29 May 2011

Another Dawn Another Dusk - Kenneth Ballantyne

Perspective is a fascinating thing. It is, of course, inherent to the books featured on ABR (as it is for all books of all genres). In terms of the World War 2 aircrew featured here, we encounter stories told in the first person, by a fellow crewmember, by the veteran turned historian, by the ‘professional’ historian or by the enthusiast (for want of a better word) who has been lucky enough to stumble upon the papers of an airman, or the man himself, and thought “This would make a great book”. For all it is a challenge to convey what was experienced 70 years ago. Other than those who were there, how do you imagine what the flak or the loss of friends was like? Yes, being able to record or read first-person accounts is insanely beneficial but it still comes down to the writer’s ability to weave his or her magic. Hit or miss, the stories are out there and we are wiser for them for it is often the enthusiast that turns up the gems – the hitherto untold stories of remarkable people.

Kenneth Ballantyne is one of these enthusiasts but he’s had a little help. A father in the military and a lifelong interest in all things RAF surely must have made his job a little easier. The decision to write the story of rear gunner Trevor Bowyer DFC, ISM – a veteran of two tours – in the first person, however, was not the easiest path to follow. To see the war through Trevor’s eyes required an immense amount of knowledge of the war to begin with but certainly would have included long periods of time with the family and Bowyer’s contemporaries. A challenge if ever there was one. The result? Another Dawn Another Dusk – a well-produced paperback written with such insight I had to keep reminding myself it was Kenneth doing the writing not Trevor!

Trevor Bowyer grew up in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Son of a railwayman and a dressmaker, his childhood was not privileged nor was it destitute. The sheer hard work of his parents saw him through a decent education and instilled a good work ethic in the young man. He earned pocket-money helping the milkman on weekends and holidays but it was an application to join the Post Office, upon completion of his schooling, that set him on a path of public service by way of a delightful interview process.

After more than four years TB transfers to Crewe. The call of the railway was obviously stronger than he realised as he spent from 1933 to the very early stages of the war working as a sorter on the Travelling Post Office – a series of special trains that ensured overnight mail delivery the length and breadth of ‘mainland’ UK. Sorters on these special trains were on their feet throughout their night shifts and had to maintain intense concentration for long periods of time. The journeys were often cold and, with the weather and then wartime disruptions, prone to long delays despite taking precedence over most other rail traffic. Surely there could not have been a better preparation for someone destined to be an air gunner?

The start of the war sees our hero still travelling up and down the country on the TPO. Well aware of how his country happened to be at war again - indicated by a variety of tangential and contextual passages (more on those later) - Trevor decides to volunteer for aircrew rather than wait for his inevitable call-up. Hoping to be a bomber pilot – being subjected to, and living among the ruins caused by, the Luftwaffe’s raids on London in the months leading up to November 1940 seems to have had a particular influence on this decision – but not really minding as long as he is “part of a bomber crew”, TB is surprised to find he has indeed been selected for pilot training. Initial training is at RAF Bridgnorth, a mere 20 miles from his hometown of Shrewsbury. Progressing happily enough, he ends up at RAF Cranwell to begin his flying training. While he learnt to fly the Tiger Moth he was told his eyesight was not quite up to scratch – he was slightly colour-blind.

Deemed fit to remain as aircrew, nothing was of interest besides the role of air gunner. Graduating his 10-week gunnery course as a sergeant just before Christmas 1941, our budding gunner had already experienced the first of his close shaves when the Botha he was training in loses an engine on take-off and crash-lands. Shaken but not hurt, the entire crew were back flying that afternoon.

No. 21 Operational Training Unit is Trevor’s home from early 1942 and he soon climbs into a Wellington for the first time. In short order, TB’s embryonic crew find themselves being briefed for the first 1,000 bomber raid. As luck would have it, 45 minutes after taking off for Cologne, the crew was landing back at base having had an engine fail.

Trevor does complete his first op (Essen) on the night of June 1. Engaged and damaged by a night fighter, and having fired his guns for the first time in combat, Trevor, wonders how on earth he is going to make it through an entire tour. A reprieve of sorts is forthcoming the following morning when his crew is posted to No. 70 Squadron in Egypt.

Transiting through the Mediterranean, Trevor and his crew soon lose their pilot – posted to Palestine – and fly their first three ops with three different pilots. Having settled into the Desert Air Force way of life proper, the crew were quite unnerved to be flying without a regular skipper, so much so the CO, a Wing Commander Wood, flew them on their next trip at the head of a squadron formation attacking troop concentrations. The crew were not allocated a permanent pilot until August. Soon after, down low strafing enemy transport, an AA shell exploded beneath the rear turret. Trevor’s oxygen mask is shot away by a cannon shell that would have killed him had he not been thrown back in his seat. The rest of the crew only knew he was still with them when they heard his guns resume firing. Indeed, upon seeing the condition of the tail and turret area upon returning home, everyone was surprised that all he made it out with was a sore head.

So much for a posting to the desert being a reprieve, huh? The tour didn’t let up as in early September 1942, during a raid on Tobruk, Trevor and his crew are shot down 30 miles behind enemy lines. Three days later, walking east, they were picked up by a friendly unit. Another crew shot down that same night made it back 23 days later! The Bowyer luck was holding.

Finishing his tour two months later, Trevor returns to the UK and serves as an instructor on No. 14 OTU before being requested by a Pilot Officer Basil Acott to join his crew at a Heavy Conversion Unit. Joining No. 61 Squadron at RAF Coningsby in early 1944, TB begins his second tour as a Lancaster rear gunner.

The following chapters covering this second tour are an absolute blur of ops. The writing is suddenly more business-like, reflecting Trevor’s vast experience and commitment to his job, but still takes the time to report on squadron life away from ops and the not-so-fortunate adventures of some of Bowyer’s contemporaries. While the ops tend to blend into each other, the detail of each is certainly not lacking and Trevor’s impressions and memories of each are quite clear. The routine and repetition of ops is evident but before long, after completing 59 ops over two tours in two theatres of war, Trevor finds himself sitting back at his parents’ kitchen table. He spends the rest of the war, what’s left of it, instructing and completing courses ... with a DFC ribbon sewed to his tunic.

Happily, Trevor’s life was a good one after the war. Married in 1946 and beginning to raise a family shortly after, he retired from the post office in the 1970s and was awarded the Imperial Service Medal for his work. Having lived through what he did and being privy to so much detail of his RAF career, it is particularly gratifying to read the chapter devoted to his post-war life.

How much of the RAF detail is actually his own thoughts as opposed to the author’s artistic licence is hard to tell and, I admit, I have not asked Kenneth this question. The writing is very descriptive and the imagery it invokes in the reader is particularly strong. I would argue the author’s greatest challenge was to not make the book seem like a dry memoir as could have so easily happened. Indeed, I was particularly taken by some of the metaphors used during Trevor’s time on ops. These are used powerfully and with great effect and indicate an author very much in tune with his subject. Perhaps the example that had me gasping with sudden realisation was, when referring to a Wimpey at night over the desert, this:

The ground beneath us drifted by like a pale silver cloth slipping slowly from the table over which it had been laid.

The author’s style, however, takes a little getting used to. As already mentioned he does go off on tangents. The term “tangential contextualisations” comes to mind (I think I just broke the grammar checker). Whether such a thing exists, I don’t know, but this is exactly what these ‘breaks from regular programming’ are. Be it discussing the history of the British railways, giving a quick overview of the history of the Army unit a colleague’s father served in or detailing the adventures of those whose paths cross with Trevor (or, in some cases, the author in the course of his research), these tangents appear regularly throughout the book. At first I couldn’t quite understand the relevance of discussing, for example, the action at Rorke’s Drift or the history of a town Trevor had just been posted to. Such things seemed to pop up as Trevor’s story was gaining momentum. Many of the tangents cover familiar wartime territory but it occurred to me that what was being discussed in detail was in fact Trevor’s world. To this extent the book would be particularly valuable for those not familiar with the time and world he occupied. For the ‘seasoned’ reader it gives the ability to step back from Trevor’s life briefly and see it as part of the big picture.

While some of these ‘intermissions’ can be quite distracting they are, for the most part, relevant to the storyline. Never is this more evident during Trevor’s ‘rest’ after his second tour. The tangents keep coming and, importantly, are a very good tool to remind the reader that even though Trevor’s war was over, it was very much an ongoing thing for many thousands of men just like him. In a way, ADAD is as much a tribute to the men featured in these vignettes as it is the story of a young man whose life of service started before the war and, fortunately, extended well beyond the end of it. This is an enjoyable, educational and fascinating read that will have you looking for more of the author’s writing.

ADAD, at just less than 340 pages, is surprisingly heavy for its size. The reason for this is the heavier, glossy paper stock used throughout which enables photos to be reproduced well in among the main text. There is a considerable section at the rear of the book which includes 40 images ranging from Trevor and his family to photos of the author meeting some of those who feature in earlier pages. I have not done a count of all of the photos in the book but would argue there are more than 100 (with 31 in the first 100 pages). All add to the text very well and are well-placed to support said text.

With the very colourful and original cover, this is affordable quality. It would be hard to buy a book of this calibre and breadth for a better price. ADAD is available direct from Laundry Cottage Books, the author’s publishing house ... literally!

The copy reviewed was printed in 2009 and bought (signed) direct from Laundry Cottage. ISBN 978-0-9550601-3-7

Vale Ralph Barker

It was with considerable sadness that I discovered the passing of this well-known author yesterday. He died on May 16 but it has taken more than 10 days for me to realise. I hope this has not been the case for everyone else.

A wartime Wireless Operator/Air Gunner on Beauforts (and others?), he is best known for his prolific writing on, primarily, RAF and RFC wartime flying. Before leaving the RAF in 1961 to write full-time, Barker already had several books to his credit including the perennial Down In The Drink and The Ship-Busters (both of which have recently had new editions released). His aviation books of the 1960s and '70s continue to be well-regarded and, in the case of The Hurricats for example, remain authoritative works on particularly rare and 'difficult' subjects.

As discussed in The Ship-Busters review earlier, Barker's ability to put a face to the many names featured in his books paralleled that of a top fiction writer and made the men - and women - featured leap off the page. Rather than simply recounting the actions the aircrew made famous, the books provide windows into the lives of those who risked all or were in peril.

With Ralph Barker's passing we of course lose another veteran. Another living link to a past that still resonates today. How long it stays that way depends on what later generations do to commemorate World War 2. With books such as Barker's, that job is made easier for, as long as people continue to read his work, the stories of the men and women he wrote about will remain alive.

26 May 2011

Aircrew Book Review's second anniversary competition

As you will have read below in the second anniversary post, I have invited readers to send in a 150-word review of a book not already reviewed on ABR (those advertised already are fair game). All I need is the review and a copy of the cover.

The author of the review I pick as my favourite will receive a gift from the Temora Aviation Museum.

This is really just a reminder as I have decided to announce the winner once ABR ticks over the 10,000 visitor mark ... who knows when this could happen!

While we're talking about writing reviews, I am planning to complete at least the next two (Another Dawn Another Dusk and Zero Hour In Broome) over the weekend. They'll be put up several days apart so each can bask in its own glory for a bit!

09 May 2011

Ship-Busters - Ralph Barker

Research is always a good thing. It is particularly useful when publishers re-release books that have been out of print for a while. A common practice is to rename said books which, at first glance, gets readily excitable readers such as myself in a bit of a lather. A quick bit of research, though, will confirm whether it is a simple reprint (and therefore available second-hand and cheaper) or, as is sometimes the case, a new edition with extra information and/or illustrations. In a similar vein, I rarely chase old books published before the 1980s. Those written during the war were subject to censor review and those written ‘immediately’ post-war have not had the benefit of a wide variety of source information (although the memories were fresher). On top of that, they can be delicate and awfully scary to handle! There are, however, exceptions born out of an interest for a particular author, pilot, aircraft or operation - hence the purchase of a cheap and care-worn 1959 edition of Ralph Barker’s The Ship-Busters several years ago off Ebay. Despite my love for all things twin-engined that fly very low, this book remains unread. A holiday late last year happily provided an alternative when I found a 2010 paperback by Stackpole Books. This was my chance to finally read one of the classics by one of the more prolific, and experienced, post-war authors.

The Beaufort torpedo crews of the RAF are particularly well-served when it comes to books honouring their service. I find it fascinating that the three best-known authors on the subject, all former Beaufort crew, were very active writers after the war. Wing Commander Patrick Gibbs, author of the sublime Not Peace But A Sword and Torpedo Leader, went on to write theatre reviews while both Roy Conyers Nesbit (Torpedo Airmen, Armed Rovers etc) and Ralph Barker have been writing since the end of the war and have many books to their credit. For such a relatively small population of aircrew, it is remarkable to have such a literary contribution.

The preamble featured in the Stackpole edition (the edition being reviewed) is a clever tool that engages the reader effectively. If the reader is not aware of the work of the Beaufort torpedo men, the preamble provides the perfect introduction. It focuses on a ‘typical’ Beaufort crew - Australian pilot, Kiwi navigator and two English W/AGs - and introduces the author’s marvellous narrative style. Having known many of the men featured, the author is well-placed to write as he does although, throughout the book, the characters introduced in detail are almost always good ‘specimens’. At first I thought this a bit clichéd and perhaps the ‘age’ of the writing was showing through but then if I was to describe these brave men in light of their achievements, they would be detailed similarly ... and, after all, with a photo section vastly superior to that of the 1959 edition, the descriptions are actually spot on.

With a sobering end to the preamble and a prologue that sets up the reader for the pages ahead, the author launches into the early Beaufort operations of the war. The early successes are tempered by the obvious vulnerability of the crews in broad daylight and, despite the Beaufort’s strong construction, against the withering defensive fire of the ships targeted. For those familiar with early Beaufort operations, you will know this led to the ‘Armed Rover’ – sending out small numbers of aircraft, often just two, to operate over the North Sea, Dutch coast etc at low level with cloud cover within easy reach should there be a need to disappear. 22 Squadron, flying out of North Coates, were the pioneers of this tactic and 'old friends' such as ‘Fanny’ Francis, Dick Beauman, Norman Hearn-Phillips and Patrick Gibbs feature heavily. Here, and the strength of these remarkable characters plays a big part, the author helps the reader develop an affinity with these men. This is done very efficiently and the clarity with which the writing conveys the danger these men faced is palpable. Indeed, the narrative style mentioned earlier is the perfect way to present this story. It flows from operation to operation, seamlessly introducing new crews or offering up an alternate viewpoint from a crew the reader has already ‘met’. Considering when the book was originally written, the writing stands up well in these modern times and, in fact, puts recent efforts to shame. Clearly, this, and the enduring fascination with what these men did, is why this book has returned to the market.

The North Sea Rovers were only a part of the Beaufort story however. The squadrons were always on hand to tackle the German capital ships should the opportunity arise. The solo, somewhat accidental but definitely determined, attack by Kenneth Campbell and his crew on the battlecruiser Gneisenau anchored in Brest harbour is the epitome of what these Beaufort men were all about. The author builds the drama and action extraordinarily well to the point the reader is astonished to imagine a Beaufort doing the attack alone. The awarding of the VC to Campbell barely scratches the surface of just how brave he and his crew were.

While SB is really a story about the Beaufort squadrons, there are cameos from the other torpedo bombers used extensively by the RAF and Commonwealth crews throughout the war. Swordfish, Wellingtons and Beaufighters all feature and make good comparisons to the Beaufort being antiquated, modified and from the same stable respectively. "Cameo" is too light a word for the Swordfish as its well-known role in the Channel Dash is recounted with detail, accuracy and feeling. Again the bravery and determination of the crews makes one admire them to the hilt and the overall coverage of the Dash itself, including the part played by Beauforts, is very well done.

Without besmirching the efforts and sacrifices in Northern Europe, it was the anti-shipping role in the Mediterranean that truly defined the Beaufort. The tactics and experience developed the hard way on the edges of Europe and her shipping lanes came to the fore in the warmer climes of the Med. For Rommel, Egypt and the Suez Canal would be his if seaborne supplies from Italy and Greece arrived intact. Here was the ideal opportunity for the Beauforts. While always part of a bigger picture, they were the only means available that could strike over long distances at short notice. Early operations from Egypt were hampered by a lack of aircraft but there was no shortage of crews with the likes of Pat Gibbs twiddling his thumbs behind a desk waiting for a squadron posting. He was, however, able to study the tactical situation and realised there was one place perfectly located to enable the Beauforts to disrupt the relatively unchallenged convoys – Malta.

The Albacores and Wellingtons (some modified to carry two torpedoes and therefore known as ‘Fishingtons’) had been operating at night with success but the ‘focussing’ of a Beaufort force on Malta promised around-the-clock strikes on whatever convoy was in range. The story of the Malta Beaufort strikes is well-known and this is the book that started it all. Roughly a third of the pages in the 2010 edition are devoted to operations in the Mediterranean and the ‘strike wing’ style of attack is developed and refined. While the use of Beaufighters as flak-suppression was not an original idea for the Malta strikes – I seem to recall this tactic first being used by units flying out of the UK – it was used extensively in the Med for the first time and was a portent of things to come for the likes of the Banff and Leuchars strike wings operating over the North Sea later in the war.

The extreme success of the Beaufort strikes was not, of course, without its cost and the crews paid dearly despite the Beaufighters going in first. The accounts of entire formation elements (e.g. a ‘vic’ of three aircraft) being lost within seconds are particularly sobering. The flak was indiscriminate with vastly experienced crews sharing the same fate as those new to strike ops.

While their working life was carried out with extreme risk, there was little let up for the crews when off ops on Malta. The island had convoy problems of her own with fuel supplies often measured in days. That she was able to strike back so effectively was a saving grace for the Maltese people and the thousands of service personnel living on the archipelago.

As the Mediterranean Beauforts were stopping Rommel in his tracks, new strike wings were forming in the UK. Based around the Beaufighter (and the Mosquito later on) these wings really were the culmination of years of hard-won experience in a number of theatres. Their initial operations revealed a need for more training but with a reliable supply of quality aircraft and crews, this shortcoming was quickly overcome. Add a new weapon into the game – the rocket projectile – and the torpedo was no longer the only game in town when it came to sinking ships. It was still an asset when delivered by ‘Torbeaus’ but the ability of the RP to be carried with little effect on performance –and its ‘punch’ – meant the air-dropped/aimed torpedo’s days were numbered. This is well conveyed in the last chapter of SB where the combined forces of the North Coates and Langham Wings are unleashed on a convoy off the Dutch coast in mid-June 1944. While far from being the final strike operation of the war (remember this is a book about torpedo crews), this chapter is the perfect book-end in that its massed use of aircraft is the complete polar opposite to the one crew featured in the new preamble.

As I've mentioned above the tactics and operations are exceptionally well-told, almost poetically so, but the real strength of this book is the men themselves. The little character nuances and small personal details make the crews more than just anecdotal inclusions that are occasionally, sometime necessarily, included in this style of book. Indeed, this is a look at their lives as they, not the aircraft, were the ship-busters. In this sense, I am very much looking forward to comparing SB to the recent A Separate Little War by Andrew Bird. Not having read this book, but having it in my collection, it will be interesting to compare the writing styles, the use of modern research tools and the treatment of information gleaned from interviewees looking back over 60+ years as opposed to 10. Beyond being a great read that ranges through the whole gamut of emotions, perhaps this is where the true value of SB lies – it is as close to a published eye-witness account as we’re ever going to see. In this respect, as the numbers of Beaufort torpedo men rapidly dwindle, SB (and other books like it) will take on a whole new importance.

Stackpole puts together a nice paperback and in doing so provides an affordable read. Whether this is a carbon copy of the recent Grub Street release, I do not know, but I suspect it is. The 38 photos are clearly reproduced on the same paper stock as the text and provide a superb range of images of aircraft, targets, crews and individual portraits. It is highly likely the pricier Grub Street hardback would have printed the photo section on a higher quality paper. The portraits in particular are of great use when putting a face to a name and description in the text.

I bought my copy of SB in a Barnes & Noble store. It is, of course, available online at B&N, Amazon and other such sites. The RRP printed on the back cover is US$18.95 but I am sure I paid less than that. Either way, great value for money ... and you can always go for the vintage edition.

05 May 2011

Busy, busy

Hi everyone

Just a quick post to say sorry for the lack of published reviews of late. I have been busy at work and at home and up until a fortnight ago, things were a little stressful. Best antidote is reading of course but you also need time and even when I had that I wasn't in the mood!

The next review will be finished and up over the weekend (hopefully followed quickly by the next one as I am way behind which is not fair on the authors who have requested the reviews) and please remember the 2nd anniversary 'quick review' competition is still open as per the post below. Submissions have been forthcoming (thank you) but, if you're like me, you may not have had time to write anything.

As always, feel free to post comments or send me an email.

Watch this space.

All the best

Andy Wright