06 December 2020

2020 - a year in review

While we have seen the release dates of a few books get pushed back for the various reasons that have made this year a tricky one, we’ve been very fortunate to see a steady stream of titles hit the market. As is now fairly standard, there has been a trickle of memoirs proper as time marches on for those who are left from the RAF and Commonwealth air forces of the Second World War. The closest we have now really are, of course, the biographies written by family members. Regular readers will know I have my moments with these books as some are well done, with considerable effort made to understand the world of eighty years ago, while others feel like they have been thrown together. I can be critical of such things, yes, but at least the interest is there to share the story. There’s always something to learn!

Several biographies relevant to ABR have dominated the social media scene purely because they have enthusiastic authors behind them. I’ll say ‘dominated’ but no doubt there’ll be one you haven’t been aware of! Rosemary Parrott’s The Pilot in the Poster, Jane Lowes' Above Us, The Stars and Henry Meller's The Boy With Only One Shoe (written with his daughter Caroline Brownbill) have seemingly popped up everywhere and at least the latter two have received some attention from the popular press. I’ve only read the Parrott book to date, however, and it’s quite the ride (in Peter Parrott’s own words) that ranges from the Battle of France to Italy, post-war test flying and beyond. The initial print runs have done exceptionally well, and Peter’s daughter, Rosemary, is continually improving the manuscript. This book has a bright future with a new edition with better distribution forthcoming.

Two books popped up in the past week and both couldn’t be any more different in subject matter. The first one I was made aware of came via an email from the compiler/editor. James Dunford Wood is the author of the A Story of War blog that, several years ago, finally finished seven years of diary entries; it followed ‘one man's war day by day, 70 years on, from Waziristan and the North West Frontier, Habbaniya, the Burma campaign, India & the Rhine’. That man was James’s father, Colin Dunford Wood, who initially served in the Army on the NWF before cheating an eye test to train as an RAF pilot (that’s the Habbaniya, Burma, India and the Rhine bit!). James has now released the first volume of Big Little Wars covering India and Iraq from 1939 to 1941. At the moment, it’s a limited run available on Amazon, but, as you can see from the blog, the entries are fascinating and have a sense of immediacy about them (along the lines of Andrew Millar’s The Flying Hours, but ultimately wider ranging). The other book to recently ‘appear’ is Ian Redmond’s Bloody Terrified. It’s ostensibly the story of his dad, Canadian navigator Colin Redmond, but time spent with his pilot has immensely fleshed out the story to the extent it’s now ‘the true story of a Pathfinder crew’. That’s a 608 Squadron Mosquito crew of the Light Night Striking Force. If that’s not enough to sell the book to you, nothing will! I have not seen Big Little Wars or Bloody Terrified, but probably will after Christmas. We’re lucky to have new material like this, so let’s support it!

I’m currently still reading Adam Lunney’s We Together, the story of Nos 451 and 453 Squadrons and their contribution to the war in greater Europe. I say ‘greater’ as 451 spent a few years in North Africa and the Middle East before moving to France. You might remember 453 Squadron’s time in Normandy was the subject of Adam’s first book, Ready to Strike, and We Together is more of the same, but this time drawing together the threads of two units and better presented due to the collaboration with Mortons Books. I’m still reading it as I’ve had to tackle several manuscript edits, and even a new book for review, with time critical deadlines. Reading for fun or the usual review stops when there’s work-work on!

Speaking of squadron histories, a book from late 2019 I've only just managed to acquire is Through to the End by David Palmer and Aad Neeven. This is the story of 487 (NZ) Squadron RAF and its wartime flying of Lockheed Venturas and DH Mosquitos. The detail and heart evident in the narrative is a beautiful mix of Palmer's 'storyteller's flights of fancy' and Neeven's 'advocacy for hard historical fact'. It's a big book, published in the Netherlands by Neeven, and my leading contender for aircrew book of the year. There’s a more detailed review here.

Another big book that got worked me up into a lather is Edward Young's The Tenth Air Force in World War II, published by Schiffer Military. It is phenomenal, not perfect, but there's never been something as comprehensive as this when we're talking the USAAF in India and Burma. The Tenth Air Force worked very closely with the RAF, in case you’re wondering about relevance to ABR, and the book features a substantial number of images and information pertaining to the work of the RAF and Commonwealth air forces in the region. 

While we’re on the subject of American-based titles (let’s get them out of the way!), Jayhawk by Jay Stout with George Cooper, and published by Casemate, will have you hooked if you have even the slightest interest in low-level B-25 Mitchell strafers. Cooper grew up in the Philippines and eventually flew strikes against Rabaul et al, hence the regional interest from this end. It makes a nice addition to the recent list of strafer books, including Stout’s own Air Apaches and John Bruning’s excellent Indestructible. On the other end of the scale is the sobering No Way Out by Steven Whitby. Another book from Schiffer Military, this is the (not quite so) untold story of the ‘Lady Be Good’, the B-24 Liberator lost in the desert and found decades later. A lot of aspects of the discovery in this book are very familiar, but it’s the detail of the following USAF expeditions to find the crew, and the phenomenal and haunting images they produced that pushes this book above its predecessors.

It wouldn’t be a report on highlights unless there was some Fleet Air Arm content! The biggest success this year is no doubt Rowland White’s Harrier 809. He knows how to tell a story. The great ABR news of the year, however, has been the relatively recent release of two books from Matt Willis (he of Flying to the Edge and the Edmund Clydesdale trilogy and, incidentally, the artist behind my ABR Christmas cards sent out as a small thank you to those I have worked with this year). He's written the first instalment of Mortons Books 'Fleet Air Arm Legends' series—Supermarine Seafire—and has written the second (Fairey Swordfish), while Key Publishing has also just released his Fairey Firefly book. Both are slim volumes (think Osprey Aircraft of the Aces), but they pack a wallop.

Hikoki Publications released the first volume of Vic Flintham's Close Call - RAF Close Air Support in the Mediterranean. This is a subject we needed covered well. Don't be put off by the 'Defeat in France' on the cover of a Med book as it also looks at the evolution of close air support. Have to start somewhere! I'm already looking forward to the second volume next year. Other much anticipated books are Resolute from Fighting High (the George Dunn DFC and Ferris Newton DFM story), the third volume of the great series Greeks in Foreign Cockpits, South Pacific Air War 4 (the fourth book of a planned and very successful trilogy!) and Eagles over Darwin from Australia’s Avonmore Books, Anthony Cooper’s Sub Hunters, and the great David Hobbs's Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean 1940-1945 (if you want something a little lighter, try Lowry and Wellham’s The Attack on Taranto; that will set you on the well-trodden path to Charles Lamb’s War in a Stringbag, let it happen!). 

Finally, I'd like to give a shout out to the RAAF for their new Air Campaign series and its first book Armageddon and Okra, comparing Australian military aviation involvement in the Middle East a century apart (the second addition to the series is already well advanced and looks at a conflict in the fifties). Indeed, with the Royal Australian Air Force celebrating its centenary in 2021, keep an eye out for an impressive range of titles. Kathy Mexted, the author of Australian Women Pilots, also deserves much praise. Her book, a collection of original biographies of female aviators from all walks of life and all periods of Australian aviation is selling like hot cakes because, besides the subject matter, it is wonderfully written and carefully researched. 

Well, it’s been a fun year, not without its challenges, but I’m glad you’re reading this. Season’s greetings to you and yours and all the best for 2021.

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