11 December 2013

Dam Busters: Failed To Return - Robert Owen et al

As has been quoted many times there are two constants in life – death and taxes.  Similarly, it is a given that, pretty much every year, there will be aircrew books published on one of two subjects – the Battle of Britain and the Dam Buster raid.  Both events are household names and have been the genesis of many a 1940s air war obsession (I can blame the BoB).  They have become the ‘poster boys’ of the wartime RAF and have shaped the public’s perception of the service in the years since.  There is still much to be written on both subjects although this seems less likely when comparing the two – the raid on the dams involved just one squadron so its scope of personal stories is relatively small.  A Dam Buster book will always sell well but how do you make it really stand out?

I’ve written about a large format book by Fighting High Publishing before.  That book was, and continues to be, a resounding success and a benchmark for quality and presentation.  The latest in the Failed To Return series, Dam Busters: Failed To Return, continues this legacy.

The premise behind the FTR series is similar to author Steve Darlow’s Five Of The Few and Five Of The Many – detailed biographies of aircrew collected under the one title.  As is plainly clear, the common thread in this more recent series of books (three titles with a fourth due in 2014) is that the subjects did not survive to see peace.  This serves to make the books poignant, quite moving and deserving of a treatment of the highest standard.

The losses suffered by No. 617 Squadron during the raid are very well known.  Some of the pilots’ names, in particular, are very familiar among aircrew enthusiasts and researchers.  Gibson, Shannon, Martin, Hopgood, Young, McCarthy and Munro all come to mind easily.  However, they do not even account for half of the pilots involved and are just seven of the 133 men who flew the raid.  As is often the case, those who survived have received more literary attention so this collective work by four experienced Bomber Command authors is most welcome.  Indeed, it borders on the magnificent.

DBFTR opens, as expected, with an overview of the raid and the technology that made it possible.  It is all familiar ground but Robert Owen does well to keep this section under control and not get carried away with detail.  This is, after all, a book dedicated to the men involved.  He returns later to provide two of the five biographical chapters and the postscript analysing the effects of the raid and the subsequent post-war examinations and conclusions, for better or worse, performed by all and sundry.  His first biography of one of the very experienced pilots on the raid – Bill Astell DFC – is the perfect foil to Steve Darlow’s opener which details a young pilot for whom the raid was only his fourth operational sortie.

Sean Feast and Arthur Thorning provide the remaining chapters.  The former writes, in his usual flowing style, about two of the three men who became POWs – both were from Hopgood’s crew - while the latter presents a beautifully detailed piece on the best known of the six airmen featured – ‘Dinghy’ Young.

The authors really go to town on their charges but all present the minutiae of training and ops in a very readable style and seamlessly work in the personal aspects that bring each man to life.  Happily, they are not the only men, who failed to return, featured in the book as all 53 killed are included in a roll of honour in the final pages.  Indicative of the effort made with this title this roll is more than just a list of names.  At the very least their age, burial location, headstone inscription and crew are given.  Where possible, photos of either the headstone or the man himself (or both) are included.  It is a really nice touch.  Reading through these pages makes me hope for a second book about these men although, to match the content of this book, there would be some repetition as the circumstances surrounding the loss of five of the eight aircraft downed have already been detailed.  The roll is a fitting conclusion to a book that opens with Barnes Wallis’ moving letter of gratitude, guilt and sympathy to AVM Sir Ralph Cochrane.  This text is respectfully laid over a greyed-out photo of a cemetery.  I read this aloud to our baby son, glanced at him, then glanced at the headstones and had to stop to compose myself.

Dam Busters: Failed To Return is certainly not the only book on the raid to be published in this 70th anniversary year (Cooper’s classic The Men Who Breached The Dams has been reprinted … to name one) but it certainly stands out as it is so very well done.  It won’t be the last book on this most famous of raids but all forthcoming Dam Busters books, including a potential sequel, now have a higher standard to achieve if they are to compete with this format, content and value for money. 

01 November 2013

It's a boy!

Wow, do I have a great excuse for not posting anything in October!  Our son was born on October 7 and the time since then has, naturally, been a blur.  Everyone is doing well and Paddy's big sister is loving helping us around the house.  I don't know when I'll get the next review up but I am still planning to have more posts than what was a quiet 2012.

There are some very exciting books on the horizon but they escape me at present!  Graeme Gibson's magnificent Path Of Duty is being posted to customers as we speak so if you haven't ordered a copy now is your chance.  If you're a Beaufighter fan, Graeme's second volume is not too far away.

Speaking of Bristol's finest, I was excited to discover recently that David Whishaw's family still has a number of copies of his That Airman! (originally published in the mid-1990s).  The book details his time as a Beaufighter pilot with No. 455 Squadron RAAF as it conducted anti-shipping strikes in the North Sea and along the Norwegian coast line.  If you missed out on this nice hardback when it was originally released you will be able to pick it up for A$25 plus postage.  All proceeds go to the family. They are very keen to see David's story reach a new audience. If you are interested in a copy, drop me a line.  I will be running a review of the book in the near future.

I trust this finds you all well and hope you are reading a great aircrew book at present.

28 September 2013

Path Of Duty - Graeme Gibson

Regular readers will have noticed my excited anticipation and references to this forthcoming book over the past year.  Its subject matter and planned production values promised something of great worth.  I was fortunate to visit the author before Christmas 2012 and be shown his research and what he’s collected to make this two-volume history a reality.  Although I’ve had a fair insight as to what was coming the result has been beyond my wildest expectations.  Path Of Duty is the most beautiful book I have ever seen.

No. 16 Squadron, South African Air Force, has never had its history written before.  Like the equivalent RAAF units, the squadron is not widely known outside of its mother country but this does not make the history any less important.  And what a history it is.  Name some of the more obscure actions/campaigns in Africa during WW2 and you’re almost guaranteed to find 16 Squadron.  First created to patrol the South-West Cape early in the war (South Africa wanting to be seen to be ready for war when, in reality, it wasn’t), the squadron’s first incarnations were short-lived.  It was not until the campaign against the Italians in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) that the unit finally gained some permanence.  Flying Ju-86s, including former South African Airways aircraft, the squadron played a considerable and valuable part in removing the Italians from East Africa before disbanding yet again. 

It eventually returned to the SAAF’s strength with Beauforts and Marylands – No. 20 Squadron renamed - and participated in the Madagascar campaign before moving to Kenya and returning to its roots flying Bisleys on maritime patrols.  North Africa beckoned in early 1943, Beaufighters arrived and the unit became a strike squadron.

Path Of Duty records the squadron’s history up to the arrival of the Beaufighters.  Far from being a dry history, the narrative is masterfully crafted to be very readable and informative (the chapter detailing the social and conflict history of Abyssinia had me rapt).  Artwork - paintings, profiles and pencil sketches - has been specially commissioned for the book.  The colour plates are simply glorious with exceptional colour reproduction.  Combined with the narrative, they bring the book to life.  The sketches and paintings - the same idea used in the author’s earlier Coastal Strike (the biography of John Clements DFC) to cleverly illustrate scenes not featured in the many photographs found throughout  - have to be seen to be believed. The two South African artists, Sean Thackwray and Darryl Legg, deserve a much larger audience. They are truly superb at what they do.  The cover image is just the tip of the iceberg.

Appendices provide airframe histories – ably supported by more than 20 highly accurate colour profiles - and the bibliography is an education in itself.  I still can't grasp the enormity of the whole thing.  It delivers on everything it promised ... and then some.  Every inch of it exudes quality.  The paper stock is top notch and the photo reproduction is perfect.  The only thing I can equate it to is a classic book on bird-watching.  You know, one of those very tactile, beautiful books complete with colour plates and detailed observations (POD even includes sketches of bird, animal, insect and plant life as encountered by the squadron – it’s that type of comprehensive and thoughtful history).  At almost 500 pages this is not a small book but it is certainly manageable and the whole package is an absolute delight.

Path Of Duty is Volume One of a two-volume squadron history.  It is not yet available in stores or online but place an order with the author before the end of October and you will be able to buy a copy for A$75 which is the greatest bargain you will see for some time (A$88 after October which is still bloody incredible value for money!) – graemegibson6ATbigpond.com

The second book, Road To Glory, is currently in its first draft.  There may also be a third volume concentrating on the wartime story of a Beaufighter crew (they both kept good diaries) who flew with the squadron.

17 September 2013

Operation Hurricane - Marc Hall

Bomber Command is, to use a slightly inappropriate term, the flavour of the month.  In the years leading up to the unveiling of the long-awaited memorial in Hyde Park, interest in the RAF bomber force grew and garnered a wide ‘following’ and a heightened public awareness.  Despite more people turning over the same, well-worn stones, gradually adding to their knowledge and then delving deeper to discover hidden gems in attics, garden sheds or shoeboxes, we have yet, to my knowledge, to see a book published by a ‘first timer’ - the new breed of Bomber Command aficionados, the future of this movement, and those who will need to step up if these men are never to be forgotten.  What this means, besides the art of writing a book remaining one of the great challenges, is that to pull together a valuable addition to the Bomber Command library requires dedication, an undying passion and an understanding that borders on second nature.

Marc Hall, author of Operation Hurricane, was at it for almost nine years (and he’s still going).  His discovery of a distant relative lost on a raid to Duisburg, Germany, sparked what can only be described as an obsession.  His new book is the result of this obsession.

Duisburg was an industrial target.  The idea behind Operation Hurricane, with the Allied armies close at hand, was to put on a massive show of force by delivering some 12,000 tons of bombs over 24 hours and thereby demoralise the civilian population.  It was more than just the heavy bombers of the RAF and USAAF though as 2 Tactical Air Force and returning escort fighters would attack smaller targets with a particular emphasis on the destruction of the enemy’s fighter defences.  The RAF alone, the focus for this book, managed to launch, effectively, a 1,000 bomber raid on the morning of October 14, 1944 and then followed it up with another that night.  The logistics behind this feat are mind-boggling.  Men and aircraft were lost on the first op, of course, and damaged airframes and crews would have made it home although not necessarily to their own airfields.  To have the resources to be able to turn around and do it all again in mere hours is just staggering (on top of that, another 550+ bombers were active that night!).

It is the human story we are interested in though.  While the bosses in Bomber Command HQ would have been well aware of the need to back up after the first raid it came as a rude shock to the weary crews as the adrenaline wore off post-debrief.  The title of Chapter Four captures what would have been the general feeling – Good God, Not Again.  Remember these men would have returned from their daylight trip just before midday.  Ten hours later the first of them were headed back again.  Daylight ops, while more common later in the war, were probably a greater stress to the bomber crews.  No longer the somewhat protective cloak of darkness.  No longer any doubt as to what that was that just blew up.  An operation of any description put intense stress on a crew.  Two in less than 18 hours is unimaginable.

Of the 224 pages of OH, only the six pages of Chapter Two are purely devoted to the ‘set-up’ i.e. the reasons for the maximum effort.  While Chapter Five analyses the bombing results, the rest of the book is, justifiably, dedicated to the crews.  The author has sourced some excellent memories from surviving aircrew.  These are always fascinating but the real strength of OH lies in the research of every RAF aircraft lost.  Written as a very readable narrative (so refreshing compared to a table or bullet points!), each crew has a chapter devoted to the circumstances of their loss and each man’s fate.  Of the 24 heavy bombers (Lancasters and Halifaxes) and one Mosquito lost/researched, 12 were lost with 'all hands'.

The author has not been content to simply record how the aircraft were lost.  He has meticulously researched the crash sites - where they are known – and traced the burials of those men recovered and, where possible, recounted each man’s journey before embarking on this series of raids.  He puts faces to the names of many of them through a photo section of 80 images.  These photos are, respectfully, grouped together as crews with one page often made up of photos of every crewmember.  It is a particularly clever and moving device (with a sinister footnote as one of the downed airmen was murdered).

It is always difficult to write about an anthology-style of book without repeating yourself over and over as new ‘players’ are introduced but there is no need to here.  Yes, Lancaster X was shot down by flak as was Halifax Y and Lancaster Z.  Indeed, these details are told matter-of-factly with the subsequent fate of the crew enabling the author to read between the lines somewhat, in the absence of witnesses, to determine just how the bomber went down.  The book really shines when dealing with the individual fates though and I cannot emphasise enough the amount of research that has been clearly expended on each man (must have been fun to edit to a manageable size).  The language is familiar for those who have accessed archival records but it is all stitched together with great care.  More importantly, it is very readable with the individual aircraft chapters allowing for a quick ‘dip’ if the reader cannot devote a good period of time to the book (it would take an iron will to stop after reading one such chapter).

This book is nothing groundbreaking.  Rather, it is a tangible example of dedication and passion from deep within – a passion to respect and a passion to share.  As we have come to expect from Fighting High, it is an attractive hardback printed on good paper and, as I always make sure to mention when relevant, a useful index and bibliography.  It continues this publisher’s penchant - expertise - for Bomber Command titles.  We are truly fortunate, in this happy age of a ‘popular’ Bomber Command, to have authors and publishers, such as Marc Hall and FH respectively, committed to producing work of this quality.  A tour de force.

25 August 2013

A Legend In His Time - Vincent A. Ashworth

At every turn, in reading about wartime aircrew, one encounters truly remarkable men.  Sometimes, upon reading a synopsis of an individual’s flying career, you have to take a moment to let it all sink in.  How is it possible for one man to have done so much … and lived?  So it is with the life of Wing Commander Arthur Ashworth DSO, DFC*, AFC*, MID, PFF.

‘Artie’, a New Zealander, joined up before the war and eventually found himself flying Wellingtons with No. 75 (NZ) Squadron.  He completed his first tour in 1941 before being posted to Malta and North Africa where he completed a second tour.  Returning to 75 to commence his third tour, he flew until his 65th op in September 1942 when his aircraft caught fire and he ordered his crew to bale out.  He was set to follow them out, and would have probably joined them as a POW, until he discovered his parachute gone.  Nothing to do but fly the bomber back home single-handedly!  He returned to New Zealand shortly after and was posted to No. 17 Squadron RNZAF to fly Corsairs against the Japanese.  That was not the end of his war as he was eventually back in the UK, this time as a Pathfinder, for his fourth bomber tour which culminated, after his 78th bomber op, in supply drops for Operation Manna and the repatriation of former POWs.  He continued to serve in the RAF until his retirement in 1967 as an incredibly experienced, well-liked and respected pilot (post-war he flew Meteors, Canberras, you name it).

Such a phenomenal life deserves a quality biography and, happily, we have this in A Legend In His Time.  Lovingly written by Artie’s brother, Vincent, this is not the first title to feature one of the Ashworth boys.  The author had previously written about another brother, Corran, who crashed into the River Seine in 1944 and has never been found (the moving For Our Tomorrow He Gave His Today).  The connection is, of course, evident in the writing but the author has not been content to rely on his family’s records and memories and Artie’s beautifully kept logbooks.  In all honesty, this basic approach, with a bit of contextual research guided by the logbooks, would have been a most interesting read.  The author, however, has gone above and beyond and sourced as many personal recollections from his brother’s contemporaries as possible.  He has examined the men Artie flew and trained with and has really presented one of the most well-rounded, fair and insightful biographies to be written about a Bomber Command man in quite some time.

The book is a solid, well-presented 300-page paperback published by the author.  It is a good read with superb detail and an absolute plethora of photos although a number of these, particularly those that appear to have been acquired from outside sources, have not reproduced at all well – some are ‘blocky’ and blurry while others show a pattern or series of lines throughout the image (the moire pattern from scanning perhaps?).  The chapter structure is also a little frustrating in that contextual chapters on, for example, Bomber Command and its structure, the siege of Malta or the foundation of Pathfinder Force, interject in the narrative of Artie’s story.  While these chapters, themselves informative and well-written, are certainly necessary to build the scene, they slow the momentum of Artie’s war.  A quicker introduction could have been supported by further information in the appendices (and an index which is also, understandably, absent).  That way the reader could have ‘stayed’ with Artie.  That said, one such chapter placed at the end of Artie’s training period and detailing the fates of Wigram’s 11 Course pilots is perfectly timed and very, very sobering.

This is the man who, during the early days of Pathfinder HQ, came up with the names for two of the marking techniques used by the PFF – “Wanganui” and “Parramatta”.  Anyone familiar with Bomber Command will recognise these terms and will certainly appreciate learning so much about the man behind the legend.  Artie Ashworth’s life deserves a wider audience.  A brother’s love, knowledge and dedication has ensured this.

26 July 2013

Lost Without Trace - Leon Kane-Maguire

Reading through Eagles Of The Southern Sky for the review below I stumbled upon an account of Wilbur Wackett's remarkable story of survival after his No. 75 Squadron RAAF Kittyhawk was shot down over New Guinea.  As fascinating as his own words are to read about this epic journey, my first thought was along the lines of "Surely this isn't the same Wackett in that book?".  That book is Lost Without Trace and it is the same man.  Given his pedigree, this man should be better known to the Australian public but, like so many of those lost, he has become 'just' a name among thousands with only his surname catching the eye of family and those with a passion for Australian aviation.  His is a fascinating tale so I am pleased to welcome back Kristen Alexander as a guest reviewer for Leon Kane-Maguire's final book.  Kristen sent the review to me last year but we held off publishing it until it had appeared in Sabretache, the Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia (Vol. LIII, No. 2, June 2012).  Thank you to Kristen and the Society for permission to run this review on ABR (the delay is all me).  Enjoy.

The biennial RAAF Heritage Awards were established in 1987 to foster an interest in the history of service aviation and enhance RAAF records. Awards are given for outstanding achievements in literature and art, and assistance is given to those undertaking historical research. As well as a generous prize, the literary award includes publication of the winning manuscript. These memoirs, biographies and historical accounts have added considerably to Australian air force knowledge. Lost Without Trace, which won the 2010 award, is a welcome addition to the RAAF’s publication program.

Leon Kane-Maguire was one of Australia’s most respected scientists and, as well as over 175 scientific papers, he had written or co-written three RAAF squadron histories. He died in January 2011 and never saw his final work in print.

Lost Without Trace is a biography of Wilbur Wackett, son of Lawrence Wackett, who flew in the Australian Flying Corps during the Great War and founded the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. Wilbur followed his father’s footsteps into the air force and served with 2, 24, 75 and 31 squadrons. With 75 Squadron, he participated in the New Guinea air campaign during which he was shot down. Barefooted, he spent a month crossing Papua’s rugged terrain, avoiding capture, to return to his comrades at Port Moresby. In September 1944, 23 year-old Wilbur’s Beaufighter crashed in the Northern Territory. Evidence was later discovered that Wilbur and his navigator had survived, but there was no sign of what had become of them. The bulk of this biography deals with Wilbur’s background, training and RAAF service but the heart is his loss in September 1944 and the aftermath.

I enjoyed Lost Without Trace but I have one concern and one criticism which I will get out of the way so I can give the praise it deserves. Firstly, heritage manuscripts are supposed to be 55,000 words, although longer manuscripts may be considered. Lost Without Trace is just under 60,000 words (including standard preliminaries). With such a tight word limit an author must make hard decisions about what to include and what to omit; the ruling doctrine must be ‘if it does not specifically relate to the central subject, leave it out’. My concern is that Kane-Maguire did not make the best use of his word limit when he included large extracts from non-Wilbur material. For example, blocks of scene-setting recollections should have been pared to a few descriptive sentences, and a handful of survey paragraphs would have served better than the pages describing the fall of Rabaul when Wilbur—a recent posting to 24 Squadron—was in Townsville. My sole criticism is no fault of the author: it is the lack of an index. I believe an index is essential for any historical work.

And now to the praise. Kane-Maguire’s literary talents are obvious in Lost Without Trace. He had the support of Wilbur’s extended family and competently drew on their archives and other available source material. The text is well-written and sparkles with Wilbur’s letters and diary extracts. His whimsical sketches are a charming and enlightening addition. It is a shame Wilbur did not write more as there are large gaps in his diaries but they are largely filled by drawing on recollections and the historical record.

The danger in quoting letters in their entirety, as Kane-Maguire has done, is that the incidental can distract from the important. Where few contemporary witnesses remain, however, they become an essential gauge of personality and character. In including Wilbur’s letters almost unedited, Kane-Maguire has allowed Wilbur’s personality to shine through. His enthusiasm for his flying and RAAF work is vivid and I for one was glad to read of the exciting and mundane in his service career. Perhaps Wilbur’s account of his difficult trek across Papua could have been shortened but, penned shortly after his return to Australia, it is a significant document and through it the reader gains a clear impression of the hardship Wilbur—and other evaders, for that matter—endured during the long and dangerous walk home through Japanese territory.

I always find ‘last letters’ moving. With the benefit of hindsight, I cannot keep the knowledge of what-happens-next from my reading of them. And so it is with Wilbur’s. It is to his parents, and, as he congratulates them on their silver anniversary, he shows clearly the depth of his love for his young bride. He touches on the pride and love for his daughter who he will never see, and we feel his stoic sadness that he is missing out on her growing up. His joy in flying is briefly encapsulated when he proudly declares that ‘I have my own kite now and she’s a little honey.’ The final poignant request—‘do not worry about me I’ll be OK, and home again before you know where you are’—is heart wrenching. This is one letter that needed to be published in full.

Wilbur’s story resonates. He never returned home. His body was never found. We share the Wacketts’ pain, their frustration at the dearth of official information, Lawrence Wackett’s desperate attempts at string-pulling to find out more, and the ultimate despair of not knowing what happened. We grieve at the continuing loss for the Wackett family: the deaths of Wilbur’s daughter when she was only fourteen months old and his wife, Peggie, at a young age.

The Wackett family only learned in 1980, by chance, that Wilbur had survived the crash and Peggie, who died in 1956, never knew. We wonder at how vital grief-assuaging information and relics were not passed on when first discovered. In piecing together what happened to Wilbur after his September 1944 combat, Kane-Maguire has provided closure for Julie, Peggie’s daughter from her second marriage, and Wilbur’s extended family.

Leon Kane-Maguire’s posthumous literary gift is a fine biography and a fitting memorial to Wilbur.

Lost Without Trace is available from specialist bookshops like Hyland's in Melbourne and Alexander Fax in Canberra.  You can also get it direct from the publisher, the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre in hard copy format or as a PDF. 

I have not seen any reports of the crash of the Wackett Beaufighter nor any details of searches made for the men.  Perhaps one day someone may stumble upon their remains.

25 July 2013

Thank you for your support

Just a quick little note to say thank you for visiting and continuing to support Aircrew Book Review's mission. I've just been checking my stats and the site is currently settling on about 2,000 visits per month which is decent traffic as far as I'm concerned. Obviously, for the sake of the books reaching a wider audience, I would like it to be a lot more than that but increased traffic is a direct result of increased activity on the site and ... we all know what I'm like there at times!

Watch this space for news on three new books from Fighting High.  All are the usual fare for FH - high-quality books featuring a Bomber Command story so certainly something to get excited about even though they've already been launched (the latest, an updated edition of Calton Younger's classic No Flight From The Cage, was launched at the Flying Legends airshow held at Duxford earlier this month).

I've also got a very different story to look at - a Canadian pilot who spent the war as an instructor and still owns and flies one of the Tiger Moths he trained on!  On top of that, publisher Pen & Sword has a number of new books out and is also reprinting the Alan Cooper series of Bomber Command titles (Bombers Over Berlin and Beyond The Dams To The Tirpitz for example) so I'll do a bit of a collective look at his 'back-list'.  It's always great to see older titles reprinted affordably for a new generation of readers.

While we're talking Bomber Command (and everyone seems to be these days ... finally), keep an eye out for Sherlock's Squadron by Steve Holmes.  I don't know anything about the book but have noted its recent publication and feel it will be a journey of discovery as a son uncovers his Dad's wartime flying career.

I strongly recommend two Australian-focussed books by established Australian authors and published by small, specialist Australian publishing houses.  Kristen Alexander's limited edition Australian Eagles is more than 70 per cent sold out less than a month after its launch so get in while you can.  A book set to mirror this performance is the new Lewis/Ingman collaboration Carrier Attack - Darwin 1942.  Happily, I believe this will clarify a lot of questions about the most devastating raid on Australian soil.  Like their Zero Hour In Broome (also published by Avonmore) and the recent Eagles Of The Southern Sky, CAD1942 features a lot of work derived from translated Japanese records.

Staying on the Australian theme, the RAAF's Air Power Development Centre has released a couple of high-quality softbacks about The Battle of the Bismarck Sea and No. 7 Squadron RAAF.  The latter, We Never Disappoint, is about a Beaufort unit so will make a very good companion for Colin King's excellent Song Of The Beauforts (also published by the APDC and great value for money).  I am not currently planning to feature either book (waiting on permission to put cover ads up) so please follow the link above to find out more.
Finally, the forthcoming reviews as listed at left are still being worked on.  They are a lot more involved than posts like this of course so take a lot longer with the little time I have.  When they're a title like Graham Drucker's Wings Over The Waves, the review becomes almost as epic as the book (that review is currently at 1,500+ words and not even half done ... a bit of culling to do once it's finished)!

As ever, I'm always pleased to see your comments and welcome your news of new and forthcoming books.  If I don't answer straight away, just imagine I am working feverishly on the next bit for ABR.  You're probably wrong but it's nice to dream!

22 July 2013

Spies In The Sky - Taylor Downing

I’m finding it hard to get any writing done at present despite some brilliant new books arriving and crying out for something to be said about them on ABR. Fortunately, to kick ABR’s July 2013 off, Finnish author Heikki Hietala has come to my rescue with his review of a book on the development of photo reconnaissance during the war. Spies In The Sky is, pleasingly, readily available as a good-sized paperback and brings the elite PR units and boffins to a much wider audience. Enjoy.

Photographic reconnaissance came of age during World War 2. First effectively used during the Great War (photographs of battlefields were used to discover enemy positions and plan for offensive manoeuvers) it was only in the 1930s that the technology provided military planners with the requisite tools for real, far-reaching results.

Spies In The Sky, entertainingly written by Taylor Downing, charts the development of the men and machines that served so well in WW2 and had a significant effect on the battle to defeat the Third Reich. The book is focused on the British effort. This is only fair since the Germans really did not develop photo reconnaissance at all and the Americans were largely happy to watch over the shoulder of the British in this regard.

The chronological record of photo reconnaissance and photo interpretation first sheds light on Sidney Cotton's maverick enterprises in the field of PR. His privately-funded photo equipment and aircraft, as well as his talent in developing the flight and photo techniques necessary, yielded very good results but his headstrong character, and unwillingness to let the military have a say on how PR should be done, led to his being separated from the Air Ministry. Still, he took some of the very last images from Germany just prior to the outbreak of the war and, without his work, PR would not have been as advanced as it was when the war finally erupted.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the unique PI centre of RAF Medmenham and with very good reason. A handful of very talented men and women were installed at the mock-Tudor mansion of Medmenham with a view on the Thames and ample space. That space soon ran out as the process of PI was refined as a three-stage interpretation sequence of images with each stage providing vital output for war planners. With the war in full swing millions of images arrived at Medmenham to be checked and acted upon within a couple of hours of being exposed over enemy territory. The same expansion into hastily-built huts that happened at the code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park occurred at Medmenham too and, at the end of the war, the mansion was surrounded by a rambling collection of buildings housing thousands of people hard at work.

On the technology side the use of the Wild A5 Stereo Plotter and other tools to identify military targets and new weapon development are very well recounted in SITS. It is revelatory to see how skilled operators were able to recognise tiny objects in the images, sometimes shot from 30,000 feet, and provide a coherent description of what the object might be. The hunt for, and identification of, the V1 and V2 launch sites is a case in point (albeit one told many times elsewhere). The dedication of the men and women who spent the war at Medmenham, staring at stereo photos for hours on end, is readily identifiable in the book, and the reader gains an admiration for them.

And, of course, the aircrew too. The men who flew unarmed but highly-tuned Spitfires and Mosquitos into enemy airspace to gain a strip of photos of some part of the landscape were skilled and brave beyond belief. There are heart-rending stories of how PR pilots decided to turn around to make another pass over an important target even as enemy fighters were closing in and how a Mosquito PR op almost went wrong when a Messerschmitt 262 appeared out of nowhere and robbed the Mossie of its only asset - superior speed. Teamwork between the pilot and the navigator saved themselves, the aircraft and the film but the tale of the fight brings you to the edge of your seat.

The book also discusses the organisational problems faced by the PR and PI communities. As is so often the case, no one wanted the PR and PI people when they were still forming the operational readiness they wanted to have but as soon as they delivered success after success everyone wanted a share of the glory. Medmenham was many times threatened with division into Bomber Command PI, Fighter Command PI and American PI sections but the leaders of the base stood firm and resisted all such idiotic turf war initiatives. This enabled Medmenham to keep on processing millions of images through the three-stage identification process and deliver identification results that affected the war throughout its course.

Personal accounts and stories of notable personalities are included in just the right proportion to the big picture which makes this a very enjoyable book to read. Familiar names such a Tony Hill, the low-level oblique image wizard pilot, and Constance Babington Smith (herself an author on PI) and many others are all given credit for their selfless dedication and courage. Anecdotes of funny incidents in the PI community liven up the narrative, which, naturally, is a little grim in the early days of the war.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book to any WW2 aficionado who wants a balanced background book on this often overlooked, but absolutely vital, part of the war effort.

Heikki Hietala is the author of Tulagi Hotel, a story about a former US Marine pilot who buys a surplus Vought Kingfisher and sets up a hotel on a small island in the Pacific as he struggles to adjust to peacetime life.