13 May 2015

'Artie' Bomber Command Legend - Vincent A. Ashworth

Arthur Ashworth is one of the relatively few who took the time to record their wartime memories. He is hardly a household name. His awards – DSO, DFC*, AFC*, MID – suggest he should be better known. However, while his long RAF career would be relatively easy to recount, a good biography needs the bookends – pre-war and post-RAF. Not many have much of either and are the poorer for it. Such things are sometimes best left to those who knew the man. In the case of Ashworth, his younger brother does the honours. ‘Artie’ Bomber Command Legend is the result and, yes, there is a bit of hero worship but it is kept in check. However, when you’re dealing with ‘Artie’, it really can’t be helped. Here is a man who, frankly, lived up to the legend.

‘Artie’ was the seventh of the Ashworth children. His father was well regarded in the New Zealand agricultural industry. Such was this regard that, in 1926, he was accepted to manage an experimental sheep station in the Falkland Islands. The entire family followed him over before returning home in 1928. Ashworth Senior died in 1932 and the strength and determination exhibited by ‘Artie’ during the war was in no small part due to his mother who shouldered the responsibility of raising her large brood during the Great Depression.

With his brother and best friend, Corran, ‘Artie’ more or less excelled at everything he did as a teenager. He was fondly remembered by his peers (of whom many were interviewed) and the family in general, despite their financial struggles, were fine members of the community. The war would take anyone no matter their background. ‘Artie’ and his brother Archie would survive. Corran would not.

Flying training for our hero began in late 1939. Training initially on Tiger Moths, ‘Artie’ moved on to Vickers Vildebeests and Fairey Gordons before embarking for the UK to do his time on OTUs prior to joining No. 75 (NZ) Squadron. Eight months later, at the end of August 1941, his first tour was complete after 31 ops. Not wanting to work as an instructor, ‘Artie’ volunteered for service in the Mediterranean and, with a new, all-volunteer crew, flew a Wellington to Malta. In a little more than two months he flew more than 20 ops, from Malta and Egypt, against targets in Italy and North Africa. Certainly quite a change from operating out of an English airfield! An even greater change came when ‘Artie’ was posted to No. 216 Squadron at El Khanka in the Nile delta. Here he flew Bristol Bombays and four engine DH86s to deliver supplies to the front line. The return journey was, more often than not, a more sombre affair with wounded soldiers and aircrew filling the aircraft and heading to the rear for treatment. The flights were classed as operational but it was hardly the best employment for an experienced and effective bomber pilot. His most ‘shaky do’ was to come, however, when he returned to the UK.

‘Artie’ was back with his countrymen on 75 Squadron by mid-1942. By the time he left the squadron again, in August, he had completed 64 operations, been awarded the DSO and developed a reputation for getting the job done. His upbringing of accepting responsibility and excelling at the task at hand was the force that drove him forward. He was the perfect bomber pilot and, at 22, had completed his third tour.

This determination was tested to the hilt when, after a month as a founder member of Don Bennett’s Path Finder Force HQ staff, Ashworth wangled an op to Saarbrücken and flew with an unfamiliar crew. A flare ignited in the bomb bay and set the rear of the Wellington on fire. ‘Artie’ instructed the crew to bail out but found his parachute missing. He made it home alone after side-slipping to put the fire out. He was lauded by the media but, curiously, not by the RAF. He was a valuable member of the PFF HQ that was developing the tactics that would ultimately transform Bomber Command into a force that resembled the early efforts of Ashworth and co in name only. Perhaps this is why the op was frowned upon. Either way, he was soon on a ship home where he was given a hero’s welcome upon arrival in mid-1943.

He was very much a changed man. The modesty was still there but he now had that work hard, play harder, live for the day mentality that those who faced death daily naturally developed. His family adapted, he was still ‘Artie’ behind the chest full of medals after all, but the RNZAF weren’t too sure what to do with someone so over-qualified. Ultimately, he attended staff college and served at some of the RNZAF’s major bases in the Pacific. He was back in New Zealand and training to be a fighter pilot by April 1944 and was flying operationally again by August. This time, however, he was flying Corsairs with No. 17F Squadron on Guadalcanal. He was, by all accounts, not the greatest of fighter pilots but was certainly universally respected. While he was kept busy, ‘Artie’ became desperate to return to the bomber war he felt he was missing out on. With hindsight, given the losses Bomber Command experienced in 1944, perhaps this sojourn in the South Pacific saved his life. That’s not to say flying Corsairs was without risk. It’s just that the chances of survival were considerably higher than attacking Occupied Europe time and time again.

He managed to fly a further thirteen trips with No. 635 Pathfinder Squadron before his war ended. This took his total to 78 bomber operations. His next flights were for Operation Manna, repatriating former POWs and taking ground personnel on tours of a devastated Europe.

‘Artie’ made a career of the RAF and did not retire until 1967. He served as an instructor in the Middle East and commanded a Communications Flight there. A stint as a test pilot at Farnborough followed before he was posted to command No. 139 (Jamaica) Squadron and then No. 59 Squadron (both flying Canberras). ‘Artie’ settled in England and became a hotelier and then ran a small block of holiday units. He remained an unassuming chap with the only public indication of his achievements being the medals he wore when collecting for the British Legion. He died in 1994.

This book, from Fighting High, is the UK edition of the author’s self-published paperback. While the original is a nice and heavy softcover, it pales in significance alongside the new hardback. Like the man, it has an understated presence and the designers have cleverly used Ashworth’s most noticeable feature – his epic moustache – almost as a logo as a rendition of it appears in the front papers and it is the only mark on an otherwise blank back cover. Little quirks like this reflect the care that has been put into the production of the book. There are many pages of Ashworth’s logbook reproduced on both glossy and ‘normal’ paper stock. This is an important addition as the logbook entries were written in copperplate and are beautiful to look at. A lot is added to the book by their inclusion.

While ‘Artie’ did write a short manuscript detailing his life, and this is referred to throughout, he was, as a man who did not blow his own trumpet, quite brief in some of the descriptions of his more harrowing or outstanding achievements. The author, therefore, has had to add depth to what he can by including the memories of those who flew with his brother. Remarkably, two of his colleagues from initial training, Rex Daniell and Bob Spurdle, wrote books of their own and, despite their differing careers, provide wonderful detail as they crossed paths with ‘Artie’ during the war. Where the details of what ‘Artie’ got up to are not enough, the author does a fine job providing a picture of what happened through contemporary reports and recollections.

It is here, however, that things can get a bit disjointed. ‘Artie’ was remarkable. No question there. The author’s writing presents him well and allows the reader to understand the man and, easily, like him. Even where ‘Artie’ remembers things incorrectly, and the author’s subsequent research proves otherwise, Vince gently corrects him. It is this affection and respect in the writing that gives this book such a warm glow. The research, however, more often than not, includes the experiences of others (as mentioned above). Once the passage is complete a mini-biography of the colleague in question often interrupts the narrative in bold text. As fascinating and as useful as these are, I found myself investing in another person’s war, going off on a tangent, when I was itching to get further along Ashworth’s experience. These biographies, and the chapter detailing the fate of each man on that initial training course in New Zealand, could easily have been included as appendices and not affected the quality of the book as a whole. This is a carry over from the first edition. That, frankly, was a bit all over the place and while Fighting High has clearly done a lot of work to tidy the manuscript, I think more could have been done to ensure the focus rarely shifted from progressing Ashworth’s tale. That said, sometimes it felt as though the author was keeping me in suspense as to what his brother would get up to next.

That this is the manuscript from an earlier edition is sometimes evident with a reference in the text to a photo that doesn’t appear until much later and good, flowing descriptions of, for example, the Wellington, weirdly interrupted by a couple of paragraphs regarding something else before returning to the original subject. As I mentioned above, a lot of work was done by Fighting High to tighten up what was in the self-published edition. A few things still got through though. Several names are misspelt, the Tiger Moth is referred to as the DH86 and I was befuddled by the Italian fighter designation “CD425”, amused by the “Fleischer” Storch and, in the otherwise excellent note section, somewhat dismayed by the “torpedo-carrying” Gladiators.

These, of course, are single words in an otherwise high quality biography. They are mentioned for completeness and to honestly reflect the frustration felt when I read them. My typos above are, I suspect, too many to count so, really, who am I to talk?! Nothing is taken away from the very fact that this book expertly paints a picture of who ‘Artie’ Ashworth was. On top of that, the reader fully understands just what he faced. Chapters Six and Seven set the scene for what Artie is about to step in to. The latter chapter does a very good job at examining the quality of character exhibited by bomber aircrew. Even the interlude that is Chapter 16, where Vince details the careers and experiences of two rear gunners who flew several ops with ‘Artie’, is a powerful tribute to the loneliest, and most at risk, member of a bomber crew.

The title is no grandiose statement. It is a fact. Artie completed all but thirteen of his ops in Wellingtons. He did not have the power to fly higher or faster as he would have in the Lancasters of his final wartime posting. He pressed on and added to his tally without a lot of fanfare, not counting solo return flights, and, similarly, earned respect, admiration and honours simply in the course of carrying out his duties to the best of his ability. He just got on with the job at hand be it at the controls of a Wellington or Corsair or using his experience to help develop campaign-changing tactics. The book is the same. It is a typical product of Fighting High – superbly designed with care and intimate knowledge shown in its production. The cover is the epitome of this understanding in that it is mostly a subdued grey with just the information a prospective reader needs. It is modest but imposing. “DSO, DFC and Bar, AFC and Bar, MID”.

A proud brother has shared his hero with the world effectively but quietly. If ever there was a book that resembled its subject, it is ‘Artie’ Bomber Command Legend.

ISBN 9-780992-620752

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