30 December 2010

The RAAF Hudson Story, Book Two - not long now

I know I've been pushing this barrow a fair bit but when something of this magnitude is due to be published it is natural to get excited. Of course, such a large project can be 90% done and still have a long way to go and the deadlines of the self-publisher simply get eaten up. But, why rush something like this? It, with Book One, is set to be the reference work for the Hudson in Australian service (both military and civilian).

The latest news, as of a couple of weeks ago, is that the advance copy has been approved by David's well-known designer, Mark Nelson, and, as a result, the printers are good to go. David, consequently, is now expecting to receive the shipment of crisp, new, Hudson-loaded books by the end of January.

The pre-publication offer is still available. Simply email David at djvincentATchariot.net.au

Make room on your shelf!

12 December 2010

First Light - Geoffrey Wellum

First Light. Geoffrey Wellum. There are two types of people with regard to this book: those who have read it and those who are going to. Happily, I am now in the former group but have no excuse as to why it took me so long to read this widely-acclaimed title. I didn’t realise what I’d been missing. It is a book that transcends the Battle of Britain. Indeed, it transcends wartime aviation. First Light is the ‘poster boy’ of the genre and is the memoir of the modern day that has impacted the general public in a way I wish all aircrew books could. What is written above (and below) is nothing new. Really, this review could be just six words: First Light. Geoffrey Wellum. Read it.

It would be remiss of me to leave it at that as there is so much to talk about with this book. At 17, the author applies to join the RAF and is successful – the application and approval process through his school and the selection board is supported by a delightful dialogue – but completes another term at school before ab initio training, and his RAF career, begins in earnest in late July 1939. Far from a natural pilot, he enjoys the flying but approaches it with some trepidation which eventually turns into serious self-doubt. A naturally self-deprecating type, the author’s general under-estimation of his abilities is a recurring theme throughout the book and an indication that, although incredibly young, he doesn’t take anything for granted. It is only through instructors who “know the flying game from A to Z”, and a determination that will become familiar to the reader, that he solos ... two days before the outbreak of war.

There is no real mention of the war up until the time the author earns his wings. If anything, he was lucky to learn to fly when he did as the curriculum had yet to be condensed by the desperate need for pilots. On Harvards at Little Rissington, he progresses well before getting a little too comfortable and receiving a rocket from the Chief Ground Instructor about the poor nature of his progress. He re-invigorates his flying and studies and is soon back on track but then loses a close friend in a flying accident. The reality of the job hits home but the flying continues apace and not without several hiccups on the way. Again good, highly-respected instructors and the Wellum determination get him through.

While this part of the review really focuses on the events of the book, a timeline as it were, it is the way they are related that makes FL such a vivid read. The author, in the introduction, says he just sat down and the words came automatically. This is clearly evident – the writing is more like a stream of consciousness captured at the point it forms in the mind. This is where the true strength of the book lies. The author is remarkably able to reproduce his innermost thoughts – his fears, his doubts and his worries are all countered by youthful exuberance and a genuine love of flying. His descriptions of his various training flights cannot be beaten. He meets every challenge with a mixture of awe, humility and a determination that comes from deep within and the reader is privy to all of it.

A good Wings test and with the end of his training in sight, the urgency of war finally catches up and the author is posted to No. 92 Squadron ... at the age of 18 years and nine months! He settles in happily enough – ever aware of his lack of experience – and finally flies a Spitfire (yet another delightful experience to read). All does not progress perfectly though as he bends a Spitfire on night flying circuits and is grounded for more than a week as punishment. If anything, this is the turning point in his flying. It was almost like he had to get the elephant in the room – fear of pranging a valuable aircraft and writing himself off – out of the way. Assisted by his Flight Commander, the legendary Brian Kingcombe, he works out what went wrong and, rather ironically, once he returns to night-flying, is vectored onto ‘bandits’ over Bristol. He doesn’t see anything but his first operational flight proves to be somewhat of a confidence boost.

The squadron soon moves to a rather battered Biggin Hill. The next flight described in the text is a squadron scramble to intercept incoming bombers. Here, we seem to catch the author already several weeks into the endless cycle of pre-dawn readiness, frayed nerves, squadron scrambles and, of course, combat. He has recently learned of the death of his closest friend and spends several pages dealing with his loss. There is a strong sense of getting on with business and the interception of the bombers is as frenetic as it is successful for the author although he does manage to run out of ammunition and get hit by fire from an Me 109. No sooner is he back on the ground and debriefed is he assigned another aircraft and off again on a convoy patrol.

This day spills over into a chapter titled Mars, God Of War. It is a chapter of 15 pages but feels like two. The action simply does not stop – at one stage the author writes “I’m not cut out for this sort of thing”. Rolling into the next chapter, the reading is just a blur and, as accurately as possible when trying to get such things down on paper, the utter pace of the fighter pilot’s life during the Battle of Britain is well conveyed. On top of this the banter among the pilots is an absolute joy to read – always amusing and very clever, the type that could only be expressed by those of a close-knit team.

What is most remarkable is with the Battle of Britain behind him – and some rather dicey flying at times in some pretty unpleasant weather – you’d think there’d be time for the author to find some time to catch-up and recharge his batteries. With Fighter Command now on the offensive, and the Biggin Hill Wing leading from the front, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Often flying two sorties a day, the author now finds himself escorting small formations of bombers over Occupied Europe to entice the German fighters into the air. It is a reversal of the previous summer when the Germans did exactly the same over Britain. As detailed in Peter Caygill’s The Biggin Hill Wing 1941 (one of the first books reviewed on ABR), the small forces of bombers did not prove terribly enticing and the Germans were able to dictate their contact with the British aircraft to a considerable extent. September 1941 rolls around and a very tired author, despite the regulatory periods of leave he must have had, is, in Kingcombe’s word, “over the hill”.

Five initially “unbearable” months as an instructor - a blossoming romance keeps him going and helps him to finally unwind and enjoy his flying again. A very understated visit to Buckingham Palace to receive his DFC is recorded almost absent-mindedly and, suddenly, it is February 1942, RAF Debden is ‘home’ and No. 65 Squadron marks a return to sweeps over Europe and combat in Sptifire MkVbs against the far superior Fw 190. The fatigue returns and manifests itself in a piercing pain across the top of the author’s eyes. Its development is subsequently way-laid somewhat by a posting to Malta via the great convoy that formed under the banner of Operation Pedestal – the maximum effort to force through vital supplies and aircraft to an island under siege.

This period is condensed into some 30 pages but offers great insight into the preparations the pilots made to fly their Spitfires off the carriers. Wellum leads one of the four formations to Malta off the deck of HMS Furious but not before seeing HMS Eagle torpedoed and sunk while still sitting on the deck in his Spitfire. I found this observation of particular interest as I could put myself on board Eagle through the words of Mike Crosley who had survived the sinking and recounted the event in his They Gave Me A Seafire (also reviewed here on ABR).

The author leads his Spitfires successfully to the island and, upon landing, is greeted by none other than Keith Park who remembers him from his Biggin Hill days in 1940. There is no rest for Wellum as, with the convoy still sailing to Malta, he is flying operationally the next day. Although it is not mentioned directly that he bore witness to the arrival of the battered tanker Ohio, the description is very moving and the relief the residents must have felt is palpable.

The stay on Malta is comparatively short with the high tempo of flying causing the rapid return of fatigue and the pain across the eyes. A diagnosis of chronic sinusitis and a slightly amusing but rather disturbing ‘procedure’ to clear the fluid follow before the author is sent home via Hudson to Gibraltar and Catalina to Plymouth. Mentally and physically exhausted, he recuperates in the English countryside before becoming a production test pilot for the Gloster Aircraft Company and flying Typhoons which, compared to the Spitfire, is such a brute of a single-engine aircraft that he looks around to “see if it’s got two of everything”. Beautiful, amusing and heart-warming writing to the very last word.

Convinced? Well, I suspect you wouldn’t need to read the above to be so but thank you for doing so all the same. First Light truly is a remarkable work. Hard to put down, the detail is enough to keep the purist happy yet not technical to keep, well, everyone happy. There are no lists of cylinder-head temperatures, rates of climb at certain power settings or anything like that. The detail is in the author’s observations and his interactions and it is these where the reader can learn so much more. The people Wellum encounters in his travels are all fascinating and worthy of their own stories even though, at times, names are not mentioned. He spends considerable time giving ‘life’ to these people on paper which serves to round out the reading experience. I made a rather clumsy note while reading – “truly great writing is this” and “Page 263” (or the second page of Chapter 11 depending on which edition you have) – but, in all honesty, I could have made a note on every page as it hard to not turn up a wonderful passage.

As already mentioned, the author is a “cheeky young cocky little bugger” (an assessment by none other than his first CO, Roger Bushell of eventual ‘Great Escape’ fame) with a humble assessment of his own abilities to fly and to cope. If he comments on promotions or awards it is only in passing or determined from comments ‘buried’ in the text yet it is evident he is a talented flyer. This talent is only surpassed by his ability to write what he saw and felt. He adds colour to what is otherwise a predominantly black and white war. In terms of the Battle of Britain, he injects the colour of that summer into the pages – the green countryside, the silver of the Thames and the blue of the Channel, the foreboding greens and greys of the German aircraft and “small white clouds against the blue summer sky”. He has written a book that is almost impossible to put down but at times you simply have to look up to catch your breath. Simply superb.

First Light. Geoffrey Wellum. Read it.

The book is easily available throughout the world in a number of different editions – the mark of a bestseller and it’s easy to see why. Thirty-nine photos are included in two sections on glossy paper. Some are generic to the events the author was involved in but most are personal images and include a good selection of the marvellous pilots/characters Wellum flew and lived with.

The reviewed copy was bought secondhand online – “just buy the bloody thing” – and was published by Penguin Books Ltd in 2003. ISBN 0-141-00814-8.

10 December 2010

Vale Jim Sheddan

It's always a sad day when a veteran passes away but the loss of those who have shared their life with us 'poor slobs' through the medium of a book always feels a bit more personal. That connection has been made through the pages and while it will never resemble the strength of a personal relationship the reader appreciates it for what it is - a window. If you then happen to stumble upon someone who knows the author and confirms your assumptions, the connection is stronger no matter how intangible it is.

So it was with the passing of Jim Sheddan, the author of the often amusing Tempest Pilot (co-written with Norman Franks), on Thursday. I've had his book in my collection for about a decade and, although I read it a few years ago, it still resonates - the connection was made. The former No. 485 Squadron Spitfire pilot and 486 Typhoon and Tempest pilot and CO was a superb flyer - he was successful against aircraft (manned and pilotless) and ground targets alike - and possessed a considerable, wicked really, sense of humour and love of life. What little I know of his life over the past decade, he was happy to lend his time to various commemorative efforts and was a dab hand at homebrew. He was also very supportive of the various Bomber Command organisations having lost his brother on his first operation.

My condolences to the family and friends of this good man. I cannot begin to imagine the hole his death has left in your lives.

Squadron Leader Cornelius James Sheddan DFC, RNZAF. RIP.

20 November 2010

6 Group Bomber Command - Chris Ward

I have a confession to make. It’s a confession that won’t exactly instil a lot of confidence in the following passages but, in the interests of maintaining the honesty I try to express in my reviews, it is one I must make. I did not finish this book. In fact, I didn’t even make it to page 100 and that took me at least a couple of months. It would be unfair to blame this length of time completely on the book, as other responsibilities always get in the way of reading, but it is certainly not something you can’t put down. On top of this my approach to reading 6GBC was completely wrong despite the advice from a good friend. I had been warned that, as it was an operational history, it would quite likely be a bit of a slog. While I appreciated this advice, I thought two things. One, as a book reviewer, how can I review a book without reading it ‘properly’? Two, my passion for the genre and respect for the people involved would surely carry me through. It would seem sheer enthusiasm makes one a bit naive and my impressions are somewhat clouded as result. Having said that, if you were to approach this book for what it is – a first stop reference for 6 Group – you would certainly never be disappointed. 6 Group Bomber Command fits a lot of information into a small package and pays tribute to those people who formed the largest contingent of overseas personnel to serve in the RAF – the Canadians.

Like Australia and New Zealand, Canada was a signatory of Article XV which, as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, called for the formation of squadrons that would operate under RAF control but be financed by their respective countries. While Canada was not keen to give up control of its personnel to the RAF – the preference being to operate ‘alongside’ its ally – it eventually reached a compromise that would lead to a bomber group made up of Canadian squadrons. Thus, 6 Group was born. While the three-year negotiations certainly favoured the RAF’s ultimate goal – a complete bomber Group financed by someone else – the Canadians were justifiably proud when 6 Group was finally realised on the first day of 1943.

Eight squadrons formed the new Group with other Canadian units continuing to operate with ‘RAF’ Groups prior to their eventual transfer to join their countrymen. The author gives a brief run-down of the squadrons before, like the Group, diving into operations which commenced on the night of 2/3 January, 1943. The early operations with Wellingtons and Halifaxes are very interesting as the Group achieves its first successes and, of course, suffers its first losses. The Group’s operations are cleverly woven into Bomber Command’s campaign as a whole so the reader is provided with an excellent picture of the contributions the Canadians made. This contribution steadily grows as experience, equipment and men are acquired to the point where the Group easily, and regularly, fields more than 100 aircraft for a night of operations. Certainly a far cry from the six Wellingtons sent out on that first op in January, 1943.

As fascinating as the operations are, after a while they blend in to each other and, if you’re not paying attention, nothing sinks in as you read and you lose track of the timeline. It becomes a case of wading through pages and pages of targets, bomb loads, aircraft numbers, aircraft losses and crew ‘statistics’. At times it feels like tables of numbers converted into paragraphs but then it is, after all, a reference book (my mistaken approach to 6GBC resulted in this opinion). There are bright spots though as the reader is fairly regularly treated to a short piece on the experiences of a crew during a particular raid or even a short biography of someone who lived to fly another day ... or didn’t.

To a considerable extent I think the author was done a disservice with the presentation of the book. I don’t usually talk about this side of things until the end of a review but, in this case, I feel it has such a bearing on the ‘readability’ of 6GBC that it cannot simply be mentioned in passing. Naturally, I invite any reader of this particular review to remember I read this book ‘wrong’. Externally, 6GBC is a typically well-presented (indeed, superb) effort by Pen & Sword – perhaps the best in the business when it comes to producing attractive hardbacks. Internally, 29 photos in their own section ably illustrate the various personalities, bases and aircraft of the Group with particular emphasis on life on a bomber field. The appendices are, well, I’ll get to those later as they deserve the attention. The text of the first chapter – all 130 pages of narration – is where things fall over. My first impression on opening the book was of page upon page of huge blocks of text with not even ‘white space’ between sections let alone paragraphs. This contributes to the operations blending into each other and the reader (well, me) having to pay careful attention to do more than just ‘see’ the words. I spent considerable time trying to understand the logic of the editors in constructing the book in this way. Certainly economics played a huge part in keeping the book to a certain size. Indeed, the author says he intended “...to provide as much information as possible in the space available...”. I just think spreading things out a bit would have made it an easier book to tackle if one insisted on sitting down to read the narration from start to finish as I did. Space between each paragraph would not be feasible from a cost or size point of view. At least, I would have liked to have seen a heading for each month rather than everything blending in under a “1943” banner (for example).

This latter point would also be of particular benefit when using – as opposed to reading – the book to its full capability. If you happen to be researching a particular 6 Group aircraft or crew, the excellent appendices will provide what you need to get started down a path that, more often than not, will take you to places you never imagined. Dates of aircraft losses etc are comprehensively included in the appendices and can then be traced to the narrative so a general idea of that particular night/loss can be learned. It takes a bit of work to flick through the narrative to find the correct month and this is where monthly ‘headings’ would have been of most use (and from a reading point of view you’d have some idea of progress).

It is the appendices, really Chapters Two and Three, though, that are worth the purchase of this book alone. Chapter Two gives a quick reference to each squadron, its time on ops and the periods particular types of aircraft were flown. Chapter Three makes it all worth it with a squadron by squadron (15 units in all) listing of every aircraft flown and their fates and, very interestingly, each squadron’s ‘ranking’ within the Group in terms of ops flown and aircraft lost. These statistics are extended to Bomber Command as a whole depending on what type/s the squadron flew. Some of the statistics are as sobering as reading about a lost crew in the narrative. To give you an idea of the extent of this data, Chapters Two and Three account for 122 pages of a 260-page book.

Look, I regret not reading all of the narrative and, as I have said, the experience of doing so (or not doing so as the case may be) has led to the comments above. Take them as you will. If you were to use this book as I intend to – a first-stop reference for anything to do with 6 Group – you will not be disappointed. You possibly won't even have a problem reading the narrative. The author did not set out to write a literary masterpiece. He has written a book crammed full of information about a major contribution by one country to the RAF’s bomber offensive. The Canadians may not have had the independent bomber force they originally wanted, but 6 Group, like this book, achieved so much within the ‘constraints’ placed upon it.

As already mentioned, this is a well-produced book and a good addition to the author’s collection of Group titles. Combined or stand-alone, they provide an easy to use source for novice and Bomber Command aficionado alike.

The book is, naturally, readily available from Pen & Sword for an affordable price (considering its breadth of information).

This review copy was published by Pen & Sword Aviation in 2009. ISBN 978-1-84884-155-0

13 November 2010

The Hudsons are almost here

If you haven't got in touch with David Vincent about The RAAF Hudson Story - Book Two, I heartily recommend you do it now so you can take advantage of his pre-publication offer. I've just seen some photos of how the finished book should look and, if anything, it presents even better than Book One.

Email David - do it now! djvincentATchariot.net.au.

15 September 2010

The Hudsons will be worth the wait

I had an email from David Vincent last month saying the introduction and first chapter of his new book, The RAAF Hudson Story - Book Two, have been sent to the designer for completion. The remainder of the book is ready and David is very excited with the result. The one thing holding David up at the time of the email was having to prepare 150 photo captions for chapter one.

David mentioned there will be a pre-publication offer coming out this month and the intention is to have the book in readers' hands before Christmas. If you are interested in the second instalment of this very important Australian work drop David a line on djvincentATchariot.net.au.

On the subject of new books Peter Wheeler's Kiwis Do Fly has just arrived and it is superb. Max Lambert - author of the brilliant Night After Night - is also working on a book about New Zealand fighter pilots. Due out next year it will certainly be one to keep an eye out for.

I apologise for no reviews of late. Things have been a bit hectic. I'm afraid it will be the end of October before the next review is posted.

24 July 2010

Commander RM 'Mike' Crosley DSC*, RN - RIP

It was with considerable sadness that I read of 'Mike' Crosley's passing today. While he died on June 20, the Telegraph obituary has only just been published.

As regular readers of ABR may remember, Crosley was the author of the superlative They Gave Me A Seafire which I reviewed in January (check the blog archive for 2010) and is a book that is as much a study of the FAA's wartime development as it is an entertaining and informative memoir of a remarkable pilot.

After publishing the review here I was honoured to be contacted first by a family friend and, secondly, by Mr Crosley's wife, Joan. For the past seven years Joan had been looking after her husband who was suffering Lewybody Dementia. Only recently had Mr Crosley been placed in a nursing home so it would seem remarkable and dedicated people are attracted to each other. While Mr Crosley's poor health and passing is a sad end to the life of a very clever man with a marvellous sense of humour, his astounding legacy lives on in his five children and in writing that can be favourably compared to 'classics' such as Geoffrey Wellum's First Light. May he rest in peace.

Photo courtesy The Telegraph.

11 July 2010

A Most Secret Squadron - Des Curtis DFC

As I sit down to write this I’m struggling with the familiar problem of what to write about without giving the game away. Squadron or unit histories are, as a rule, tricky to review without sounding like a calendar of events. There has to be enough detail to inform the reader/prospective buyer ... but not too much. So, reading something about a squadron whose aircrew trained long and hard for an operation that never happened ... well, only so much can be said really. However add in two highly secret weapons, limited combat ops, a very personal account of squadron life and cram it into less than 200 pages and all of sudden this review has more areas to cover than this squadron did training flights. Do not allow my vague meanderings above to divert you from one point – Des Curtis’ A Most Secret Squadron: The Story of No. 618 Squadron RAF is the only title that records the entire history of these most secret Mosquitos and their crews.

Barnes Wallis fans will know 618 was formed to carry a smaller version of the ‘famous’ bouncing bomb so effectively used by No 617 Squadron. Both squadrons were unaware of the other’s existence and the secrecy surrounding the units and the weapons was so effective that, when the success of the dams raid was revealed to the world, the members of 618 had no idea their Lancaster-flying colleagues had employed a weapon that used the same principles as theirs.

The two squadrons, though, were very much alike and, to some extent, their experiences in the early stages correlate. Both were formed to deliver a weapon that was still in trials and had to be deployed effectively ahead of a rapidly approaching deadline. Once this deadline passed and the weapons – or, more correctly, the ‘stores’ – had been used by either, or both, squadrons, the cat would be out of the bag. This is where the paths of 617 and 618 diverge, as we know, with the successful attack on the dams by the former. ‘Our’ squadron however had a wholly different operation to contend with. Indeed, it was a target the CO of 617, Guy Gibson, was relieved to find he would not be flying against – the German battleship Tirpitz.

Anchored in a variety of progressively distant Norwegian fjords, Tirpitz was an ever-present threat to the Russian convoys and the battle for the Atlantic as a whole. When/if she sailed, she had the potential to wreak havoc. Fortunately, hamstrung by German High Command’s fear of losing her, Tirpitz spent the majority of her time in service hiding from the RAF and RN. However, in doing so, she tied up considerable numbers of aircraft and ships that would have been effectively used elsewhere. Of course saying that is with the benefit of hindsight whereas, at the time, she was a considerable threat that needed to be removed. So, among other initiatives, No. 618 Squadron was formed as part of Coastal Command in late March 1943 for the express purpose of removing this threat.

At the time of the squadron’s formation, Coastal Command’s few Mosquitos were flying photo reconnaissance and met flights. Bomber Command was well-equipped so, naturally, became a source for experienced crews whose numbers were complemented by veterans from several Coastal Beaufighter squadrons (the primary CC strike aircraft at the time). Straight away we have a problem with every crew arriving on squadron – they either had no experience flying anti-shipping operations or hadn’t even sat in a Mosquito! On top of this challenge the new CO of 618, Wing Commander GH ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, had to ‘borrow’ aircraft (and ground crew) from bomber units in order to fly something while Mossies were pulled from the production line to be modified. Despite the TOP SECRET arrangements and the remoteness of their first base, RAF Skitten near RAF Wick in Scotland, the aircrew knew they and their colleagues were hand-picked so had an inkling they were in for something special. They didn’t have to wait long as by early April all had been briefed as to the target and the date for the operation barely a month in the future.

Really, the squadron was ‘up against it’ from the start. At the time of the briefing, Tirpitz was already sitting beyond the operational range of the Mosquito. This issue would continue to haunt the planning of the operation. To the credit of the crews they continued to practice low-level navigation and attacks against moored target ships knowing full well if they survived the guns of the Germans, a flight to Sweden or ‘friendly’ Russia on rapidly diminishing fuel still lay ahead. The analysis of the various contingencies thrown into the planning of the raid is where the book is at its most fascinating and the frustration obviously experienced by the crews at the continuing delays and problems (particularly navigating over a large expanse of water at low-level) is well conveyed by the author who, of course, was one-half of one of those crews.

Eventually, with attacks being made on Tirpitz by midget submarines and the like, the squadron began to appear redundant despite re-training for dropping the stores against U-boats and being considered for attacks on land-based targets (shades of 633 Squadron). As the workload decreased the aircrew turned to a variety activities as only aircrew can do. The writing was on the wall and the squadron, other than a core of skilled personnel, was dispersed in early September 1943 while technical trials with the weapon continued. So, that was the end of No 618 Squadron ... or so you’d think.

The Japanese fleet was still very active, and ‘live’ stores numerous, but the problem of range was again an issue so trials were conducted flying a Mosquito on and off an aircraft carrier. Within 10 months of ‘shutting up shop’ at RAF Skitten, 618 was again fully-manned – this task being much easier due to fourteen of the original crews being available and extra crews being sourced from the now large number of Mosquito units in Coastal Command service. With more dropping of inert stores combined with learning the art of operating from a carrier, the pace was hectic and in a perfect example of military organisation, the squadron found itself in Ceylon four months later en route to Australia.

With the Mosquitos reassembled and training well underway, time again became a negative factor on the squadron’s chances of being deployed operationally. By 1945, the Americans were rapidly approaching Japan and generally took a dim view to ‘specialist’ squadrons that required extra effort and resources to be accommodated at forward bases. Their own tests of the weapon had not gone well with at least one accident resulting in the loss of the aircraft (a video can be found on You Tube of this accident and it is clear the aircraft is much too low to begin with). As the Americans dictated what happened in the Pacific theatre, the squadron was again, more or less, cast aside – so much so squadron personnel assisted local farmers at harvest time. Several fatal crashes certainly did nothing for the morale of the squadron so it was with some apparent relief when, in July 1945, the men of 618 were again posted away. This was certainly the end of the squadron but, unbeknown to the frustrated Australian-based crews, some of their colleagues had been very busy in the waters around the UK.

A special detachment had been formed in October 1943 – barely a month after the squadron was dispersed at RAF Skitten – to operate the Mosquito Mk XVIII equipped with the ‘Molins gun’. While not the heaviest gun fitted operationally to an aircraft during the war, the 57mm, six-pound warhead firing Molins was nothing to be sneezed at. Several 618 crews were sourced and set about hunting surfaced U-boats in the Bay of Biscay. Flying from the very Coastal Command airfield of RAF Predannack, the author and his colleagues were to fly the only operational sorties of any of the various incarnations of 618 Squadron. It is at this stage in the book that the writing becomes very autobiographical as the author is a rare man among rare men – an operational member of a most secret squadron. Self-sufficient and highly-experienced despite the long period of training for the Tirpitz attack, the detachment was almost immediately successful in the anti-submarine role but not before losing its commander, S/L Charlie Rose DFM DFC, on its first sortie.

Attacks continued against progressively heavier-armed and escorted U-boats but the ‘Tsetse’ Mosquitos were now escorted by the more conventionally-armed Mossies of 248 Squadron. Encounters with Ju-88s were commonplace and the detachment was to have its most successful period in late March 1944 when two U-boats were mortally damaged. The detail of these attacks is absorbing and is ably supported by official reports of the time and, of course, the author’s vivid recollections.

Time was again running out for the detachment as the Germans were now well aware of the Molins gun so there was little point for the crews and their aircraft to be billeted away from the other Coastal crews at Predannack. The detachment became ‘C’ flight of 248 Squadron and attacks on all forms of German shipping continued with regular success. The ‘Tsetse’ Mossies continued flying until early January 1945 but the widespread use of rocket projectiles, which did not require massive modification of the airframe, meant the airborne artillery’s days were numbered from the start. Its effectiveness, though, proved that 618 Squadron, with the right weapon, could make a serious contribution.

As stated earlier the 200 or so pages of AMSS makes it an easy book to finish relatively quickly and the majority of the writing certainly makes the experience most pleasant. The initial introduction to the Battle of the Atlantic, as the author develops the context for 618’s formation, is a little hard to follow though. It’s almost as if numerous post-war sources were partly-referenced as the discussion is quite disjointed and slightly off-putting. While not the most promising of starts, the reader has to remember the author is looking back at events he was not directly involved in. These events, however, had a direct effect on him – he was assigned to 618. Trying to condense several years of warfare in (and over) the Atlantic into a few pages written 50 years later without getting bogged down in detail would be a serious challenge for anyone.

Like the Mossie crews the important thing is to persevere because once the book turns to the development and composition of the ‘bouncing bomb’ the writing improves markedly and improves yet again once the flying begins. It is clear the author is a lot more comfortable describing the life of the squadron especially since he and his pilot were one of its most successful crews. He writes of never-ending training, drops against target ships and the continuous speculation as to whether they would ever get to sortie in anger ... and how many of them would survive to tell the story. The frustration of the crews is, as mentioned above, palpable and well-handled with typical understated humour and a certain resignation to the task – strong men indeed. They were like 100-metre sprinters waiting for the starter’s gun. If it ever came, they’d be off in a flash and, most likely, things would be over quickly one way or the other. The majority of the 618 crews never got out of the starting blocks but for a lucky few the gun that started 618’s success was considerably larger than a starter’s pistol!

This is a book that needed to be written especially among the plethora of titles covering the more famous No. 617 Squadron. That the task fell to one of the few squadron members rather than a historian is all the more important as knowing the author witnessed many of the squadron’s major events adds an authenticity to the training, squadron life and the Tsetse operations. Fittingly, the book ends with a chapter about the author, his pilot and a former squadron mate meeting the captains of two of the U-boats they attacked ... forty years after the fact. It is a moving experience to read and a reminder that despite the squadron’s short, disrupted existence and limited time on operations, its legacy continues and its contribution should never be forgotten.

Grub Street’s new edition of this book is a welcome addition to the number of copies available as the original self-published work can be hard to find affordably. The edition I read is the self-published work from 1995. It is a well-produced book with useful appendices and a variety of photos printed on the same paper as the text.

On the photo front it was noted the second photo – a close up of the modified bomb bay – was printed upside-down. Along with the ‘clunky’ opening chapter, this type of thing would have benefitted from an editor’s professional eye so it is hoped Grub Street’s recent re-release of this title is more than just a carbon copy with a fancy new dust-jacket. That said, these are minor distractions from a story that is as rich and honest as any you will come across in this genre.

Footnote - The squadron’s base in Australia was Narromine which is three hours north of where I now sit. The museum there (and one in Sydney) has several major components from the squadron’s Mosquitos. That any part of a Mosquito survives is remarkable but something from 618? Priceless and simply astounding. Like the book and the surviving veterans, a very tangible link to a unique squadron.

13 June 2010

Far North Queensland

Well, here I am in FNQ - Cairns to be exact - a couple of days early for a course (work, honest!) and I've had the chance to travel around a little bit and check out a few things. I'm leaving a lot of things for when my wife and I make it up here but I've managed to visit Mareeba aerodrome but, sadly, did not see much to inspire me in terms of the history of the place. I definitely should have done a bit more research as to what to look for but other than Beaufort Street and a couple of plaques/signs (and a closed aviation 'museum'), there's little to tell the casual visitor that is was once a thriving (and large) wartime airfield teeming with RAAF and USAAF aircraft (a visit to the nearby Syd Beck collection helps in that respect). A flick through Damien Waters' Beaus, Butchers and Boomerangs would have been the smart thing to do.

Every day of this trip I've been able to look out over the waterfront of Cairns - home to Catalinas during the war (check out Brett Freeman's Lake Boga At War and, of course, David Vincent's Catalina Chronicle and AE Minty's Black Cats) - and out to the Coral Sea. However probably the book I am reminded of most of all has little to do with the subject of this website. The wonderfully named Marsden Hordern wrote the equally wonderful A Merciful Journey which covers his days in the small ships of the Royal Australian Navy. Eventually becoming the skipper of several small patrol boats, Hordern, also a Captain Cook afficianado, worked these waters and those north to New Guinea during the war. His command pulled into Cairns on several occasions and, remembering this as I looked at the RAN's current patrol boat base this morning, I wondered if that was the very wharf he tied up to. It really adds to the reading experience (even though I read the book in 2008) when you're able to see the same things the author did. It does pay to leave the armchair on occasion!

10 June 2010

The last autobiography to be written by an NZ fighter ace?

As we get further into the 21st Century the ranks of surviving wartime veterans are, of course, sadly thinning. Barely a couple of days pass without reading yet another obituary of someone who faced the unimaginable but survived to make the most of a long post-war life. I've unfortunately found it's often the first time I've heard of the person but it's never to late to honour a life well lived.

Of the few New Zealand fighter aces still with us some, like Alan Peart and Jim Sheddan, have written their memoirs but according to Larry Hill, a well-known New Zealand aviation bibliophile and a man in the know in such matters, it is likely that the new book by Wing Commander Owen Hardy DFC* - Through My Eyes: Memories of a life in the Royal Air Force in war and peace - will be the last by a Kiwi ace.

As much as I respect Larry I do hope he is wrong on this occasion and I think he would agree. Having said that, if Through My Eyes does turn out to be the last by a living New Zealand ace, what a way to end this unique genre. Owen Hardy served with 485 Squadron in the UK and was hand-picked by Brian Kingcombe to fly in North Africa. Post-war he remained in the RAF and led a Vampire display team in Germany before becoming a big-wheel in terms of developing the RAF's defence strategy. Several months ago Dave Homewood of the Wings Over New Zealand forum interviewed Mr Hardy, the first to do so, and has commented that the book will be loaded with many previously unseen photos and that, if the interview is anything to go by, the publicity-shy author will have written a brilliant book.

Convinced? Visit the link below and buy 298 pages of what is an historic book whichever way you look at it.

Through My Eyes

18 May 2010

The Hudsons are coming, the Hudsons are coming!

Further to news of the publication of Book Two of The RAAF Hudson Story reported on ABR earlier, I received an email from author David Vincent confirming he was hoping for a July release. He is currently tying up loose ends and can see the light at the end of the tunnel (yikes, I'm in love with cliches) but "the project seems never-ending ... [however] the delays in completion have allowed for some additional 'new' photos plus the most detailed text on the subject to date." David added if the book missed July it would certainly be out in August.

Book Two will have just four chapters - Operations North Western Area, Operations North Eastern Area, Transports and Air Ambulances and Post-war Survivors - but, as David says, "some new ground has been covered or at least some old ground dug over really well!" If Book One is anything to go by, Book Two will be a masterpiece. While referencing the still unread Book One recently I was amazed at the detailed analysis given to the lead-up to war with the Japanese and the involvement of the RAAF Hudsons in finding the elusive invasion fleet. Superbly researched and written, it was an education to say the least.

Details regarding pricing etc will be forthcoming at a later date (when I know, you’ll know). If you would like to express interest in a copy of Book Two, please email David on djvincentATchariot.net.au (replacing the AT with @).

13 April 2010

Coming Soon

The latest book from Bomber Barron author Richard Stowers. Yet to be published but further details shortly.

Richard now has a website - www.richardstowers.co.nz

05 April 2010

Hostile Company - Alan Peart DFC in action

You're probably wondering why I'm writing about an art print when this is a book review site. Well, one of the books in my collection, and one of the better memoirs to be published in recent years, is From North Africa To The Arakan by New Zealand Spitfire ace Alan McGregor Peart DFC. With the assistance of Kiwi aviation historian Larry Hill (author of the recently released An Aviation Bibliography for New Zealand - possibly one of the most 'dangerous' books ever published ... dangerous to your wallet!), Alan has commissioned artist Ron Fulstow to capture one of his more dicey flights. Alan provides a brief outline of the action:

"During the Japanese assault on Imphal, in Burma, [81 Squadron] provided air cover over the second Chindit expedition approximately 200 miles behind the Japanese lines. It did this from a strip code-named 'Broadway'. It was from this strip that an air battle took place between two of our Spitfires and more than 20 Japanese fighters. The sole surviving Spitfire is shown in combat in the print."

The date was March 17, 1944 and the other Spitfire was flown by S/L William 'Babe' Whitamore DFC who was a remarkably experienced fighter pilot having flown in the UK and North Africa with 66, 92, 112 and 601 Squadrons before joining 81 in India. During the action on March 17 - in which he and Alan were jumped by more than 20 Oscars as they took off from 'Broadway' - he added an Oscar to his score of 8.5 victories before being killed by fire from the three Japanese aircraft on his tail. Alan meanwhile flew for his life for the next 40 minutes until the Oscars had to turn for home low on fuel but not before losing one of their number to a head-on pass against our hero.

Only one opportunity to hit back occurred when one of the Oscars tried a head-on attack and we both fired at each other. I saw cannon strikes on his fuselage before he shot past and the army later confirmed to me that he had crashed. - page 162, FNATTA.

Alan's aircraft did not escape entirely unscathed though with the Mk VIII being hit behind the cockpit by a cannon shell which exploded under the seat. Fortunately the armour plate protected Alan from injury. However he threw the Spitfire around the sky (and the Oscars) to such an extent that upon later inspection it was found "the tail rivets were sprung, the wings had extra dihedral, and the engine mounting was damaged."

So, certainly a remarkable action to reproduce in a painting. Interestingly, research by Alan and Larry indicates this is possibly the only art print to depict an RAF Spitfire in action against Japanese aircraft.

Now the business side of things. Other than Alan's signature, the print is also signed by F/L WJ Robinson who joined 81 in early 1943 and also served with 485 Sqn in the UK; F/L Clarke, another 485 Sqn flyer; and F/L Laugeson, a ferry pilot who delivered Spitfires across Africa to the Middle East squadrons.

The print itself is printed on top quality art paper and measures 840 by 580mm and is priced at NZ$205 including P&P. For customers in the UK, the print is available for 75.00 GBP including P&P. If you are lucky to own a numbered copy of Alan's book (sold direct by Alan) he will try to send you the matching numbered print for the special price of NZ$170 including P&P. All prints come with a certificate of authenticity and a letter from Alan giving a few details of the action. A very limited number of Remarque copies are also available but you will need to speak to Alan for further information on these.

If you are interested in this wonderful print, please contact Alan at alan.peartATxtra.co.nz (replacing the AT with @ of course). Alan will reply with details for payment.

I know what I will be adding to my wall in the near future!

Incidentally, the two books mentioned above - Alan's From North Africa To The Arakan and Larry Hill's An Aviation Bibliography For New Zealand - will be reviewed on ABR in the near future.

28 March 2010

Under A Bomber's Moon - Stephen Harris

Every book is a journey. A good writer can make even a seemingly mundane assignment riveting to the point the reader is right there with him or her. But what about the ‘professional’ author, the enthusiast or the newcomer to the genre - none of whom lived the events they describe? Sure they are recounting the experiences of others but what about their journey from initial idea to published author? Often it is touched upon in the introduction and the rest of the book is dedicated to the subject matter. There is always a story behind the story. One might think it would distract from the main focus and, in some cases, no doubt this conclusion is correct. With Stephen Harris’ Under A Bomber’s Moon, however, what is really three stories in one works to enhance the reader’s experience.

UABM is as much a story of the author’s education in the bomber war as it is a tale of two airmen involved in that war. A journalist in Germany at the start of this century, the author in some respects brings several desirable skills to his quest – professional research and writing and the ability to speak German.

His project begins with family stories about his great uncle Colwyn Jones. These stories are ably supported by beautifully written letters by Col to his mother in New Zealand. Also a journalist – having completed a Master of Arts and working at the Auckland Star for 11 years – Col joins up and becomes a navigator with 149 Squadron. He is significantly older than the majority of Bomber Command aircrew and, to some extent, this is reflected in his observations and comments. He completes a hectic tour (more of that later) of 33 ops with 149, is awarded the DFC, serves as bombing leader with 1651 HCU and is then posted to 115 Squadron to serve as navigation officer. He flew one op during his seven month stay with 115 before losing his life on his first trip with 7 Squadron Pathfinder Force. Posthumously awarded a Mention In Dispatches I will tell you now his death left me feeling empty. He was a talented writer and navigator and was one of those people who everyone just seemed to warm to. Of course he had his close friends, many of whom were lost while he continued on, and Col’s letters (and the author’s writing) capture everything from immense joy to terrible sadness. The first, full-page photograph reproduced in the book is a portrait of Col and the big, toothy smile, tidy moustache, bright, smiling eyes and cap at a slight angle tell you almost everything you need to know about this man.

The letters written by Col are at the core of this book and, naturally, the author has expanded on them with contextual research. This research led – as research often does – to several instances of pure luck and, effectively, being in the right place at the right time. Early on, the author recounts the story of Col’s crew ditching their Stirling in the North Sea after an epic trip to Essen in early June 1942. In the course of his research Stephen acquires a CD of wartime BBC radio recordings of bomber crew broadcasting their experiences. Imagine his surprise when one of these recordings proves to be Col’s skipper, Eric Whitney, talking about the ditching. Having two personal recollections of such an event would be a boon for any aviation writer and the author certainly makes good use of this opportunity. However perhaps the most fortuitous opportunity to ‘cross his bows’ was the chance to meet and interview Otto Fries – a former Luftwaffe night fighter pilot whose tally of RAF bombers shot down is well into double figures. Otto’s story is given equal weight to Col’s and in many ways acts as a fascinating foil to what otherwise would have been ‘another’ well-written account of ‘another’ remarkable Commonwealth airman.

Otto flew the Me 110 and He 219 during his night fighter career but, while he obviously made an impact, his war was certainly not one-sided. Remarkably he and his radar operator survived being shot down several times by both RAF night fighters and the defensive guns of the bombers they hunted. Indeed his war could just as easily have made a book on its own. While I am familiar with the aircraft used by the Luftwaffe and their general ‘MO’, this was definitely the first time I had had a window into the minutae of a German flier’s life. What I knew already was that young fliers, no matter what nationality, were essentially all the same. It was just the uniforms, language and aircraft that were different. However, Otto’s memories and experiences also make a serious contribution that is not often encountered in books about Commonwealth aircrew – he gives the Germans a face. How often are Germans referred to as just a Ju 88 or Me 109 or even mere trucks or trains on the ground? This is usually out of necessity and due to a story being told by the person who experienced it (and all they would have seen was the machine). It is refreshing, therefore, to see what the night skies over Germany were like for ‘the other side’ especially when applied to the context of an Allied airman’s war.

While the biographies of either flier could easily take up another few paragraphs it is the writing and structure of this book that I really want to cover – the actual review as it were. Stephen Harris weaves his journey of discovery about Col and the bomber war in general with that of Col’s operational tour. He visits Col’s old airfields and haunts and gets to grips with the time and Col’s contemporaries (there’s a fascinating link to Middleton VC as uncovered in Col’s letters). However he casts an understandably modern eye over the bomber war and the destruction it caused. He is critical of the effectiveness and comes within a hair’s breadth of questioning the morality of it all before countering with reference to the persecution of the Europeans and the Germans' own contribution to large-scale bombing tactics (here he uses Col’s letters referring to exacting some revenge for the bombing of London and Coventry). That the author is new to this ‘world’ is evident – more of that later – and this fact is certainly not lost on him as he writes. It was clear he realised he was looking at events of 60 years ago with 21st Century ideals so his balanced approach stretches far beyond telling the story of an Allied AND a German airman.

An earlier review of this book featured in a military history magazine took offence to the use of ‘arsonists’ when referring to the bomber crews. At the time I was still reading the book and had yet to encounter that passage so reserved judgment while thinking perhaps the ‘modern’ ideals had ‘won out’ for a brief period of time during Stephen’s writing. My natural reaction to the use of this term is one of considerable frustration so I was relieved to discover its use at the start of Chapter Nine – a chapter that is devoted to Otto’s flying and his first victory – was to illustrate the opinion of a confused night fighter pilot over the burning cities of Cologne and Hamburg. While very much a controversial word to use in this genre, this is perhaps the tamest but maybe most relevant use I have seen. It was certainly not intended to stir!

The writing itself is easy to follow but the careers of both airmen might feel somewhat disjointed (and that’s not because of the various chapters dedicated to one or the other). The author, particularly with Col’s service, uses major career events to illustrate the bomber war itself (tactics, equipment etc) and these can jump around a little in terms of chronology. That said, this ties in with the author’s own discoveries and learning and is what makes the book as accessible and understandable to ‘novice’ readers as it is to Bomber Command regulars. It introduces the major factors influencing each force’s operations while providing enough gritty detail.

As alluded to previously the author is new to aviation and the bomber war in particular. His experience as a journalist overcomes most of the issues that this would bring but the occasional hiccup does get through. An aircraft’s horizontal stabiliser is referred to on several occasions as the “tail’s cross-piece” while the airspeed indicator becomes a “speedometer”. Little picky things, yes, but both serve to remind you that this is all new to the author while reinforcing the generally superb effort he clearly put in.

His journalistic skills come to the fore when using square brackets ([…]) to clarify jargon or tidy up running references in correspondence. You may recall my opinion of these was quite scathing in the review of Ford-Jones’ Desert Flyer but in UABM they are used expertly although occasionally there is a bit of over-kill – “…flying at 600ft [altitude]…”.

The handling of the news of Col’s death is understated (although the investigation and first-hand accounts of the incident are very well done) with the author simply relating the facts of what various family members did while leaving the emotion to those who knew Col best. Indeed, Chapter 14 includes more text from letters of condolence than it does descriptive text and is wonderfully constructed and a perfect epitaph.

With excellently laid-out endpapers UABM continues a tradition I’ve noticed with paperbacks about New Zealand aircrew – it looks superb. The thick card covers include flaps front and rear and the artwork is attractive … but quite improbable. With an He 219 in that position the mid-upper gunner on the visibly undamaged Stirling would be hammering away at the German aircraft and/or the bomber would be standing on a wingtip to evade. As I progressed through the book, though, my impression of the cover changed. Rather than this being an interception the cover is of two aircraft flying together in the night sky – comrades-in-arms as it were. In many respects that’s exactly what these opposing airmen were.

While on the subject of illustrations the two sections of photos – 36 in all – are wonderfully reproduced on glossy paper while several maps appear on the high-quality ‘text’ pages. The photos are excellent, were all new to me and cover both airmen’s experiences while also including recent photographs taken during the author’s investigations.

So, now that we’ve traveled through a review that barely scratches the surface of UABM, what have we got? The stories of three men – Col, Otto and the author – and their journeys of discovery, one of which was cut far too short. In a sense, the author continues Col’s story and breathes life into what otherwise would have been one of the many lost airmen who will never have anything written about them. In so doing he turns a remarkable journey into a very special one. While it is not known whether Otto and Col shared the same piece of sky like they do on the cover, the inclusion of Otto’s experiences not only opens the reader’s eyes to the German experience but adds to the understanding of the dangers Col, and the thousands of young men just like him, faced in the night skies over Europe. I can only hope Stephen Harris builds on the journey he has undertaken and applies his knowledge to another aspect of the bomber war. If it’s anything like UABM, it will be worth the read.

As I have said this is a superb looking book and, although a paperback, would easily compete with a hardback in terms of quality of production. Exisle Publishing is new to me and I do not think they have published any other books in this genre. Here’s hoping they get the chance.

This review copy came direct from Exisle and it is available from them online – Exisle Publishing. I have also seen it in several chain bookstores and museum gift shops so it is readily available. At more than 200 pages it is an easy size to read and is crammed full of information which makes it a very worthwhile purchase.

Stephen Harris also has a website which includes extracts from the book and other extra details. Well worth a look at – Under A Bomber's Moon.

20 March 2010

On Wings Of Fortune - Richard Pinkham and Steve Darlow

Following his confronting Flightpath To Murder (reviewed below) Steve Darlow is due to publish On Wings Of Fortune written with W/C Richard Pinkham DFC - a pilot of commensurate skill. Here's the blurb from Steve's website:

RAF veteran Wing Commander Richard Pinkham DFC presents the extraordinary and graphic account of his experiences flying 62 World War Two bombing operations. He tells his story with candour and without pulling punches although the occasional humorous anecdote lightens proceedings. The reader joins Richard in the cockpit of his bomber as he dares the bursting flak, dives to avoid penetrating searchlights and wrestles his damaged aircraft home.

Richard served with the RAF through the entire war embarking on his operational career amid the desperate fight for survival that was the Battle of Britain. He went on to take part in some of the largest bombing raids ever carried out against Germany. With odds of 5 to 1 against him, Richard, unlike so many of his fellow airmen, lived to tell his story. He was then posted to North Africa to blast the Axis forces from Tunisia and, finally, spent the last year of the war in the Far East taking up fascinating accident investigation duties.

On Wings of Fortune is an exceptional story by a distinguished and decorated RAF veteran who flew and fought in the World War Two aerial front line. Acclaimed author Steve Darlow provides the general context of the bomber war. Richard Pinkham relives his terrifying, gripping and fascinating story.

As you can see from the above, and the details on the cover, this is flying and service over and on three continents so certainly something of interest for everyone, I reckon. Due for release in April - as Steve said "the books are in some container on some ocean" - this looks like it will be a fascinating read and, at 17.99 GBP, a readily affordable one. A limited, signed edition will also be available. For further details, please visit Steve Darlow's Fighting High - On Wings Of Fortune.

24 February 2010

Beaufighters In The Night - Brick Eisel

In the past I’ve reviewed books featuring aircrew who flew American aircraft – aircraft generally loaned from the US under the well-known Lend/Lease scheme. Most recently Gus Officer’s Six O’Clock Diamond featuring Kittyhawks was reviewed and, on the bomber front, Murray Peden’s A Thousand Shall Fall and Charles Page’s Wings Of Destiny featured Fortresses and Bostons respectively. You may recall we even looked at an American in the RAF with Caine’s Spitfire, Thunderbolts And Warm Beer. So, what about British aircraft being used by the USAAF? Fair to say such instances (and books) were a lot less common. Mossies, I suspect, come to mind but if you were to visit the USAF Museum at Dayton, Ohio, you’d see, among the classic American types, a very British aircraft wearing ‘stars and bars’ – a Beaufighter.

Put simply, with no American type proving itself a consummate night fighter and the need to help defend the night skies over Europe, the Americans opted for the Beau which, in its night fighter form, was being steadily replaced by the Mosquito. The 417th Night Fighter Squadron, the subject of this book, arrived in North Africa in the latter half of 1943 and proved an effective counter to the regular Luftwaffe raids on harbour installations. That said, as the war progressed, the squadron often found itself the last to move forward or, in the case of equipment, the last to be ‘updated’. Consequently the 417th perhaps did not see as much action as its sister squadrons and had to ‘make do’ with what it had. Similarly the author has used the same resourcefulness and initiative to put together a book on a squadron that had a relatively quiet war and, as a result, has been largely forgotten in the myriad of USAAF day fighter squadron volumes.

The 417th became part of the nascent US night fighter force when it was formed in early 1943. Night Fighter Schools were already churning out crews in Florida and the Americans found many of their instructors, particularly the radar types, to be British civilians or servicemen – the latter most likely on a ‘rest’ tour from operations. A picture of efficiency, by early May, barely three months since its creation, the 417th was fully manned and shipped off for England.

Crossing the Atlantic quickly on the Queen Elizabeth, the squadron knuckled down to 10 weeks of training with the RAF. After flying the P-70 – the night fighter version of the Boston/Havoc light bomber – with its tricycle undercarriage, the American crews found themselves learning to fly the Beaufighter with its tailwheel, capacity to swing on take-off and, according to an extract from the 414th’s history, “the most difficult of all British aircraft to fly.” The aircrew were not the only ones having to adapt. The ground crew found themselves having to master the Hercules engine and other aspects of the airframe that, from their point of view, were ‘quirky’.

Despite the difficulties the 417th was dispatched to the airfield at Tafaroui, Algeria where the aircraft arrived two weeks before the rest of the squadron. When the rest of the squadron finally caught up they found the aircrew rather frazzled from a fortnight of operations and aircraft servicing. Things soon settle down, however, and squadron life settles into the familiar routine with brief moments of excitement and/or stress. A constant theme throughout the squadron’s use of the Beaufighter is the general ‘tired’ status of the aircraft issued. Interestingly the USAAF was unable to arrange spare parts so enterprising members of the air and ground crews would roam the Mediterranean by B-25 Mitchell in search of whatever spares they could scrounge. In contrast with other USAAF units this situation is quite remarkable but anyone familiar with the air war in the desert will know that, until the latter stages of that campaign, the RAF and Commonwealth air forces suffered similar supply issues due to the dangers to shipping in the Mediterranean and the length alternative routes. So the 417th certainly wasn’t in unique territory. However not having a regular parts or even aircraft supply meant a much higher workload for the ground crews in particular. Given the environment in which they worked it is remarkable the squadron achieved what it did.

Shortly after claiming its first victory in early February, 1944, some of the ground staff of the squadron were detached to Corsica. The 417th was the last US night fighter unit in North Africa and, other than regular two-aircraft detachments to Corsica, remained ‘behind the war’ for some time to come. With these detachments and the subsequent re-unification of the entire squadron, though, the action really picks up. Still living in basic camps the 417th’s night fighters were heavily involved in the Italian campaign. This flying intensified with the invasion of the south of France and the squadron adding a new responsibility – intruder ops. Moving to France in September, 1944, the 417th operated out of an airfield just north-east of Marseilles. As always the environment was not an ally especially when the ‘Mistral’ blew at a sustained 40 knots. A series of engine failures, some fatal, brought the squadron to perhaps its lowest point. The cause of these failures and losses was eventually traced to empty fuel barrels containing water that was not emptied out by Marseilles dock workers before the barrels were filled with 100-octane aviation fuel. As always the 417th soldiered on and overcame this and other obstacles. Even when their sister squadrons were re-equipped with the Black Widow (and, in one case, the Mosquito XXX) and new Black Widow units arrived in the theatre, the 417th kept flying its clapped-out Beaufighters and pulling its weight. In particular the squadron was quite effective at intercepting the low-level Luftwaffe flights to Spain. Intended to transport German gold, foreign currency and treasures out of the rapidly declining Third Reich, these flights were difficult to intercept but the 417th, with skills developed from numerous low-level interceptions over the sea, proved up to the task.

The Black Widows eventually arrived in March, 1945 and the squadron was operational again by early April. Other than losing two aircraft to friendly ground fire, what was left of the war passed uneventfully for the 417th.

BITN is quite a quick read in that the main text ends at page 128. The first four chapters are quite short but flow into each other well. After reading so many Commonwealth-based titles some of the language used by the American crews is a little refreshing and a reminder of how two different English-speaking forces can interpret the same situation. Seven appendices fill the final 50 pages and all add considerable detail to the story of the 417th. I did find Appendix V – the combat action reports – a bit hard to read in its capital letter format. While this might add authenticity to the reports I am sure they would have been much easier to read if they’d been presented in the same text format as the rest of the book.

What is particularly rewarding is that BITN is a lot more than just a dry unit history. The author has gone to great lengths to interview and correspond with surviving members of the squadron. Happily he did not limit this first-hand research to aircrew. The seamless injection of the personal memories is made all the more valuable by the inclusion of comments from all personnel levels within the squadron. On any page the reader can expect to find remarks from a private in the mess to the commanding officer. This wide-ranging material is mirrored by a commitment to cover all aspects of squadron life including the ‘winding-down’ period post-war. Of course there is lots of flying. However before an aircraft takes-off on an operation it has to be serviced; its consumables re-stocked; its crew fed, washed, quartered and paid and the airfield itself has to be maintained. Remarkably this is all covered in the main text of the book.

As mentioned above the decrepit Beaufighters flown by the squadron are a regular theme throughout but the general feeling is that the 417th was certainly overlooked in a number of other areas as well. On top of the struggles to keep the Beaus flying, the food and accommodation always seemed to be of a low standard when compared to other USAAF units. It does sound quite similar to the trials and tribulations of the RAF and Commonwealth units in the same theatre though. The initiative shown and solutions devised are certainly the same however.

As with all Pen & Sword books I’ve encountered to date, BITN is well illustrated with a good section of photos printed on glossy paper. In fact the photo coverage is quite extensive and the length of that section – 24 glossy, double-sided leaves and 132 photos (!) – surely must surpass any comparable book of this size and genre. While I noticed one glaring error (RAF Portreath referred to as RAF Port Reith) the text is easy to read and flows nicely with sufficient detail for the avid ‘airhead’ and perfect explanations for the ‘novice’ reader. I do not think I have read a squadron history that so ably caters for readers of all levels. Hopefully this accessibility will help the 417th’s wartime service be remembered and honoured as it should. BITN, therefore, is the perfect memorial for a very resourceful squadron.

The review copy is a 2007 hardback and is well-presented in a wonderfully illustrated dust-jacket. While not as action-packed as some of Pen & Sword’s recent covers it depicts a hard working ground crew slaving over a Hercules in the mud and standing water. Really a great piece of art with detail down to the blanked-out RAF roundel on the wing and the squadron’s Hurricane hack in the background.

The photos in the book, like the text, cover every aspect of squadron life and some are quite candid. Despite my comments about this being a quick read I probably had a bookmark stuck in BITN for close to a month. This was purely due to my circumstances at the time. It was very easy to get back into though.

BITN is easily available from Pen & Sword - Beaufighters In The Night - and the usual places like Amazon etc.

Review copy published by Pen & Sword Aviation in 2007. ISBN 978-1-84415-483-8.