17 May 2013

Eagles Of The Southern Sky - Luca Ruffato and Michael Claringbould

Whenever I review books that are well done I often wonder if I’m going to run out of things to say. Indeed, lately, I’ve been wondering if I’ve been repeating myself to some extent or am in danger of doing so. Then something like Eagles Of The Southern Sky appears and I realise it doesn’t matter as all that really counts is sharing the sheer joy that comes from reading something ground-breaking.

It’s all a bit ridiculous really. As a rule, I ‘avoid’ books about American, German, Italian and Japanese aircrew. Such books do exist on my shelves but, as I have enough trouble keeping up with the RAF and Commonwealth side of things, I try to draw the line somewhere. So why is there a Japanese-based book now featured on ABR? Read on, you’ll see.

The Tainan Naval Air Group was a major adversary for the RAAF’s No. 75 Squadron when the Australians made their famous ‘stand’ in New Guinea. Surprisingly, other than some USAAF Bomb and Fighter Group histories, only 75’s story is widely known when it comes to the New Guinea air campaign – a campaign practically forgotten amid the ‘clamour’ of Guadalcanal and the carrier air battles in the Pacific. For various reasons – among others, lost records, the language barrier and an uncaring post-war public trying to forget a war that destroyed their empire – next to nothing has been written about this phenomenally experienced Japanese unit.

For as long as I can remember, Michael Claringbould has been at the forefront of New Guinea air war research. His various books and endless series of investigative magazine articles have kept the memories of the air war alive and his work has uncovered lost aircraft and men and stoked the fires of a wider interest in a campaign fought over the most unforgiving landscape.

All of this work, though, as good as it is, was really just a prelude to EOTSS. MC joined forces with Italian Luca Ruffato and the pair, both experts in their own right, formed an almost symbiotic relationship as they filled the holes in each other’s knowledge and, with a magnificent supporting cast of contributing editors (a veritable who’s who of leading Pacific air war researchers), have written the most comprehensive English-language history of a Japanese unit we are ever likely to see.

This book is, simply, brilliant (and a little overwhelming at first look ... there is just so much to take in). For a ‘hard-core’ unit history it is wonderfully easy to read with a lovely flow that, I suspect, is largely a product of MC’s years of writing. The analysis of the actions and everything associated with the men of the Tainan Air Group will leave you dumbfounded. If you are familiar with particular combats or pilots from the Allied side, you will suddenly learn whom they were flying against and those opponents’ experiences … combined with the Allied viewpoint. This extraordinary balance – literally the full story – is maintained throughout the book and would certainly have been a challenge at times given the paucity of Japanese records and the fact men and aircraft simply disappeared without a trace.

As a Commonwealth-focused reader, the balance of Allied (RAAF and USAAF) and Japanese detail has resulted in a wonderful learning experience – almost a feeling of enlightenment. My knowledge is now more rounded in terms of the New Guinea air war and my existing knowledge of the RAAF’s involvement is now so much deeper. The exceptionally well-illustrated (period photos from both sides abound) EOTSS has easily set a new benchmark and I don’t think it will ever be surpassed. It has brought to life a unit everyone ‘knew’ about but few understood in detail. This aspect is reinforced with innovative computer-generated images of specific encounters/combats and many, many ‘traditional’ profiles of the aircraft involved (and, amazingly, a progressive colour palette of how Japanese paint faded!). The ‘CGI’ is a very clever device as, for the first time, the reader is treated to visual recreations of what did happen. Even the terrain pictured is the exact landscape over which the action took place!

Eagles Of The Southern Sky is a large-format paperback of 350+ pages. From a presentation and wear point of view, a hardback would certainly have been preferable but this would have placed such a massive work out of the reach of all but the most serious readers. It is, however, at A$80, not a small investment but I challenge you to find better value for money. No superlative can give a sense of how truly monumental this book is. Claringbould and Ruffato have given us their opus and it breathes new life into the lost and the forgotten. They must surely know what they have achieved is remarkable. Aviation history and our understanding of the New Guinea air war will never be the same again … and that is a great thing.

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