20 April 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.

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