13 August 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

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