Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Battle Of The Bismarck Sea - Gregory P. Gilbert

The RAAF's Air Power Development Centre regularly publishes books that are right up ABR's alley - see the Lost Without Trace review below.  Here Kristen Alexander returns as guest reviewer to look at a new book on an action that is well known but, until now, has perhaps suffered from a lack of 'fresh eyes'.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was one of the landmark actions of Australia’s Pacific war. Running from March 2-4, 1943, it was critical to Allied success in the Second World War’s New Guinea campaign. Winston Churchill considered the Battle ‘a striking testimony to the proper use of air power’. Douglas MacArthur described it as ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the South-West Pacific. Australian author Lex McAulay described it as one of the war’s ‘great historical moments—a land battle fought at sea and won from the air’. For Australia it was much more. Victory in the Bismarck Sea finally eliminated any attempt by the Japanese to regain the initiative in New Guinea, and subsequently invade or marginalise Australia. 

Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the pivotal battle, the Department of Defence’s Air Power Development Centre has published this concise historical case study of the Battle. As you would expect from the Office of Air Force History’s then Deputy RAAF Historian and current Deputy Director Research, it is well written, soundly researched and firmly based on primary source documents, particularly those held in the Office of Air Force History’s research collection. Dr Gilbert draws on new material and re-examines existing evidence which accounts for some differences in interpretation between this and other descriptions of the Battle. Importantly, Dr Gilbert looks at plans and preparations from both the Allied and Japanese perspective and addresses technology, doctrine, training and intelligence in his discussion. Supplementing the 76 pages of text and eight page bibliography are many scarce American and Australian photos, colour artworks and maps. 

After describing the course of the Battle, Dr Gilbert focuses on the significant outcomes and lessons learned especially in relation to air power and effective cooperation between army and air force. He refrains from favouring the Australian contribution over that of American as he illustrates an effective coalition of Allied forces. He also compares losses and studies the effects of the lost battle on Japanese strategy. As much as possible he lets the protagonists speak in their own words. A slim book, yes, but in his succinct account of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Dr Gilbert more than creditably covers all of the salient points and offers even more to consider. He also provides a suggested reading list, in addition to his secondary source material, for those who want to springboard to more detailed studies. 

Pilgrims cannot visit the site of the Battle and relatives cannot grieve the fallen in situ because a successful action between ships and aircraft at sea leaves no trace. There are no monuments or dedicated memorials to the battle which was a major turning point in Australia’s war. In the 70th anniversary year of the battle, Dr Gilbert has written a fitting tribute to the bravery of the men involved.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Legend In His Time - Vincent A. Ashworth

At every turn, in reading about wartime aircrew, one encounters truly remarkable men.  Sometimes, upon reading a synopsis of an individual’s flying career, you have to take a moment to let it all sink in.  How is it possible for one man to have done so much … and lived?  So it is with the life of Wing Commander Arthur Ashworth DSO, DFC*, AFC*, MID, PFF.

‘Artie’, a New Zealander, joined up before the war and eventually found himself flying Wellingtons with No. 75 (NZ) Squadron.  He completed his first tour in 1941 before being posted to Malta and North Africa where he completed a second tour.  Returning to 75 to commence his third tour, he flew until his 65th op in September 1942 when his aircraft caught fire and he ordered his crew to bale out.  He was set to follow them out, and would have probably joined them as a POW, until he discovered his parachute gone.  Nothing to do but fly the bomber back home single-handedly!  He returned to New Zealand shortly after and was posted to No. 17 Squadron RNZAF to fly Corsairs against the Japanese.  That was not the end of his war as he was eventually back in the UK, this time as a Pathfinder, for his fourth bomber tour which culminated, after his 78th bomber op, in supply drops for Operation Manna and the repatriation of former POWs.  He continued to serve in the RAF until his retirement in 1967 as an incredibly experienced, well-liked and respected pilot (post-war he flew Meteors, Canberras, you name it).

Such a phenomenal life deserves a quality biography and, happily, we have this in A Legend In His Time.  Lovingly written by Artie’s brother, Vincent, this is not the first title to feature one of the Ashworth boys.  The author had previously written about another brother, Corran, who crashed into the River Seine in 1944 and has never been found (the moving For Our Tomorrow He Gave His Today).  The connection is, of course, evident in the writing but the author has not been content to rely on his family’s records and memories and Artie’s beautifully kept logbooks.  In all honesty, this basic approach, with a bit of contextual research guided by the logbooks, would have been a most interesting read.  The author, however, has gone above and beyond and sourced as many personal recollections from his brother’s contemporaries as possible.  He has examined the men Artie flew and trained with and has really presented one of the most well-rounded, fair and insightful biographies to be written about a Bomber Command man in quite some time.

The book is a solid, well-presented 300-page paperback published by the author.  It is a good read with superb detail and an absolute plethora of photos although a number of these, particularly those that appear to have been acquired from outside sources, have not reproduced at all well – some are ‘blocky’ and blurry while others show a pattern or series of lines throughout the image (the moire pattern from scanning perhaps?).  The chapter structure is also a little frustrating in that contextual chapters on, for example, Bomber Command and its structure, the siege of Malta or the foundation of Pathfinder Force, interject in the narrative of Artie’s story.  While these chapters, themselves informative and well-written, are certainly necessary to build the scene, they slow the momentum of Artie’s war.  A quicker introduction could have been supported by further information in the appendices (and an index which is also, understandably, absent).  That way the reader could have ‘stayed’ with Artie.  That said, one such chapter placed at the end of Artie’s training period and detailing the fates of Wigram’s 11 Course pilots is perfectly timed and very, very sobering.

This is the man who, during the early days of Pathfinder HQ, came up with the names for two of the marking techniques used by the PFF – “Wanganui” and “Parramatta”.  Anyone familiar with Bomber Command will recognise these terms and will certainly appreciate learning so much about the man behind the legend.  Artie Ashworth’s life deserves a wider audience.  A brother’s love, knowledge and dedication has ensured this.