Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Torpedo Leader - new paperback version from Grub Street

Hannah from Grub Street Publishing has kindly let me know of a new paperback version of Patrick Gibbs' Torpedo Leader. Grub Street will be releasing the book in July this year. If you don't already have this title, this might be an affordable way to get hold of a brand new copy.

Price £8.99
Pages: 208 pages plus 8pp photos on art paper
Size: 196 x 129mm Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-906502-40-9

For more information contact Sarah Driver sarahATgrubstreet.co.uk

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer - Philip D. Caine

The genesis for many a memoir can be the discovery of a wartime diary. Officially frowned upon, and therefore relatively uncommon, diaries make for remarkable windows into a flyer’s mind. Many sadly end abruptly but it is the diaries that, when the surviving veterans are no longer with us, will provide one of the most realistic and open links to the war. Now, having said these things are relatively uncommon, we are fortunate many are now seeing the light of day and being shared in the form of books or even websites. One example of the former is Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer – a most attractive and well-chosen title – which gives you access to the thoughts and emotions of ‘Yank in the RAF’ Leroy Gover. Coupled with excerpts from his letters and interviews with the author, Gover’s diary entries create a vivid picture of an ‘outsider’s’ impressions of wartime England.

A California kid, Gover learned to fly before he could drive and was an experienced pilot by the time he decided to volunteer for service in the RAF. This was before the US entered the war and is an early indication of our hero’s character. After training (in California under the 'civilian' Clayton Knight Committee), where his enthusiasm for flying new aircraft is evident, Gover and his classmates embarked on a long, hazardous journey to England via Canada. Within days, perhaps hours, of arriving in England, Gover is amazed and humbled by the resilience of the civilian population. This is a recurring theme throughout the book. We then follow him through OTU where he finally gets to fly his dream aircraft - the Spitfire - and is then posted to 66 Squadron to commence flying fighter sweeps, convoy escorts etc.

Although aware of his abilities as a flyer, Gover knows he has to be good at what he does to have a greater chance of survival. Through his writings, and the author's clarifications and additional information, Gover comes across as a humble yet ambitious fighter pilot. He knows he isn't invincible and more than once he doubts if he'll ever return home. He never ceases to be amazed at the situations he gets into and his love affairs with the Spitfire, the city of London and the girls he finds there when on leave are crystal clear.

America's entry into the war sees Gover, a little reluctantly, joining the USAAF and eventually converting to P-47s as an early member of the famed 4th Fighter Group. Here, I believe, is where Gover’s personality and combat experience really come to the fore. He grows as a leader who keeps an eye on the men who fly behind him in formation. He is responsible for their well-being and, like his time with the RAF, feels their loss strongly.

Reading this book is like talking to an old friend who has been away for a few years. The author's additional comments and context are worked into the text seamlessly so all you feel is the world of Leroy Gover. Happily unable to tear away, you are inundated with information and emotions experienced more than 60 years ago. It is a candid, sometimes amusing, always eye-opening, look at how one man coped with the day-to-day pressures of combat operations with two very different air forces.

I bought my paperback copy of this title about three years ago from Boffins Bookshop in Perth, Western Australia for A$17.95. Anything of this calibre/genre for less than $20 always gets my interest!

The author is an authority on the subject of Americans in the RAF as he wrote the earlier 'American Pilots in the RAF'.

Reviewed copy published in 2005 by Potomac Books.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wings of Destiny - Charles Page

With the subtitle giving no doubt as to the subject matter this book by historian Charles Page looks the part on the shelf and in the hand. Delve into the pages and you’re confronted by a remarkably readable and detailed biography of an immensely likeable character and one of Australia’s great wartime leaders.

Charles Learmonth grew up in country Victoria to the west of Melbourne and joined the RAAF before the war. He was eventually posted to 14 Squadron and its Ansons in Western Australia. Flying convoy patrols (including escorting his brother’s unit as it headed to the UK for service in North Africa, Greece and Crete – John Learmonth was eventually captured and spent most of the rest of the war as a POW) Charles began to build the experience that would see him emerge as an expert bomber pilot. Converting to Hudsons the squadron was heavily involved in the search for survivors of the cruiser HMAS Sydney off the Western Australian coast with Charles playing a key part.

Never without a date on a night out, Charles eventually falls in love with Marjorie who, happily, was still alive and living in Perth, Western Australia when the author presented her with an advance copy of the book (she died on April 11, 2008). An eventual transfer east and Melbourne wedding sees Charles join 22 Squadron and convert to Bostons. Now his career as a flyer really builds momentum. In the thick of the action soon after the squadron’s arrival in New Guinea, Charles develops into an inspirational leader loved by all. He shares his adventures with well-known RAAF characters such as Black Jack Walker, Bill Newton VC and Bull Garing. Garing’s inclusion of course alludes to Charles’ involvement in The Battle of the Bismarck Sea and Walker and Newton ensure amusing stories abound and, in the case of Newton (and others), the grief of losing close friends is evident. Eventual command of the squadron and then a posting back to 14 Squadron as its CO sees Charles’ service come full circle and, sadly, end. The squadron was then equipped with Australian-built Beauforts and the coverage of the problems this aircraft encountered and the subsequent investigations is handled expertly and with extensive detail.

The author has used his unprecedented access to the letters written by Charles and Marjorie to wonderful effect. Both were prolific correspondents and the insight their writing provides is remarkable. Excellent contextual research exists throughout and the feel of the era is very well conveyed to the reader. Family members, friends and acquaintances were interviewed or their correspondence used and this level of detail really adds to the picture of our hero. From the first chapter you know how things will end but as the book progresses you’ll find a friend you’ll never meet in Charles Learmonth.

This book fills a big hole in the understanding of what the Boston Boys did in New Guinea but it also provides a door into the life of a remarkable man who lived, loved, partied (often) and died before many of us were born. Very hard to put down and excellently illustrated, and ignoring a couple of small typographical and factual errors, this book is simply brilliant.

I found Charles' adventures growing up in Victoria and the postings to Western Australia particularly interesting as I am very familiar with both areas. I could very easily picture the places he frequented in Perth as I know them well!

My copy of this title was bought from the shop at Melbourne's Shrine of Rememberance. A good friend of mine purchased it from amazon.co.uk. A good, solid paperback, everything about the book exudes quality and is therefore a fitting tribute.

For those of you who know of Australian cricketer Brett Lee - is he not a dead ringer for that photo of CL on the cover?!

Available in Australia from Alexander Fax Booksellers
http://www.alexanderfaxbooks.com.au/



Friday, April 24, 2009

A Gremlin On My Shoulder - Ron Cundy DFC, DFM, MID


First impressions of this book is that there's not a lot of pages which might make you turn to something else on the shelf that appears to offer better value for money. However, don't let the 170-odd pages fool you (and if you're a Desert Air Force nut like me you can't go passed it). This is a seriously good book and is well written with lashings of flying, humour and insight.

Ron Cundy grew up dirt poor in the depression. He often attended school barefoot but received a good education thanks partly to the sacrifices of his WWI veteran father and mother. His first job was with the New South Wales state government but when war came he was pretty keen to join up. His initial assessment, due to his below par maths marks, was an "O" for observer - a rating he was pretty distressed with. However, a chance meeting with a colleague, now an RAAF clerk, fixed this with one stroke of a pen...

Initial training and flying was in Australia before attending further training in Canada. Cundy then served a short time in the UK with a Hurricane squadron before his sense of adventure led to him volunteering to fly in Russia. When issued with tropical gear, he knew something was up but was still a little surprised to be headed to North Africa. There, he joined 260 Sqn on Hurris after, in his words, being lucky not to have to fly a Hurri across Africa to Cairo from the west coast (a fellow pilot was told to follow the trail of burnt out aircraft if he got lost). Cundy is realistic about his combat flying abilities and freely admits the first enemy aircraft he fired at stood little chance of being hit. He is also quite critical of the lack of training in this area and how under-prepared he was. This criticism aside, what comes through here is his very understated writing style. He gives full credit to the great men he flew with, and against, but doesn't dwell on his own actions. Indeed, he reports the many sorties he went on from his perspective of being a part of the bigger picture, rather than "I did this and then I did that". However, through this modesty, you can read/see and feel him becoming more capable as a fighter pilot. After 260 switches to Kittyhawks, he really seems to come into his own. I would hazard a guess to say this was to do with the hours Cundy was lucky to build up rather than the aircraft of course. As a Sergeant pilot, he leads the squadron on numerous occasions - something frowned upon from higher up.

Ron Cundy was good mates with Eddie Edwards, the Canadian ace and cover artist of this edition (and whose books I need to hunt down), and mentions him often along with many other interesting characters, the loss of whom Cundy laments but adds how they had to move on - that familiar coping mechanism mentioned below in the Tim Vigors review. He did not regard himself as a hero. At one stage, after standing by their aircraft in readiness and then diving into slit trenches to take cover from bombing and strafing '109s, Cundy tells how he was very reluctant to emerge when the order came to stand by again. However, this apparent 'fear' is countered by the fact that he got out of the trench and followed the order. He recounts many other brave exploits. Not his, though, his squadron mates.

The DFC came from attacking a lighter and setting it on fire - another sortie where he recounts in detail the action but makes no mention along the lines of "this was the action I got the DFC for". It was just another flight for him.

I know I keep going on about the modesty of his writing and it is nothing new for men of this calibre/generation/ilk. It is just so very pleasant to read and the book is particularly hard to put down especially when, with a bit of pre-emptive research, you know when he earned his DFC etc and you haven't got to that date/time yet!

After his 200 hours, Cundy stayed with 260 and flew a captured He 111 to 'supply' the squadron. There are some amusing anecdotes there. His return to Australia, stint instructing, time in Darwin on Spits, marriage and further instructing are all covered relatively quickly. He returned to the civil service after the war.

So, a small book but if you can get your hands on it and if, like me, these memoirs never cease to amaze/teach you, you will be hard pressed to find a better book. As an RAAF memoir of North Africa, it is invaluable. As an open, honest tribute to the men of 260 Sqn, it is priceless.

I first came across this book in Boffins' Bookshop in Perth, Western Australia, several years ago. For the life of me, I don't know why I didn't invest $15 at the time. I have since bought a copy off Ebay.com.au where it regularly comes up.

I will be including data blocks for each title reviewed shortly. Each block will include edition, publisher and ISBN details.

Available in Australia from Alexander Fax Booksellershttp://www.alexanderfaxbooks.com.au/

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Torpedo Leader - Wing Commander Patrick Gibbs DSO, DFC and Bar

There is no way in this universe I could spout on about Patrick Gibb's Not Peace But a Sword without then featuring his well-regarded and proclaimed classic Torpedo Leader. Easily the better known of the two titles, it can be read as a stand-alone 'experience' but the best place to start really is at the beginning. There I go spending your money but I think there's more value in reading NPBAS beforehand. For the same reason I am so far successfully ignoring the Siren-like calls of my copies of Terence O'Brien's Out of the Blue and The Moonlight War. They shall not be read until I find Chasing After Danger.

Naturally picking up where NPBAS left off - the end of the beginning as it were - Torpedo Leader finds the author spending several months at sea in transit to Egypt. Officially, he is being rested after his tour of anti-shipping ops over the North Sea and Channel approaches but he escapes his instructor posting by requesting an overseas post and eventually arrives in Egypt hoping to be sent to the only Beaufort unit in the theatre - 39 Squadron. Unfortunately, in January 1942, there is a severe shortage of aircraft (the West African route is in its infancy) but a glut of crews so, despite his efforts, Gibbs is assigned to RAF HQ in the not-so-green Garden City precinct of Cairo. Here, he is in charge of the minor activities of the RAF's coastal operations - minor in HQ when compared to Fighters, Bombers and Army Co-operation. After being so anxious to escape England and the instructing posting, Gibbs is not happy in Egypt either. He wants to be flying rather than shuffling his and one of his colleagues' paperwork. However, he is privy to, and develops a fascination for, the tactical situation in the Mediterranean at the time. Rommel's Afrika Korps are pushing hard and consolidating their efforts as they approach the Suez Canal. Gibbs sees the enemy convoys steaming unchallenged from Italy and Greece to resupply Rommel's forces and notices the lack of resources to intercept these supplies. He notices Malta, under siege, convoys failing to get through, but the island continuing to resist.

With this strategic overview, Gibbs is finally posted to 39 Sqn as a replacement after a shipping strike results in several losses. His boss at HQ sends him on his way with a note saying, "Post S/L Gibbs to Beaufort Sqn. What's left of it." Gibbs arrives to find a squadron in the desert with few aircraft and low morale. New aircraft eventually arrive and an operation against the Italian fleet, in which Gibbs hits a battleship, sees the squadron open its score card. Various operations follow including one that ends in Malta. Here, Gibbs has a revelation (to be honest, it was building for some time) and lays the groundwork for strike squadrons to be based out of the island. When a detachment finally arrives on Malta, it is not long before it makes its presence felt on the convoys and, all of a sudden, Rommel's supply lines are threatened. The flying is edge of your seat stuff, rarely more the 50 feet above the sea for most of the trips. Gibbs feels the frustration of the occasional failure but adapts well. What he understandably never gets used to though is the loss of his men. As you read what comes through very clearly is that while these losses don't affect Gibbs professionally, personally he begins to wear down and his promise to be home by Christmas '42, seemingly impossible at the start of the book, seems all the more likely as his operations count mounts and good friends are lost.

I had not realised how much of a pioneer Gibbs was in terms of anti-shipping in the Mediterranean. Not only was he instrumental in getting Beauforts to Malta but, after several heavy encounters with flak from the convoys, he loads the escorting Beaufighters with bombs and then has them strafe the escorts as well. Having read Roy Conyers Nesbit's very complementary Armed Rovers as a bit of a prelude and seeing this as being the major tactic (torpedo bombers and anti-flak), I realised TL actually takes you through the development/genesis of that approach.

Like NPBAS this book is a very personal read. Gibbs is a gifted writer. He comes across at times as excessively worriesome about his immediate future particularly when he thinks his plans, personal and professional, look like unravelling - this is a somewhat sobering viewpoint given the public 'live for the moment' attitude of many of his peers. He is inspired by an impressive cast of characters around him - his crews, his leaders on Malta (the legendary Hugh Lloyd and Keith Park), his contemporaries in command such as Adrian Warburton (the photo reconnaissance guru) and, last but not least, his aircraft, the Beaufort. He returns home after one final body blow - that of losing a close friend who led an operation in Gibbs' place after the author was ordered home at tour's end. Already feeling pangs of guilt for leaving his crews behind, he leaves Malta an exhausted, decorated but troubled man. He heads to an uncertain future again. Gibbs is always looking forward though and he went on to become a noted journalist but, as he says, he did not return home by Christmas, the sea claimed him as it claimed so many of his crews.

This book is a worthy legacy to a fine pilot and writer but it is also a magnificent tribute to legions of men who lived, flew and died just above the waves.

My hardback copy of TL was bought brand new off Ebay in late 2007 after I had been eyeing it off for years. A paperback edition with the same cover is also widely available plus Grub Street are re-releasing the book with a new cover. A hardback copy can be sourced in Australia from Alexander Fax Booksellers - http://www.alexanderfaxbooks.com.au/

This review, or something that resembles it, can also be found on Amazon.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Biggin Hill Wing 1941 - Peter Caygill


Peter Caygill’s latest work focuses on Biggin Hill’s part in Fighter Command’s 1941 offensive operations as it tried to wrest the initiative from the Luftwaffe. The Big Wing 'formula' is applied to this task and the results, as analysed by the author, are interesting if not surprising.

Following a brief history of Biggin Hill to the familiar, but necessary for context, conflict between 11 and 12 Groups and the subsequent ascendancy of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory, the Wing’s operations are reviewed in great detail. Opening the ‘action’ with a fascinating and lively chapter on 264 Squadron’s Defiant night-fighter ops (some of the earlier daytime scores for this unit are impressive) during their brief stay, the Wing’s offensive operations really begin to get into gear as finer weather conditions prevail. Like any good unit history, fascinating characters come and go and there are many familiar names – Malan, Wellum, Richey, Duke and Sheen to name a few – in the thick of the action in the air and on the ground. The author has excelled in blending details gleaned from squadron ORBs and combat reports into seamless accounts of each month’s frenetic activity. These accounts are ably supported by fascinating extracts from the ORBs themselves, individual pilots’ memoirs/anecdotes and often obscure biographical details from both sides.

Fighter Command’s campaign is initially successful but the pilots are pushed hard. Don Kingaby’s (92 Sqn) logbook, for example, is recorded as listing 23 shows over France in the first three weeks of April! Escorting small numbers of bombers to entice the defending Germans up for a fight met with varying degrees of success but the defenders soon became adept at waiting to pick off stragglers and aircraft heading home on their own. As the RAF had done during the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe used new radar installations to good effect. These, coupled with the superior climbing performance of the Me 109F and, late in the year, the new Fw 190A, enabled the Germans to dictate when and where they engaged the escort Wings. By the end of the year, it was clear the Germans had, with just two JGs, regained the initiative and, as a result, elements of Fighter Command questioned the effectiveness of the 100+ Circus operations flown.

Unlike the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe was not forced into the air by large bomber formations that threatened material damage. The organisation of the various escorting Wings also proved difficult at times with missed rendezvous and incorrect altitudes flown - often ending in substantial losses. However, compared to the summer of 1940, Fighter Command could now replace the aircraft and pilots with relative ease. While RAF losses were considerably higher than the defending Luftwaffe fighters, Fighter Command proved itself capable of taking the fight across the Channel and set the ground work for the offensive operations that were to prevail over Occupied Europe in the years ahead. Of course, you could ask whether so many squadrons were needed in the UK when North Africa, Malta and the Far East were screaming out for fighters.

Well-written and with the “serious work” interspersed with moments of humour and high jinks typical of RAF aircrew, The Biggin Hill Wing 1941, is a wonderful look at one airfield’s, and its resident squadrons’, contribution to Fighter Command’s broadening priorities.

A shorter version of this review was included in Steve Darlow's first 2009 issue of his 'Fighting High' e-zine. Pen & Sword produced this first edition in hardback so it will be available on their website and, of course, from places such as Amazon.

Not Peace But A Sword - Wing Commander Patrick Gibbs DSO, DFC and Bar

After many years lusting (easily the right word) after a copy of Gibbs' Torpedo Leader I discovered this 'prequel' so naturally had to read it (late 2007) before the better known TL. Not Peace But A Sword was written during the author's journey from England to North Africa - via South Africa and the Suez Canal - as he took up the posting that is covered in TL. It recounts his meandering school life where he realises his future of working for the family shipping company is not for him. A flight to Paris to learn French stirs something within him and he decides to join the RAF. Not a great student, Gibbs is admitted into the RAF college at Cranwell on his second attempt and after much hard work. He learns to fly, does well and graduates into a rapidly expanding RAF.

His initial operational flying is on Hawker Harts, a biplane bomber, but he laments that the modernisation going on throughout the service is leaving him behind. To compound this, but at the same time appealing to his sense of challenge, he is posted to learn catapult take-offs and deck landings in preparation to join the Fleet Air Arm. While not keen to leave the RAF behind, Gibbs is subsequently taught floatplane flying and then graduates from the torpedo school before being assigned to a Swordfish squadron operating from an aircraft carrier. Finding life at sea incredibly boring, as an RAF type, he nevertheless sticks it out before being assigned as an instructor to the Torpedo Training Unit. The RAF's expansion continues apace but Gibbs again feels left behind as Coastal Command's modernisation often gets overlooked and, within Coastal Command itself, torpedo work is overlooked in favour of recce and anti-submarine tasks! Eventually, though, Beauforts arrive. By then, with the war well underway, the instructors are very keen to transfer to operational squadrons to put their skills to test in combat. This duly happens to Gibbs and he eventually completes an action-packed tour interspersed with several crashes, torpedo hits and daring raids on French and Belgian ports.

If you're coming from a new release or a title written in the past decade, you might find the writing style takes a bit to get used to as this book was written more than 60 years ago. However, the author is very descriptive and paints a worthy picture of everything from a lazy afternoon on a beach to a flak and searchlight-filled sky above a French harbour. He is in awe of some of his colleagues who were the true Beaufort pioneers (perhaps he hadn't realised that he was one too?) conducting Rovers over the North Sea looking for enemy shipping. Some true characters', who are perhaps sadly forgotten, are honoured by inclusion in this book (Hearn-Phillips etc). Throughout, though, Gibbs is self-deprecating, modest and, above all, champing at the bit to rise to the challenge and bitterly disappointed when a sortie isn't successful (his frustration during his recuperation from a badly broken arm is palpable). However, it is clear he learns from his experiences and applies this knowledge particularly well. Not Peace But a Sword is a valuable read for the insight it provides of the anti-shipping strikes carried out by the RAF early in World War II. Written by an eloquent, observant pilot, it has to be a classic of its genre.

My copy of this title is a hardback purchased through Naval & Military Press if I recall correctly. It is a beautiful book that does Grub Street's production team proud and the dust-jacket art is almost worth the 'cost of admission' alone! Some early war low-level photos round out a good addition to the collection.

This review has also been published on Amazon.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mosquito: Menacing the Reich - Martin Bowman

Martin Bowman has written extensively on the Mosquito and his latest effort is perhaps the most wide-ranging of them all. Through almost 300 detailed pages and more than 80 photographs, he explores ops across the whole gamut of Mossie ‘jobs’ – low-level strike, Pathfinders, anti-shipping, “Cookie” bombing, target marking, intruders, photo-recce, USAAF usage and, pleasingly, ops in the Far East.

Mosquito will appeal to all readers as it provides an excellent summary (for want of a better word) of just what this wonderful aircraft and her crews were employed to do. However, it is not infallible and I found the chronological blow-by-blow accounts of operations in each chapter occasionally hard to follow and, at times, suffering from the use of repetitive wording. The editing is of a reasonably good standard but falls away in the second half.

Beyond this periphery of minor ‘gremlins’, though, is where Mosquito really shines above anything I’ve read in recent months. Importantly, through numerous resources (excellent and very readable notes are provided in case you want to follow things further), the author has included many passages written or spoken by Mosquito aircrew. These range from anecdotes of several lines to entire accounts of raids that span several pages and make for fascinating reading. Looking at the book from this angle, the author has very cleverly provided the context, the skeleton if you will, and then let the aircrew speak for themselves to “flesh-out” the bones of the book.

The Mosquito and her aircrew have already achieved legendary status but Martin Bowman’s latest, while going over familiar territory, may just enhance that reputation.

I reviewed this title very late last year for Steve Darlow's Fighting High e-zine - http://www.fightinghigh.com/ - which is now being developed into a series of books.

The copy I have is a well-produced hardback by Pen & Sword and is available from their website and Amazon of course. There are many photos in the book including a surprising number of USAAF aircrew and Mossies.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Alamein To The Alps - Mark Lax


Subtitled 454 Sqn 1941-1945, this is a book that provides a thorough history of a relatively unknown RAAF squadron in the Mediterranean theatre - relatively unknown but not due to lack of participation. After a bit of a false start in Australia, the squadron was finally formed and operated as a training squadron with Blenheim Mk IVs and Bisleys in Iraq.

The author's drawing together of material becomes evident early on with copious referencing particularly in relation to air and ground crew. I found this aspect at the bottom of each page almost as fascinating as the main text. As with all squadron histories, the squadron members' memories/stories are most valuable and these are included in spades often with several air/ground crew comments regarding the same event thus weaving together a vivid picture of operations.

Emerging from the relatively frustrating Blenheim period, 454 is equipped with Baltimores and begins work as a maritime patrol squadron (with occasional bombing work - losing five of eight aircraft when attacking Crete on the squadron's Black Friday - July 23, 1943). Long hours of patrols are clearly incredibly boring but the squadron maintains an impressive servicability record and level of efficiency. As the war shifts to the northern reaches of the Med, 454 begins work as a long range recce squadron - almost always at low level - mostly around the Greek islands in the Aegean. Encounters with fighters, enemy shipping and harbour defences abound but it was Baltimores such as 454's that proved so effective at shadowing enemy vessels for the incoming anti-shipping strikes (as well as attacking shipping themselves). An eventual move to Italy saw the squadron begin expert close support for the 8th Army as it crept up the peninsula. Despite the lack of fighters, accurate flak continues to claim casualties but the end is in sight. A minor change to night intruder work provides a fascinating account of a trip that fills an entire chapter. With the end of the war shortly after, the squadron, a proud member of the Desert Air Force, is disbanded and, apart from the 454-459 Sqn Association, appears to have been all but forgotten.

Mark Lax's writing is like talking to a very knowledgable mate over a beer and hanging on his every word. Referring to official records can result in some dry, but necessary, reading but he avoids this and I was hooked very early on. It is safe to say barely a page goes by without a squadron member's comments being included and this really underlines the "big family" aspect of any squadron.

These were brave men who earned a reputation for efficiency and determination. Mark Lax has done a great job at pulling the many threads together to bring this squadron back to life and present it to a larger audience. It is a comprehensive account of a squadron that should never be forgotten...and the photos throughout are superb!

The 454-459 website says the book is now sold out. I ordered my paperback copy direct from Mark roughly 18 months ago. I do not know whether the book will be available again. While Mark has sold all of his stock several copies are still available in Australia from Alexander Fax Booksellers.

Availability update as at June 28, 2011 - as the book is sold-out and out of print, the author has graciously allowed the 454-459 Sqn Assoc to host a pdf of ATTA on its website. The download has been available for at least a year.

Life's Too Short To Cry - Tim Vigors DFC

When a very good friend told me about this book and how it had been put together from an unfinished manuscript after the author had died, I’ll readily admit it went to the top of my wish list. It intrigued me from several angles. First and foremost were the author’s experiences flying Buffaloes over Singapore – not every day you come across that. Secondly, was the slightly frustrated tone in which my friend talked about the book. You see, Tim Vigors DFC had a remarkable wartime career (and post-war life) and he draws you into it with confidence and honesty but...

While educated and spending a good proportion of his early life in England, Tim Vigors is an Irishman. Indeed, he regards his position within the RAF as a mercenary (Eire being neutral) but more of that later. Growing up with a hunting family, Tim’s childhood is full of horse-riding, fox hunts and traditions which were totally alien to me but I could readily understand the passion and enthusiasm for this ‘world’. Much of Tim’s character – the confidence, frankness and love of life – is developed on horseback and/or with a pack of hounds. I imagine having enthusiastic parents and an older brother to keep up with were sufficient motivation.

While not a brilliant student or sportsman, Tim still receives an excellent education and makes some, but for the war, lifelong friends along the way. Scraping through assessments, even the final theory at RAF Cranwell, points to him as a survivor – someone who is going to push on and find a way despite the odds. Even his posting to the Spitfires of 222 Squadron was through sheer bloody-mindedness. Wanting the challenge of twin-engined aircraft, despite his instructor’s warning of not being able to change his mind, Tim chooses Oxfords over Harts while still at Cranwell. With war looming, he realises his ‘mistake’ and manages to be posted to a twin-engined fighter training unit. There, with further diplomacy, he impresses with his handling of the Blenheim so is given a chance on single-engined fighters which he obviously takes and doesn’t look back.

Douglas Bader makes a surprising (to me, my knowledge of him is a bit rusty) appearance as Tim’s flight commander on 222 Squadron and certainly comes across as a hard task-master and one who Tim, despite being a good friend, is happy to part ways with amicably. As the squadron is converting from Blenheims, Tim is lucky to be one of the first to fly the unit’s new Spitfires. He soon has time to put his skills into action when the squadron covers the Dunkirk evacuation and, of course, the subsequent Battle of Britain where he becomes an ace and earns the DFC. Of course, he lives life to the full and his flying in his pyjamas with a bad hangover to successfully intercept a German bomber – at night – makes for much amusement and shaking of the head!

This understandable ‘live hard, play hard’ mentality is challenged when Tim loses a very close friend and squadron-mate. He is unable to treat the loss lightly – a coping mechanism common among the pilots – and, although he always looks after ‘number one’, the mercenary attitude is dropped and the desire to pass on his knowledge to effect the defeat of evil comes to the fore. A posting to Singapore as a flight commander for 243 Squadron is a welcome new challenge for a weary Vigors but his love of life returns and continues unabated and he is again lucky to get away with some escapades. His war with the Japanese is brief, as CO of 453 Squadron, but somewhat effective and his survival is remarkable.

It is here the tone of frustration mentioned above becomes readily apparent. You know you’re close to the end of the book, the writing has been superb and you’ve turned the pages to feed your appetite. However, you’ve already seen the well-produced photos from 1944 and 1945 that are included in the book and you know there’s a lot more to come. However, the book ends with another lucky scrape – there but for the grace of God go I – in what subsequent research reveals to be the end of January 1942. At 300+ pages, this is,really, Volume One of the life of Tim Vigors but sadly, it’s all we’ll get as he passed away in 2003. Perhaps someone will one day have a go at writing about his recovery and service in India and subsequent commands. Mind you, the author will need to know his or her horses as, after the war, Tim became a very successful identity in this arena.

While prone to bouts of over-confidence, all of which become significant lessons (and our hero is a quick learner!), Tim Vigors is frank about his failings but equally forthright with his opinions and experiences. Full of wonderful characters whose fates are often most sobering, you’ll find yourself reading with the same attitude Tim had to life – “On, on”. However, I don’t think much editing was performed on the manuscript prior to publication. There are two sides to this. Firstly, it means Tim had a wonderful turn of phrase and, secondly, it also means little would have been checked for accuracy which is quite disappointing considering the publisher. There are apparently several errors in relation to the time in Singapore but what really stood out to me was the reference to the Swordfish operating off the island. I am almost 100% certain the aircraft referred to should be the torpedo-carrying Vickers Vildebeests of 36 Squadron. Such an apparent error does make me wonder what else might have been slightly inaccurate but then this book is not an authority on any subject and never set out to be. If you’re after something technical, read something else. If you’re after living the first 20 years of a man’s life through the eyes of an irrepressible fighter ace, I challenge you to find something better than this.

I recently picked up my copy of LTSTC in Grub Street paperback from Hyland's Bookshop here in Melbourne.

With the success of the title, it is easily available on Amazon, and elsewhere online, and, of course, in similar bookshops.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Down to Earth - S/L Kenneth McGlashan AFC with Owen Zupp


As you'll discover, I can go on a bit about a book I've really enjoyed because, to me, they are such a privilege to read. However, Down To Earth is more than that. Sure, it's great that Owen Zupp has shaped and shared this story with us but, at the end, you come away feeling like you know Kenneth McGlashan and wishing you could shake his hand. That's how much his character comes alive in this book.

'Mac' flew over the Dunkirk beaches during the evacuation in 1940 and, through self-admitted inexperience, walked those beaches after his Hurricane was shot down. He is young, 19, but mature. Further trips over Dunkirk follow and he evolves into an effective single-engined fighter pilot. The Battle of Britain follows during which Mac's squadron is posted for an intriguing interlude in Ireland chasing German Condors as they in turn hunt out the ships steaming across the Atlantic. Here, his desire to pass on his knowledge surfaces and his commitment and drive to better himself as a leader and pilot is evident. He returns to England and flies cats-eye night fighter ops where he has to rely on his skill, eyesight and a lot of luck. Over time, Mac finds himself working with searchlight-equipped Boston/Havocs - the infamous Turbinlites - the latest great idea in night fighting to prove unsuccessful but nevertheless exciting when flying close formation with a bomber at night. Finally, though, he finds himself posted to a Mosquito night fighter unit and, at last, an effective way to hunt at night. What follows is a love affair with the Mossie, a harsh lesson on single-engined flying that sees him in hospital and determined to learn and teach what he can about "assymetric" flight, continuing anecdotes of the great men he flew with, an amazing sojourn with BOAC in the Middle East, flying during the invasion of Europe, training, raising a family, the end of the war, successful command of a Mossie squadron, award of the AFC, transfers, time in Cyprus and living around the world. What a life!

The writing is relaxed and so easy to follow. It is casual but evocative, regularly amusing but equally poignant. Mac certainly made the most of his scrapes over Dunkirk, his lucky escape over Dieppe and his serious crash in the Mossie. He learns from his mistakes and adventures as indicated by the fact he flew operationally for more than four years, more or less. His eventual return to the scene of his Dunkirk incident brought a lump to my throat as he relived the events of that day surprised he could remember such minute details. Mac's stories are supported by excellent memories from his wife, Doreen, adding a very personal aspect to the reading. Owen comments that the current restoration of Mac's Hurri, recovered from Dunkirk, is a fitting tribute to the man. I think it is fair to say, so is this book.

I read this book in 2007 after ordering it direct from Owen - a good friend of mine and all round nice bloke. The review has appeared on Amazon and, in parts, on Owen's website - www.owenzupp.com. You can order the book through Owen's website from the front page of his website (scroll to the bottom).  The Australian book site Booktopia is also worth a visit if you're looking for a copy of DTE.

Published by Grub Street, it may appear as a paperback in the future. The hardback is very well put together and the photo reproduction is superb.

Welcome

Welcome to a silly idea I had several days ago! I have been an avid reader of aircrew memoirs from the Second World War for as long as I can remember (not counting the various other interests that I have flitted to over time). I started collecting titles as found on Amazon but in the past few years have concentrated on books about the members of the RAF and Commonwealth air forces. I still maintain a passing interest in the operations of the USAAF, USN Luftwaffe and Japanese forces but, as an Australian, you can probably understand where my heart lies!

Around about 2000, when I started collecting in earnest, I stuggled to find vast amounts of books on the subject. For those of you in the know this is a ridiculous thing to say as there are thousands of titles on the RAF alone. My wish list for collecting and learning is a good read in itself.

In the past couple of years I have been fortunate to make some excellent friends in the UK and Australia who have helped broaden my knowledge of what's available and, in some cases, spend my money for me (I'm looking at you Toor!). In doing so, I have also corresponded with and met several authors and gained some insight into what it takes to put a well-researched book together. One of these days I hope to do the same but for the time being writing reviews (Amazon and Fighting High - Steve Darlow's e-zine) and the occasional article (I also run another blog) will see me through as I gather what I need.

I have worked as a journalist in the past and run my own online magazine which was very time consuming and eventually led to the other blog which is much easier to maintain. My interest in the aviation of the Second World War began with a school library book on The Battle of Britain when I was nine. Numerous plastic models, museum visits, movies and Commando comics later I branched out into books like Squadron Signal's 'In Action' series (cheap for a teenager) and generalist titles covering certain aircraft. My first memory of a memoir (ha) was an oldish, secondhand copy of Alex Henshaw's superlative Sigh for a Merlin bought at a primary school market - incidentally, still the best Spitfire book I have ever read. I devoured it and although I haven't read it since (early 1990s) I can still vividly remember many of Alex's adventures testing this greatest of aircraft. I'd say it's time to read it again!

My time as a journalist proper was short-lived as I had to make some decent money but it followed time as an accountant, truck driver and recruitment researcher. Most recently I was a recruitment consultant but it's now time to find something better. Throughout my various incarnations I have maintained a fascination for what aircrew experienced during the war. I have been fortunate enough to meet several veterans and have even worked alongside some on a couple of major aircraft restorations down here in Australia. To a man I have found them friendly, modest and, at times, wondering what all the fuss is about. A gross generalisation perhaps but any variance would be understandable considering what they lived through. I know I could certainly not have done what they did in their late teens/early 20s. Fortunately, I have not had the opportunity to prove this otherwise and that's largely because of what these men (and women) sacrificed for what we have today.

Each book is a pleasure to read (even the not-so-great ones) and I hope I can convey what each is like to read without giving the game away too much. I'll also endeavour to let you know when or where I bought my copy and where it is available now as I'll be reviewing old and new titles (basically whatever takes my fancy at the time). Please also feel free to recommend titles I may not be aware of or that you think would complement a reviewed title.

Cheers

Andy Wright