some months since I read Race of Aces. Indeed, it was late 2019 and I have been intending to write a review since then, initially to coincide with the book’s launch. Best laid plans and all that. The sense of dread comes from remembering how much is in John Bruning’s latest treatise on the Pacific air war and, to be honest, I don’t think a review begun as soon as I finished the final page would have been any easier. The ‘warm fuzzies’ are returning though. Why? It’s because this book, about the ‘race’ to become the top American ace, has few, if any, equals.

Besides the men featured in this 520-plus page book, one of the heroes of the tale is the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Perhaps more than any other Allied aircraft in the South Pacific, the Lightning is the fighter. Its success here overshadows its escort work in Europe and that’s mostly because it is always associated with the USAAF’s top ace, the man who won the race, Richard Bong. Add Tom Lynch, Gerald Johnson, Charles MacDonald and Tommy McGuire, not to mention a good number of other quality fliers, and the Lightning just about deserves the pedestal it has ascended to in modern times. Yet, it had serious issues early on, killing many a new, and some not quite so new, pilot as they worked up in California in 1942. Its complexities proved challenging in theatre too, not helped by a supply line stretching across the Pacific to Australia. That the pilots achieved what they did, upon finding their feet in New Guinea, speaks of the ingenuity, skill and determination that was common across Allied units during the dark days of late 1942.

The one outlier in the race was Neel Kearby, the hard-charging, redoubtable, freelancing P-47 Thunderbolt pilot determined to show the Lightning boys up. Sadly, like two of his colleagues above, he was killed breaking one of the golden rules of aerial combat, rules these men lived by and were the greatest proponents of. In the case of McGuire, the apparently prickly, aggressive and opinionated pilot who came closest to Bong’s score, the rules were broken to save a colleague. That’s the thing, they were just men. They were not invincible and were far from perfect as both aviators and individuals. Every single one of them, at least once, struggled home in a damaged aircraft, sometimes wounded. They were human, they had flaws. They made mistakes, but, for the most part, they had the skill to get away with it. Heroic men, yes, and they were clearly feted as such, but there is no gushing hero worship here. It’s not needed.

The origins of the race came from the challenge, created by General George Kenney, and inspired by the Great War ace Eddie Rickenbacker, to beat the latter’s tally of 26 victories. The Americans, with the Australians, had a foothold in New Guinea, but the Japanese aerial forces, stretched as they proved to be, were mostly free to raid Allied airfields with relative impunity, American and Australian fighters struggling to meet them on even terms, let alone remain in serviceable condition to do so. The idea of the race was what Kenney needed to inject some motivation, some esprit de corps, into his men. It helped highlight the struggles they faced to the people stateside too. The South Pacific conjured up idyllic images – palm trees, sandy beaches and the like – but the reality, while including those, featured mud, heat, humidity, malaria and rotting clothes as a part of everyday life. It was draining, on men and equipment, and made no easier by a logistical nightmare and supply lines still reeling from the retreat from the Philippines and Java.

This is the world into which the reader is placed immediately from the first page. It’s a taste of what’s to come, while the next few chapters concentrate on setting the scene in the US, as young men, soon to be giants, find their feet in the Army and in life. Ultimately, this world, that the author recreates beautifully, is one stretching from hometown America right across the Pacific to Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines (if New Guinea was hell, what on earth was fetid, putrid Tacloban?). It is a world both familiar and unimaginable. The exquisite snapshot of 1942 San Francisco, a particular literary highlight, is of a modern, vibrant and fashionable city (a stark contrast to the Port Moresby area some of the Lightning men found themselves in six months later), and is but a fond memory several hundred pages later when the author casts his eye over the same city after two years of war.

Those years of war, and beyond, in which we follow the fighter units and the grinding Allied advance, see supply issues slowly improve, living conditions slowly improve, and fighter pilots rise and fall. Journalists, ably assisted by Kenney and his staff, scramble to report on the latest victories, introducing men to the American public who quickly became household names, so much so that even events in their private lives become front page news. The reader, too, is equally invested because, as hinted above, their heroics are but the tip of the iceberg. Having followed the author's travelogue on social media as he visited archives across the country, it was clear, even then, he was going far deeper than just recording the combat careers of America’s greatest fighter pilots, far deeper than anyone before. While these men have been a decades’ long fascination for John Bruning (a partial outlet being his early 2000s Jungle Ace biography of Gerald Johnson), there was still much to discover, to learn, in order to bring these flyers back to life. This shows early on with a stunningly candid look at McGuire’s time in Alaska. You know who he is, what he will do, but he is hard to like. Similarly, Bong’s struggle to move on from losing wingmen, resulting in the quiet country boy withdrawing further into himself to the point he is completely misunderstood by many of his squadron-mates, is as painful and heart-wrenching as his love for Marge is joyous to behold. We can’t ever truly know these men now, but, such is the power of this book, you feel like you do.

The women, and families to a lesser extent, in the lives of the pilots figure strongly and it is pleasing to see three of them feature in the glossy photo section (that, I suspect, is probably about 10% of what was available). Indeed, the very last image used, when read with its caption, is once again moving. Too many widows.

The race, while initially a morale booster, became so much more. It pushed pilots to improve their skills, to fly extra missions and, with an eye on the score, to take risks beyond their normal operational duty into the realm of individual glory. Rickenbacker’s score was ultimately irrelevant and the race, somewhat fuelled by the interest from home, for some men at least, consumed them. These American airmen were not the only game in town, however. The Royal Australian Air Force, while not in the race per se, was competition when it came to finding enemy aircraft to destroy. There is a brief tip of the hat to them in that respect, but no mention of their involvement in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The focus, for that particular event, is on the American fighter contribution, so that’s understandable and also brings us to the elephant in the room – the Japanese. Extensive access to Japanese records in recent years has revealed the true extent of their losses, proving both sides habitually overclaimed their aerial victories. While it is very likely a study of Japanese records would reveal, and perhaps has, a discrepancy in losses inflicted by the leaders of the race, such details are irrelevant to the race itself. The race was to be the first to 26 kills. Were the Americans checking the Japanese records to verify such things? Of course not! Claims were made in good faith, with eyewitness proof where possible. It is the effect of the race on these men, and their effect on morale in their units and stateside, that is the story here.

It is a story told in such a way that a stream of superlatives barely wouldn’t come close to expressing its qualities. I’ve tried to get that point across above without detailing a calendar of events and a blow-by-blow account as players appear on, and then exit, the main stage. To do so would mean an even longer review and, let’s face it, these things are long enough. There is so much in Race of Aces and all of it is good. No, exceptional. The narrative is beautifully crafted and was clearly considerably longer (oh, to get to grips with that!). You’d expect relative flat spots in such a long, detailed book, but there are none and that makes it an absolute tragedy when it has to be put down to get on with real life. I would not be surprised if some readers devoured this in one sitting. A masterful work, one of the greatest, befitting the remarkable men, and women, living between its covers.

ISBN 978-0-316-50862-9

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Spy in the Sky - Kenneth B. Johnson


As I’ve often lamented on here, and ABR’s Facebook group, a new memoir is quite special these days. It’s got to the stage that it really would be worth re-visiting, en masse, older memoirs to breathe new life into them (see Carrier Pilot, for example). With A Spy in the Sky we have a new memoir and, especially, it’s by a former photographic reconnaissance pilot. Certainly not something you see every day and, dare I say it, maybe the last one we will see. That perhaps makes it more valuable than if it was published, say, a decade ago. It also means more care and attention needs to be paid to putting the whole thing together. 

The author enlisted in early 1941. Straight off the bat, he gets the point across he is from an average background and expecting to see out the war sweeping hangars. He is surprised, therefore, to enter the aircrew training pipeline. In turn, he decides he can’t possibly be trained as a pilot, but is perplexed, yet grateful, when that’s what happens. Despite his constant amazement and apparent belief he is not capable of much more than manning a broom, he proves quite the aviator, extricating himself from tricky situations in the air many new pilots find themselves in and applying his growing knowledge and intuition to overcome obstacles, such as poor depth perception affecting his landings. Naturally, there is no mention of being ‘a good pilot’, but the detailed explanations of various exercises and, well, adventures in the air, leave the reader with a clear opinion.

Moving from Tiger Moths, to Miles Masters, and then to the Hurricane, the path he's on is clear. Despite being mystified about attending a general reconnaissance course (a brief, rare account of flying Blackburn Bothas), those familiar with the way these things go can see his path to a PRU, or perhaps even an Army Co-op unit. Operational Training Unit soon beckons and throws up more challenges, among them the vagaries of Scottish weather, the author handles with his usual aplomb and logic. Naturally, he ends up at RAF Benson, PRU central, and begins flying ops over France and Belgium. Several fighter interceptions aside, luck remains on his side and his growing operational experience soon extends to Germany.

Despite not putting his hand up to serve overseas, feeling he had been trained for the operational conditions specific to north-west Europe, again not seeing himself as anything more than run-of the-mill (a run-of-the-mill PRU pilot, no less!), Kenneth is recalled from leave to test two Spitfires. They’re both Mk.XIs, an aircraft the author amusingly refers to as taxiing like they’re down in the mouth (if you’re familiar with the nose profile of the Mk.XI, you’ll chuckle too!), and both are destined for Africa. As a result, so is Kenneth. Still being a non-commissioned officer, but having completed his application for a commission, contributes to his general feeling of being of less value to the RAF as a whole, hence, apparently, why he is being sent out of the way. While that doesn’t make sense when applied to the flying officer in the other Spitfire, this belief rears its head en route to Gibraltar when said officer doesn’t appear to heed Kenneth’s advice, several times, until it’s almost too late. The end result was two Spitfires at Gib’, but only one fully serviceable. That Spitfire disappears the next morning, with the flying officer at the controls, and Kenneth hitches a lift to Maison Blanche, Algiers. He joins 682 Squadron under the umbrella of the Americans and the North West Africa Photographic Reconnaissance Wing. Here he discovers a different world. The Americans are more relaxed, but so are his fellow RAF types, and it is all very refreshing. The aircraft, however, have had harder lives and his first op, while completed easily, proves worthless due to camera failure. The communal mess, that common equaliser pioneered by the Desert Air Force, appeals to Kenneth and his desire to feel worthy. His commission eventually catches up to him, but the conditions and operational activity combine to wear the nineteen-year-old down to the point where he is actually quite ill, including passing out at the controls at one stage, while still flying ops. The gremlins never really leave either with some decidedly ropey aircraft doing their best to do him in. Each time, however, the clearly talented aviator, evades the odds against him and always makes it home (or at least back to a safe landing).

Life in North Africa continues, but is interrupted by a brief return to the UK to defend against accusations caused by an administrative error with his pay and bak account. Kenneth returns to Africa, but is soon sent home and spends until late 1944 instructing at an OTU and flying with 519 Squadron (a meteorological unit flying Lockheed twins at the time). He continued flying post-war, Catalinas in Canada on geophysical work, and developed a successful career in the aerospace industry (it would have been great to get several chapters covering this part of his life). So much for not measuring up!

This is a funny little book. The author breaks ‘the fourth wall’ a number of times, by asking the reader a question, and the narrative occasionally feels as though it’s directed towards a younger readership. It is, however, an enjoyable ramble through his wartime career. ‘Ramble’ is key here as, although his service is largely presented chronologically, there is little reference to the passage of time. Indeed, after the date of enlistment is mentioned, on the first page of the first chapter, I didn’t make note of another date until page 142. Excluding the first two ops from Benson, all of the photo sorties were carried out in 1943. Based on various events mentioned, indeed even the targets being photographed, a reader 'in the know' could hazard a decent guess at a rough timeline. A very helpful prologue (weirdly placed at the end) and appendix detail the sorties flown and service timeline respectively (the only mention of 519 Squadron is in the latter) and, if they're not read with the narrative, suddenly put everything into context and in fact reveal Kenneth was in North Africa for ‘only’ four months. It certainly feels longer.

Just like the book, Kenneth is a quite the funny character. As mentioned, he is quite the flyer. He is confident, accomplished even, in flight, but doubts himself everywhere else, and does so ad nauseum. It gets to the stage when you expect him to mention, yet again (and does), that he only joined the RAF to escape the shooting war as he expected to spend it sweeping out hangars. While certainly not a unique appreciation of one’s abilities, but eminently endearing to the point the reader revels in his obvious skill in the air (and occasional ‘wins’ on the ground), there's a recurring feeling of ‘Okay, I get it, you’re self-doubt is bottomless, but you just landed a Spitfire, without brakes, at night.’ Perhaps this is what helped him survive. There was never an inkling of over-confidence, never an attitude of superiority, but a definite trust in the training he received (despite regular doubts as to the logic employed by the RAF). However, this is where the narrative should have been tightened. Repetition appears within long, rambling sentences as well and another technical edit would have picked up basic things like ‘UFO shows’ (USO), confusion over Miles Master configurations and marks, and certainly improved consistency. This refining of the narrative would not have lost Kenneth’s voice, but it would have removed the reader's twinge of frustration that mostly lingers before the posting to North Africa. 

A typically attractive hardback from Pen & Sword, albeit not a huge one as the final entries of a good index appear on page 158, the requisite glossy photo section is a bit of a let-down. These fifteen photos are referred to as the narrative progresses, hence their titles ‘Plate 1’, ‘Plate 2’ etc, and the four images featuring personnel, and two of Kenneth’s PR targets, are of a good standard and interest. The aircraft photos, though, leave a lot to be desired. Three are modern images, and clearly low resolution, while another two have been colourised, almost comically so. Recent titles from Pen & Sword, although this is from their imprint Air World, have been exceptionally well-illustrated and, significantly, have done away with the glossy photo section to embed images within the narrative. All of the photos used, because they are referred to in the text, would have greatly enhanced the read if they were embedded.

At the end of it all, what this book does best of all is define Kenneth’s character and, to an extent, highlight the attitude of thousands of aircrew at the time. They knew they were a small cog in a behemoth of a machine and there was nothing they could do about it. They all accepted their fate and the vast majority, like Kenneth, were just happy to survive. So many didn’t. The ‘one man in the great scheme of things’ has perhaps never been more strongly, repeatedly, enforced as it is in A Spy in the Sky. That in turn reflects the work of the photographic reconnaissance pilot: alone in an unfriendly sky. While it will remain a funny little book, it will always be the memoir of an unassuming, self-doubting aviator who, despite himself, proved to be pretty bloody good.

ISBN 978-1-52676-156-9