29 August 2019

Just As It Happened - Merv Pike

Sing this to the tune of the Christmas song ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’: “It’s a most Sunderland-y time of the year (so far)”. This year has seen me, from a Short Sunderland point of view, make discoveries, acquire a holy grail and, embarrassingly, be the recipient of the utmost generosity. Both Alan Deller’s The Kid Glove Pilot and Guy Warner’s We Search Far (230 Squadron) were new to me and, weirdly, both published by Colourpoint. The latter also sees funds go to the squadron association so everyone is happy. The holy grail was Tom Docherty’s Hunt Like a Tiger (another 230 Squadron book). Always ridiculously priced, I had all but given up finding a copy until I made contact with Tom and bought it direct. Finally, a paperback copy of one of the hardest Sunderland books to find these days, Ivan Southall’s classic They Shall Not Pass Unseen, was gifted to me for safe keeping. It’s the first copy I’ve ever seen in the flesh and I’m sure I hear triumphant trumpets playing when I look at it. Into this mix of superb titles, comes another new discovery. Merv Pike’s memoir has been around for more than a decade now. Short Sunderland aircrew memoirs aren’t exactly common, and RAAF ones rarer still. Like its author, it’s honest, humble and bears little in the way of airs and graces.

There is not much of a pre-war preamble detailing the author’s childhood, so the reader is thrust straight into Pike’s eighteen months in the Army and an immediate indication of his character – what will be, will be. Transferring to the RAAF, he applies himself to any task at hand to the best of his abilities, but remains open to other opportunities should he fail the pilot’s course (committed to doing his bit). This endearing attitude, combined with no inflated importance regarding his obvious skills and abilities, is maintained throughout. Pike completed his flying training in Australia, on Tiger Moths and Ansons, before crossing the Pacific to the US, on the way to the UK, where he eventually joined 461 Squadron RAAF. He followed the usual path to Sunderland captain to the extent he flew as second pilot etc with a crew, but, rather than eventually becoming that crew’s new captain, he was sent on his skipper’s course with a new crew (and then spent nine months with them).

The transition to the Sunderland, vastly larger than anything he had flown before (or perhaps even seen), still had the author in awe when he wrote the book. It is completely understandable and the cover image perfectly conveys the size of the aircraft. There is mention of completing a radar course in a Wellington (part of his role as a pilot in a Sunderland crew was to rotate through the radar operator role during an op), but it is unclear whether this was attended before Pike’s introduction to the big flying boat. Either way, his passion for the Sunderland is palpable and, after more than 1300 hours on the type, he certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Besides the flying time mentioned in passing (Pike is self-effacing and spends more time heaping praise on his colleagues), there is also a brief mention of him having flown 32 ops by the time of his wedding in late July 1944. Seeing out the end of the war, and not returning to Australia until sailing from the UK in September 1945, means he was a phenomenally experienced airman. That’s what makes Just As It Happened all the more valuable. Any discussion about 461 Squadron inevitably includes the late, great Dudley Marrows, his success against U-461, the coincidences involved in that action, and the subsequent post-war meeting of U-boat and Sunderland captains. In Merv Pike we have another 461 pilot who certainly did his fair share, another angle, one of the many as it were. His book adds further depth to our understanding of the Australian Sunderland crew experience (in the same breath, I must also mention Phil Davenport’s Hurrah for the Next Man). 

It’s the wrong word, but the narrative suffers from the post-war loss of the author’s logbook, ironically to water damage. It therefore largely relies on fairly detailed memories that are not, naturally, a comprehensive record of service, but the closest there ever will be. To that extent, events are recounted sequentially, but the author allows himself the freedom to detail something as it comes to him. The genesis of the book was a request from a high school, and that does show in the style somewhat, but, in doing so, the life and challenges of a Sunderland pilot (long hours, terrible weather, the unforgiving ocean, the enemy), and the part ‘lady luck’ played, are laid bare. Pike is particularly reflective on his good fortune, detailing a flight up the Gironde Estuary (southwest France), following a Bay of Biscay night patrol, in daylight to look for a German warship. You can see him still shaking his head, at how they made it home, as he wrote about that particular op (during which they also happened upon a crash-diving U-boat). It is one of the few ops written about in any detail so is clearly, and obviously, a standout among the many patrols he flew. There is also some important introspection about dealing with loss and continuing on, something we need to remember especially with regard to these men bearing such things for decades after the war. The reflection continues in the final few chapters as the author summarises his service and then looks at his post-war life, during which he and his wife made several wise real estate decisions to settle on a family home, including following up on business opportunities that led to a well-earned retirement.

A small, solid paperback of 220-plus pages, the interior layout contributes to a lot of wasted white space, but it is very neat. The narrative, though, does need a tidy up to tighten it and remove errors without losing the author’s voice. Among various spelling typos and the like, ‘aerolons’ appears several times when the reference is clearly to the machine’s ailerons. A few facts, such as the number of surviving Sunderlands (none left per page 184, but this perhaps refers to Australian museums only), and a few statements included in the W.W.II introductory summary, also need to be reviewed and refined. Admittedly, however, the reader is ‘here’ for the memories of flying with Coastal Command, not a proper history lesson, but correcting such things is what editors are for. Many of the sourced images (i.e. not from the author’s collection) in the reviewed edition appear to have been acquired, perhaps downloaded, as low-resolution copies so have reproduced so poorly they add nothing. Removing these altogether, or obtaining better replacements, would be a vast improvement. All other photographs included are printed on the same paper stock as the text and are spread throughout the book. The moustachioed Pike, cap at a rakish angle, looks quite the character − a fine mix of joie de vivre and the utmost professionalism. 

Every one of my reading sessions ended reluctantly, but with the glow of looking forward to the next one. Just As It Happened is one of those books that reminds the reader how lucky he or she is to have such a window into a man’s life, or part thereof. Like this review, it is not a finely polished piece of writing. It is, however, honest and written by a classic quiet achiever. Not since Dick Dakeyne’s Radar Gunner has an Australian aircrew memoir captured my attention to this extent. Take a bow, Merv Pike.

ISBN 978-1-87687-013-3

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