Saturday, January 30, 2016

Thunder Bird In Bomber Command - Sean Feast


As time passes, and as the last of the veterans leave us, the Second World War will be confined to books and whatever is written, for better or worse, on the internet. All we will have will be whatever the veterans leave behind. Future aircrew books will depend purely on archival material and by that I mean the usual suspects of letters, diaries, logbooks, recorded interviews etc. It is, of course, often the only way to tell a story, particularly so when the subject did not survive the war. For the most part, Sean Feast’s Thunder Bird In Bomber Command does just that. In fact, it says so on the cover – “The Wartime Letters of Lionel Anderson…”. It is so much more, however. Hidden inside is a quality unit history of one of Bomber Command’s unsung squadrons.

Lionel was from a Jewish family of Russian heritage that changed their surname to Anderson in an attempt to escape the prejudice, as was rife even beyond the Third Reich, of the time. His sense of adventure led him to the RAF and, following the usual path, he was soon in a convoy sailing for North America. His arrival in Canada was the beginning of a somewhat charmed existence in terms of hospitality and diet. Very little was too much trouble for the welcoming Canadians and food was plentiful. The situation only improved when Lionel was posted to Mesa, Arizona, and 4 British Flying Training School. Of course, there was a lot of hard work to be done but Lionel, and adventurous and outgoing type, certainly made the most of being taught to fly in the US.

Desert and mountains, snakes and spiders, oranges and cacti, rodeos and girls. It was a different world but the one common theme with any pilot in training is, of course, flying. Lionel soloed on a Stearman, the aircraft that did the same job as the Tiger Moth but with more power and considerably more presence. He took to it well and, after ninety hours on the big Boeing biplane, he progressed to the Vultee BT-13 and then the more complex North American Texan. He was finally awarded his wings in August 1942 and he returned to the UK in September with a tan and fond memories of, and no doubt a longing for, road trips to California, dining and dancing with movie stars, starring in a Hollywood film shot on location at the airfield and, as mentioned above, the phenomenal hospitality extended to the British airmen.

After a spot of leave, Lionel progressed though Advanced Flying Unit and OTU and waited anxiously for an operational posting. Spitfires? Typhoons? He was disappointed to find out he would be flying Defiants with No. 515 Squadron. The aircraft were worn out hand-me-downs and the accident and serviceability rates put a serious dampener on the squadron’s ability to do its job. However, it was a vital job and it did it well.

German radar developed at a rapid rate and was vital to the German air defences. Bomber Command’s war with these defences in particular was one of evolution. Tactics and technologies evolved but often the advantage was only held by one side for a short time as the enemy would quickly develop a counter. Two systems were developed to confuse or diminish the effectiveness of the German radar and both required the use of airborne jamming sets. ‘Moonshine’ was designed to give the impression of a large formation approaching. These ‘spoof’ raids were useful in directing enemy fighter defences away from day fighter offensive operations as well as daytime bombing raids. To ‘sell’ these diversions, the Defiants would fly in formation within about fifty kilometres of the enemy coast … in daylight. To operate the jamming set, the Defiant’s gunner had to leave his turret, descend in to the fuselage and work his box of tricks. The aircraft, save the occasional fighter escort, was virtually defenceless while jamming and several were lost to fighters during both day and night ops.

The other system, ‘Mandrel’, was kept in reserve. Once the cat was out of the bag, its days were numbered before an effective counter was developed. A series of orbiting Defiants could jam the German radar with noise from the ‘Mandrel’ sets so the radar could detect nothing or very little. The Germans cottoned on to ‘Moonshine’ relatively quickly so its effectiveness was soon diminished. The change to ‘Mandrel’ also meant the squadron switched to night ops. The screen produced by the Defiants allowed the bomber stream to at least get a head start in the ‘what’s the target for tonight’ stakes, or sneak home, and hopefully delay the deployment of German night fighters in particular.

Lionel arrived on the squadron in late January 1943 but did not fly a Defiant for another fortnight. He flew his first op several nights later and by early July had more than twenty under his belt. During that time, the squadron had been informed it would be transitioning to the role of long-range night fighters (read, intruders). Early hopes were dashed, however, as the ‘Mandrel’ ops had to be continued so, for the time being, the crews had to make do with their faithful, but failing, Defiants.

Operations continued but began to peter out and the squadron entered a strange period of limbo. It was still equipped with Defiants but Lionel and his colleagues were heavily involved in flying the variety of twin-engine types that had dribbled in to help the pilots convert. It was not until March 1944 that the first of the Mosquito Mk VI fighter-bombers arrived.

Now part of 100 Group, the new Mossie crews were seconded to No. 605 Squadron for an introduction to intruder work. Lionel followed suit, returned to his squadron and flew the first op of his second tour on the night of 26/27 April. He did not return.

Thunder Bird in Bomber Command seems like a straightforward tale. He trains, he writes home to the family, he flies, he dies. It’s a familiar story and, in short, this book shines a light on yet another airman. His younger brother, of course, was Gerry Anderson who went on to create classic television shows like the Thunderbirds. Gerry was inspired by his older brother and the connection between the film Lionel was an extra in, Thunder Birds, is evident. However, there’s a bit more to it than that. Much has been made of the Thunderbirds link and rightly so as it is a fantastic marketing angle. Would the book have been written without it? Maybe, maybe not. It is the marvelously told operational history of 515 Squadron that makes this book stand out but there is little to suggest this at first glance.

Lionel’s last letter or, more correctly, the last one kept and transcribed, was sent during his time at the Advanced Flying Unit. From then on, the narrative takes on a slightly different style as the author refers to operational and technical sources to reproduce, as best as possible, Lionel’s first tour on operations. The letters, mostly sent from Arizona, are truly superb. Lionel had an easy style to his writing and painted quite the picture of training and life in general in the New World. The author, accomplished as he is, barely gets out of first gear in this section of the book. Instead he lets Lionel do the talking and simply guides the story along with context, clarifications and introductions. It is practically seamless. He really kicks on, however, when the personal source runs out and the archival records have to take over. I was vaguely aware of the ‘Moonshine’ and ‘Mandrel’ ops but, thinking about it, they have only ever been mentioned in passing or as a side note in a much bigger campaign discussion. Thunder Bird was certainly the first time I had read about the squadron and its activities in any great detail and that is the great surprise about this book. It is, of course, the author’s bread and butter and he makes what could be a dry operational read spring to life with frustration, edgy flying, worn out aircraft and just enough about Lionel (probably all there is) to keep the reader focused on the main subject. It makes the book a must read for anyone wanting to go beyond the operations of Bomber Command’s Main Force.

There were a couple of little niggles on the aviation terminology front that made me wince but, in the interests of honesty as is ABR policy, they may have only been obvious to me. They are completely overshadowed by one of the best collection of photos I have seen in a biography for quite some time. Again, we have Lionel to thank for this as he was a prolific photographer. As much as the 515 Squadron operational detail is a valuable addition, the photos, particularly in conjunction with the letters, provide one of the best illustrations of life as an RAF trainee in the US I have ever seen. It is always bizarre seeing the RAF in such a setting. Refreshing, though.

Thunder Bird in Bomber Command will sell because of what’s on the cover. It will be sought after because of its contents. It is, as usual, a lovely hardcover from Fighting High, and has probably one of the most understated covers from this publisher to date. It is simple and straightforward but the more you look at it, the more the depth is revealed – “Wartime Letters”, “Legend”, “Thunder Bird”, the Mosquito, the white training flash on his forage cap. All of that indicates there is so much more to this book. It rattles along nicely, you get to know Lionel and then a rare operational account smacks you in the face. It is a rare treat.

ISBN 978-0-9926207-7-6

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