The Far East. That’s how you get my attention. Right, the book is off the shelf. Read the back cover description and/or blurbs: ‘Intruder’, ‘night fighters’, ‘strain’, ‘twitch’, ‘Oscar’. Okay, good. Inside flap: ‘lied about his age’, ‘Boston’, belly landings’, ‘engine failures’. Somewhat standard, but what’s this about his age? He turned 21 in February 1945; he flew his first op in the fourth quarter of 1942. I’ll leave that for you to figure out. Mosquito Intruder Pilot makes all the right moves in selling itself as the complete package – the ideal aircrew biography – and, bar a scattering of issues, it does just that.
Ben Walsh, missing the camaraderie of his older friends who had already enlisted and wanting to do his bit, managed (amazingly) to get his parents to sign a letter saying he could enlist when he was 18. Through further acts of subterfuge, he signed on with the RAF quite short of that milestone.
Training complete, he was posted to No 418 Squadron to fly Douglas Boston intruders; the unit was new to the role and had suffered heavy losses for little return. These losses continued steadily, the system of two nights on/two nights off – with there being a good chance of not even being called for an op when ‘on’ – meant it really was the luck of the draw, despite some casualties from non-operational accidents. Duty crews, as the night progressed, were stood down one by one if nothing was in the offing. Besides the stress of being on call, the nervous energy that must have dissipated when a crew stood down or built as those remaining continued waiting, would have done a number on any man. Indeed, knowing you were flying that night would have been a release, a known quantity to some extent.
By mid-1943, with 18 ops under his belt, and an interminable number of hours at readiness, it is clear Ben has been struggling with his nerves for some time. This was perhaps exacerbated by his desire to remember his friends and colleagues who were lost; throughout his service he maintained a ‘roll of honour’. By this stage, there were 32 on the list. As the squadron began to convert to the Mosquito, however, and the operational tempo increased, Ben could finally see an end to his first tour. The unit, though, as part of the RCAF in the RAF, had become more Canadian and, as a British NCO, Ben’s conversion to the new type didn’t appear to be much of a priority, although he did complete it. It was then he and his navigator were told they were off to the Far East.
An eventful ferry journey east ended with the delivery of the recalcitrant Mosquito to Allahabad. Senses overloaded by a very foreign land, the two men were briefly posted to a PR unit, much to their frustration given their experience (it was all because they were a Mosquito crew), before finally landing with No 27 Squadron in late November 1943.
Initially, the tempo of ops resembled those in the UK. By April 1944, Ben had only notched up another four trips. The decision of 27 Squadron to retain its Beaufighters, however, forced a move to No 45 Squadron. The unit, consisting mostly of Australians and New Zealanders, came under a different command and Ben was told his ops didn’t count and he would have to start his tour all over again! On top of the surprising and distressing loss of his mother earlier in the year, not to mention his obvious homesickness, it is clear the literal and figurative drop in our hero’s shoulders, and subsequent hospitalisation, had little to do with the oppressive climate of the region.
Still, he fought on, returning to the unit as an ‘outsider’ in some respects. The grounding of the Mosquito in the theatre due to issues with water ingress and the much-vaunted glue issues was just another thing to be overcome if his luck, relatively speaking, held. With the squadron’s aircraft strength reduced after intensive investigations and assessments, its eventual return to operations was welcomed. No one appreciated this more than Ben. Finally, in December 1944, he hit his straps, flying an incredible 19 ops during the month.
Four months later, having reached 75 operational sorties, surviving Japanese flak and fighters in what proved to be the flying he yearned for – challenging, consuming, consistent – Ben was posted out to a communications unit, eventually ending up with a maintenance unit where he flew several initial air tests on Mosquitos before the effects of accumulated stress returned with a vengeance.
Back home by late 1945, Ben was demobbed in mid-1946. Understandably, he didn’t readjust very well, but his blossoming relationship with his future wife proved the foundation upon which he rebuilt his life. Menial jobs saw him through to a long and successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, his dogged determination led to starting a successful business from scratch and overcoming health issues. He passed away in October 2008.
Mosquito Intruder Pilot goes a lot deeper than just recounting a wartime service career. The depth of understanding and analysis brought by the author, as Ben’s son and a former RAF serviceman himself, extends far beyond the aircraft, the flyers, their operations and the greater war. There is a successful attempt to get inside Ben’s head, based on his letters and other records, to extrapolate the effects of the immeasurable factors that contributed to his mental load, factors that manifested themselves physically one way or the other.
The examination of stress felt by aircrew, Ben specifically, is no mere undercurrent. Indeed, the first chapter, what sets the scene for the rest of the book – therefore one of the author’s most effective tools – sees the subject under examination in 1946 as RAF medical types try to get to grips with Ben’s bouts of fainting. Immediately, the focus is on this man’s mental and physical state. What got him here? The author’s subsequent deft touch in this area, while influenced by his own experiences living under the same roof, raises as many questions as it answers, revealing an understanding of the subject while making it clear just how much more there is to learn in this understudied area of the aircrew experience.
With this early investment in the ‘principal character’s’ wellbeing, the reader develops an affinity with him – the aim of all good biographies – and feels his frustration as the tour drags on. Equally, it is pleasing when he finally gets a good run on operations, flying 50 or so in short order before he is finally rested. However, there is also concern for his willingness to record the losses of his friends and colleagues, even those in other theatres he learns of through the grapevine. While it is clear he wanted to remember these men, did the exercise affect him adversely? We all know the generally accepted ‘line’ or method, often recounted, was to get on with the job, apparently without a second thought for those lost, so seeing something like this (the list is included in an appendix), something outside the ‘accepted’ norm raises an eyebrow or two. It also asks the question as to what was more effective – addressing the losses as Ben did or ignoring them and having the effects of doing so manifest as who-knows-what later in life. No two people are the same, but it is clear both ‘methods’ have their downsides, as you’d expect, with Ben’s laid out for all to see.
Wrapped around this ongoing intrigue is a decent discussion of intruder operations in both Europe and the Far East, as well as the minutiae of life on a squadron and the impact of lives and family outside the RAF. To place all of this in context, while keeping the focus on Ben, most of the superbly titled chapters begin with a small list of major events happening at the same time. While these are useful, they highlight a problem encountered throughout the book – an incomplete grasp of the technology, terminology and ‘basics’ of the era. Don’t get me wrong, everything about Ben is what you want from a biography; it’s the details that let things down. While no doubt the author’s doing, some of the issues need to lay at the feet of the publisher. Typos like Welham (Geoff Wellum), Gypsy, Turpitz, Aircraftsman, Boxcar (the Nagasaki B-29) and Chindwits are inexcusable for a major military publisher. British ships at Midway, anyone? The author’s relative ‘newness’ to the era is also clear with his research leading him to moments of confusion such as Pratt & Whitney Cyclone engines, the Airspeed Oxford being powered by Wasps (less than 300 were) and, similarly, the inference that all Bostons/Havocs had Pratt & Whitneys, not to mention talking to the tower to request permission to take off for an intruder op, there being no autopilots or electronic aids, and clunky references like ‘German riots at Amsterdam Jews’.
Repetition is also an issue with, most glaringly, ‘Ben’ being used many times in the same paragraph or even sentence (more so that what I’ve used above!). Minor details also regularly crop up, such as the marriage of Ben’s sister or the specifications of the Mosquito. Most obvious is the map on page 198 reappearing on page 206. An author may not see the woods for the trees, understandably, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for and, as well-intentioned as family members always are, the majority of the time they will accept what is written when it comes to detail and fact. Again, though, I must stress the examples mentioned above made it through several stages, the final ones being the ‘eyes’ of a major military publisher. The buck stops there and in this case prevent the book from crossing the threshold from ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’.
I was always going to buy this book and I cannot wait for the author’s forthcoming Mosquito Intruders – Target Burma, which is sure to be equally well illustrated and produced. Mosquito Intruder Pilot is everything you look for in a biography, albeit a little rough around the edges, with the subject barely moving from the centre of the narrative; the author avoids major tangents and rabbit holes, with even the Mosquito’s issues in the Far East (the one great failing of the type) recounted with just sufficient detail to add depth to Ben’s journey. The editor in me came away frustrated at what might have been, but the reader and aircrew enthusiast/aficionado/activist revelled in experiencing another life lived.