23 April 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 Not Peace But a Sword 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.

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

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