18 April 2020

A Spy in the Sky - Kenneth B. Johnson

As I’ve often lamented on here, and ABR’s Facebook group, a new memoir is quite special these days. It’s got to the stage that it really would be worth re-visiting, en masse, older memoirs to breathe new life into them (see Carrier Pilot, for example). With A Spy in the Sky we have a new memoir and, especially, it’s by a former photographic reconnaissance pilot. Certainly not something you see every day and, dare I say it, maybe the last one we will see. That perhaps makes it more valuable than if it was published, say, a decade ago. It also means more care and attention needs to be paid to putting the whole thing together. 

The author enlisted in early 1941. Straight off the bat, he gets the point across he is from an average background and expecting to see out the war sweeping hangars. He is surprised, therefore, to enter the aircrew training pipeline. In turn, he decides he can’t possibly be trained as a pilot, but is perplexed, yet grateful, when that’s what happens. Despite his constant amazement and apparent belief he is not capable of much more than manning a broom, he proves quite the aviator, extricating himself from tricky situations in the air many new pilots find themselves in and applying his growing knowledge and intuition to overcome obstacles, such as poor depth perception affecting his landings. Naturally, there is no mention of being ‘a good pilot’, but the detailed explanations of various exercises and, well, adventures in the air, leave the reader with a clear opinion.

Moving from Tiger Moths, to Miles Masters, and then to the Hurricane, the path he's on is clear. Despite being mystified about attending a general reconnaissance course (a brief, rare account of flying Blackburn Bothas), those familiar with the way these things go can see his path to a PRU, or perhaps even an Army Co-op unit. Operational Training Unit soon beckons and throws up more challenges, among them the vagaries of Scottish weather, the author handles with his usual aplomb and logic. Naturally, he ends up at RAF Benson, PRU central, and begins flying ops over France and Belgium. Several fighter interceptions aside, luck remains on his side and his growing operational experience soon extends to Germany.

Despite not putting his hand up to serve overseas, feeling he had been trained for the operational conditions specific to north-west Europe, again not seeing himself as anything more than run-of the-mill (a run-of-the-mill PRU pilot, no less!), Kenneth is recalled from leave to test two Spitfires. They’re both Mk.XIs, an aircraft the author amusingly refers to as taxiing like they’re down in the mouth (if you’re familiar with the nose profile of the Mk.XI, you’ll chuckle too!), and both are destined for Africa. As a result, so is Kenneth. Still being a non-commissioned officer, but having completed his application for a commission, contributes to his general feeling of being of less value to the RAF as a whole, hence, apparently, why he is being sent out of the way. While that doesn’t make sense when applied to the flying officer in the other Spitfire, this belief rears its head en route to Gibraltar when said officer doesn’t appear to heed Kenneth’s advice, several times, until it’s almost too late. The end result was two Spitfires at Gib’, but only one fully serviceable. That Spitfire disappears the next morning, with the flying officer at the controls, and Kenneth hitches a lift to Maison Blanche, Algiers. He joins 682 Squadron under the umbrella of the Americans and the North West Africa Photographic Reconnaissance Wing. Here he discovers a different world. The Americans are more relaxed, but so are his fellow RAF types, and it is all very refreshing. The aircraft, however, have had harder lives and his first op, while completed easily, proves worthless due to camera failure. The communal mess, that common equaliser pioneered by the Desert Air Force, appeals to Kenneth and his desire to feel worthy. His commission eventually catches up to him, but the conditions and operational activity combine to wear the nineteen-year-old down to the point where he is actually quite ill, including passing out at the controls at one stage, while still flying ops. The gremlins never really leave either with some decidedly ropey aircraft doing their best to do him in. Each time, however, the clearly talented aviator, evades the odds against him and always makes it home (or at least back to a safe landing).

Life in North Africa continues, but is interrupted by a brief return to the UK to defend against accusations caused by an administrative error with his pay and bak account. Kenneth returns to Africa, but is soon sent home and spends until late 1944 instructing at an OTU and flying with 519 Squadron (a meteorological unit flying Lockheed twins at the time). He continued flying post-war, Catalinas in Canada on geophysical work, and developed a successful career in the aerospace industry (it would have been great to get several chapters covering this part of his life). So much for not measuring up!

This is a funny little book. The author breaks ‘the fourth wall’ a number of times, by asking the reader a question, and the narrative occasionally feels as though it’s directed towards a younger readership. It is, however, an enjoyable ramble through his wartime career. ‘Ramble’ is key here as, although his service is largely presented chronologically, there is little reference to the passage of time. Indeed, after the date of enlistment is mentioned, on the first page of the first chapter, I didn’t make note of another date until page 142. Excluding the first two ops from Benson, all of the photo sorties were carried out in 1943. Based on various events mentioned, indeed even the targets being photographed, a reader 'in the know' could hazard a decent guess at a rough timeline. A very helpful prologue (weirdly placed at the end) and appendix detail the sorties flown and service timeline respectively (the only mention of 519 Squadron is in the latter) and, if they're not read with the narrative, suddenly put everything into context and in fact reveal Kenneth was in North Africa for ‘only’ four months. It certainly feels longer.

Just like the book, Kenneth is a quite the funny character. As mentioned, he is quite the flyer. He is confident, accomplished even, in flight, but doubts himself everywhere else, and does so ad nauseum. It gets to the stage when you expect him to mention, yet again (and does), that he only joined the RAF to escape the shooting war as he expected to spend it sweeping out hangars. While certainly not a unique appreciation of one’s abilities, but eminently endearing to the point the reader revels in his obvious skill in the air (and occasional ‘wins’ on the ground), there's a recurring feeling of ‘Okay, I get it, you’re self-doubt is bottomless, but you just landed a Spitfire, without brakes, at night.’ Perhaps this is what helped him survive. There was never an inkling of over-confidence, never an attitude of superiority, but a definite trust in the training he received (despite regular doubts as to the logic employed by the RAF). However, this is where the narrative should have been tightened. Repetition appears within long, rambling sentences as well and another technical edit would have picked up basic things like ‘UFO shows’ (USO), confusion over Miles Master configurations and marks, and certainly improved consistency. This refining of the narrative would not have lost Kenneth’s voice, but it would have removed the reader's twinge of frustration that mostly lingers before the posting to North Africa. 

A typically attractive hardback from Pen & Sword, albeit not a huge one as the final entries of a good index appear on page 158, the requisite glossy photo section is a bit of a let-down. These fifteen photos are referred to as the narrative progresses, hence their titles ‘Plate 1’, ‘Plate 2’ etc, and the four images featuring personnel, and two of Kenneth’s PR targets, are of a good standard and interest. The aircraft photos, though, leave a lot to be desired. Three are modern images, and clearly low resolution, while another two have been colourised, almost comically so. Recent titles from Pen & Sword, although this is from their imprint Air World, have been exceptionally well-illustrated and, significantly, have done away with the glossy photo section to embed images within the narrative. All of the photos used, because they are referred to in the text, would have greatly enhanced the read if they were embedded.

At the end of it all, what this book does best of all is define Kenneth’s character and, to an extent, highlight the attitude of thousands of aircrew at the time. They knew they were a small cog in a behemoth of a machine and there was nothing they could do about it. They all accepted their fate and the vast majority, like Kenneth, were just happy to survive. So many didn’t. The ‘one man in the great scheme of things’ has perhaps never been more strongly, repeatedly, enforced as it is in A Spy in the Sky. That in turn reflects the work of the photographic reconnaissance pilot: alone in an unfriendly sky. While it will remain a funny little book, it will always be the memoir of an unassuming, self-doubting aviator who, despite himself, proved to be pretty bloody good.

ISBN 978-1-52676-156-9

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