Monday, October 29, 2018

Escape: The Best Sport Ever - Frank Gatland DFM


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISBN 978-0-473-4043308

Monday, August 06, 2018

Too Young To Die - Bryan Cox


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISBN 0-8138-0205-9

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The British Pacific Fleet - David Hobbs


The Royal Navy’s contribution to the war in the Pacific can be likened to a set of bookends. It was there at the start and it was there at the end. That is an exceptionally simplistic analogy that ignores pressures from all over the world, the loss of important bases and the lack of resources to start afresh. It was, however, vitally important for Britain to return to the Pacific, in the last throes of Empire, and it was never really far away with its major presence in Ceylon and heavy lifting during the Madagascan campaign. Europe was always the priority, however, and it was not until things were progressing towards certain victory that eyes, political in particular, began turning towards the Pacific. The end result was the British Pacific Fleet which, sadly, remains relatively unknown despite some recent efforts. An impressive and experienced force at war’s end, the BPF was still only about the size of one US Navy Task Force. How the BPF got there and did what it did is nothing short of remarkable and The British Pacific Fleet by David Hobbs, Britain’s foremost naval aviation historian, lays it all out. There have been several books on the BPF over the decades, and this one builds on them, but this beautiful publication is the ultimate guide to the Royal Navy’s most powerful strike force.

Operation Tungsten, the attacks on the Tirpitz in Norway, could be argued as a practice run for the BPF. Several of the ships and units involved would become integral parts of the BPF, but, importantly, the attacks involved several carriers operating together to send a large strike against a ‘single’ target. American types like the Corsair and Hellcat, particularly the former, saw their first real operations with the FAA during this time and much maligned types, such as the Barracuda, were proven to be effective, albeit somewhat limited. Granted the ships were never far from home and were at sea for days as opposed to weeks and weeks. It was a start, but there was much to learn.

The biggest issue for the proposed BPF was infrastructure. Save the base at Trincomalee, Ceylon, the submarine base at Fremantle, Western Australia, and various harbour facilities, the Royal Navy had very little it could call its own. On top of that, there was no supply chain, no stores, no workforce, no reserves, no airfields, no training facilities, no administration. As the force in Ceylon was built up and began to make further forays to Sumatra, things were well underway in Australia which, despite its own war effort, went above and beyond to help the BPF establish a footprint. Airfields were borrowed and developed, stores and manpower slowly built up, and the foundations of the BPF, once everything began rolling, came into being.

The strikes against the Sumatran oil fields (Operations Lentil, Meridian etc) were effective, but also highlighted a number of deficiencies. The Barracudas did not have a good enough range, forcing the carriers closer to the target, and the coordination of the bomber force was something that would improve with experience. Forming up, in particular, took too long and burnt precious fuel. The signs, however, were promising, as expected from the FAA, with the American types showing their worth and ‘little’ things, like photo-reconaissance Hellcats, being successfully implemented.

Operating range was always a problem that would be exacerbated by the vast expanse of the Pacific. The Barracudas did not initially make it to the BPF for this and other reasons. Seafires were notorious for their lack of legs, but were kept for fleet defence as the variants in use were superb interceptors at low to mid-level altitudes. The ships, too, suffered with even the newer battleships and cruisers proving very thirsty. When the early Eastern fleet operated with the USS Saratoga well before the BPF, refuelling was performed in a quiet part of the remote north-western coast of Western Australia, effectively taking the fleet out of action for several days. This would not do in the Pacific, but the astern at-sea refuelling method the RN used was slow and prone to pipe breakages. So, on top of all of the infrastructure required on land to support the ships, new or modified supply vessels had to be acquired/built to meet the demands of a modern combat fleet that could not afford to be away from the frontline for days. The creation and development of the fleet train, the supply ships that shuttled back and forth, with attendant escorts of course, between Australia (even the UK in some respects), island bases and the fleet was an incredible achievement.

All of this effort, initiative, hard graft and collaboration resulted in a strong naval force that contributed to the invasion of Okinawa, denied the use of the Sakishima Gunto to kamikazes transiting from Formosa, and then flew strikes over Japan proper as it continued to gear up for a long and devastating invasion of the Home Islands.
That it was capable of doing so in such a short period of time is, after six years of war, almost expected of the RN and the FAA in particular. Equipment that was not quite fit for purpose, such as poorly ventilated ships designed for European conditions, and short-legged Seafires, was a constant hurdle to overcome for the FAA and had been since before the war due to, primarily, the combination of the RAF wanting to be ‘the’ air force and the big gun mindset of the RN. Naval aviation was, at best, second string and continued to be even after the war commenced. The loss of HMS Glorious, for example, on 8 June 1940 is partly attributed to the lack of patrolling carrier aircraft (the captain, a former submariner, is often blamed for that) and, as is widely accepted, the aircraft designs used and supplied to the FAA often left a lot to be desired. The conversion of Hurricanes and Spitfires for carrier use was not ideal, but they were made to work. ‘Made to work’ is the theme throughout the wartime operations of the Fleet Air Arm and was there in spades during the BPF era. It bred the culture of innovation and initiative that was required to create the BPF in such a short period of time. When the war ended, the BPF was still being tweaked, still learning and always improving. It set up the Royal Navy as the leader in what was to become a decade of rapid change in carrier aviation. Of course, 'making do' should never have happened, but, as ever, it was the lot of the service personnel to play the hand that was dealt them by the powers that be.

Rather than rattle off dates of operations, fleet movements and the like, this review is a very general, very basic outline of what David Hobbs covers in this magnificent book. The 460+ pages delve into everything that brought the BPF into being, set in the context of a world war. It continues beyond the end of the war as the expected drawdown is countered by a need to show the flag throughout the Pacific and Far East. The breadth of detail, from biographical detail of major players, analysis of ships’ designs and capabilities, the social effect of the RN in Sydney and beyond and, of course, the operational aspects from Sumatra to the east coast of Australia and then all the way up the Pacific to Japan, is mind-boggling, yet the narrative never becomes dry or clunky. The operational accounts, of course, are an exciting read, but the wise reader can reflect on how everything from pencils to Grumman Avengers got there because it is all relayed so well in the narrative. 

From cover to cover, this book exudes quality. The reviewed copy was the 2017 paperback edition of the original 2011 hardback. Paperback makes it sound ‘pulpy’. Softback is a better description. Like the hardback, the new edition is beautifully solid. Photographs abound and there is barely a two-page spread without an image featured. The smallest photos are a full-page width and about a quarter page height while the largest consume almost an entire page. All are relevant to the immediate text which is particularly useful when trying to envisage one of the plethora of ships that make up the fleet (lists of dispositions on certain dates also consume several pages and it’s good to put hulls to names, so to speak). The references and index are excellent as expected, no book like this could ever be without them, and the appendices roll into double digits. If you’re a BPF aficionado like me, you’ll revel in the bibliography and the contents of your shelves will expand as a result. 

While this will not be the final book on the British Pacific Fleet, David Hobbs has perhaps written the last word on the subject. I can’t see how it can be improved upon. The original manuscript would no doubt have been longer, but the entire thing has been seamlessly edited by someone who knows their stuff. The British Pacific Fleet is  perfection. The cover tells a hundred stories at once, familiar and different at the same time, and sets up the reader for perhaps the greatest Royal Navy story of, at least, the twentieth century. It is a story that portrays the epitome of the wartime Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm – determination to get the job done despite the odds. It is a tribute to the thousands of people who made it happen and who have largely been forgotten.

ISBN 978-1-5267-0283-8

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Liberator - Ron Watts


It’s been quite some time since I wrote a long review. In fact, I think it’s probably the longest period since ABR began. There’s been a variety of reasons, with paying work dominating my desk time, but also, quite simply, just the ins and outs of family life. I’ve also felt the language I’ve been using in the long reviews has become a bit repetitive. In short, while the brief magazine reviews have flowed okay, I’ve been a bit stuck on the long review. As time passes, too, since the read, it becomes harder to review a book without effectively going back through it in some detail. There was one book, however, that I’ve read in the past six months that has kept me looking ever forward. Why? It is as near to as perfectly crafted as you are ever likely to get. Just thinking about it makes me want to be better, makes me want to try to write something approaching this book. It is Liberator by Ron Watts.

‘Harry’ Hartwig grew up in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, the son of devout German Lutheran parents. It was not an easy upbringing, with considerable family heartache before he left home, but the Hartwigs were resilient people. Handy too. Harry’s father built his family a house, among other things, so they could supplement their meagre income with rent from their former family home. While clever with his hands, Hartwig senior was fond of a drink and, therefore, prone to extended bouts of unreliability which, in the late 1920s/early 1930s, was not at all useful. Harry’s ever suffering mother, and her strict faith, kept the family together. When he left home, indeed before that, Harry’s faith had begun to wane. He found freedom on his motorcycle and, unsurprisingly, a career in the wine industry. A female colleague rekindled his interest in religion, but it was not until 1941 that he returned to the flock as they say, albeit to a church that his parents, being Lutheran, would regard as non-conformist. 

At this juncture, I must point out that religion plays a very strong part in this book. Indeed, the book is published by the Mission Aviation Fellowship for reasons that will soon become clear. I apologise in advance for stumbling my way through that angle of the review.

Having served briefly as an Army dispatch rider, no doubt something he would have enjoyed, our hero learns to fly in Australia and Canada before electing to complete a General Reconnaissance course and then heading to the Bahamas, a clear sign he is destined for Coastal Command. The time spent on leave in North America is fairly typical of Australians overseas and Harry fell in love with the ‘endless summer’ that met him in the Bahamas. Now a prolific letter writer, particularly to his sister, the book benefits from regular enlightening quotes and depth to the already superb narrative. Such letters are worth their weight in gold as any aircrew book author will attest. 

While Harry and his colleagues are training for long sea patrols, flying Mitchells as a lead in to Liberators, their long flights over the ocean are effectively operational sorties. While not counted as such, it’s more or less what they were. Harry had already flown many, many hours in the big Consolidated bomber before he was posted to 206 Squadron RAF in Cornwall for ops over the Atlantic and North Sea. He transitioned to the Liberator just thirteen months after flying the Tiger Moth for the first time. Let that settle in. It’s unremarkable because it was expected, and familiar if you regularly visit these times, but it really is a hell of an achievement. 

As co-pilot, the steady, reliable Hartwig flew more than half of the required 600 hours that made up a Coastal Command tour. His pilot was several years his junior, but, along with several other personalities encountered at the time, proved a wise guiding hand to Harry’s faith as it began to evolve into something that remains tangible to this day.

The flying was not without its challenges, mostly due to bad weather, and Harry was soon back in the Bahamas to train as a captain at the head of his own crew. The war ended before he could fly operationally and complete his tour in this capacity.

Post-war, there is a realisation that aviation can further spreading of the word and assist those doing such work. While Harry is not the only one to think this way (there were similar ’pioneers’ with wartime experience in North America and the UK), and bolstered by discussions on the subject during the war, he continues the renewal of his faith by commencing religious studies in Melbourne as preparation for his intended life as a missionary. A passionate and driven man, he almost single-handedly raises awareness of the value of aviation to remote missions in Australia and further afield. Meeting some resistance during an aerial survey of the northern reaches of Australia, he sets his sights on New Guinea and is ultimately successful in establishing what has become a worldwide organisation. Flying supplies and passengers between missions and towns, journeys that would take days were whittled down to several hours. Medical services, in particular, benefitted from the aviation services Harry had worked so hard to establish. Sadly, however, after giving his all, Harry Hartwig gave his all while returning to Madang in August 1951. 

This is an exquisite read. It’s not full of combat operations or tales of derring do, but that makes the author’s achievement all the more impressive. Harry is there warts and all, his very thoughts laid bare or, at least, finely constructed into the detailed narrative. It is, as suggested above, a lesson in writing. 

The religious angle will possibly turn a few potential readers away. I had not read a book with such an evident ‘theme’ since the excellent Voice from the Stars by Tom Scotland DFC (and that side of things doesn’t appear until well into his tour when he has a night sortie epiphany). There are several passages that, my apologies, raised an eyebrow or two, but that’s simply because they’re not my beliefs. I’m quite happy, fascinated even, to learn what drives other people, what makes them who they are and how they see the world and live their life. A mile in someone else’s shoes and all that. It is all just nicely weaved into a magnificent account. Look at Harry Hartwig as an aviation pioneer because that’s exactly what he was. 

What is eminently frustrating, though, was the circumstance of his death. Pushing on for a mountain pass through bad weather, keen to get back to his wife and child, there is an underlying current of God’s will in his actions, and the outcome of those actions, as though it was his time to go. No, sorry, he flew into bad weather (in New Guinea!) and paid for his recklessness with his life. This was a man who had committed himself to a life of service. That is something, motivations and inspiration aside, that was ultimately wasted. He could have, would have, helped thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. "Just turn around and wait it out, Harry!" Extinguishing the potential of a young life is nothing unusual, sadly. After all, the world was still coming to grips with yet another global conflict that had done just that while looking ahead and seeing more of the same as Korea kicked off. Even the author, a deeply religious man and aviator (the perfect person to write this book), questions why ‘the powers that be’ decided to end Harry’s life early. 

A solid paperback of a little over 230 pages, Liberator is copiously illustrated with two-page spreads of text only in the minority. Harry’s legacy is in the modern day Mission Aviation Fellowship, a “strategic ministry” with operations around the world delivering the services envisioned by Hartwig more than seventy years ago. The title of the book, of course, cleverly refers to his wartime work and what would have been his lifetime’s work. It sets the tone from the start. The depth of thought exercised by the author to produce this fine example of the writer’s craft is reflected in what is really quite a succinct narrative. There is not a word wasted nor is there one out of place. Liberator is a window to a man’s soul, but shows the reader the door to writing perfection.

ISBN 978-0-9925763-1-8

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Pre-order discount on new Catalina book


Many of you will be familiar with the work of Hans Wiesman, 'The Dakota Hunter'. As you'll know, his interests range far beyond the realm of the legendary DC-3 family. His adventures have extended to several Catalina safaris with the aircraft, the former (famously) Z-CAT, that now operates in New Zealand. Those adventures, and his extensive network, have led to a book, no, to use the author's words, a "luxury photo album", about one of perhaps the two or three aircraft types that can rival the DC-3/C-47 for longevity in service. 

There is something about the Catalina and I reckon it is almost a household name. Perhaps that's a little too optimistic, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, this new book covers the history of the Catalina through a vast selection of images that extend well beyond the author's own impressive collection. The emphasis is on the photos (400+), but much of the research and proof-reading of this 288 page work has been performed by the doyen of Catalina research, David Legg.

The author and publisher are offering a 20% discount to enthusiasts who pre-order the book. That amounts to a US$10 saving which is nothing to be sneezed at. You'll also get a 'first day' photo print signed by the author. This can be framed or kept with the book.

This is something a little different to the norm for Aircrew Book Review, but if you visit the website below to look further, click on the cover as you'll find a sample of pages full of RAF and Commonwealth bods. For the RAAF, the Catalina remained, until relatively late in the war, the only type capable of deep, offensive sorties behind enemy lines.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Lancaster Bale Out - Clive Smith


I get a bit twitchy when I see a new Bomber Command book written by a relative of an airman. That’s a bit jaded so don't mind me. My ultimate desire when reading is to bury myself in a memoir. A book written by a relative could never be regarded as a memoir. Or could it? Lancaster Bale Out is a quality Bomber Command book written by the second cousin of a 106 Squadron RAF WOp/AG. It is not really, however, a gunner's story. It is largely the wartime tale of his bomb aimer, the sole survivor of the crew. More than anything, it is his memoir.

The author’s second cousin, Jack Hougham, trained in the UK and was ready for OTU by late 1942. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was from County Durham and a coal miner like his father. Interestingly, a number of the eventual Lanc crew had been miners or were from a mining family. Perhaps a sixth sense for that sort of thing contributed to bringing them together. Anyway, Fred began training as an observer proper in Canada. Clever and astute, he unfortunately suffered from terrible homesickness and gave up during his course to the point that he failed. He was re-mustered on the first bomb aimer course in Canada, returned to the UK and had joined a crew of five at OTU by the end of October 1942. His pilot was an American, a relatively rare thing in Bomber Command, and a chap who proved to have his head screwed on straight when it came to flying ops.

Before long they picked up another gunner and a flight engineer and converted to the Lancaster before joining 106 Squadron at Syerston. Their first operational trip as a crew was to Lorient in France on the night of 2/3 March 1943, but the intercom failed and they wisely returned home. Their first completed op was to Essen three nights later. They flew their fifth completed op at the end of April. Rosner, the American pilot, was one of those skippers who liked to keep weaving and rarely flew straight and level when not on the bomb run. He would also ‘go downhill’ on the way home so the Lanc picked up a bit of extra speed. His actions were indicative of an impressive, competent crew who got through a few scrapes during their tour.

Sadly, all the skill and attentiveness can never make up for a bomber crew’s luck running out, be it on their first op or their thirtieth. On the way home on three engines after their 20th op, a raid on Cologne on 8/9 July, they were shot down by a German fighter. The rear gunner managed to bail out, but was killed. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was the only man to survive. He managed, through the help of a dizzying array of brave French men and women, to spend the best part of three months evading capture and was on the way to Spain by train when the authorities caught up with him. Amazingly, he then spent 56 days in solitary confinement in a Parisian prison before arriving at Stalag IVB in early December 1943. There he remained for the duration. He returned home with a desire to pick up where he left off and finished his mining studies to become a mining engineer. He took his young family to India for six years in 1951 to work on the railways and eventually retired in the early seventies for health reasons. While working in coal pits could never be referred to as good for anyone’s health, Fred’s experiences in France and Germany – the injuries, rough treatment and general malnutrition – must have also played a part. He died in 2008, some thirteen years after replying to the author’s initial contact.

This book has two main strengths. Firstly, the majority of the narrative was put together by Fred Smooker. He had written about parts of his wartime career over the years. Indeed, the author discovered he was still alive when he read one of these accounts. Once Fred and Clive got together, however, Fred committed to writing a full account of his war from start to finish. This is what LBO is all about and why it is really a memoir. The style is quite conversational and Fred is surprisingly honest about his fears and trepidation throughout his adventures, be they training in Canada or on the run in France. He is not afraid to expose his failings despite his upbringing in a stable household and ability to work in harsh conditions. His time underground built a natural strength, physically and mentally, that was tested time and again after he was shot down. It takes a special person to continually go deep into the earth to follow a relatively narrow coal seam and this determination played a large part in getting him through.

The second main strength of LBO is the author’s beautifully light touch. He recognises the value of what Fred provided him with in instalments over the years. Footnotes are many and detailed and the appendices include copies of official documents and list the crews, and the details of their losses, that some of the men Fred encountered were a part of. There are several sections in the narrative where it is clear the author has added some context or additional detail, but I am certain there are a few more I didn’t pick up on such is the seamless way they have been stitched into Fred’s words. There is very little discussion of bomber tactics, or the development and evolution of same, so the narrative remains focused on the crew and, of course, Fred. His writing is supported by a large number of letters written by his Canadian mid-upper gunner and the author inserts passages written by contemporaries, most notably the author of Lancaster to Berlin, Canadian Walter Thompson DFC*. That said, the training and operational side of things last for just over 100 pages, in a 300-plus page book, with Fred’s evasion and incarceration taking up the majority of what's left. His account of his time as a POW paints quite a bleak picture, but he slowly rebuilds his confidence and general health to the point where he begins to work on escaping. There is little mention of escape committees and the like. If anything, the theme is one of survival rather than continuing on with tales of derring-do. It doesn’t stand out in the myriad POW accounts, but it is well written and pulls few punches despite Fred having had the benefit of several decades to reflect.

You know how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Well, to some extent, and perhaps necessarily, I still do, so you can imagine what I first thought of LBO. Horrendous. The book has sold well, however, so a possible second edition should see a much more attractive and accurate design. This one was a product of the publisher and, considering how well Tucann did with the rest of the book, it’s a bit of a let down if you look for accuracy in a cover as an indication of an aircrew book’s content.

Lancaster Bale Out is a true page-turner. It suffers from very few niggles – some weird comma use and the mention of the US not being at war in 1942 were about it – that are almost completely hidden by a narrative that will hold any reader in rapt fascination. This book will not last long as a purely self-published (more or less) effort. A specialist publisher is bound to pick it up and run with it and it is exciting to think of Fred’s story, and the author’s fine work with the narrative, being presented in a second edition. Either way, this is one recent Bomber Command book that should be on your shelf. It is a solid, well-illustrated paperback that you will struggle to put down. While the author, when he set out to satisfy his enduring fascination with his second cousin’s wartime service, did not intend to tell Fred Smooker’s story, it is the outcome of one of those coincidences so often encountered when researching Bomber Command. A truly impressive package.

ISBN 978-1-907516-26-9


Sunday, November 05, 2017

High in the Sunlit Silence - Commander Tony Vine RANR


A formation of Cessna Cranes on the cover of a book about the members of a RAAF training course is not something you expect to see. Surely an Australian book should feature Ansons or Oxfords if it’s going to showcase twin-engine trainers. It does, however, suggest the journey of many Commonwealth airmen as the vast majority, drawn from almost all points on the compass, converged on the war in Europe. While Tony Vine’s first book, High in the Sunlit Silence, focuses on just the one course, the men’s stories are, like the cover, representative of those who undertook earlier or later courses in Australia, or those who did the same in New Zealand, Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. Representative, yes, but all unique. As I often say with a book about a bomber crew, “here’s another x aircrew that have had their stories told at last”, and that is very much the case here. To tackle the lives of fifty men, however, takes some doing.

The trainee members of an elementary flying training course share a bond equivalent to those shared with the squadron mates most eventually served with. To trace the various service paths of each trainee is relatively straightforward. After all, that’s what archives are for, albeit full of abbreviations, acronyms and jargon that are just screaming to be fleshed out. That’s where the challenge lies. Successfully telling the stories needs more than service records. It needs family members and friends, diaries and letters. Even then the rich vein of information deposited by one man, and keenly followed by the researcher, simply does not exist with another. Some were prolific writers, for better or for worse, while others may not have had the chance to do so and left little behind. Multiply that mix of endless hope, occasional despair, and enduring fascination by a factor of fifty and you can understand what the author has gone through to trace the men who made up Pilots’ Course 20 at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School, RAAF Narromine.

The timing of the beginning of the course, December 1941, is significant, as another ‘front’ requiring men and machines opened as the training progressed. The vast majority of the men who became aircrew ultimately served in Europe, however, and they arrived, for the most part, in the second half of 1943 and many ended up in Bomber Command (a surprising number joined Coastal Command or flew medium bombers with 2 TAF). That time of the bombing campaign was not a good one for the RAF. The Battle of Berlin was soon to get underway and losses were already incredible. That’s why so many of the men who were part of Course 20 ended up in the UK. They went where they were needed the most.

The genesis for this project was the author researching his uncle. Bill Gunning was killed at the controls of a Wellington in 1943. He had trained with some of his course mates in Canada (hence the Cranes on the cover) and kept in touch with others so his influence is fairly consistent through many of the biographies.

Eighteen of those on the RAAF Narromine course were killed in accidents or in combat. Several did not become pilots in the end, instead re-mustering in another aircrew role, while a couple did not make the grade at all, but continued to provide good service. Eighteen out of fifty, relatively and a little indelicately speaking, is not the worst attrition rate considering some of the earlier courses were all but wiped out, and there are memoirs, like Hugh Garlick’s excellent One Life Left or ‘Bush’ Cotton’s marvellous Hurricanes Over Burma, that provide sobering evidence of this. How many times have we seen photos of ranks of men lined up in front of an aircraft with some, many even, having a little cross drawn in pen over their heads?

The great thing, of course, is that most of the men featured survived the war. Unsurprisingly, a decent proportion lived fractured lives in peacetime. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder today, but back then, while it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by those close to the subject, it just wasn’t dealt with.

High in the Sunlit Silence is a page-turner, but its 330 pages are best read in short sittings. That’s a weird thing to say as everyone wants a book that is hard to put down, something you can lose yourself in. However, each biography is presented as a standalone chapter. Each chapter has effectively been written for the family of the man featured. There is, therefore, a lot of necessary repetition from chapter to chapter, especially for those men who travelled the same path to war (Narromine, Pacific crossing, Canada, Atlantic crossing, UK). While the author has done a fine job to tweak each biography to make them all read differently, there’s only so much you can do with the same information and the first few paragraphs, pages even, rapidly become familiar territory. If the reader is not careful, they will find themselves succumbing to the temptation to skim these parts and, frankly, not giving each man the respect he deserves with a good, thorough read. I caught myself doing that a couple of times before I changed my reading sessions from “I need to cross another book off the list”. I recommend tackling five chapters in each sitting. There is less chance of the stories blending into each other. Take your time.

There’s also a feeling of dread that permeates the book as the reader progresses through it. This is partly caused by the anticipation of wanting the subject to survive, but is largely due to the footnotes. When other personnel are mentioned, the author helpfully includes a footnote listing basic biographical detail. When a crew is listed, and there are dates of death after many of them, you know what’s coming. As mentioned above, less than half of the men from the initial course were lost, but it feels like a lot more.

A solid paperback, the book is not heavy with photographs, but it does provide a good selection beyond the headshots (from various sources) that kick off each chapter. The writing is to the point and the author does not embellish where the information available is lacking. Rather, he ensures as well-rounded and as careful a biography as he can before moving on to the next one.

There’s the occasional missing word in the text, but nothing out of the ordinary or of a material nature. It would be good, however, to see some of the aircraft names tidied up. ‘Montrose Master’, ‘Oxford Anson’ and ‘Hampton bomber’ escaped the proof-readers and, while perhaps worthy of a wry grin when encountered, are details that might mislead, especially when the chapters are written so families can use them in memorial services or other relevant events or displays.

So many of the men featured in High in the Sunlit Silence would be barely known outside of their families. The author has done remarkably well when, in several cases, he hasn’t had a lot to go on. Each subject is given equal attention, and obvious research effort, lack of material notwithstanding. It’s a bit of a dark horse in the way the practical writing style lays out the story in a straight-forward manner, but allows the circumstances of each tale to dictate the reader’s connection and emotional response. There’s a depth to this book that is not immediately evident. It is all the more valuable for its very existence.

ISBN 978-1-925590-21-0