Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Spitfire - John Nichol

It's time for another guest review as I tidy up a few things in preparation for gearing up to writing long reviews for this website again. This is the first time Adrian Roberts' writing has been featured on ABR, but, a Great War aviation specialist, he has been writing reviews for Flightpath for several years now (some of you may have seen his writing in Cross & Cockade too). A glider pilot of many years' experience, Adrian has flown over the same green fields so commonly associated with the nostalgic view of Spitfire flying and brings an aviator's eyes to bear on one of the recent best-sellers of the ever-growing Spitfire bibliography. Andy Wright

John Nichol, the Tornado navigator and Iraq POW turned writer, has produced an account of the Spitfire based around the people associated with it at various periods of its service. The book can scarcely be called a history; the chapters relate to the chronological periods of the war, but, as the title suggests, it focuses on the feelings and the memories of those most closely associated with the Spitfire. 

It is essentially an anthology. Many of the first-hand accounts come from previously published sources and, therefore, may not be new to serious Second World War aviation enthusiasts. Other accounts are from letters to the author or private memoirs intended for relatives. As it covers the entire war in a broad sweep, it may not please those who look for the details of a particular squadron or theatre of operations, but it is an entertaining read for those with a general interest in the subject. 

Probably a mainstream publisher would only have been interested because the word ‘Spitfire’ has broad recognition. Clearly the subtitle, appealing to nostalgia and perhaps nationalism, is an attempt to capture the general market. Surely, however, there must be similar accounts of less easily romanticised aspects of the air war going unpublished because they do not have the same mass appeal. Nichol certainly shows passion for the subject and empathy with the combat experiences. His lack of specialism occasionally lets errors creep in though. For instance, he states the Spitfire Mk.XVI was characterised by its cut-down rear fuselage when, in fact, this feature did not relate to a particular mark, but was applied to different production batches of all the later versions (about half of the Mk.XVIs constructed were built with this modification).  

Possibly the most unique feature of the book is Nichol’s relationship with many of the last surviving men and women of the ‘Greatest Generation’ who flew or serviced the Spitfire. He has photographed and interviewed many of them, and been present when some of these nonagenarians had rides in two-seat Spitfires. Sadly, this was the last opportunity to write such a book. Many of the veterans featured, such as ATA pilot Joy Lofthouse (her comrade Mary Ellis passed away subsequently), died while he was writing it. For their memory alone the book needed to have been written and deserves to be read. 

ISBN 978-1-47115-923-7

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Bomber Command Books - 25% off everything!

Here's the next discount opportunity for the April tenth birthday shenanigans. One of the most prolific publishers in the aircrew book genre is Bomber Command Books from Mention the War Publications. Simon Hepworth kicked things off a few short years ago by publishing the first comprehensive squadron histories for 514 Squadron (with Andrew Porrelli). Since then, the titles have kept coming and now number more than thirty. A Bomber Command focus has been maintained, but the Great War, civil aviation, and a little bit of fiction have recently been added to the catalogue.
For 25% off the RRP of all titles until the end of April, visit www.bombercommandbooks.com to browse what's on offer. When you've made your selection, use the contact menu to email Simon and mention ABR (it must be by email).

Monday, April 01, 2019

Fighting High Publishing - 50% discount offer

As part of Aircrew Book Review's tenth anniversary celebrations, Steve Darlow, the man behind Fighting High, publisher of some of the finest hardback aircrew books on the market, and staunch supporter of the Bomber Command Memorial and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund is offering the books pictured below for 50% off their normal price (signed editions included)!!!

All you have to do is visit the Fighting High website, select the books you want to buy, and enter the code 'ABR' in the discount field at checkout. This generous offer will run until the end of April. Enjoy!

Friday, March 29, 2019

An Expendable Squadron - Roy Conyers Nesbit

The RAF Beaufort squadrons have always been a bit overshadowed by the likes of Fighter and Bomber Command. Coastal Command was, after all, not called the ‘Cinderella Service’ for nothing. There was always one author who could always be counted on to right this wrong, however, and, with An Expendable Squadron, Roy Conyers Nesbit does it again. Sadly, this is his last book as he died several months before it was published.

Number 217 Squadron flew its first operations with Ansons and gamely flew ‘general reconnaissance’ flights (convoy patrols etc) until late December 1940 despite having been equipped with the new Beaufort more than six months previously. The Bristol aircraft was a far more modern beast than its predecessor, but, early on, it was hamstrung by its Taurus engines.

Once fully operational the Beaufort was put to good use attacking Channel ports and convoys and contributing bombs, mines and torpedoes to the weight of munitions thrown at whatever German capital ship happened to be docked for repairs and within range. Losses were heavy, but the Channel and North Sea Beaufort crews began to develop the tactics that would ultimately result in the effective Coastal Command strike wings later in the war.

Perhaps the greatest developments in anti-shipping tactics came in the Mediterranean. The squadron spent two months based on Malta in mid-1942 while en route to the Far East and the war against the Japanese. A bonanza for the then AOC of Malta, Hugh Lloyd (who had a well-known reputation for ‘acquiring’ whatever aircraft transited through the besieged island for his own offensive and defensive requirements), the Beauforts were instrumental in stopping the flow of supplies from Europe to Rommel’s desert forces in North Africa. When the squadron was eventually released, to continue its journey to the Far East, it could only muster eight of the original 21 crews and aircraft that had arrived just two months previous. Eventual re-equipment with Hudsons occurred, before enough Beauforts were available, followed by conversion to Beaufighters, but the squadron was not to see any further action for the final three years of the war (perfectly illustrated by the last three years being recounted in one chapter!).

The author flew with the squadron as an observer (nav) from early 1941 to March 1942. While he recounts the history of the unit before his arrival, obviously the most detail (coincidentally the most hectic period) is provided during his time on operations. He masterfully weaves his experiences with those of his squadron mates and the development of the war from a mainly Coastal Command perspective (shades of A Most Secret Squadron by Des Curtis). A large number and variety of photos appear alongside the text to illustrate the subject matter at the time and the captions are well done. Indeed, this book is exceptionally well illustrated with text only two-page spreads being few and far between. There is a surprising amount of detail in the many appendices and, pleasingly, there is a good index. Such was the eye for detail and pure professionalism of Nesbit (honed to perfection as, remember, he did a lot of his work before the days of online resources), it is hard not to review this book without feeling like you are critiquing a master who is almost without peer. Sadly, he was not around to proofread the final manuscript and errors of varying relevance are present although these have been dealt with and will be included in the second edition if, hopefully, that comes about.

While long-term readers of Nesbit’s work will find a lot of familiar ground, and be able to draw comparisons to his first title, Woe To The Unwary, this book perhaps draws together all previous efforts to present an interesting read on a squadron that certainly did its share. A fine legacy.

ISBN 978-1-47382-328-0

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Celebrate Aircrew Book Review's tenth anniversary!!!

Hi everyone, April marks the tenth birthday for this website as, back in April 2009, I started posting reviews on here and, not long after, began neglecting it (a tradition that continues to this day!). Anyway, for those of you who are members of the ABR Facebook group, you will know that I have been working with a number of authors and publishers who have generously offered to help celebrate the tenth birthday with book giveaways and special discount codes. As I launch each of these offers/raffles/competitions in April, I will also post them here. If you're a seasoned reader (a massive thank you) or an enthusiast who has 'just surfed on in' (thank you too), I hope you will be able to take advantage and enjoy the birthday shenanigans.
One discount offer already underway (and lasting until 30 June) is from Pen & Sword. One of the first books reviewed on here was Martin Bowman's Mosquito: Menacing the Reich and titles from this publisher have made regular appearances on ABR ever since. Thank you to P&S for their support over the years and for this generous offer to Aircrew Book Review's readers.
Use the code AIRCREW20 on the Pen and Sword Books website to get 20% off the RRP on all full price items (excluding eBooks). This offer will run until 30 June 2019.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

75 (NZ) Squadron - Chris Ward and Chris Newey

It’s been a while since I’ve featured a guest reviewer and now seems as good a time as any what with the amount of work I have on at the moment that is taking me away from review writing for ABR. Robert Brokenmouth is the editor of Wakefield Press’ two most successful aircrew books published this century: They Hosed Them Out and 101 Nights. Both are books written as fiction by their former aircrew authors, but, as Robert was able to discover and then prove with extensive references, both titles are actually slightly fictionalised memoirs. They are also incredible reads and enduring, yet underrated, Australian aircrew classics. Robert is also a music reviewer of note with a particular style and entertaining turn of phrase. It is, therefore, a treat to feature one of his aircrew book reviews here for the first time. Andy Wright

Essential purchase. Cheap, given the fact this monster runs to 475 pages, all on foolscap-size paper. Holy moly! Okay, let's get our breath back. Why is the book so thick? Partly because 75 Squadron flew "more sorties than any other Allied heavy bomber squadron, suffering the second-highest number of casualties”. Also, there's a wealth of photos but, crucially, the publisher hasn't opted for brevity over quality - this series aims to provide the best overview of each squadron possible. It's not just 'a topic' to the writers, it's a vivid reality.

For many years 75 Squadron was famous; consequently it's been covered in other books (Saunders' Return at Dawn, and Franks' Forever Strong, for example). So why on earth would you buy Mention the War's profile? And especially one this fat?

Well, firstly, Saunders' book is very hard to come by. And, second, Franks' book covers the squadron history from 1916 to 1990 and, at 252 pages, that's essentially an overview, not an in-depth look at the unit’s operations in World War Two like this. Ah, see, now we're talking.

Have you ever met a real stamp collector? I mean, the kind who research the period and countries they're interested in, who also collects postmarks as much as stamps? These are the kind of people interested in the reality of history, who don't just read a book, they have period maps, background reading and biographies. And stonking reference books like this. 

Ward and Newey's achievement here is quite, quite remarkable, telling a huge story with as much detail as possible (in the circumstances - nothing short of reprints of the Operations Record Book (or Form 540, or ORB) will satisfy some of us), giving us names, details, events. It's a herculean task. 

I asked Newey about it (Facebook is occasionally useful). "Chris Ward wrote the initial manuscript, I curated the photos and provided some New Zealand and background content, based on the research I'd done, and the comprehensive squadron databases compiled by Simon Sommerville, who you should mention, as he's put an enormous amount of work into his website www.75nzsquadron.com.”

The squadron became famous for several reasons during the war (I'll let you find out about a few of those yourself), but a couple of members of the squadron you'll have heard of. One of the most incredible acts of bravery to earn the (inevitably embarrassed) hero a VC was performed by ‘Jimmy’ Ward, co-pilot of a Wellington after a raid on Munster on 7 July 1941. After an attack by a night-fighter, one of the fuel tanks on the starboard wing caught fire. Ward volunteered to climb out onto the wing to put the fire out. If you're not familiar with the story, I won't spoil it.

Newey and Ward (apparently no relation) simply quote from the ORB and, believe me, that makes for extraordinary reading (there are other accounts; Hector Bolitho, in Penguin in the Eyrie, describes meeting Jimmy at the Savoy Hotel bar and bandaging his finger, Jimmy died in action a few days later).

Navigator Eric Williams found himself on the wrong end of a parachute after his Stirling was attacked on 17 December 1942. If the name seems familiar, it's because he escaped from Stalag Luft III, with Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, and reached neutral Sweden a little over a year after his initial capture. See The Wooden Horse, film or book or both.

Other notables rubbed shoulders with the unwashed in 75 Squadron. Frank Gill continued in the RNZAF after the war, rising to be air commodore before entering politics, ending his career as NZ Ambassador to the USA, and Sir Douglas Lowe stayed in the RAF to become quite a senior officer indeed. "Not famous in their own right," continues Newey, "but two individuals who were lost in action were brothers of famous people - pilot Raymond Going, brother of legendary All Black halfback Sid Going, and navigator James Lovelock, brother of Olympic 1500m gold medallist and world record-holder Jack Lovelock. Another unique character was Sergeant Sir Charles Thomas Hewitt Mappin, RAFVR, a baronet and member of the House of Lords, who volunteered as a gunner in the RAF, and is said to have refused a commission and a ground job. Killed in action."

During World War Two, 75 Squadron took part in 739 operations, putting up aircraft for 8017 sorties. They're just numbers until you remember, 'Oh, yeah, there was usually only about a three percent chance of you making it through a tour of 30 operations'. 

Unlike stamp collectors and their knowledgeable breadth of history, when you pick up RAF Bomber Command Profiles: 75 (NZ) Squadron, sure, you'll be thrilled, you'll be dumbstruck, you'll have a decent whisky to hand and possibly some cheesy snacks, but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to need a box of tissues handy.

ISBN 978-1-9112553-4-5

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Wings of Valour - Charles Page

The honour roll is a relatively common sight in established organisations and such lists, for want of a better word, have inspired many a researcher to find out about the lives behind the names. While such efforts may focus on one name, or those from the same family, few books are published that include biographical details of an entire honour roll. Such publications are usually limited to a few presentation copies. In this case, relatively recent work to collate and commemorate those lost have directly resulted in this book which, besides the requisite ‘official’ copy, is available commercially from the author. The first book from Charles Page for quite a few years, and not one that was widely announced, Wings of Valour benefits from an aviation biographer at the top of his game. 

Forty-nine former members of 7 Wing Air Training Corps/Australian Air Force Cadets are included on the unit’s recently created honour roll. The important thing to note here is the words ‘former members’. This is not a book about teenage cadets although, admittedly, a good proportion of the men included died while they were still teenagers with a majority being barely out of their teens. The ATC was formed in early 1942 to train boys, between the age of 16 and 18, who were interested in joining the RAAF once they were old enough. The point was to make them ‘airminded’, assuming they weren’t already, to familiarise them with the ways of the RAAF, to instil discipline, so they could effectively hit the ground running when they enlisted. By the end of the war, close to 12,000 cadets had enlisted in the RAAF. 

The ATC continued on, albeit in a smaller capacity of course, post-war until disbanded in the mid-seventies, only to be resurrected the following year by the next federal government and eventually become the Australian Air Force Cadets shortly after the turn of the century. It is a growing and active organisation, the age range is broader and, of course, membership is open to both sexes.

The book is separated into periods – Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and Post-1945. Thirty-two of the men listed were killed during W.W.II. Five of the six lost in Vietnam were serving in the Army (the sixth joined the RAN), so this is not a book limited to aircrew or RAAF personnel. The common factor was that everyone had been a member of 7 Wing ATC. To that end, despite the author’s published works proving an expertise in wartime flying, his career in aviation and dedication to the subject at hand means all biographies are as detailed and as comprehensive as they could be within the space provided.

Each man is honoured across a two-page spread with brief family, biographical and pre-service life details presented succinctly to allow as much space as possible for the how and why they ended up on the honour roll. It is clear that some of the lives lost were considerably harder to research than others, but, despite the two-page limit, the reader is not left feeling more could have been done. The author maintains a rigid structure throughout to ensure each former cadet receives an equal measure of respect. Each spread is brimming with text and relevant images. A portrait of every man (one is even a drawn self-portrait, supplied by my old high school of all places!) is included and each biography includes at least three images. Some of the photos suffer from being of a lower resolution, having been sourced from the internet, due to the author doing everything bar the printing (all proceeds to the AAFC), but these are in the minority as the author received impressive support from museums, schools and individuals in Australia and around the world. Colour imagery must make up close to fifty percent of the photos included.

An A4-sized glossy paperback of 118 pages, this will ensure those lost remain more than just names on various memorials (another detail included – all places the men are honoured and, if known, where they are buried). It is a book of remembrance researched and written by one of Australia’s finest military biographers. Ignoring several magazine articles, his most recent published work was the masterful Wings of Destiny, which remains a benchmark for aviation biographers. It was ten years from that book’s release by Rosenberg until the release of Wings of Valour. While the research required for the latter would, understandably, not have been as deep as the former, it had to be repeated 49 times and that is no small ask for any biographer. Fortunately, this project fell into the right hands and the result is invaluable.

ISBN 978-0-6481739-0-8

Friday, January 18, 2019

Of Sons and Skies - Robert Arley

The willingness and dedication required to write a book that aims to explain W.W.II aerial warfare, technology and sociology and promote it to an audience that has had little to no ‘formal’ education in the subject is laudable. Indeed, to some extent it’s also a thankless task as there’s a fair chance the finished product will be read by the ‘converted’, who are ‘programmed’ to react to such things on bookshelves, and fall on deaf ears elsewhere. To stand any chance, however, means what is recounted needs to be accurate and the author really needs to be on point with regard to knowledge and understanding. Of Sons and Skies presents a lot of information, but its delivery tends to dilute the impact somewhat.

Written in a clippy, irreverent style, it is clear who the intended audience is as the author (using a nom de plume) invites the reader to embark on a journey with him. From pre-war RAF efforts to modernise, through to the many early failures, several early victories and a focus on the eventual behemoth that Bomber Command became, the narrative is largely built around period newspaper headlines with contextual discussion and clarification weaved in by the author. 

It is a courageous effort and gets the point across with regard to the massive investments and resources consumed, and never forgets, reinforces even, the sacrifices made by thousands. However, as broad as the subject seems, the book’s focus is quite narrow. It rarely leaves Europe. Other theatres are mentioned in passing and, when they are, the details are incorrect. Japan invading Burma in 1940 is mentioned twice, Yamamoto was intercepted off the ‘Pacific coast’ and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are in the South Pacific.

Many aspects of aerial warfare are discussed, including minutiae like tyres etc, but the narrative is all over the place as a result. At one stage, it switches from a quality, sobering assessment of the bombing of Sheffield to aircrew clothing to flak.

Aviation knowledge is a bit light on too, with baling out at 500 feet being ideal, Ford being responsible for the Liberator, ‘Quantas’, and the Lancaster, besides being in 99% of all BC vignettes (the Halifax is mentioned twice in one paragraph and the Mosquito is mentioned several times, otherwise, from what I remember and noted, it’s all Lancasters), being particularly tricky to fly because it had a tendency to swing on take-off (like all tail-draggers i.e. every other primary bomber type used extensively by Bomber Command during its more than five year war). On top of all that is the fact that the style is just too irreverent. For example, the Germans made “quite a mess” of Coventry, Goebbels is referred to as “PGG” (“Propaganda Guru Goebbels") and at one stage Hitler puts on his “master-race jimjams”. It’s clear the author is trying to keep things light and moving, but there’s just some things, unless you're writing something akin to ‘Dad’s Army’ or ‘Allo Allo’, where everything is a caricature or stereotype, where the effort to make them amusing is a waste of effort and bordering on misleading. Doing so loses some of the gravity in the narrative and of the subject.

There is a lot of detail here, and considerable graft, although no index or photos, but it would be a far more effective read if there was less effort spent on trying to be clever for the reader.

ISBN 978-1-9998944-2-9

Monday, October 29, 2018

Escape: The Best Sport Ever - Frank Gatland DFM

Read wartime books for long enough and you’ll invariably get stuck into a prisoner of war story. The bread and butter of these are titles like The Wooden Horse, Reach for the Sky and, of course, The Great Escape. Scratch the surface and the Colditz series and a plethora of aircrew tales can be found. Aircrew prisoners certainly seem to have been the most prolific of authors. Escapers were, relatively speaking, a small percentage of the men incarcerated. Many helped behind the scenes and even more were content to make the best of their situation and improve their lot through education and other worthwhile pursuits. Frank Gatland was one of the keen escapers and he had the benefit of, initially, and while it was of use to his plans, being a non-commissioned officer. Escape stands tall in this class as the tale of an irrepressible man who liked a challenge.

Having learnt to fly in New Zealand, Gatland sails for the UK and after time on Oxfords doing the usual navigation and blind approach training, as well as marking time ‘building Scotland’, he is sent to a conversion unit in late July 1942. Stirlings are on offer and he joins No. 214 Squadron in early September. Awarded the DFM in mid-October for a low-level attack on Genoa, getting the job done, he and his crew are shot down just over a month later. Captured after being on the run for a little over a week, Gatland spends some time in Fresnes Prison in Paris before finally being deposited in Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, Poland. 

His initial evasion is an immediate indication of his initiative, naïve as it is at the time, and it is not long before he begins to switch identities with Army personnel so as to get out on work parties, away from the camp, and wait to pick the right time to escape. The initial attempt in February 1943 fails due to, more than anything else, poor preparation. However, during this time, Gatland is particularly observant of their errors, lack of planning and, importantly, the time of year, as they spent much of their time trudging through snow. This shows an analytical mind, one that is finely tuned to being on the run and surviving. A later working party, based at a wood-chipping mill, has Gatland and his mates away from the camp for seven months. During that time they befriend the local Poles, perform some intelligence work and basically have a free rein while benefitting from the foundations of cooperation built by the previous working party. It’s all very elaborate and seemingly implausible, but there is little doubt they were that brazen. Gatland’s eventual escape fails at the last step.

Several other escapes follow, with requisite periods in solitary confinement upon recapture, until he is moved to Stalag Luft III in mid-September 1944, having been an officer for some time, but assuming the identity of a NCO for escape purposes. In January 1945, as expected, The Long March begins and the column eventually ends up in Lubeck where the prisoners are finally liberated by advancing Allied forces and repatriated. Frank returned to New Zealand, his English bride following shortly after, and raised a family while continuing to put his best foot forward in business and pleasure.

Irrepressible. That’s one way of looking at the character of Frank Gatland as presented in this book. It’s not that he couldn’t sit still. Indeed, he relished his time in solitary as it was, quite literally, time to himself, his own space, and there would be a Red Cross box waiting upon his release. It was his positive attitude, always looking ahead, despite the known risks, that kept him going. Of course, he spent a lot of time out of camp, either as part of a working party or on the run. No chance of going wire happy here. Camp life, as detailed in many memoirs and biographies before, and currently being thoroughly examined by far more scholarly types than me, was a completely different life to what Frank led while he was a prisoner. He did spend periods living as such, but there is relatively little of that detailed. Much like his time on ops, it’s the highlights of his incarceration that are remembered at length. Fair enough too. Days and weeks and months of camp routine would be hard to differentiate and place in some sort of timeline. It’s the escapes, the time outside the camp, when Frank was at his best and these long-burning highlights of his POW time would be infinitely easier to remember and record. 

They’re also the most interesting, particularly the time spent at the wood-chipping mill. Besides assisting a regimental sergeant major, who was neck deep in intelligence gathering, Frank was heavily involved in cloak and dagger work with the local Underground movement. The weird thing is that everything, including his planned eventual escape, seemed to be common knowledge. The few Germans around mostly turned a blind eye once plied with enough contraband. Whether it was Frank’s personality or that most people, despite their circumstances, are somewhat decent (I suspect a bit of both), a long list of ‘good guys’ who happened to be batting for the other side is accumulated. Throughout his adventures, Frank is mostly treated fairly by the ‘enemy personnel’ he encounters and some go out of their way to help despite holding him captive. For the most part, it’s remarkably civilised and lends some weight to the tagline of the book: The Best Sport Ever!

It would be wrong to assume this is a light and bouncy read, however. There is no doubting there is a war on, of course, it’s just that Frank doesn’t dwell on the obvious risks and threats. It’s another angle to the ‘press on’ attitude, but it’s not ‘we’ve got one engine out, let’s continue on’, it’s ‘I will survive if I look after me first’. This extends to The Long March, perhaps the epitome of the prisoner’s lot to survive. Frank, better conditioned than most due to his escape activities and better organised to an extent, still contributes heartily to the combine he is a part of, sharing the burden and foraging and bartering for food, but takes any opportunity to enjoy ‘normal’ human interaction with the locals encountered on the way. While there is little doubt he would have recalled those hectic and dangerous times during his post-war life, he must have known that, through personality, cunning and attitude, he certainly had a better run at it.

This remarkable story, at a little under 200 pages, does not take long to get through. The main reason is that the style Frank employed over the years it took him to record his experiences skips along, beckoning the reader to keep up, but, interestingly, there is a fair whack of heavier material. It is all told matter-of-factly and, like the familiar coping mechanism, once told, the narrative moves on. In doing so, it is very clear that Frank’s story is not all about him. He follows up on his crew, those that survived, and he ensures fellow escapers and other fine men and women emerge from the shadows of history. No more is this evident than in the appendices. While there is sadly no index, the appendices detail the fates of those Frank served with either in training, on ops or in the camps. He shines a light on RNZAF aircrew who were honoured for their escape attempts (Frank received a MiD for his work). Indeed, several, including fellow authors Woodroofe and Croall (GeTaWay and “You! Croall!” respectively), pop up from time to time in the main narrative.

While the book does not launch itself with abandon, rather a series of somewhat tedious diary entries reflecting the slow boat to the UK, it is one to savour (if you get the chance to take a breath). Self-published, the photos are the only let down of the entire package. Some are clearly low resolution downloads from the internet. A bit more work on this front and better scanning, if possible, of some of Frank’s own collection, will lift future editions (and there will be further printings) to the summit of self-published memoirs. 

Like Frank, this is a book that is always moving forward and always positive. We know this genre of books can be unpleasant and even uncomfortable, but the human spirit, more often than not, gets the subject through, for better or worse. Escape is the perfect example of the strength of this spirit.

ISBN 978-0-473-4043308

Monday, August 06, 2018

Too Young To Die - Bryan Cox

On 1 July 2018, well-known New Zealand pilot Bryan Cox made headlines when he flew a Tiger Moths he had flown in wartime training. He had only just returned to active flying several months earlier, having relinquished his licence some years before with more than 20,000 hours to his credit. For a veteran to be reunited with a former mount, and still be able to fly it legally, is particularly rare. To some extent, Mr. Cox has youth on his side. That’s a funny thing to say for a 93-year old, but he was eighteen when he learned to fly and not even 21 when he saw the war’s end. What makes him ‘well-known’, however, beyond being a living link to our past, is the books he has written. His air force memoir, Too Young To Die, remains one of the very few accounts of RNZAF Corsairs, or any Kiwi fighters for that matter, in action in the South Pacific. It also makes the author’s choice of post-war career abundantly clear.

Bryan Cox grew up on farming properties and was still at school when war broke out. When he signed up for the air force, having emulated Tiger Moth flying in a Model A Ford with the top down and pining over diving Kittyhawks, three of his cousins had already been lost (and he would lose his brother in early 1944). Young Cox soloed in November 1943 and was posted to 4 OTU at Ohakea to fly Kittyhawks in August 1944. His talent in the air is evident, but what is really interesting is the scientific approach to the training. His time on Kittyhawks, in particular, was one of experimentation, analysis and the testing of theories developed on the ground. Some of the experimentation was a result of seeing his colleagues come to grief, fatally on occasion, and wanting to understand what got them into that situation and, most importantly, how to get out of it. While he escaped major incidents, the author had his fair share of close shaves and learned from them.

A mere month after converting to Kittyhawks, Bryan converted to Corsairs. While a heavy, powerful fighter like the Curtiss machine, the Corsair was a completely new challenge. Likening the climb to the cockpit as something only surpassed by Sir Edmund Hillary some years later (one of many amusing quips throughout the book), the ever studious Cox quickly got to grips with one of the most potent fighter aircraft of the period. Again, the exuberance of young men flying the leading technology of the day got the better of some of his colleagues, but the majority of them made it through. As part of 16 Squadron RNZAF, Bryan arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, in November 1944.

The New Zealanders were well established at Henderson, but the relatively Spartan island life, despite the advantages of operating alongside the always well-supplied Americans, took some getting used to. They were soon off to Green Island, however. The author injured his knee with a machete, and was unable to walk for ten days, so his first flight from Green Island did not occur until 5 January 1945. It was the beginning of a very busy year.

Operations from Green Island consisted of many patrols over the Rabaul area to harrass the Japanese there. Aircraft were inevitably lost over the heavily defended harbour and it was on return from a failed rescue mission for one of these pilots that Bryan had what was easily his closest shave with death. The weather closed in on the returning Corsairs and the author, in trying to see his instruments in the gloom, managed to switch off his battery and, therefore, his lights and radio. Somehow avoiding other aircraft in the formation, and the sea, Bryan, noting his dwindling fuel, was contemplating his impending death when a fortuitous lightning flash revealed the distinctive coastline of Green Island. A ropey landing saw him home, but eight of his compatriots were lost. It was Cox’s twentieth birthday.

His first tour over, Bryan returned to New Zealand in mid-February, but the squadron was on its way to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) on 1 April. They were there for less than a month before heading to Bougainville. The island was still partly occupied by the Japanese who were fending off a large Australian Army contingent. The squadron soon established a routine of close support sorties to assist the advancing Australians. Targets were rarely obvious so intelligence often came from coastwatchers, locals or RAAF Boomerangs. These aircraft often marked the targets for the Kiwi Corsairs as well. Bryan’s tour ended in late June after 34 operational sorties over Bougainville.

After leave, reforming and working up, the squadron arrived at Jacquinot Bay, New Britain, on 14 August. This new base was the replacement for Green Island. With the surrender of the Japanese, there was little to do, but the Corsairs kept flying with patrols, ferry flights and escorts of Japanese aircraft. Entertainment was sparse, so it was with some relief that Bryan headed for home in late October. He’s application to join the Occupation Squadron in Japan had not been successful so he said farewell to the faithful Corsair to await his discharge.

This was not forthcoming, however, as he joined 14 Squadron which was to be the headquarters unit for the occupying Commonwealth air strength. Besides learning new combat tactics, such as rocket attacks, the squadron also had to be proficient at ceremonial drill. Japan was to be an eye-opener for the young man, only just promoted to warrant officer, and a lot different from the airstrips hacked out of jungle and coral.

Everything the soon to be self-sustaining squadron needed was loaded onto the aircraft carrier HMS Glory in early March 1946. Bryan did not fly in Japan until late May, but the real adventure was on the ground. Relations with the locals, many of whom worked for the occupying units, are fascinating to discover after so many years of war. The occupying forces, too, while largely respectful of their hosts and dedicated to the work at hand, certainly enjoyed themselves. It’s an interesting dynamic as these men volunteered to serve a long way from home in peacetime when there must have been a strong urge to just stop. As a (still) very young man, it is clear Bryan felt he just wasn’t ready to quit. Returning to New Zealand in April 1947, Bryan struggled to settle down, but eventually started flying again in 1956, worked in air traffic control and set up his own flying school.

There’s perhaps three major points that stand out in Too Young To Die. Firstly, as mentioned above, it is an uncommon memoir of flying for the RNZAF in the South Pacific. Secondly, the considerable detail of life in Japan, essentially a well put together series of extended anecdotes, is rarer still. Happily, it takes up about a third of the book and should be regarded as one of the most important accounts from that interesting, slightly bizarre, period. It is the perfect foil for the wartime operational life the author lived. The description of Japanese culture, stripped of so much, yet holding tight to tradition (perhaps the best way to start afresh), and their almost non-plussed acceptance of the occupying forces, at least as largely recounted here, is the unsung hero of this book. Yes, get excited about the operational Corsair flying over the Pacific islands, but revel in the almost unique account of life in post-war Japan. Finally, the author’s natural aptitude as a teacher, and his career as a flying instructor, permeates almost every page. Be it a Tiger Moth, Kittyhawk or Corsair, if Bryan is learning something new as part of a course, testing a theory that is very much not part of a course, or simply explaining a routine flight, operational or otherwise, his years of instructing take over. Not a word is wasted. At one stage in my notes I’ve written “Okay, Bryan, what are you going to teach me now?” and that’s exactly what it’s like. The man is a natural storyteller which, I reckon, combined with his flying abilities and innate understanding of aeronautics, gleaned from theory and much experimentation, makes him a superb writer and effective teacher. Too Young To Die is not unique in this aspect, but, again, it is uncommon.

He knows what the reader wants too. His childhood is kept very brief with enough there to pique an interest, but avoiding the extended ‘family tree’ that can often bog down an otherwise excellent book early on. These sections are valuable to know where a man has come from, and they can make for fascinating reading, but are often more suited to the appendices. Speaking of which, there are four here of the biographical and airframe fate type. The one negative is that there is no index. Even a simple personnel index would have been of considerable value here, but the biographical appendix allays this deficiency somewhat. This, however, is a minor blip for a book that is now over thirty years old. The narrative is repetitive here and there with little factoids about ops and other details popping up again, but with so many sorties blending into each other, it’s necessary to reiterate aspects of the ones that stand out.

Bryan Cox is a treasure and I hope he is regarded as such beyond the aviation community in New Zealand. His gift to many has been the effective, almost unassuming, transfer of his knowledge of what it takes to be an aviator. Not just a pilot, an aviator. His audience is not limited to those sitting next to him in the cockpit. With Too Young To Die, and his other books, he has passed this wisdom, to a lesser extent, but no less clear, on to thousands of readers. No doubt some of those readers will have never controlled an aircraft themselves. With luck, Bryan’s writing has stirred something in a few of them and they’ve caught the bug, be it the bug for aviation history, the bug for flying, or both. That is what we, as aircrew book enthusiasts, all hope these books can do. Those of us with groaning bookshelves and long-suffering, but understanding partners, are already converted. We will love and respect these books, and the men within, almost unconditionally. It is the casual reader, the occasional reader, the aviation novice, that we always dream these books will capture. He may not have set out to entrance the non-enthusiast, but Bryan’s natural talent certainly makes it possible. While not a fighter ace, he survived and then took the time to record how he did. His legacy, and his legend, continues to make headlines. What a man. What a book.

ISBN 0-8138-0205-9