19 February 2021

Sticky Murphy - James H Coley


Every now and then a book comes along that reminds why you got into this ‘game’ in the first place. You know, the exuberant flyer who worked hard, played harder, led by example and, somehow, seemed unruffled by what he had seen, done and narrowly escaped. If that all seems a bit of a cliché, it is, and the reality, as we are so often reminded, and should always be cognizant of, was a hell of a lot harsher. No one can go through a war and emerge completely unaffected. Some didn’t emerge, of course, so their character, and how they’re remembered, remains frozen in time. One man who fit the cliché like a glove was Alan ‘Sticky’ Murphy, lauded as a special operations Lysander pilot and intruder Mosquito squadron CO. His wartime biography, written more than thirty years ago, and published by Fighting High in 2018, has the perfect title: Sticky Murphy, Lover of Life.

Joining the RAF before the war, Sticky graduated from Cranwell and flew Battles and Hampdens with No. 185 Squadron. Evidently chafing at the bit to get into action after years of training, culminating in a specialist navigation course, he wangled an op as second pilot of a 3 Group Wellington in June 1940. He met his future wife, Jean, at Lossiemouth in late 1940. Sticky was posted to No. 1419 (Special Duty) Flight at Stradishall in March 1941 and commenced flying clandestine ops with Whitleys and then Lysanders. As the latter type proved itself in this role, care of men like John Nesbitt-Dufort, demand for pilots to fly it increased. Sticky’s first operational Lysander trip in December 1941 (as part of what was now No. 138 Squadron) almost became his last. The dramatic description of the events that unfolded, partly gleaned from German records and even the agent involved (found and interviewed by the author in the 1970s), is indicative of the author’s dogged pursuit of primary sources, albeit a mere thirty years after the fact.

All good things, and perhaps the pushing of one’s luck in a certain field, must come to an end, and Sticky reluctantly left Lysanders behind in May 1942 for a ten-month rest, mostly flying a desk with the Navigation Branch at the Air Ministry. While continuing to fly several different types, it was, as you’ll no doubt already understand, not to his liking. Solo in a Mosquito in late June 1943, having already crewed up with navigator ‘Jock’ Reid, led to a ferry flight to Malta to become a flight commander with No. 23 Squadron. This unit was flying night intruder sorties over Italy and soon moved to an airfield in the country as the Allies advanced up the peninsula. Conditions were far from ideal, but Sticky’s leadership and his joie de vivre helped contribute towards turning the squadron’s morale around. The hot weather greatly affected the performance of the Mossies so, coupled with suspected contaminated fuel (traced to open drums at Naples) and the hilly terrain over which they operated, nothing was easy for the aircrews or the men who maintained the aircraft. However, operate they did with Sticky somewhat learning on the job and gaining the trust of his colleagues. 

The squadron returned to the UK in mid-1944 to become one of the Mosquito units to fly from the famed airfield at Little Snoring. Sticky, now a father, wing commander and the CO of the unit, never missed a step, flying intruder ops with Reid and, despite his seniority, causing mayhem and hilarity with his hi-jinks on the ground. On the night of 2 December, however, his luck well and truly ran out when his Mosquito crashed on the way home near Oldebroek in the Netherlands, ‘in sight of the Zuider Zee’. Even his death sounds like a cliché (or even part of a movie plot): it was late in the European war; a staff posting pending, he’d told his wife ‘Just one more trip, darling’; Reid was off sick so he flew with a different navigator; and his mother suffered ‘excruciating pains’ at the time of his crash. Whatever it sounds like, the RAF had lost another two men, another daughter had lost her father, another wife had lost her husband, and another squadron mourned the loss of its leader.

Throughout, Stick Murphy, Lover of Life, trips along despite a liberal dose of minutiae that helps build a well-rounded, colourful picture of the subject. This apparent lightness is due in part to the fond memories and amusing, reflective stories told by friends, relatives and colleagues. There is barely a negative word said about Sticky, such was his larger-than-life personality and presence (six feet tall with a typically epic moustache), and many of the reminiscences include a tale of hi-jinks or, at the very least, talk of the unflappable nature of the man. Indeed, his wife, who only knew him during wartime, said ‘I never saw him unhappy’. It seems almost impossible, knowing what we do now about the effects of war on an individual, that Sticky did not have a moment or two of introspection, but I suspect to do so he would have had to let his mind wander (possibly when flying home wounded) and, by all accounts, he pressed on in all aspects of his life. Perhaps this was his coping mechanism, albeit evident well before he joined the RAF. The overwhelmingly positive comments and memories do, therefore, smack of blinkered hero worship on behalf of the author and his interviewees. Written by a junior flyer under the command of the subject (the author was a nav with 23 Squadron), this would not be the first time such a book has ventured into such territory. However, the breadth of memories collected by the author from an impressively large population of people, including some of the agents Sticky flew in and out of France, doesn’t support this. Having cast his net so wide, and so relatively recently after the war (compared to now), the author would have ‘landed’ people who perhaps didn’t remember Sticky as favourably. He did, but they are in the minority. Author’s prerogative aside, you can reach the conclusion Sticky truly was an irrepressible character as well as a capable flyer.

Of course, save the several family members and friends featured, none of the heavily quoted sources (at least a quarter of the narrative is given over to valuable memories), were to know a post-war Sticky Murphy. How would the prospect of demobilisation or, at best, much reduced flying duties, have affected him? Would the war years have caught up with him somehow, like they arguably do for everyone, or would he have kept ahead of them by continuing to live life to the full? No one knows. Like so many, Sticky’s life exists only in the memories of those who are left and a finite collection of photos and written records. His service persona defines him and is etched in the minds of those who knew him. While his loss is naturally lamented, he is fondly remembered without exception. If anything, that’s a life well lived.

As this is a book from Fighting High it is, of course, about the finest hardback of the genre money can buy. Cover to cover, the design is crisp and clear and the glossy photo section features some fantastically interesting group and aircraft imagery. A useful index at the end of this 190-plus page book follows six appendices and an epilogue. Five of the appendices apply to clandestine flying and are written by those who flew with Sticky; the great Nesbitt-Dufort being one. He was one of many remarkable flyers who were either interviewed by the author or ‘star’ in the three periods of Sticky’s operational flying.

As is obvious, and alluded to above, this book is a tribute to Sticky Murphy. The author, an aircrew veteran himself, could easily have written about his own clearly extensive experience, but only mentions it in passing. This is typical, heap adulation on someone else. Indeed, even Sticky’s post-operation reports are modest and, despite flashes of understated humour, without the flourish expected from such a character. 

While this manuscript was written more than three decades ago, and the second half lost for years before being rediscovered in the family’s attic, such is the quality of the author’s research and writing (occasional meandering aside), and his eye for the ridiculous, as often accompanied Sticky in his travels, that, like an older classic, it stands the test of time. Many unsung people are remembered as a result. Telling their stories is what matters and the last words in that vein deserve to come from the ‘Author’s Note’:

The world of old comrades, now grandfathers galore, must be those of the gladiators of Rome – morituri te salutamas (We who are about to die salute you). Soon no man will survive to tell his story, and history is notoriously academic.

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