Despite my enthusiasm for all things North Africa aircrew-related and, by extension, Mediterranean and Italian, it has been a disturbingly long time since I’ve read anything about the Desert Air Force. Well, specifically for ABR, that is. I’m sitting here sipping a coffee, that really should be a whiskey to get the juices flowing, momentarily interrupted by my son stirring in his sleep, trying to work out how long it’s been. Of course, I could easily check the website but I’ve been distracted enough as it is already tonight. Let’s move to Italy. Ah, Mark Lax’s Alamein To The Alps, Just One Of The Many by Dudley Egles and, from a time before ABR, even Tom Scotland’s much reprinted Voice From The Stars, immediately spring to mind. Even so, as you can see by the dates on the reviews, we’re talking years. That’s just not right so it was pleasing to select (they select me if I’m honest) Jennifer Elkin’s A Special Duty to read and review. The title and the cover are a dead giveaway as to the content but, even knowing the premise, I was surprised by this book. It did, however, leave me wanting more.
This is the tale of the author’s father, Tom Storey, and his Halifax crew. They were assigned to No. 148 (Special Duties) Squadron. Initially flying from Libya, before moving to Italy, the squadron was key to supplying the various partisan groups and SOE missions throughout Eastern Europe. Of course, with the move to Italy, many more areas came within range which really only heightened the danger. Read enough aircrew books and you become familiar with the general approach. Take off with a load of canisters in the bomb bay and maybe some agents and/or loose parcels to let go through a hole in the floor of the fuselage. Fly to the rendezvous and look for the signal fires in the pre-arranged pattern. Drop on these from low level and head home. Read that again and just think of all the variables, things that could go wrong, at night, over enemy occupied territory. Now throw in the countryside to the east of the Alps and look for a dropping ground that, by necessity, had to be hard to get to in a region renowned for its average weather. The drop had to be made as per the cover – low, wheels and flaps down, bomb doors adding to the drag, the Halifax shuddering at such a slow speed and, more often than not, having to repeat the run several times to ensure an accurate drop. The Storey crew did this more than thirty times and there were a number of early returns and failed deliveries on top of that. This was all achieved from the night of their first op, 3 November 1943, to their last on 23 April 1944. That was a fateful night that would bring pain to a family for years after the war.
Over Poland, the Halifax faltered and gradually lost power. The crew were forced to bail out before they could deliver their load. Hunted by the Germans, who took a group of locals hostage until the men were found, five of the seven crew managed to evade because of the exceptionally brave actions of villagers and, ultimately, partisan groups. It was an interesting time with the Russians certainly making their presence felt through their support of selected partisan forces. Other groups were supplied by the western Allies and still others did what they could with whatever they could lay their hands on. While one of the crew found long-term refuge with a local family, Storey and three others were ultimately looked after, and lived with, a Soviet partisan group that only entered Poland several days before the Storey crew arrived by parachute. It was clearly a confused time despite the common enemy. Polish partisans of various persuasions, Russian ones with varying levels of influence over some of the Polish forces (acronyms everywhere!) and, in the middle of it all, some RAF airmen who were just happy to be alive and out of German hands. They were eventually flown out of a cornfield, flattened for the purpose, by a Russian Dakota, in early June and repatriated via Moscow, the first RAF personnel to do so. Happily, all of the crew survived the war.
It is quite the adventure and, I dare say, unique in bibliography of aircrew books. Much shaking of the head ensues both during operations and the time on the ground in Poland. All seven men certainly used their fair share of luck and it is quite refreshing to read a book where the entire crew of a four engine RAF aircraft survived to see peace. That said, however, a pall hangs over ASD from the moment you read the preamble. The author’s account of that day in 1964, exactly twenty years after the crew bailed out, doesn’t break your heart, it rips it out. It is an incredibly powerful, profoundly sad, opening that sets the tone as I said. It leaves the reader with a myriad of questions, some of which can never be completely answered, and a desire to turn the page.
The author endeavours to answer the questions, that she obviously had as well, with in depth research in to the supply dropping to the likes of General Tito’s forces and the SOE missions. Names like Spillway, Lapworth, Mulligatawny, Swifter, Claridge and Autonomous enter the vocabulary as codenames for the small teams of operatives supplied by the special duties squadrons. How these men survived, and many didn’t, behind enemy lines where they really couldn’t trust anyone, nor could they completely rely on a steady stream of supplies, is beyond me. The author has clearly spent a lot of time understanding the purpose, success and sacrifice of these missions and, although further detail is not relevant to the book, she has built a strong foundation to perhaps work on a future title that goes deeper in to their world or, indeed, what would be a valuable history of 148 (SD) Squadron as whole. Frighteningly, I was drawn in to this world and would love to know more but there are only so many hours in the day.
Operations, despite the crew’s experience, only cover about the first seventy pages of this 158-page paperback. The rest is given over to the time in Poland, which includes an unraveling of the crew’s movements and the people who sheltered them, certainly a tricky task. A good portion of the book, however, and it helps complete the picture of the man that was Tom Storey, is given to the author’s memories of the post-war period when a clearly intelligent and loving man was progressively overtaken by forces beyond his control, forces that began to manifest themselves well before his time in Poland, but found their anchor on that night in April 1944. Happily, the family history has come full circle as the author, her mother, and her sisters travelled to Poland and met former partisans and relatives of those who helped the Storey crew in 1944.
The first edition of this book appeared, self-published, in early 2014. It is certainly a fast turnaround for a relatively recent book but the publisher’s touch is evident and this is a story like no other so deserves such backing. Mention The War has produced a typically attractive paperback designed to be affordable and accessible. It is a book that punches above its weight. There are a number of technical niggles and clarifications I would like to see cleared up but these relate to several aviation terms and unit details that aren’t the main thrust of the book. After all, the author came to this subject cold and has understandably concentrated on the special duties aspects of her father’s war. The writing is straightforward, nothing fancy, and to the point. It tells the tale without a lot of embellishment because it isn’t really needed. There’s bravery, sacrifice, tension, triumph and pain everywhere. It is that evident that it doesn’t need to be emphasised.
A Special Duty has healed a lot of pain for the author and her family. It clearly hasn’t healed everything, nothing ever could, but, for a relatively small book, it has raises a good number of issues that we should never forget. The operational side is obvious, as are the aspects in 1944 Poland, but the analysis, for want of a less clinical word, of the struggle that many returned airmen lived through for years, and still do, is sobering. It is told from the viewpoint of one daughter for whom life would always be affected by a war fought before she was born. A special little book that, although there is closure for the family, leaves the reader wanting more.