Friday, July 03, 2020

RAAF Black Cats - Robert Cleworth and John Suter Linton


Since we've moved to the other side of the country (I know, yet another excuse for the lack of content) in the past few months, I've managed to get some reading done, but life has been dominated by boxes, butcher's paper and looks of incredulity as we discover things we're still carting around with us despite not having needed them for years. Anyway, this review is one I've been sitting on for a while, but was graciously supplied before Christmas 2019 by Peter Ingman, the principal of South Australia's Avonmore Books. I wrote a short review for this for one of the final issues of Flightpath magazine, but can't do much more as I was involved in the publication process. Well, all the hard work had been done by the authors and publisher. I just came in, as requested, at one of the final steps to perform a technical edit. My job was to try to ensure historic and geographic detail was correct, aviation and military terminology and descriptions were on point, highlight surviving typos etc and basically make notes on anything I found 'screwy' (you know the stuff, names and serial numbers changing etc). Not all of my notes, per the review below, were acted on, but the majority were. In doing the technical edit, and therefore having the privilege to read the manuscript before it was published, I discovered some amazing characters and furthered my knowledge on what, among Australian wartime aviation types, is actually quite a well known aspect of RAAF Catalina ops. Andy Wright

RAAF Black Cats tells the story of the fascinating long-range mining sorties carried out by four squadrons of Catalina flying boats (Nos. 11, 20, 42 and 43 Squadrons). Particularly, for the 1944-45 period, these ops were flown deep into enemy territory as far afield as the Philippines and the Chinese coast. With other RAAF squadrons stuck doing morale-sapping ‘mopping up’ in the NEI and New Guinea, the far-reaching work of the Catalinas holds a special place in wartime RAAF history.

The story is based on two decades of research by Bob Cleworth, whose brother was lost when A24-203 disappeared during a mining sortie in the Taiwan Strait in March 1945. Cleworth credits the redoubtable David Vincent (author of Catalina Chronicles, 1978) for introductions to relevant veterans, mainly aircrew, but also key players who set up the initial infrastructure for aerial mines in Australia in 1942-43. It is excerpts from these interviews that are the real strength of the book. The second author, John Linton, is a journalist with plenty of writing experience and, as a result, the book is well written and easy to read.

That said, there are some major weaknesses which will frustrate readers familiar with RAAF history and W.W.II aviation. In between some excellent insights into the mining ops, the authors indulge themselves with strategic discussions of the war in general which offers nothing not already well known and little directly relevant to the main topic. There are mistakes too, such as a repeated reference to MacArthur not allowing squadrons of TBF Avengers to be used for mining operations in early 1943. As MacArthur’s SWPA command never had Avengers, it is difficult to understand how this idea has come about.     

While the crews flying these ops were brave and highly skilled, the authors fall into the trap of lauding the results as having a crippling effect on Japanese shipping and hence a significant impact on the war in general. This is done without questioning the efficiency of the mining itself which was carried out at night and often on unfamiliar targets with very poor charts. As is well-known from the early Bomber Command experience in Europe, the results of night operations were often highly questionable despite the best efforts of the crews.   

The RAAF Catalinas flew 1210 minelaying sorties during the war and laid 2512 mines. This effort is put into perspective by the 12,000 mines dropped by B-29s alone in Japanese waters in the last months of the war. Unfortunately, no other comparisons are provided for mining by other aircraft, including those flying from the Chinese and India/Burma theatres; nor by carrier-based aviation. Neither is there any discussion of the quantity and scope of mines laid by submarines. This makes any analysis of the RAAF effort problematic to say the least.  

Rather, the authors rely on reports written by the RAAF immediately after the war as well as American studies such as those produced by JANAC. While useful, none of these types of documents are the current gold standard for Pacific War researchers. Instead, an analysis of Japanese sources and Japanese ship losses would be most interesting. Unfortunately, Japanese sources are dismissed as “sparse”. Indeed, just one is briefly consulted, that being a post-war interview with a rear admiral who admitted that by February 1945 only wooden vessels were being used in the NEI and the Philippines and that was forced by both the mining and submarine threat. 

Overall RAAF Black Cats is valuable for some excellent insights into Catalina mining operations, but readers well-versed in W.W.II history will be frustrated by the poor overall analytical framework.

ISBN 978-1-76063-306-6

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Race of Aces - John R. Bruning


As I sit down to write this review, having flicked through the book to refresh my memory of the photos among other things, I am overcome by a slight sense of dread. As usual, it has been some months since I read Race of Aces. Indeed, it was late 2019 and I have been intending to write a review since then, initially to coincide with the book’s launch. Best laid plans and all that. The sense of dread comes from remembering how much is in John Bruning’s latest treatise on the Pacific air war and, to be honest, I don’t think a review begun as soon as I finished the final page would have been any easier. The ‘warm fuzzies’ are returning though. Why? It’s because this book, about the ‘race’ to become the top American ace, has few, if any, equals.

Besides the men featured in this 520-plus page book, one of the heroes of the tale is the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Perhaps more than any other Allied aircraft in the South Pacific, the Lightning is the fighter. Its success here overshadows its escort work in Europe and that’s mostly because it is always associated with the USAAF’s top ace, the man who won the race, Richard Bong. Add Tom Lynch, Gerald Johnson, Charles MacDonald and Tommy McGuire, not to mention a good number of other quality fliers, and the Lightning just about deserves the pedestal it has ascended to in modern times. Yet, it had serious issues early on, killing many a new, and some not quite so new, pilot as they worked up in California in 1942. Its complexities proved challenging in theatre too, not helped by a supply line stretching across the Pacific to Australia. That the pilots achieved what they did, upon finding their feet in New Guinea, speaks of the ingenuity, skill and determination that was common across Allied units during the dark days of late 1942.

The one outlier in the race was Neel Kearby, the hard-charging, redoubtable, freelancing P-47 Thunderbolt pilot determined to show the Lightning boys up. Sadly, like two of his colleagues above, he was killed breaking one of the golden rules of aerial combat, rules these men lived by and were the greatest proponents of. In the case of McGuire, the apparently prickly, aggressive and opinionated pilot who came closest to Bong’s score, the rules were broken to save a colleague. That’s the thing, they were just men. They were not invincible and were far from perfect as both aviators and individuals. Every single one of them, at least once, struggled home in a damaged aircraft, sometimes wounded. They were human, they had flaws. They made mistakes, but, for the most part, they had the skill to get away with it. Heroic men, yes, and they were clearly feted as such, but there is no gushing hero worship here. It’s not needed.

The origins of the race came from the challenge, created by General George Kenney, and inspired by the Great War ace Eddie Rickenbacker, to beat the latter’s tally of 26 victories. The Americans, with the Australians, had a foothold in New Guinea, but the Japanese aerial forces, stretched as they proved to be, were mostly free to raid Allied airfields with relative impunity, American and Australian fighters struggling to meet them on even terms, let alone remain in serviceable condition to do so. The idea of the race was what Kenney needed to inject some motivation, some esprit de corps, into his men. It helped highlight the struggles they faced to the people stateside too. The South Pacific conjured up idyllic images – palm trees, sandy beaches and the like – but the reality, while including those, featured mud, heat, humidity, malaria and rotting clothes as a part of everyday life. It was draining, on men and equipment, and made no easier by a logistical nightmare and supply lines still reeling from the retreat from the Philippines and Java.

This is the world into which the reader is placed immediately from the first page. It’s a taste of what’s to come, while the next few chapters concentrate on setting the scene in the US, as young men, soon to be giants, find their feet in the Army and in life. Ultimately, this world, that the author recreates beautifully, is one stretching from hometown America right across the Pacific to Australia, New Guinea and the Philippines (if New Guinea was hell, what on earth was fetid, putrid Tacloban?). It is a world both familiar and unimaginable. The exquisite snapshot of 1942 San Francisco, a particular literary highlight, is of a modern, vibrant and fashionable city (a stark contrast to the Port Moresby area some of the Lightning men found themselves in six months later), and is but a fond memory several hundred pages later when the author casts his eye over the same city after two years of war.

Those years of war, and beyond, in which we follow the fighter units and the grinding Allied advance, see supply issues slowly improve, living conditions slowly improve, and fighter pilots rise and fall. Journalists, ably assisted by Kenney and his staff, scramble to report on the latest victories, introducing men to the American public who quickly became household names, so much so that even events in their private lives become front page news. The reader, too, is equally invested because, as hinted above, their heroics are but the tip of the iceberg. Having followed the author's travelogue on social media as he visited archives across the country, it was clear, even then, he was going far deeper than just recording the combat careers of America’s greatest fighter pilots, far deeper than anyone before. While these men have been a decades’ long fascination for John Bruning (a partial outlet being his early 2000s Jungle Ace biography of Gerald Johnson), there was still much to discover, to learn, in order to bring these flyers back to life. This shows early on with a stunningly candid look at McGuire’s time in Alaska. You know who he is, what he will do, but he is hard to like. Similarly, Bong’s struggle to move on from losing wingmen, resulting in the quiet country boy withdrawing further into himself to the point he is completely misunderstood by many of his squadron-mates, is as painful and heart-wrenching as his love for Marge is joyous to behold. We can’t ever truly know these men now, but, such is the power of this book, you feel like you do.

The women, and families to a lesser extent, in the lives of the pilots figure strongly and it is pleasing to see three of them feature in the glossy photo section (that, I suspect, is probably about 10% of what was available). Indeed, the very last image used, when read with its caption, is once again moving. Too many widows.

The race, while initially a morale booster, became so much more. It pushed pilots to improve their skills, to fly extra missions and, with an eye on the score, to take risks beyond their normal operational duty into the realm of individual glory. Rickenbacker’s score was ultimately irrelevant and the race, somewhat fuelled by the interest from home, for some men at least, consumed them. These American airmen were not the only game in town, however. The Royal Australian Air Force, while not in the race per se, was competition when it came to finding enemy aircraft to destroy. There is a brief tip of the hat to them in that respect, but no mention of their involvement in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. The focus, for that particular event, is on the American fighter contribution, so that’s understandable and also brings us to the elephant in the room – the Japanese. Extensive access to Japanese records in recent years has revealed the true extent of their losses, proving both sides habitually overclaimed their aerial victories. While it is very likely a study of Japanese records would reveal, and perhaps has, a discrepancy in losses inflicted by the leaders of the race, such details are irrelevant to the race itself. The race was to be the first to 26 kills. Were the Americans checking the Japanese records to verify such things? Of course not! Claims were made in good faith, with eyewitness proof where possible. It is the effect of the race on these men, and their effect on morale in their units and stateside, that is the story here.

It is a story told in such a way that a stream of superlatives barely wouldn’t come close to expressing its qualities. I’ve tried to get that point across above without detailing a calendar of events and a blow-by-blow account as players appear on, and then exit, the main stage. To do so would mean an even longer review and, let’s face it, these things are long enough. There is so much in Race of Aces and all of it is good. No, exceptional. The narrative is beautifully crafted and was clearly considerably longer (oh, to get to grips with that!). You’d expect relative flat spots in such a long, detailed book, but there are none and that makes it an absolute tragedy when it has to be put down to get on with real life. I would not be surprised if some readers devoured this in one sitting. A masterful work, one of the greatest, befitting the remarkable men, and women, living between its covers.

ISBN 978-0-316-50862-9

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Spy in the Sky - Kenneth B. Johnson


As I’ve often lamented on here, and ABR’s Facebook group, a new memoir is quite special these days. It’s got to the stage that it really would be worth re-visiting, en masse, older memoirs to breathe new life into them (see Carrier Pilot, for example). With A Spy in the Sky we have a new memoir and, especially, it’s by a former photographic reconnaissance pilot. Certainly not something you see every day and, dare I say it, maybe the last one we will see. That perhaps makes it more valuable than if it was published, say, a decade ago. It also means more care and attention needs to be paid to putting the whole thing together. 

The author enlisted in early 1941. Straight off the bat, he gets the point across he is from an average background and expecting to see out the war sweeping hangars. He is surprised, therefore, to enter the aircrew training pipeline. In turn, he decides he can’t possibly be trained as a pilot, but is perplexed, yet grateful, when that’s what happens. Despite his constant amazement and apparent belief he is not capable of much more than manning a broom, he proves quite the aviator, extricating himself from tricky situations in the air many new pilots find themselves in and applying his growing knowledge and intuition to overcome obstacles, such as poor depth perception affecting his landings. Naturally, there is no mention of being ‘a good pilot’, but the detailed explanations of various exercises and, well, adventures in the air, leave the reader with a clear opinion.

Moving from Tiger Moths, to Miles Masters, and then to the Hurricane, the path he's on is clear. Despite being mystified about attending a general reconnaissance course (a brief, rare account of flying Blackburn Bothas), those familiar with the way these things go can see his path to a PRU, or perhaps even an Army Co-op unit. Operational Training Unit soon beckons and throws up more challenges, among them the vagaries of Scottish weather, the author handles with his usual aplomb and logic. Naturally, he ends up at RAF Benson, PRU central, and begins flying ops over France and Belgium. Several fighter interceptions aside, luck remains on his side and his growing operational experience soon extends to Germany.

Despite not putting his hand up to serve overseas, feeling he had been trained for the operational conditions specific to north-west Europe, again not seeing himself as anything more than run-of the-mill (a run-of-the-mill PRU pilot, no less!), Kenneth is recalled from leave to test two Spitfires. They’re both Mk.XIs, an aircraft the author amusingly refers to as taxiing like they’re down in the mouth (if you’re familiar with the nose profile of the Mk.XI, you’ll chuckle too!), and both are destined for Africa. As a result, so is Kenneth. Still being a non-commissioned officer, but having completed his application for a commission, contributes to his general feeling of being of less value to the RAF as a whole, hence, apparently, why he is being sent out of the way. While that doesn’t make sense when applied to the flying officer in the other Spitfire, this belief rears its head en route to Gibraltar when said officer doesn’t appear to heed Kenneth’s advice, several times, until it’s almost too late. The end result was two Spitfires at Gib’, but only one fully serviceable. That Spitfire disappears the next morning, with the flying officer at the controls, and Kenneth hitches a lift to Maison Blanche, Algiers. He joins 682 Squadron under the umbrella of the Americans and the North West Africa Photographic Reconnaissance Wing. Here he discovers a different world. The Americans are more relaxed, but so are his fellow RAF types, and it is all very refreshing. The aircraft, however, have had harder lives and his first op, while completed easily, proves worthless due to camera failure. The communal mess, that common equaliser pioneered by the Desert Air Force, appeals to Kenneth and his desire to feel worthy. His commission eventually catches up to him, but the conditions and operational activity combine to wear the nineteen-year-old down to the point where he is actually quite ill, including passing out at the controls at one stage, while still flying ops. The gremlins never really leave either with some decidedly ropey aircraft doing their best to do him in. Each time, however, the clearly talented aviator, evades the odds against him and always makes it home (or at least back to a safe landing).

Life in North Africa continues, but is interrupted by a brief return to the UK to defend against accusations caused by an administrative error with his pay and bak account. Kenneth returns to Africa, but is soon sent home and spends until late 1944 instructing at an OTU and flying with 519 Squadron (a meteorological unit flying Lockheed twins at the time). He continued flying post-war, Catalinas in Canada on geophysical work, and developed a successful career in the aerospace industry (it would have been great to get several chapters covering this part of his life). So much for not measuring up!

This is a funny little book. The author breaks ‘the fourth wall’ a number of times, by asking the reader a question, and the narrative occasionally feels as though it’s directed towards a younger readership. It is, however, an enjoyable ramble through his wartime career. ‘Ramble’ is key here as, although his service is largely presented chronologically, there is little reference to the passage of time. Indeed, after the date of enlistment is mentioned, on the first page of the first chapter, I didn’t make note of another date until page 142. Excluding the first two ops from Benson, all of the photo sorties were carried out in 1943. Based on various events mentioned, indeed even the targets being photographed, a reader 'in the know' could hazard a decent guess at a rough timeline. A very helpful prologue (weirdly placed at the end) and appendix detail the sorties flown and service timeline respectively (the only mention of 519 Squadron is in the latter) and, if they're not read with the narrative, suddenly put everything into context and in fact reveal Kenneth was in North Africa for ‘only’ four months. It certainly feels longer.

Just like the book, Kenneth is a quite the funny character. As mentioned, he is quite the flyer. He is confident, accomplished even, in flight, but doubts himself everywhere else, and does so ad nauseum. It gets to the stage when you expect him to mention, yet again (and does), that he only joined the RAF to escape the shooting war as he expected to spend it sweeping out hangars. While certainly not a unique appreciation of one’s abilities, but eminently endearing to the point the reader revels in his obvious skill in the air (and occasional ‘wins’ on the ground), there's a recurring feeling of ‘Okay, I get it, you’re self-doubt is bottomless, but you just landed a Spitfire, without brakes, at night.’ Perhaps this is what helped him survive. There was never an inkling of over-confidence, never an attitude of superiority, but a definite trust in the training he received (despite regular doubts as to the logic employed by the RAF). However, this is where the narrative should have been tightened. Repetition appears within long, rambling sentences as well and another technical edit would have picked up basic things like ‘UFO shows’ (USO), confusion over Miles Master configurations and marks, and certainly improved consistency. This refining of the narrative would not have lost Kenneth’s voice, but it would have removed the reader's twinge of frustration that mostly lingers before the posting to North Africa. 

A typically attractive hardback from Pen & Sword, albeit not a huge one as the final entries of a good index appear on page 158, the requisite glossy photo section is a bit of a let-down. These fifteen photos are referred to as the narrative progresses, hence their titles ‘Plate 1’, ‘Plate 2’ etc, and the four images featuring personnel, and two of Kenneth’s PR targets, are of a good standard and interest. The aircraft photos, though, leave a lot to be desired. Three are modern images, and clearly low resolution, while another two have been colourised, almost comically so. Recent titles from Pen & Sword, although this is from their imprint Air World, have been exceptionally well-illustrated and, significantly, have done away with the glossy photo section to embed images within the narrative. All of the photos used, because they are referred to in the text, would have greatly enhanced the read if they were embedded.

At the end of it all, what this book does best of all is define Kenneth’s character and, to an extent, highlight the attitude of thousands of aircrew at the time. They knew they were a small cog in a behemoth of a machine and there was nothing they could do about it. They all accepted their fate and the vast majority, like Kenneth, were just happy to survive. So many didn’t. The ‘one man in the great scheme of things’ has perhaps never been more strongly, repeatedly, enforced as it is in A Spy in the Sky. That in turn reflects the work of the photographic reconnaissance pilot: alone in an unfriendly sky. While it will remain a funny little book, it will always be the memoir of an unassuming, self-doubting aviator who, despite himself, proved to be pretty bloody good.

ISBN 978-1-52676-156-9

Saturday, March 28, 2020

IOW: The Normandy Air War 1944 - Anthony Tucker-Jones


Staying home as much as possible could mean more reading and reviewing, but, at the moment, I've got a lot of work on so it's very much a case of 'just keep swimming, just keep swimming'. Fortunately, the guest reviewers keep making me look good (bad, really, considering the high quality of their writing) and productive on the review front. Adam Lunney is no exception. In recent years he has been emerging as a leading expert on the Normandy landings, particularly the air war from the Advanced Landing Grounds. Adam is the author of 'Ready to Strike', the  story of 453 (RAAF) Squadron over Normandy (ABR review here), and the recently released 'We Together', which looks at 451 and 453 Squadrons at war. He is therefore very well placed to review one of the latest additions to Pen & Sword's epic 'Images of War' collection. Stay home, be safe, be smart, read an aircrew book! Andy Wright

Anthony Tucker-Jones is a name closely associated with the Images of War series (well over 100 books as of 2020) from Pen & Sword. The Normandy Air War 1944 was released in late 2019 and is subtitled ‘Photographs from Wartime Archives’ on the cover, yet subtitled ‘Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives’ on the title page. The cover is the more accurate of the two, since some of the photos contained are anything but rare (Eisenhower with US paratroopers) and others appear to be black and white photos taken in the last few years (PR Spitfires, possibly the same one).
The early chapters are laid out in a very thoughtful ‘Summary, people and planes’ concept, covering events, key figures (such as Tedder and Spaatz) and the aircraft involved. Being primarily a photographic book, the summaries are just that, but they do mention the Oil and Transportation Plans, as well as giving basic coverage to the strategic and tactical air war over Normandy. Hopefully readers will be tempted by these summaries to dig further and invest in some more detailed Normandy titles. There’s no bibliography to lead the reader to them though, so all facts, figures and statements about personality conflicts, while perhaps well-known to some, will just have to be taken as given. 
There are about 150 images in the 132 pages of the book and they are both clear and clean. There are some bomb damage photos (from mid- to high-altitude and at ground level), but none from grainy gun camera footage, which is welcome. Some, such as Canadian troops watching a bombing strike land a little too close, or Dakotas towing Waco gliders low over the coast, are very interesting. Others, such as Bostons passing out over Pointe du Hoc, have been included in many books covering the Normandy campaign over the years and clearly contradict the ‘rare’ claim. Another is a cropped image of a Marauder taken from a larger image on a different page. These could have easily been replaced with a variety of images, such as Air-Sea Rescue operations or the Advanced Landing Grounds built within the Normandy perimeter – they get just one mention in the book, and there are no photos of them being constructed. Considering the level of access the author and publisher have to the archives used (nominated as US National Archives, National Museum of the USAF and Photosnormandie), in my opinion, an opportunity has been missed to provide something new to those with an interest in the Normandy campaign. The Imperial War Museum is a noted omission, perhaps due to the costs involved in obtaining permission to use photos in publications. The captions are usually two to three lines and give basic information, though some (unnecessarily) repeat information given in the chapter summaries. 
Considering the potential expense an author encounters when planning to include photos in a publication, one can easily look upon this book with a degree of envy, but also some frustration at a missed opportunity. However, the book sets out to ‘offer a visual introduction’, does this well and should appeal to those starting out on their own Normandy campaign.

ISBN 978-1-52673-005-3

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Last Stand in Singapore - Graham Clayton


Once again I am presenting the work of a guest reviewer as I continue to bash away at work and deadlines. As I'm still reading when I get the chance, the pile of books to have reviews written for them continues to grow. Ooh, there's some good stuff to write about (and some indifferent stuff too!). Anyway, here is Peter Ingman's take on Graham Clayton's 'Last Stand in Singapore'. This book is the first part of Graham's 488 Squadron RNZAF history, with the most recent instalment being 2019's 'Gone the Dark Night' from Bomber Command Books. Being a lesser known squadron in the great scheme of things makes for both books being valuable additions to the bibliography, but 'Last Stand in Singapore', as you can tell from the title, ups the obscurity stakes. Despite the groundbreaking efforts of Shores and Cull et al, the aerial defence of Malaya and Singapore remains a somewhat forgotten, even incorrectly remembered, aspect of the air war with the Japanese. That's why this book needs to be on your shelves if it's not already. Andy Wright

The Malaya and Singapore campaign lasted barely ten weeks at the start of the Pacific War and has been a source of much controversy and fascination ever since.  How could more than 100,000 Commonwealth personnel be defeated so comprehensively by a much smaller Japanese force?  

Perhaps the most well regarded source on the air campaign, the Bloody Shambles series, provides a far from subtle hint about the myriad of problems faced by the defenders in its title. A fresh new perspective on this campaign is given by Last Stand in Singapore, which is the story of 488 Squadron RNZAF. An attractive feature of this book is that it gives almost an outsider’s perspective of the campaign. This is because, unlike the RAF and RAAF units, as the sole New Zealand unit involved it was not subsumed by the greater campaign experience of the many thousands of ground, air and naval personnel. 

The squadron was formed in New Zealand in September 1941 and was quickly rushed to Singapore where it arrived in November just weeks before the Pacific War. It received worn Brewster Buffalo fighters from a departing RAF unit and faced a steep learning curve to make these machines operational. There were many problems, not least a dire shortage of tools and spares. From an aircrew perspective, only the squadron leader, Wilf Clouston (a Battle of France and Britain ace), and two flight leaders had operational experience. Not surprisingly, there were many accidents and two pilots were lost before the squadron faced the enemy. 

The role of 488 Squadron was air defence. Clouston and his flight leaders had designed a plan to provide continuous air cover for naval units operating in the South China Sea. However, after the His Majesty’s Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse had sailed, the squadron sat at readiness, but was never called up until after the ships had been sunk. The defence of Malaya and Singapore never recovered from this catastrophe.

During January 1942, the squadron had responsibility for the air defence of Singapore alongside another Buffalo unit, 243 Squadron RAF (which had a high proportion of Kiwi pilots). However, the slow-climbing Brewsters were always disadvantaged when trying to intercept high-flying bombers and reconnaissance aircraft often protected by JAAF ‘Oscar’ fighters flown by veteran pilots. Not surprisingly, Buffalo numbers steadily decreased due to attrition of all kinds. In addition, the squadron suffered direct attacks on its base at Kallang.

By the last week of January, just a handful of Buffaloes were still flying. Morale briefly rose on receipt of a few newly, hastily assembled Hurricanes, but the small numbers could not hope to change a rapidly deteriorating situation. Japanese air attacks were increasing and Singapore’s airfields were now in range of Japanese artillery in nearby Johore. As many aircraft as possible were flown to nearby Sumatra and meaningful squadron operations effectively ended at this time.

This left the bulk of 488 Squadron’s ground personnel in Singapore and the story of their escape by the skin of their teeth on one of the last large ships to leave the island is thrilling.  

The author of the book, Graham Clayton, is the son of a ground crewman and much of the story concerns the experiences and fate of these men. A long-time enthusiast of the squadron’s history, Clayton also draws on the records of several of the pilots, most notably one of the flight leaders, Flight Lieutenant John Hutcheson. The overall effect is a mix of ground and air perspectives that is told with great authenticity. Very little of the story is borrowed from other secondary sources.

However, this approach results in some obvious weaknesses, not least of which is a complete disregard for the Japanese side (and the almost ubiquitous description of Japanese fighters as ‘Zeros’ when they were mostly JAAF types). Some of the descriptions of the air fighting too show a lack of wider understanding of contemporaneous experiences. For example, the use of a fast dive to escape Japanese fighters is described as a ‘unique survival manoeuvre’ developed by the squadron when it fact it was commonly used by virtually all Allied fighter units across the Pacific to take advantage of their heavier machines.  

Overall the book is a very valuable record and one that will no doubt become richly drawn upon in future histories of the Malaya/Singapore campaign. It is very nicely produced with a vast trove of photos and an appendix listing squadron personnel. 

Originally published by Random House New Zealand in 2008, the book does not appear to have been widely distributed outside of New Zealand. Avonmore Books has some limited stock available for worldwide sale. 

ISBN 978-1-775530-77-0

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Dark Haven - F.T.K. Bullmore


As I've been busy working on manuscripts, now the kids are back at school and I can actually do some work, the writing of reviews has been slower than usual. While frustrating, especially as I have some interesting books to write about, I have been blessed with several guest reviews from authors I hold in high regard. Here, then, is the oldest book to feature on ABR. As many of you know, I created ABR expressly to generate an online presence for some of the older aircrew books I had encountered, but could find nothing about. Such books had every chance of being forgotten, not shared with future generations, and I wasn't about to let that happen. While I've succeeded on that front to some extent, the vast majority of books featured on ABR have been relatively new. Thanks to Phil Vabre, an air traffic controller by trade, and an aviation historian otherwise, for this superbly, and thoughtfully, written review about the development of Flying Control. Andy Wright

Accounts of the Second World War in the air that focus on non-operational aspects are pretty rare. The Dark Haven, F.T.K. Bullmore’s account of the development of what was termed ‘Flying Control’ in the RAF, is such an account and nonetheless interesting for that.

In 1927 Bullmore was seconded from the Territorial Artillery to the RAF. He learned to fly in Egypt and then specialised as a night bomber pilot – experience he would draw on to good effect during the war. Bullmore was transferred to the Reserve in 1932 and joined Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Display, remaining with him until 1935 when he settled down to life as a flying instructor. With the expansion of the RAF in the late 1930s, Bullmore was invited to re-join the RAF in 1937 as one of the original members of the Flying Control branch.

From the outset, the reader needs to understand Flying Control, as practiced in the RAF in the late 1930s and the early part of the war, is not the same as Air Traffic Control as we know it today. While Flying Control did have some limited aerodrome control functions, its role was primarily what we would term ‘operational control’. That is, each base maintaining a watch on who departed and who arrived and, in the case of bombers and patrol aircraft, communicating with the base’s aircraft while in flight.

This brings us to the biggest problem for modern readers with Bullmore’s otherwise fascinating book: it assumes a great deal of underlying knowledge about how the Flying Control system operated at that time, confining itself to primarily describing Bullmore’s (significant) role in bringing about improvements during the war. Written in the mid-1950s, Bullmore’s original intended readership was no doubt much more familiar with the operational systems of the day than we are. Many would have had first-hand experience with the wartime Flying Control system. Nevertheless, while the present-day layman might find it difficult to understand the context in which Bullmore’s account takes place, modern readers who are students of RAF operations in Europe during the Second World War will have at least some grounding in the technical aspects of the story.

Bullmore describes how, as Senior Flying Control Officer at Boscombe Down in February 1941, he became involved in attempts to recover a lost Bristol Beaufort circling at night above fog off the Isle of Wight. Although the Beaufort eventually ditched (the crew being rescued), the experience got Bullmore thinking about the problem of assisting lost or damaged friendly aircraft to a safe landing in blacked-out Britain. At that time, Bullmore’s station lay under the regular route for bombers from their bases in East Anglia to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour. So, in those days of relatively unreliable radios, there was plenty of such traffic about.

As a starting point, Bullmore arranged to visit the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Centre at Winchester. We need to remember that in those days there was – deliberately – little or no RDF (radar) coverage over land. Instead, aircraft were tracked over Britain by the extensive network of ROC posts. These fed their reports to ROC centres and from there the plots were transmitted to Fighter Command’s Sector and Group Operations Centres. Having had his eyes opened to the air situation information available, Bullmore set up an unofficial arrangement with the Winchester ROC Centre for them to call him whenever they detected a possible friendly aircraft in trouble. Bullmore could then use the Flying Control network to assist the aircraft by, for example, turning on aerodrome lighting.

Although the surveillance, reporting and control system established by Dowding’s Fighter Command in the immediate pre-war period is well known for its contribution to winning the Battle of Britain, not so well known or understood is just how jealously Fighter Command guarded its access to what we would call the ‘air picture’, or indeed how uninterested other RAF Commands were in it. Quick successes achieved by Bullmore’s unofficial arrangements with the ROC convinced him more could and should be done. However, Fighter Command rigorously protected access to its air defence apparatus for non-air defence purposes – even if it potentially meant valuable friendly lives and aircraft saved. Bullmore describes how he managed to convince the AOC of 10 Group to allow him access to the Group Operations Centre, against the opposition of many subordinate officers, where the value of the expanded Flying Control scope quickly demonstrated its value. 

According to Bullmore’s account, it was by force of personality and dint of working around numerous obstructive staff officers that he was eventually able to extend the new Flying Control services, firstly into the 12 Group area and then, from the Air Ministry under the Directorate of Air Safety, into the rest of Great Britain. It is interesting to note it was 11 Group that resisted longest in allowing Flying Control personnel into its Operations Centre. The ambit of Flying Control eventually grew to incorporate the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue and specialised Mountain Rescue services. Innovations introduced included the ‘Sandra’ system of coned searchlights above selected aerodromes, serving as aeronautical lighthouses. Although the book itself does not say so, it is clear to see in these innovations the origins of Britain’s unique, modern-day ‘Distress and Diversion’ service, used by military and civilian aircraft alike.

Statistics kept by the Flying Control branch showed beyond doubt the value of the services it provided. Many thousands of aircrew, returning from operational sorties with their radios inoperative, or lost on a training flight above fog, owed their safe return to assistance provided by Flying Control. In his foreword to the book, MRAF Sir John Salmond pays tribute to the persistence of Wing Commander Bullmore (as he ended up) in establishing this enhanced form of Flying Control. Salmond describes it as '…a heartening story of lives saved in thousands in almost miraculous fashion – lives which, but for the Flying Control and Air Sea Rescue Services, would have been lost.'  That it is.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Beaufighter Boys - Graham Pitchfork


It was a little orange hardback, long since bereft of its dustcover, assuming it ever had one, the embossed floral design being at odds with the content. Its title now forgotten, perhaps something like ‘American Aces of the Second World War’, I read it from cover to cover, over and over again, borrowing it from the school library incessantly (I was at elementary school in the US at the time). It was a collection of stories of the great flyers of the USAAF – Gentile, Blakeslee, Bong – at least, that’s who I remember. So, an anthology was a major influence for this lark.

Could it be argued the anthology is replacing the memoir when it comes to Second World War aircrew books? It’s probably a bit of a stretch, but with ‘untold’ personal accounts drying up as time marches on, can a collection of memories, a collection of mini-memoirs if you will, be as effective? Certainly, the biography has assumed the mantle of ‘best personal insight’, but this too will struggle to capture the subject’s voice unless substantial and comprehensive supporting material can be accessed post-death. Therefore, the anthology of personal recollections can punch above its weight due to it presenting valuable firsthand accounts, admittedly in direct competition with periodicals (whose bread and butter is briefer reading material) and online sources. On the latter point, the anthology can also benefit from the poor attention span many apparently suffer due to social media’s method of presenting information. The ability to dip in and out, knocking off relatively unrelated chapters in short reading stints, is a strength of the anthology. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Grub Street’s Boys series has done so well. To date, the series has presented collections featuring various Cold War types, so the timing is perfect too as the middle-aged reader reminisces about many of the aircraft on the frontline during their childhood. The first move away from this period, however, comes from one of the series’ regular contributors. Having spent years gathering material for a different project that ultimately didn’t come to fruition, Graham Pitchfork delivers Beaufighter Boys. Covering almost every wartime operational use of the Beaufighter, and a post-war one, this is the ideal read for anyone with a penchant for the most pugnacious of heavy fighters.

The Beaufighter was one of those aircraft that seemed to be everywhere, always getting the job done. Consequently, the content of the book spans the globe. Each chapter concentrates on a specific aspect of wartime flying in the type. Some are mini-biographies while others focus on one tour, period, or even just a sortie, as recounted by the pilot or observer (or sometimes both). The chapters can therefore be read as standalones. There is little to no development from one to the next so snatching a chapter here and there is easy if you don’t have the time. 

Importantly, in among the extensive accounts of shipping strikes, operations for which the Beau is best known in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, there are several accounts of the work the crews did at night. A Battle of Britain veteran in its own right, something often forgotten, the type eventually took over night fighting from the hard-pressed, but effective, Defiant crews. This world of AI radar, ground control intercepts, vectors, blips and darkness, extended beyond defence of the British Isles. Beaufighters were active at night over North Africa, and out of Malta, and flew intruder ops, hunting German night fighters among other things, over Europe. This all seems quite obvious if you’ve been reading on the subject for even just a short while, but this sort of work tends to get lost among the accounts of the strike wings. Not here, though. If anything, the chapters covering these sorties were the stars, in a book full of highlights, simply because I hadn’t read about them for a long time. Indeed, probably the last time I read about Beau night fighters over the Med in detail was in the Bob Cowper memoir Chasing Shadows. To give a further indication of the breadth of coverage in BB, about the only night fighting/interceptions not featured was that done by the Beaufighters in India. Never fear, however, there’s plenty of other India/Burma action to keep the reader enthralled.

Naturally, those who have provided their reminiscences, or have been written about, are enduringly fascinating. There are some very familiar names (and several have written books of their own) – Tom Pike, Atholl Sutherland Brown, Bill Mann, Charles Read, Dennis Spencer, and Des Curtis to name a few – but also a lot of relatively forgotten men. Every nationality, more or less, that flew the Beaufighter, be it within their own air force or with the RAF, is featured with notable exceptions (most probably due to the relatively small population of surviving veterans) being South Africans serving in the SAAF units and those few Americans who flew second-hand Beau night fighters over the Med and Italy while waiting for the P-61 Black Widow to arrive in theatre. For a book to cover so much ground in just over 220 pages is impressive.

Some of the chapters, or parts thereof as several include memories contributed by more than one veteran, feel like they were originally written for magazine features. Indeed, one of the introductions even includes ‘writes Graham Pitchfork’. This is understandable given the decades of work the author has performed highlighting forgotten aircrew, and men behind the medals, for UK based aviation periodicals. It is also the nature of the anthology to an extent. I haven’t read any other titles in the Boys series because, well, jets, but I can only assume this book follows a similar format, albeit with a range of operations more extensive than its predecessors. 

A strong feature of the chapters, and the new sections within a chapter, is the early inclusion of a headshot, or crew shot or better, of the men telling the story. This is a lovely, simple tool to immediately put a face to a name. The rest of the photos are liberally sprinkled throughout the text with, it would appear, some attention paid to keeping the lower quality ones smaller so as not to show too much ‘grain’ on the paper stock used. There is, however, some funky text wrapping here and there with little blocks of text floating on a sea of white space next to a photo. This leaves some pages looking a little clunky, but they’re not much of a distraction in the great scheme of things. After all, we’re talking Beaufighters and their crews here!

One of my great bugbears with the Beaufighter, and the reporting of its history, is the continued use of its apparent nickname, ‘Whispering Death’, and its (never proven by evidence) Japanese origin. Why this myth continues to perpetuate is beyond me when the likes of Chaz Bowyer, for one, in the seventies, debunked it as a RAF creation to make fun of journalists. In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote to Grub Street when I saw the dismaying use of the nickname on the original cover design for BB. It was, happily, replaced, but still rears its head (once, thankfully) on page 19. Coupled with referring to the engines as being of the ‘rotary’ type (as opposed to radial) in the introduction, minor repeated typos, some swapped captions and a reference on page 120 to something mentioned on page 103, that’s not there, there’s a little undercurrent of the production feeling a bit rushed in places. 

However, superbly curated by the author, as ever it’s the aircrew accounts that make this book stand out, and the excellent overall production standard of the thing itself. The dustcover design is repeated on the boards, as appears standard for Grub Street these days, and the combination of the shades of blue, and the white font of the title, makes it really pop on the shelf. 

There are few things better than reading an anthology from those who were there and Beaufighter Boys delivers in spades.

ISBN 978-1-911621-44-7

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Fatal Mission - Mal Elliott


Amid the flurry of Australian aircrew books released mid-year by at least three publishers, a re-invigorated Big Sky Publishing contributed two (three if you count Bob Grandin’s Vietnam-era Answering the Call). Pleasingly, one of these books looks at a Lancaster crew with 467 Squadron. Despite the continued, sadly belated, public recognition of Bomber Command and its people in recent years (coinciding with the memorial construction and unveiling in London in 2012), I am struggling to think of another recent book concentrating on 467 Squadron. Therefore, Mal Elliott’s Fatal Mission is most welcome, particularly as it tells the story of another crew in detail, a crew that would most likely have remained remembered by family members and little else. While falling short in some of the important periphery knowledge, most of which should have been picked up in the editorial process, Fatal Mission makes sense of the confusion and emptiness too often left when a crew went down.

The author is the nephew of one of the men in the crew. Oscar Furniss, the navigator, had a fairly average childhood, albeit in the idyllic surrounds of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, and graduated with a Diploma of Agriculture in 1941. Aviation had always distracted him, however, so, with the war well and truly underway, he signed up in December before officially enlisting in July 1942. Selected to become a navigator, partly because of his strength in mathematics, Oscar went to Canada, receiving his brevet in April 1943, before finally reaching the UK in June. Caught up in the system, the subsequent months were interspersed with periods of idleness and, of course, eventual postings to an Advanced Flying Unit and then an OTU. Oscar was slowed down somewhat, by proving susceptible to the cold and wet English weather, and was hospitalised several times with bronchitis. Despite this, he managed to stay with his crew as they progressed to a Heavy Conversion Unit and then Lancaster Finishing School. It was not until April 1944, more than three years after signing up, that Oscar (and his crew) was posted to Waddington and 467 Squadron (he was eventually told he would be discharged once a replacement nav was found).

A frustrating start of two cancelled ops quickly gave way to the crew successfully completing their first on 18 April when they were part of the raid attacking the Juvisy railway yards near Paris. By 4 May, five of the seven-man crew were dead.

They were shot down by a night fighter during the successful, but tragically confused, Mailly-le-Camp raid to the east of Paris. Interestingly, unlike the majority of Lancasters, which were shot down while orbiting and awaiting the order to bomb, the crew of ‘Naughty Nan’, the rather troublesome veteran Lanc they had flown their first op on, was lost as they cleared the target. Two men survived, Stan Jolly and Bob Hunter, one badly burned (Hunter), and managed to avoid German imprisonment, albeit with Hunter confined to hospital, until liberated by advancing Allied forces. It is their memories, along with eyewitness accounts on the ground, which add substantial, and important, detail regarding the bomber’s final moments.

The book is a fairly standard approach to this kind of story. There is a personal connection followed in detail, crew members are progressively introduced, their roles and training explained, contemporaries add depth, and then there’s ops and the loss. A lot of work has clearly gone in to every stage with the analysis of the crash, and piecing together its timeline, done really well. I was somewhat concerned to read, in the acknowledgements, the author thanking an esteemed military author for massaging his notes into a ‘richly detailed manuscript’. Having already flicked through the book beforehand, and having met the author several weeks previously, I had wondered where his voice was as it did not seem to come through strongly at all. The narrative is, however, very nicely done and despite the issues I had with some core Bomber Command knowledge, Fatal Mission was near impossible to put down.

Near impossible to put down, but so very frustrating on occasion as a myriad of avoidable errors dilute the effectiveness of the delivery. Granted, it’s quite likely the ‘man on the street’ might not pick up on such things, but this is history so the effort needs to be made. 

While nicely illustrated, with images placed throughout the book, the reproduction and inclusion of some photos left much to be desired. Two menus are included in a timely manner, but are so small they are virtually unreadable and, therefore, of little use. A photo of a replica (fibreglass) Spitfire on a pole, a restored, unarmed ‘warbird’ Mosquito and a post-war modified Anson are used to depict these types. Fair enough, they get the point across, but the availability of wartime images of all three means a missed opportunity, and a relatively easy one that could have been fulfilled. The Anson in particular looks to be one of the post-war developments of the Mk.XIX. When there were literally thousands of Ansons serving in Canada, it is frustrating an image of one of these, of which there would be many, could not be used instead to better depict what Oscar trained on.

Unit codes for 467 Squadron are photo-shopped onto a descriptive image of a Lanc in Chapter Five (a chapter that purports to be about the Lancaster as an aircraft, but loses its way somewhat despite some good images of crew positions). Sadly, these codes are not easy to distinguish and the effort performed on this image makes one wonder why the same wasn’t done to the aircraft on the cover, the codes and configuration of which bear little resemblance to ‘Naughty Nan’ (also mentioned on the cover).  

That’s all a bit anorak-y of me, more so than usual, but here’s another one. Off the cuff comments like ‘…the Lancaster and the P51 Mustang were generally fitted with Packard engines’ are misleading. Less than half of the Lancasters built had Packard Merlins. Nothing general about it. Look, things like the cover will attract attention and make the book sell. Good. It’s quite possible most people who read it won’t even notice what’s mentioned above, but the perpetuation of such things does nobody any good. Like referring to using Harvards as trainers in Australia or Cheshire being Master Bomber for Mailly-le-Camp…

The appendices are particularly good and evidence of the amount of digging the author did to uncover the story of his relative and the crew. The accounts of the two survivors are included in full, with additional comments, and must have been difficult to contemplate given the details they provide about Oscar’s final moments. The book ends, however, with the bibliography. There is no index. It needs one, as does any book of this genre. Four index pages, two leafs, would have been enough to elevate this work further.

An attractive paperback of just over 200 pages, Fatal Mission exudes quality, but falls a little short with the fine detail, the supporting detail that would have added further depth to the extensive research performed by the clearly inexhaustible author. Could some of it have been lost in translation by the ‘ghost writer’? Possibly, but the flip side of this is the nicely crafted narrative. An enjoyable reading experience will probably trump the various niggles in the historical fact and this is to the benefit of the men of ‘Naughty Nan’. They are more likely to be fondly remembered, by a reader with no prior connection to them, if the book is savoured. That is, after all, the whole point – to keep their memory, and their story, alive. Mind you, understanding their world, and portraying it accurately, helps too.

ISBN 978-1-922265-14-2

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Just As It Happened - Merv Pike


Sing this to the tune of the Christmas song ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’: “It’s a most Sunderland-y time of the year (so far)”. This year has seen me, from a Short Sunderland point of view, make discoveries, acquire a holy grail and, embarrassingly, be the recipient of the utmost generosity. Both Alan Deller’s The Kid Glove Pilot and Guy Warner’s We Search Far (230 Squadron) were new to me and, weirdly, both published by Colourpoint. The latter also sees funds go to the squadron association so everyone is happy. The holy grail was Tom Docherty’s Hunt Like a Tiger (another 230 Squadron book). Always ridiculously priced, I had all but given up finding a copy until I made contact with Tom and bought it direct. Finally, a paperback copy of one of the hardest Sunderland books to find these days, Ivan Southall’s classic They Shall Not Pass Unseen, was gifted to me for safe keeping. It’s the first copy I’ve ever seen in the flesh and I’m sure I hear triumphant trumpets playing when I look at it. Into this mix of superb titles, comes another new discovery. Merv Pike’s memoir has been around for more than a decade now. Short Sunderland aircrew memoirs aren’t exactly common, and RAAF ones rarer still. Like its author, it’s honest, humble and bears little in the way of airs and graces.

There is not much of a pre-war preamble detailing the author’s childhood, so the reader is thrust straight into Pike’s eighteen months in the Army and an immediate indication of his character – what will be, will be. Transferring to the RAAF, he applies himself to any task at hand to the best of his abilities, but remains open to other opportunities should he fail the pilot’s course (committed to doing his bit). This endearing attitude, combined with no inflated importance regarding his obvious skills and abilities, is maintained throughout. Pike completed his flying training in Australia, on Tiger Moths and Ansons, before crossing the Pacific to the US, on the way to the UK, where he eventually joined 461 Squadron RAAF. He followed the usual path to Sunderland captain to the extent he flew as second pilot etc with a crew, but, rather than eventually becoming that crew’s new captain, he was sent on his skipper’s course with a new crew (and then spent nine months with them).

The transition to the Sunderland, vastly larger than anything he had flown before (or perhaps even seen), still had the author in awe when he wrote the book. It is completely understandable and the cover image perfectly conveys the size of the aircraft. There is mention of completing a radar course in a Wellington (part of his role as a pilot in a Sunderland crew was to rotate through the radar operator role during an op), but it is unclear whether this was attended before Pike’s introduction to the big flying boat. Either way, his passion for the Sunderland is palpable and, after more than 1300 hours on the type, he certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Besides the flying time mentioned in passing (Pike is self-effacing and spends more time heaping praise on his colleagues), there is also a brief mention of him having flown 32 ops by the time of his wedding in late July 1944. Seeing out the end of the war, and not returning to Australia until sailing from the UK in September 1945, means he was a phenomenally experienced airman. That’s what makes Just As It Happened all the more valuable. Any discussion about 461 Squadron inevitably includes the late, great Dudley Marrows, his success against U-461, the coincidences involved in that action, and the subsequent post-war meeting of U-boat and Sunderland captains. In Merv Pike we have another 461 pilot who certainly did his fair share, another angle, one of the many as it were. His book adds further depth to our understanding of the Australian Sunderland crew experience (in the same breath, I must also mention Phil Davenport’s Hurrah for the Next Man). 

It’s the wrong word, but the narrative suffers from the post-war loss of the author’s logbook, ironically to water damage. It therefore largely relies on fairly detailed memories that are not, naturally, a comprehensive record of service, but the closest there ever will be. To that extent, events are recounted sequentially, but the author allows himself the freedom to detail something as it comes to him. The genesis of the book was a request from a high school, and that does show in the style somewhat, but, in doing so, the life and challenges of a Sunderland pilot (long hours, terrible weather, the unforgiving ocean, the enemy), and the part ‘lady luck’ played, are laid bare. Pike is particularly reflective on his good fortune, detailing a flight up the Gironde Estuary (southwest France), following a Bay of Biscay night patrol, in daylight to look for a German warship. You can see him still shaking his head, at how they made it home, as he wrote about that particular op (during which they also happened upon a crash-diving U-boat). It is one of the few ops written about in any detail so is clearly, and obviously, a standout among the many patrols he flew. There is also some important introspection about dealing with loss and continuing on, something we need to remember especially with regard to these men bearing such things for decades after the war. The reflection continues in the final few chapters as the author summarises his service and then looks at his post-war life, during which he and his wife made several wise real estate decisions to settle on a family home, including following up on business opportunities that led to a well-earned retirement.

A small, solid paperback of 220-plus pages, the interior layout contributes to a lot of wasted white space, but it is very neat. The narrative, though, does need a tidy up to tighten it and remove errors without losing the author’s voice. Among various spelling typos and the like, ‘aerolons’ appears several times when the reference is clearly to the machine’s ailerons. A few facts, such as the number of surviving Sunderlands (none left per page 184, but this perhaps refers to Australian museums only), and a few statements included in the W.W.II introductory summary, also need to be reviewed and refined. Admittedly, however, the reader is ‘here’ for the memories of flying with Coastal Command, not a proper history lesson, but correcting such things is what editors are for. Many of the sourced images (i.e. not from the author’s collection) in the reviewed edition appear to have been acquired, perhaps downloaded, as low-resolution copies so have reproduced so poorly they add nothing. Removing these altogether, or obtaining better replacements, would be a vast improvement. All other photographs included are printed on the same paper stock as the text and are spread throughout the book. The moustachioed Pike, cap at a rakish angle, looks quite the character − a fine mix of joie de vivre and the utmost professionalism. 

Every one of my reading sessions ended reluctantly, but with the glow of looking forward to the next one. Just As It Happened is one of those books that reminds the reader how lucky he or she is to have such a window into a man’s life, or part thereof. Like this review, it is not a finely polished piece of writing. It is, however, honest and written by a classic quiet achiever. Not since Dick Dakeyne’s Radar Gunner has an Australian aircrew memoir captured my attention to this extent. Take a bow, Merv Pike.

ISBN 978-1-87687-013-3