11 February 2014

V1 Flying Bomb Aces - Andrew Thomas

I have a few Osprey titles on the shelf but can’t say I actively chase them as my main interest is in the memoir style of book or, at least, unit histories that include good biographical detail.  However, these and Squadron Signal’s In Action series are what I cut my teeth on but it’s been years since I ‘seriously’ read one.  I was pleasantly surprised – somewhat fascinated if I’m honest – when I sat down to read V1 Flying Bomb Aces.  The well-known Osprey aces series has earned an enviable reputation for piling a heap of information (and colour) into a small, attractive and useful package.  V1FBA is no exception but what made me take notice was the introduction to a number of accomplished pilots who I had either not heard of before or had certainly not read about in detail.  To cut a long story short I was hooked.

With the Allied invasion of Europe, in June 1944, the people of Britain must have breathed a collective sigh of relief and looked forward to quieter times on the home front.  This increased feeling of relative security would have been short-lived, however, as the Germans launched the first of their ‘reprisal weapons’ – the V1 – on June 13, 1944. While not wholly unexpected (the Allied bombing of research and test installations had severely delayed the project) it was clear the Germans were not a spent force. 

The first successful interception of a V1 was achieved three days after the first attack.  The unguided, pulse-jet powered V1 was launched from ground installations and aircraft and the ‘campaign’ would eventually claim nearly 24,000 casualties.  Material damage was relatively light but the threat was substantial and defending against the V1 required a considerable allocation of resources which might otherwise have been employed in support of the invasion forces.

The most effective counter was, of course, to overrun the launch sites in continental Europe.  The ‘home defences’ would be the key tool until this was achieved.  Defensive corridors were created to combat the newly-employed weapon.  Fighter patrols were allocated various sectors and belts of anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons covered other areas.  The sectors over the sea were the first line of defence and the RAF’s Tempests and Spitfire Mk XIVs, in particular, were regarded as the aircraft capable of making interceptions within the realms of their standard performance envelope i.e. they were already fast enough at low level!  These two types are almost the stereotypical V1 interceptors but numerous other aircraft also achieved success.  The book also features, among others, tales of Mosquitos, Mustangs and Meteors.  Even the Beaufighter and Black Widow get a look in! 

While many flying bombs did get through the defensive corridors proved extremely effective.  Interception tactics were developed as the ‘campaign’ progressed.  Many V1s were shot down although the resulting explosion could damage the pursuing fighter so the well-known ‘tipping’ to upset the bomb’s internal gyro was also practiced.  This was first achieved by the wingtips of the two aircraft actually touching but, despite the flying bomb’s plywood wings, resulted in damage to the intercepting fighter.  It was quickly discovered that simply placing the fighter’s wingtip near the V1’s wing disrupted the airflow enough to cause a loss of control from which the bomb’s internal mechanisms could not recover.

As the title suggests, this new book looks at the incredible men who were particularly successful against the V1 (one was involved in 60 kills!).  It is an easy and informative read full of first-hand accounts of action and flying the fighters to their absolute limit.  The colour plates are well done and the cover reflects the urgency of the anti-Diver campaign and also provides insight into just how far the opposing sides’ technology had come.  Physically, as a book of just under 100 pages, V1FBA does not immediately seem particularly good value for money (about A$30).  However, factor in the wealth of information, the colour plates and standard of production and you’re looking at a better investment.  Include three things some hardback publishers don’t bother with – appendices, a bibliography and an index – and you’ve got a book that punches above its weight.

As already mentioned, I was particularly taken by the plethora of unfamiliar pilots’ names.  This is the type of thing I absolutely love – discovering hitherto unknown (to me) aircrew, being tantalised by biographical snippets and then finding out more about them.  With luck some are discovered to have had incredibly long careers and, with more luck, they put pen to paper at one stage and recorded their experiences in book form (the holy grail!). 

For example, the author introduced Gordon Loversridge ‘Snowy’ Bonham, a New Zealander, who had earned a DFC while flying Buffalos over Singapore.  Several years later here he is intercepting V1s!  Just incredible.  I was off and running trying to find out more but, while I didn’t get very far, partly because Bonham was killed in 1944 at the height of the V1 campaign, it occurred to me that this is exactly what the book is for.  While not a ‘one-stop shop’ on the subject (it certainly doesn’t claim to be) it provides more than enough to educate and inspire.  Some readers will be happy to treat this as their main source for information on the pilots who were most successful against the V1.  Others will heed the Siren’s call and use it as a springboard for further research and discoveries.  It excels at both and Andrew Thomas has, as expected given his previous works, done well within the constraints this prolific series requires.

V1 Flying Bomb Aces covers very familiar territory.  However, it is well-produced, a fascinating indulgence from beginning to end and will make a good addition to any enthusiast’s shelves.

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