31 May 2014

The Republic Thunderbolt Mk I - Phil Listemann

It is always quite a thrill to find a book written by or about a flyer who crewed on a lesser-known or rare aircraft (dare I say “forgotten”). I tend to get a bit excited when I discover, for example, an RAF Marauder book or something featuring the pre-war Hawker biplanes. It’s the thrill of learning something outside the norm or helping remember a small group of men who experienced the war in some far-flung corner of the world. I love the ‘obscure’ stuff. Fortunately, theatres like Burma and East Africa are being researched and remembered. North Africa, along with the Far East, is a particular favourite of mine and has certainly seen welcome attention from historians, authors and enthusiasts alike. Campaigns within campaigns – like Greece and Crete or, later, the Balkans and the Adriatic – throw up aircrew who have led fascinating lives and wartime careers. It is, happily, never-ending. There is always something ‘odd’ to learn more about.

The Republic Thunderbolt saw limited service with the RAF and so qualifies as one of the aircraft that, wearing roundels, instantly becomes, in my eyes, much more intriguing. The two variants, the Thunderbolt Mk.I and Mk.II (the ‘ridgeback’ and ‘bubble-canopy’ versions respectively), were particularly powerful aircraft and generally loved by the relatively few pilots who flew them for Britain and her empire. Phil Listemann’s new addition to his Squadrons! e-book series focuses on the Mk.I and, in doing so, shines a welcome light on a rarely covered subject.

The big, imposing fighter was intended to replace the Hurricane and Kittyhawk. Both of these workhorses were employed effectively in the Middle East in the ground attack role as the air superiority role was handed over to increasing numbers of Spitfires. The ‘Jug’ was considered a good replacement in the fighter-bomber role (the Typhoon had been found unsuitable during its African trials) and its impressive performance with the USAAF over Europe certainly helped this decision. The effectiveness and availability of the preferred Mustang, however, meant that, in the end, all RAF operational flying on the Thunderbolt was performed in the Far East with only training and conversion units using the aircraft in Egypt.

The general format of this new e-book series is to introduce the type’s usage in the RAF and Commonwealth air forces by presenting numbers and variants delivered and employed. The best detail, however, lies in the subsequent squadron ‘biographies’ which are drawn largely from the relevant ORBs. The Mk.I’s days were numbered, even as it entered service, as the Mk II was already available in considerable quantities. This makes the Mk.I the perfect subject for the second volume of what promises to be an affordable and valuable series. The first editions will feature types that were not used in great numbers like, for example, the Spitfire Mk.IX. This will allow the author to find his feet as it were and streamline his process from beginning to end.

Designed to be read electronically, of course, the closing ‘pages’ of the The Republic Thunderbolt Mk I include five full-screen, high-resolution profiles that can be printed as posters and add great colour to an otherwise mostly black and white world. This is a nice touch and the subject matter, again, is relatively rare. The real value for me, however, was in reading about aircrew, especially Australians and New Zealanders, hitherto unheard of. There’s a lot to digest in forty pages.

English is not the author’s mother tongue so there are some issues with grammar but these are being addressed. They take nothing away from what is a useful, readable and easily accessible resource. I’m not a massive fan of the e-book as a format but the value is in the affordability of production and distribution. This allows a prolific and hard-working author like Phil Listemann the ability to produce a number of comprehensive publications quickly and easily which, with a readership itching for something different and fresh, is a bloody good thing.

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