Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Dark Haven - F.T.K. Bullmore


As I've been busy working on manuscripts, now the kids are back at school and I can actually do some work, the writing of reviews has been slower than usual. While frustrating, especially as I have some interesting books to write about, I have been blessed with several guest reviews from authors I hold in high regard. Here, then, is the oldest book to feature on ABR. As many of you know, I created ABR expressly to generate an online presence for some of the older aircrew books I had encountered, but could find nothing about. Such books had every chance of being forgotten, not shared with future generations, and I wasn't about to let that happen. While I've succeeded on that front to some extent, the vast majority of books featured on ABR have been relatively new. Thanks to Phil Vabre, an air traffic controller by trade, and an aviation historian otherwise, for this superbly, and thoughtfully, written review about the development of Flying Control. Andy Wright

Accounts of the Second World War in the air that focus on non-operational aspects are pretty rare. The Dark Haven, F.T.K. Bullmore’s account of the development of what was termed ‘Flying Control’ in the RAF, is such an account and nonetheless interesting for that.

In 1927 Bullmore was seconded from the Territorial Artillery to the RAF. He learned to fly in Egypt and then specialised as a night bomber pilot – experience he would draw on to good effect during the war. Bullmore was transferred to the Reserve in 1932 and joined Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Display, remaining with him until 1935 when he settled down to life as a flying instructor. With the expansion of the RAF in the late 1930s, Bullmore was invited to re-join the RAF in 1937 as one of the original members of the Flying Control branch.

From the outset, the reader needs to understand Flying Control, as practiced in the RAF in the late 1930s and the early part of the war, is not the same as Air Traffic Control as we know it today. While Flying Control did have some limited aerodrome control functions, its role was primarily what we would term ‘operational control’. That is, each base maintaining a watch on who departed and who arrived and, in the case of bombers and patrol aircraft, communicating with the base’s aircraft while in flight.

This brings us to the biggest problem for modern readers with Bullmore’s otherwise fascinating book: it assumes a great deal of underlying knowledge about how the Flying Control system operated at that time, confining itself to primarily describing Bullmore’s (significant) role in bringing about improvements during the war. Written in the mid-1950s, Bullmore’s original intended readership was no doubt much more familiar with the operational systems of the day than we are. Many would have had first-hand experience with the wartime Flying Control system. Nevertheless, while the present-day layman might find it difficult to understand the context in which Bullmore’s account takes place, modern readers who are students of RAF operations in Europe during the Second World War will have at least some grounding in the technical aspects of the story.

Bullmore describes how, as Senior Flying Control Officer at Boscombe Down in February 1941, he became involved in attempts to recover a lost Bristol Beaufort circling at night above fog off the Isle of Wight. Although the Beaufort eventually ditched (the crew being rescued), the experience got Bullmore thinking about the problem of assisting lost or damaged friendly aircraft to a safe landing in blacked-out Britain. At that time, Bullmore’s station lay under the regular route for bombers from their bases in East Anglia to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour. So, in those days of relatively unreliable radios, there was plenty of such traffic about.

As a starting point, Bullmore arranged to visit the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Centre at Winchester. We need to remember that in those days there was – deliberately – little or no RDF (radar) coverage over land. Instead, aircraft were tracked over Britain by the extensive network of ROC posts. These fed their reports to ROC centres and from there the plots were transmitted to Fighter Command’s Sector and Group Operations Centres. Having had his eyes opened to the air situation information available, Bullmore set up an unofficial arrangement with the Winchester ROC Centre for them to call him whenever they detected a possible friendly aircraft in trouble. Bullmore could then use the Flying Control network to assist the aircraft by, for example, turning on aerodrome lighting.

Although the surveillance, reporting and control system established by Dowding’s Fighter Command in the immediate pre-war period is well known for its contribution to winning the Battle of Britain, not so well known or understood is just how jealously Fighter Command guarded its access to what we would call the ‘air picture’, or indeed how uninterested other RAF Commands were in it. Quick successes achieved by Bullmore’s unofficial arrangements with the ROC convinced him more could and should be done. However, Fighter Command rigorously protected access to its air defence apparatus for non-air defence purposes – even if it potentially meant valuable friendly lives and aircraft saved. Bullmore describes how he managed to convince the AOC of 10 Group to allow him access to the Group Operations Centre, against the opposition of many subordinate officers, where the value of the expanded Flying Control scope quickly demonstrated its value. 

According to Bullmore’s account, it was by force of personality and dint of working around numerous obstructive staff officers that he was eventually able to extend the new Flying Control services, firstly into the 12 Group area and then, from the Air Ministry under the Directorate of Air Safety, into the rest of Great Britain. It is interesting to note it was 11 Group that resisted longest in allowing Flying Control personnel into its Operations Centre. The ambit of Flying Control eventually grew to incorporate the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue and specialised Mountain Rescue services. Innovations introduced included the ‘Sandra’ system of coned searchlights above selected aerodromes, serving as aeronautical lighthouses. Although the book itself does not say so, it is clear to see in these innovations the origins of Britain’s unique, modern-day ‘Distress and Diversion’ service, used by military and civilian aircraft alike.

Statistics kept by the Flying Control branch showed beyond doubt the value of the services it provided. Many thousands of aircrew, returning from operational sorties with their radios inoperative, or lost on a training flight above fog, owed their safe return to assistance provided by Flying Control. In his foreword to the book, MRAF Sir John Salmond pays tribute to the persistence of Wing Commander Bullmore (as he ended up) in establishing this enhanced form of Flying Control. Salmond describes it as '…a heartening story of lives saved in thousands in almost miraculous fashion – lives which, but for the Flying Control and Air Sea Rescue Services, would have been lost.'  That it is.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Beaufighter Boys - Graham Pitchfork


It was a little orange hardback, long since bereft of its dustcover, assuming it ever had one, the embossed floral design being at odds with the content. Its title now forgotten, perhaps something like ‘American Aces of the Second World War’, I read it from cover to cover, over and over again, borrowing it from the school library incessantly (I was at elementary school in the US at the time). It was a collection of stories of the great flyers of the USAAF – Gentile, Blakeslee, Bong – at least, that’s who I remember. So, an anthology was a major influence for this lark.

Could it be argued the anthology is replacing the memoir when it comes to Second World War aircrew books? It’s probably a bit of a stretch, but with ‘untold’ personal accounts drying up as time marches on, can a collection of memories, a collection of mini-memoirs if you will, be as effective? Certainly, the biography has assumed the mantle of ‘best personal insight’, but this too will struggle to capture the subject’s voice unless substantial and comprehensive supporting material can be accessed post-death. Therefore, the anthology of personal recollections can punch above its weight due to it presenting valuable firsthand accounts, admittedly in direct competition with periodicals (whose bread and butter is briefer reading material) and online sources. On the latter point, the anthology can also benefit from the poor attention span many apparently suffer due to social media’s method of presenting information. The ability to dip in and out, knocking off relatively unrelated chapters in short reading stints, is a strength of the anthology. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Grub Street’s Boys series has done so well. To date, the series has presented collections featuring various Cold War types, so the timing is perfect too as the middle-aged reader reminisces about many of the aircraft on the frontline during their childhood. The first move away from this period, however, comes from one of the series’ regular contributors. Having spent years gathering material for a different project that ultimately didn’t come to fruition, Graham Pitchfork delivers Beaufighter Boys. Covering almost every wartime operational use of the Beaufighter, and a post-war one, this is the ideal read for anyone with a penchant for the most pugnacious of heavy fighters.

The Beaufighter was one of those aircraft that seemed to be everywhere, always getting the job done. Consequently, the content of the book spans the globe. Each chapter concentrates on a specific aspect of wartime flying in the type. Some are mini-biographies while others focus on one tour, period, or even just a sortie, as recounted by the pilot or observer (or sometimes both). The chapters can therefore be read as standalones. There is little to no development from one to the next so snatching a chapter here and there is easy if you don’t have the time. 

Importantly, in among the extensive accounts of shipping strikes, operations for which the Beau is best known in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, there are several accounts of the work the crews did at night. A Battle of Britain veteran in its own right, something often forgotten, the type eventually took over night fighting from the hard-pressed, but effective, Defiant crews. This world of AI radar, ground control intercepts, vectors, blips and darkness, extended beyond defence of the British Isles. Beaufighters were active at night over North Africa, and out of Malta, and flew intruder ops, hunting German night fighters among other things, over Europe. This all seems quite obvious if you’ve been reading on the subject for even just a short while, but this sort of work tends to get lost among the accounts of the strike wings. Not here, though. If anything, the chapters covering these sorties were the stars, in a book full of highlights, simply because I hadn’t read about them for a long time. Indeed, probably the last time I read about Beau night fighters over the Med in detail was in the Bob Cowper memoir Chasing Shadows. To give a further indication of the breadth of coverage in BB, about the only night fighting/interceptions not featured was that done by the Beaufighters in India. Never fear, however, there’s plenty of other India/Burma action to keep the reader enthralled.

Naturally, those who have provided their reminiscences, or have been written about, are enduringly fascinating. There are some very familiar names (and several have written books of their own) – Tom Pike, Atholl Sutherland Brown, Bill Mann, Charles Read, Dennis Spencer, and Des Curtis to name a few – but also a lot of relatively forgotten men. Every nationality, more or less, that flew the Beaufighter, be it within their own air force or with the RAF, is featured with notable exceptions (most probably due to the relatively small population of surviving veterans) being South Africans serving in the SAAF units and those few Americans who flew second-hand Beau night fighters over the Med and Italy while waiting for the P-61 Black Widow to arrive in theatre. For a book to cover so much ground in just over 220 pages is impressive.

Some of the chapters, or parts thereof as several include memories contributed by more than one veteran, feel like they were originally written for magazine features. Indeed, one of the introductions even includes ‘writes Graham Pitchfork’. This is understandable given the decades of work the author has performed highlighting forgotten aircrew, and men behind the medals, for UK based aviation periodicals. It is also the nature of the anthology to an extent. I haven’t read any other titles in the Boys series because, well, jets, but I can only assume this book follows a similar format, albeit with a range of operations more extensive than its predecessors. 

A strong feature of the chapters, and the new sections within a chapter, is the early inclusion of a headshot, or crew shot or better, of the men telling the story. This is a lovely, simple tool to immediately put a face to a name. The rest of the photos are liberally sprinkled throughout the text with, it would appear, some attention paid to keeping the lower quality ones smaller so as not to show too much ‘grain’ on the paper stock used. There is, however, some funky text wrapping here and there with little blocks of text floating on a sea of white space next to a photo. This leaves some pages looking a little clunky, but they’re not much of a distraction in the great scheme of things. After all, we’re talking Beaufighters and their crews here!

One of my great bugbears with the Beaufighter, and the reporting of its history, is the continued use of its apparent nickname, ‘Whispering Death’, and its (never proven by evidence) Japanese origin. Why this myth continues to perpetuate is beyond me when the likes of Chaz Bowyer, for one, in the seventies, debunked it as a RAF creation to make fun of journalists. In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote to Grub Street when I saw the dismaying use of the nickname on the original cover design for BB. It was, happily, replaced, but still rears its head (once, thankfully) on page 19. Coupled with referring to the engines as being of the ‘rotary’ type (as opposed to radial) in the introduction, minor repeated typos, some swapped captions and a reference on page 120 to something mentioned on page 103, that’s not there, there’s a little undercurrent of the production feeling a bit rushed in places. 

However, superbly curated by the author, as ever it’s the aircrew accounts that make this book stand out, and the excellent overall production standard of the thing itself. The dustcover design is repeated on the boards, as appears standard for Grub Street these days, and the combination of the shades of blue, and the white font of the title, makes it really pop on the shelf. 

There are few things better than reading an anthology from those who were there and Beaufighter Boys delivers in spades.

ISBN 978-1-911621-44-7

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Fatal Mission - Mal Elliott


Amid the flurry of Australian aircrew books released mid-year by at least three publishers, a re-invigorated Big Sky Publishing contributed two (three if you count Bob Grandin’s Vietnam-era Answering the Call). Pleasingly, one of these books looks at a Lancaster crew with 467 Squadron. Despite the continued, sadly belated, public recognition of Bomber Command and its people in recent years (coinciding with the memorial construction and unveiling in London in 2012), I am struggling to think of another recent book concentrating on 467 Squadron. Therefore, Mal Elliott’s Fatal Mission is most welcome, particularly as it tells the story of another crew in detail, a crew that would most likely have remained remembered by family members and little else. While falling short in some of the important periphery knowledge, most of which should have been picked up in the editorial process, Fatal Mission makes sense of the confusion and emptiness too often left when a crew went down.

The author is the nephew of one of the men in the crew. Oscar Furniss, the navigator, had a fairly average childhood, albeit in the idyllic surrounds of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, and graduated with a Diploma of Agriculture in 1941. Aviation had always distracted him, however, so, with the war well and truly underway, he signed up in December before officially enlisting in July 1942. Selected to become a navigator, partly because of his strength in mathematics, Oscar went to Canada, receiving his brevet in April 1943, before finally reaching the UK in June. Caught up in the system, the subsequent months were interspersed with periods of idleness and, of course, eventual postings to an Advanced Flying Unit and then an OTU. Oscar was slowed down somewhat, by proving susceptible to the cold and wet English weather, and was hospitalised several times with bronchitis. Despite this, he managed to stay with his crew as they progressed to a Heavy Conversion Unit and then Lancaster Finishing School. It was not until April 1944, more than three years after signing up, that Oscar (and his crew) was posted to Waddington and 467 Squadron (he was eventually told he would be discharged once a replacement nav was found).

A frustrating start of two cancelled ops quickly gave way to the crew successfully completing their first on 18 April when they were part of the raid attacking the Juvisy railway yards near Paris. By 4 May, five of the seven-man crew were dead.

They were shot down by a night fighter during the successful, but tragically confused, Mailly-le-Camp raid to the east of Paris. Interestingly, unlike the majority of Lancasters, which were shot down while orbiting and awaiting the order to bomb, the crew of ‘Naughty Nan’, the rather troublesome veteran Lanc they had flown their first op on, was lost as they cleared the target. Two men survived, Stan Jolly and Bob Hunter, one badly burned (Hunter), and managed to avoid German imprisonment, albeit with Hunter confined to hospital, until liberated by advancing Allied forces. It is their memories, along with eyewitness accounts on the ground, which add substantial, and important, detail regarding the bomber’s final moments.

The book is a fairly standard approach to this kind of story. There is a personal connection followed in detail, crew members are progressively introduced, their roles and training explained, contemporaries add depth, and then there’s ops and the loss. A lot of work has clearly gone in to every stage with the analysis of the crash, and piecing together its timeline, done really well. I was somewhat concerned to read, in the acknowledgements, the author thanking an esteemed military author for massaging his notes into a ‘richly detailed manuscript’. Having already flicked through the book beforehand, and having met the author several weeks previously, I had wondered where his voice was as it did not seem to come through strongly at all. The narrative is, however, very nicely done and despite the issues I had with some core Bomber Command knowledge, Fatal Mission was near impossible to put down.

Near impossible to put down, but so very frustrating on occasion as a myriad of avoidable errors dilute the effectiveness of the delivery. Granted, it’s quite likely the ‘man on the street’ might not pick up on such things, but this is history so the effort needs to be made. 

While nicely illustrated, with images placed throughout the book, the reproduction and inclusion of some photos left much to be desired. Two menus are included in a timely manner, but are so small they are virtually unreadable and, therefore, of little use. A photo of a replica (fibreglass) Spitfire on a pole, a restored, unarmed ‘warbird’ Mosquito and a post-war modified Anson are used to depict these types. Fair enough, they get the point across, but the availability of wartime images of all three means a missed opportunity, and a relatively easy one that could have been fulfilled. The Anson in particular looks to be one of the post-war developments of the Mk.XIX. When there were literally thousands of Ansons serving in Canada, it is frustrating an image of one of these, of which there would be many, could not be used instead to better depict what Oscar trained on.

Unit codes for 467 Squadron are photo-shopped onto a descriptive image of a Lanc in Chapter Five (a chapter that purports to be about the Lancaster as an aircraft, but loses its way somewhat despite some good images of crew positions). Sadly, these codes are not easy to distinguish and the effort performed on this image makes one wonder why the same wasn’t done to the aircraft on the cover, the codes and configuration of which bear little resemblance to ‘Naughty Nan’ (also mentioned on the cover).  

That’s all a bit anorak-y of me, more so than usual, but here’s another one. Off the cuff comments like ‘…the Lancaster and the P51 Mustang were generally fitted with Packard engines’ are misleading. Less than half of the Lancasters built had Packard Merlins. Nothing general about it. Look, things like the cover will attract attention and make the book sell. Good. It’s quite possible most people who read it won’t even notice what’s mentioned above, but the perpetuation of such things does nobody any good. Like referring to using Harvards as trainers in Australia or Cheshire being Master Bomber for Mailly-le-Camp…

The appendices are particularly good and evidence of the amount of digging the author did to uncover the story of his relative and the crew. The accounts of the two survivors are included in full, with additional comments, and must have been difficult to contemplate given the details they provide about Oscar’s final moments. The book ends, however, with the bibliography. There is no index. It needs one, as does any book of this genre. Four index pages, two leafs, would have been enough to elevate this work further.

An attractive paperback of just over 200 pages, Fatal Mission exudes quality, but falls a little short with the fine detail, the supporting detail that would have added further depth to the extensive research performed by the clearly inexhaustible author. Could some of it have been lost in translation by the ‘ghost writer’? Possibly, but the flip side of this is the nicely crafted narrative. An enjoyable reading experience will probably trump the various niggles in the historical fact and this is to the benefit of the men of ‘Naughty Nan’. They are more likely to be fondly remembered, by a reader with no prior connection to them, if the book is savoured. That is, after all, the whole point – to keep their memory, and their story, alive. Mind you, understanding their world, and portraying it accurately, helps too.

ISBN 978-1-922265-14-2

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Just As It Happened - Merv Pike


Sing this to the tune of the Christmas song ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’: “It’s a most Sunderland-y time of the year (so far)”. This year has seen me, from a Short Sunderland point of view, make discoveries, acquire a holy grail and, embarrassingly, be the recipient of the utmost generosity. Both Alan Deller’s The Kid Glove Pilot and Guy Warner’s We Search Far (230 Squadron) were new to me and, weirdly, both published by Colourpoint. The latter also sees funds go to the squadron association so everyone is happy. The holy grail was Tom Docherty’s Hunt Like a Tiger (another 230 Squadron book). Always ridiculously priced, I had all but given up finding a copy until I made contact with Tom and bought it direct. Finally, a paperback copy of one of the hardest Sunderland books to find these days, Ivan Southall’s classic They Shall Not Pass Unseen, was gifted to me for safe keeping. It’s the first copy I’ve ever seen in the flesh and I’m sure I hear triumphant trumpets playing when I look at it. Into this mix of superb titles, comes another new discovery. Merv Pike’s memoir has been around for more than a decade now. Short Sunderland aircrew memoirs aren’t exactly common, and RAAF ones rarer still. Like its author, it’s honest, humble and bears little in the way of airs and graces.

There is not much of a pre-war preamble detailing the author’s childhood, so the reader is thrust straight into Pike’s eighteen months in the Army and an immediate indication of his character – what will be, will be. Transferring to the RAAF, he applies himself to any task at hand to the best of his abilities, but remains open to other opportunities should he fail the pilot’s course (committed to doing his bit). This endearing attitude, combined with no inflated importance regarding his obvious skills and abilities, is maintained throughout. Pike completed his flying training in Australia, on Tiger Moths and Ansons, before crossing the Pacific to the US, on the way to the UK, where he eventually joined 461 Squadron RAAF. He followed the usual path to Sunderland captain to the extent he flew as second pilot etc with a crew, but, rather than eventually becoming that crew’s new captain, he was sent on his skipper’s course with a new crew (and then spent nine months with them).

The transition to the Sunderland, vastly larger than anything he had flown before (or perhaps even seen), still had the author in awe when he wrote the book. It is completely understandable and the cover image perfectly conveys the size of the aircraft. There is mention of completing a radar course in a Wellington (part of his role as a pilot in a Sunderland crew was to rotate through the radar operator role during an op), but it is unclear whether this was attended before Pike’s introduction to the big flying boat. Either way, his passion for the Sunderland is palpable and, after more than 1300 hours on the type, he certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Besides the flying time mentioned in passing (Pike is self-effacing and spends more time heaping praise on his colleagues), there is also a brief mention of him having flown 32 ops by the time of his wedding in late July 1944. Seeing out the end of the war, and not returning to Australia until sailing from the UK in September 1945, means he was a phenomenally experienced airman. That’s what makes Just As It Happened all the more valuable. Any discussion about 461 Squadron inevitably includes the late, great Dudley Marrows, his success against U-461, the coincidences involved in that action, and the subsequent post-war meeting of U-boat and Sunderland captains. In Merv Pike we have another 461 pilot who certainly did his fair share, another angle, one of the many as it were. His book adds further depth to our understanding of the Australian Sunderland crew experience (in the same breath, I must also mention Phil Davenport’s Hurrah for the Next Man). 

It’s the wrong word, but the narrative suffers from the post-war loss of the author’s logbook, ironically to water damage. It therefore largely relies on fairly detailed memories that are not, naturally, a comprehensive record of service, but the closest there ever will be. To that extent, events are recounted sequentially, but the author allows himself the freedom to detail something as it comes to him. The genesis of the book was a request from a high school, and that does show in the style somewhat, but, in doing so, the life and challenges of a Sunderland pilot (long hours, terrible weather, the unforgiving ocean, the enemy), and the part ‘lady luck’ played, are laid bare. Pike is particularly reflective on his good fortune, detailing a flight up the Gironde Estuary (southwest France), following a Bay of Biscay night patrol, in daylight to look for a German warship. You can see him still shaking his head, at how they made it home, as he wrote about that particular op (during which they also happened upon a crash-diving U-boat). It is one of the few ops written about in any detail so is clearly, and obviously, a standout among the many patrols he flew. There is also some important introspection about dealing with loss and continuing on, something we need to remember especially with regard to these men bearing such things for decades after the war. The reflection continues in the final few chapters as the author summarises his service and then looks at his post-war life, during which he and his wife made several wise real estate decisions to settle on a family home, including following up on business opportunities that led to a well-earned retirement.

A small, solid paperback of 220-plus pages, the interior layout contributes to a lot of wasted white space, but it is very neat. The narrative, though, does need a tidy up to tighten it and remove errors without losing the author’s voice. Among various spelling typos and the like, ‘aerolons’ appears several times when the reference is clearly to the machine’s ailerons. A few facts, such as the number of surviving Sunderlands (none left per page 184, but this perhaps refers to Australian museums only), and a few statements included in the W.W.II introductory summary, also need to be reviewed and refined. Admittedly, however, the reader is ‘here’ for the memories of flying with Coastal Command, not a proper history lesson, but correcting such things is what editors are for. Many of the sourced images (i.e. not from the author’s collection) in the reviewed edition appear to have been acquired, perhaps downloaded, as low-resolution copies so have reproduced so poorly they add nothing. Removing these altogether, or obtaining better replacements, would be a vast improvement. All other photographs included are printed on the same paper stock as the text and are spread throughout the book. The moustachioed Pike, cap at a rakish angle, looks quite the character − a fine mix of joie de vivre and the utmost professionalism. 

Every one of my reading sessions ended reluctantly, but with the glow of looking forward to the next one. Just As It Happened is one of those books that reminds the reader how lucky he or she is to have such a window into a man’s life, or part thereof. Like this review, it is not a finely polished piece of writing. It is, however, honest and written by a classic quiet achiever. Not since Dick Dakeyne’s Radar Gunner has an Australian aircrew memoir captured my attention to this extent. Take a bow, Merv Pike.

ISBN 978-1-87687-013-3

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Ready to Strike - Adam Lunney


There is a living legend airworthy in Australia, yet, despite there only being two flying Spitfires in the country, it is often seen as ‘the other Spitfire’ alongside its more ‘toothy’ stablemate. Of all the aircraft flown in combat by RAAF squadrons in Europe and the Middle East, Spitfire Mk.XVI TB863 is the only one left flying. It is a mobile reminder of the RAAF commitment to the air war against Germany, but, despite the European war claiming the lion’s share of attention for much of the rest of the world, save Bomber Command, it comes a distant second to the local study of Australia’s role in the South Pacific. The Spitfire is painted in the markings it wore in early 1945 when it saw service with 453 Squadron RAAF. Most, if not all, Australian fighter squadrons in the northern hemisphere are overshadowed by the accomplishments of 3 Squadron in North Africa and beyond. It was exciting, therefore, to learn of Adam Lunney’s project, and its subsequent publication in late 2018, focussing on 453 Squadron’s activities over Normandy in mid-1944.

When the unit formed in Scotland in June 1942, it did so as a new, ‘green’ squadron within the RAF. The squadron’s nameplate, however, had already been through the wringer in a previous incarnation during the defence of Malaya and Singapore. Flying the Brewster Buffalo, the squadron did what it could against the all-conquering Japanese (everything was inferior to the ‘Zero’ at the time, yet the Buffalo did better than many believe, but was completely hamstrung by poor spares supplies, and the lack of time to complete repairs, with most examples lost being destroyed on the ground). Still, admittedly embarrassed by the chain of events down the Malayan Peninsula and into the Dutch East Indies, the authorities were not terribly enthused with the squadron’s legacy or its continuation. However, just a few months after its disbandment, it was reborn on the other side of the world. While admittedly two separate entities, ‘453’ was again active and, despite its unwarranted reputation in the Far East, its pilots would continue the tradition of courage and dedication begun by the Buffalo men.

A significant part of the RAAF’s commitment to the air war in Europe, 453 Squadron was really just another Spitfire unit within the RAF’s Fighter Command. Its early leaders, squadron and flight, were posted in from other units where they had gained valuable combat experience. They were not necessarily Australian, though. Indeed, in addition to the predominantly British leadership team, there were three Poles and a Canadian among the pilots assigned to the new unit, all of who were generally senior to the Australian pilots posted in (mostly pilots officers and flight sergeants). The groundcrew were also local despite the plan for the Article XV squadrons, and the desires of the Australian government, to have RAAF squadrons solely staffed by Australians. At the time, despite the obvious success of the Empire Air Training Scheme, Australian aircrew (and other nationalities flowing into the UK) went where they were needed within the RAF. Still, the effort was made to place them with RAAF units. Despite a pool maintained in 1944, 453 Squadron still could not guarantee having an Australian pilot posted in as a replacement post-Normandy.

Working up in the relatively quiet airspace over Scotland, the squadron was eventually posted south where, like any other Spitfire squadron on the frontline, it was heavily involved in the RAF’s offensive over occupied Europe. Convoy and local patrols aside, the pilots’ lives consisted of a steady diet of bomber escorts and fighter sweeps from their airfields on the English Channel. It’s all very familiar stuff, but for a book that mentions Normandy on the cover, the extent of the coverage is surprising, but necessary. This discussion runs to about 100 pages and, more so than the Far East, shows the development of the squadron as a fighting unit and, importantly, the evolution of its culture and character. Typical of an operational squadron, many pilots come and go, for various reasons. For those who return for a second tour, the author goes to great pains to welcome them back with reference to the response from the incumbents (often highly amusing). This builds the feeling of family that is at the heart of such an organisation.

Ultimately, 453 Squadron becomes part of the Second Tactical Air Force, the RAF’s major direct contribution to the forthcoming Normandy landings. Initially operating from RAF Ford, as it had been before the invasion, the squadron’s personnel were the first Australians to fly combat ops from France when staged through Advanced Landing Grounds before making the move proper to ALG B.11 on the coast just to the west of Arromanches. Life now consisted of a frenetic, endless, dangerous mix of ground attack, escort and interception operations, with the former certainly making up the majority. Fighter pilots being fighter pilots, the Australians yearned for some action in their preferred role – encounters with the Luftwaffe. While rare, per the narrative, the squadron performed well when it did have the chance to tangle with German aircraft. Worn out at the end of September, the squadron was back in the UK for a well-earned rest, but that, as the author tantalisingly closes the operational discussion, is another story.

This is the first book of any depth to be written about the squadron since Duty Done, ‘Rusty’ Leith’s biography written with, and published by in 2001, the esteemed Cyril Ayris (Leith also had the most time in TB863 during its operational career). While the squadron continued to fly sorties to the end of the war, the book finishes its look at ops as August 1944 closes. It is, as the cover says, ops ‘over Normandy’. That said, ‘Normandy’ doesn’t kick off until page 163. For a book a touch over 400 pages, that’s a good chunk of what is effectively an operational preamble. The author steps the reader through the squadron’s history, starting with the Far East, before jumping sideways to introduce the Spitfire as the weapon the unit used to great effect. These first two chapters are almost polar opposites. The Far East chapter is not the most sparkling of openings for an operational history. It feels laborious, but I think this is a function of trying to condense a hell of a lot of information (Brian Cull and Christopher Shores did it over several books!) into a single chapter that, in the great scheme of things, isn’t vital to the book. On the flip side, the following chapter, meet the Spitfire, a subject that could easily get away from any writer given the breadth of detail and stories available to draw from, is handled beautifully. It is a well-written analysis of the most famous of aircraft that avoids the expected stereotypes and emotion (or the gushing and waxing lyrical!), but shows respect and a genuine passion for the design. Comments from those who flew the Spitfire were chosen carefully and range from published memoirs and accounts to recorded interviews on archive or conducted by the author himself. A little over forty pages long, with some illustrations, and almost 200 references (more on that shortly), it is the chapter that sets the hook in the reader and confirms the author’s ability to get to grips with a sweeping subject. 

Then it’s down to business. The operational history is very nicely handled. While, at times, there is not a lot of action pre-Normandy, the narrative avoids being dry and repetitive. Quotes, anecdotes and mini-biographies/vignettes, particularly as the pilots come and go, are used to good effect to break up the day-to-day reporting and present a very readable account. The momentum builds as the reader approaches the date of the Normandy landings, but despite the incessant operational flying, the author takes the time to follow a pilot’s escapades as he evades the Germans after being shot down, for example. Such a thing could quite easily be limited to ‘Joe Bloggs was back with the squadron three weeks later after evading the Germans and making it back to the Allied lines’ if there was a desire to keep things centred on operations (I’m looking at the disappointing The Stabber of the Sky as I write this), but, as you’ve hopefully worked out by now, this is far more than an operational history. After all, what is a squadron, what is a Spitfire, without the men who were part of it?

Ready to Strike is available as a print on demand book (and at shops that have acquired stock of course). This enables it to be printed locally to the buyer, thus saving on dreaded postage costs. The review copy is the softcover option and makes a good, solid book. I would suggest, however, if you can afford it, getting the hardcover. The covers of the softcover have a matt finish and, weirdly, are quite adept at absorbing pen ink from other paper (like handwritten review notes). In either format, however, this is an attractive publication illustrated throughout by images sourced from families, archives and, once again, the author’s own legwork during at least one visit to Normandy. As alluded to above, it is extensively referenced and the bibliography is equally epic. There is no index, however, and that is a let down for a book as important as this, a key, latter day feature in the recorded history of the RAAF in Europe. The referencing at the end of each chapter helps soften this blow a little. That said, for the author’s first book, this is how operational histories should be tackled. Focus on the people, keep it personal and don’t get bogged down in the numbers and stats. They’re vital, yes, but they wouldn’t exist were it not for the people to whom we owe so much. Adam Lunney achieves this fine balance with Ready to Strike.

ISBN 978-0-6483552-2-9

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Air Battle for Burma - Bryn Evans


Long time readers (thank you) of Aircrew Book Review, and those of you who know me personally, will be well and truly aware of my eternal fascination with the Burma campaign and, of course, the aerial aspect of it. I will therefore, competing pressures allowing, excitedly devour anything I can find on the subject. By far the best Burma aviation book to be released recently is The Flying Hours by Andrew Millar. Written by someone who was there for several years, from soon after the withdrawal into India right through to the Allied advance and post-Japanese surrender, it is an incredible and sobering account of squadron life in the region at the time. It is a personal account, obviously, with a fine balance of exquisite detail and enough context to mark the author’s important place in the big picture. That big picture, despite being part of the ‘forgotten war’, has been written about fairly extensively, although it’s relatively little compared to Europe or the American side of the Pacific. Bryn Evans’ book was, therefore, gleefully welcomed with a touch of ‘what can be new about it?’ An Australian author, Evans has added a distinctly antipodean aspect to his narrative with reference to some superb written records. As gripping as this book is, though, some of it borders on the frustrating.

Poorly equipped from the start, albeit with hindsight once the Japanese were engaged, the Allied air forces could initially only resist and fall back in the face of a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that was better equipped for the terrain it was fighting for. The weather in that part of the world, however, always maintains supremacy. It stopped the Japanese in their tracks, but allowed both sides to consolidate their positions. Several passages in the book include memories of flying in atrocious weather and are as harrowing as any of the many combat accounts included. 

In the case of the RAF in India, from late 1942, the long, quiet, bad weather periods enabled a major re-equipment and airfield building program. However, it was not until the arrival of Spitfires, with their superior rate of climb, in the second half of 1943, that a true advantage, from an air supremacy point of view, could be regularly exploited over Japanese formations that continued to be heavily escorted. Even so, the Japanese cottoned on that the Spitfires could not be everywhere. Before then, it had been Hurricanes, Mohawks, and Beaufighters at night, holding the line. Like New Guinea, despite the eventually overwhelming aerial advantage achieved by the Allies, Burma was a long, slow grind and still not completely resolved by war’s end.

This growing superiority in the air was particularly important when Allied drives into Burma required significant, life-saving resupply by streams of transport aircraft (not to mention behind the lines operations by the likes of the Chindits). Legendary battles, such as the ‘Admin Box’, became Allied victories, strong Japanese aerial opposition aside, because the men cut-off on the ground could be supplied entirely by large transport aircraft, and the wounded could be evacuated by vulnerable, short-field capable machines like Austers, L-Birds and even Fox Moths.

The benefits of the Allied control of the air are reflected in the evolution of the narrative. The backbone of the book, the finely curated collection of aircrew accounts, gives way to descriptions of the later land campaigns, particularly Imphal, Kohima and the taking of Rangoon, or, generally, combined operations with an emphasis on air-to ground support and forward air control. Admittedly, I queried the relevance of discussing cab-rank and the visual control post on the ground, not to mention an entire chapter devoted to the ‘war in the shadows’ (Chindit operations and agent delivery behind the lines), but all are direct results of achieving air superiority evolving into air supremacy. Fighter-bombers can go about their work while fighters watch their backs, allowing the former to loiter as required, soldiers behind the lines can be supplied in sufficient volume by Dakotas and the SOE types can get on with their jobs with less risk of interception and not even making it to the drop zone in the first place.

Despite this valuable look at the ability of ground support to proceed with little enemy air interference, there is very little mentioned about the mainstay of the Burma ground attack strength – the Beaufighter. As above, I would initially question its inclusion at length when focussing on the achievement of air supremacy, but its long-range attacks on enemy airfields and infrastructure, among other things, should surely rate more discussion than the ‘war in the shadows’ angle (as important as that is). Instead, all but two of the references to Bristol’s twin pertain to its use as a night fighter in the theatre.

Air Battle for Burma should be of interest to any student of the campaign, casual or otherwise, but it varies from riveting to clunky (this review probably gives it a run for its money regarding the latter!). As just mentioned above, everything is built around the superb collection of memories from those who flew in combat there with several Australians and New Zealanders featuring prominently. The records of Noel Constantine RAAF (the book is, pleasingly, dedicated to him and his wife) are heavily leaned on and prove valuable given his time in theatre rising through the ranks to become one of Australia’s unsung fighter leaders. Kiwi Vic Bargh, referred throughout as ‘Kitchy’, as done in other publications (not ‘Ketchil’ per his biography), is also heavily referenced early on as is the likes of Jack Storey etc. There really are some engrossing memories recorded. A lot of the names of recurring ‘characters’, however, are often repeated in full, complete with rank and nickname, sometimes on the same page. Other repetitive aspects creep in too – such as biographical details, full squadron titles, Spitfire re-equipment (consecutive pages!), scene setting details, and even the occasional concluding discussion (particularly regarding the Admin Box, the first large-scale resupply by air alone) – and all act as speed bumps to an otherwise nicely flowing narrative. A bit more attention on the editing side of things would have tidied these up easily, perhaps shortened the book by several pages, and caught misleading items like the Hurricane Mk.V typo (for Mk.IV) and the Mk.IIc carrying four 40mm cannons (instead of four 20mm).

The ‘Allied’ on the cover is perhaps a misnomer, however, as it focuses on the RAF (if we ignore the cosmopolitan nature of the air arm at the time) with the Flying Tigers and USAAF fighters only mentioned in passing. That said, that makes it even more ideal for inclusion in ABR!

While it falls a little short in places, to embrace a theatre where the hectic fighting was separated by months of inaction, and then concentrate on examining one aspect in context, requires the ability to hold a reader’s interest and ABFB certainly succeeds there. The photo section contains some nice, relevant images and there are some very useful maps early on that, in all honesty, could do with a bit of tweaking to make clearer (either that or use them as the basis for newly drawn examples). Each chapter is extensively referenced and the glossary, bibliography and index are pleasingly comprehensive. The epilogue serves to remind the reader no one is immune from war, nor have we yet learned to avoid it ‘at all costs’. A useful postscript provides potted biographies of some of the aircrew whose memories contributed so much to the narrative. Through the extensive use of Noel Constantine’s records, it is clear the author has developed an affinity with him. Air Battle for Burma cements Bryn Evans’ place in this genre, following earlier works on the air war and other subjects, so perhaps he might consider the biography of the interesting, albeit ultimately tragic, life of a forgotten Australian leader. Tackling a subject as broad as the air battle for Burma, and doing so competitively, surely means such a worthwhile project is within the realms of possibility. Either way, the author’s next work is happily anticipated.

ISBN 978-1-47385-892-3

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