Friday, July 14, 2017

The Mallon Crew - Vic Jay


Bomber Command seems to be everywhere at the moment. While I don’t exactly pepper ABR with reviews these days (I do try!), I still have to be careful not to feature Bomber Command book after Bomber Command book because, in reality, I could and that’s not really fair on the other areas of the air war and, of course, the men who served in them. Publishers, while relishing the popularity of the subject, can afford to be picky to some extent so, coupled with a healthy self-publishing industry, there is an impressive number of ‘solo’ aircrew books being released. Some are the result of years, decades even, of research while others are very obviously put together quite quickly with little time taken, or effort made, to understand the subject beyond the main protagonist. At a little over 200 pages and loaded with detail, The Mallon Crew easily falls in the former category.

The author’s father was a flight engineer with No. 75 Squadron (NZ) and part of the crew led by Kiwi Bill Mallon. Jay Senior was one of three RAFVR members on the crew with the other four being New Zealanders. They joined the squadron in early 1945 and flew their first op on 8 March. It was a short war for the Mallon crew, with less than ten ops completed (plus Manna drops), but don’t let the brevity of their operational service fool you. It was still very much a dangerous job and, with daylights regularly flown, the crews could clearly see the fate of those bombers shot down around them. At least the darkness of night ops hid some of the horror.

What is refreshing about TMC is that it doesn’t muck around with Bomber Command history, its tactics or equipment. Most of the people who would pick this book up would already be familiar with such things. As a result, there are no chapters or passages where the author is effectively preaching to the converted. There is an assumed knowledge and any clarification or explanation is kept to, at most, a short paragraph. It certainly makes for a shorter book, but it also means a more focused one. The focus, as you’d expect, is on the crew.

Admittedly, the background, training and operational experiences of the crew could be dropped into any Bomber Command scenario and fit nicely. They all follow the expected path, but there is no escaping this. You need to know the men in order to fly with them and, boy, do you know them once you finish the book. There is a strong impression that no stone was left unturned when it comes to uncovering the lives the crew led before, during and, importantly, after the war. It is less journey of discovery and more lesson in how to use modern resources to hunt, track down and learn about men who had all passed away before the author even began his research. In the case of the author’s father, 38 years passed from his death to the beginning of the work that would lead to TMC. That is not terribly unusual, but the author’s tenacity, and the coincidences that come with this sort of research, really shines through. What is especially impressive is that this extends beyond the core members of the Mallon crew. They occasionally flew with ‘spare’ or extra airmen (a mid-under gunner, for example) and these chaps are not ignored. For the author to examine and learn about their lives is to learn more about his father’s experiences. This is the clear driver behind this work.

There is a lot of Vic Jay in TMC and that’s not just because he is the author. He has been fortunate to experience being inside two separate Lancasters while they were running (one taxiing, the other flying) and both momentous occasions, particularly the taxi ride, serve as inspiration. There are not many authors of this genre who can lean back in their chair, close their eyes and transport themselves to the time they were shaken to the very core by four Merlins vibrating through the thin skin of a bomber. The descriptions of these experiences are really the only time the author allows himself to be overly sentimental and romantic, but few, if any, could avoid doing so when sitting in a living, breathing example of the aircraft that played such a big part in a relative’s life.

As with all airmen that have their lives laid bare in an aircrew book, there is a fervent wish for them to survive and go on to live a long and happy life. TMC, as a crew biography as opposed to a memoir, provides the most extensive ‘follow up’ I have encountered for some time even down to the legacy the men left because they survived. Again, it is a case of ensuring the circle is closed on each man’s life. Here, however, it must be mentioned that one member of the crew, the mid-upper gunner Don Cook, could not be traced nor was his family found (if you have any leads, the author would be most grateful). His absence from the research, not for the want of trying, is more than made up for by the author ensuring non-Mallon crew airmen mentioned in the text are also given their time in the spotlight as if to prove they are not forgotten. This analysis of the ‘supporting cast’ reveals some fascinating operational careers that would benefit from further research. That said, it can be difficult at times to keep up with who’s who, even among the Mallon crew, but there is a useful crew listing at the front of the book if a little bit of confirmation is needed.

A tidy and well-presented paperback, TMC is copiously illustrated. The photos are reproduced within the main body of text so are largely dependent on the paper stock for their quality. There is a little bit of grain in the period images because of the paper, and not just the circumstances in which they were taken, but this is kept to a minimum by keeping the sizes to respectable dimensions. To find a page spread without an illustration of some sort is a rare thing. There is no index, but this is not unexpected with a self-published book. To counter this somewhat, dates, targets and some names are printed in bold and stand out very clearly.

There is little to suggest that this book was developed from an internet blog, save the mentions of it of course, although it is clear what discoveries and developments the author was particularly fascinated by. He maintains a good balance, however, and remains mostly objective despite his closeness to the subject and the general first person narrative feel to the text. It is a very active narrative more akin to a presentation or magazine style of writing, but this is part of the adventure of it all and a legacy of the blog style of regular updates detailing the latest discoveries.

All in all, happily, this is another Bomber Command crew that has had its story told and told well. Operationally, there was not a lot to go on, but the twists and turns of each man’s life is what really makes The Mallon Crew work. Nothing is overtly dramatised, nor is it avoided for lack of existing information. It is a son’s honest and pragmatic tribute to his father and his crew that gets the point across, but largely avoids waxing lyrical about sacrifice and doomed youth. It doesn’t need to, such were the fates of some of the men featured. It had a job to do and it got it done, just like the crews of Bomber Command.

ISBN 978-1-523252-89-3

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