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