Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Beaufighters In The Night - Brick Eisel

In the past I’ve reviewed books featuring aircrew who flew American aircraft – aircraft generally loaned from the US under the well-known Lend/Lease scheme. Most recently Gus Officer’s Six O’Clock Diamond featuring Kittyhawks was reviewed and, on the bomber front, Murray Peden’s A Thousand Shall Fall and Charles Page’s Wings Of Destiny featured Fortresses and Bostons respectively. You may recall we even looked at an American in the RAF with Caine’s Spitfire, Thunderbolts And Warm Beer. So, what about British aircraft being used by the USAAF? Fair to say such instances (and books) were a lot less common. Mossies, I suspect, come to mind but if you were to visit the USAF Museum at Dayton, Ohio, you’d see, among the classic American types, a very British aircraft wearing ‘stars and bars’ – a Beaufighter.

Put simply, with no American type proving itself a consummate night fighter and the need to help defend the night skies over Europe, the Americans opted for the Beau which, in its night fighter form, was being steadily replaced by the Mosquito. The 417th Night Fighter Squadron, the subject of this book, arrived in North Africa in the latter half of 1943 and proved an effective counter to the regular Luftwaffe raids on harbour installations. That said, as the war progressed, the squadron often found itself the last to move forward or, in the case of equipment, the last to be ‘updated’. Consequently the 417th perhaps did not see as much action as its sister squadrons and had to ‘make do’ with what it had. Similarly the author has used the same resourcefulness and initiative to put together a book on a squadron that had a relatively quiet war and, as a result, has been largely forgotten in the myriad of USAAF day fighter squadron volumes.

The 417th became part of the nascent US night fighter force when it was formed in early 1943. Night Fighter Schools were already churning out crews in Florida and the Americans found many of their instructors, particularly the radar types, to be British civilians or servicemen – the latter most likely on a ‘rest’ tour from operations. A picture of efficiency, by early May, barely three months since its creation, the 417th was fully manned and shipped off for England.

Crossing the Atlantic quickly on the Queen Elizabeth, the squadron knuckled down to 10 weeks of training with the RAF. After flying the P-70 – the night fighter version of the Boston/Havoc light bomber – with its tricycle undercarriage, the American crews found themselves learning to fly the Beaufighter with its tailwheel, capacity to swing on take-off and, according to an extract from the 414th’s history, “the most difficult of all British aircraft to fly.” The aircrew were not the only ones having to adapt. The ground crew found themselves having to master the Hercules engine and other aspects of the airframe that, from their point of view, were ‘quirky’.

Despite the difficulties the 417th was dispatched to the airfield at Tafaroui, Algeria where the aircraft arrived two weeks before the rest of the squadron. When the rest of the squadron finally caught up they found the aircrew rather frazzled from a fortnight of operations and aircraft servicing. Things soon settle down, however, and squadron life settles into the familiar routine with brief moments of excitement and/or stress. A constant theme throughout the squadron’s use of the Beaufighter is the general ‘tired’ status of the aircraft issued. Interestingly the USAAF was unable to arrange spare parts so enterprising members of the air and ground crews would roam the Mediterranean by B-25 Mitchell in search of whatever spares they could scrounge. In contrast with other USAAF units this situation is quite remarkable but anyone familiar with the air war in the desert will know that, until the latter stages of that campaign, the RAF and Commonwealth air forces suffered similar supply issues due to the dangers to shipping in the Mediterranean and the length alternative routes. So the 417th certainly wasn’t in unique territory. However not having a regular parts or even aircraft supply meant a much higher workload for the ground crews in particular. Given the environment in which they worked it is remarkable the squadron achieved what it did.

Shortly after claiming its first victory in early February, 1944, some of the ground staff of the squadron were detached to Corsica. The 417th was the last US night fighter unit in North Africa and, other than regular two-aircraft detachments to Corsica, remained ‘behind the war’ for some time to come. With these detachments and the subsequent re-unification of the entire squadron, though, the action really picks up. Still living in basic camps the 417th’s night fighters were heavily involved in the Italian campaign. This flying intensified with the invasion of the south of France and the squadron adding a new responsibility – intruder ops. Moving to France in September, 1944, the 417th operated out of an airfield just north-east of Marseilles. As always the environment was not an ally especially when the ‘Mistral’ blew at a sustained 40 knots. A series of engine failures, some fatal, brought the squadron to perhaps its lowest point. The cause of these failures and losses was eventually traced to empty fuel barrels containing water that was not emptied out by Marseilles dock workers before the barrels were filled with 100-octane aviation fuel. As always the 417th soldiered on and overcame this and other obstacles. Even when their sister squadrons were re-equipped with the Black Widow (and, in one case, the Mosquito XXX) and new Black Widow units arrived in the theatre, the 417th kept flying its clapped-out Beaufighters and pulling its weight. In particular the squadron was quite effective at intercepting the low-level Luftwaffe flights to Spain. Intended to transport German gold, foreign currency and treasures out of the rapidly declining Third Reich, these flights were difficult to intercept but the 417th, with skills developed from numerous low-level interceptions over the sea, proved up to the task.

The Black Widows eventually arrived in March, 1945 and the squadron was operational again by early April. Other than losing two aircraft to friendly ground fire, what was left of the war passed uneventfully for the 417th.

BITN is quite a quick read in that the main text ends at page 128. The first four chapters are quite short but flow into each other well. After reading so many Commonwealth-based titles some of the language used by the American crews is a little refreshing and a reminder of how two different English-speaking forces can interpret the same situation. Seven appendices fill the final 50 pages and all add considerable detail to the story of the 417th. I did find Appendix V – the combat action reports – a bit hard to read in its capital letter format. While this might add authenticity to the reports I am sure they would have been much easier to read if they’d been presented in the same text format as the rest of the book.

What is particularly rewarding is that BITN is a lot more than just a dry unit history. The author has gone to great lengths to interview and correspond with surviving members of the squadron. Happily he did not limit this first-hand research to aircrew. The seamless injection of the personal memories is made all the more valuable by the inclusion of comments from all personnel levels within the squadron. On any page the reader can expect to find remarks from a private in the mess to the commanding officer. This wide-ranging material is mirrored by a commitment to cover all aspects of squadron life including the ‘winding-down’ period post-war. Of course there is lots of flying. However before an aircraft takes-off on an operation it has to be serviced; its consumables re-stocked; its crew fed, washed, quartered and paid and the airfield itself has to be maintained. Remarkably this is all covered in the main text of the book.

As mentioned above the decrepit Beaufighters flown by the squadron are a regular theme throughout but the general feeling is that the 417th was certainly overlooked in a number of other areas as well. On top of the struggles to keep the Beaus flying, the food and accommodation always seemed to be of a low standard when compared to other USAAF units. It does sound quite similar to the trials and tribulations of the RAF and Commonwealth units in the same theatre though. The initiative shown and solutions devised are certainly the same however.

As with all Pen & Sword books I’ve encountered to date, BITN is well illustrated with a good section of photos printed on glossy paper. In fact the photo coverage is quite extensive and the length of that section – 24 glossy, double-sided leaves and 132 photos (!) – surely must surpass any comparable book of this size and genre. While I noticed one glaring error (RAF Portreath referred to as RAF Port Reith) the text is easy to read and flows nicely with sufficient detail for the avid ‘airhead’ and perfect explanations for the ‘novice’ reader. I do not think I have read a squadron history that so ably caters for readers of all levels. Hopefully this accessibility will help the 417th’s wartime service be remembered and honoured as it should. BITN, therefore, is the perfect memorial for a very resourceful squadron.

The review copy is a 2007 hardback and is well-presented in a wonderfully illustrated dust-jacket. While not as action-packed as some of Pen & Sword’s recent covers it depicts a hard working ground crew slaving over a Hercules in the mud and standing water. Really a great piece of art with detail down to the blanked-out RAF roundel on the wing and the squadron’s Hurricane hack in the background.

The photos in the book, like the text, cover every aspect of squadron life and some are quite candid. Despite my comments about this being a quick read I probably had a bookmark stuck in BITN for close to a month. This was purely due to my circumstances at the time. It was very easy to get back into though.

BITN is easily available from Pen & Sword - Beaufighters In The Night - and the usual places like Amazon etc.

Review copy published by Pen & Sword Aviation in 2007. ISBN 978-1-84415-483-8.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty fair review of BITN. I'm always interested to see what the reader thinks of my writing. You were pretty thorough and I've no complaints regarding your treatment of the book.

    Best regards,