Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Ready to Strike - Adam Lunney

There is a living legend airworthy in Australia, yet, despite there only being two flying Spitfires in the country, it is often seen as ‘the other Spitfire’ alongside its more ‘toothy’ stablemate. Of all the aircraft flown in combat by RAAF squadrons in Europe and the Middle East, Spitfire Mk.XVI TB863 is the only one left flying. It is a mobile reminder of the RAAF commitment to the air war against Germany, but, despite the European war claiming the lion’s share of attention for much of the rest of the world, save Bomber Command, it comes a distant second to the local study of Australia’s role in the South Pacific. The Spitfire is painted in the markings it wore in early 1945 when it saw service with 453 Squadron RAAF. Most, if not all, Australian fighter squadrons in the northern hemisphere are overshadowed by the accomplishments of 3 Squadron in North Africa and beyond. It was exciting, therefore, to learn of Adam Lunney’s project, and its subsequent publication in late 2018, focussing on 453 Squadron’s activities over Normandy in mid-1944.

When the unit formed in Scotland in June 1942, it did so as a new, ‘green’ squadron within the RAF. The squadron’s nameplate, however, had already been through the wringer in a previous incarnation during the defence of Malaya and Singapore. Flying the Brewster Buffalo, the squadron did what it could against the all-conquering Japanese (everything was inferior to the ‘Zero’ at the time, yet the Buffalo did better than many believe, but was completely hamstrung by poor spares supplies, and the lack of time to complete repairs, with most examples lost being destroyed on the ground). Still, admittedly embarrassed by the chain of events down the Malayan Peninsula and into the Dutch East Indies, the authorities were not terribly enthused with the squadron’s legacy or its continuation. However, just a few months after its disbandment, it was reborn on the other side of the world. While admittedly two separate entities, ‘453’ was again active and, despite its unwarranted reputation in the Far East, its pilots would continue the tradition of courage and dedication begun by the Buffalo men.

A significant part of the RAAF’s commitment to the air war in Europe, 453 Squadron was really just another Spitfire unit within the RAF’s Fighter Command. Its early leaders, squadron and flight, were posted in from other units where they had gained valuable combat experience. They were not necessarily Australian, though. Indeed, in addition to the predominantly British leadership team, there were three Poles and a Canadian among the pilots assigned to the new unit, all of who were generally senior to the Australian pilots posted in (mostly pilots officers and flight sergeants). The groundcrew were also local despite the plan for the Article XV squadrons, and the desires of the Australian government, to have RAAF squadrons solely staffed by Australians. At the time, despite the obvious success of the Empire Air Training Scheme, Australian aircrew (and other nationalities flowing into the UK) went where they were needed within the RAF. Still, the effort was made to place them with RAAF units. Despite a pool maintained in 1944, 453 Squadron still could not guarantee having an Australian pilot posted in as a replacement post-Normandy.

Working up in the relatively quiet airspace over Scotland, the squadron was eventually posted south where, like any other Spitfire squadron on the frontline, it was heavily involved in the RAF’s offensive over occupied Europe. Convoy and local patrols aside, the pilots’ lives consisted of a steady diet of bomber escorts and fighter sweeps from their airfields on the English Channel. It’s all very familiar stuff, but for a book that mentions Normandy on the cover, the extent of the coverage is surprising, but necessary. This discussion runs to about 100 pages and, more so than the Far East, shows the development of the squadron as a fighting unit and, importantly, the evolution of its culture and character. Typical of an operational squadron, many pilots come and go, for various reasons. For those who return for a second tour, the author goes to great pains to welcome them back with reference to the response from the incumbents (often highly amusing). This builds the feeling of family that is at the heart of such an organisation.

Ultimately, 453 Squadron becomes part of the Second Tactical Air Force, the RAF’s major direct contribution to the forthcoming Normandy landings. Initially operating from RAF Ford, as it had been before the invasion, the squadron’s personnel were the first Australians to fly combat ops from France when staged through Advanced Landing Grounds before making the move proper to ALG B.11 on the coast just to the west of Arromanches. Life now consisted of a frenetic, endless, dangerous mix of ground attack, escort and interception operations, with the former certainly making up the majority. Fighter pilots being fighter pilots, the Australians yearned for some action in their preferred role – encounters with the Luftwaffe. While rare, per the narrative, the squadron performed well when it did have the chance to tangle with German aircraft. Worn out at the end of September, the squadron was back in the UK for a well-earned rest, but that, as the author tantalisingly closes the operational discussion, is another story.

This is the first book of any depth to be written about the squadron since Duty Done, ‘Rusty’ Leith’s biography written with, and published by in 2001, the esteemed Cyril Ayris (Leith also had the most time in TB863 during its operational career). While the squadron continued to fly sorties to the end of the war, the book finishes its look at ops as August 1944 closes. It is, as the cover says, ops ‘over Normandy’. That said, ‘Normandy’ doesn’t kick off until page 163. For a book a touch over 400 pages, that’s a good chunk of what is effectively an operational preamble. The author steps the reader through the squadron’s history, starting with the Far East, before jumping sideways to introduce the Spitfire as the weapon the unit used to great effect. These first two chapters are almost polar opposites. The Far East chapter is not the most sparkling of openings for an operational history. It feels laborious, but I think this is a function of trying to condense a hell of a lot of information (Brian Cull and Christopher Shores did it over several books!) into a single chapter that, in the great scheme of things, isn’t vital to the book. On the flip side, the following chapter, meet the Spitfire, a subject that could easily get away from any writer given the breadth of detail and stories available to draw from, is handled beautifully. It is a well-written analysis of the most famous of aircraft that avoids the expected stereotypes and emotion (or the gushing and waxing lyrical!), but shows respect and a genuine passion for the design. Comments from those who flew the Spitfire were chosen carefully and range from published memoirs and accounts to recorded interviews on archive or conducted by the author himself. A little over forty pages long, with some illustrations, and almost 200 references (more on that shortly), it is the chapter that sets the hook in the reader and confirms the author’s ability to get to grips with a sweeping subject. 

Then it’s down to business. The operational history is very nicely handled. While, at times, there is not a lot of action pre-Normandy, the narrative avoids being dry and repetitive. Quotes, anecdotes and mini-biographies/vignettes, particularly as the pilots come and go, are used to good effect to break up the day-to-day reporting and present a very readable account. The momentum builds as the reader approaches the date of the Normandy landings, but despite the incessant operational flying, the author takes the time to follow a pilot’s escapades as he evades the Germans after being shot down, for example. Such a thing could quite easily be limited to ‘Joe Bloggs was back with the squadron three weeks later after evading the Germans and making it back to the Allied lines’ if there was a desire to keep things centred on operations (I’m looking at the disappointing The Stabber of the Sky as I write this), but, as you’ve hopefully worked out by now, this is far more than an operational history. After all, what is a squadron, what is a Spitfire, without the men who were part of it?

Ready to Strike is available as a print on demand book (and at shops that have acquired stock of course). This enables it to be printed locally to the buyer, thus saving on dreaded postage costs. The review copy is the softcover option and makes a good, solid book. I would suggest, however, if you can afford it, getting the hardcover. The covers of the softcover have a matt finish and, weirdly, are quite adept at absorbing pen ink from other paper (like handwritten review notes). In either format, however, this is an attractive publication illustrated throughout by images sourced from families, archives and, once again, the author’s own legwork during at least one visit to Normandy. As alluded to above, it is extensively referenced and the bibliography is equally epic. There is no index, however, and that is a let down for a book as important as this, a key, latter day feature in the recorded history of the RAAF in Europe. The referencing at the end of each chapter helps soften this blow a little. That said, for the author’s first book, this is how operational histories should be tackled. Focus on the people, keep it personal and don’t get bogged down in the numbers and stats. They’re vital, yes, but they wouldn’t exist were it not for the people to whom we owe so much. Adam Lunney achieves this fine balance with Ready to Strike.

ISBN 978-0-6483552-2-9

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Air Battle for Burma - Bryn Evans

Long time readers (thank you) of Aircrew Book Review, and those of you who know me personally, will be well and truly aware of my eternal fascination with the Burma campaign and, of course, the aerial aspect of it. I will therefore, competing pressures allowing, excitedly devour anything I can find on the subject. By far the best Burma aviation book to be released recently is The Flying Hours by Andrew Millar. Written by someone who was there for several years, from soon after the withdrawal into India right through to the Allied advance and post-Japanese surrender, it is an incredible and sobering account of squadron life in the region at the time. It is a personal account, obviously, with a fine balance of exquisite detail and enough context to mark the author’s important place in the big picture. That big picture, despite being part of the ‘forgotten war’, has been written about fairly extensively, although it’s relatively little compared to Europe or the American side of the Pacific. Bryn Evans’ book was, therefore, gleefully welcomed with a touch of ‘what can be new about it?’ An Australian author, Evans has added a distinctly antipodean aspect to his narrative with reference to some superb written records. As gripping as this book is, though, some of it borders on the frustrating.

Poorly equipped from the start, albeit with hindsight once the Japanese were engaged, the Allied air forces could initially only resist and fall back in the face of a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that was better equipped for the terrain it was fighting for. The weather in that part of the world, however, always maintains supremacy. It stopped the Japanese in their tracks, but allowed both sides to consolidate their positions. Several passages in the book include memories of flying in atrocious weather and are as harrowing as any of the many combat accounts included. 

In the case of the RAF in India, from late 1942, the long, quiet, bad weather periods enabled a major re-equipment and airfield building program. However, it was not until the arrival of Spitfires, with their superior rate of climb, in the second half of 1943, that a true advantage, from an air supremacy point of view, could be regularly exploited over Japanese formations that continued to be heavily escorted. Even so, the Japanese cottoned on that the Spitfires could not be everywhere. Before then, it had been Hurricanes, Mohawks, and Beaufighters at night, holding the line. Like New Guinea, despite the eventually overwhelming aerial advantage achieved by the Allies, Burma was a long, slow grind and still not completely resolved by war’s end.

This growing superiority in the air was particularly important when Allied drives into Burma required significant, life-saving resupply by streams of transport aircraft (not to mention behind the lines operations by the likes of the Chindits). Legendary battles, such as the ‘Admin Box’, became Allied victories, strong Japanese aerial opposition aside, because the men cut-off on the ground could be supplied entirely by large transport aircraft, and the wounded could be evacuated by vulnerable, short-field capable machines like Austers, L-Birds and even Fox Moths.

The benefits of the Allied control of the air are reflected in the evolution of the narrative. The backbone of the book, the finely curated collection of aircrew accounts, gives way to descriptions of the later land campaigns, particularly Imphal, Kohima and the taking of Rangoon, or, generally, combined operations with an emphasis on air-to ground support and forward air control. Admittedly, I queried the relevance of discussing cab-rank and the visual control post on the ground, not to mention an entire chapter devoted to the ‘war in the shadows’ (Chindit operations and agent delivery behind the lines), but all are direct results of achieving air superiority evolving into air supremacy. Fighter-bombers can go about their work while fighters watch their backs, allowing the former to loiter as required, soldiers behind the lines can be supplied in sufficient volume by Dakotas and the SOE types can get on with their jobs with less risk of interception and not even making it to the drop zone in the first place.

Despite this valuable look at the ability of ground support to proceed with little enemy air interference, there is very little mentioned about the mainstay of the Burma ground attack strength – the Beaufighter. As above, I would initially question its inclusion at length when focussing on the achievement of air supremacy, but its long-range attacks on enemy airfields and infrastructure, among other things, should surely rate more discussion than the ‘war in the shadows’ angle (as important as that is). Instead, all but two of the references to Bristol’s twin pertain to its use as a night fighter in the theatre.

Air Battle for Burma should be of interest to any student of the campaign, casual or otherwise, but it varies from riveting to clunky (this review probably gives it a run for its money regarding the latter!). As just mentioned above, everything is built around the superb collection of memories from those who flew in combat there with several Australians and New Zealanders featuring prominently. The records of Noel Constantine RAAF (the book is, pleasingly, dedicated to him and his wife) are heavily leaned on and prove valuable given his time in theatre rising through the ranks to become one of Australia’s unsung fighter leaders. Kiwi Vic Bargh, referred throughout as ‘Kitchy’, as done in other publications (not ‘Ketchil’ per his biography), is also heavily referenced early on as is the likes of Jack Storey etc. There really are some engrossing memories recorded. A lot of the names of recurring ‘characters’, however, are often repeated in full, complete with rank and nickname, sometimes on the same page. Other repetitive aspects creep in too – such as biographical details, full squadron titles, Spitfire re-equipment (consecutive pages!), scene setting details, and even the occasional concluding discussion (particularly regarding the Admin Box, the first large-scale resupply by air alone) – and all act as speed bumps to an otherwise nicely flowing narrative. A bit more attention on the editing side of things would have tidied these up easily, perhaps shortened the book by several pages, and caught misleading items like the Hurricane Mk.V typo (for Mk.IV) and the Mk.IIc carrying four 40mm cannons (instead of four 20mm).

The ‘Allied’ on the cover is perhaps a misnomer, however, as it focuses on the RAF (if we ignore the cosmopolitan nature of the air arm at the time) with the Flying Tigers and USAAF fighters only mentioned in passing. That said, that makes it even more ideal for inclusion in ABR!

While it falls a little short in places, to embrace a theatre where the hectic fighting was separated by months of inaction, and then concentrate on examining one aspect in context, requires the ability to hold a reader’s interest and ABFB certainly succeeds there. The photo section contains some nice, relevant images and there are some very useful maps early on that, in all honesty, could do with a bit of tweaking to make clearer (either that or use them as the basis for newly drawn examples). Each chapter is extensively referenced and the glossary, bibliography and index are pleasingly comprehensive. The epilogue serves to remind the reader no one is immune from war, nor have we yet learned to avoid it ‘at all costs’. A useful postscript provides potted biographies of some of the aircrew whose memories contributed so much to the narrative. Through the extensive use of Noel Constantine’s records, it is clear the author has developed an affinity with him. Air Battle for Burma cements Bryn Evans’ place in this genre, following earlier works on the air war and other subjects, so perhaps he might consider the biography of the interesting, albeit ultimately tragic, life of a forgotten Australian leader. Tackling a subject as broad as the air battle for Burma, and doing so competitively, surely means such a worthwhile project is within the realms of possibility. Either way, the author’s next work is happily anticipated.

ISBN 978-1-47385-892-3

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Spitfire - John Nichol

It's time for another guest review as I tidy up a few things in preparation for gearing up to writing long reviews for this website again. This is the first time Adrian Roberts' writing has been featured on ABR, but, a Great War aviation specialist, he has been writing reviews for Flightpath for several years now (some of you may have seen his writing in Cross & Cockade too). A glider pilot of many years' experience, Adrian has flown over the same green fields so commonly associated with the nostalgic view of Spitfire flying and brings an aviator's eyes to bear on one of the recent best-sellers of the ever-growing Spitfire bibliography. Andy Wright

John Nichol, the Tornado navigator and Iraq POW turned writer, has produced an account of the Spitfire based around the people associated with it at various periods of its service. The book can scarcely be called a history; the chapters relate to the chronological periods of the war, but, as the title suggests, it focuses on the feelings and the memories of those most closely associated with the Spitfire. 

It is essentially an anthology. Many of the first-hand accounts come from previously published sources and, therefore, may not be new to serious Second World War aviation enthusiasts. Other accounts are from letters to the author or private memoirs intended for relatives. As it covers the entire war in a broad sweep, it may not please those who look for the details of a particular squadron or theatre of operations, but it is an entertaining read for those with a general interest in the subject. 

Probably a mainstream publisher would only have been interested because the word ‘Spitfire’ has broad recognition. Clearly the subtitle, appealing to nostalgia and perhaps nationalism, is an attempt to capture the general market. Surely, however, there must be similar accounts of less easily romanticised aspects of the air war going unpublished because they do not have the same mass appeal. Nichol certainly shows passion for the subject and empathy with the combat experiences. His lack of specialism occasionally lets errors creep in though. For instance, he states the Spitfire Mk.XVI was characterised by its cut-down rear fuselage when, in fact, this feature did not relate to a particular mark, but was applied to different production batches of all the later versions (about half of the Mk.XVIs constructed were built with this modification).  

Possibly the most unique feature of the book is Nichol’s relationship with many of the last surviving men and women of the ‘Greatest Generation’ who flew or serviced the Spitfire. He has photographed and interviewed many of them, and been present when some of these nonagenarians had rides in two-seat Spitfires. Sadly, this was the last opportunity to write such a book. Many of the veterans featured, such as ATA pilot Joy Lofthouse (her comrade Mary Ellis passed away subsequently), died while he was writing it. For their memory alone the book needed to have been written and deserves to be read. 

ISBN 978-1-47115-923-7

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Bomber Command Books - 25% off everything!

Here's the next discount opportunity for the April tenth birthday shenanigans. One of the most prolific publishers in the aircrew book genre is Bomber Command Books from Mention the War Publications. Simon Hepworth kicked things off a few short years ago by publishing the first comprehensive squadron histories for 514 Squadron (with Andrew Porrelli). Since then, the titles have kept coming and now number more than thirty. A Bomber Command focus has been maintained, but the Great War, civil aviation, and a little bit of fiction have recently been added to the catalogue.
For 25% off the RRP of all titles until the end of April, visit www.bombercommandbooks.com to browse what's on offer. When you've made your selection, use the contact menu to email Simon and mention ABR (it must be by email).

Monday, April 01, 2019

Fighting High Publishing - 50% discount offer

As part of Aircrew Book Review's tenth anniversary celebrations, Steve Darlow, the man behind Fighting High, publisher of some of the finest hardback aircrew books on the market, and staunch supporter of the Bomber Command Memorial and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund is offering the books pictured below for 50% off their normal price (signed editions included)!!!

All you have to do is visit the Fighting High website, select the books you want to buy, and enter the code 'ABR' in the discount field at checkout. This generous offer will run until the end of April. Enjoy!

Friday, March 29, 2019

An Expendable Squadron - Roy Conyers Nesbit

The RAF Beaufort squadrons have always been a bit overshadowed by the likes of Fighter and Bomber Command. Coastal Command was, after all, not called the ‘Cinderella Service’ for nothing. There was always one author who could always be counted on to right this wrong, however, and, with An Expendable Squadron, Roy Conyers Nesbit does it again. Sadly, this is his last book as he died several months before it was published.

Number 217 Squadron flew its first operations with Ansons and gamely flew ‘general reconnaissance’ flights (convoy patrols etc) until late December 1940 despite having been equipped with the new Beaufort more than six months previously. The Bristol aircraft was a far more modern beast than its predecessor, but, early on, it was hamstrung by its Taurus engines.

Once fully operational the Beaufort was put to good use attacking Channel ports and convoys and contributing bombs, mines and torpedoes to the weight of munitions thrown at whatever German capital ship happened to be docked for repairs and within range. Losses were heavy, but the Channel and North Sea Beaufort crews began to develop the tactics that would ultimately result in the effective Coastal Command strike wings later in the war.

Perhaps the greatest developments in anti-shipping tactics came in the Mediterranean. The squadron spent two months based on Malta in mid-1942 while en route to the Far East and the war against the Japanese. A bonanza for the then AOC of Malta, Hugh Lloyd (who had a well-known reputation for ‘acquiring’ whatever aircraft transited through the besieged island for his own offensive and defensive requirements), the Beauforts were instrumental in stopping the flow of supplies from Europe to Rommel’s desert forces in North Africa. When the squadron was eventually released, to continue its journey to the Far East, it could only muster eight of the original 21 crews and aircraft that had arrived just two months previous. Eventual re-equipment with Hudsons occurred, before enough Beauforts were available, followed by conversion to Beaufighters, but the squadron was not to see any further action for the final three years of the war (perfectly illustrated by the last three years being recounted in one chapter!).

The author flew with the squadron as an observer (nav) from early 1941 to March 1942. While he recounts the history of the unit before his arrival, obviously the most detail (coincidentally the most hectic period) is provided during his time on operations. He masterfully weaves his experiences with those of his squadron mates and the development of the war from a mainly Coastal Command perspective (shades of A Most Secret Squadron by Des Curtis). A large number and variety of photos appear alongside the text to illustrate the subject matter at the time and the captions are well done. Indeed, this book is exceptionally well illustrated with text only two-page spreads being few and far between. There is a surprising amount of detail in the many appendices and, pleasingly, there is a good index. Such was the eye for detail and pure professionalism of Nesbit (honed to perfection as, remember, he did a lot of his work before the days of online resources), it is hard not to review this book without feeling like you are critiquing a master who is almost without peer. Sadly, he was not around to proofread the final manuscript and errors of varying relevance are present although these have been dealt with and will be included in the second edition if, hopefully, that comes about.

While long-term readers of Nesbit’s work will find a lot of familiar ground, and be able to draw comparisons to his first title, Woe To The Unwary, this book perhaps draws together all previous efforts to present an interesting read on a squadron that certainly did its share. A fine legacy.

ISBN 978-1-47382-328-0

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Celebrate Aircrew Book Review's tenth anniversary!!!

Hi everyone, April marks the tenth birthday for this website as, back in April 2009, I started posting reviews on here and, not long after, began neglecting it (a tradition that continues to this day!). Anyway, for those of you who are members of the ABR Facebook group, you will know that I have been working with a number of authors and publishers who have generously offered to help celebrate the tenth birthday with book giveaways and special discount codes. As I launch each of these offers/raffles/competitions in April, I will also post them here. If you're a seasoned reader (a massive thank you) or an enthusiast who has 'just surfed on in' (thank you too), I hope you will be able to take advantage and enjoy the birthday shenanigans.
One discount offer already underway (and lasting until 30 June) is from Pen & Sword. One of the first books reviewed on here was Martin Bowman's Mosquito: Menacing the Reich and titles from this publisher have made regular appearances on ABR ever since. Thank you to P&S for their support over the years and for this generous offer to Aircrew Book Review's readers.
Use the code AIRCREW20 on the Pen and Sword Books website to get 20% off the RRP on all full price items (excluding eBooks). This offer will run until 30 June 2019.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

75 (NZ) Squadron - Chris Ward and Chris Newey

It’s been a while since I’ve featured a guest reviewer and now seems as good a time as any what with the amount of work I have on at the moment that is taking me away from review writing for ABR. Robert Brokenmouth is the editor of Wakefield Press’ two most successful aircrew books published this century: They Hosed Them Out and 101 Nights. Both are books written as fiction by their former aircrew authors, but, as Robert was able to discover and then prove with extensive references, both titles are actually slightly fictionalised memoirs. They are also incredible reads and enduring, yet underrated, Australian aircrew classics. Robert is also a music reviewer of note with a particular style and entertaining turn of phrase. It is, therefore, a treat to feature one of his aircrew book reviews here for the first time. Andy Wright

Essential purchase. Cheap, given the fact this monster runs to 475 pages, all on foolscap-size paper. Holy moly! Okay, let's get our breath back. Why is the book so thick? Partly because 75 Squadron flew "more sorties than any other Allied heavy bomber squadron, suffering the second-highest number of casualties”. Also, there's a wealth of photos but, crucially, the publisher hasn't opted for brevity over quality - this series aims to provide the best overview of each squadron possible. It's not just 'a topic' to the writers, it's a vivid reality.

For many years 75 Squadron was famous; consequently it's been covered in other books (Saunders' Return at Dawn, and Franks' Forever Strong, for example). So why on earth would you buy Mention the War's profile? And especially one this fat?

Well, firstly, Saunders' book is very hard to come by. And, second, Franks' book covers the squadron history from 1916 to 1990 and, at 252 pages, that's essentially an overview, not an in-depth look at the unit’s operations in World War Two like this. Ah, see, now we're talking.

Have you ever met a real stamp collector? I mean, the kind who research the period and countries they're interested in, who also collects postmarks as much as stamps? These are the kind of people interested in the reality of history, who don't just read a book, they have period maps, background reading and biographies. And stonking reference books like this. 

Ward and Newey's achievement here is quite, quite remarkable, telling a huge story with as much detail as possible (in the circumstances - nothing short of reprints of the Operations Record Book (or Form 540, or ORB) will satisfy some of us), giving us names, details, events. It's a herculean task. 

I asked Newey about it (Facebook is occasionally useful). "Chris Ward wrote the initial manuscript, I curated the photos and provided some New Zealand and background content, based on the research I'd done, and the comprehensive squadron databases compiled by Simon Sommerville, who you should mention, as he's put an enormous amount of work into his website www.75nzsquadron.com.”

The squadron became famous for several reasons during the war (I'll let you find out about a few of those yourself), but a couple of members of the squadron you'll have heard of. One of the most incredible acts of bravery to earn the (inevitably embarrassed) hero a VC was performed by ‘Jimmy’ Ward, co-pilot of a Wellington after a raid on Munster on 7 July 1941. After an attack by a night-fighter, one of the fuel tanks on the starboard wing caught fire. Ward volunteered to climb out onto the wing to put the fire out. If you're not familiar with the story, I won't spoil it.

Newey and Ward (apparently no relation) simply quote from the ORB and, believe me, that makes for extraordinary reading (there are other accounts; Hector Bolitho, in Penguin in the Eyrie, describes meeting Jimmy at the Savoy Hotel bar and bandaging his finger, Jimmy died in action a few days later).

Navigator Eric Williams found himself on the wrong end of a parachute after his Stirling was attacked on 17 December 1942. If the name seems familiar, it's because he escaped from Stalag Luft III, with Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, and reached neutral Sweden a little over a year after his initial capture. See The Wooden Horse, film or book or both.

Other notables rubbed shoulders with the unwashed in 75 Squadron. Frank Gill continued in the RNZAF after the war, rising to be air commodore before entering politics, ending his career as NZ Ambassador to the USA, and Sir Douglas Lowe stayed in the RAF to become quite a senior officer indeed. "Not famous in their own right," continues Newey, "but two individuals who were lost in action were brothers of famous people - pilot Raymond Going, brother of legendary All Black halfback Sid Going, and navigator James Lovelock, brother of Olympic 1500m gold medallist and world record-holder Jack Lovelock. Another unique character was Sergeant Sir Charles Thomas Hewitt Mappin, RAFVR, a baronet and member of the House of Lords, who volunteered as a gunner in the RAF, and is said to have refused a commission and a ground job. Killed in action."

During World War Two, 75 Squadron took part in 739 operations, putting up aircraft for 8017 sorties. They're just numbers until you remember, 'Oh, yeah, there was usually only about a three percent chance of you making it through a tour of 30 operations'. 

Unlike stamp collectors and their knowledgeable breadth of history, when you pick up RAF Bomber Command Profiles: 75 (NZ) Squadron, sure, you'll be thrilled, you'll be dumbstruck, you'll have a decent whisky to hand and possibly some cheesy snacks, but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to need a box of tissues handy.

ISBN 978-1-9112553-4-5

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Wings of Valour - Charles Page

The honour roll is a relatively common sight in established organisations and such lists, for want of a better word, have inspired many a researcher to find out about the lives behind the names. While such efforts may focus on one name, or those from the same family, few books are published that include biographical details of an entire honour roll. Such publications are usually limited to a few presentation copies. In this case, relatively recent work to collate and commemorate those lost have directly resulted in this book which, besides the requisite ‘official’ copy, is available commercially from the author. The first book from Charles Page for quite a few years, and not one that was widely announced, Wings of Valour benefits from an aviation biographer at the top of his game. 

Forty-nine former members of 7 Wing Air Training Corps/Australian Air Force Cadets are included on the unit’s recently created honour roll. The important thing to note here is the words ‘former members’. This is not a book about teenage cadets although, admittedly, a good proportion of the men included died while they were still teenagers with a majority being barely out of their teens. The ATC was formed in early 1942 to train boys, between the age of 16 and 18, who were interested in joining the RAAF once they were old enough. The point was to make them ‘airminded’, assuming they weren’t already, to familiarise them with the ways of the RAAF, to instil discipline, so they could effectively hit the ground running when they enlisted. By the end of the war, close to 12,000 cadets had enlisted in the RAAF. 

The ATC continued on, albeit in a smaller capacity of course, post-war until disbanded in the mid-seventies, only to be resurrected the following year by the next federal government and eventually become the Australian Air Force Cadets shortly after the turn of the century. It is a growing and active organisation, the age range is broader and, of course, membership is open to both sexes.

The book is separated into periods – Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and Post-1945. Thirty-two of the men listed were killed during W.W.II. Five of the six lost in Vietnam were serving in the Army (the sixth joined the RAN), so this is not a book limited to aircrew or RAAF personnel. The common factor was that everyone had been a member of 7 Wing ATC. To that end, despite the author’s published works proving an expertise in wartime flying, his career in aviation and dedication to the subject at hand means all biographies are as detailed and as comprehensive as they could be within the space provided.

Each man is honoured across a two-page spread with brief family, biographical and pre-service life details presented succinctly to allow as much space as possible for the how and why they ended up on the honour roll. It is clear that some of the lives lost were considerably harder to research than others, but, despite the two-page limit, the reader is not left feeling more could have been done. The author maintains a rigid structure throughout to ensure each former cadet receives an equal measure of respect. Each spread is brimming with text and relevant images. A portrait of every man (one is even a drawn self-portrait, supplied by my old high school of all places!) is included and each biography includes at least three images. Some of the photos suffer from being of a lower resolution, having been sourced from the internet, due to the author doing everything bar the printing (all proceeds to the AAFC), but these are in the minority as the author received impressive support from museums, schools and individuals in Australia and around the world. Colour imagery must make up close to fifty percent of the photos included.

An A4-sized glossy paperback of 118 pages, this will ensure those lost remain more than just names on various memorials (another detail included – all places the men are honoured and, if known, where they are buried). It is a book of remembrance researched and written by one of Australia’s finest military biographers. Ignoring several magazine articles, his most recent published work was the masterful Wings of Destiny, which remains a benchmark for aviation biographers. It was ten years from that book’s release by Rosenberg until the release of Wings of Valour. While the research required for the latter would, understandably, not have been as deep as the former, it had to be repeated 49 times and that is no small ask for any biographer. Fortunately, this project fell into the right hands and the result is invaluable.

ISBN 978-0-6481739-0-8

Friday, January 18, 2019

Of Sons and Skies - Robert Arley

The willingness and dedication required to write a book that aims to explain W.W.II aerial warfare, technology and sociology and promote it to an audience that has had little to no ‘formal’ education in the subject is laudable. Indeed, to some extent it’s also a thankless task as there’s a fair chance the finished product will be read by the ‘converted’, who are ‘programmed’ to react to such things on bookshelves, and fall on deaf ears elsewhere. To stand any chance, however, means what is recounted needs to be accurate and the author really needs to be on point with regard to knowledge and understanding. Of Sons and Skies presents a lot of information, but its delivery tends to dilute the impact somewhat.

Written in a clippy, irreverent style, it is clear who the intended audience is as the author (using a nom de plume) invites the reader to embark on a journey with him. From pre-war RAF efforts to modernise, through to the many early failures, several early victories and a focus on the eventual behemoth that Bomber Command became, the narrative is largely built around period newspaper headlines with contextual discussion and clarification weaved in by the author. 

It is a courageous effort and gets the point across with regard to the massive investments and resources consumed, and never forgets, reinforces even, the sacrifices made by thousands. However, as broad as the subject seems, the book’s focus is quite narrow. It rarely leaves Europe. Other theatres are mentioned in passing and, when they are, the details are incorrect. Japan invading Burma in 1940 is mentioned twice, Yamamoto was intercepted off the ‘Pacific coast’ and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are in the South Pacific.

Many aspects of aerial warfare are discussed, including minutiae like tyres etc, but the narrative is all over the place as a result. At one stage, it switches from a quality, sobering assessment of the bombing of Sheffield to aircrew clothing to flak.

Aviation knowledge is a bit light on too, with baling out at 500 feet being ideal, Ford being responsible for the Liberator, ‘Quantas’, and the Lancaster, besides being in 99% of all BC vignettes (the Halifax is mentioned twice in one paragraph and the Mosquito is mentioned several times, otherwise, from what I remember and noted, it’s all Lancasters), being particularly tricky to fly because it had a tendency to swing on take-off (like all tail-draggers i.e. every other primary bomber type used extensively by Bomber Command during its more than five year war). On top of all that is the fact that the style is just too irreverent. For example, the Germans made “quite a mess” of Coventry, Goebbels is referred to as “PGG” (“Propaganda Guru Goebbels") and at one stage Hitler puts on his “master-race jimjams”. It’s clear the author is trying to keep things light and moving, but there’s just some things, unless you're writing something akin to ‘Dad’s Army’ or ‘Allo Allo’, where everything is a caricature or stereotype, where the effort to make them amusing is a waste of effort and bordering on misleading. Doing so loses some of the gravity in the narrative and of the subject.

There is a lot of detail here, and considerable graft, although no index or photos, but it would be a far more effective read if there was less effort spent on trying to be clever for the reader.

ISBN 978-1-9998944-2-9