11 January 2010

They Gave Me A Seafire - 'Mike' Crosley, DSC*, RN

After a swathe of books covering RAAF personnel I thought it was time I read something that was the complete polar opposite. I'd been admiring TGMAS ever since I removed it from its envelope a couple of years ago having bought it from a Naval & Military Press sale for about $10. Happily, the quality of the book itself is reflected by the writing within. 'Delightful' is perhaps the best word to describe it. However, as enjoyable a read as it is, it's very evident that, by war's end, the author, a consummate professional, is weary beyond words and quite critical of 'the establishment' and its inability to adapt quickly. I have read several books by flyers who were active for most, if not all, of the war but only one (Owen Zupp's Down To Earth) can compete with TGMAS for its honesty and candour.

I'm getting ahead of myself but, considering the title, there's a lot of Sea Hurricane flying to devour before you come across a Seafire. The book opens with what is becoming a common ‘hook’ these days – an event that is harrowing and full of adventure. In this case it is the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle by four torpedoes from the U-boat U73. The author was a Sea Hurricane pilot with 813F Naval Air Squadron and the reader immediately gets an idea of the style of writing when, after describing the initial shock of the explosion, he says “Anyway, lunch was off for the moment...”.

Crosley’s childhood was one of disruption. His mother left his stage opera father and placed the author and his sister in a variety of separate foster homes. However his paternal grandmother soon comes to the rescue and with his father remarried, running a nursery and now overlooking the river Hamble, Crosley earns a choral scholarship and a quality education. Completing his school years, an initial, somewhat comical, attempt to join the Navy fails so he “joined the Metropolitan Police instead.” Working as a bobby during the London Blitz provides a good window into this profession during what must have been a very dangerous and heart-breaking time. With the war well underway, though, Crosley joins the Fleet Air Arm after being told the RAF has a backlog of six months.

What follows is a simply magical chapter of the attempts of HMS St Vincent in Gosport to bash Crosley and his fellow enlistees into something resembling sailors. In this three months prior to heading to No 24 EFTS at Luton, the author makes light of his training and includes many amusing anecdotes from both his class and the one immediately senior (which was full of New Zealanders). Arriving at Luton he flies Mile Magisters rather than the expected Tiger Moths – a sign, he hopes, that means he’s destined for fighters not Swordfish! Again the experiences learning to fly are well recounted and most enjoyable but the first hint of the war’s realities (from a pilot’s perspective) become evident with a fatal crash involving a fellow pupil and, on the Crosley front, a lucky, if not skilful, forced landing. Moving on to SFTS at RAF Netheravon and flying Harts, Audaxes and Battles to learn the art of navigation, instrument flying and bombing (among others), the author makes it through and is posted to Yeovilton for an introduction to the Hurricane. At the time there were very few ‘hooked’ Sea Hurricanes in the FAA so the new pilots had to get to grips with old RAF aircraft. Here we have perhaps the first indication of the RN’s attitude towards aircraft in general but this is certainly addressed later in the book.

Adjusting to the Hurricane like the proverbial duck to water, Crosley is at last in his element and the writing clearly reflects this. His observations are enlightening and educational and, more often than not, humourous. As I’ve already mentioned his understated style of writing lends itself to little quips and passages that are, to put it simply, very clever and most entertaining. In particular, his description of the use of Wall’s Ice Cream tricycles to train pilots and controllers in the fine art of radar-controlled interceptions is an absolute joy and will not fail to raise a smile and a chuckle – imagine a number of pilots pedalling around the airfield listening to radio signals from the tower. Admittedly, this was in 1941 but it’s a sign the RN had finally begun to take its fighters seriously.

Dummy Deck Landings soon follow, in Fulmars interestingly, before the posting to Eagle right at the end of 1941. The RN carrier force was, at the time, hard hit and suffering from a lack of an effectively utilised fighter force. As if to reinforce that point, Crosley, upon reporting on board Eagle, is told her fighters – 813F NAS – are in Scotland and he should go there. He does and after some hunting finds the squadron at Arbroath – all three pilots and two Sea Hurricanes of it. This was Eagle’s entire fighter defence. Before too long, Eagle is sailing for Gibraltar to pick up Spitfires for delivery to Malta. This is a very interesting insight into these supply convoys and is well-supported by some anecdotes of life on ‘The Rock’.

It is on a maximum effort to supply Malta in June 1942 that Crosley, as Number 2 to his flight commander, is directed onto an Italian recce aircraft. With his leader dropping back due to engine problems Crosley successfully engages the enemy to make his first kill. Exactly the same thing happens the next day with a Ju 88 but they only claim a probable (this becomes confirmed when the crew is rescued). A few more busy and successful days for the fighter force of the convoy sees Crosley in the thick of the action and making further claims. The action continues with further convoys and then, with Operation Pedestal, the loss of Eagle. These chapters provide a great angle on this period in the Med when Malta’s survival, should just one convoy fail, was measured in weeks.

Without a ship, our hero returns to England, marries and joins 800 NAS and its new Sea Hurricane IIbs and IIcs at Lee-on-Solent. Again the reader is treated to some fine anecdotes before 800 is assigned to the escort carrier HMS Biter – “always an efficient and happy ship.” Biter is soon deployed in support of Operation Torch – the invasion of North Africa – and 800 NAS is quickly into action providing close support to the Albacores attacking the French airfields in Oran. Despite the excellent briefing Crosley still has some trepidation having never seen Albacores before and only having six hours of night flying. However, he is well led and the reader is treated to the first extract from his diary. These diary extracts continue over the next few pages and share the author’s success at shooting down a French fighter and his frustration at having to land on the notorious HMS Dasher, a ship he was only too happy to leave as soon as practicable. Unfortunately, upon returning home and joining 804 NAS, Crosley finds himself on Dasher again escorting a storm-tossed convoy to Iceland. 804 soon finds itself back on dry land though and ultimately enjoying a marvellous spring with their new Senior Pilot – Crosley DSC. However all good things must come to an end and 804 is broken up in mid-1943 and Crosley is back to training on second-hand fighters – Spitfires.

The author does a commendable job at explaining the pros and cons of turning the Spitfire into the Seafire. As usual for the FAA, it is a patch-up job that is made to work despite the problems encountered. However, Crosley cuts his teeth on a variety of early Seafires before, surprisingly, spending some time with the RAF flying Spitfire IXs. This undoubtedly prepared him for what was to come.

D-Day finds Crosley over Normandy in a Seafire LIII spotting for RN battleships shelling German coastal positions. His diary extracts here are fascinating and he goes to great length to explain the processes, and frustrations, and also gives an interesting run down of the early G-suit, the Franks Flying Suit, which used water-filled bladders to restrict blood flow during high-G manoeuvres. I found this the most enlightening part of the book as I had not come across ‘spotter Seafires’ over Normandy before.

By now an exceptionally experienced pilot, the author is given command of 880 NAS and posted to the Orkneys. Embarking aboard HMS Furious, his squadron provides CAP for some of the Tirpitz raids which were largely unsuccessful. Later strikes along the Norwegian coast are flown from the new, but not-quite-right, HMS Implacable. This ‘working-up’ period proves vital as, after some time ashore, the Seafires return to Implacable and set sail for the British Pacific Fleet. Passing Gibraltar in early April 1945, Crosley returns to a now relatively peaceful Mediterranean. The journey into the Indian Ocean and then to Ceylon begins to reveal some of the Seafires' weaknesses flying in the warmer climes. Implacable herself proves to be somewhat cantankerous but when the ships finally arrive in theatre, via Australia and a lot of exercises, innovation and sheer skill eventually overcome some of the problems and the latest additions to the BPF go to war. Crosley’s account of this period is a mixture of pride in his men and, ultimately, frustration at the chain-of-command and its apparently negative attitude towards the Seafire men. While the Seafires, 35% of the BPF’s aircraft, flew 51% of the offensive sorties during the final days of strikes against the Japanese mainland (in other words, the Seafires had been made to ‘work’ by men who knew the aircraft’s limitations), losses for this and previous actions were continuous and often attributed to some design ‘anomaly’ as opposed to pilot error or enemy action. Crosley, as squadron commander, maintained his good humour but it is clear from his writing that he felt some losses unnecessary. While this part of the book reveals a more or less effective BPF air component there is still much to improve on and Crosley is certainly not backwards in stating what the force’s shortcomings are/were. Cleverly, though, he retains most of this discussion for inclusion in the appendices thereby maintaining the lovely flow of his narrative.

At war’s end, the author spends some time flying Seafires in Australia before returning home, now single, and joining the Empire Test Pilots’ School at RAF Cranfield where “life became an adventure again.” Oh how I wish he had elaborated on that period of his life as well.

As you can see, TGMAS is absolutely full of, well, everything. It manages to cram the main narrative into just under 200 pages albeit with quite small text. Crosley has an unparalleled turn of phrase and the ability to describe humourous events without losing their affect. The ‘action’ or ‘at sea’ sequences make for riveting reading and in comparison the time spent ashore at various airfields can seem a little disjointed – perhaps an indication of the author trying to keep his anecdotes in some sort of logical order. These are still great fun to read though. The flying and operations all through the book have been covered before but perhaps not in such personal detail. The strikes on Norway, in particular, make for interesting reading if you’ve read about Coastal Command’s strikes against similar targets.

I would, however, perhaps have a grain of salt ready if you decide to take some of the biographical details as gospel. On page 100 I encountered an Australian pilot I had not heard of before - AJ 'Nat' Gould. He flew Hurricanes in Russia, flew with the RAAF at Milne Bay and joined the FAA at the end of the war which eventually led him to Korea (worthy of a book himself). I've glossed over his career somewhat but my light research revealed "Squadron Leader 'Nat' Gould, DFC, RAAF", as referred to in TGMAS, was not in Russia in March 1943. He had already served there and returned to Australia by March 1942. I have also been unable to confirm the DFC although he certainly did enough to warrant it. No doubt the author served with him in the FAA so, with regard to Gould's earlier career, Crosley's simply remembered it wrong. While you may wonder about some of the other details in the book - no one is infallible - make of it what you will as there are no glaring errors in the text that make you stop and think "What the...".

If you were to step back and look at the big picture after reading this book, what you’d find would be a first-hand account of the development of the FAA during the war. At the start of Crosley’s career it is little more than a sideline. However as our hero develops and progresses, so does the Fleet Air Arm until it becomes an effective – perhaps ever so slightly disorganised – and definitely underappreciated strike force that is perfectly established to make the most of the massive changes in naval aviation that followed the war years.

The main text is supported by 14 (yes, 14!) appendices covering 60 pages. Almost 20 of these pages cover “some of the problems” encountered with the Seafires. Even the RN’s failings during the Falklands War are examined in the context of lessons forgotten from 40 years earlier. While these appendices add valuable information to the book (naturally) the writing is of a different style – much more authoritative and technical and nowhere near as easy to read as the main text. As alluded to above leaving the majority of the technical ‘gumf’ to the appendices is an intelligent thing to do as it does not hamper the beautiful flow and rhythm of the narrative.

If I remember correctly, this is only the second FAA-based book I have read. The first was Charles Lamb’s (like a number of FAA 'legends' he has a cameo in TGMAS) magical War In A Stringbag. On the strength of these two titles I am certainly looking forward to reading more. TGMAS provides a fine mix of action, humour, colourful characters, wonderful flying and the requisite sadness that such adventure ultimately brings. Add to this an ongoing analysis of the wartime trials and tribulations of the Fleet Air Arm and you have a highly recommended must-read for anyone with just a passing interest in naval aviation.

As I mentioned above, I bought my copy of TGMAS from Naval & Military Press during one of their regular sales. A hardback of more than 260 pages its only failing is that the numerous photographs are printed on the same paper stock as the text so their reproduction is not as good as it could have been. It is, however, one of the best-looking books in my collection.

Reviewed copy published by Wrens Park Publishing in 2001. ISBN 0905-778-68-5

09 January 2010

The SAAF at war

Just received three books from South Africa:
1. The Aegean Pirates - The History of 15 Squadron SAAF in WW2 by Dr Stefaan Bouwer and Dr Gerald Thompson,
2. The Men Who Went To Warsaw by Lawrence Isemonger and
3. Springbok Fighter Victory - Volume One, East Africa, 1940-1941 by Michael Schoeman.

All three, especially TAP, are well-presented. TAP appears a most comprehensive effort at around 250 pages (A4 format) and is loaded with photos and even colour plates of the various colour schemes worn by the aircraft operated by the squadron (Ju 86, Battle, Blenheim, Bisley and Baltimores ... there's A LOT of Baltimore profiles). Superb stuff. I'll certainly be reviewing this book this year.

TMWWTW, which I keep calling The Men Who Flew To Warsaw, is Volume 12 of the African Aviation Series (SFV is Vol 11 but Vol 1 of, er, a series within a series) and I have yet to see a book that has more pics of RAF-style Libs in it (happy to be proven wrong!). The author was a member of 31 Squadron's ground crew and has written the book as a tribute to the men of the squadron particularly those who gave their lives trying to supply the Warsaw Uprising. The appendices are a joy to behold with details of crew and aircraft.

Finally, SFV (published in 2002) delves into a forgotten part of the air war on the African continent - East Africa. Active over Somalia, Abyssinia etc, the South Africans found their Furies (oh my!), Gauntlets, Gladiators and very early Hurricanes up against the slightly more modern Italian Air Force. Loaded with some amazing photos that most of us certainly won't have seen, this book also includes an appendix giving a brief service bio of each pilot who flew in the campaign. Pen and Sword published Air War In East Africa 1940-1941 (by Canwell and Sutherland) earlier last year and while this would no doubt include some of the detail in SFV it would certainly make a good companion for the South African book. Above all else it is very pleasing to see this much-neglected campaign, and the men involved, receive the attention it, and they, deserve.

If anyone can let me know of other books on the SAAF during the war I would be most grateful. These are the first ones in my collection. The above books were bought from the The Airforce Shop in SA - http://www.saairforce.co.za/shop/index.php

The They Gave Me A Seafire review is coming. Honestly!