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.