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.