Friday, November 27, 2020
Thursday, November 19, 2020
Tom Lewis was there from the start, co-authoring Zero Hour with owner Peter Ingman. They followed up with Carrier Attack Darwin 1942. Tom published several other books with Avonmore, The Empire Strikes South for example, and Peter joined forces with Michael Claringbould for the South Pacific Air War series (Volume 4 coming soon!).
With Eagles over Darwin we see Tom return to the very first air combats over Australia as it and its allies reeled in the face of the Japanese onslaught. From the back cover blurb:
A massive Japanese attack on Darwin on 19 February  had left the town and its air base in ruins. An understrength squadron of USAAC P-40E Warhawks had fought a gallant defence but was all but wiped out.
Northern Australia was now at the mercy of Imperial Japanese Navy Betty bombers and Zero fighters whose crews were both skilled and experienced. However, help was on the way. The 49th Fighter Group was the first such group to be sent from the US after the start of the Pacific War. Its destination was Darwin.
From modest beginnings on make-shift airstrips, the 49th FG entered combat with its feared Japanese adversaries. Its P-40E Warhawks were poor interceptors but were rugged, reliable and well-armed.
Over several months the 49th FG pilots fought a brave and innovative campaign against a stronger enemy that did much to safeguard Australia in its darkest hour. Today, lonely and long forgotten airfields still bear the name of American pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice.
This is going to be an important book when it's released. I don't think much has been written on the subject, about American Warhawks defending Darwin, for a few years, and the last book I can remember reading on the subject was James Morehead's In My Sights. The most recent work I can think of is the well-regarded Darwin's Air War by Bob Alford. The Ferguson and Pascalis Protect & Avenge is perhaps the largest work on the 49th FG, but, a product of the mid-nineties, it's getting long in the tooth now and can be found wanting. Tom Lewis has been investigating Warhawks ops over Darwin for a while now and uncovering new information that will surprise and, as usual, challenge. A vignette of Australia's defence, and USAAC/USAAF history, very much deserving this treatment.
Thursday, November 12, 2020
Friday, November 06, 2020
Last year was quite exciting for a wartime Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm tragic. Hot on the heels of David Hobbs’ then latest work, The Dawn of Carrier Strike, came a book any aircrew enthusiast could get excited about: a title about the Grumman Hellcat-equipped 5th Fighter Wing. A book on the subject was incredibly welcome and, considering some of the recent attention and study directed at the British Pacific Fleet, would bring some of the ‘forgotten’ men of ‘the forgotten fleet’ into focus. Heaven High Ocean Deep certainly does that, but in doing so it ignores everything brought to light in the past three decades (at least).
One of the great traits of the wartime FAA was adaptability. This was born mostly out of having to face the odds with aircraft that were either of ‘another era’ or pressed into an environment for which they were not designed. Hamstrung from well before the outbreak of war, due to the RAF’s desire to control military aviation into the thirties, and an Admiralty in love with the ‘big gun’, the Fleet Air Arm did what it could with what it had. What it achieved with its biplane torpedo bombers, hastily converted land-based fighters, and two-seat long-range fighters, in the first years of the war is legendary. The effectiveness and flexibility of the carrier strike force began to hit home and the Americans and Japanese massively reinforced that point in the first year of the war in the Pacific. The British aviation industry, already pushing hard, could not hope to fulfil the FAA’s resulting need for more, and new, aircraft. The US, however, was beginning to pump out aircraft. The Hellcat—with its rugged construction, docile landing characteristics and excellent forward visibility—was a development of the Wildcat (also used effectively by the FAA) and Grumman refined the design as encounters with the Japanese ‘Zero’ were analysed. Its simplicity meant it went from drawing board to carrier deck far quicker than the troubled Corsair, a design that had flown before the US entry into the war. The Hellcat, as mentioned above, settled into the USN easily and became so well established that by the time the USN had carrier qualified its first two Corsair units in 1943 (before the RN received its first Corsairs), commanders in the Pacific didn’t want the headache of another fighter requiring yet another supply chain of unique spares. The US Marine Corps were happy with the ‘surplus’ of Corsairs and, despite the type’s tricky handling, so did the RN, recognising the bent-wing fighter offered a significant jump in capability. Its issues would be dealt with and made to work in typical FAA style.
The RN went for the Hellcat at the same time and the 5th Fighter Wing came into being in late 1943. Only two squadrons, 1839 and 1844, made up the Wing due to a shortage of pilots and space considerations on board HMS Indomitable, the assigned fleet carrier. They worked up in Northern Ireland before embarking on an escort carrier in February 1944. The loaded-to-capacity carrier took them to Colombo where they finally met, and started flying from, Indomitable mid-year. The Royal Navy’s pivot to the Indian Ocean, which it had never left despite the reversals of 1942, was well and truly underway (as was its return to a legitimate role in the Pacific). The fleet began to make forays to Sumatra, initially hitting lightly defended targets before going after the oil refineries from late 1944. These raids—the inexperienced Hellcat units were left off the early ones, with the exception of the photo-reconnaissance Mk.IIs—revealed a lot of issues from beginning to end of a strike (excessive time taken to form up, control over the target etc), and these had to be ironed out, to the satisfaction of the Americans, some of whom weren’t keen to bring the RN into ‘their’ theatre, before the fleet arrived in Australia to establish itself as the British Pacific Fleet.
That arrival in Australia followed the well-known raids on Palembang in late January 1945. By the end of March the now accepted BPF had begun its attacks on the Sakishima Gunto, an island chain pointing the way to Formosa (now Taiwan) from Okinawa. Its role was to prevent Japanese aircraft, many assigned for kamikaze attacks, using the islands to hop from Taiwan to the US invasion fleet at Okinawa. It was hardly a glamorous job, the fleet’s aircraft, Hellcats included, hitting the same airfields and installations time and time again, and at quite a cost, withdrawing to re-supply from the fleet train, and then returning to do it all over again. This was kept up until late May. The return to Australia, to prepare for attacks on the Japanese Home Islands, meant the end of major operations for the 5th Fighter Wing. Only its specialist photo reconnaissance and night fighter elements would see combat with the BPF to the end of the war. The PR pilots were particularly hard pressed and returned excellent results.
The above is a barely potted history of the BPF’s activities. It, obviously, doesn’t include that most vital component of any unit history—the human element; the memories of the people involved. Fortunately, Heaven High Ocean Deep leans heavily on a number of veterans interviewed by the author, inspired by his father and godfather both being wartime naval aviators, during the 1990s. The book is built around these interviews. They span the range of experiences, from joining up all the way through to the end of the war and demobbing, and sees several interviewees quoted throughout the book. There are some valuable passages looking at the operational side of things, and the steep learning curve, but also several that reflect on losses and their impact. Diary entries abound, but there is little, save the acknowledgements, to indicate the extent of other records referenced as there is no bibliography. Indeed, only three secondary sources—in the form of Winton’s The Forgotten Fleet, Hanson’s superb Carrier Pilot and Admiral Vian’s Action This Day—are directly mentioned, the youngest of these first being published in the late seventies. The work of John Winton, who the author was in contact with and whom he received completed research from, appears to underpin the entire narrative. Fair enough, it was a ground-breaking work, but doesn’t stack up to the claim ‘it was and remains the most important account…’ as that accolade now sits with The British Pacific Fleet by the aforementioned David Hobbs. That’s probably the theme of the major issue with this book. All of the research is at least two decades old and a good chunk seems to rely on work from the 1960s. Granted, history doesn’t change, but new analyses and discoveries greatly enhance its understanding and to ignore recent ‘developments’ is akin to sticking your head in the sand.
It can also lead to repeating information since disproved or, at least, incomplete. Early on there is a suggestion the RN led the way with the operation of Corsairs from aircraft carriers, even mentioning the nickname ‘Whistling Death’ which has since been understood to be a creation of the manufacturer’s marketing department. As mentioned above, the USN had carrier qualified Corsair units before the RN even received its first aircraft. Yes, the FAA developed modifications and improved techniques to operate the Corsair at sea, but it was not the pioneer. Similarly, there is also a discussion regarding the preference for American types because the USN Pacific supply chain could be relied upon for replacements. One of the requirements for the RN to operate alongside the USN against Japan was it had to be self-sufficient. That’s why there was a mad scramble to assemble supply ships for a fleet train that ultimately stretched from the east coast of the US across the Atlantic to the UK and then east to the Indian Ocean, Australia and beyond. Then there’s the extensive modifications the RN made to its aircraft.
Opinions and analysis seem to be largely driven by the comments made by the interviewees. If a veteran says ‘It was a bloody waste of time’ (I’m paraphrasing) in reference to an exercise or raid, it’s taken as gospel. There is no attempt to prove it was or wasn’t. The bigger picture of everything leading up to the BPF was to prove to the Americans the RN was good to go, was capable of effective, standalone strike operations. Similarly, the attitude of some of the veterans to Admiral Vian seems to have rubbed off on the author. I’ve not read a lot about the man, but to say he didn’t care for the men under his command is too much. My first thoughts upon reading that was to recall the efforts he made to recover downed airmen, including sending a Walrus to a Sumatran lake, at a predetermined time and date, in case evading flyers had managed to make it there as briefed. That means keeping the fleet within range, and therefore in danger, so the Walrus could make it back. Hardly heartless.
As usual, a ‘hook’ to open the book—something exciting to draw the reader in—would have been good to see. Hanson’s Carrier Pilot is quoted and that opens with one of the most perfect hooks I have read. The author’s godfather shared a kill during his time as a Hellcat pilot and that would have been ideal to open the book with.
This is a beautifully produced book from Casemate. Black and white photographs are liberally sprinkled throughout, many featuring men mentioned in the narrative. There is also a superb glossy colour photo section that brings everything to life. Combined with the veteran interviews and ‘real time’ diary entries, the more than 125 photographs included in this 210-plus page hardback work hard to make up for the out-of-date, unbalanced narrative. Heaven High Ocean Deep could have ranked with the best of the current crop of FAA authors (Hobbs, Willis etc). Sadly, it falls disappointingly short.
Thursday, October 29, 2020
Two days, two Bomber Command book arrivals, both written by somewhat removed relatives. Same, same, but different. Two approaches to presenting a similar tale. Both allow the reader to ‘know’ the ‘hero’.
Jane Gulliford Lowes’s Above Us, The Stars is one of two new English Bomber Command biographies receiving a good dose of attention at the moment (the other being The Boy With Only One Shoe by John Meller and Caroline Brownbill). Above Us, The Stars is Jane’s investigation of her great-uncle’s experiences with 10 Squadron RAF. Jack Clyde was a Halifax wireless operator and completed his tour in early March 1944.
The author uses a creative narrative to tell the story, along with a tonne of references (and ten veterans personally interviewed, one of the first things I checked was the bibliography), and goes to great lengths to accurately portray the world these men inhabited. Little is left wanting in terms of understanding the stresses they went through with what appears to be a good study of the threat of being deemed LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre) supported by numerous comments from primary and secondary sources. The members of the crew, and specifically Jack Clyde of course, are also placed in social settings as readily as the familiar operational environment. This allows a greater understanding of their lives and gets them under the reader’s skin.
The second book to arrive was Over the Alps by Moonlight. This is a series of letters and aerographs written by Australian Lancaster pilot (12 Squadron RAF) Robert Yell and compiled by Susan Yell (his niece). An older publication, released in 2009, its approach couldn’t be any more different from Above Us The Stars. Instead of building a narrative, Susan wrote an excellent, well-referenced introductory ‘essay’ that sets the scene while also laying out Bob’s journey in detail not included in the letters. Other than single line entries from the logbook, interspersed between the letters as time progresses, Susan lets Bob do the rest. The correspondence is mostly from Bob to his parents, but also includes replies and letters to/from several other relatives.
There is very little in the way of operational detail in Bob’s writing, for obvious reasons, so there isn’t a lot of hard evidence as to how he was getting on. Certainly, he was working and playing hard. He was clearly keen to reassure his family he was okay. There is one indication as to the mounting pressure he was under, however. He wrote 51 letters, averaging one a week, up until he started flying on ops. For the six months of his tour, from 24 July 1943 until he was lost on his 30th trip on 14 January 1944, he wrote just seven letters and preferred the shorter format of the aerograph (seventeen in all, a brand new method for mail to Australia in 1943). No doubt busy on ops and then busy wanting to relax and forget it all on leave.
Bob’s letters regularly include mention of what was making news of the time, nicely placing him in context. Other than a few photos, the collection of letters (handed down through the family over time), the headstone at Hanover War Cemetery, and perhaps the DFC he was awarded (for a ‘shaky do’ over Berlin on 26 November 1943), there is little to remember Bob by so this book is greatly valued.
As a lovely piece of serendipity, I noted, while flicking through both books, Jack and Bob were both operational at the same time, albeit Jack had a few ops to his credit before Bob got underway. A quick look revealed they both flew on the 24 July Hamburg raid, the first op for Bob and his crew. There may have been other nights when they attacked the same target, but I haven’t gone that deep yet. It was just nice to consider here were two books, written years and half a world apart, deposited on my doorstep within a day of each other, and featuring men who shared the same patch of night sky over occupied Europe on at least one occasion. That the books exhibit two different styles of story telling shows the variety that can be employed if the effort is made to really understand how the subjects lived, the skills they developed and used, what they experienced and how it affected them. That, surely, is the greatest way to honour their memory.
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Several years after his myth-busting Paddy Finucane and the Legend of the Kenley Wing, the next instalment of Anthony Cooper's Australian aircrew books is finally, almost, with us!
Anthony is perhaps best known for his superb Darwin Spitfires. He followed that book with Kokoda Air Strikes and RAAF Bombers over Germany 1941-42 and the aforementioned Kenley Wing title. This new book continues his look at where Australian aircrew were around the world during 1942, when our UK-based Spitfire squadrons were ordered home to defend northern Australia from Japanese air raids.
Cooper is an erudite type with a fine analytical mind and a penchant for not accepting things at face value. This approach was most evident with Darwin Spitfires, revealing the moderate successes of the squadrons (as opposed to the raging, almost colloquially so, success that is often repeated) in the face of technical, tactical and logistical deficiencies, and Kenley Wing, again proving all was not as was flagrantly reported and recorded to become legend. It must be noted there is never a lack of respect in these exceedingly well-written narratives, but the discussion is always frank and fair. There is no doubt the same will apply to Sub Hunters.
While not so much the stuff of repeated exaggeration, the Australian Sunderlands have not had anything written about them to this extent, excluding a couple of memoirs, since Norman Ashworth's The ANZAC Squadron (about 461 Squadron). The most prevalent story, besides one Sunderland versus eight Ju88s for example, is, of course, the sinking of U-boat U-461 by Dudley Marrows and his crew (flying Sunderland 'U' from 461 Squadron). There is so much more to the two squadrons (10 and 461) than these events. Anthony Cooper's intimate knowledge of the German language will have no doubt been put to good use examining records of such Luftwaffe heavy fighter encounters with the Sunderlands over the Bay of Biscay.
Besides the finely crafted narrative, this Fonthill publication includes a rare thing in this publisher's catalogue of aircrew books - an index! It's the type of book that certainly needs one so it is pleasing to see space was allowed to include it.
Coastal Command is not something I get to write about too often in the context of Aircrew Book Review. I am over the moon I get to now (and again in the future) and that it's from the pen of Anthony Cooper. Alongside the recent announcement of David Hobbs' latest book, we have another much anticipated literary highpoint for a rather challenging year.
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
The number of relatively well-known Australian wartime flyers who have yet to have their stories properly told is quite surprising. Airmen like David Shannon and ‘Micky’ Martin, Australia’s best-known Dam Busters (both did so much more than that one raid), have no standalone biography. It’s quite likely a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to some extent given their post-war lives in the UK. Even Ivan Southall’s biography of ‘Bluey’ Truscott, published in the fifties, remains the latter’s only focused narrative despite there being significant subsequent findings about his time in England with 452 Squadron. A man Truscott mentions with reverence is Bob Bungey. Battle of France, Battle of Britain, 452 Squadron CO, air-sea rescue, Dieppe. How on earth has he been overlooked? Well, with Spitfire Leader, he’s not anymore.
Two events in Bungey’s life lift him ‘above the parapet’, the most celebrated being his time in command of 452 Squadron and its Spitfires as Fighter Command went on the offensive over occupied Europe. Before then, however, Bob had already done his fair share. A pre-war RAAF trainee at Point Cook, he studied alongside a who’s who of Australia’s early contribution to the air war – Hughes, Olive, Walch and Clisby to name a few. They had the opportunity of a short service commission with the RAF upon graduation. The lure of overseas travel and service, seeing the ‘Mother Country’, and going where the action was probably going to be was too much for the young aviators. Quite quickly, in terms of the book, Bob is airborne with the RAF in September 1937. He was flying Fairey Battles with 226 Squadron by early December.
This meant, when things kicked off in September 1939, he was in France. Like other RAF bomber units during the Phoney War, flying was mostly limited to patrols and leaflet dropping with a good amount performed at night, a most valuable skill in the months to come. Familiarity with France proved of little value when the Phoney War period ended as every bomber unit opposing the Luftwaffe discovered. The Battles suffered miserably and the sense of foreboding, if you have just an inkling of how these units were decimated, is strong. Bob’s luck held, however, despite some close shaves. There is a sense he knew his time would come in France, sooner or later, as it had for many of his friends (including great mate Les Clisby), so he went through the motions with an air of inevitability.
He was eventually back in England, however, surrounded by the remnants of the Battle force, flying patrols over Northern Ireland, and volunteering for Fighter Command. He joined 145 Squadron in Scotland in the second half of August, flying Hurricanes, and was soon headed south following the unit’s brief rest period. Bob was soon in the thick of it, leading as a flight commander from Tangmere and regularly flying with the Belgian Jean Offenberg (whose biography is heavily referenced). He was shot down and ditched in early November, but continued serving with the squadron into early 1941 as the unit converted to Spitfires and went on the offensive.
It was June 1941 when Bob assumed command of 452 Squadron, a new, untried Spitfire unit and one of Australia’s Article XV contributions to the war in Europe. It was a natural progression for Bungey who had proven his leadership ability and grasp of the tactical picture with 145 Squadron in late 1940. Despite his apparent forward thinking when it came to managing his forces in a combat arena, he was a stickler for the rules and the young, mostly inexperienced fighter pilots under his care were soon chomping at the bit as he detailed, and led, a seemingly endless period of training. This discipline, combined with the tactical flexibility and leadership, usually at the expense of Bob’s success in combat, led to the squadron claiming an exceptionally high number of kills in the following months and men like Truscott, Thorold-Smith, Chisholm and Finucane regularly made headlines. They were keen and gung-ho, perhaps too much so when making claims in some respects, a subject only lightly touched on in the narrative by reference to statements made by other units at the time and not subsequent research, but, as their public reputations grew, they maintained a reverence for their leader. His care for them, and pride in their achievements, is evident in a series of post-op photos, several included in the book, taken as the men gather around their aircraft.
Bob left 452 Squadron before it was sent to Australia. He was at Hawkinge in charge of the air-sea rescue units there by February 1942. This led to his involvement in the organisation of that aspect for Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe landings, and the dry runs and false starts before that. He kept flying, sometimes in ASR Defiants. An interesting leave period followed in Ireland, but this remains a little mysterious and much is read into part of Bob’s luggage containing an excessive number of ‘cartridges’. He finally arrived back in Australia in early May 1943.
Bob was a married man throughout much of his time in the UK. His successes made headlines in Australia, particularly in his native South Australia, and his marriage to Sybil, while done on the quiet, eventually followed suit. So too did the birth of their son in March 1942 soon after Sybil arrived in Adelaide, having sailed there to escape the war and be with Bob’s family.
The Bungeys were to be reunited for all too brief a time following Bob’s return to Australia. While the media went to great lengths to cover his return, the official welcome by the RAAF was disappointing and his rank, seniority and vast experience were given short shrift. Sybil soon fell ill, exacerbating the weariness and burden Bob was carrying, despite being at home with his beloved. Not long after, and decades before the phrase entered the literary lexicon, their son, Richard, became ‘the boy who lived’.
There is a quality feel to this book from the outset. The forepapers are nicely, personally illustrated. That depth of feeling continues even though Bob’s childhood and training are lucky to consume half of the first thirty pages. His two years with the RAF before war was declared, mostly flying Battles with 226 Squadron, consume even less paper before the narrative dives headlong into the deployment to France. Here the author really sinks his teeth in with extensive coverage of the Phoney War period and the subsequent Blitzkrieg. There is more here than needed, but what it does is set the scene and Bungey’s place in it. The years of peacetime flying are a distant memory for Bob and his crew, despite being quality time in which to hone one’s skills, and, like their colleagues in other units, they effectively lurched from one setback to the next. Much of this comprehensive account of this harrowing time, stretching over seventy pages, includes Battle operations as a whole (with a bit of Clisby’s successes in Hurricanes before his loss). This clarifies what Bob was up against when details of his own sorties are light on. Reading about the Battle squadrons in France feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Their sacrifices are well known, and they have certainly been written about, and the aircraft’s inadequacy is stuff of legend, but how often does it pop up in a biography or memoir, especially one that runs through the Battle of Britain?
On that point, the late, great Dennis Newton, principal author, avoids getting bogged down in the subsequent summer. He’s written about it in detail before (A Few of the Few, First Impact, Spitfire Ace and A Spitfire Pilot’s Story to name several) so could easily have gone to town, losing Bob in the process. Happily, partly because Bob misses at least half of this period, he does not and maintains the focus on Bungey’s flying and experiences. Some of this is supported, as mentioned above, by Jean Offenberg’s biography, complete with slightly implausible passages of dialogue. Importantly, this, like the candid comments from later 452 Squadron colleagues, adds weight to the authors’ growing profile of Bob. Still waters run deep.
While there is no direct evidence of the mental burden Bob carried, so many hid it well, there are some hints as his command of 452 Squadron progresses. The most obvious is the desire to get his wife as far away from danger as possible. A good idea, but then he had to suffer through the time she took to make the voyage. Even following his return to Australia, the pain of personal loss continues or, at least, the sense of detachment used as a coping mechanism is gone. This feels more prevalent than other books like this because, knowing Bungey’s fate, it is highlighted by the authors as a root cause.
The omission of Anthony Cooper’s recent Paddy Finucane and the Legend of the Kenley Wing from the otherwise good bibliography (supported by six pages of notes and a decent index) is interesting as that work analyses the claims of 452 Squadron in a measured, non-parochial manner. There is a suggestion Bob was aware (being one of the senior leaders of the Kenley Wing, how could he not be?) some of his pilots were claiming everything they shot at, but his job was to get them there in the first place and to maintain a tactical advantage, an area the Germans usually had the upper hand in by being able to dictate their contact. They were hurting the Luftwaffe to an extent, but at a cost he was unable to control. Perhaps he celebrated and encouraged the apparent successes to maintain morale within himself and the squadron. He bore the brunt so his men could do their jobs. That’s a leader.
As good a narrative as this is, and it is a quality read even when Bob features fleetingly, extra or missing words are encountered (or not!) consistently throughout. It’s as if sentences were slightly rearranged here and there, but the work not completed. Add inconsistent or incorrect spelling of specific terms and there is a general feeling the proofreading is below par. This does not, as per usual, take away from the whole experience, or the understanding of Bob’s wartime flying, but, considering the effort made to recreate the world he flew in, little things like this really stand out. What else got through?
Spitfire Leader is a 320-page hardback and is illustrated by a traditional glossy photo section. A quarter of the photos are modern colour images detailing Richard Bungey’s journey to discover his father’s wartime career, a nice little vignette to close out the story, but the period photos are relatively familiar and include the standard range of squadron life, family and aircrew colleagues and friends.
If you know the story of Bob Bungey, you will read this differently to someone who doesn’t, although there are hints as the book progresses, including two revealing photos. It doesn’t matter anyway as the quality and breadth of Spitfire Leader is such it creates a hopeless wish for an outcome you know is impossible. That’s a sign a biography has achieved its purpose – to care for, and implicitly understand, the subject. Bob Bungey deserves nothing less.
Friday, July 03, 2020
RAAF Black Cats tells the story of the fascinating long-range mining sorties carried out by four squadrons of Catalina flying boats (Nos. 11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadrons). Particularly, for the 1944-45 period, these ops were flown deep into enemy territory as far afield as the Philippines and the Chinese coast. With other RAAF squadrons stuck doing morale-sapping ‘mopping up’ in the NEI and New Guinea, the far-reaching work of the Catalinas holds a special place in wartime RAAF history.
The story is based on two decades of research by Bob Cleworth, whose brother was lost when A24-203 disappeared during a mining sortie in the Taiwan Strait in March 1945. Cleworth credits the redoubtable David Vincent (author of Catalina Chronicles, 1978) for introductions to relevant veterans, mainly aircrew, but also key players who set up the initial infrastructure for aerial mines in Australia in 1942-43. It is excerpts from these interviews that are the real strength of the book. The second author, John Linton, is a journalist with plenty of writing experience and, as a result, the book is well written and easy to read.
That said, there are some major weaknesses which will frustrate readers familiar with RAAF history and W.W.II aviation. In between some excellent insights into the mining ops, the authors indulge themselves with strategic discussions of the war in general which offers nothing not already well known and little directly relevant to the main topic. There are mistakes too, such as a repeated reference to MacArthur not allowing squadrons of TBF Avengers to be used for mining operations in early 1943. As MacArthur’s SWPA command never had Avengers, it is difficult to understand how this idea has come about.
While the crews flying these ops were brave and highly skilled, the authors fall into the trap of lauding the results as having a crippling effect on Japanese shipping and hence a significant impact on the war in general. This is done without questioning the efficiency of the mining itself which was carried out at night and often on unfamiliar targets with very poor charts. As is well-known from the early Bomber Command experience in Europe, the results of night operations were often highly questionable despite the best efforts of the crews.
The RAAF Catalinas flew 1210 minelaying sorties during the war and laid 2512 mines. This effort is put into perspective by the 12,000 mines dropped by B-29s alone in Japanese waters in the last months of the war. Unfortunately, no other comparisons are provided for mining by other aircraft, including those flying from the Chinese and India/Burma theatres; nor by carrier-based aviation. Neither is there any discussion of the quantity and scope of mines laid by submarines. This makes any analysis of the RAAF effort problematic to say the least.
Rather, the authors rely on reports written by the RAAF immediately after the war as well as American studies such as those produced by JANAC. While useful, none of these types of documents are the current gold standard for Pacific War researchers. Instead, an analysis of Japanese sources and Japanese ship losses would be most interesting. Unfortunately, Japanese sources are dismissed as “sparse”. Indeed, just one is briefly consulted, that being a post-war interview with a rear admiral who admitted that by February 1945 only wooden vessels were being used in the NEI and the Philippines and that was forced by both the mining and submarine threat.
Overall RAAF Black Cats is valuable for some excellent insights into Catalina mining operations, but readers well-versed in W.W.II history will be frustrated by the poor overall analytical framework.