18 August 2020

Spitfire Leader - Dennis Newton and Richard Bungey


The number of relatively well-known Australian wartime flyers who have yet to have their stories properly told is quite surprising. Airmen like David Shannon and ‘Micky’ Martin, Australia’s best-known Dam Busters (both did so much more than that one raid), have no standalone biography. It’s quite likely a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to some extent given their post-war lives in the UK. Even Ivan Southall’s biography of ‘Bluey’ Truscott, published in the fifties, remains the latter’s only focused narrative despite there being significant subsequent findings about his time in England with 452 Squadron. A man Truscott mentions with reverence is Bob Bungey. Battle of France, Battle of Britain, 452 Squadron CO, air-sea rescue, Dieppe. How on earth has he been overlooked? Well, with Spitfire Leader, he’s not anymore.


Two events in Bungey’s life lift him ‘above the parapet’, the most celebrated being his time in command of 452 Squadron and its Spitfires as Fighter Command went on the offensive over occupied Europe. Before then, however, Bob had already done his fair share. A pre-war RAAF trainee at Point Cook, he studied alongside a who’s who of Australia’s early contribution to the air war – Hughes, Olive, Walch and Clisby to name a few. They had the opportunity of a short service commission with the RAF upon graduation. The lure of overseas travel and service, seeing the ‘Mother Country’, and going where the action was probably going to be was too much for the young aviators. Quite quickly, in terms of the book, Bob is airborne with the RAF in September 1937. He was flying Fairey Battles with 226 Squadron by early December.


This meant, when things kicked off in September 1939, he was in France. Like other RAF bomber units during the Phoney War, flying was mostly limited to patrols and leaflet dropping with a good amount performed at night, a most valuable skill in the months to come. Familiarity with France proved of little value when the Phoney War period ended as every bomber unit opposing the Luftwaffe discovered. The Battles suffered miserably and the sense of foreboding, if you have just an inkling of how these units were decimated, is strong. Bob’s luck held, however, despite some close shaves. There is a sense he knew his time would come in France, sooner or later, as it had for many of his friends (including great mate Les Clisby), so he went through the motions with an air of inevitability. 


He was eventually back in England, however, surrounded by the remnants of the Battle force, flying patrols over Northern Ireland, and volunteering for Fighter Command. He joined 145 Squadron in Scotland in the second half of August, flying Hurricanes, and was soon headed south following the unit’s brief rest period. Bob was soon in the thick of it, leading as a flight commander from Tangmere and regularly flying with the Belgian Jean Offenberg (whose biography is heavily referenced). He was shot down and ditched in early November, but continued serving with the squadron into early 1941 as the unit converted to Spitfires and went on the offensive. 


It was June 1941 when Bob assumed command of 452 Squadron, a new, untried Spitfire unit and one of Australia’s Article XV contributions to the war in Europe. It was a natural progression for Bungey who had proven his leadership ability and grasp of the tactical picture with 145 Squadron in late 1940. Despite his apparent forward thinking when it came to managing his forces in a combat arena, he was a stickler for the rules and the young, mostly inexperienced fighter pilots under his care were soon chomping at the bit as he detailed, and led, a seemingly endless period of training. This discipline, combined with the tactical flexibility and leadership, usually at the expense of Bob’s success in combat, led to the squadron claiming an exceptionally high number of kills in the following months and men like Truscott, Thorold-Smith, Chisholm and Finucane regularly made headlines. They were keen and gung-ho, perhaps too much so when making claims in some respects, a subject only lightly touched on in the narrative by reference to statements made by other units at the time and not subsequent research, but, as their public reputations grew, they maintained a reverence for their leader. His care for them, and pride in their achievements, is evident in a series of post-op photos, several included in the book, taken as the men gather around their aircraft.


Bob left 452 Squadron before it was sent to Australia. He was at Hawkinge in charge of the air-sea rescue units there by February 1942. This led to his involvement in the organisation of that aspect for Operation Jubilee, the Dieppe landings, and the dry runs and false starts before that. He kept flying, sometimes in ASR Defiants. An interesting leave period followed in Ireland, but this remains a little mysterious and much is read into part of Bob’s luggage containing an excessive number of ‘cartridges’. He finally arrived back in Australia in early May 1943.


Bob was a married man throughout much of his time in the UK. His successes made headlines in Australia, particularly in his native South Australia, and his marriage to Sybil, while done on the quiet, eventually followed suit. So too did the birth of their son in March 1942 soon after Sybil arrived in Adelaide, having sailed there to escape the war and be with Bob’s family.


The Bungeys were to be reunited for all too brief a time following Bob’s return to Australia. While the media went to great lengths to cover his return, the official welcome by the RAAF was disappointing and his rank, seniority and vast experience were given short shrift. Sybil soon fell ill, exacerbating the weariness and burden Bob was carrying, despite being at home with his beloved. Not long after, and decades before the phrase entered the literary lexicon, their son, Richard, became ‘the boy who lived’.


There is a quality feel to this book from the outset. The forepapers are nicely, personally illustrated. That depth of feeling continues even though Bob’s childhood and training are lucky to consume half of the first thirty pages. His two years with the RAF before war was declared, mostly flying Battles with 226 Squadron, consume even less paper before the narrative dives headlong into the deployment to France. Here the author really sinks his teeth in with extensive coverage of the Phoney War period and the subsequent Blitzkrieg. There is more here than needed, but what it does is set the scene and Bungey’s place in it. The years of peacetime flying are a distant memory for Bob and his crew, despite being quality time in which to hone one’s skills, and, like their colleagues in other units, they effectively lurched from one setback to the next. Much of this comprehensive account of this harrowing time, stretching over seventy pages, includes Battle operations as a whole (with a bit of Clisby’s successes in Hurricanes before his loss). This clarifies what Bob was up against when details of his own sorties are light on. Reading about the Battle squadrons in France feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Their sacrifices are well known, and they have certainly been written about, and the aircraft’s inadequacy is stuff of legend, but how often does it pop up in a biography or memoir, especially one that runs through the Battle of Britain?


On that point, the late, great Dennis Newton, principal author, avoids getting bogged down in the subsequent summer. He’s written about it in detail before (A Few of the Few, First Impact, Spitfire Ace and A Spitfire Pilot’s Story to name several) so could easily have gone to town, losing Bob in the process. Happily, partly because Bob misses at least half of this period, he does not and maintains the focus on Bungey’s flying and experiences. Some of this is supported, as mentioned above, by Jean Offenberg’s biography, complete with slightly implausible passages of dialogue. Importantly, this, like the candid comments from later 452 Squadron colleagues, adds weight to the authors’ growing profile of Bob. Still waters run deep.


While there is no direct evidence of the mental burden Bob carried, so many hid it well, there are some hints as his command of 452 Squadron progresses. The most obvious is the desire to get his wife as far away from danger as possible. A good idea, but then he had to suffer through the time she took to make the voyage. Even following his return to Australia, the pain of personal loss continues or, at least, the sense of detachment used as a coping mechanism is gone. This feels more prevalent than other books like this because, knowing Bungey’s fate, it is highlighted by the authors as a root cause.


The omission of Anthony Cooper’s recent Paddy Finucane and the Legend of the Kenley Wing from the otherwise good bibliography (supported by six pages of notes and a decent index) is interesting as that work analyses the claims of 452 Squadron in a measured, non-parochial manner. There is a suggestion Bob was aware (being one of the senior leaders of the Kenley Wing, how could he not be?) some of his pilots were claiming everything they shot at, but his job was to get them there in the first place and to maintain a tactical advantage, an area the Germans usually had the upper hand in by being able to dictate their contact. They were hurting the Luftwaffe to an extent, but at a cost he was unable to control. Perhaps he celebrated and encouraged the apparent successes to maintain morale within himself and the squadron. He bore the brunt so his men could do their jobs. That’s a leader.


As good a narrative as this is, and it is a quality read even when Bob features fleetingly, extra or missing words are encountered (or not!) consistently throughout. It’s as if sentences were slightly rearranged here and there, but the work not completed. Add inconsistent or incorrect spelling of specific terms and there is a general feeling the proofreading is below par. This does not, as per usual, take away from the whole experience, or the understanding of Bob’s wartime flying, but, considering the effort made to recreate the world he flew in, little things like this really stand out. What else got through?


Spitfire Leader is a 320-page hardback and is illustrated by a traditional glossy photo section. A quarter of the photos are modern colour images detailing Richard Bungey’s journey to discover his father’s wartime career, a nice little vignette to close out the story, but the period photos are relatively familiar and include the standard range of squadron life, family and aircrew colleagues and friends. 


If you know the story of Bob Bungey, you will read this differently to someone who doesn’t, although there are hints as the book progresses, including two revealing photos. It doesn’t matter anyway as the quality and breadth of Spitfire Leader is such it creates a hopeless wish for an outcome you know is impossible. That’s a sign a biography has achieved its purpose – to care for, and implicitly understand, the subject. Bob Bungey deserves nothing less.


ISBN 978-1-4456-8435-2

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