Thursday, January 01, 2015

Blood, Sweat And Courage - Steve Brew


The inspiration for writing this review, besides the book itself, stems from deciding I would attempt to publish the world’s first book review of 2015.  There’s a good chance I will have achieved this assuming no Samoans, Kiwis or Norfolk Islanders have had the same idea and usurp me in the three hours from the first seconds of 2015 to midnight here in Melbourne.  Thinking of this little record attempt for ABR got me reflecting on 2014, a year that has gone a bit downhill in the past month, and one word came to mind.  Legacy.  

As a very amateur writer on old things that fly, and the people that made them do so, I have written relatively little for ABR but have contributed elsewhere this year.  This has been the best year, however, for the website’s traffic so, with luck, the goal of increasing the audience for these books has been achieved.  I think about the authors I have ‘worked’ with and met this year and their contribution to the collective memory of the aircrew and their experiences.  Staring at the SAAF Bisley profile artwork that hangs above my desk, and thinking “legacy”, brings one author to mind ahead of the others - Steve Brew.  Many of you will know of his work with No. 41 Squadron’s history and his magnificently enormous Blood, Sweat And Valour.  Well, after 11 years of work, and no doubt a fair bit of blood and sweat of his own, Steve has completed his wartime history of the unit with Blood, Sweat And Courage.  The two volumes comprise almost 2,000 pages of history.  That is some legacy.

Two Battle of Britain books in the same year for ABR!  The first, of course, was the intimate Australia’s Few And The Battle Of Britain by Kristen Alexander.  It’s perhaps a bit generalist (and lazy), however, to call BSC a Battle of Britain book.  It is so much more but certainly the longest section of the book is the summer of 1940.  Blood, Sweat And Courage is the history of the squadron from the declaration of war through to July 1942. 

You would expect the Phoney War period to be quite dull especially as the squadron was equipped with Spitfires and therefore ‘quarantined’ from operating in France with the British Expeditionary Force.  To some extent this is true, and the diary entries support this at times, but the war was only six weeks old when the squadron scored its first victory and, incidentally, the first German airmen were captured on British soil.  As celebratory as this is (as by the now the reader is heavily invested in the fortunes of the squadron), it is the events of the following day, October 18 1939, that put things in perspective and sets a tone, an emotion, for the book.  One of the three pilots who shared the previous day’s victory, Sergeant Albert Harris, was a passenger on the grossly overloaded Whitley that was being used as a transport for the squadron’s move to RAF Wick.  He was killed when the aircraft stalled and crashed on take-off.  Reading this passage results in an incredulous “Hang on, wasn’t he…” moment.  It was the moment the book went from squadron history, with its staccato diary entries, to squadron memoir.  It became personal.

The rapid-fire diary entries, early on in the war when, relatively, not a lot is going on, are increasingly interspersed, as the war heats up, with contextual ‘elaborations’ that provide considerably more detail as individual memories from squadron members illustrate events or the author expands on noteworthy items.  The language used in the diary entries also helps to draw the reader in.  The author particularly uses “today” extensively.  It is a simple but clever use of the word as it fosters a feeling of currency and involvement.

Diary entries and expertly collated and assembled combat narratives, and personal recollections to support them, are great but what is particularly telling with regard to the Battle of Britain period are the tables detailing the flights made in a day by pilots and aircraft.  The take-off and landing times are very good at communicating the frequency and urgency.  It is easy, in conjunction with the narrative, therefore, to imagine the sheer exhaustion the pilots felt after days and days of such frenetic activity.

The post-Battle of Britain period was a time of change for both sides.  Fighter Command went on the offensive and the Spitfire units eventually converted to the Mk V while the Germans moved on to the Me109F and, in time, the Fw190.  The squadron, however, spent six months of 1941 on rest (defensive duties with not much ‘rest’) before returning to the fray.  Their lot for the next 12 months was one of Circuses and sweeps, taking the fight to the enemy.  The combat actions for the Circuses in particular are, as you’d imagine with the squadron flying with several others, confusing to say the least but the author makes sense of it all and produces entertaining, informative and very readable accounts.  Here, the diary entries are quite a bit longer (!) and each operation is headed by a table summarising the RAF involvement.  Happily, Brew analyses the losses and claims and does not accept the ORB as gospel.  He even corrects previous research and conclusions he made as the squadron historian.

The narrative ends not with the squadron being pulled from ops for a rest, although this ultimately happened, but with it being stood-down in preparation for transportation to Russia following the success of the Hurricanes that made up Force Benedict.  This, of course, did not eventuate but it is a fascinating little conclusion for the time period covered by BSC

This is a huge book.  Despite being very well written, it does require dedication to get through.  The main section, obviously and necessarily, contains a lot of names and numbers but they do not overpower the reader.  As is common with works of this ilk, the reader will develop ‘favourite’ pilots as they pop up time and time again.  All men, where possible, are introduced by way of their career to the date of joining the squadron.  On being posted out their subsequent service is included in the narrative in surprising detail and the author regularly refers to pilots flying with other squadrons as being previous or future 41 Squadron members.  Even the captions for the many photos provide as much biographical detail as space allows.  It is the most comprehensive personnel history, with the benefit of being told and presented exceedingly well, I have come across.  The author has achieved his aim to “give every man his place in history”.

The appendices are, as expected, massive and provide a lot of information with the largest detailing each pilot’s service record.  The format is the same as that used in the previous volume Blood, Sweat And Valour and, for the pilots’ records, requires a lot of understanding of abbreviations and acronyms but all are listed in a later appendix.  There’s even appendices dedicated to surviving gun camera films shot by the squadron, a ground victory listing and the aircraft used as squadron hacks!  This is the type of book you consult to corroborate everything.  As is the norm for the Fonthill books I have encountered there is, maddeningly, no index although, once again, the author provides one on his website.  This book would be absolute perfection with an index but it does not suffer from not having one.  It’s just that it deserves one.

If you’ve read BSV then you know what follows where BSC closes and how the squadron built on its already enviable reputation.  Upon finishing BSC, there is a desire to re-visit the first volume to continue and conclude the squadron’s wartime story.  Preparing for this review required a week of very late nights coupled to several very early mornings.  It was a pleasure and a privilege to go through the advance copy and be in the presence of something remarkable.  Blood, Sweat And Courage had a lot to live up to after the release of BSV and it was eagerly awaited because of the quality of the first volume.  It had to be superb.  It had to be readable.  It is both and so much more.

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