22 April 2009

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.

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