Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Hurricane Squadron Ace - Nick Thomas


It was probably obvious, during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I would end up reading a few books on the subject. I prefer a memoir or biography so it was with some anticipation that I got stuck in to Hurricane Squadron Ace by Nick Thomas. This is about the fourth aircrew biography from this author and I am due to read his Beurling title in the near future. It was the first book of his I had read, however. A solid, detailed read, I nevertheless found it hard to connect to the great ‘Pete’ Brothers. It is hard to be critical of a book that clearly involved so much hard work on a superb subject and has actually been put together well. There are some absolute gems in Hurricane Squadron Ace but you have to dig to get to them.

Brothers earned his pilot’s licence in 1934 just after his seventeenth birthday. A natural flyer, and mad about aviation, it was a natural step to apply to join the RAF. Flying training began in late January 1936 but, with 110 flying hours to his credit, ‘Pete’ progressed relatively rapidly, maintaining an ‘above average’ rating, and was posted to No. 32 Squadron, RAF Biggin Hill, in October to fly Gloster Gauntlets. As Biggin Hill was the first station to have an Operations Room, the squadron was heavily involved in the development of the Home Defence procedures that would form the foundation for the epic struggle that was to come.

All activities slowly took on a more warlike appearance with the arrival of Hurricanes. Brothers’ Blue Section was scrambled shortly after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939 for what proved the first of many false alarms. The squadron would not have long to wait for action though. Brothers fired his guns in anger for the first time on 11 May 1940 when the squadron attacked Ypenburg airfield near The Hague. They were soon operating from France during the day and returning home in the evening. Brothers, who opened his account over France, thought their operations there were a waste as they didn’t appear to be achieving anything.

Over the next few months, of course, the squadron, and the RAF as a whole, certainly achieved something. After Dunkirk, the tempo of operations slowly increased. This period was easily the most frenetic of Brothers’ flying career and he steadily added to his score and developed into a respected fighter tactician. ‘Pete’, not one to blow his own trumpet, rarely told a story unless it was about someone else or was at least self-deprecating - “We were just ordinary chaps doing what we had to do”.

Brothers was posted in early September, after four years with No. 32, to the shattered and, consequently, inexperienced No. 257 Squadron. He joined as a flight commander under the leadership of Robert Stanford Tuck. The pair got on well and spent a lot of time passing on their knowledge to their colleagues, the majority of whom were barely out of OTU. They had to do it quickly as the squadron that had been thrown into the battle too early the month before was once again in the thick of it. Three months later, he was posted to No. 55 OTU and could finally recuperate from seven months of near-continuous operational flying.

Brothers converted to Spitfires in June 1941 and took command of the newly-formed No. 457 Squadron RAAF. It was not until March of the following year that there was a chance of seeing combat when the RAF went on the offensive. It initially cost the RAF dearly, the Luftwaffe could pick its fights, but it was a start.

Brothers was not keen when the squadron, a little more than two months later, was told it would be transferred to Australia. His remonstrations went nowhere but, somehow, he was given command of No. 602 Squadron based at Redhill and led it during the Dieppe landings. He was then posted as Wing Commander (Flying) of the Tangmere Wing in October. He led the wing until March 1943, adding to his score as he did during all of his operational postings, and was awarded a Bar to his DFC.

‘Pete’ then began his longest period off ops. He spent time with several OTUs before taking command, as Wing Commander (Flying), of the Culmhead Wing. He was to lead the wing over Normandy during the landings and during the months that followed. He then held several posts until he left the RAF in 1947 to join the Colonial Service in Africa. He returned to the RAF in June 1949 and flew Lincolns in Malaya and Washingtons and Valiants. He retired in 1973 and became one of the leading lights of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association and efforts to remember The Few. Everything he did, he did with his full energy. He died on 18 December 2008.

This is not the biography I was hoping for. The main problem, alluded to above, was Brothers’ reluctance to highlight his achievements in any great detail. Consequently, the narrative is peppered with his brief anecdotes and references. Each is delightful and perfectly placed. To counter the lack of lengthy reminiscences, particularly of action against the enemy, the author turns to the combat reports of those in Brothers’ squadrons and wings. These dominate the text during heightened periods of action. They endeavour to convey the sheer confusion of many of the encounters and lay out the events in perhaps the best way possible in the absence of our man’s recollections. This is largely achieved but combat report after combat report, written by pilots who enter stage right and exit stage left, some never to return, gets a bit much. There are times when Brothers is not mentioned for pages on end and the reader can lose sight of where he is. I naturally wanted to root for him but found it hard to connect when, at times, there was so little about him. Actions where he did not add to his score are covered in great detail using the combat report ‘method’ and, interesting as they are, dilute any literary rapport developed between the reader and subject. In all honesty, it can get a bit tiresome.

That sounds terrible. After all, it’s men fighting for their lives that you’re reading about but when the accounts blend in to the next and the next, I felt I lost sight of not only Brothers but whose successes I was actually reading about. Out of respect for these men, I hate that.

The style of the narrative reflects the author’s experience and understanding of the subject and genre and this could have been applied as a replacement for at least some of the combat reports which would have led to a less disrupted feel to the read at times. Funnily enough, however, perhaps because of less action, the narrative takes control during the latter stages of his wartime flying and details the combat rather than letting the reports do so. It makes for much better reading.

Notes may have been able to loosen things up a little. I have no idea whether these could have been applied to this title or not. The author introduces some fascinating characters, often by their full (and future) rank, name and decorations. Again, this breaks things up. Notes could have been referred to for further information. Medal citations could have been treated the same way, or included in the appendices, and I could say the same for the details of those lost but that is purely because the wording is identical with reference to the man’s parents, home town and commemoration details. Details of the men who served, scored and were lost during Brothers’ stay with each unit/airfield are superbly included at the end of each relevant chapter but may have been better placed in an appendix.

The copy-editors let the author down slightly too by, for example, letting “HMS Infatigable” and “B-39 Washington” through the net not to mention one chap being shot down during a morning sortie only to suffer the same fate in the afternoon and several pages later! Stanford Tuck is also introduced as “Tuck” several pages before being properly introduced. These pages are, however, some of the best analysis, built around Tuck’s comments, of the entire book and are the cornerstone of me wanting to read more by this author especially if he is given his head to analyse varying versions of the same event.

Hurricane Squadron Ace excels as an operational history of various units and airfields during Brothers’ tenure with them. It, therefore, is less the story of ‘Pete’ Brothers. It highlights the team effort and Brothers’ part as one of its leading lights. That said, the pre-war period is a superb, but all too short, description of flying fighters during this time and the reader develops a real feel for the man but subsequently struggles to maintain this in the largely ‘bigger picture’ of the following years. The connection is brought back somewhat towards the end of the war and Brothers’ fascinating post-war careers and, again, the author’s writing has a lot to do with this. Expect a read that requires effort but look forward to a solid, detailed service biography, with extras, of a great man.

ISBN 978-1-78159-311-0

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