30 December 2009

The wait is almost over - The RAAF Hudson Story Book 2

A short while ago I received news that David Vincent's second volume of The RAAF Hudson Story will be published in July 2010. Excellent news indeed and certainly waited for in excited anticipation.

The first book is superb. I have yet to do anything but reference it in parts but plan to have it reviewed in the first half of 2010. Mind you, at the rate I'm reading (or not reading) at present, it could be 2100 by the time I get to it!

Hope everyone had a good Christmas and is looking forward to the new year.

All the best


26 November 2009

Holidaying On The Continent - Richard Munro

Launched in October, this is the story of the author's father, Jim Munro, who was bomb aimer with 460 Squadron RAAF. Shot down by a night fighter over Berlin only Jim and two other crew members, all badly injured, survive and end up as POWs in Stalag IVB (will be interesting to compare his experiences to those of Gus Officer below). Published by Australian Military History Publications, you can be sure this is a story that needed to be told.

25 November 2009

Six O'Clock Diamond - Gus Officer

This review has been a while coming for a variety of reasons including the usual excuse – I was busy (and, as I write this, no internet connection). Well, I was. However, more importantly, I admit I actually struggled to come up with a ‘theme’ for this review. For those of you who have read a number of my reviews either here on ABR or elsewhere you’ll know I try to give each review a theme or goal the respective book tries to meet. Besides not being able to give the review my full attention over the past month or so I couldn’t ‘pin’ anything on Gus Officer’s Six O’Clock Diamond – The Story of a Desert Harasser. Then it hit me. That was it. This book is what it says it is – the story of a flyer with 450 Squadron RAAF (The Desert Harassers). What you see is what you get … and that is the impression you get of Gus – open, honest, refreshing and just a little brash.

The first chapter is, as Gus’ son, John, told me, for the family. It details the extended Officer family heritage and, when you think about it, provides an idea, knowingly or not, of how many people could be affected through the loss of a family member fighting for his country. This opening is not the easiest to read as many names and family connections are mentioned and I have to admit I got lost on several occasions. What has to be remembered, though, is that Gus wrote his manuscript to record what he could of the family history and his wartime experiences. The record as it stands is invaluable.

Gus begins his service with the 4th Light Horse Regiment and very quickly we see his strong work ethic coupled with a rebellious streak that often came to the fore with respect to the privileges of rank. Finally getting his call up to the RAAF, Gus passes through ITS “reasonably well” before being posted to No. 5 EFTS Narromine to “start the flying game” in early 1941. Gus had a remarkable knack for names and he regularly rattles off the other chaps on the course which can lead to some interesting further research especially since he also provides occasional biographical details. Among the fairly standard hi-jinks you’d expect from lads in Tiger Moths, Gus manages to pass out of the course with a mark just short of an ‘above average’ rating. Moving on to Wirraways – clearly progressing down the fighter path – our hero completes numerous navigation exercises over country New South Wales. Many of his routes took him to/near towns I now live close to so being able to relate in that fashion was fascinating. Graduating as a sergeant – and noting some of the new officers in the course were no more qualified than him – Gus is packed off to the Middle East. Arriving in Egypt in October 1941 he is assigned to No. 71 OTU to fly Hurricanes.

Gus is quite critical of some of the ‘classist’ RAF types he meets but this is tempered by a veritable who’s who of the Desert Air Force many of whom he has the utmost respect for. He is also critical of some of the practices of the OTU but, all in all, he learns his craft as a fighter pilot … well, as much as an OTU can teach in clapped-out Hurricane Mk Is. He also manages, with a mate, to steal rations to supplement their meager diet and go absent without leave to visit his uncle in Gaza. Unfortunately, upon return, he realises he has missed a posting to an aircraft delivery unit and someone else has been sent in his place. A posting to the new air firing school at Bilbeis is quickly forthcoming in January ’42, however, and it is here Gus finds himself towing target drogues but still flying old Hurricanes – including a well-used Malta veteran. While he appreciates the accumulation of experience Gus is not a huge fan of target-towing and this is exacerbated after returning from a 48-hour leave (official) to find he’d again missed out on a posting. This time it was to an operational squadron. While life at Bilbeis was certainly eventful – and he made the most of it – Gus was understandably itching to get into the desert war.

A stint in Palestine and a return to Egypt, still flying Hurricanes for the various ‘schools’, eventually leads to a treasured posting to 450 Squadron RAAF and its Kittyhawks but not before attending his Harvard ‘conversion’ flight feeling ever so slightly the worse for wear from the night before – “In fact I was still drunk…”. Finally, in September 1942, after nine months in North Africa, Gus arrives at LG 91 and becomes a Desert Harasser.

Enjoying the ‘Pilots’ Mess’ – no separate sergeants’ and officers’ messes, an idea created by 3 Sqn RAAF that spread across the DAF – Gus settles into squadron life easily and is soon operational. His hours towing targets and his general natural flying ability come to the fore and he clearly fits in well – “My time with the squadron remains one of my life’s fondest memories.” He is heavily involved in bomber and fighter-bomber escort and also flies strafing and bombing sorties with the squadron.

However his time with 450 does not last long as he is shot down in early November – a promising operational career cut short. Wounded, and parachuting into the middle of a group of German soldiers, Gus is delivered to an Italian hospital tent at Mersa Matruh where, upon seeing the condition of his tent-mates, realises how lucky he was. Moving through a variety of lice-infested camps and POW ‘cages’, Gus and his fellow POWs (of who he provides wonderful detail) arrive in Tripoli for a fortnight before a harrowing journey to Naples in the hold of a ship. This is followed by a train ride – in cattle cars – to Bari on the Adriatic coast and ‘Campo Prigioneri di Guerra 75’.

Sadly, despite the privations of camp life, the officers and men are treated differently which justifiably makes Gus angry. While dealing with the terrible conditions and the rank ‘issue’ his injured leg and its regular swelling (resulting in hospital stays) typically rates hardly a mention.

Camp PG 85 becomes home in February 1943. Conditions are slightly improved but Gus and a mate decide to escape and steal an aircraft from a nearby airfield. They are re-captured after several days on the run. After the requisite time in the ‘cooler’ – shared with cheery South Africans – Gus moves onto Campo PG 57 north of Trieste. Here he finds many Australians and New Zealanders and camp life – well described - continues until the Italian surrender. Any hopes of freedom are quickly dashed when the Germans arrive and bundle the prisoners onto a train for a 10-day journey to Stalag IVB. There Gus stays until sometime in April 1945, after 906 days of captivity, the camp is liberated by Cossacks on horseback. His time in the German camp is a fairly standard account of life as a POW but it is full of a lot of detail of his fellow prisoners and their activities which makes for interesting reading.

With the Russians now manning the guard towers Gus and some other prisoners decide to head west. Their travels bear witness to the brutal Russian occupation, the utter destruction of German infrastructure and the complete desperation of the German people. They eventually meet up with some Americans and deftly avoid the transit camps full of ex-POWs before a Dakota flight gets them to France, a Norseman delivers them to the coast and another Dak delivers the former prisoners to England on May 10, 1945 – roughly two years and seven months after Gus was shot down. This is not the end of Gus’ travels though as he spends several months in the UK before returning to Australia. Happily, he settles into civilian life and works for a bank all over country Victoria while studying accountancy. Time away from family proves too much and, after a trying time working in Melbourne, Gus starts work with an accounting firm in Horsham in mid-1949 where his life, love and family blossoms.

I commented above that I struggled with the first chapter of this book. To be honest, and in keeping with the honesty displayed throughout the book, it took me a bit longer to get into. Early on I found myself cringing at some of the grammar. The style of writing also threw me but this was my, perhaps misguided, journalism training coming out in me. As I read deeper into the book I realised what the publishers (Gus’ sons) had done. They had taken the manuscript written by Gus and, as they mention in the book, given it a very occasional tweak. The end result is a book that has maintained the integrity of Gus’ writing and in doing so has provided the perfect record of his life. Gus pulls no punches and writes how he saw it. He is opinionated, at times disagreeable but always refreshingly open and honest. I don’t think I have a read a book that better paints a picture of a man. You come away from the book feeling as though you’ve just sat down to several beers with Gus and he’s done all the talking while you sat there letting your beer go warm.

SOCD is not high literature but, importantly, it doesn’t claim to be and was never intended to be so. It doesn’t need to be. It is out there and, like Gus, it will make an impression on you from the moment you start reading. Again like Gus, the book just gets down to business and tells it like it is/was.

This is a beautifully-presented book and with three sections of photos is well-illustrated. The appendices are very-readable and provide surprising detail about the day Gus was shot down. I have no idea if Woolhouse Press has or will publish further books but they’ve set a very high benchmark with SOCD.

I don’t know how well the book has sold but John Officer indicated in a recent phone call that they were very happy with the result and rightly so. A direct link to SOCD's website is accessible by clicking the cover in the right hand column of this page. Alternatively, just click here - Six O'Clock Diamond

Reviewed copy published by Woolhouse Press in 2008.
ISBN 978-0-646-50250-2

06 November 2009

Hyland's Bookshop

Neil and the team at Hyland's were always helpful and friendly when we lived in Melbourne and I had the chance to pop in. I also recently received two nice emails after ordering A.G. Dudgeon's The Luck Of The Devil (to accompany his Hidden Victory and Wings Over North Africa). I have not visited a more extensive collection of military books in Australia and their RAF and Commonwealth aircrew titles are a fine mix of new and older titles.

If you're hunting books that are perhaps hard-to-get or are just after the latest from your favourite military publishers or authors, I recommend keeping Hyland's in mind. You can also search their catalogue online:

Hyland's Bookshop

19 October 2009

Bomber Barron - NOV 5: NOW ON SALE!

New Zealand author Richard Stowers, author of Bloody Gallipoli and Waikato Troopers, has just released his new book about Wing Commander Fraser Barron. Barron flew 79 raids over Europe before his death in a collision over Le Mans, France, in May 1944. His stellar wartime career saw him rise from Sergeant to Wing Commander and receive his multiple honours in just three years of service.

Fraser was an outstanding bomber captain whose skill, bravery, determination and complete disregard for his personal safety were paramount. He was one of those young airmen who never showed fear and didn't know when to call it quits.

The book consists of 156 pages in a landscape format with more than 80 photographs and illustrations. Available direct from the author Bomber Barron is NZ$35 plus NZ$4 postage within New Zealand or NZ$15 for airmail to Australia. Please contact Richard via his website for postage charges to other countries - www.richardstowers.co.nz

14 October 2009

Under A Bomber's Moon

A new release from Exisle Publishing this book takes the reader to the deadly night skies over Germany as experienced by a Kiwi navigator and a German night fighter pilot. Well worth a look if you're after something new and beyond the norm.

Exisle Publishing - Under A Bomber's Moon

09 October 2009

Chasing Shadows - Stephen Lewis with Bob Cowper

There’s something to be said about being different. Do it well and you’re hailed as a visionary. Do it badly and, well, it all falls in a heap and is appreciated by very few for the brave attempt it was. There’s nothing wrong with being different at all but it is a particular risk if you are doing it commercially. Will it work? This was my first impression of Chasing Shadows when it arrived in the mail. At first glance it is immediately different – not the ‘expected’ paperback dimensions at all. However that’s where any fleeting doubts vanish because once you open this book you’ll see it’s not just the dimensions that are different – everything is handled with a fresh approach … and it works.

The subject is at once intriguing. A good-looking Australian night fighter ace who crashes in the desert but goes on to fly Beaufighters and Mosquitos with considerable success while twice being awarded the DFC, marrying his sweetheart and earning the right to be a member of the Late Arrivals and Caterpillar clubs. Such a story deserves to be told and told well. Fortunately, this Lewis/Cowper collaboration does just that.

The young Bob Cowper grows up in semi-rural South Australia and has a fairly typical childhood for the time. He leaves school at 16 but joins the RAAF on his eighteenth birthday. With initial training completed in Western Australia, he sails to Canada where he learns to fly the Harvard before becoming a Pilot Officer at 19 and joining 60 OTU at East Fortune in Scotland. We find him in late 1941 flying Defiants before his first operational posting to Ballyhalbert, Northern Ireland with 153 Squadron. He is perhaps lucky to achieve this ‘quiet’ posting rather than a baptism of fire as he has the chance to hone his flying skills – skills he will very much have to call upon in the years to come. Fortunately the squadron is re-equipped with Beaufighters and one F/S Bill Watson arrives to replace Bob’s Defiant gunner. The chemistry is immediately obvious. Watson, older, agreeable in nature but with sharp opinions in debate becomes the source of much hilarity throughout the book and the strength of his character is conveyed very well.

The other major relationship Bob develops during his time in Northern Ireland is with his future wife Kay. Seeing her ‘Australia’ shoulder flash in the Ballyhalbert Ops room, he introduces himself with a “Hello Australia” … and draws a shy response. He persists and romance blossoms. He does, however, have a hard time meeting her friends as Watson would regularly ‘brief’ him on his various conquests of said girls!

Yearning for something worthwhile to do to assist the war effort – “Nothing’s bloody well happened again” – the Beaufighter crew volunteer for a Malta posting which they are subsequently offered. The January 1943 flight is uneventful until leaving Gibraltar supplied with incorrect headings and drift calculations. Unable to work out their actual drift due to heavy cloud, the boys become hopelessly lost before force-landing in the Sahara. Forced to burn everything they can't carry they begin to walk to friendly territory. On the way they ‘collect’ a couple of ‘Arabs’ (dubbed “new friend with gun” and “new friend with bloody big sword”) who at first follow them and then engage them with rifle fire before finding the boys’ discarded cigarettes and realising they are “Englessi”. Here, despite the desperate situation they find themselves in, Watson is at his humourous best and the intelligence and good-nature of the two airmen win the desert people over.

When they finally arrive in Malta, it doesn’t take the Bob and Watson long to open their account in the night skies over the island. Island life and its hardships are well described. Barely six months after his desert escapade Bob, flying with another observer due to Watson being sick, shoots down a Ju88 which explodes and takes the Beau with it. The observer, P/O AW Farquharson DFM, is killed and Bob, at 21 years old, barely makes it out of the doomed aircraft. Picked up by a hospital ship the next day, he returns to active flying six nights later but suffers recurring problems from his rapid exit from the disintegrating Beaufighter.

The pair return to the UK in August of 1943 having well and truly earned their rest tour. Bob’s input to the text of the book is valuable and the detail he provides combines well with Stephen’s ability to blend everything together to form a seamless timeline. Case-in-point – training new pilots on Merlin-powered Beaufighter Mk IIs. There is barely any rest during this posting and it reads as well as the ‘action’ sequences with Stephen working together flying, marriage, parties and hi-jinks to create perhaps the best account of a rest tour I have come across.

This is all foundation though because Cowper and Watson are reunited with a posting to 456 Squadron RAAF in May 1944. The experienced crew must have been a godsend as the squadron re-equipped with Mosquitos and worked up for the Normandy invasion. This was to be an interesting time for the squadron. D-Day onwards was a stellar period for 456 – particularly for the Cowper crew – despite being commanded by an Australian Wing Commander who, while successful in his leadershp, was a bit too ‘gung-ho’ for everyone’s liking. Immense detail is provided of Cowper and Watson’s successes with combat reports and logbook extracts being provided (more on the illustrations later).

At 22, Bob becomes a father in November 1944 soon after returning from a terrible night’s flying over Arnhem – a flight that shook the experienced crew to the core. Bob is tired from a long war but his little family brings him joy even on the coldest days when the bitter cold in their tiny house freezes the pipes and turns the clothes on the line to ice. He continues flying intruder trips over Germany but the war’s end brings frustration at not being able to return to Australia and, when finally being able to travel, having to do so separately to his girls.

As in war, peace brings success for Bob and Kay. The grow their family and prove handy cattle breeders and racehorse owners. Happily, Bill Watson is not forgotten and his tumultuous post-war years are well-documented and match the long years of peace the Cowpers experience.

Chasing Shadows uses a very effective literary device in its first chapter – the detailing of an exciting/harrowing experience in Bob’s flying career. This really draws the reader in. Tim Vigors uses it well in his book Life’s Too Short To Cry when he opens his story by baling out of his burning Buffalo – the end of his operational flying career. Stephen begins CS with the Sahara forced-landing and, through the beautiful use of language, captures exactly what I imagine it must have been like to be lost over a dark sea and with fuel rapidly diminishing - the self-doubting begins, smooth running engines suddenly sound a bit rough, pinpricks of light are beacons of hope and the fuel gauge seems to drop like a stone. Admittedly, Stephen had Bob handy to recount this episode in detail but to put it down on paper effectively and generate trepidation in the reader is truly something else. Fortunately, the writing continues at this level throughout and is well-supported.

Well-supported? Indeed. The use of illustrations in CS extends beyond the ‘simple’ use of relevant photos of aircraft, the Cowpers, Watson and related subjects. The effort has been made to include black-and-white maps and photos of memorabilia like forage caps, medals, documents, period advertisements, newspaper clippings, badges and even telegrams. The collection included within the pages of CS is superb. There is not a two-page spread throughout the book that is not illustrated in some way. Further detail is provided by separate paragraphs or pages which provide context or an interesting biography of a person featured in the text. These ‘sidebars’ do not interrupt the flow of the main body of text but they certainly add to the overall story. I found myself unable to pass them up until the end of each chapter so my reading of the main text had regular ‘interruptions’. A more disciplined reader will find the text flows nicely!

Stephen Lewis runs a publishing company in Adelaide and has made a fine effort at writing and presenting the story of Bob Cowper. We can be grateful he took the time to produce this outstanding piece of work and we can be grateful Bob saw fit to tell his story. So many of his colleagues never did.

This book was sent to me as a review copy signed by Stephen and Bob. It is a thick 160+ pages long and is finished most attractively. The only thing I will mention with regard to its production is that the inside-front and inside-back covers are brown and face white pages. I have found, possibly due to our recent move, that the brown has transferred/rubbed onto the white pages in places so I strongly recommend you place a piece of paper between the two to prevent this happening. It takes nothing away from the book itself but if you like to look after your books like me…

CS is available from Stephen’s printing business. See the ad in the right margin of ABR or click on the following – Chasing Shadows.

Reviewed copy published by Digital Print Australia in 2007.
ISBN 1-921207-15-9

08 September 2009

Jack Davenport, Beaufighter Leader - Kristen Alexander

If you ever get into collecting sooner or later you’ll end up with favourite works or examples of a genre. My book collection, while not layered with rare first editions, extends beyond aviation. Naturally I have my favourite fiction authors and avidly await their next instalments. Looking over my shelves as I type this I can see numerous books by Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Jack Du Brul, Alexander Fullerton, Patrick O’Brian, Douglas Reeman, Patrick Robinson etc etc. My wife, a much faster reader than me, is building her numbers of Kathy Reichs, Di Morrissey and Jodi Picoult, among others. The same applies to our non-fiction titles, namely the aviation ones. Over the years, I’ve developed small piles of Brian Cull, Steve Darlow, Lex McAulay and Mark Lax to name a few and am always excited to hear of new titles being published. To this list of favourite authors I can now add Kristen Alexander. With the release of her second book, Jack Davenport, Beaufighter Leader, Kristen has firmly established herself as a quality writer shedding new light on the exploits of Australian wartime airmen.

Jack Davenport had a childhood in country and metropolitan New South Wales that is largely familiar to the men who fought in the Second World War. Living through the Depression, the Davenport family was perhaps more unfortunate financially than the norm with bailiffs making their entrance on more than one occasion and numerous changes of address before things began to settle down in the second half of the 1930s. A natural athlete and a good student through sheer determination, Jack’s leadership ability begins to appear when he is made class prefect. His ambition and application sees steady progress within the ranks of the Commonwealth Bank and he readily accepts additional responsibility while in the militia. Joining the RAAF, he is initially mustered as an observer but is told if he does well he will be reassigned for pilot training. The Davenport determination steps in once again and Jack graduates first in his course … and then goes flying.

Now, you’d assume any young bloke learning to fly would want to progress to fighters right? Perhaps, but not Jack. Modestly claiming he ‘scraped’ through Tiger Moths with a first-in-class pass of 88 per cent, Jack is chasing a challenge and succeeds in being assigned to multi-engined training. Being responsible for other people beyond himself appeals to Jack and this theme, which first appeared at school, continues throughout the book. There is a reason why ‘Leader’ is mentioned in the title!

Anyway, training on Ansons in Canada follows where Jack is again recognised for his leadership abilities and also begins his passion for helping the community. Arriving in England and making the most of the requisite stay in Bournemouth, Jack is posted to 14 OTU for conversion to Hampdens. A woefully inadequate aircraft for bombing mainland Europe, the Hampden was filling the gaps in Bomber Command while the squadrons waited for large numbers of the new heavies – Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. Inadequate as she may have been, there wasn’t time to wait for something better. Besides, Jack was one of many fine men who flew her and was able to get the best out of the Hampden. With less than 19 hours on type – and an almost fatal spin in which Jack ordered the crew to bale out but stayed with the aircraft when he realised his navigator had not heard the message – Jack and his crew are assigned to 455 Squadron RAAF.

Jack’s beginnings with Bomber Command are not the greatest but the ‘sprog’ pilot with the ‘sprog’ crew soon gains in confidence and experience and his skill as a pilot is evident. After several ‘shaky dos’ they are perhaps lucky when 455 Squadron is transferred to Coastal Command – lucky in terms of the enforced rest and removal from the Ruhr’s defences as opposed to a lucky transfer. What lies ahead for Jack and his colleagues is torpedo training and the risky operations any torpedo crew will of course face. 455 doesn’t have long to perfect its new-found abilities before it, in conjunction with 144 Squadron RAF, is ordered to Russia to help defend the Arctic convoys. Now a senior pilot with the squadron, Jack’s experiences traveling to, and serving in, Russia are eye-opening and a very valuable record. While not much was achieved militarily, these flights to Russia will forever be remembered.

Returning from Russia in January 1943, Jack meets his future wife which adds another ‘angle’ to the unfolding story. Flying continues with Jack leading detachments and commanding the squadron as needed (getting a taste for command while the current CO is hospitalised). In a very short time, he had come a long way. With the loss of close friends and because of his senior position, Jack struggles to write letters to the next-of-kin. He feels the loss of his friends and colleagues keenly and, through happy (for want of a better word) circumstance, is able to commemorate those lost with a moving ceremony at the Dundee War Memorial – a ceremony that is still fondly remembered. This is a most moving part of the book and the culmination of a chapter that analyses Jack’s growth as a leader.

Tour-expired, Jack instructs at 1 Torpedo Training Unit where he has an instrumental effect on lowering the accident rate – another example of him taking an innate interest in the men under his command. Now Acting Squadron Leader Jack Davenport DFC, and with more time on his hands, his romantic life comes to the fore and his relationship with one Sheila McDavid grows ever stronger. A proposal is accepted and arrangements made. A posting to command 455 Squadron arrives and the Beaufighter makes its entrance en force.

You get the feeling Jack’s first tour is almost ‘marking time’. It is the foundation for which everything is built on and pales in comparison to what is accomplished during Jack’s second tour – even with the trip to Russia. Rated as exceptional by 1TTU and at just 23 taking command of 455, Jack, like his beloved squadron, comes of age. Re-equipping with Beaufighters, the squadron is a mix of experienced anti-shipping types (particularly the two excellent flight commanders Lloyd Wiggins and Colin Milson) and new boys but Jack and his flight commanders work hard to instill discipline and professionalism into the crews and, in the end, this pays off with the Leuchars Strike Wing (455 with 489 Sqn RNZAF) earning an enviable reputation among the labyrinthine Norwegian fjords. Never one to rest on his laurels, Jack, while bedding in the ‘new’ 455, marries Sheila. This is where the author’s writing shines. She gives the wedding ceremony and anecdotes from the honeymoon (low-flying mice on nuisance raids) as much importance as Jack’s military achievements. This firmly rounds out the understanding of the man, his life and character.

With 455 operational again, the Beaufighter crews waste no time getting among the enemy shipping. The attacks are well documented and largely successful although not without some controversy which is well-handled by the author (friendly fire). Importantly, Jack’s role in the development of rocket attack tactics against surface vessels is well-documented. Really, a better pilot could not have been chosen – the consummate professional always keen to improve his already considerable abilities. As always during this frenetic time (before and after the invasion of Europe), Jack is close to his crews and well respected in return. The inevitable losses are moving and Jack’s efforts to rescue a colleague and subsequently earn the George Medal are told with typical detail and just a hint of modesty – a reflection of the man himself.

The ace ship-buster’s success and influence on anti-shipping tactics led to a role as operations planner for the Group, a role he took on with typical dedication and care for those he was sending into the cauldron. War’s end sees his eventual return to Australia where the now young family settled and Jack began his work in industry. Applying the same drive and ability as he had shown in the service, Jack became one of Australia’s most respected business leaders – his achievements in industry perhaps only equaled by his commitment to his family and the greater community. His passing left a void that could never really be filled. He was mourned by several generations of Australians many of whom had the privilege of knowing a truly great man.

I mentioned in the review for Kristen’s first book, Clive Caldwell, Air Ace, that the author had developed a style capable of providing immense detail in a very readable way. I also commented how well I thought this style could be applied to a lesser-known personality. Happily, my guess was correct. This book is so easy to read - devour - and yet, as you can see from the ‘summary’ above, there is so much going on and so much to get across that it could easily have come off the rails. That it didn’t is testament to Kristen’s ability to keep a tight rein on everything – operations, Jack’s character, romance, the context of the conflict. Despite one technical detail hiccup, the writing is precise and Kristen has certainly found a style that not only conveys her research (again, great endnotes and variety of sources) but also makes it easy for a wider audience to be drawn into the world of Jack Davenport.

This book will appeal to aviation historians and enthusiasts keen to learn about 455 Squadron, its members and the Davenport family (Jack had two brothers who also flew … there’s a story in itself) as much as it will attract a more general audience of readers looking for a bit of realistic adventure. With an excellent cover typical of A&U (how often do you see a Hampden on the cover?) and three sections of brilliant photos this is a well-presented book and the perfect way to honour one of our great leaders.

I noted with some surprise a quote from Sir Arvi Parbo - patriarch of the Australia's modern mining industry - on the back cover. I met Sir Arvi in the late '80s when he was Chairman (or equivalent) of Western Mining Corporation of which my Dad was a senior geologist. At the time, of course, being 11 or 12 years old, I was only just getting into the aviation of the war and it would be years before I heard of Jack Davenport. The fact that I met and admired someone who knew him has, as I hint at above, only just come to my attention and I can't help but wonder what Sir Arvi might have thought if he knew the little kid in front of him was into aeroplanes from, then, forty years ago.

I was sent this book as a review copy but due to the move etc, have only just been able to sit down to write this review. JDBL can be purchased direct from the author at Alexander Fax Books or is easily available online from a variety of sources. Do yourself a favour and invest in a copy. You will not be disappointed.

Reviewed copy published by Allen & Unwin in 2009.
ISBN 978--775-776-7

25 August 2009

Back to it...

Well, after a bit of a delay with settling into our house here in West Wyalong, we're almost fully unpacked. Once I find my notes for Kristen Alexander's wonderful latest work, Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader, I'll write the review. Steve Lewis' Chasing Shadows is also ready to write so I'll be able to hit the ground running and get the blog active again with a couple of quick posts.

If you are looking for a new book to sink your teeth into, I strongly recommend both of the above. Some correlation given both pilots are Australian and flew Beaufighters but that's where the similarity ends - anti-shipping strikes and night interceptions respectively. Both books are intelligently and descriptively written - different styles - and comprehensively illustrated (CS in particular goes well beyond the norm when it comes to illustrations).

Two beautiful books about two remarkable men (and there's a good love story in each!).

21 July 2009

On the move...

Hi all

We're currently moving to New South Wales so I'll be offline for a while. We should be back on deck by mid-August. Hope this finds you all well.



06 July 2009

Clive Caldwell, Air Ace - Kristen Alexander

Clive Caldwell. Heard of him? Well, if you’re here because you’re an avid reader of the type of books I review, chances are you’ve heard of him. If you haven’t, don’t feel too bad. He’s Australia’s highest scoring ace of the Second World War and most Australians have not heard of him. It is safe to say, however, that in the past few years that number of Australians has become smaller thanks to the subject of this review. What might stir your interest further is the author of Clive Caldwell, Air Ace, prior to initial research, had not heard of our hero either. He simply had not popped up on her reading radar. It’s not as odd as it sounds. If you have not read this or any other book on CRC, how much do you know about him off the top of your head? Let’s go with what’s generally known (and, sadly, about the sum total of my knowledge retention pre-CCAA): Australia’s highest scoring ace; flew Tomahawks and Kittyhawks in North Africa; had the nickname ‘Killer’; developed shadow-shooting; flew a Spitfire with CR-C as squadron codes; and was part of the infamous ‘Morotai Mutiny’. Not a lot there but, at the same time, there is if you screw down into each statement. However, up until CCAA no one bothered to get into the gritty detail and the majority of written work on this remarkable man was limited to rather generalist articles. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

In 2002, Kristen Alexander and her husband purchased at auction some papers that had belonged to Clive Caldwell. Their original intention had been to sell them on but Kristen sat down and read the letters and became enthralled with the “vibrancy of writing, the immediacy of action and the almost breathless thrill of an operation, written as they were so soon after the actual incidents.” She was hooked and used the documents as the basis for a presentation to her local branch of the Military Historical Society of Australia. This she did to some acclaim including comments about there being a “book in there”. With further research and support from Mrs Caldwell herself and former colleagues of Caldwell’s - such as fellow ace, desert veteran and fighter leader Bobby Gibbes – Kristen’s first book became a reality.

Clive Caldwell the man challenges the reader within the first few pages of the book. While there is no reference to him doing so, he advocated shooting downed enemy airmen in their parachutes. Now, this is something we usually associate with those dastardly Germans and barbaric Japanese (stereotypes intended) and not ‘our’ boys. But, this was Clive Caldwell and was part of the reason for his public, but personally disliked, nickname (he had also witnessed a close friend meet that fate ... see, you can’t jump to conclusions with this man). Older than other pilots during training and squadron life, Caldwell was the loner with a job to do. After a patrol he invariably flew home at low-level looking for ground targets. He was always on the hunt and, to some extent, alienated himself from his fellow 250 Squadron pilots. Always looking for ways to improve his natural fighting ability, Caldwell discovered he could practice deflection shooting (aiming for where the enemy would be) by shooting for his aircraft’s shadow on the desert floor. What became a widely-accepted training method was just one of the many skills that saw Caldwell grow into a leader. His initiative, experience and, of course, survival led to an ever-increasing score and desire to pass on what he had learned the hard way. He was often accused of regular, glorious ‘line-shooting’ in the Mess but he saw few other ways to pass on his experience. Command of the legendary 112 Squadron and pioneering another seminal desert development – the Kittybomber – precedes War Bond and flying tours of the US before an eventual return to an Australia that, well, lauds him while at the same time trying to cut his legs out from under him.

I’ve come across a few circumstances of senior Australian airmen returning home from Europe only to discover incompetence and jealousy from staff officers senior to them. Caldwell experienced some of this on his return but was back in the thick of it in command of The Spitfire Wing in Darwin after a very short stint instructing. The Australian government had been screaming out for Spitfires to defend the top end. When they finally did arrive, there was little support and ground crews had to make do. With Caldwell in command and adding to his personal score, the Spitfire defence was effective but, because of the high profile, very open to criticism if there was a sniff of a failure. Raid 54 on Darwin, the day the Spitfires ‘all fell into the sea’, is the perfect example. What became a very difficult tactical situation was exacerbated by General MacArthur’s Melbourne headquarters releasing a communiqué after the fact blaming a non-existent weather factor and poor strategy. This was latched onto by all and sundry during the war and since and, unfairly, heaped blame on Caldwell. The resulting analysis of the events and actual truth is a masterpiece of research and interpretation.

The Americans had a further hand in Caldwell’s war when General Kenney, and a complicit Australian government, side-lined the Spitfires of 80 Fighter Wing when based on Morotai. After a proper stint instructing, Caldwell had taken command of the Wing but had little to do. The move to Morotai suggested more worthwhile duties but it brought a whole lot of additional problems. The Spitfires continued to struggle for parts and basic supplies to keep a squadron running and quartered were hard to come by. Warned of the RAAF’s inability to meet the demand, Caldwell was advised to acquire a stock of liquor for trading with the well-supplied Americans. Let down by hierarchy, Caldwell’s hand was forced in order to keep his Wing at readiness and the morale of his men high. This same hierarchy then charged Caldwell with illegal liquor trading and the subsequent inquiry rolled into a ball the issues surrounding Caldwell’s involvement in the co-ordinated resignation of senior front-line RAAF officers protesting over the lack of worthwhile assignments.

The terms of reference and proceedings of The Barry Inquiry are very well handled by the author and lose none of their impact despite being made easy to read and understand. One might think of the subject as dry but having followed Caldwell this far, you’ll want to see him come out the other side. As suggested above, a more comprehensive study of the man has not been attempted and, it can be argued, might as well not be. Everything, it seems, is here. The writing is honest, to the point and without pretension – the perfect reflection of Caldwell’s character. Numerous direct quotes are used but these fit seamlessly into the main body of text. I found the style a tiny bit clunky at first but, as Kristen must have as she wrote, I found my feet and sailed through the text. By the way, she writes like a girl. Funny I should say this, you ask? Well, yes and no. Who else would have bothered to provide well-written details of Jean Caldwell’s wedding attire? This level of detail is also evident throughout with the copious annotations and extensive bibliography. This style developed by Kristen works well so it will be good to see her let it loose on a lesser-known RAAF personality in the future.

Clive Caldwell deserves to be regarded and recognised alongside other Australian aviation greats such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler and the Reverend John Flynn. To the greater Australian public, I don’t think he is but this book can certainly change that. Here we have a comprehensive biography written by an expert researcher with an eye for detail and the ability to keep things simple and enjoyable.

I bought my paperback copy of this book a couple of years ago during a 50% off everything sale at a bookshop in Perth. It is readily available online and in bookstores or you can order it direct - signed and affordable - from the author at her Canberra store - www.alexanderfaxbooks.com.au

A good, solid paperback of more than 300 pages, there are three photo sections which ably illustrate Caldwell's entire life including post-war which many biographies seem to peter out on. Wait till you see the endnotes and bibliography!

22 June 2009

Alexander Fax Booksellers

Kristen Alexander and David Fax run a well known military bookshop in Canberra. While their website features their stock, among other things, they've also just started up a blog - http://alexanderfaxbooks.blogspot.com/

Links to the bookshop have been featured several times on here and reviews for Kristen's two books - Clive Caldwell, Air Ace and Jack Davenport, Beaufighter Leader will be posted shortly.

If you love books and the life that comes with them, keep an eye on the AF blog.

10 June 2009

Night After Night: New Zealanders In Bomber Command - Max Lambert

The great melting pot that was the RAF during the war has always, to me, been a strong indicator of how people from different countries and backgrounds can work closely together to achieve a common goal. Sure, the Commonwealth countries that contributed the majority of international aircrew for Bomber Command (Canada, Australia and New Zealand) had very firm ties to Britain (as did all contributing nations), but as established societies they naturally developed their own way of seeing the world. Throw them together in a, to use a modern cliché, work hard/play hard environment in a strange country with different weather, customs, and the sobering task of risking their lives regularly, and you can’t help but marvel how well so many ‘strangers from strange lands’ bonded and got the job done. There’s a few people around today who could learn a lot from that sort of co-operation and acceptance.

The quiet achievers of Bomber Command (and better drinkers than the Australians apparently, they just didn’t broadcast it as much!) were the New Zealanders. Of the 6000-odd Kiwis that served in Bomber Command, almost one third (1,850) were lost; it's a sobering statistic at any time, but even more so when you consider the population of New Zealand at the time was roughly 1.6 million. Since we’re talking statistics, just what did this less-than-six-per-cent of Bomber Command’s personnel actually contribute? Well, it is Bomber Command so you can easily imagine their struggle for survival, but for the ultimate narrative you cannot go past Max Lambert’s superlative Night After Night.

Drawing on countless interviews with veterans and families, the author blends the individual stories together with considerable skill, walking the reader through the entire war from the early, disorganised days of operations to the eventual cessation of hostilities. The main text of the book is separated into sections (one per year) and each is introduced with an overview of the war’s progress and Bomber Command’s situation and evolving tactics and campaigns. This necessary context ably supports the chronological recording of stories ranging from training, adventures, narrow escapes, deaths and imprisonment to the rewarding journeys home to New Zealand. Lambert, through the multitude of interviews obviously performed for this book, has clearly understood the images and memories shared with him and writes with immense detail and empathy. First-hand accounts of life in Bomber Command are certainly not rare, but to have a large number from a variety of personalities at your fingertips is an effective way to help develop or add to a deep understanding (lots of value if your budget is limited or, like me, you've commenced another self-imposed book-buying ban). The peril faced by these brave airmen will have you shaking your head in disbelief at their survival one moment and then swallowing the lump in your throat upon reading of their loss the next.

This is a wonderful-looking book with a simple, but beautifully illustrated, cover. The thick card cover of this original edition is a little different to the norm, kind of like a cross between a paperback and a dust-jacket if that makes sense. In this case the quality presentation equals the content inside including the range of photographs (featuring one of the saddest images I have ever seen: a pilot, looking for all the world as though he’s asleep, still strapped to his seat as the mangled remains of his Wellington are recovered from the sea the day after his ditching, I get emotional just thinking about it) which span the entire course of the war. Easy to read, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you can devour 450+ pages of what can be confronting experiences.

This is an extremely valuable account of just part of Bomber Command's war and a fitting, and overdue, literary memorial to the contributions of a small, but proud, country to that campaign.

I bought my copy off Ebay in Australia, but the book is widely available from other sources including Amazon etc. It’s a heavy bit of gear so watch the postage if you’re buying online from somewhere that doesn’t have set rates. Having said that, my copy is a paperback so it’s certainly not as heavy as some of the hardbacks out there.

Night After Night would be a nice companion for Hank Nelson’s Chased By The Sun (Australians in BC). I hope to prove that one day as I’m still kicking myself for not buying CBTS when it was widely available in the big department store chains!

Reviewed copy published by HarpersCollins Publishers (New Zealand) Limited in 2005.

27 May 2009

A Thousand Shall Fall - Murray Peden

Remember all the things your parents used to say? “Eat your vegetables”, “You get what you pay for” and “You can’t judge a book by its cover”. Well, as we all know, our parents are invariably right and, as much as we hate it, at some stage in our lives, we will catch ourselves saying the same things. Having a book fetish as I do no matter how hard I try I do find myself “judging a book by its cover.” After all, that’s the whole point when it comes to selling books, isn’t it? Call to the potential buyer siren-like with a great looking book and hope for the best. As you will have read in the previous review, this can back-fire on the gentle reader but for this review, it works. However, wrapping A Thousand Shall Fall in brown paper would not matter a damn – it is truly the mother of all classic war memoirs.

Murray Peden is a Canadian who joins the RCAF the day after his 18th birthday in October 1941. He progresses through Initial Training School, Elementary Flying Training School (where he discovers the joys of flying Tiger Moths ) and Service Flying Training School (Cessna Cranes) before embarkation to England in November 1942. Pretty standard stuff for someone training to be a pilot but more of that later. Arrival in England brings leave in Bournemouth prior to blowing the cobwebs out on Tigers again at EFTS and then joining an Advanced Flying Unit and getting to grips with the Airspeed Oxford. Crewing-up, Wellingtons at OTU and then Stirlings and joining a Main Force squadron – 214 – follow in natural progression and I know this process is probably old hat to most of you. The thing, however, is that by the time Peden’s crew go on their first Main Force trip, you are already more than 230 pages into the book. The detail is phenomenal, some of Peden’s adventures (and misadventures) are epic and it is all just so easy to read. By page two I had chuckled to myself and by page four, I had laughed out loud. This sense of humour and keen observation prevails throughout but I digress.

Peden’s crew, after their captain does two second dickey trips (one decidedly dodgy and the other thoroughly professional), gets through their ‘Gardening’ (mine-laying) op and then gets stuck into their tour with raids on Germany and Occupied Europe. They certainly gel as a team and there is a firm sense of complete trust in each other. Yes, they have their scrapes but it comes as no surprise when they are seconded to 161 Squadron at Tempsford for training in supply-dropping to resistance forces in occupied France. There is an interesting but brief insight into these operations before a return to 214, further ops and then, joy of joys, 214 is taken out of Main Force, joins 100 Group and receives Flying Fortresses for use in ‘spoof’ raids and other electronic countermeasures to hopefully confuse the German radar and night-fighter defences. I say “joy of joys” simply because reading about Fortresses in the RAF is not a regular occurrence and combining them with 100 Group operations is just out of the ordinary for this type of book.

The conversion from Stirlings is smooth and the comparisons between the two aircraft (I’ll probably regret saying this) in the text must surely be unique in this genre. Peden, who is an above-average pilot (and writer) throughout, adjusts well and he and his crew continue their tour into 1945. I have to admit I found myself thinking they had a better chance of surviving by not being in Main Force. However, their work, by necessity, drew night-fighters to them (away from Main Force) or involved flying within the bomber stream to make life difficult for the defenders. Numerous countermeasures are used and Peden gives an excellent overview of the tactics of both sides in this most deadly of cat-and-mouse games.

Finally, the Peden crew completes their tour in early 1945 and after a short while of them all instructing new Fortress crews at 1699 HCU, they go their separate ways but not before flying their ground crew over past targets. The family is split up and the big adventure is over.

This book is pure, unadulterated brilliance. It is written by someone who is clearly very well read and has a delightful and accurate turn of phrase. Full of numerous laugh out loud escapades and typical aircrew hi-jinks, Peden’s writing is equally moving and emotional. He loses a number of very good friends (the book is partly dedicated to them) and, on one occasion during training in Canada, escorts the coffin containing his best mate back to the mourning family in the US. I challenge you not to get at least a lump in your throat. It is truly beautiful writing from a very talented author. An infinitely better writer than me could make it a lot clearer with reference to other clever writers but you know the feeling you get when you read a good book – that light-headedness and general sense of nirvana (maybe it’s just me)? With ATSF, you’ve got it by the second page.

This book is just over four years of Peden’s life in well over 400 pages. It’s a cast of hundreds and like Shakespeare’s world stage, the players have their entrances and, sadly in many cases, their exits. Peden weaves it all together and ... I’ve said enough. Want more proof as to how good this is? I’ll leave that to Sir Arthur Harris who read the first edition in 1979 and was compelled to write a letter to the author (which he starts with "Dear Peden"):

"I consider it not only the best and most true to life ‘war’ book I’ve read about this war, but the best about all the wars of my lifetime."

I stumbled across this book on Amazon early last year. It is a paperback with a thin card cover and a general feeling of being a cheaper production but this is reflected in the price and, overall, you get so much more than you pay for anyway. There’s an excellent array of photos but these are printed on the same paper as the text which is a tiny let-down but, again, it all combines to be a very affordable book and most impressive read. By far the best memoir I have read - superb.

The book is easily available on Amazon. I have not seen it in shops in Australia but I imagine it is easily found in Canada of course.

Reviewed copy published by Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited in 2000.
ISBN 1-5500-2454-X

19 May 2009

Desert Flyer - Martyn R Ford-Jones

As I mentioned in the review for Caine’s Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer, the use of a wartime diary is often the genesis for an insightful and personal memoir. A diary on its own can make for interesting reading but add some context, stir in some other characters and provide a generous dollop of illustrations and you’ve got the perfect recipe ... if you can cook it right. Desert Flyer has all the ingredients for a five star dish but it should have been left in the oven a bit longer.

The subject of the story is F/O William Marsh – a working class lad with a green thumb developed from working a market garden. He joins the RAF and trains in Canada before being posted to 605 Squadron but ultimately ends up with 274 in March 1942 (after sailing in convoy and witnessing the loss of HMS Ark Royal – interesting photos here). Marsh remains with the squadron for well over a year before leaving for his ‘rest’ tour as an instructor. Throughout his time with 274 (and before and after) Marsh provides a window to his experiences through numerous candid diary entries that offer insight into life in the desert. The diary entries and main body of text are ably supported by more than 200 of Marsh's photos. To my knowledge, none of these photos had been published before and they are a truly remarkable record of one man’s war from the frozen airfields of Canada to the hot landing grounds of North Africa. Every facet of his life is contained in these photos and all are printed on high quality paper so their reproduction is superb.

However, I am not at all impressed with the writing and editing. The bibliography contains just five sources which surprised me a great deal. The grammar is average (not that mine is perfect) with regular errors and I encountered several incomplete sentences which made no sense (not to mention the repeat of an incomplete sentence in a paragraph about a combat - took the 'rush' away!). There is also the apparent need to insert extra words into some of the diary/log excerpts. This lessens the feel and originality of Marsh's writing. Over-clarification also prevails. When "Spits” are mentioned by Marsh, for example, the author or publisher (I suspect the latter) felt the need to put "Spitfires" in brackets. Seriously. Perhaps I’m being a little sensitive on this last point but [Spitfires] could have easily replaced “Spits” altogether (which is how I was taught to use square brackets).

I have a severe feeling this book was written for the American market and was simplified so RAF ops in North Africa could be easily understood. I don't think American enthusiasts were given enough credit here.

Now for my big ‘but, hang on’. If I am completely honest the impact of the errors/lack of research/treating the reader a little like an idiot are lessened by a bit of sentimentality and empathy. Sure, the issues I have with this book were greatly frustrating - a classic example being a pilot recorded in the text as having pranged his Spitfire but was referred to in the end notes as having pranged his Hurricane ... and the caption of the relevant photo also said Hurricane - but, as I read about Marsh's time with 71 OTU at Ismailia, I realised I would miss this pilot whose life had been laid out in front of me over 300+ pages. His loss, as with all losses in our readings, was sobering and I felt it keenly.

So, despite the frustrations that are clearly evident, consider this book if you ever come across it. Sure, it's a bit light on for detailed research (depends what you’re after) and there are all manner of things you'll pick up as wrong etc but it is an insight into ‘one of the many’ - the fighter pilots who were not aces but were bloody good at their jobs and who should have had the chance to live a longer life. You could also buy this book for its 200+ photos alone. They are astounding and the perfect condiment for a book that is slightly underdone.

I realise this is a somewhat negative review but it is how I saw DF. While I haven’t written a book yet, I obviously appreciate the effort made by authors. We can all get passed errors etc but considering how much we can pay for books I think we deserve value for money.

I bought my hardcover copy of DF off Ebay and was quite taken by the cover and overall ‘feel’ of the book – nice and heavy and printed on good paper stock. I’m a sucker for anything in North Africa.

Reviewed copy published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd in 2004.
ISBN 0-7643-0347-3

15 May 2009

Beyond Courage - Norman Franks

Without knowing about the author’s earlier work on the subject - Another Kind Of Courage – you’d have little chance of guessing the subject of the book. One look at the cover though is enough to make the title clear of course. Not a lot has been written about the Walrus Air Sea Rescue squadrons of the RAF and rarely have I come across their memories - written or otherwise. Naturally, that’s not to say they’re not out there (Graham Pitchfork’s Shot Down And In The Drink is a good companion for AKOC and BC). It’s just that in a world of dashing fighter pilots and determined bomber captains, the men who risk their lives, and aircraft, to save others tend to get overlooked. Fortunately, one of the pioneers of RAF record research has had the foresight to address this imbalance.

As is well known, the Walrus was a single-engine, biplane amphibian that flew with a crew of two or three. Perfectly suited to being catapulted from cruisers and battleships, she was necessarily smaller than you’d expect but, as discovered within the pages of this book, possessed a big heart. The book chronologically follows the rescues by Walrus aircraft operating from North Africa and, as the war moved on to Italy, from bases that could cover the far northern reaches of that country’s waters.

Far from being picture-postcard perfect, the Mediterranean proves to be a constant challenge for the Walrus crews with the outcome of a successful landing and recovery often being a taxi to shore or being placed under tow by a vessel such as an ASR high-speed launch. The crews knew the weight limitations of their aircraft but with a bomber crew in the water below and night falling, for example, the decision was regularly made to alight on the surface to provide some comfort for the downed airmen. The result of such a commitment sometimes led to a night on the open water manning the bilge pumps to prevent the Walrus from sinking. If the sea was rough, the structure of the aircraft – wing floats etc – could be damaged. So, knowing these conditions, the RAF and Commonwealth crews of 283, 284, 293 and 294 Squadrons, scrambled time and time again to conduct searches for missing aircrew. I think it is pretty clear where the title of the book earned its inspiration.

Details of squadron and detachment formation and movements are presented against the backdrop of the war in the MTO as a whole. The writing can seem a little stilted in these sections but that’s only because the escapades of the Walrus crews and those they save are so riveting. Franks covers a good portion of the rescues effected often with extensive (and typically understated) comment from those involved. I was fascinated by long-termers such as F/O Arnold Divers DFM RNZAF of 283 Squadron. Their insights into being part-aviator and part-mariner are a joy to read (Divers, amazingly, went on to fly Mosquitoes over Europe). Similarly, Franks sets up each featured rescue well with reference to the downed airman/airmen and how they end up in the ‘drink’. American aircrew obviously feature as heavily as those of the RAF etc and one wonders what they thought when they saw a decidedly quaint-looking Walrus heading their way. Something tells me all they saw was rescue and the strong arms waiting to pull them aboard to safety.

Norman Franks’ work takes a bit of a beating from time to time mostly from occasional errors of dates and fates found by other researchers. While I have seen evidence of this secondhand, it should not diminish the attractiveness of his titles should you come across them. It would be unwise to forget that the current high level of interest, and public general knowledge, in the aircrew of the war is a relatively recent thing. Long before records were made available online or discussions could be opened up to the world, researchers like Norman Franks were shuffling vast amounts of paper records at places like Kew, writing letters to veterans and transcribing their interviews in order to make some sense of an air war so vast it will never be completely covered. Today’s ‘bibles’ and best-sellers owe a lot to the groundwork and interest generated by the likes of Norman Franks.

Reading about the RAF etc will invariably lead to accounts of ditching, days in dinghies and subsequent rescues. This book provides a detailed understanding of such things from the point of view of the ASR crews. If you are new to the genre and want to understand the courage of aircrew in the face of adversity, give BC a go. You will not be disappointed.

I came to this book after the Egles title below. He and his Wellington crew had been rescued by a Walrus and, knowing I had BC on the shelf, was inspired to find out more.

As with all Grub Street books I’ve come across, BC is well put together and features a great range of photos including some of actual rescues.

My copy of this title came in a care package from a good friend. It is, however, easily available from Amazon.

Reviewed copy published by Grub Street in 2003.
ISBN 1-904010-30-X

Charles 'Bud' Tingwell - Rest In Peace

I've just heard of the passing of this great man. Serving as a recce pilot on Spits and Mossies in the Mediterranean, he went on to become one of Australia's most loved actors. Watching him on screen is always such a joy.

Michael Veitch in his book Flak interviewed 'Bud' about his wartime experiences. He will not be forgotten.

05 May 2009

Just One Of The Many - Dudley C Egles MID

Books come in all shapes and sizes and, lately, I’ve seen a couple that are not what you’d expect – but more of those in later reviews. Value for money is an important consideration and there’s nothing like immersing yourself in a nice, 300+ page book (although not conducive to rapid reviews). However, to use a cliché early on, good things do come in small packages and, really, when it comes to aircrew books, we are grateful any effort has been made! Just One Of The Many is one such small package. A paperback of just 120 pages, this is an easy book to devour in an afternoon or over a couple of days. If you’re new to the genre, it is a nice way to ease your way into the world according to aircrew – and in this case, a navigator.

Dudley Egles rips into his service career right from the start. At the age of 18, he signed on as an Observer in 1939 because the waiting list to commence training was shorter than for pilots. Ground school follows as expected before he embarks for Canada to begin Navigation School ... and ends up in South Africa. As it turns out he is on No. 1 Course EATS in South Africa so there’s a particularly interesting bit of history right there. He enjoys himself on Ansons before returning to the UK for bombing, gunnery and OTU. A subsequent posting to 148 Squadron involves an 11 hour daylight flight to Gibraltar by Wellington before eventually commencing operations out of Egypt.

There is little note of the passage of time as Egles has simply ‘shot from the hip’ somewhat when remembering his adventures. Every now and then you get a ‘time stamp’ – such as Egles catching a bit of flak in his rear end during a trip to Greece on his 21st birthday. In his time with 148, Egles joins the Goldfish Club - after his Wellington ditches following a raid on Benghazi – and the Late Arrivals Club when, on a later trip, he and his crew are brought down in the desert and have to walk home through enemy territory (ultimate rescue comes in the form of the Long Range Desert Group). As you can imagine these two adventures are interspersed with other experiences which make for interesting and often amusing reading.

Volunteering to navigate Liberators across the Atlantic comes to nothing besides a short, enjoyable stay in New York City. Egles eventually finds himself back in the UK instructing Canadians before being sent on a GEE course. He marries and, through the fortuitous answering of the phone in the Navigation Office, gets himself assigned to Pathfinder training which ultimately sees him posted to 462 Squadron based at Foggia, Italy. This squadron eventually becomes 614 which makes for some interesting comparisons to Tom Scotland’s Voice From The Stars. Up until now, there is little indication of Egles’ skill as a navigator (other than the stint instructing) as he understates his involvement in various escapades. A short chapter about an unfortunate but 'anonymous' Joint Squadron Navigation Officer’s chartless Pathfinding trip to Bucharest therefore comes as a pleasant surprise (and ends amusingly). I found myself thinking “Good for you, Egles”. You’ll see why.

Egles soon joins the Caterpillar Club when he bales out of his burning Halifax and becomes a POW in Romania. It turns out he is the first RAF officer imprisoned in that country so his memories of this rarely reported part of the POWs in Europe is most welcome – particularly the leeway he and his fellow inmates were shown towards the end of their imprisonment. Before you know it, Egles is back in the UK, is demobbed, trains as a teacher, tries to rejoin, but fails due to hearing loss, and then casually mentions he and his wife spent time in Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin.

Okay, reading through this book, you’ll find there is enough detail to follow up on if you are so inclined, but not enough if you’re itching for an in-depth read – inquiring minds want to know etc. With so much happening in just a few years, I was left wondering what Egles could have done with another thirty pages. The chapters are largely related to one particular event or posting and some are only a couple of pages long. On the positive side, this is somewhat refreshing as you can dip in and out if you want and can get a quick ‘fix’ of adventure should you feel the urge.

The photo on the cover gives you an indication of the character of the man – that moustache is epic. The sparkling eyes of the elder Egles on the back cover are just as revealing. The writing is entertaining, light-hearted, modest and will leave you wishing for more. Anyone who is shot down three times will certainly see life in a different light to us mere mortals and this is reflected throughout the book. While I wish there was more than a sentence or two about Uganda and Idi Amin, Just One Of The Many (a nice little jibe at ‘The Few’) is a worthy addition to any collection for two main reasons – firstly, it is written by a navigator and is therefore ‘different’ and, secondly, the lucky ‘Many’ are now too few and any book, no matter how small, is a tribute to them.

I bought my copy about 18 months ago from ebay.com.au. I have not seen it pop up again since but a bit of hunting will no doubt uncover a copy. I was lucky to acquire the book for less than $10 so here's hoping you can too. Looks like there's a couple (and I emphasise 'a couple') of affordable copies on Amazon UK.

Reviewed copy published by The Pentland Press Limited in 1996.

01 May 2009

Going Solo - Roald Dahl

I’m embarrassed to say I had completely forgotten Roald Dahl had been a pilot. Like everyone, I knew of his children’s books – Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and The BFG to name a couple – but I had not read any (Enid Blyton and CS Lewis took his place though). Looking into his work there are numerous comments about his deliciously vulgar writing which, of course, would have kids in raptures. Before beginning GS I half-expected a slightly ‘odd’ read but knew the writing would be enjoyable. That, as it turned out, was only the half of it.

The book begins with Dahl heading for the colonies, Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) to be exact, to join Shell in 1938. He travels with a shipload of expat ‘Empire-builders’ and marvels at their bizarre ways. Some of the characters he encounters are marvellous and his descriptions are delightful. Settling into his work Dahl learns Swahili and, generally, gives a good impression of a way of life now long gone. With war looming he and his colleagues are made officers of the local militia and with no training he manages to do his job with a little drama on the way. Driving to Nairobi to join the RAF, he completes his initial training on Tiger Moths before being posted to RAF Habbaniya in Iraq for six months on Hawker Harts.

His first posting is to 80 Squadron ‘somewhere in Libya’ and he delivers a Gladiator in doing so. Having never flown such a powerful aircraft, he encounters his first frustration with what is expected of him. Nevertheless, he almost makes it but after a refuelling stop is sent in the wrong direction and crashes in the middle of the desert as night descends. Rescued by the army, Dahl is badly injured and blinded and spends considerable time, understandably, recovering in Egypt. His joy at his sight finally returning is as palpable as the re-assignment to his squadron is amazing and ridiculous. Continuing his record of epic flights in unfamiliar aircraft, Dahl is given several hours in a new Hurricane – his first monoplane – before flying almost five hours to Greece. He is sent on his way with the knowledge that if the pumps for his wing tanks don’t work, he’ll end up in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Having little idea of what he was flying into, and with less than 10 hours on type, Dahl is dumb-founded to find his new Hurricane is one of just fourteen available to hold back the Luftwaffe. Here, I believe, some details would have been written from memory and rumours at the time but we all know the desperate situation of the RAF in Greece. So, Dahl, with little flying experience, is thrown into the fight to provide air cover with little to no strategic (early warning etc) or numerical support. That he survives is remarkable. That he actually shoots down German bombers will astound you. However, the breakdown of command and the mad scramble to evacuate means Dahl’s efforts in Greece, singularly impressive, are ultimately futile. What’s left of the squadron’s aircraft is flown to Crete while Dahl and the rest of his colleagues end up back in Egypt before rejoining the squadron in Palestine in May 1941. Here they encounter the Vichy French and Dahl has further success in the air (though little is written about this side of things) and a somewhat interesting, if not slightly disturbing, encounter with a German refugee. Finally, Dahl’s injuries from the Gladiator crash catch up with him and blinding headaches force him out of the air and return him to his family in England after three years away.

Going Solo really is just a joy to read. It’s also the perfect book to introduce children – yours or otherwise – to the aviation of the Second World War. It reads like a well-written adventure novel and will certainly feed and fire their imagination as much as it did mine. Don’t expect a tonne of hard facts and figures. Few names of fellow pilots are mentioned (although you’ll love the ‘Pat’ Pattle reference – another insight into this somewhat ‘mysterious’ flyer). However, here is a writer who knows how to tell a story and you get the feeling he just sat down, made a brief timeline and then filled in the gaps with the most descriptive writing imaginable of some wonderful and eye-opening experiences. Self-effacing, at no stage does he think “I’m getting good at this”. Rather, it is the acceptance of his probable fate and a “Golly, I’ll be lucky to get out of this” that strikes a chord.

Without having read the ‘prequel’ Boy the adventures Dahl has within the period covered by GS clearly shape his take on life and the world. The breathtaking events and adversity he lived through served to eventually bring joy to millions of readers and for that, I think, we have a Gladiator crash and a truly talented flyer to thank!

My copy of this book is an old paperback from the mid-1980s purchased a couple of years ago at a market in Midland, Western Australia. It is easily available online for a reasonable price and will no doubt be relatively easy to find in a local bookshop. It is also available from Alexander Fax Booksellers - http://www.alexanderfaxbooks.com.au/

I hold this book in such high regard that I intend to buy a nice hardcover edition eventually and save it for my kids.

There are some interesting photos included but, in the paperback format at least, are printed on the same stock as the text.

Reviewed copy published by Penguin Books in 1986.
ISBN 0-14-010306-6