Tuesday, May 09, 2017

44 Days - Michael Veitch


I watched one of those ‘vox pop’ style videos on Facebook earlier today where some young interviewer asks people on the street, in this case what looked like Times Square in New York City, several related questions. The theme was what these people knew about the Second World War. While the sample size in the video was appallingly small, about six people, the results were quite disturbing. In short, they had no clue. Granted, all appeared to be in their twenties, and there was the obligatory older chap who just shook his head with dismay at the results, but it would appear they all spend their time with their heads stuck in the sand. I cannot fathom walking this earth and not acquiring any knowledge about the war. It defies belief. When Michael Veitch’s new book about 75 Squadron RAAF’s defence of Port Moresby in mid-1942 was touted as a story “largely left untold”, I thought that was just a marketing ploy. To some extent it is, as this period has been covered as part of books looking at the New Guinea campaign as a whole. However, here I was, wartime aviation nut that I am, thinking that surely it was such a well known part of the campaign that many would at least have heard of it. I can still remember the excellent documentary, also titled 44 Days, from the early 1990s and had just assumed that knowledge of the defence had grown from there. Everyone has heard about the Kokoda Track and Port Moresby is at its southern end after all. How wrong I was. However, all is not lost, as this book has been widely available since its release and is about to go into its second printing.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, despite all manner of rumblings and the massive expansion of the RAF, the Royal Australian Air Force was woefully, embarrassingly, dangerously ill-prepared. Two years later, with many eligible young men being trained to fly for service in the northern hemisphere, things were not much better. Moves had been made to acquire modern aircraft – Hudsons, Catalinas and the like – but Japan’s entry into the war still found the RAAF as a feeder force for the war against Germany. The bombing of Darwin in February 1942 was largely unopposed with the only thing approaching an airborne defence being USAAF Warhawks in transit for their nightmare in Java. For the previous two decades, Australian men and women, the former having vast experience flying in the Great War, had crisscrossed the world setting records, breaking others and generally leading the way for a nation that had wholeheartedly embraced aviation. That the RAAF was so poorly prepared for war on its doorstep speaks volumes for the apron strings still tied to Mother England and a myriad of other apparent ‘security blankets’ that this is not the place to discuss (and has already been covered elsewhere in a manner that I could only dream of).

What the RAAF did have, however, by virtue of it feeding fine aircrew to the war against Germany, was some very experienced operational leaders. Importantly, they had current experience and were quick to learn. Some soon found themselves on their way home, not so much for a rest, but to throw themselves at the Japanese juggernaut.

Of the pilots who came together to form 75 Squadron, only four could be regarded as being experienced in combat. Joining them were pilots whose experience ranged from short periods serving on active squadrons to being fresh out of training. They were expected to get to grips with their new Kittyhawks and then fly them to Moresby where they would almost immediately go up against Japanese flyers who, as the Australians trained in Queensland, flew unhindered over Moresby and its surrounds, taking their time to select targets during the two or three daily raids on the town.

The first four Kittyhawks arrived at 7-Mile on 21 March and all were damaged by gunfire from twitchy soldiers who had been promised the arrival of the ‘Neverhawks’ for months. Shortly after being repaired, two of the fighters intercepted and shot down a ‘Sally’ much to the joy of the weary defenders on the ground. The next day, the squadron mounted a strafing attack on the Japanese aircraft lined up at Lae on the other side of the Owen Stanley ranges. The attack officially announced the arrival of the Australians to the Japanese and there was now to be no let up. The Kittyhawk pilots rarely had time to climb to the height of the bombers as they sailed over Moresby and, of course, there was no point dogfighting the ‘Zeroes’. Accidents, regular strafing attacks and air combat losses always had 75 Squadron on the back foot, but like much of the Allied effort at the time, there was no giving up. The most important thing was that they were there. There was resistance and the Japanese had to pay attention.

As the number of Kittyhawks was whittled down, the Americans arrived and the Australians were soon escorting A-24 dive-bombers. While the Americans suffered heavily as well, it was the beginning of a build-up that would see the airfields around Moresby house an impressive striking force and something the Japanese, ever more stretched as the war progressed, failed to counter effectively with what became sporadic attacks with little follow up to keep the pressure on.

The Australians made numerous claims, the Japanese even more so, and these scores have always added to the ‘legendary defence of Port Moresby’. Subsequent research has revealed that few of the claims could be equated to destroyed Japanese aircraft. Again, though, these young men, who lost their superb leader after a month of hectic operations, made a stand and held the line to allow time for further Allied air assets to arrive. Several were killed. Others were shot down and made it back to the squadron shortly thereafter or, in the case of Wilbur Wackett, after a month in the jungle. When the squadron finally left to return to Australia, immediately following a strafing attack by ‘Zeroes’, just one Kittyhawk made the flight.

In his typical style, the author has written a very readable narrative that focuses on the men of the squadron as opposed to the tactical side of the campaign. That framework is there, of course, but it is the first hand accounts that fill in the holes. In the summary above, I have deliberately only mentioned one name as to list the likes of Peter Turnbull, John Jackson and Peter Jeffrey is to skirt danger by going off and writing about what incredible flyers and leaders they were. They are, after all, some of the great names of the RAAF’s operational leadership and they feature heavily. They were, however, being experienced and able to relate to each other on those terms, part of a clique that developed in the squadron that led to some of the junior pilots feeling like they weren’t part of the family. This was further driven home when Les Jackson took command as, for the first twenty chapters, there is regular mention of his peculiar nature and apparent inability to relate to his charges despite being quite inexperienced himself. There is little explanation of his quirks until almost the end of the book when a chapter, perfectly titled ‘Erratic Leadership’, is devoted to examining the younger Jackson’s time in command.

One theme throughout the book is that the squadron was let down at every turn and by every level above. Terrible living conditions, bad food, the clique, and little recognition for their work, just had to be overcome. Senior leadership back in Australia had little idea and were in quite a flap as they scrambled to catch up. That didn’t stop them from criticising the good work the squadron managed to achieve in these conditions, however, and that criticism led to something that should never have happened. 

Despite the heavy, morbid content that comes with fighting a losing battle, the narrative almost skips along at times. Cleverly, and rightly so, the most poignant comments come from those who were there and the author moulds the story around these accounts. Losses are not dwelled upon too much which reflects the coping mechanism of the hard working combat flyer, but also hints at the lack of squadron cohesiveness at times. Everything was just so rushed and underdone. A shining light among the excellent personal accounts is the squadron doctor, Deane-Butcher. Both his memoirs and the results of an interview with the author are a common thread throughout the narrative and, in his roles as confidant and the maintenance of squadron health, the good doctor is a strong foundation.

What is really pleasing about 44 Days, as hinted above, is that it achieved widespread distribution beyond where many aircrew books can sometimes be found. Importantly, it is an informative, well-written account of 75 Squadron’s first tour in New Guinea. Some technical errors and typos did manage to creep in, but these are being addressed in time for the second printing. Again, the fact that there is a second printing is important. It means the story is getting out there and, as I write this on the 75th anniversary of the squadron’s departure from Moresby, that is wonderful news. Had this been a ‘scholarly’ book, eminently heavier to read, there is little doubt it would not have sold much beyond the wartime aviation history market. Instead we have a flowing, but detailed, narrative that doesn’t get bogged down and keeps its sights firmly on squadron life (admittedly at the expense of a thorough examination of the Japanese side of things and making the brave decision to reference an event from a Martin Caidin book). While it won’t be classed as the ultimate reference work on this period, it is the first book in a very long time to devote itself entirely to this vital period in an esteemed unit’s history. That alone is great, but 44 Days offers so much more.

ISBN 978-0-7336-3363-8


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bomber Boys - Marianne Van Velzen


It’s always exciting when a new title is published on a subject that rarely appears in book form. I immediately think of Steve Bond and Richard Forder’s Special Ops Liberators and Graeme Gibson’s Path of Duty (and give a deserving nod to Craig Collie’s new Code Breakers) as relatively recent examples. Such was the case with this new book about the Dutch airmen who served in the RAAF’s No. 18 Squadron. To my knowledge, it has not been since Gordon Wallace wrote his two volumes in the 1980s, about his time with this unit, that 18 Squadron has appeared in a book dedicated to its memory. About the only title that might come close would be Doug Hurst’s The Fourth Ally. For students of the RAAF’s war, the sight of B-25 Mitchells in RAAF or Dutch colours is always a treat and more common than first thought. The great anticipation that came with the announcement and subsequent arrival of this book was found wanting, however.

Two twin brothers, both pilots in Java, narrowly escape the clutches of the rapidly advancing Japanese as they sweep all before them. While one brother manages to get away relatively cleanly, the other is momentarily detained, but escapes and makes his way to an airfield after meeting an Australian dispatch rider. The two of them repair a sabotaged Lockheed transport and make it to Australia where they come down on a Northern Territory cattle station. Both men are eventually posted to the nascent No. 18 (Netherlands East Indies) Squadron, and the twins reunited, which has been formed at the request of the Dutch authorities to make use of the stranded airmen. Great pilots like the legendary Gus Winckel and Guus Hagers are part of the scene as the unit gets to grips with its Mitchells and finally sees some action with anti-submarine patrols along Australia’s eastern coast.

In late 1942, the squadron moved to MacDonald in the Northern Territory. A poorly equipped airfield, it was nevertheless home to the squadron for six months before the move to Batchelor. From MacDonald, the first raids on East Timor and surrounds, including numerous anti-shipping ops, were flown. Losses were steady, but exacerbated by the lack of replacement crews, thus leaving the veterans to soldier on. A large contingent of Dutch had been sent to the United States for training as their compatriots stayed behind to form 18 Squadron. Relief, in the form of these new crews, did not arrive for almost a year after the move to the Top End. The original crews were then rested properly and, in the case of the twins, whom the narrative revolves around, one (the dashing one who is followed more closely) flies transports around Australia while the other, the more steady type, is tasked with setting up a Dutch fighter squadron.

The latter stages of the war saw the squadron heavily involved over some of its personnel’s former home and providing moral and physical support to the many prison camps in the region.

It’s a great story, exceedingly well told, of a group of airmen who, like the many ‘homeless’ European aircrew, refused to give up the fight. The nicely flowing narrative, built around the twins with a good supporting cast of Dutch and Australians alike, makes this an easy read. It is, however, eminently frustrating. You see, the twins are fictional characters created by the author after three interviewed veterans did not want their names used in the book. This is mentioned in the introduction and is nothing short of flabbergasting. Indeed, my first written note was “Fictional characters?! Why?!” What’s wrong with simply changing some names? If the actions of the twins, and I say ‘if’ because who knows what is true and what is not, are based on what some real chaps did, then surely those actions could be attributed to those real people if the reader did some digging. Changing the names would achieve exactly the same, but have a more authentic ring to it. By creating fictional characters, everything, from those they associate with, everything they do, to their entire story arc, is called into question. While the brothers were created out of the utmost respect, the reader is left wondering just what actually happened and what is fictional.

For a squadron that flew more than 900 sorties during the war, there is precious little of their action recounted here. What is included reveals an almost complete lack of aviation and combat flying knowledge on behalf of the author and subsequent editors which is quite surprising given the aviation history pedigree of the publisher. It borders on cringeworthy and is certainly not limited to the operational flying details. It is misleading for those who don’t know and embarrassing for those who do. It’s been a long time since I’ve written three A4 pages of notes for a book and the list of relatively basic aviation and general wartime terminology and chronology errors took up most of those pages. More effort was seemingly put into describing the dashing twin’s love life, the physical attributes of his lovers, and his reactions to them.

The most authentic part of this book is a very good photo section that features many of the real people who gave their all in the service of this squadron. Lack of aviation knowledge aside, Bomber Boys reads like a novel, albeit very well, but cannot really be called the story of 18 Squadron. After all, it would be lucky to mention ten percent of the aircrew involved and only concentrates on four or five main characters, two of which didn’t exist. The men arriving from the United States are given exceptionally short shrift yet they faced the same dangers and challenges and were as much a part of the squadron as the old hands. The reader is left with not really knowing what to believe. An existing knowledge of the unit does help, but this typically attractive Allen & Unwin paperback will most likely be seen and bought by those who want to learn just what the Dutch did. The opportunity to learn, however, is barely realised by this book. With luck, it will serve as a signpost that will lead readers deeper into the air war in this region, but the men, Dutch and Australian, of this bomber squadron deserve far better.

ISBN 978-1-76029-647-6

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Ruddy Awful Waste - Steve Brew with Mike Bradbury


I think, maybe, it has begun. Imperceptibly, the flow of new Second World War aircrew memoirs and biographies is slowing down. For the former, of course, this is a given as time marches on and the veterans are taken from us one by one. We will have to rely on discoveries of unpublished manuscripts to increase the numbers there. New biographies will take longer to fade, but they will as those who are interested in the era, and have the skill and dedication to write about it, move on. The famous flyers - the Baders and Gibsons of the world – will no doubt continue to sell books. They’re a good thing as they are the poster boys that can attract a new enthusiast, a pending historian, and draw them into a world where ordinary men lived lives that no fiction writer could ever imagine. There is one chap who is talked about with reverence, seemingly more so than the others at times, yet he remains somewhat of an enigma. What is it about Eric Lock DSO, DFC and Bar, and why on earth has he not been written about as much as all the rest?

Eric grew up in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and proved a good student and sportsman once he was settled. He worked at the family quarry and adjacent farm. As the second youngest of five children, Eric was barely a teenager when the last of his elder siblings married. His hard working parents, with established businesses, provided Eric and his younger sister with a sound education. At fourteen years of age, Eric had his first flight with Alan Cobham’s barnstorming operation. He didn’t look back.

Eric joined the RAFVR and began part-time service in early 1939 as part of the RAF’s rapid build-up for what was quickly becoming inevitable. He soloed on 3 March and eventually went to an Initial Training Wing in October, Service Flying Training School in December and then, finally, in June 1940, to No. 41 Squadron. This was the posting that would make him a household name in a very short period of time.

To some extent, Eric’s flying training benefitted from its timing. While things were becoming rather hairy on the Continent, and the RAF and Air Ministry certainly recognised this, the length of training periods was only marginally truncated and the period of the Phoney War allowed some courses to be lengthened slightly. For a gifted flyer like Eric, this allowed him to truly settle into his flying. Even his first squadron was operating in a quieter sector which again allowed him to get to grips with the Spitfire. His wedding, too, in late July, and subsequent leave, meant he missed the squadron’s busy, two week deployment to Hornchurch and he did not fly his first op until August. One can imagine his intense happiness with squadron and married life while chomping at the bit to get into operational flying. He was about to get his wish in spades.

As fortunate as Eric was to be somewhat eased into combat flying, there was always going to be that first op to be flown and, assuming it didn’t happen then, the baptism of fire. For our hero, and soon to be everyone else’s, the latter occurred on his third op when Luftflotte 5, based in Norway, attacked the supposedly lightly defended northern counties on August 15. Baptism of fire, first sighting of the enemy and the first victory. It was a red letter day for Eric Lock. There were to be many of those as the Battle of Britain reached its climax and Eric’s score continued to increase. At one stage his op/kill ratio was 1:1. The squadron’s move back to Hornchurch in early September saw it regularly engaged several times a day. Many of Eric’s kills were when he was on his own, as he preferred, and, curiously, given his rising seniority and leadership qualities, he was often employed as the squadron weaver, a role that was certainly the most dangerous in the squadron formation. However, Eric relished it, but it was flying in this position, with the Battle well and truly over (officially), and after two months of frenetic, unceasing flying, that he was shot down and seriously wounded in mid-November. His wounds, hit in the left arm and both legs, included his left forearm being broken in two places. Such was the seriousness of his injuries, that he was sent to East Grinstead and the care of the legendary Dr Archibald McIndoe. While renowned for his treatment of burns victims, McIndoe was, of course, a leading plastic surgeon and exactly what Eric needed to recover, at least physically. He thus became one of the founding members of the Guinea Pig Club.

After seven months of treatment, and not having flown in that time, Eric, inexplicably, was posted to No. 611 Squadron as a flight commander. The position makes sense, but the squadron’s role at the time does not. It was based at Hornchurch and heavily involved in Fighter Command’s offensive operations over the Channel. While his experience would have been welcomed, he certainly wasn’t up to scratch and would have benefitted from being eased back into squadron life. Perhaps the time recovering and recuperating was regarded as his rest period? It certainly seems that way. Anyway, he was flying again on 1 July and in a little over a month he was dead. During that time, he was again successful on several ops and, with hindsight, the victim of the mounting pressure placed on the experienced pilots. Time after time, new pilots arrived on the squadron, but most had very little operational time or, indeed, none at all. They could not take the weight off the flight commanders and squadron leadership, so already worn out men continued to climb into their aircraft for operations that, as the Germans found out the previous summer, could be dictated by the enemy. Still, it had to be done and Eric would not be the only eminently qualified RAF fighter pilot to be so cruelly lost.

There is a reason why it has taken until now (well, 2016) for a comprehensive Lock biography to be published. Surprisingly, for one of the RAF’s leading lights, very little in the way of documentation remains. There is no logbook. There is no diary. Most tellingly of all, Eric’s wife cut her ties with his family soon after he was lost. This dearth of primary sources makes A Ruddy Awful Waste all the more remarkable. The authors have drawn on what family records they could, but the vast majority of Eric’s flying career is recounted via combat reports and the memories of his colleagues and family.

Contemporary accounts are heavily drawn upon where it is known Eric would have experienced something similar. From those, conclusions have been drawn where they need to be. For instance, Eric’s initial field treatment after being shot down, and then subsequent recovery via skin graft operations, is masterfully pieced together by Brew and Bradbury reading between the lines, applying logic and a good dose of common sense (as is their investigation into the conflicting claims totals towards the end of the book). The authors clearly indicate what they believe happened, but reinforce it with detailed analysis and what supporting evidence there is. The pages explaining his injuries, treatment, the process of the skin grafts, and subsequent battle with infection, and recovery (aided by references from none other than Richard Hillary, among others, who shared a ward with Eric), are the best wartime medical writing I have read since Mayhew’s magnificent The Reconstruction of Warriors.

The same style is applied to Eric’s childhood and education with extensive use of local records to support what is known and what could be remembered. A nice touch is the images of landmarks (schools etc) from that time that are still standing and photographed by the authors. While not as obvious as the myriad of tangible honours rightly afforded to Lock to this day, they are important parts of a short life well-lived and just as important as the other images included in the typically impressive Fighting High glossy photo section.

Importantly, and this might seem an odd thing to say for a biography, the authors keep Eric at the forefront of the narrative. Because of the lack of the usual primary material, the reliance on other accounts, as mentioned above, is paramount, but these are only elaborated on in relation to the operations Eric participated in. This is particularly valuable as the Battle of Britain sequences have a very familiar feel to them. There is very little different to the reams of combats with Messerschmitts, Heinkels, Dorniers and Junkers that have already been written about, and will continue to be written, during the summer of 1940 and the authors thankfully avoid the trap of turning this section of the book into yet another account of the campaign as a whole. Very little space is given to squadron combats that Eric did not take part in. They are mentioned in passing, if at all. In that sense, the reader keeps in touch with him, reveling in the quiet efficiency with which he goes about his job (similarly, a detailed family history is left to the appendices). That said, he does seem to get a bit lost in the accounts of the combats over the Continent in mid-1941. His scoring was certainly not as prevalent during his final month of flying, but a large part of that was because the Luftwaffe controlled when, where, and if, they would intercept the RAF formations. It’s as if he had already started to fade away.

Eric Lock remains missing to this day. His memory lives on in an almost constant stream of memorials and honours befitting a man of his accomplishments. However, there is very little chance we will ever know the full story. The ultimate primary source, the man himself, took the most important resource, his memories, with him. Had he lived, there is little doubt that his story would be known backwards by now and in its umpteenth printed edition. One can but hope that this becomes the case with this book. It needs to be. Aspects of Eric Lock’s life will remain a mystery, but that’s not for the lack of intelligence and thoughtful analysis applied by the authors. He will continue to inspire and mystify enthusiasts and historians, pending or otherwise, but everything they need is in A Ruddy Awful Waste.

ISBN 978-09934152-3-4

Friday, March 10, 2017

Laucala Bay - Bee Dawson


The Wings over New Zealand forum owner and The WONZ Show podcast creator Dave Homewood steps up as the latest ABR guest reviewer. I hadn’t even known this book was due for release so it came as a pleasant surprise to read Dave’s review. As long-time readers will be aware, anything to do with the RNZAF during the war is always welcome here, but, sadly, it has been a bit conspicuous in its absence of late. It has been a while since Vincent Ashworth’s tribute to his brother, Artie: Bomber Command Legend, and the most recent Kiwi book to feature on ABR, held top billing. The future is looking okay with reviews pending for Vic Jay’s The Mallon Crew and Angela Walker’s From Battle of Britain Airman to POW Escapee, but it has been a long time between drinks for Kiwi content. Andy Wright
I was really looking forward to Bee Dawson’s new book as I have copies of her previous books on Wigram and Hobsonville, which are firm favourites. Having lived, worked and socialised at both RNZAF Bases Wigram and Hobsonville, they are really ingrained in my psyche and it still irks to see what has become of those once fine stations, with so much history lost. But Bee's books are an excellent tribute to the memory of both those amazing places and to the many generations of fine people who passed through them in the service of the RNZAF.
For me, Laucala Bay - or Lauthala Bay as the RNZAF preferred to spell it - is a lot less well known. I never served at this famous station, and I have never had the opportunity to visit Fiji to see its remains. However, I have heard a little about it from talking with veterans who served there with the Short Singapores, Consolidated Catalinas and Short Sunderlands over the years. It always sounded like a tranquil paradise, an idyllic spot in the Pacific, even during wartime.
Having a much shorter RNZAF history than either Hobsonville or Wigram, with the RNZAF presence in Fiji only spanning 28 years, I suspected LB to be a smaller book then its predecessors. I was wrong. It's a really solid history indeed sitting at a hefty 336 pages! That includes an index which is always helpful.
This book is in the same format and layout style as the two previous books which compliments them perfectly. Like the books on Wigram and Hobsonville, LB is rich with historic photos on almost every page. I suspect almost all of the photos have never been published before. The majority come from the archives of the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, but there are also excellent shots from private collections.
Of course, interspersed with the photos is the narrative text, which, like the other books, is easy to read and is sort of sectionalised with sub headings so you can either happily read the book from cover to cover or simply cherry-pick a clearly defined topic and read that section.

Of note, despite the name of the book, it does not entirely concentrate on RNZAF Station Laucala Bay. Also covered is the RNZAF presence at places like Nadi, Nausori, Suva and Lautoka. It's an all round history of the RNZAF in Fiji, and so is not just about the Catalina and Sunderland flying boats, but also the Vickers Vincents, Short Singapores, DH60 Moth, DH86 Express, DH89 Dragon Rapides, Lockheed Hudsons and Venturas, the Grumman Avenger, etc. The RNZAF Marine Section, who operated the flying boat tender vessels, are also well covered, and there's a wonderful mix of personal stories too, including the romances that bloomed in the tropical paradise of Fiji.
I am really pleased with this book, it's the perfect companion to its Wigram and Hobsonville counterparts and forms another very fine record of a lost station from the RNZAF’s history. Anyone who served there will be thrilled to see this book, I'm sure, as it will be jam-packed with memories for them. Anyone who has the other two books needs to buy Laucala Bay to complete their excellent set. Very reasonably priced at NZ$45.00 (RRP), I am sure it will be in all good book stores and will certainly be available from the Air Force Museum of New Zealand.
ISBN 978-0-14-377038-1