28 September 2013

Path Of Duty - Graeme Gibson

Regular readers will have noticed my excited anticipation and references to this forthcoming book over the past year.  Its subject matter and planned production values promised something of great worth.  I was fortunate to visit the author before Christmas 2012 and be shown his research and what he’s collected to make this two-volume history a reality.  Although I’ve had a fair insight as to what was coming the result has been beyond my wildest expectations.  Path Of Duty is the most beautiful book I have ever seen.

No. 16 Squadron, South African Air Force, has never had its history written before.  Like the equivalent RAAF units, the squadron is not widely known outside of its mother country but this does not make the history any less important.  And what a history it is.  Name some of the more obscure actions/campaigns in Africa during WW2 and you’re almost guaranteed to find 16 Squadron.  First created to patrol the South-West Cape early in the war (South Africa wanting to be seen to be ready for war when, in reality, it wasn’t), the squadron’s first incarnations were short-lived.  It was not until the campaign against the Italians in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) that the unit finally gained some permanence.  Flying Ju-86s, including former South African Airways aircraft, the squadron played a considerable and valuable part in removing the Italians from East Africa before disbanding yet again. 

It eventually returned to the SAAF’s strength with Beauforts and Marylands – No. 20 Squadron renamed - and participated in the Madagascar campaign before moving to Kenya and returning to its roots flying Bisleys on maritime patrols.  North Africa beckoned in early 1943, Beaufighters arrived and the unit became a strike squadron.

Path Of Duty records the squadron’s history up to the arrival of the Beaufighters.  Far from being a dry history, the narrative is masterfully crafted to be very readable and informative (the chapter detailing the social and conflict history of Abyssinia had me rapt).  Artwork - paintings, profiles and pencil sketches - has been specially commissioned for the book.  The colour plates are simply glorious with exceptional colour reproduction.  Combined with the narrative, they bring the book to life.  The sketches and paintings - the same idea used in the author’s earlier Coastal Strike (the biography of John Clements DFC) to cleverly illustrate scenes not featured in the many photographs found throughout  - have to be seen to be believed. The two South African artists, Sean Thackwray and Darryl Legg, deserve a much larger audience. They are truly superb at what they do.  The cover image is just the tip of the iceberg.

Appendices provide airframe histories – ably supported by more than 20 highly accurate colour profiles - and the bibliography is an education in itself.  I still can't grasp the enormity of the whole thing.  It delivers on everything it promised ... and then some.  Every inch of it exudes quality.  The paper stock is top notch and the photo reproduction is perfect.  The only thing I can equate it to is a classic book on bird-watching.  You know, one of those very tactile, beautiful books complete with colour plates and detailed observations (POD even includes sketches of bird, animal, insect and plant life as encountered by the squadron – it’s that type of comprehensive and thoughtful history).  At almost 500 pages this is not a small book but it is certainly manageable and the whole package is an absolute delight.

Path Of Duty is Volume One of a two-volume squadron history.  It is not yet available in stores or online but place an order with the author before the end of October and you will be able to buy a copy for A$75 which is the greatest bargain you will see for some time (A$88 after October which is still bloody incredible value for money!) – graemegibson6ATbigpond.com

The second book, Road To Glory, is currently in its first draft.  There may also be a third volume concentrating on the wartime story of a Beaufighter crew (they both kept good diaries) who flew with the squadron.

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