Friday, November 20, 2015

Strike And Strike Again - the return!

I have always been a Beaufighter man. That sentence should really just have an ‘insert aircraft type here’ because I really am infatuated with anything flown by the RAF and Commonwealth air forces. However, the Beaufighter has always struck a chord with me. It was the strike aircraft that held the line but was there at the end. When the concept of the strike wings was being developed, the Beaufighter filled the vital anti-flak role and then took over torpedo duties from the Beaufort before reaching the zenith of its career with the widespread use of the rocket projectile. It exudes a sense of purpose. There’s a quality about it that I just can’t lay a finger on.  

As you can imagine, therefore, due to my struggle above to convey my enduring admiration and respect for this aircraft and its men, I am always on the look out for Beaufighter books. They aren’t thick on the ground but it is easy to build a nice library on the type. The ultimate Pacific theatre title is, easily, Neville Parnell’s Beaufighters In The Pacific (revised and updated from the ground-breaking Whispering Death of 1980). That’s the be all and end all when it come to RAAF Beaufighter operations in the region. There are, of course, a good number of memoirs from all theatres and all relevant air forces but, from an Australian point of view, the most elusive, to me anyway, has been Ian Gordon’s Strike And Strike Again. This book, the story of No. 455 Squadron RAAF 1944-45, was first published by Banner Books in 1995. This was a time when good, detailed squadron histories were beginning to be published (or re-published) and Banner was at the forefront. The first edition sold out and has been much sought after since. The secondhand market, over the past decade, has seen some silly prices for this book which put it out of reach of many an enthusiast and collector (myself included). Not any more.

After repeated requests for any stock he had left, and seeing a copy of the original edition listed on eBay for A$700, Ian Gordon, who now runs his own publishing house in Canberra, decided to produce a new edition of what to me was one of my holy grails. I had only ever seen one copy of the first edition before and that was behind glass in a museum never to be read!

The major hurdle, however, in producing this new edition was that there was no access to a digital copy of the original manuscript. A first edition was scanned and each page was manipulated and refined so that it did not look like a scan. The photos were copied separately and re-inserted. Several errors and oversights have been corrected but there is no new information. That’s fine although this is probably most revealing in the appendix that deals with the post-war lives of the aircrew. I don’t think this has been updated … yet. This is essentially a modern copy of a classic at a realistic, and affordable, price. Print on demand technology has progressed to a stage where single copies can be produced to a very high standard and this is certainly exhibited in the hardcover I have before me. It is 244 pages of Beaufighter goodness laid out on what I would call a mid-range paper stock (all the better for keeping the cost of the finished product reasonable). The photos are reproduced well and cover a good range of operational life. Most dramatic, of course, are the strike photos which always capture the danger and madness of the whole thing. Rarely is one taken from a level aircraft and the true nature of these operations is painfully clear. I have seen many, many strike photos through working with Graeme Gibson on his No. 16 Squadron SAAF project and, of course, being a sucker for anything featuring Beaufighters, but they never cease to tell story after story.

There are many stories in this book and this new edition puts them in front of a reading public again. Granted, it is a specialist topic but it has such a wonderful chance of doing well again because this, let’s call it the twentieth anniversary edition, is so reasonably priced, available as a hard or soft cover and, perhaps importantly in this technological age, as a PDF. Many of us turn our backs on this technology in favour of a real book but let’s not forget that it is technology that has returned Strike And Strike Again to the world. This time, too, it won’t sell out!

I will always be a Beaufighter man. To finally hold a copy of this book in my hands and, at last, see what all the fuss is about is one of the true highlights this hobby has given me. Now it is partly my responsibility to get the word out to all those who, like me, have always wanted to dive into Strike And Strike Again and live with the likes of Davenport, Whishaw, Clouston, Gordon, Wiggins, Milson, Masson, Cox, Ilbery et al. It has to be done. The Viking Boys will never be forgotten because of the foresight and technology employed to produce this new edition. That hole in your collection can now be easily filled. It is such a good thing.

ISBN 978-0-9943558-8-1 (hardback)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Shot Down - Alex Kerr

As you have probably guessed, I've been busy working on the most recent issue of Flightpath magazine. For once, however, I was lucid enough to realise I wouldn't have a chance to write my own reviews for some time so asked several friends, whose knowledge and writing I respect, to be guest reviewers. The whole point was to keep adding fresh content to ABR but, of course, I need the time to publish it in the first place. Anyway, first up, is a review that is a real treat. Not only is it the chance to discover this book and add it to your library, but it is written by an author currently working on a PhD focussing on the Australian prisoner of war experience in Stalag Luft III. Kristen Alexander is a long-time supporter, and featured author, of ABR and this is some of her best, most thoughtful and analytical writing. It is a review of a calibre that this site has not seen before. Grab a coffee, settle in and lose yourself in this. Andy Wright

Over the past decade or so, I’ve written about Australian pilots in the air war against Germany, exploring, among other things, how they coped in combat and with the after effects of battle. In some cases, their very identity was linked intrinsically to their capacity to fly and, indeed, for some, their need to fly was so strong they thought little of the cost. I began to wonder how they would manage when ‘wingless’, when they were taken out of operations not through combat injury but because they had been captured.

Even from the first day of the Second World War, Germany claimed airmen as prisoners of war. Australian airmen were a minority. Of the servicemen captured in Europe, 8,591 were Australians, and 1,476 of those were airmen serving in the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force. This equated to approximately seventeen per cent of Australian prisoners. Australian airmen were imprisoned throughout an extensive and ever-growing German prison network and many of those captured in Mediterranean and Middle East actions had previously been incarcerated in Italian camps. Each branch of the armed services managed its own facilities but, even after the Luftwaffe established its own camps, airmen were not confined exclusively in Luft camps. So it was for Sergeant Alex Kerr, a graduate of the Empire Air Training Scheme’s No. 1 Course, who was imprisoned by the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe.

Twenty-year-old Alex had been operational with No. 115 Squadron as second pilot on a Wellington for less than a month when, on 10 May 1941, he and his British crew members were on their way home after a successful bombing run to Hamburg, one of Germany’s most fiercely defended targets.

With little warning, a night fighter announced its presence by firing on, and hitting, the rear turret. The pilot made every attempt to evade but the German fighter pilot fired again. Bullets ripped through fabric and metal and Alex was knocked backwards as he was hit. As the aircraft began to burn, as the fabric-covered Wellington was apt to do, he lay there, cursing the German pilot, and, for several seconds, knew the stark fear of the helpless.

Alex lost consciousness. When he awoke, his fear had gone, replaced by a ‘lulling, lethargic calm, a slowness of movement that could well be fatal in an emergency’, and so it would have been if Dave, the rear gunner who had amazingly survived the attentions of the night fighter, hadn’t shoved him out of the stricken aircraft, thus saving his life.

The West Australian’s injuries were so severe there had been talk of medical repatriation. After months in German hospitals, he was sent to a prisoner of war camp. He had had a relatively easy time of it in the hospitals, even quite enjoying the ‘gentle and friendly attitude’ of medical staff and fellow prisoners. He had even valued kindnesses from orderlies working behind the backs of German guards to acquire treats for the patients. But now, as Alex ‘saw barbed wire close up for the first time’ he ‘realised its grim purpose’. No chance of repatriation now. He was just a number.

Alex was incarcerated in Stalag IIIE, Kirchhain, then Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Stalag Luft VI, Heydekrug, Stalag 357, Thorn and Stalag XIB, Fallingbostel. In the final months of the war, he trudged across Germany in the Long March. After narrowly escaping death when the column was strafed by Allied aircraft, he and a mate escaped to Allied lines and freedom. These are the bare bones of a fascinating memoir which, as indicated in the foreword, reveals a man of great resilience and integrity who demonstrated strength, courage and devotion to his mates.

I will just point out here that this memoir is an important addition to Australian military history. Not just because of some of the particular aspects, which I will touch on below, but because there are significantly fewer accounts by Australians taken prisoner by the Germans. For example, in a review article covering books written by or about Australian prisoners between 1980 and 1989, Hank Nelson listed 48 works. Of those, 40 related to prisoners of the Japanese, two dealt with prisoners of Japan and Germany, and six are about prisoners of Germany and Italy. In his 2002 survey of the ‘prisoner experience as literature’, Peter Stanley noted that of the 500+ books in the Australian War Memorial’s Australian prisoner of war catalogue, three-fifths deal with prisoners of the Japanese, prisoners of the Reich account for a third, and those relating to captives of the Italians take up less than a tenth of the shelf space. The proportions have barely changed. To its credit, Big Sky Publishing’s catalogue includes a number of prisoner of war accounts dealing with captivity in Germany.

But back to Alex. Largely based on the diary he kept during imprisonment, Shot Down is written in such a matter-of-fact style that the reader on occasion has to peer through the lines to the full emotion of living in close confinement without a release date in sight, where ‘wingless’ airmen could not contribute to the fighting war effort and were so isolated from credible sources of war news that they could only trust that the Allies would eventually prevail. It is hard to imagine just what being a prisoner of war meant, but I had a go at it, as I wanted to get a good look behind the lines that Alex did not write, and to hear what he did not quite say.

Imagine living in an environment where there was no silence, in such profound intimacy that every breath, every sniff or snort, every fart and stomach grumble, every nightmare, every mood swing, every shift on lumpy palliasse and bed board-deprived bunk, every surreptitious movement under threadbare blanket was heard by every other man in the overcrowded barrack. Even thoughts were not private because, after living in such close proximity, almost anyone could read them and so, the only real solitude was in the cooler. Just imagine the tension building as men from all walks tried to muddle along with people so different in personality that they probably wouldn’t have bothered knowing them in ‘real life’. Consider trying to be cheery, friendly and tolerant when all you wanted to do was wring the bloody neck of the bloke who spilt the last teaspoon of the communal store of sugar. Imagine having to fill your time with any sort of busy-work just so you wouldn’t go crazy with inactivity. It almost defeats me to picture it, and I am sure it would defeat me to live it.

Alex, however, was made of much sterner stuff than me and despite everything, fared so well that he gained from his experiences. He also demonstrates that community can exist in enforced communal living. Indeed, it is one of the strengths of this memoir that Alex portrays a balanced account of life in a German prisoner of war camp. Monotonous, with great deprivation, yes - if not for regular Red Cross parcels, the men would have starved on German rations - but to compensate, lifelong friendships developed and were nurtured, and the foundations of many future careers were laid. In addition, much was discovered about goodness, kindness and humanity, and evil, in enemy, friend and self.

Like many other camps, Stalag IIIE had some benevolent guards who treated their charges reasonably well along with its share of tyrants ‘who had maltreated us’. Indeed, ‘Stalag IIIE was a camp in which violence had earlier been used and prisoners have been bashed by guards and subjected to harsh treatment ordered by the commandant.’ And so, after they had left Kirchhain, when Alex and his fellow prisoners were asked the names of the Germans who had traded with them, they handed in a list which included only the names of those who had mistreated them, knowing full well that the malefactors would be punished severely. To Alex’s credit, he does not let himself off the hook by refraining to include a story where he and his friends, perhaps understandably, exact retribution, especially when it seems he is not entirely sorry for his part in the scheme: ‘In retrospect it is probable that most of us felt rather guilty about the result’. And here is one of the reasons I like this memoir so much. There is nothing pretentious or literary about it. It is simple and unassuming and Alex is honest and open.    

Counterbalancing the darker side of humanity is a story which reveals true kindness and highlights all that is good about the ‘brotherhood of man’. Harry Calvert, who was older than Alex, had developed a well-earned reputation as Stalag IIIE’s most successful trader. As Alex sat on his bed contemplating how to celebrate his 21st birthday, Harry poked his head in the door: ‘I heard it’s your birthday today’. There were no secrets in a prisoner of war camp. Alex confirmed that it was indeed his birthday. ‘Happy birthday, Aussie’, Harry said, as he placed a precious egg in Alex’s hand. It was the first egg the West Australian had seen for a year, and a gift from a man Alex had barely met, even within the close confines of a prison camp. It was a gesture of compassion and generosity he would never forget.

As well as revealing the positives and negatives of the human condition and how many adjust to life without liberty, Alex recounts little known aspects of captivity in Europe. For example, he and 51 other prisoners tunnelled out of Stalag IIIE. He was on the run for ten days. He never forgot that ‘feeling of triumph and excitement’ during that, and subsequent escape attempts. ‘It was an exhilarating feeling knowing you were winning a dangerous cat and mouse game with maybe a disastrous result if you lost. The adrenaline was coursing through your veins almost continuously.’ Alex was one of the last to be recaptured. Fifty-one of the escapees were returned to camp. But not Harry Calvert, Alex’s birthday benefactor. He was the only casualty, shot for no apparent reason.

The Great Kirchhain Breakout was the largest, most successful escape attempt to date, yet, surprisingly, little has been written about it. Alex’s account is thus more than just a wartime memoir. It is a valuable addition to escape literature and, because of Australian involvement, our military history. So too is his description of life in Stalag Luft III. Rather than the usual officer-centric escape focus of the prolific Wooden Horse or Great Escape narratives, Alex offers a rare NCO perspective of everyday life and friendship in that most famous of camps.

Given the importance of Alex’s experiences, it is a shame, then, that in some instances his publishers have let him down. Or, at least, his copyeditor has. For instance, Stalag IIIE was located at Kirchhain, not Kirchain. The Luftwaffe’s reception camp was at Oberursel, near Frankfurt, not Ober Ursel, and the common parlance name of it, Dulag Luft, was an abbreviation of Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe, not Durchgang Lager. Messerschmitt ends with a double ‘t’. Spelling oversights were not the only instance of the copyeditor’s failure. There were multiple instances of the numeric ‘1’ appearing instead of the lowercase letter ‘l’. Being a fussy beggar (that should be spelled with a ‘u’, by the way), I was annoyed that there wasn’t an index. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times: history books need indexes. In fact, they should be mandatory. It is not just frustrated reviewers who need to flip from section to section, checking this and that, wanting to know if so-and-so appears in the text and so on and so forth. To atone (perhaps) for those sins of error and omission, the cover is eye-catching, full marks to the designer, and I was more than satisfied with the generous picture selection, including the use of colour rather than opting for cost-cutting greyscale.

Two photos in particular caught my attention and it really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. These two perfectly illustrate the physical toll exacted by captivity. The first was taken in December 1940 after the nineteen-year-old had been awarded his wings. ‘A pilot at last!’ reads the caption. It reveals a young, innocent looking man, with eyes full of hope and expectation of a decent flying career. The second, of Alex and Joan on their wedding day in August 1947 (more than two years since he absconded from the marching column), is such a contrast. The groom was only 26 yet looks years older. Is that grey touching his forehead? Any residual baby fat had long since fallen from his still gaunt cheekbones. And his eyes. What they had seen.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I am interested in how men cope in captivity, and I was concerned that perhaps Alex had not ultimately coped with four years of imprisonment. This wasn’t because Alex had confessed to it (quite the contrary as I will discuss below) but because of the lack of emotion in some parts, such as Harry Calvert’s death, and a dispassionate style which might indicate that nothing had touched him. But Alex had coped and did so remarkably well. His prison life was full of activity such as arts and crafts, sport and music. When the prison education system was established, he signed up. Not only did he relieve the monotony of camp existence through study, but he received the sort of education few Australian lads could ever dream of attaining. He received a Certificate in Social Science from Oxford University (he did so well in this that Oxford considered the standard he had achieved under camp conditions to be equivalent of that required for University Honours) and a Bachelor of Science and Economics degree from London University. If anything, the dispassionate style is a reflection of the fact that Alex felt that his prisoner of war years had not been overly harrowing; ‘they did not seem so important to me at the time’. Yes, Alex had managed well in captivity and there are a number of reasons for this.

At the beginning of the book, when he talks about his formative years, Alex tells of his inbuilt sense of optimism, how faced with new, unexpected experiences he just got on with it. For example, when he was pulled from school because his father’s income had suffered during the Depression, he ‘commiserated with Dad over his loss’, found a job post haste, enjoyed what it had to offer and ‘matured quickly and tasted many new facets of life … made new friends and tried my hand at a lot of new activities…’ Alex could have easily written that at the end of the book and it would have been equally as apt because that is exactly what he did in a succession of prisoner of war camps. He clearly made the most of his camp life and the new friendships it offered. Friends coped better in captivity. They shared food and memories and supported each other. But camaraderie was more than just a means of survival for Alex. He had a gift for friendship, both giving and receiving and his relationships with crewmembers and fellow prisoners lasted a lifetime and beyond. In many ways, this memoir is a testament to friendship.

Shot Down is also a testament to optimism and, looking back, Alex believed his inherent optimism enabled him ‘to bear the vicissitudes of incarceration with fortitude’. Alex would be too modest to claim it, but I think his fellow prisoners’ ability to cope with seemingly limitless confinement would have been enhanced by his natural buoyancy.

That Alex considered his prison experience not so much ‘traumatic but rather exciting and overall beneficial’ is another reason why he survived captivity. So too is his attitude. ‘I had taken a positive view of life and had been determined to take every opportunity while in camp to improve my lot in life’. Apart from planning for his future through education, he grew in self-confidence, assumed leadership roles and developed important life skills. Without doubt, he ‘weathered the storm well’ and ‘came out of prison thankful that my life had so miraculously been saved’. Indeed, Alex admits that being shot down and imprisoned were perhaps the best things to ever happen to him. He survived for one, whereas many from Bomber Command did not. The statistics of his own training group are particularly telling. Of the forty members of his course, only twelve men were alive at the end of hostilities, and nine of them had been prisoners of war. Fully aware of how fortunate he had been, after returning home he promised himself to ‘make the most of the reprieve I had been given. I would live every day to the fullest’. And he did. The former newspaper office boy went on to enjoy a career in academia, where he became a professor and ultimately Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia. Alex’s achievements and life attitude firmly demonstrate that his years spent in captivity were not wasted.

There is perhaps another reason why Alex coped so well in the post-war years. He may not have been entirely sorry for ‘dobbing’ in the cruel camp personnel but he bore no real grudge against those who acted with decency and later accepted the essential humanity of those of the enemy who, like him were just doing their wartime job. He may have cursed the Luftwaffe pilot who shot him down but Alex contacted him after the war and they corresponded. It is clear to me that there was a measure of reconciliation, given and accepted, in their exchange of letters and experiences. ‘I got a good feeling to get so friendly lines from a former adversary’, wrote the former night fighter. For Alex, along with reconciliation, came the answers to questions which had puzzled him for half a century.

Hard core aviation enthusiasts may turn away from this memoir because it is a largely an account of captivity. That would be a mistake. The book includes enough training and operational details to satisfy any aviation nut - Alex’s account of his last op is sheer, nail-biting, storytelling magic. Shot Down is also an incredibly rich life story that even offers a gentle lesson in making the most of difficult circumstances. It is also a significant addition to Australian military, aviation, and prisoner of war history. Uplifting and recommended. Read it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Man Who Saved Smithy - Rick Searle

P.G. Taylor. It is a name that is ever-present when speaking of Australian aviation history. It rolls off the tongue easily and when it does everyone instinctively understands with reverence. This is a name, this is a man who can stand alongside Kingsford-Smith, Ulm, Hinkler and others as a great aviation pioneer. A prolific author, Taylor was an independent, insightful and analytical man always on the look out for his next adventure. His is a name that generates some measure of recognition in many Australians although less so than his great friend Kingsford-Smith. This, hopefully, may change with the release of a new book by Rick Searle. It is the first time in some years that a book about our greatest navigator has been available in the mainstream market.

Taylor was born in Sydney in 1896 and grew up in an innocent new country. His childhood was one of outdoor adventures and he spent a lot of time sailing on Pittwater, north of Sydney. It was an idyllic upbringing punctuated by an education that attempted to smother him and set him on the path to the family business.

With the world at war, the twenty-year old joined the Royal Flying Corps and eventually flew Sopwith Pups over the Western Front. His first instructor’s approach to training disturbed Taylor so much that he refused to fly with him. It proved a wise decision and is an example of one of the many occasions when his sense of order and gut-feeling saved his life.

A distinctly worn Taylor, now with a Military Cross to his name, returned to Australia in 1919 and decided his future lay in aviation. Commercial aviation at the time was in its infancy and there were long periods where he did not fly. It was during this time, when his chosen career was not guaranteed, that he applied himself to the study of engineering and, importantly, to that of navigation by air. It had occurred to Taylor that the pioneering flights like that of Alcock and Brown across the Atlantic, magnificent as they were, had not involved much navigation at all, particularly as there was little requirement to arrive at a pinpoint target. Taylor looked to the future and saw aircraft crossing the oceans. He set to mastering navigation from the air and even developed his own equipment, and bought a DH Moth on floats, to hone his skills with practical experience.

It was his love of the water, and the realisation of the joy of operating an aircraft from its surface, that set him on a path that would rule the next forty years of his life. In the meantime, however, he needed a flying job not just to further his desire for a career in aviation but to put his hard-won knowledge into practice. He applied for a position with Kingsford-Smith’s Australian National Airways (ANA) and was initially dismayed by the seat of the pants flying and dead-reckoning that was the norm. He questioned what he had been learning and his vision of the future but, being the man he was, recognised the current state of affairs as an opportunity. There began a decade-long friendship with the men behind ANA – Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford-Smith.

At the time, ANA only just managed to keep its head above water. It was a familiar tune for Kingsford-Smith’s ventures. They all seemed to simply get by but even that was only after tireless lobbying of the authorities, corporate supporters and careful massaging of the public image. Taylor became one of the few men allowed to fly the famous ‘Southern Cross’, VH-USU, and his navigational expertise made him first choice for Kingsford-Smith’s forthcoming adventures.

Taylor was involved in separate attempts by Ulm and Kingsford-Smith to win airmail contracts but both were thwarted by their equipment and by the authorities that already had the major airlines in their ear. He proved his mettle when he flew the first west to east crossing of the Pacific with Kingsford-Smith in the Lockheed Altair ‘Lady Southern Cross’. Flying a single engine aircraft, albeit the most modern aircraft they were to fly together, across the Pacific was a remarkable feat but a year later, 1935, they were coaxing the ‘Southern Cross’ back to Australia during an aborted mail flight to New Zealand.

The exhaust manifold of the centre engine had fallen off and smashed into the starboard propeller. Now out of balance, the propeller caused a violent vibration. The men managed to find the ideal mix of power and attitude to fly the aircraft, now on two engines, as they turned back home. The port engine, working harder than it should have been, began to burn oil at a prodigious rate. The only solution, to keep this motor going, was to drain the starboard engine’s oil tank. Taylor climbed out of the aircraft, with Kingsford-Smith losing hard won height to lessen the airstream’s impact on his body, numerous times to collect the oil and transfer it, again by climbing out of the aircraft, to the hungry port engine. It is one of the great Australian aviation stories and the stuff of legend. Our hero received the Empire Gallantry Medal (later updated to the George Cross) for his actions.

With the loss of Ulm and Kingsford-Smith, Taylor’s reputation as an aviator grew. It was as almost as though he was the last man standing (barely at times as his health took a knock after the loss of Smithy), and to some extent he was, so the spotlight easily picked him out. In the late 1930s, however, the world was starting to look dangerous again. The flying boat was the last word in long-distance travel and Taylor, ever looking forward, noted the current route from England to Australia could easily be disrupted by enemy action. An alternative Indian Ocean route was needed and Taylor discovered an aircraft, one of the very few in the region at the time, that was perfect for the job. He had found a Catalina.

The flight from Port Hedland via the Cocos and Diego Garcia to Mombasa was not without its problems but the route was proven. It was perhaps the last great pre-war pioneering flight. With the outbreak of war, Taylor, who had seen it all before, applied the same logic to the Pacific and figured his best contribution to the war effort would be to survey the southern half of the great ocean for an alternative air route. The Australian government showed little interest and, after he had wangled a flight to the US to plead his case there, Taylor found the Americans had their own plans and were not about to let an Australian get in the way. England was the next port of call for his lobbying but he met the OC of RAF Ferry Command before he left Canada. He was attracted to the idea of flying the Atlantic ferry and, after failing to attract any further interest for his Pacific venture, did just that after settling his family in a mountain cottage in south-western Quebec. He flew Liberators across the Atlantic and returned to the Pacific to again deliver Catalinas to the RAAF (he had crewed on nine of the original PBY-5s to arrive in Australia early in the war). It was a most satisfying time for his career, state of mind and his family as his wife was recovering from revolutionary radiation treatment for breast cancer. He could at last concentrate and enjoy his flying without wondering whether it would even happen. The Pacific, however, still beckoned.

The RAF finally agreed on a South Pacific survey flight and provided Taylor with a Catalina that he named ‘Frigate Bird’. After much delay, the survey left Mexico for Clipperton Island and, after setting up a base there, continued on to Australia. Taylor returned to ferry work but this time flew the transport version of the Consolidated Privateer, the RY-3, for the British Commonwealth’s new trans-Pacific service.

With the war over, Taylor dabbled in several business ventures and returned to the life of an airline pilot when he joined Bryan Monkton’s Trans Oceanic Airways (TOA) flying converted Sunderlands around the South Pacific. It was like ANA all over again with the upstart airline butting heads with the larger operators and always, it seemed, sailing fairly close to the wind. The death of Taylor’s beloved Joan, however, had him seeking a new venture and, again, he heard the call of the Pacific. Even Taylor saw that the days of the flying boat were numbered and that land-based aircraft would fly the long legs across the oceans. A South Pacific survey, locating ideal places for combined flying boat operations and airstrips, to South America caught his attention and a former RAAF Catalina became, and remains, ‘Frigate Bird II’.

The successful completion of this survey, again not without drama, saw a brief return to TOA before Taylor struck out on his own and bought a Short Sandringham. He fell in love with the aircraft at first sight and ‘Frigate Bird III’ became the flagship, and only aircraft, of the airline Pacific Cruisebird. Now it was Taylor against the giants and despite some initial success as a luxury way of touring the islands, he sold up. Heart problems caused him to fail his medical in 1959 and would continue to dog him until the heart attack that claimed him in 1966.

I have not enjoyed a book as much as this one for quite some time. Rick Searle has managed to fit Taylor’s life in to a 380+ page softcover. The main text covers 349 pages while the rest of the book contains a glossary, good index and a superb notes section filled with eye-wateringly attractive tangents the reader may find themselves following. It is a condensed biography of sorts but that is only to make it manageable and attractive to the mainstream market. I have no doubt the author could easily have written something twice as long and made it just as entertaining.

Taylor’s life and achievements are fascinating and we are fortunate he published many books of his own. Passages from these books are regularly featured throughout The Man Who Saved Smithy and the author makes no apologies for this. Who better to describe something than the man who experienced it? Here, Mr. Searle also highlights Taylor’s talent for the written word. The smaller font appears on the page to signify a quote and you dive in and are instantly immersed in his world. The more romantic reader, or even the pragmatist who appreciates such wonderful creation, will want to find Taylor’s books and completely drown in his delightful writing. I think that is one of the things the author set out to achieve.

While I don’t think we will see Taylor’s works reprinted (someone please prove me wrong), this book will generate renewed interest in the man. To help this along, the author, like Taylor, doesn’t do anything fancy. He gets on with the job and delivers an inviting narrative that gives Taylor his voice when needed but also looks beyond the flying and gets to grips with how and why the way he was. I had a couple of minor issues with the timeline as it jumped about a little here and there but that was purely a function of, correctly, not wanting to interrupt the narrative of a particular event or evolution in Taylor’s life. Other than a niggle with a date during Taylor’s RFC service and the honours precedence error on the cover (to be changed with the next printing), the editing has been well-handled (I haven’t said that in a while!) and, given the amount of information available, due to the author’s access to the National Library’s Taylor papers and the Powerhouse Museum’s (where ‘Frigate Bird II’ resides) P.G. Taylor collection, it is clear the publisher and the author have worked together well. They really have created an excellent, easy to read and accessible book.

With luck, one of Qantas’ future aircraft will be named “P.G. Taylor”. While this is somewhat ironic, given the frosty relationship Taylor had with Hudson Fysh etc, it will bring, albeit briefly, the name of Australia’s greatest navigator back to the public domain. But for The Man Who Saved Smithy, this may have been the final tip of the hat to Taylor. Now we have a book that re-introduces and celebrates the great man in as fine a fashion as possible. It is as good as any adventure tale with the added bonus that the quiet, intelligent, unassuming hero of the story receives the modern-day attention his life deserves.

ISBN 978-1-76011-340-7