13 December 2012

The Bomber Command Memorial - We Will Remember Them

June 2012 was a long time coming for many people, not least the veterans of Bomber Command. Decades of large-scale criticism and derision by those who chose to forget the whole reason behind the bombing campaign have given way, finally, to widespread respect, admiration and a lot of love for the Bomber Boys. That’s not to say there hasn’t always been honour for these men but it is plainly clear now that the work of authors, historians and enthusiasts has seen the general public and, importantly, the media, largely understand just what these men faced, fought and how they lived and died.

Despite this groundswell of ‘popular’ support, the men of Bomber Command remained officially unrecognised for their service. There is no campaign medal and, until June this year, there was no one public space that honoured this particular group of service men and women. It took a throwaway comment from a veteran in late 2007, admittedly while in good company, for something to happen.

The rest, to roll out the first cliché, is history. Driven by the Heritage Foundation and ably supported by other worthy organisations such as the Bomber Command Association, The Bomber Command Memorial became a reality when it was opened on June 28 by Her Majesty The Queen. Many veterans were present but for some, 70 years after they served, it was obviously too late. That they now have a permanent and magnificent place for anyone to reflect on their service and sacrifice is a testament to a dedicated group of men and women. From ‘leaders’ Robin Gibb and Jim Dooley to Steve Darlow donating proceeds of book sales; to the veterans, relatives, friends and enthusiasts sending in their hard-earned, arranging sponsorship or standing on street corners shaking a tin … it has truly been an unfathomable worldwide effort. The memorial’s very existence owes everything to many fine people.

The story behind the idea for the memorial right through to its unveiling needed to be told to not only honour the aircrew but also to shine a light on the ‘drivers’ of the project itself. Fighting High Publishing is still a relatively new name on the military publishing scene but it has certainly made an impact in a short time. Already renowned for high quality books, the company easily caught the attention of the memorial organisers through FH principal Steve Darlow’s efforts arranging book-signing events to raise funds for the project. Set the unenviable task of drawing together all aspects of the project from that throwaway comment to The Queen’s unveiling – on top of providing context through Bomber Command history – Fighting High has produced an astounding large-format hardback that, in itself, is a standalone memorial.

The Bomber Command Memorial – We Will Remember Them is a collective effort from familiar people – Robin Gibb, Jim Dooley, Gordon Rayner, Steve Darlow and Sean Feast – deeply connected to the project. As already mentioned it recounts the project from the germ of an idea through to the BBMF Lancaster anointing the structure with poppies from above. Naturally the bomber campaign is examined – expertly so as it turns out as it is broken into several sections throughout the book and a lot of information is provided in a relatively short space. This overview is ably, no, strongly, supported by ‘spotlights’ on particular raids throughout the campaign. These are very well done as they add the finer detail the Bomber Command at War sections necessarily avoid. The book is certainly well served by having Bomber Command historians Darlow and Feast on board.

It will be no surprise to discover the real gems of this book are the personal accounts from the air and ground crew themselves. The vast majority are from veterans who were interviewed especially for the book and who, collectively, form a complete heavy bomber crew. This is a marvellous device that serves to remind the reader that the loss of a crew was often the loss of seven, sometimes eight, men. I realise this sounds an obvious thing to say but think about it – 10 aircraft lost without trace, 57 bombers failed to return from the target. They weren’t all killed but…

The Last Letters sections hammer this ever-present aspect home and are especially poignant with the originals being reproduced in photo form with the text transcribed alongside. These sections are expertly dispersed throughout the book and the several featured are fitting endnotes to the many small photos of men featured in the small They Gave Everything insets. Behind each of these men were families who may have received such last letters or who may have only received an official telegram and a letter from an empathetic, if not sympathetic and grieving, CO.

The memorial is very much a 21st Century project even though it has been 70 years in the making and employed age-old skills in its construction. The extensive colour photos are a stark reminder of this but there is an even stronger link to the past. The veterans interviewed for the book were asked their opinion of the memorial and the efforts being made. To include these comments – made today by those who were there in their youth – is a masterstroke. The sum of these words would be lucky to be one per cent of the book’s content yet they are the most powerful and the most fitting. In some ways, the last words on the memorial have been given to those who deserved it so much.

That this book is a triumph is obvious. It is not only a tribute to those of Bomber Command but it is a record of honour for those who toiled so hard in the face of significant opposition (sound familiar?) to build something magnificent on a corner of Hyde Park in London. From the front cover photo – note the five aircrew in the image to signify the smaller crews of the Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens (an idea discussed with Steve Darlow in the early days) – to the back cover acknowledgements, the highest quality abounds. Fifty pages in during a ‘flick-through’ I was suddenly hit by a wave of emotion as I saw an artist’s rendition of the structure and the magnificent bronze sculpture (whose genesis and creation are also documented) within. It was, all of a sudden, so real. Everything is so well put-together that this really must be the benchmark for all future books featuring the exploits of RAF and Commonwealth aircrew. It is truly, powerfully, the finest work on Bomber Command yet to be produced. Nothing less would be expected from the publisher. Nothing less would be expected for the men.

I pre-ordered my copy to ensure 10 GBP went to the memorial. At 19.95 GBP plus another 13 for air mail to Australia it is a remarkably affordable book as far as ‘commemorative’ titles go. My copy, which arrived two days ago, is the standard, unsigned edition but there is also the option to purchase the book in a hard slip case and there is a planned UK signing event. All orders now will see sales proceeds and signing fees go direct to the memorial for its continued upkeep.  I truly believe this title will be the best-selling aircrew book of the year (1,000 had been sold by July) and that means a lot.

11 December 2012

Luck, pleasant surprises ... and Typhoons

I'm always on the lookout for books featuring the men who flew the Hawker Typhoon.  It is one of those aircraft that demands awe and, considering the environment it worked in, it certainly gets it ... the men even more so.  There's not a massive amount of books on the subject out there - there are some very well known ones - so I regard finding any memoir-style title about the Tiffie and her men as a bit of a coup.  As you can imagine, the excitement can know no bounds.

Anyway, in late October we were in Echuca, Victoria, on a family long weekend. Echuca is a lovely place with a lot of history. Anywhere with a river scores high on my scale of places to visit. As the family is wont to do, I found myself wandering the main street behind the heritage port precinct and stopping in at various shops selling trinkets and nibbles. As ever, my book senses were on high alert and any shop with a “oo” in its title (I hate bookkeepers!) had my attention. My nose was set to its paper setting and my ears were tuned-in for the rapturous screams of fellow book-lovers finding that one title they’ve always been after. A look through one second-hand shop – books and antiques – revealed an interestingly diverse military section but nothing that caught my eye.

We eventually made it across the road and I sauntered into a dedicated second-hand bookseller, Read Heeler (geddit?) Book Shop. A quick nod and “G’day” to the man behind the counter was the extent of my pleasantries as I made a beeline, again, for the military section.

Scanning the shelves, I was pleased to see several familiar titles but I did note the prices were beyond my budget or, at least, I had paid less for my copy of the same title. However, Michael Enright’s Flyers Far Away had “$10” pencilled on its first page and, since I didn’t have that title in my collection of ‘anthology’ aircrew books, the visit to this bookshop was already a good one. Not astounding, just good.

This changed rapidly as, several shelves further on in my scan, a slim volume caught my eye and two words that, when I had thought about it in the past, I thought I’d never see caught my eye as if they’d just lit up. There it was. Typhoon Warfare. Reminiscences of a Rocket Firing Typhoon Pilot. The first copy I had seen. Not since finding Sortehaug’s The Wild Winds at the RNZAF Museum had a book leapt off the shelf into my hands more quickly. Immediately I knew this was perhaps my one chance to buy this book (something to look into there regarding another edition perhaps?) as the author had passed away. He had been selling his copies for $20 so with some trepidation, I opened the cover and was pleasantly surprised to see $15. In reality, that’s what the book is worth as a slim, second-hand paperback.

Long story short, $25 and a few more pleasantries later, I was walking out the front door of Read Heeler in somewhat of a daze. No one, other than my wife, would understand my jubilation and, indeed, she did nod approvingly with a knowing smile (or was it a "That's nice, dear"?) as I had once again bought books to add to our groaning (since rationalised slightly) shelves. Ah, basking in the warmth of a successful hunt.

Funnily enough, I pulled another rabbit out of the hat just this past Saturday. This time, however, it involved a book I could find relatively easily but was a fair way down the ‘wish list’. If only I’d known just how good it is…

I was in Melbourne overnight as I had to sit an exam on Saturday morning. Melbourne is one of those cities with lots of lovely little alleyways full of cafes and shops and nooks and crannies. The kind of place you’d expect to find eclectic and specialist bookshops (indeed, one of the leading military bookstores in the country, Hyland’s, is in the Melbourne CBD). However, the discount bookshop I found – its name escapes me but it’s between 440 and 480 Collins Street – was not in one of these alleys. I refrained from popping in until after the exam – no one was more surprised than me when I passed. The glow of a successful brain dump continued as my usual scan of the shelves, initially interesting but not heart-grabbingly so, settled on a 200-page hardback nestled in to the end of a shelf. The first thing I noticed was the Grub Street logo at the base of the spine. “Ooh, hello”, I breathed quietly.

The rest is history as I discovered a lovely (Grub Street do make fine books) copy of To Live Among Heroes by George Armour Bell. The Typhoons (yes, Tiffies again) on the cover are enough for me but the “A Medical Officer’s Insight into the Life of 609 Squadron in NW Europe 1944-45” will soften even the hardest of aviation hearts. Despite my excitement with regard to Typhoon Warfare, Bell’s book has proven to be my purchase of the year (in a year where The Bomber Command Memorial Book is on its way).

As I flew back to Jodi and Maggie that afternoon, I started reading even though I have two other books on the go. I was immediately struck by Bell’s humour and heart. It is a truly wonderfully written effort and there are already hints of his understanding of flying stress and the affinity he had for the pilots … and the trust and love they had for him. That the squadron led him astray in many ways is an understatement (he was, after all, a young Scottish doctor who had had a relatively sheltered and peaceful life) but he grew as both a man and a professional and felt the loss of his charges as keenly as the pilots who witnessed the “ball of fire”. At one stage on the plane I had to turn away from my fellow passengers as I collapsed into uncontrollable, body-shaking, tear-inducing laughter as Bell recounted a briefing by CO Johnny Wells (with an attending Dwight D Eisenhower!). On the next page, after again smiling at a pilot putting on his silk inners (gloves) and saying there were that many Tiffies on the op he was going up to direct traffic, the still present tears began to build again, but for the opposite reason, as Bell waited for said pilot to return from a costly trip…

To Live Among Heroes is what you always wish for when you settle down to read a new book. It pushes all of the buttons, is delightfully written and gives you that light-headedness and warm glow all good books do. Find a copy.  The rewards are immeasurable.

15 October 2012

Time for a time out ... a sabbatical really!

I know regular readers of ABR will be thinking "He hasn't done anything all year, what does he need a break for?!" and, as we all know, they're correct.  It has been a crazy year with not much reading done and even less writing and, of late, it has been getting to me as I have made commitments to authors to help publicise their books.

However, I have an exam coming up in early December and the study is not happening at all at the moment.  ABR is not impacting on that at all but I need to take the focus off it at (lots of thinking and emails etc behind the scenes = distraction!).  Time to get a grip and knuckle down for the next few weeks (as well as find some new cliches) so am putting the nagging desire to get reviews written aside for the next month.  I will still plug away with small things on the Facebook page but this too will also slow down.  Come mid-December I will be back in the swing of things without the study hanging over my head.

If I get the chance, I will post another Kristen Alexander review this month but no guarantees.

Thanks for your support this year.  Because of you, ABR continues to grow and is now recognised as a useful resource and promotional tool.  There's room for improvement but I could not have asked for more.

30 September 2012

Don Charlwood - RIP

Don Charlwood was, first and foremost, a writer.  He will always be remembered by generations of Australians for his between-the-wars Australian childhood classic All The Green Year (recently republished this year).  This book was a staple English class text for thousands of young Australians and became a favourite of many.  Charlwood spent much of his childhood in Frankston, Victoria, to the south-east of Melbourne (the setting for ATGY), and his ability to put his memories into a detailed and eloquent story earned him many fans.

If anything, All The Green Year is the perfect foil for Charlwood’s other well-known work – No Moon Tonight.  This story of his time training and flying as a navigator with No. 103 Squadron (on Halifaxes and Lancasters) remains highly-regarded as one of the most accurate and moving accounts of a Bomber Command crewman (and crew) at war.  If you want to know what it was really like flying in a bomber over Germany at night then this is one of the books you must read.  DC wrote NMT while working as an air-traffic controller (and, later, ATC trainer) in Australia post-war and one wonders if living and breathing aviation at the time was the catalyst for the book.  I doubt it would be hard for any veteran to drag up memories of the war but talking to aircraft as they tracked through his area must surely have brought the events of the previous decade flooding back.

NMT was Charlwood’s first book with ATGY being his best-selling.  They are two books that are poles apart in content but, really, the latter could be regarded as a ‘prequel’ to the former.  The children of AGTY who lived those halcyon days in Frankston – before the popular beachside holiday destination was swallowed by the incessant urban behemoth that is Melbourne – had a coming of age like no other in the form of the Great Depression and a world war.  Did the sacrifice Charlwood wrote about in NMT cause him to reflect further on the young lives cut short and the path they followed to their volunteering for Bomber Command (and, consequently, his path)?  Did he want to remind the world – a world that had since criticised the large-scale bombing of German cities - that the men who flew the bombers had had a childhood that was the polar opposite to the world in which they died … or have I made a connection that is not there?

Donald Earnest Cameron Charlwood died in June.  He was actively writing in his final year and continued to be published in newspapers.  His many books and articles have left a legacy that will ultimately dwarf his eight decade writing career.  To provide such an esteemed author and man with the tribute he deserves, the meanderings and somewhat misguided analysis above falls far short.  I will leave the ultimate tip of the hat to another respected author.  Regular ABR contributor Kristen Alexander is an author with a particular eye for the personal detail – an eye that looks beyond the operational and wartime life of a man and sees the family life, education and vocational aspects that moulded the man who went to war.  Here, she reviews Charlwood’s ‘other’ Bomber Command book, Journeys Into Night:

Many of you would have read Don Charlwood’s No Moon Tonight where, in a novelistic style, he tells of his experiences in Bomber Command. I consider that one of the best aviation books I’ve read. His 1991 book, Journeys into Night, is ‘up there’ in my ‘best ever’ list.

As with the earlier book, Journeys into Night is thoughtfully and lyrically written but this reflects the maturity of someone who is looking back on the distant past. Like No Moon Tonight it deals with the young Charlwood’s experiences in his bomber squadron but it also follows closely the experiences and fates of his training comrades and members of his crew.

Charlwood uses extracts from his own diaries as well as the writings of his companions, so the reader is continually experiencing shifting perceptions: the fresh experience; the mature reflection. There is a strong bittersweet sentiment running through the account and the reader is constantly reminded that many will not return—there is almost a sense of a ‘countdown’. For example, ‘Two lads who sleep near me failed to return this morning’, he wrote to his young lass, ‘I woke when the rest came in and heard the news. I saw their belongings still in their places…It all happens so quietly that one does not realise that they have been victims of war’.

Alongside the sadness, there is an occasional flash of that unmistakeable brand of Aussie humour and irreverence. Like the time, for instance, they encountered the Station Warrant Officer, a florid, elderly-looking man. He wore the ribbons of ‘14–‘18 and would oft declare that he didn’t believe in parachutes. Of course, the boys, knowing they may need to rely on theirs to save their lives, quickly realised he was a ‘wingless wonder’, and doubted he had ever been high enough to need one!

The humour was also poignantly apparent in times of danger, like when the MO was trying to convince them of the good sense of using oxygen during flight. The MO had an uphill battle as there was a degree of male braggadocio about this: real men could do with less oxygen, just as they could hold liquor better than the rest. It wasn’t until he provided them with a practical example of the effects of anoxia, that it sunk in:

"We were taken up to 28,000 feet, three of us with oxygen and three without. The three without all started well enough, but gradually became like drunks. Watching Harry work out simple division was excruciatingly funny…When his calculations reached the end of the page, Harry continued with supreme confidence down his trouser leg.

Then the MO asked Charlwood to feel his oxygen lead. Charlwood found it plugged in, but the Doc informed him he had actually been unconscious until Harry had connected him."

If you can get your hands on this, it is well worth a read. Tinged with sadness and the inevitability of death, yes, but full of the joy of mateship, and beautifully written. Highly recommended. 

27 August 2012

The magic that is the Spitfire

The Spitfire is, quite simply, the most beautiful aircraft ever built.  It's all in the eye of the beholder of course but her lines and flying charateristics just seem to combine into something beyond the superlative (we won't talk about sounds as this is a book review site but Alex Henshaw had it right when he called his book Sigh For A Merlin).  I'm not the first to attempt to put my love for this aircraft into words and I am certainly not the last.  At the base of it all though is that the Spitfire, no matter how many heartstrings it tugs or lumps in the throat it causes, will always be a machine and, without the people who flew and worked on her, just a series of components assembled into a rather sublime form.  Share the lives of those people and the Spitfire herself comes alive as companion, defender, saviour, inspiration and, sadly, due to the time she was born into, final resting place.

The romance of the Spitfire is most certainly equalled by the achievements of the men who flew her in the RAF and Commonwealth air forces.  As I said above, much has been written on this subject and will continue to be written in the years to come particularly as new stories and material come to light.  A perfect example of this is the three books, pictured below, that have appeared on the Aircrew Book Review radar in the past couple of months.  All three fall under the Spitfire 'umbrella' but all three couldn't be more different from each other if they tried.

Spitfires Over Malta is a familiar title in this genre but this is the original.  Written during the war by two Pilot Officers - Australian Paul Brennan DFC DFM and New Zealander Ray Hesselyn DFM - the slim volume was about their experiences flying in defence of the island of Malta, the key to Allied survival in the North African and Mediterranean theatres.  That they had any energy to do so is astounding as surely the fighter pilots who defended Malta were involved in the most frenetic flying of the war for days on end.

While long out of print, SOM has remained popular with collectors, Maltaphiles and the like. Admittedly hamstrung by the censors of the time Brennan and Hesselyn still managed to portray their hectic day-to-day existence effectively.  Roll forward 70 years and through a lovely case of serendipity, whereby Paul Lovell discovered an original edition in a box at a trade stall after an airshow in Kent, we have a new and updated edition that preserves the 'immediate' nature of the pilots' words and combines them with additional research and material. In a sense we have the best of both worlds - the events as recorded and written by those who were there and the benefit of 70 years research drawn together to provide context and additional detail ... and there's a lot of it as the original 96-page edition has become a well-illustrated and referenced 350-page paperback.  New life has been breathed into an old classic.

On top of that there is the cover of which you can only see half below!

Birth Of The Black Panthers is, like SOM, a self-published title and evidence of the author's commitment to share a unique account with the world.  While resembling a squadron history it is really the memoirs of two men (names to be added - one a fitter, one a pilot) who served with this much-travelled unit.  Really it is a squadron history wrapped up in two wartime biographies.

Considering No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron flew throughout the war, and fought in three theatres, it is surprising that they are perhaps best-known for their operations against the Japanese.  Well, considering the decoration on their Spitfires at the time, it might not be that suprising!  The nice surprise for this book, however, is the history of the squadron as related by a fitter.  We're all very used to reading books by the pilots, or those who have interviewed the pilots, so to get a massive part of the story from someone who the pilots depended on is almost unique in this genre.  Beyond the 'rarity' of the subject matter (any other books on 152 out there?), this is worth the 'cost of admission' alone.

From a unit that flew throughout the war to a pilot who did the same.  Viking Spitfire is the story of Finn Thorsager.  The first Norwegian to open fire on the Germans during the 1940 invasion, Thorsager, like many of the pilots from Occupied Europe, managed to escape his country's invaders to join the RAF and, consequently, contribute to the eventual liberation of his homeland.  There is a lot more to Finn's story than just flying Spitfires though.  You will simply be amazed - Gladiators, Hurricanes, Spits and Lodestars to Sweden in 1944.

Published by Fonthill Media, and written with Spitfire and Norwegian fighter pilot afficianado Tor Idar Larsen, VS is an attractive hardback that builds on the reputation the publisher is developing for books of this type (incidentally, Fonthill have also released a European edition of Hamish Brown's Wine, Women And Song).  It, like SOM and BOTBP, is proof that the story of the Spitfire, and, more importantly, the lives intertwined with this magnificent aircraft, continues to be built on.  Something tells me that, despite what we know and what has been written, we still have a lot to discover.

05 July 2012

Wellingtons Over The Med - Richard Stowers

Hi, remember me?  I'm the bloke who runs this site and has been MIA for a bit.  There's a lot happening in the book world relevant to Aircrew Book Review.  While I haven't had the chance to write anything of substance for the website I have briefly discussed some of the new titles on the new ABR Facebook page (as if I don't have enough to do).  One title I haven't mentioned though is one 'discovered' in mid-June by an author who has previously featured on ABR.

Richard Stowers is a prolific New Zealand author who has turned his hand to biographical works of Kiwi airmen of late.  His Bomber Barron and Cobber Kain titles were well-received and his latest, Wellingtons Over The Med follows the same expansive landscape paperback format.  This book is much closer to home, however, in that Richard writes about his Dad, Bob Stowers, and his time as a Wellington bomber pilot over North Africa and Italy.

This will be a most worthy addition to the greater 'Mediterranean Wellington bibliography' and will join the likes of the recent Bombers Over Sand And Snow by Alun Granfield, Kenny Ballyntyne's Another Dawn Another Dusk and the modern-day classic that is Hewer's In For A Penny, In For A Pound (not to mention the long-standing classic Out Of The Italian Night by Maurice Lihou among others).

The text of the press release provides all you need (assuming you need more!) to whet your appetitie.  The link to the WOTM listing is below and I note it is also available on Amazon.  Thanks to Dave Homewood for permission to use the cover photo below from the Wings Over New Zealand forum.

A Kiwi bomber pilot’s story from the Mediterranean

NZ415793 Flying Officer Robert Ernest Stowers DFM

Bob Stowers, at the age of just 21, was Wellington bomber pilot with 70 RAF Squadron in the Mediterranean theatre during 1943. While with the squadron Bob flew 42 operations against heavily defended ports, railways, airfields and troop concentrations in North Africa and Italy.

For his bravery and devotion to duty, Bob was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM).

A full and accurate description is given of each operation, as well as airfield life in the North African desert.

Stuck in the desert with little to no contact with Britain, the airmen of Bob's squadron had to overcome the belief they were fighting a “forgotten war.” The lack of coverage the Mediterranean theatre received in British media, which included the BBC news and the London dailies – as opposed to what Bomber Command received – caused many of the crews to feel that they were in a backwater. Even today many historians consider the Mediterranean theatre a lesser campaign.

Wellingtons over the Med is authored by Bob Stowers' son Richard, of Hamilton, New Zealand. In his own words: “When I was a boy I found an old leather suitcase tucked in the rafters of the woolshed. It took me a while to realise the significance of the contents, but I established that my dad had been a bomber pilot in the war. To me he instantly became a real hero in a real war.

“No combat role in the war was easy. Dad witnessed death at 10,000 feet and on the ground. He knew the emotions of combat and the toll it took on the human soul. Like any other bomber pilot, he felt happiness and relief when he sighted his home airfield after returning from combat.

“Dad never talked much about his war experiences. There were bits here and there. But the war certainly defined him. Throughout his life he was known as a quiet, loving and modest man. Many believed he was a perfect gentleman. One would struggle to think he was once a bomber pilot.”

Recommendation for the Distinguished Flying Medal [with 70 RAF Squadron]:

“This N.C.O. has carried out a most successful tour of operations comprising 41 night sorties amounting to 250.35 hours flying during which time he continually displayed a most praiseworthy determination, cool courage and devotion to duty in the face of the enemy. During the Tunisian campaign, he carried out a number of highly successful attacks on the enemy’s heavily defended landing grounds and on the troops and transport concentrated in the battle area. During these attacks, often in adverse weather conditions, he showed great determination in seeking out, illuminating and bombing targets allotted to him. Throughout the Sicilian campaign which included attacks on the heavily defended ports of Messina, Palermo and Catania and during the blitzing of the Italian ports, railways communications and aerodromes, he showed the same undaunted spirit and cool courage, pressing home his attacks with great determination, no matter how stiff the opposition was from the enemy defences. From the very beginning of his tour, this N.C.O. has set a high standard and proved himself to be a steady and excellent operational Captain. I have no hesitation in recommending that his courage and devotion to duty be recognised by the award of the Distinguished Flying Medal (non-immediate).”

An attractive book with 144 landscape pages plus laminated soft cover (244mm x 210mm). The book has over 110 excellent photographs – most of them previously unpublished, plus two maps.

07 May 2012

Into The Midst Of Things - Sir Richard Kingsland AO, CBE, DFC

I haven't had time to write my next review so, wanting to keep things ticking over, I invited Kristen Alexander - author of Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader (and one half of Alexander Fax Booksellers) - to be a guest reviewer.  She happily obliged and has provided details of another book (after mention of Lost Without Trace below) recenlty published by the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre.  Enjoy.

The Royal Australian Air Force’s Office of Air Force History (OAFH) has a remarkable oral history program and has now produced a number of autobiographies under its auspices. The text of Into the Midst of Things derived from a series of interviews with Sir Richard and Lady Kingsland and was supplemented by Sir Richard’s records as well as a couple of extensive interviews conducted by the National Library of Australia. The raw material was then shaped into a captivating narrative by the RAAF Historian, Dr Chris Clark, and sensitively edited by Wing Commander Keith Brent, both ensuring that Sir Richard’s distinctive voice is not lost.

Sir Richard had long resisted a biography and one of the reasons he was happy to become part of the OAFH’s oral history program was simply because it was the RAAF who was asking. He acknowledges the important place the RAAF held in his life and wartime career and even as a launching pad to his post-war career. Even so, in his prologue, Sir Richard makes it clear that this account does not include the ‘complete “me” to be put out for public scrutiny’. Not because he has anything to hide, or because he has failed to recognise his weaknesses but because he did not necessarily want those failings ‘broadcast or highlighted for posterity’. And there the reader catches a first glimpse of Sir Richard’s sense of humour which makes reading this memoir-with-gaps such a delight. 

Sir Richard Kingsland, AO, CBE, DFC, (né Julius Allen ‘Dick’ Cohen) has a distinguished place in the history of the RAAF, Australian defence and public administration. His air force career took him from a Point Cook cadet in 1935 to Group Captain within ten years. He saw service with 10 Squadron, was awarded the DFC as a young flight lieutenant in 1940 following a dangerous operation in Vichy-controlled Morocco, took over command of 11 Squadron and was director of RAAF intelligence in the latter stages of the war. He was clearly marked for greater things in the post-war air force but transferred to the public service in 1948 and pursued a career in the Department of Civil Aviation, then Air, and then Defence. In 1963 he was head of his department and he remained in charge of two large organisations for the next 18 years.

I like a certain amount of biographical topping and tailing, but I usually stop reading memoirs when they delve too much into the post-war career. I didn’t stop with this one. I continued to be fascinated. Interestingly, Sir Richard offers no false modesty regarding his flying career (he was a good pilot and acknowledges this) but he was very reluctant to give himself credit for anything else. A perfect example of this is when he tells of his Point Cook classmates. He admits that he found himself ‘associated with a group of “giants”...It seemed to me that they were the best specimens selected from a large number of young people from around Australia who had already acquitted themselves in a variety of ways’. And some of those continued to acquit themselves well such as Colin Hannah, later Sir Colin, air marshal, Chief of the Air Staff and governor of Queensland and Hughie Edwards who was awarded the Victoria Cross. With the benefit of hindsight, Sir Richard could confidently acknowledge that he was one of those giants. He may not admit it, but his ‘giantness’ shines through his achievements.

As I raced through his memoir I mused that Sir Richard was a closet thriller writer: he would often signpost exciting things to come, even before he had finished telling of something equally interesting. But this foreshadowing directly relates to Sir Richard’s preference for starting a story in the middle, revealing the before and after as he goes along. And hence the title, Into the Midst of Things. But the title could equally have been As Luck Would Have It. Sir Richard’s life is full of turning point episodes where, if his luck had run out, things would have turned out very differently indeed. I won’t list the many examples (starting with what if the RAAF hadn’t accepted the cadet application from someone who did not have any burning ambition to fly!) you can read them yourself but, interestingly ‘luck’ is a major theme of this memoir ‘How Shorthand led to the Air Force’, ‘My Career Stocks got a Lucky Break’, and ‘Dicing with Death at the Flemington Track’ (the image of what might have been the end of his life or at least flying career is incorporated into the front cover design). He even crossed the Atlantic in the ‘lucky’ Bayano. It is a shame that ‘amazing’ has been so overworked these days because there is a great deal in Sir Richard’s life which amazes the reader.

Into the Midst of Things is ‘unputdownable’. It is well-written, fast-moving, very well edited and where you want good description it is there. I love reading about the joy of flight and how our pilots responded to the thrill of being in control of their aircraft. Sir Richard’s account of his first solo flight is pure magic and I could see his wide grin as I read it. Sir Richard may have wanted to hide some aspects of his personality but he clearly reveals himself to be a man of warmth, charm, great humour with a wonderful capacity to make and keep friends. Brief encounters as a young man would result in life-long friendships. And yet, the warmth is counterbalanced by a certain dispassion; Sir Richard does not dwell on the emotion of an incident. He ‘tells it like it is’. And perhaps this ability to set aside the emotion is a key to his success in public administration and people management.

I don’t think it is too much to state that Into the Midst of Things is one of the best air force memoirs I have read in a long time. It reveals the person, it recounts interesting stories from a very interesting flying career and, happily, it is well-produced and almost perfectly copyedited. I have two criticisms, however. OAFH obviously had access to Sir Richard’s personal photo albums, so I would have liked to have seen more photos. And, with a career that crossed the paths of so many other fliers and important people, I believe an index is essential. The price of the book is clearly subsidized so I think a little extra should be spent on these essentials. These minor criticisms aside, this is an enthralling must-have read for the aviation enthusiast and anyone else interested in Australian memoir. Highly recommended.

26 April 2012

Vale Phil Davenport

An email from Stevie Davenport, publisher of her father's Hurrah For The Next Man, is always a good thing to receive and this one started off with a congratulations on the birth of our daughter so the standard was maintained. However, as I read on, I detected all was not right and when Stevie said she'd been travelling to northern New South Wales recently a feeling of dread immediately preceded the next sentence. Phil Davenport, accomplished sailor, pilot and father - the last of the three flying Davenport brothers - had passed away on March 12.

He was a remarkable man. His extraordinary 'weather eye' was brought to bear literally in the case of his sailing and Coastal Command work and figuratively as he surveyed the ways of the world and despaired at our continuing ability to wage war. Repeating what I said in the review, he was not one to suffer fools lightly and had an acute disdain for selfishness that caused harm to others. In later life, and I suspect throughout his many adventures, he was outspoken and prepared to protest against what he saw as great wrongs being passed down by governments. If there was anyone who should have been listened to it was Phil Davenport. 

His book Hurrah For The Next Man pulls no punches and his attitude to things is, at times, a little confronting and might perhaps even make the reader uncomfortable. He writes from the heart - admittedly through 60-plus years of hindsight - and gets to the point. That said, his experiences as a Sunderland pilot in particular are well-conveyed and make a valuable addition to our understanding of the role.

A man of strong character whose deft touch at the controls over and on the ocean belied a steely determination to get the job done. Rest in peace, Phil Davenport.

26 March 2012

It's a girl!

Our daughter, Margaret May, was born on March 15. Everyone going well ... but reviews aren't happening for the time being obviously!

My father-in-law also kindly gave me a copy of Christobel Mattingley's Battle Order 204 which I've been grabbing short sessions with. Most enjoyable and one for all ages and all 'exposures' to Bomber Command.

09 March 2012

Leon-Kane Maguire - RIP

It began as one of my usual spur of the moment internet searches. Having not visited the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre online book shop for some time I sauntered over electronically for a quick browse. Sitting in the new publications list was a book cover that immediately attracted attention. Yes, the photo on the cover indicated it was a book very relevant to ABR, but it was the name of the author that ensured my interest was piqued to epic levels.

Leon Kane-Maguire. Besides Owen Zupp and Mark Lax LKM was the only author I've met and reviewed. Indeed I met him with Mark Lax when the pair were leaving Melbourne on their way home to Canberra. It was a fleeting visit in the street to exchange pleasantries and pick up a couple of copies of their latest joint project - the No. 466 Squadron RAAF history To See The Dawn Again. The second book about an RAAF squadron (the first was the well-known The Gestapo Hunters) written by the pair TSTDA followed solo projects by both authors - Alamein To The Alps for Lax and The Desert Scorpions for LKM - and is a worthy addition to their combined catalogue of work.

LKM left a lasting impression despite the very brief time we shared each other's company in late 2008. A couple of amusing comments and a genuine friendliness towards my wife and me, despite being on a bit of a mission to get home, provided a quick window into the character of the man. That, coupled with his obviously vast knowledge and ability to communicate effectively, flashed into my head as I left the APDC site and googled his name. Those memories were about to take on a particular poignancy.

The first result when you google "Leon Kane-Maguire" is sobering - Leon Kane Maguire 1942-2011. "No, not possible", I thought. "Surely I would have heard about his passing". Sadly, it proved all too true. One of Australia's most respected scientists (he was a leading light in chemistry and its application in industry and medicine in particular), researchers and teachers had died in early 2011.

Gone before his time most certainly, and with a few projects in mind no doubt, he has left a lasting legacy. His final completed work was the story of his father's life for his family. Indeed it was his father's loss during the war while flying with No. 464 Squadron that inspired him to research Australia's Article XV squadrons and become a master of extreme footnoting (very valuable). His final published work is the book found on the APDC site - Lost Without Trace. The story of Beaufighter pilot Squadron Leader Wilbur Wackett (the son of legendary aircraft 'all-rounder' Sir Lawrence Wackett) won the 2010 RAAF Heritage Award and was published in November of the following year - almost a year after the death of its author. That his latest book has been officially recognised so highly is testament to a man who appears to have excelled at everything he turned his hand to.

For us mere readers and collectors the memory of Leon Kane-Maguire, like the men he wrote about, will remain alive every time we dip into one of the books (or read it front to back or even just see it on the shelf) bearing his name. He set a standard of research that all who follow should aspire to and a catalogue of work that RAAF historians and aficionados alike will be grateful for in the decades to come.

21 February 2012

The Bomber Command Memorial book

With construction of the long-awaited Bomber Command memorial underway on the edge of Hyde Park in London, and the grand opening scheduled for June, there is also a smaller but equally important project being put together to, well, basically, commemorate the commemoration.

Just as the bomber crews were supported by many, many more people on the ground the book is intended to tell the entire story of the memorial: the fight for proper recognition; the fund-raising that has seen money come in from governments, communities and individuals around the world; the search and eventual selection of the site; the design and symbology of the structure; and, with publication coming in November this year, coverage of June's opening ceremony. On top of all that will be the stories of the men the memorial honours and, for some of those who attend the ceremony, their reaction to the event and the memorial itself.

There's at least 55,573 reasons why The Bomber Command Memorial - We Will Remember Them will be the most important title to be published this year. A pre-order offer will be available here with 10 GBP from each book going to the memorial appeal. When the book finally goes on sale in November all royalties will be donated. It is important to remember that, while the memorial's construction has been funded, its upkeep also needs to be provided for. That this book will contribute to the future and honour the past is a magnificent prospect perfectly befitting the men who flew east and, if they were lucky, flew home to see the dawn again.

18 February 2012

Springbok Fighter Victory

Long-term readers of ABR will know I have 'favourite' theatres of war and a penchant for accounts of the more obscure campaigns. North Africa, Burma and the Far East in particular feature heavily in my aircrew fascination but, to some extent, these, happily, are not as neglected as they once were (although they should receive more attention still).

The South African Air Force's activities over and around the Mediterranean are well known but, surprisingly, do not seem to be widely covered by the likes of memoirs and squadron histories. A trip to South Africa in 2006 gave me the opportunity to peruse several bookshops around Jo'burg but, to my surprise, I did not turn up any relevant titles. A quick bit of online searching soon after my return revealed a few books - some of which I discussed here - and in the years since I've turned up titles such as Barry Keyter's From Wings To Jackboots and the Bagshawe anthology Warriors Of The Sky (another edition published by Pen & Sword recently). It's been a bit of work though and books on the SAAF Marauders (and RAF ones) continue to elude me.

Reading the obituary of AVM Don Hills today led to me checking for reference of him in Michael Schoeman's Springbok Fighter Victory Volume 1 - East Africa 1940-1941. Regular readers will know I tend to go off on tangents so you won't be surprised to hear that, upon remembering SFV was the first volume, I did a quick search and found Volume 2 - Crisis Above The Desert 1940-1942 - is now available or, more correctly, has been available for a few years. Excellent!

The easiest place to find out more - and there's not a hell of a lot out there - is the website of the publisher, Freeworld Publications (who reports Volume 1 is out of print and cannot be reprinted). Besides the other titles available it is most gratifying to see Volumes 3-5 of the SFV series also listed although the third volume is sold out (but can be reprinted if there is sufficient interest). What this promises is a complete series of titles that will prove to be the 'bible' in terms of SAAF fighter operations during the war. For that we can be grateful.

26 January 2012

My New Guinea Diary - Ernest C. Ford

A book is a package prepared by a team of people. Even something self-published is rarely prepared by just the author. Friends and family can act as proof-readers, typist or even fact-checkers. Make it an ‘officially’ published book and you start including designers, copy editors and other such clever people. The wise editor will let a great story have its head and not interfere with the story-telling process. However, this same editor will also tighten up the writing and keep it on track while ensuring the small things like spelling and grammar are consistent and accurate. With Ernest Ford’s My New Guinea Diary we have the incredible story of an American Sergeant Pilot flying C-47 transports over New Guinea’s treacherous terrain when the Japanese still held the upper hand and the Allies were scrambling to reverse their fortunes. While most certainly an attractive tale that needed to be told it is let down by, at times, a complete lack of editing.

The book opens - after the requisite foreword, acknowledgements and a useful timeline of events – on October 13, 1942 with the 20-year old author flying to New Guinea from Australia in formation with 12 other C-47s of the 6th Troop Carrier Squadron (the first USAAF transport unit to be deployed as such). This flight was the culmination of a two-week odyssey involving some epic legs across the Pacific from California and was so secret that only the squadron commander knew where they were going. The aircraft were little more than a month old and the pilots were all ‘green’ combat-wise of course. On the flying side of things Ford had just over 450 hours of flight-time prior to leaving the States - a firm grounding for the challenges that lay ahead.

Landing at Jackson Field in the Port Moresby area the crews quickly find out how tenuous their situation is. The Japanese had pushed their way across the Owen Stanley ranges to within sight of New Guinea’s biggest settlement. No quarter was asked and none was given in what was a particularly brutal campaign fought in the most unforgiving of environments. The crews are briefed shortly after arrival by an Australian Army captain who familiarises them with the tactical situation, basic survival and a comprehensive lesson on how to survive if shot down or having to escape New Guinea on foot. While an extraordinarily detailed briefing and a real eye-opener into just how little chance the men had if left to their own devices in the jungle, the briefing is delivered in the book as though the captain is talking (complete with quotation marks). It, like many ‘instructions’ given throughout the book, is treated as a direct quote which, 60-70 years after the fact, is quite implausible as are his apparent comments about aircraft handling - an Army captain telling aircrew not to hand-turn ‘hot’ propellers! Nevertheless the captain’s descriptions, as written, maintain the exceptional level of detail that is experienced throughout the book.

This level of detail is of most value when Ford describes the living conditions at Jackson and his subsequent combat flying. Beginning first with air drops over kunai grass plains, the author flies with an additional four ‘pushers’ – Australian infantry assigned to push the aircraft’s load out over the drop-zone as fast as possible on each run. Fighter escort for the early trips was a single Royal Australian Air Force Wirraway so, in effect, there was no fighter escort at a time when the Japanese held air superiority. Ford goes to great lengths to explain the challenges of flying under such conditions and several encounters with Japanese aircraft make it clear the man supplements his luck with particular flying skill (others are not so fortunate). Missions were flown in formation or singly and, as it does now, the weather in that part of the world certainly made its presence felt.

Ford was always keen to fly and even volunteered to crew on a Flying Fortress when he was rostered off normal flying duties. This passion to do his job is matched by the skill mentioned above. Not long after arriving in New Guinea, his crew (now including an Australian co-pilot) is sent to perform a solo supply drop near Kokoda airstrip. High up in the ranges, after performing the drops and with the weather closing in, the cargo door comes away from the fuselage and wraps itself around the port stabiliser. What follows is a particularly gripping account of the author’s struggle to return the floundering aircraft and crew to base (parachutes removed to supply the fighter pilots) while having to ‘adjust’ his flying – already hampered by limited control - to counter the cloud and rain showers. None of the aircraft in the squadron had a full instrument panel (no artificial horizon!) at this time and Ford’s regular aircraft, the now damaged Irene, had a cockpit that leaked when it rained. That he gets the aircraft back home safely is certainly not unique among the plethora of wartime stories but it is a clear indication that this man can fly.

With his aircraft out of action and no spares on strength, the author is sent to a ‘sugar resort’ near Mackay, Queensland for a short rest. This and other trips, operational and on leave, allow for interesting observations of 1940s Australia through the eyes of a ‘Yank’. Some are accurate while others are a bit hard to believe (I have yet to meet an Australian woman who lived during that time with wooden teeth – the majority had them according to the author).

One of the recurring ‘problems’ the author has when dealing with administration staff on the ‘home front’ is proving to them he is the pilot in command. Staff Sergeant pilots in the USAAF were unheard of to me until I read this book. The same can be said for the majority of those serving in the Army Air Force at the time as Ford regularly, and vehemently, has to prove his credentials and, consequently, makes some enemies with airfield clerks. Never is this more clear than his Christmas 1942 flight to Garbutt airfield (now Townsville airport). Battling intense weather with no radio contact and a bit of anti-aircraft fire approaching Townsville – not to mention performing an Immelman (in a C-47!) to avoid high ground above 4,000 feet – before landing and stopping on the runway due to lack of fuel, Ford has to contend with ‘acquaintances’ whose job it seems is to make life more difficult for everyone else. During these confrontations, and there are several throughout the book, the author maintains a level head and tends to (verbally) throw his weight around a little knowing he is backed-up by orders or regulations. He admittedly, at times, comes across as a bit of a ‘smart-arse’ but he is always in the right and often gets his ‘opponents’ to eat some humble pie.

With the Japanese being ground back to the northern shores of New Guinea, the 6th TCS is kept busy with many supply flights heading through the mountains to supply the advancing units on the other side. Supplying Dobodura, the author flies two missions before being called on to deliver spares and two mechanics to aid an unserviceable P-38 Lightning. Delivery complete and with the weather rapidly closing in, Ford decides to follow the north coast south-east towards Fall River before refueling and returning to Port Morseby. The weather worsens to such an extent a grassy clearing is selected to land and wait out the storm on. What follows is a stay of at least 36 hours behind enemy lines. This extended ‘adventure’ is only surpassed by the sheer seat-of-the-pants flying required to deliver supplies to Wau – a strip requiring an uphill landing in a short distance with final approach, under fire, over a river and the Japanese controlling three sides of the airfield. Take-off was downhill and often dodging new bomb craters. Ford flew to Wau on numerous occasions and in one two-day period the transport crews delivered more than two thousand soldiers.

The flying and trying life in New Guinea continues unabated with the author completing more than 220 operations before receiving a battlefield commission and the first of his six DFCs. He would go on to fly 364 combat operations before leaving New Guinea in October 1943. When the Korean War began he flew a further 21 operations in a month before enough resources were deployed to allow him to return to regular duties in Japan. An impressive flying career.

It’s certainly an interesting and fascinating story, isn’t it? The writing and editing does not make it easy on the reader though. Indeed, I haven’t had a more frustrating read in a long time. I made a note after reading page 20 – “proof-reading … pretty abysmal, regular spelling mistakes”. Sadly, for the majority of the book, this remains the norm. Place names are misspelt and, on several occasions, words are spelt phonetically suggesting the author dictated part of his story which, in turn, led to the errors due to a lack of follow-up checks.

The book opens, as already described, with the unit’s arrival in New Guinea. This entire event is repeated, unbelievably almost word for word, on page 79. Up to this point only small details had been repeated verbatim but this continues to occur throughout the book. There’s also a few obscure references early on to aspects of the unit’s history or the author’s service which are not explained until well into the read.

There are often extended sections of the book which have no transition or flow between the paragraphs. The author jumps around – “chops and changes” as I wrote in my notes – and tells a story but leaves it hanging before moving on to another anecdote that is usually more or less unrelated. This is particularly frustrating when particular people are talked about. Dates regularly come out of nowhere and, while the book is basically a collection of memories organised chronologically, there is no way to tell when the events occurred unless a date is mentioned. Obviously the majority will have happened in late 1942 through to October 1943 but the author had a distinguished post-war service career and, consequently, met a number of notable people so the occasional story from these meetings will pop up in between flights in New Guinea.

Strangely enough, the spelling, the below-par grammar, the detail and statistical repetition completely and utterly disappear when the author writes about flying. The writing changes from being clunky and disorganised to concise and accurate. The flights to Garbutt, Wau and Dobodura mentioned above – and the overnight stay in the grassy field behind enemy lines – are just some of the well-written passages detailing Ford’s flying that are dotted throughout MNGD. These harrowing accounts are the complete polar opposite, in terms of writing and structure, to the majority of the rest of the book. It’s like a switch has been thrown and is probably one of the more bizarre things I have seen in this genre. The author’s accounts of his actual flying are a joy to read and any enthusiast will marvel at his abilities.

These accounts are certainly the high points of MNGD as the rest is, while a good record of Ford’s time in New Guinea, quite disappointing. The supporting material – the photos and maps – are well-produced on the same paper as the text. The photos in particular are the survivors of Ford’s collection after many were confiscated by the censor in Hawaii as he returned home. This makes what appears in the book all the more valuable as many are of the native people in their traditional dress – a small window into a culture that had war thrust upon it. With regard to the photos, the poor editing that hamstrings the text also makes its presence felt. The first photo to appear in the main body of the book can be found on page 84 while the next photo is on page 85 and refers to a humourous incident … that is not mentioned until page 162! Several captions are also completely wrong. In particular, an aircraft named “Hell’s Angels” is referred to as “Hell’s Bells” and the caption for the photo of the author looking out the side cockpit window of a C-47 says the aircraft is a B-17 when the stencil painted on the aircraft clearly says “C-47”.

There’s a myriad of problems with this book that detract from the quality of the read. Fortunately, they don’t affect the quality of the story. Ford is a spirited and talented flyer with an appreciation for history and a realisation he played his part. This is, more than likely, the first book written by an American transport pilot who flew in New Guinea. At the very least it must be the first written by one of the ‘pioneers’ of the 6th TCS. A rare book if ever there was one and a rare book in this genre as memoirs about combat flying in transports aren’t exactly thick on the ground. Errors and indifferent editing perhaps make MNGD forgettable but Ernest C. Ford is most certainly not!