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.

1 comment:

  1. Have sat with Ralph at a number of Reunion dinners a great man