27 November 2020

Worth the wait - how to do a squadron history

One of the operations for which the de Havilland Mosquito is best known is the low-level attack on the prison at Amiens in France - the Amiens raid. The main striking force consisted of aircraft from two squadrons predominantly crewed by airmen from the Southern Hemisphere. These two units - the Australian No 464 Squadron and the New Zealanders of No 487 Squadron - worked closely during their wartime service, but, until now, save the various books about Operation Jericho and the Leonard Trent biography for example, there hasn't been a detailed treatise of the Kiwi unit. It's been worth the wait.

Like the Australian squadron, superbly profiled in The Gestapo Hunters by Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, 487 began life as a Lockheed Ventura bomber squadron and committed to the RAF offensive over Europe. The Ventura, a replacement for the venerable Hudson, was not ideally suited to the role of medium bomber, but it was available and, like the Douglas Bostons, Short Stirlings, and the Bristol Blenheims before those, it could be used to entice German fighters into the air for the escorting RAF fighter wings to engage. The bombing force on such raids was hardly ever enough to cause significant damage to the targets selected, and the Luftwaffe could choose to engage at its leisure, but there was never any doubt of the courage exhibited by the airmen on both sides. The Venturas are perhaps best remembered for their raids on the Eindhoven Philips factory (Operation Oyster) and the disastrous Ramrod in early May 1943 when only one 487 Squadron aircraft, of the eleven that crossed the Dutch coast, made it home. The type did a lot more than that, of course, but the Aussies and Kiwis were not sad to see the back of the Venturas when they were replaced by the Mosquito, an aircraft ideally suited to the intruder work that epitomised the work of the Second Tactical Air Force.

The Mosquito operations of 487 Squadron are, partly due to their success and also because of the eternal popularity of the Mossie, the stuff of legend. Considering The Gestapo Hunters was published in 1999, it is surprising we've had to wait this long for a similar Kiwi effort. Add issues with the publisher initially selected in New Zealand, believed to have delayed publication for several years, and it's been quite the frustrating wait, especially for 'airheads' in the antipodes (a surprising number in Australia). What we finally have in Through to the End, however, is nothing short of pure unadulterated brilliance. 

This book is a large format hardback of more than 360 pages (bibliography, glossary, roll of honour, index etc included). It is printed on a semi-gloss paper stock that allows the photos to be clearly reproduced throughout. Such a thing is a necessity for a unit history. The multitude of personalities, in particular, need to have 'faces put to names' as the narrative progresses, not relegated to a single glossy photo insert as can often be the case. Similarly, on the subject of images, lovely clear maps are often presented at the start of relevant chapters, allowing for quick referencing should the need arise. These maps are often of the same areas, but the relevant targets for the period are highlighted. Again, this is much preferred over one or two maps placed in fore or endpapers. 

Then there's the story itself. Happily, more than 130 pages pass before the Mosquitos arrive. Considerable effort is made to reflect the impact of the massive losses suffered by the squadron during the Ventura era (and in no way is this discounting the later Mosquito losses). This is what lifts this book above the relatively standard unit history with the Operations Record Book at its heart. Throughout, the writing is evocative, while remaining grounded, and paints quite the picture of squadron life and, combined with the memories of those who were there (in the air on both sides, on the ground, military and civilian alike), makes for the most captivating read. Indeed, in preparing this 'first impression', I was regularly lost, emerging several pages later either wrung out from an operation or shaking my head at just the thought of what these men did. This is the effect of David Palmer and his ability to bring everything together historically, creatively and accurately, tempered from his admitted 'storyteller's flights of fancy' by Aad Neeven's advocacy for 'hard historical fact'. 

Interestingly, some of the chapters are more or less dedicated to a particular airman, following his path to, and life on, the squadron. This is an effective tool as it allows the authors to concentrate on a particular individual, and his place in the unit history, and avoids disrupting the flow of the 'operational narrative' with an extensive biographical tangent.

Through to the End is the perfect literary tribute to 487 Squadron. While its size, and resultant cost, does not make it as accessible as contemporary squadron histories, some recently released, it is the equivalent of Graeme Gibson's Path of Duty and Owen Clark's Under Their Own Flag, and in some respects surpasses the benchmark set by those magnificent titles. I didn't think that was possible. While it took me a year after the book's release to buy a copy, thereby adding to the 'wait', all that time fades away as 487 Squadron is so wonderfully brought back to life.

ISBN 978-9-08264-7-532 

I bought my copy from the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. Given 2020 has not been terribly kind to museums, please consider, if you are in Australia or New Zealand, buying your copy from this organisation. With postage costs as they are at present, the mid-year worldwide increase making things just that much more difficult, and this being a large book, those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, would be best served by ordering from Aad Neeven's Aviation Warbooks (he's also the publisher of Through to the End).

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