27 February 2014

The Beaufort Correlation

Long-time readers and friends who visit Aircrew Book Review might remember I have a particular passion for the low-level strike work carried out by the RAF and Commonwealth air forces.  Don’t worry if you can’t remember.  Bomber Command has, justifiably, taken over a bit (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Anyway, of particular fascination is ops flown by crews of twins – Blenheim, Beaufort, Mosquito and Beaufighter – and, screwing the focus down even more, those operating over the Mediterranean and North Sea especially as each theatre influenced the other, in terms of tactics, at various stages throughout the war.  A list of names of ‘Boy’s Own’ proportions comes to mind amid a flurry of terminology – Rover, Banff, Leuchars, RP, Thorney Island, Malta … Hearn-Phillips, Davenport, Edwards, Campbell, Gibbs, Barker, Nesbit.

Those last three all have something in common that makes them perennial ABR favourites.  They are all Beaufort men and they all became noted writers post-war.  As I scribbled this piece, on the day I found out about Roy Conyers Nesbit’s passing, I am reminded of what I wrote when his contemporary, Ralph Barker, died.  This can be happily applied to all three of these great authors:

“… [the] ability to put a face to the many names featured in his books paralleled that of a top fiction writer…”

“Rather than simply recounting the actions the aircrew made famous, the books provide windows into the lives of those who risked all or were in peril.”

Pat Gibbs, in particular, left his heart and soul on the page.  He had demons he needed to exorcise and his writing seemed to be an attempt at a cleansing exercise; as if unloading everything on to paper would take a weight off his shoulders and his heart.  It is an impression that is all too clear in the closing passages of Torpedo Leader.  His preceding work, Not Peace But A Sword, was written after his first tour, while on a slow boat to Egypt, and certainly seemed to have cleared his mind in preparation for what he foresaw, hoped, would happen over the Med.  These two titles remain two of the most insightful and, ultimately, heart-breaking, for he failed to ease his burden as Torpedo Leader reveals, books written by a CO who survived when so many of his men did not.

These are, to my knowledge, the only two aircrew books Gibbs wrote (he went on to write theatre reviews).  Fellow Beaufort men Ralph Barker and Roy Nesbit were much more prolific in this field and aviation history as a whole.  I very much doubt there is an aviation enthusiast who has not read at least one of their more than 40 combined works.  It was Armed Rovers by Nesbit, incidentally, that drew me into the world of Med strike ops.  It is a world I have happily inhabited and, as a result, discovered a wealth of historical accounts and insight.  Just when I thought things had quietened down, in terms of new material, along comes Graeme Gibson and his history of Beaufort-flying (and, later, Beaufighters) No. 16 Squadron, South African Air Force.  My tiny amount of involvement with this project has been an eye-opener in terms of realising just how much information is still out there, what material might still be lurking in shoe boxes, old suitcases and attics, and what the nose and tenacity of a bloodhound can achieve when embodied in a passionate author.  If you think the Med strike units’ accounts are the gems in the ‘European’ war then anything to do with the SAAF, especially for those of us outside of “the Union”, is close to the Holy Grail.

And there’s a perfect example of what this history does: it sends me off on tangents!

What is it, then, about Beaufort authors?  Is it just a coincidence that Gibbs, Barker and Nesbit all wrote magnificently about what they knew?  There’s plenty of Spitfire pilots who have done the same although, admittedly, the population of that group is substantially larger.  That, I think, is the heart of the issue and why they stand out.  From a small population emerged three remarkable writers and two, Barker and Nesbit, went on to become respected and renowned RAF and aviation historians.

All three are now gone as Nesbit passed away on February 2.  It sounds silly, especially as the ranks of WW2 veterans rapidly diminish, but I regarded Nesbit as a constant – he’d keep writing and we’d keep reading – so it was in somewhat of a daze that I regarded his death.  Another vital, valuable important and historic link to another world, and another time, was gone.  No more insight that, despite the passing years and their effect on memories, you knew was hard won.  The magnificent Nesbit ‘catalogue’ was now complete.

Well, not quite.  I wrote to Pen & Sword under the somewhat misguided belief (incorrectly remembered assumption) that they might have access to some Nesbit manuscripts that would make a nice tribute if they were re-published.  They didn’t but still had news.  Nesbit’s final book, An Expendable Squadron, is due for release in August.  It is the history of his own unit, No. 217 Squadron, as it flew Ansons, Beauforts and Beaufighters, in the UK, Malta and the Far East, while hunting U-boats, attacking ports and anything that moved in coastal areas and shipping lanes.  In other words it will be Nesbit at his best and perhaps most passionate.

As the literary chapter of my most-beloved trio of aircrew authors comes to a close I can add another to the list – Arthur Aldridge and his poignantly titled The Last Torpedo Flyers.  The author was, of course, a Beaufort pilot and this book, which I only excitedly discovered last year, is his story ably supported by the memories of his gunner.  I have yet to read TLTF but every time I see it on the shelf, or even think about it as I do now, I get little flutters of nervous and excited anticipation (accompanied by warm, misty-eyed happiness).  Nesbit well and truly set the hook with The Armed Rovers.

With the forthcoming first flight of the Australian-built Beaufort, under restoration in Queensland and still a few years away, a new generation, and many who have been around the block a few times, will suddenly experience what a flying Beaufort looks, sounds and smells like.  Combine this magnificent experience with a few good books on the subject, written by those who did it, and there’s a strong chance Gibbs’, Barker’s and Nesbit’s works will hit the new release stands yet again (along with important Australian books by the likes of King and Page).  Their legacy is at once quantifiable and undefinable.  Their list of books is now finite but its combined effect on our collective memory, and knowledge, is greater than the sum of its parts.  That’s the way it will be.  I still don’t know how or why but there is that enduring question that at once provides the answer but then opens up a world full of tangents, fascination and truly remarkable flyers.

What is it about the Beaufort men?

Vale Roy Conyers Nesbit.  Thank you.

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