The reader is immediately aware of Davenport’s ‘qualifications’ when he opens his wartime account with his crew’s running, uneven, fatal battle between their No. 461 Squadron RAAF Sunderland and Luftwaffe Ju-88s. A dramatic account is a useful tool to hook a reader and it is employed well here. While, naturally, told out of sequence it perfectly illustrates the threats to the long-range Coastal Command crews. The reality of flying the Sunderland is laid bare and this action – indeed, this ‘environment’ when the Germans countered the defensive successes of the ‘boats with flights of heavily armed long-range fighters – sticks in the back of the reader’s mind.
Growing up in Sydney with two younger brothers Davenport keeps a ‘weather eye’ on the various political and military posturings around the globe. Quite worldly, as a result, his volunteering for service is inevitable. His two brothers also join the air force and the reader is given a brief window into the trepidation of a family (and community) sending its sons to war and then waiting for a telegram that hopefully never comes.
Unlike his brother Jack (future No. 455 Squadron RAAF Hampden and Beaufighter pilot) PD only completes his initial ground training in Australia before sailing for Southern Rhodesia via a decidedly unwelcoming South Africa.
Six weeks of Tiger Moth flying and another 14 in the Harvard has the author graduating and returning to South Africa for a Navigation and Reconnaissance Course. His time learning to fly is told matter-of-factly with equal space given to his experiences on the ground and observations of the social aspect of life in Southern Rhodesia. His life in South Africa proceeds similarly before embarking for the UK to eventually arrive in February 1942. Two months later, having reunited with his brother Jack on several occasions, Davenport has his first flight in a Sunderland and, after a few episodes of ‘gale watch’ aboard moored aircraft, is soon in the thick of it as a flying boat second officer before, after three months, becoming a permanent first officer. His ‘welcome’ to the world of Sunderlands consisted of anti-shipping strikes, bad weather, U-boat sightings and successful encounters with enemy fighters. All this and not even close to being halfway through his tour of 800 hours or 75 ops! All adventures are written with an eye for detail – particularly descriptions of weather and sea conditions – and more than a little wry, unintentional humour e.g. in a stalled Sunderland coming out of an updraught and experiencing negative G, the author on the flight deck with his head “pressed against an overhead panel” used “both feet to line up the throttles.”
Leave, ferrying an aircraft to a dismal servicing depot in Scotland and then having to endure six weeks at said depot waiting for said aircraft to be finished eventually led to another series of patrols that culminate in a night take-off accident the crew are lucky to survive when a surging, and ultimately seizing, engine causes the Sunderland to cartwheel into the water just short of a stone jetty. Davenport’s luck holds as he is later involved in a successful attack on a U-boat before being given his own Sunderland to command. Six patrols later the crew are engaged by the six Ju-88s in the action that introduces us to Davenport’s flying boat war at the start of the book. They return to operations after survivors’ leave in late August 1943 and immediately encounter 88s again but are, happily, saved by Mosquitos. The use of Mosquitos over the Bay of Biscay was partly in answer to the threat of the Ju-88s.
Tiredness, in mind and body, took its toll towards the end of the tour and a momentary lapse of judgment had him lining the Sunderland up on the grass runway at Haverford West in order to give the place a good ‘beat-up’. This stunt, however, was witnessed by the Group Air Officer Commanding and Davenport was given the choice of a court-martial or, luckily, three weeks at a disciplinary school. The latter was chosen of course and proved to be surprisingly refreshing and constructive despite the best efforts of some of the ‘instructors’.
PD’s final landing in a Sunderland was on January 4, 1944 and he left 461 for an OTU at Alness, Scotland. His two weeks’ leave involved attending the wedding of his brother Jack (all three brothers reunited after youngest Keith had joined 461 just prior to PD’s posting) – also in Scotland. The ceremony and events surrounding this special occasion are lovingly told (see also Kristen Alexander’s Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader).
This happy time continued into the author’s stint at No. 4 Sunderland Operational Training and Maintenance Unit although it initially looked as though he was in for a frustrating time. Commanding the ‘test flight’ section of the unit Davenport was in charge of a range of men who, in one way or the other, all resented being sent to a ‘backwater’ instead of an operational squadron or, in the case of tour-expired chaps, home. Maintenance was performed to a minimum standard with little or no responsibility taken. Displaying the leadership that came so naturally as a flying boat captain Davenport ensured proper sign-offs and independent checks of ‘completed’ work by technical aircrew. Slowly but surely the quality of work improved and the five months spent at Alness became the most enjoyable of his service.
Operational flying beckoned, however, and Davenport became a Mosquito pilot. The conversion from Sunderlands to Mossies is, surprisingly, not detailed beyond a photo of the course pilots. Perhaps there was no need as the author took to the de Havilland design like the proverbial duck to water. His affinity with the aircraft oozes from his writing and, experienced but indifferent navigator aside, there is every indication he was an effective strike pilot.
His thirteenth operation with No. 235 Squadron in April 1945, and the first with a new navigator who would save their lives, was also his last. Davenport and Ron Day are helped by local Norwegians before being interrogated by the Germans after crash-landing on a frozen lake. What follows is a necessarily short but detailed account of something you don’t read about too often – a POW imprisoned in Norway.
Finally making it home to Australia in September 1945, the author was uncertain of his future. What to do? The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was considered a good place to try his hand and, by April 1946, Davenport was on his way to China to be a depot master for a canal project north-west of Shanghai. Perfectly suited to the role, he ultimately, somewhat unbelievably after so many years of war, found himself in another conflict – the Chinese civil war.
As Davenport’s career with UNRRA progressed in China so did the war. He was soon very much in the front-line and even found himself under fire again – this time from the air and from the banks of rivers he tried to navigate small ships through on supply runs. Surrounded by death, persecution and brutality he kept his head – figuratively and literally – to return to Australia at the end of 1947.
Already a man who did not suffer fools or bureaucracy lightly, Davenport’s experiences in China appear to have had the most profound affect on his view of the world and it shows throughout his writing. At times his apparent cynicism comes across as a little too much but, as alluded to in the opening of this review, his opinion is, more than anyone else’s on this occasion, completely justified. The book is most definitely written looking back through 60+ years of life with any ‘innocence of youth’ decidedly absent and replaced by a well-honed and earned weariness with those who govern us. Observant of the world around him, Davenport is not a stereotypical Australian with a healthy disrespect for authority. Instead he has a disdain for inequality and for those who would not get their hands dirty or sought to feather their own nest ahead of any compassion for their fellow man.
HFTNM is the first flying boat-based book to feature on ABR. Indeed, it is the first Sunderland book I have read in a very long time. How it compares to others in this area I cannot say. Certainly not technical in its delivery, with a distinct lack of ‘numbers’, the writing provides a good idea of what it was like to fly (and fly in) one of Short Brothers’ finest. Flying the big aircraft into combat is related in an easy, flowing manner. In some cases not a lot is written about particular events but none are lacking on detail with Davenport writing efficiently and effectively. Initial physical inspection of the book is misleading as there is plenty of detail – not just of his flying but also of the good men he served with – throughout. It is said maritime patrols consist of long hours of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. If anything, Davenport, in his first tour, experienced more than his fair share of the latter.
Very few of the books relevant to ABR glorify war. In fact it is probably fair to say none do. However it is easy to get wrapped up in the action and hi-jinks that pervaded the lives of aircrew and become somewhat addicted to these rollicking tales. The ‘experienced’ reader knows, however, that, with absolute certainty, death, injury and loss are but a page away and that these aspects of the war were as much a part of an airman’s life as the combat and ‘play hard’ attitude. Living with such things hanging over you and realising you were just “one of those grains of sand or drops of water” would certainly lead to a questioning of the sense (or lack of) of it all. Never have I come across a book that illustrates this combined sense of helplessness and frustration at being put in harm’s way to do another’s bidding so well. Phil Davenport had a choice to go to war and did (and did it well). Many others since have had that choice made for them. That they have means, to some extent, we haven’t learnt a thing.
An attractive and well-produced paperback, HFTNM features more the 80 photos throughout the book printed on the same, high-quality semi-gloss paper as the main text. Footnotes are extensive and the four maps preceding the excellent index are clear and detailed and among the best I have seen in this genre.
Published by Beachcomber Press in 2009 in Tasmania the entire package is the perfect vehicle for Davenport’s story. I have seen it available in museums and some specialist bookshops (online and 'shopfront'). You can also contact the publisher at Beachcomber Press.
Review copy ISBN 978-0-9805265-0-9