11 July 2010

A Most Secret Squadron - Des Curtis DFC

As I sit down to write this I’m struggling with the familiar problem of what to write about without giving the game away. Squadron or unit histories are, as a rule, tricky to review without sounding like a calendar of events. There has to be enough detail to inform the reader/prospective buyer ... but not too much. So, reading something about a squadron whose aircrew trained long and hard for an operation that never happened ... well, only so much can be said really. However add in two highly secret weapons, limited combat ops, a very personal account of squadron life and cram it into less than 200 pages and all of sudden this review has more areas to cover than this squadron did training flights. Do not allow my vague meanderings above to divert you from one point – Des Curtis’ A Most Secret Squadron: The Story of No. 618 Squadron RAF is the only title that records the entire history of these most secret Mosquitos and their crews.

Barnes Wallis fans will know 618 was formed to carry a smaller version of the ‘famous’ bouncing bomb so effectively used by No 617 Squadron. Both squadrons were unaware of the other’s existence and the secrecy surrounding the units and the weapons was so effective that, when the success of the dams raid was revealed to the world, the members of 618 had no idea their Lancaster-flying colleagues had employed a weapon that used the same principles as theirs.

The two squadrons, though, were very much alike and, to some extent, their experiences in the early stages correlate. Both were formed to deliver a weapon that was still in trials and had to be deployed effectively ahead of a rapidly approaching deadline. Once this deadline passed and the weapons – or, more correctly, the ‘stores’ – had been used by either, or both, squadrons, the cat would be out of the bag. This is where the paths of 617 and 618 diverge, as we know, with the successful attack on the dams by the former. ‘Our’ squadron however had a wholly different operation to contend with. Indeed, it was a target the CO of 617, Guy Gibson, was relieved to find he would not be flying against – the German battleship Tirpitz.

Anchored in a variety of progressively distant Norwegian fjords, Tirpitz was an ever-present threat to the Russian convoys and the battle for the Atlantic as a whole. When/if she sailed, she had the potential to wreak havoc. Fortunately, hamstrung by German High Command’s fear of losing her, Tirpitz spent the majority of her time in service hiding from the RAF and RN. However, in doing so, she tied up considerable numbers of aircraft and ships that would have been effectively used elsewhere. Of course saying that is with the benefit of hindsight whereas, at the time, she was a considerable threat that needed to be removed. So, among other initiatives, No. 618 Squadron was formed as part of Coastal Command in late March 1943 for the express purpose of removing this threat.

At the time of the squadron’s formation, Coastal Command’s few Mosquitos were flying photo reconnaissance and met flights. Bomber Command was well-equipped so, naturally, became a source for experienced crews whose numbers were complemented by veterans from several Coastal Beaufighter squadrons (the primary CC strike aircraft at the time). Straight away we have a problem with every crew arriving on squadron – they either had no experience flying anti-shipping operations or hadn’t even sat in a Mosquito! On top of this challenge the new CO of 618, Wing Commander GH ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, had to ‘borrow’ aircraft (and ground crew) from bomber units in order to fly something while Mossies were pulled from the production line to be modified. Despite the TOP SECRET arrangements and the remoteness of their first base, RAF Skitten near RAF Wick in Scotland, the aircrew knew they and their colleagues were hand-picked so had an inkling they were in for something special. They didn’t have to wait long as by early April all had been briefed as to the target and the date for the operation barely a month in the future.

Really, the squadron was ‘up against it’ from the start. At the time of the briefing, Tirpitz was already sitting beyond the operational range of the Mosquito. This issue would continue to haunt the planning of the operation. To the credit of the crews they continued to practice low-level navigation and attacks against moored target ships knowing full well if they survived the guns of the Germans, a flight to Sweden or ‘friendly’ Russia on rapidly diminishing fuel still lay ahead. The analysis of the various contingencies thrown into the planning of the raid is where the book is at its most fascinating and the frustration obviously experienced by the crews at the continuing delays and problems (particularly navigating over a large expanse of water at low-level) is well conveyed by the author who, of course, was one-half of one of those crews.

Eventually, with attacks being made on Tirpitz by midget submarines and the like, the squadron began to appear redundant despite re-training for dropping the stores against U-boats and being considered for attacks on land-based targets (shades of 633 Squadron). As the workload decreased the aircrew turned to a variety activities as only aircrew can do. The writing was on the wall and the squadron, other than a core of skilled personnel, was dispersed in early September 1943 while technical trials with the weapon continued. So, that was the end of No 618 Squadron ... or so you’d think.

The Japanese fleet was still very active, and ‘live’ stores numerous, but the problem of range was again an issue so trials were conducted flying a Mosquito on and off an aircraft carrier. Within 10 months of ‘shutting up shop’ at RAF Skitten, 618 was again fully-manned – this task being much easier due to fourteen of the original crews being available and extra crews being sourced from the now large number of Mosquito units in Coastal Command service. With more dropping of inert stores combined with learning the art of operating from a carrier, the pace was hectic and in a perfect example of military organisation, the squadron found itself in Ceylon four months later en route to Australia.

With the Mosquitos reassembled and training well underway, time again became a negative factor on the squadron’s chances of being deployed operationally. By 1945, the Americans were rapidly approaching Japan and generally took a dim view to ‘specialist’ squadrons that required extra effort and resources to be accommodated at forward bases. Their own tests of the weapon had not gone well with at least one accident resulting in the loss of the aircraft (a video can be found on You Tube of this accident and it is clear the aircraft is much too low to begin with). As the Americans dictated what happened in the Pacific theatre, the squadron was again, more or less, cast aside – so much so squadron personnel assisted local farmers at harvest time. Several fatal crashes certainly did nothing for the morale of the squadron so it was with some apparent relief when, in July 1945, the men of 618 were again posted away. This was certainly the end of the squadron but, unbeknown to the frustrated Australian-based crews, some of their colleagues had been very busy in the waters around the UK.

A special detachment had been formed in October 1943 – barely a month after the squadron was dispersed at RAF Skitten – to operate the Mosquito Mk XVIII equipped with the ‘Molins gun’. While not the heaviest gun fitted operationally to an aircraft during the war, the 57mm, six-pound warhead firing Molins was nothing to be sneezed at. Several 618 crews were sourced and set about hunting surfaced U-boats in the Bay of Biscay. Flying from the very Coastal Command airfield of RAF Predannack, the author and his colleagues were to fly the only operational sorties of any of the various incarnations of 618 Squadron. It is at this stage in the book that the writing becomes very autobiographical as the author is a rare man among rare men – an operational member of a most secret squadron. Self-sufficient and highly-experienced despite the long period of training for the Tirpitz attack, the detachment was almost immediately successful in the anti-submarine role but not before losing its commander, S/L Charlie Rose DFM DFC, on its first sortie.

Attacks continued against progressively heavier-armed and escorted U-boats but the ‘Tsetse’ Mosquitos were now escorted by the more conventionally-armed Mossies of 248 Squadron. Encounters with Ju-88s were commonplace and the detachment was to have its most successful period in late March 1944 when two U-boats were mortally damaged. The detail of these attacks is absorbing and is ably supported by official reports of the time and, of course, the author’s vivid recollections.

Time was again running out for the detachment as the Germans were now well aware of the Molins gun so there was little point for the crews and their aircraft to be billeted away from the other Coastal crews at Predannack. The detachment became ‘C’ flight of 248 Squadron and attacks on all forms of German shipping continued with regular success. The ‘Tsetse’ Mossies continued flying until early January 1945 but the widespread use of rocket projectiles, which did not require massive modification of the airframe, meant the airborne artillery’s days were numbered from the start. Its effectiveness, though, proved that 618 Squadron, with the right weapon, could make a serious contribution.

As stated earlier the 200 or so pages of AMSS makes it an easy book to finish relatively quickly and the majority of the writing certainly makes the experience most pleasant. The initial introduction to the Battle of the Atlantic, as the author develops the context for 618’s formation, is a little hard to follow though. It’s almost as if numerous post-war sources were partly-referenced as the discussion is quite disjointed and slightly off-putting. While not the most promising of starts, the reader has to remember the author is looking back at events he was not directly involved in. These events, however, had a direct effect on him – he was assigned to 618. Trying to condense several years of warfare in (and over) the Atlantic into a few pages written 50 years later without getting bogged down in detail would be a serious challenge for anyone.

Like the Mossie crews the important thing is to persevere because once the book turns to the development and composition of the ‘bouncing bomb’ the writing improves markedly and improves yet again once the flying begins. It is clear the author is a lot more comfortable describing the life of the squadron especially since he and his pilot were one of its most successful crews. He writes of never-ending training, drops against target ships and the continuous speculation as to whether they would ever get to sortie in anger ... and how many of them would survive to tell the story. The frustration of the crews is, as mentioned above, palpable and well-handled with typical understated humour and a certain resignation to the task – strong men indeed. They were like 100-metre sprinters waiting for the starter’s gun. If it ever came, they’d be off in a flash and, most likely, things would be over quickly one way or the other. The majority of the 618 crews never got out of the starting blocks but for a lucky few the gun that started 618’s success was considerably larger than a starter’s pistol!

This is a book that needed to be written especially among the plethora of titles covering the more famous No. 617 Squadron. That the task fell to one of the few squadron members rather than a historian is all the more important as knowing the author witnessed many of the squadron’s major events adds an authenticity to the training, squadron life and the Tsetse operations. Fittingly, the book ends with a chapter about the author, his pilot and a former squadron mate meeting the captains of two of the U-boats they attacked ... forty years after the fact. It is a moving experience to read and a reminder that despite the squadron’s short, disrupted existence and limited time on operations, its legacy continues and its contribution should never be forgotten.

Grub Street’s new edition of this book is a welcome addition to the number of copies available as the original self-published work can be hard to find affordably. The edition I read is the self-published work from 1995. It is a well-produced book with useful appendices and a variety of photos printed on the same paper as the text.

On the photo front it was noted the second photo – a close up of the modified bomb bay – was printed upside-down. Along with the ‘clunky’ opening chapter, this type of thing would have benefitted from an editor’s professional eye so it is hoped Grub Street’s recent re-release of this title is more than just a carbon copy with a fancy new dust-jacket. That said, these are minor distractions from a story that is as rich and honest as any you will come across in this genre.

Footnote - The squadron’s base in Australia was Narromine which is three hours north of where I now sit. The museum there (and one in Sydney) has several major components from the squadron’s Mosquitos. That any part of a Mosquito survives is remarkable but something from 618? Priceless and simply astounding. Like the book and the surviving veterans, a very tangible link to a unique squadron.

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