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