13 February 2017

263 Squadron Gladiators over the Fjords - Alex Crawford

It is always fascinating to watch an event that happened on the periphery of a larger story become larger than the whole. In war, it’s usually because it’s a tragedy and, sadly, that means considerable loss of life. Take the Channel Dash, seventy-five years to the day as I write this. Over three days, the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen, and their accompanying escorts, had the bit between their teeth as they ran north from Brest, through the English Channel to German ports. The Germans certainly did not get away scot-free, but the whole episode is regarded as a failure on the British side. The one thing that always stands out, however, what is always referred to, and has perhaps generated more discussion than the entire event itself is the attack by the Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish led by Eugene Esmonde. You know the rest. Such is the case with the Norwegian campaign. The sinking of HMS Glorious, by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, overshadows much of what happened in Norway – the two Battles of Narvik and the Glowworm aside – perhaps because of the controversy stirred up ever since, but certainly because of the massive loss of life from her crew and the sole survivors from each of her attending destroyers.

On board were pilots from No. 263 Squadron and their Gloster Gladiators. Returning from their second deployment to Norway, the first lasting two days, but this one being better planned and spanning three weeks, all were lost as the Glorious succumbed. Again, an event within a larger story, the loss of these men and their aircraft is certainly more familiar to what they actually achieved in Norway. That was something special.

Originally earmarked to help the similarly equipped Finns against the Russians, the squadron was a logical choice to send to Norway to try to stop the German invasion and cut them off from the supply of Swedish iron ore. The Norwegians made a good fist of it in the air, but were soon overwhelmed. In late April 1940, the Gladiators arrived in Norway after having flown off the Glorious and being escorted by FAA Skuas due to a lack of maps. Their airfield was a frozen lake. A RAF advance party had arrived several days earlier, but despite their best efforts, the primitive facilities and almost complete lack of supplies and personnel, not to mention the regular German bombing and machine gunning, the squadron’s eighteen aircraft ceased to be two days later. In that short time the Gladiator pilots gave a superb account of themselves considering the operating conditions and unfamiliar terrain.

Back in the UK, after what must have seemed a nightmare, the squadron re-equipped to be sent back whence they came. This time they would be accompanied by Hurricanes (No. 46 Squadron) and would operate from prepared airfields. Again, however, the Gladiators were on their own again, initially anyway, as the airfield selected for the Hurricanes took longer to make ready. The squadron was operational shortly after arrival on 21 May and in action the next day. The first combat victory was achieved the following day and the frenetic action did not let up until the evacuation on 8 June. During that time, the pilots, in their lightly armed biplanes, managed to ensure the Luftwaffe did not have its own way. The Gladiators encountered Heinkels, Junkers and Dorniers and, often operating in pairs to make up for their lack of hitting power, were regularly successful against their more heavily armed and sometimes faster opponents. They even held their own against Bf 110s and decimated the majority of Ju 90 and Fw 200 four engine transports that were intercepted. It wasn’t all one way, however, with ten aircraft returning on Glorious from an original complement of eighteen. Importantly, surplus pilots, and those wounded, were sent home via troopship or cruiser thus avoiding the fate of the Glorious and ensuring that something of 263 Squadron lived on.

Alex Crawford is no stranger to the Gladiator family as he has written several books on the aircraft and its predecessors. In tackling the Norwegian campaign, a career highlight for the type that ranks alongside its service over Malta, he has highlighted the actions of a squadron that is often relegated to a passing mention when discussing Norway (save the loss of the Glorious). Perhaps their contribution did little to slow the Germans, a conclusion that could be reached given the eventual evacuation, but to overlook what was achieved, when they were expected to be a token sacrifice, is to miss out. There remains a good deal that remains unknown too and this book gleefully hints that the RAF in Norway will garner more attention in the future as several projects come to fruition.

The book opens with what can only be favourably called the calm before the storm. The squadron’s ORB provides the material for the majority of the flying and equipment narrative and, frankly, it’s not terribly exciting. A buzz soon begins to build, though, as the squadron initially packs for Finland, then unpacks before packing again for the first trip to Norway. Despite the abject failure on the ground in Norway, in terms of fuel, ammunition and relevant personnel, the preparation for the deployment is impressive and the author uses it to build momentum while maintaining the sense of frustration as things, ever so slightly, begin to unravel from the moment the Gladiators meet the Glorious for the first sea voyage.

It’s all very ‘rush and make do’ and the narrative easily reflects this by laying out the events in daily sections. Several pages after the arrival in Norway, the men are heading home. In some cases there is little to work with and that’s one of the strong points of this book. At 120 pages and A4-sized, it is not huge, but the writing never attempts to pad things out. It is solid and to the point. With the relative lack of records for this period and area of the war, this is perhaps understandable. What was a major surprise, however, was the exceptional number, range and quality of the photographs, particularly of the wrecked Gladiators from the first stint and the shot down German aircraft. Being familiar with the loss of records during the retreat down the Malayan peninsula and the withdrawal from Burma, it is incredible to experience such a heavily illustrated book covering a losing British campaign.

The illustrations don’t stop there, however, as the author follows up with a ‘where are they now’ look at the Gladiators recovered from their final resting places in Norway. Add that to eight pages of colour artwork, indicating good detective work in terms of colour schemes (a theme reflected in several of the period photo captions and discussed in the summary section contained in the last few pages), and GOTF borders on being lavishly illustrated. Fittingly, the summary section just mentioned includes short biographies of each pilot, a table of their claims, and a brief history of each Gladiator that flew with the squadron in Norway.

This is a book that is full of information from the first page to the last. It doesn’t waste space or seek to elaborate on what’s not there. It deals with what’s at hand and the author lends his weight of expertise on the subject to tie it all together and produce a flowing, informative text. Just like the squadron, there is no time to muck about, it’s straight down to business. A few typos were encountered, along with two reversed captions, but the design and editing is otherwise on point and what readers have come to expect from Mushroom Model Publications. The use of extended abbreviations for RAF ranks, such as ‘Fly Off’ and ‘Plt Off’, had not been seen before in print form and looked a bit clunky on the page when used in the narrative, but is probably a style rule and certainly one that can be lived with.

Number 263 Squadron’s Norwegian story effectively starts and ends with HMS Glorious. Now, however, the loss of the ship serves as a bookend for this period in the squadron’s history and importantly, while a tragic end, it does not overshadow the courage and determination with which the Gladiator pilots tackled the insurmountable task before them. Flying obsolete, lightly armed biplanes, the squadron did something the RAF was particularly good at during the early stages of the war – it punched above its weight. Gladiators over the Fjords continues this tradition with a focused narrative that places the unit's Norwegian episodes on the pedestal they deserve.

ISBN 978-83-63678-82-1

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