03 July 2020

RAAF Black Cats - Robert Cleworth and John Suter Linton

Since we've moved to the other side of the country (I know, yet another excuse for the lack of content) in the past few months, I've managed to get some reading done, but life has been dominated by boxes, butcher's paper and looks of incredulity as we discover things we're still carting around with us despite not having needed them for years. Anyway, this review is one I've been sitting on for a while, but was graciously supplied before Christmas 2019 by Peter Ingman, the principal of South Australia's Avonmore Books. I wrote a short review for this for one of the final issues of Flightpath magazine, but can't do much more as I was involved in the publication process. Well, all the hard work had been done by the authors and publisher. I just came in, as requested, at one of the final steps to perform a technical edit. My job was to try to ensure historic and geographic detail was correct, aviation and military terminology and descriptions were on point, highlight surviving typos etc and basically make notes on anything I found 'screwy' (you know the stuff, names and serial numbers changing etc). Not all of my notes, per the review below, were acted on, but the majority were. In doing the technical edit, and therefore having the privilege to read the manuscript before it was published, I discovered some amazing characters and furthered my knowledge on what, among Australian wartime aviation types, is actually quite a well known aspect of RAAF Catalina ops. Andy Wright

RAAF Black Cats tells the story of the fascinating long-range mining sorties carried out by four squadrons of Catalina flying boats (Nos. 11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadrons). Particularly, for the 1944-45 period, these ops were flown deep into enemy territory as far afield as the Philippines and the Chinese coast. With other RAAF squadrons stuck doing morale-sapping ‘mopping up’ in the NEI and New Guinea, the far-reaching work of the Catalinas holds a special place in wartime RAAF history.

The story is based on two decades of research by Bob Cleworth, whose brother was lost when A24-203 disappeared during a mining sortie in the Taiwan Strait in March 1945. Cleworth credits the redoubtable David Vincent (author of Catalina Chronicles, 1978) for introductions to relevant veterans, mainly aircrew, but also key players who set up the initial infrastructure for aerial mines in Australia in 1942-43. It is excerpts from these interviews that are the real strength of the book. The second author, John Linton, is a journalist with plenty of writing experience and, as a result, the book is well written and easy to read.

That said, there are some major weaknesses which will frustrate readers familiar with RAAF history and W.W.II aviation. In between some excellent insights into the mining ops, the authors indulge themselves with strategic discussions of the war in general which offers nothing not already well known and little directly relevant to the main topic. There are mistakes too, such as a repeated reference to MacArthur not allowing squadrons of TBF Avengers to be used for mining operations in early 1943. As MacArthur’s SWPA command never had Avengers, it is difficult to understand how this idea has come about.     

While the crews flying these ops were brave and highly skilled, the authors fall into the trap of lauding the results as having a crippling effect on Japanese shipping and hence a significant impact on the war in general. This is done without questioning the efficiency of the mining itself which was carried out at night and often on unfamiliar targets with very poor charts. As is well-known from the early Bomber Command experience in Europe, the results of night operations were often highly questionable despite the best efforts of the crews.   

The RAAF Catalinas flew 1210 minelaying sorties during the war and laid 2512 mines. This effort is put into perspective by the 12,000 mines dropped by B-29s alone in Japanese waters in the last months of the war. Unfortunately, no other comparisons are provided for mining by other aircraft, including those flying from the Chinese and India/Burma theatres; nor by carrier-based aviation. Neither is there any discussion of the quantity and scope of mines laid by submarines. This makes any analysis of the RAAF effort problematic to say the least.  

Rather, the authors rely on reports written by the RAAF immediately after the war as well as American studies such as those produced by JANAC. While useful, none of these types of documents are the current gold standard for Pacific War researchers. Instead, an analysis of Japanese sources and Japanese ship losses would be most interesting. Unfortunately, Japanese sources are dismissed as “sparse”. Indeed, just one is briefly consulted, that being a post-war interview with a rear admiral who admitted that by February 1945 only wooden vessels were being used in the NEI and the Philippines and that was forced by both the mining and submarine threat. 

Overall RAAF Black Cats is valuable for some excellent insights into Catalina mining operations, but readers well-versed in W.W.II history will be frustrated by the poor overall analytical framework.

ISBN 978-1-76063-306-6

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