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