31 May 2013

It's the little things

It’s the little things that shore us up and help maintain the passion. In early 2010 I managed to write a comprehensive review of the wonderful Fleet Air Arm memoir They Gave Me A Seafire by ‘Mike’ Crosley DSC*, RN. Suitably inspired by a superb writer, I still think this was one of my better reviews. Perhaps what followed is responsible for that opinion.

A couple of months after the review was published on ABR I received an email from a gentleman who knew Mr Crosley and his wife Joan. Besides swapping pleasantries (I love hearing from readers of ABR) he mentioned he had forwarded a copy of the review to the Crosleys. My first thought was one of gratitude but this was quickly swamped by a wave of trepidation. Would the man whose story I had critiqued – admittedly, very favourably – like what some stranger had said about his ‘baby’? Sadly, I was not to find out directly.

Shortly after the first email, a second one arrived from Joan. She thanked me enthusiastically for the “lovely review” and then dropped the bombshell. Mr Crosley was suffering advanced dementia (Joan was his primary carer) and was moving into a specialist home in the near future. That this wonderfully intelligent, witty and talented man was a shadow of his former self made me ever so grateful he had taken the time to write his memoirs. Joan mentioned that, during one of his better days, she had read the review to Mr Crosley and he had enjoyed it. That did it. I no longer cared if I wrote another decent review again. Yes, I had spoken to family members before, often to apologise for the slowness of my writing, but never had a review been brought to the attention of a veteran and author (and a man I greatly respect and admire). A connection had been made.

Joan and I stayed in contact and it was during this time she mentioned a second book – Up In Harm’s Way. Post-war, Mr Crosley built on his extensive naval experience (North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Normandy, Pacific) and became a test pilot. The immediate post-war period was exciting and truly monumental for naval aviation and Britain was at the forefront. Jet aircraft necessitated a new way of operating and paved the way for innovations like the angled flight-deck (to allow simultaneous landings and launches) and mirror landing system. Right in the thick of it was Crosley DSC*.

Long story short, Joan said she would send a copy as a thank you for the TGMAS review. We left it at that as, barely six months after the review saw the light of day, Mr Crosley died. We did manage to stay in touch but Joan’s gracious offer wasn’t even given a second thought as we entered new phases of our lives – me with a new baby and Joan without her husband.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, when a welcome email from Joan earlier this year said the same gentleman who had put us in touch would be visiting Australia and that she had entrusted him with a copy of UIHW. The book duly arrived in the mail and I was immediately struck by how well it followed on from TGMAS and Mr Crosley’s role in the development of post-war naval aviation. His two books are comparable to those by, the perhaps more widely-known, Don Lopez – an American fighter man turned test pilot who wrote Into The Teeth Of The Tiger and Fighter Pilot’s Heaven. The Crosleys, though, will always be close to my heart. We shared an ever so brief moment, even though we never met, when Joan read the review to her husband. Her inscription in UIHW was as simple as it was personal – “To Andy, Mike would have liked to send this to you, Joan”.

It’s the little things.

23 May 2013

50 Tales Of Flight - Owen Zupp

A very rare departure from WW2 for ABR to close out the week.  With all of my writing on here I try to express my enthusiasm for aviation as a whole.  This does it a lot better than I ever will.

I’ve never been employed in aviation. I’ve volunteered in it and I’ve certainly read about it, watched it and loved it. I am not a pilot and, despite grandiose plans at various times in my life, probably never will be. In all honesty I am very happy with my relationship with aviation. There is not much hands-on flying experience I can relate to (there’s enough there to be dangerous!) but, really, aviation is not just about flying (what else could a non-pilot say?). This is perhaps a funny thing to write but flying is aviation’s outcome – it’s public face if you will. Admittedly, it is the whole point of it all but the stories, the sacrifice, the innovation and the reflection behind every flight are the unseen, often unheard, foundations.

Understandably, pilots will understand this better than anyone. They literally live aviation and actively contribute to its heritage and future. Their viewpoint adds a richness often overlooked. Land-based writers can draw on limited experiences in ‘live’ cockpits and lay said experiences over those they write about to at least begin to understand. A pilot who picks up a pen can put themselves in the cockpit or, better still, inside the head of the fellow pilot in question . They can feel the aircraft in the seat of their pants and, if they can write well enough, can convey that experience with authority.

Aviation though, as alluded to above, is not a realm limited to pilots. Hang around it long enough and it gets under your skin. Despite the cold, hard business of the airlines and the ruthless efficiency of the modern warplane, there will always be romance in aviation. It touches the lives of everyone whether or not it is realised or appreciated. It has made every corner of the globe accessible and been the cornerstone for our greatest feat of engineering, adventure and endeavour. Anyone who steps into this world and decides to stay connected will certainly look at things from another plane.

One such person is Owen Zupp and he is neck deep in it. This experienced airline pilot has found another calling in his remarkable life – aviation writer. This is not a new revelation as he has been actively writing for at least the past decade. He brings a lifetime and a strong family background in aviation to the ‘profession’. These qualifications have resulted in a bottomless treasure chest of aviation stories, experiences and revelations to draw upon and that is how we have Owen’s latest effort, 50 Tales Of Flight, which is also his first foray into the e-book market.

Many of the tales featured in 50’ first appeared on Owen’s blog and were often inspired by the day’s events. Owen reflects on an aviation life as he’s driving home, waiting in an airport lounge, waking in yet another hotel in yet another city, or flying the latest sector. Pen is put to paper, fingers applied to keys and a story spills out. Whether it is recounting the most recent flight, remembering a museum visit, recalling a fascinating person or flying adventure or sharing a personal memory or moment in aviation history, each of the 50 tales has an immediacy, a freshness, to it and each is not only an intimate look at aviation but a window into an aviator’s soul. Not all of the tales are exciting or humourous – some were clearly painful, but liberating, to write – and a good number of them do not contain flying at all. All of them, however, simply exude aviation.

Aviation touches all of our lives and the perfect example of this is 50 Tales Of Flight. Anyone can enjoy this book and come away with a new or deeper appreciation of aviating and life in general. Owen claims 50 Tales is not autobiographical but, really, it is. His life, much of it laid out in this e-book, is proof of everything aviation has to offer – what it can give but also what it can take. The depth of aviation as an industry, as a defining interest, is such that being a pilot, while perhaps the most enlightened of ‘participants’, is not a pre-requisite for a passionate understanding. Never have I seen this better illustrated than in 50 Tales Of Flight.

21 May 2013

Lancaster Men - the sequel

Peter Rees' lastest book, Lancaster Men, has met with considerable success and has been selling very well.  This is great news.  As I mentioned in the mini-review below, the book is very accessible from an availability and reading point of view.  You certainly do not need to be very familiar with Bomber Command or the air war to get the most out of this attractive and thick paperback.  Not since Hank Nelson's superb (and perfectly-titled) Chased By The Sun has an 'anthology' about the Australians in Bomber Command been so well-received.

Happily, it looks like we are in for a second helping.  With the success of LM Peter has begun to collect more stories to share more of the Australian Bomber Command experience.  He has sent out a request for contact with veterans and their families who would like their stories told.  If you think you can help, please drop me a line - aircrewbooksATiinet.net.au - and I will put you in touch with Peter (I'll share his email here once I have permission). 

Time is running out for us to record the living history that exists in each and every one of our surviving veterans.  While Peter will most likely also use personal records of those who have passed away, this is probably one of the final opportunites for those still with us.  We can learn so much from those who saw too much.

17 May 2013

Eagles Of The Southern Sky - Luca Ruffato and Michael Claringbould

Whenever I review books that are well done I often wonder if I’m going to run out of things to say. Indeed, lately, I’ve been wondering if I’ve been repeating myself to some extent or am in danger of doing so. Then something like Eagles Of The Southern Sky appears and I realise it doesn’t matter as all that really counts is sharing the sheer joy that comes from reading something ground-breaking.

It’s all a bit ridiculous really. As a rule, I ‘avoid’ books about American, German, Italian and Japanese aircrew. Such books do exist on my shelves but, as I have enough trouble keeping up with the RAF and Commonwealth side of things, I try to draw the line somewhere. So why is there a Japanese-based book now featured on ABR? Read on, you’ll see.

The Tainan Naval Air Group was a major adversary for the RAAF’s No. 75 Squadron when the Australians made their famous ‘stand’ in New Guinea. Surprisingly, other than some USAAF Bomb and Fighter Group histories, only 75’s story is widely known when it comes to the New Guinea air campaign – a campaign practically forgotten amid the ‘clamour’ of Guadalcanal and the carrier air battles in the Pacific. For various reasons – among others, lost records, the language barrier and an uncaring post-war public trying to forget a war that destroyed their empire – next to nothing has been written about this phenomenally experienced Japanese unit.

For as long as I can remember, Michael Claringbould has been at the forefront of New Guinea air war research. His various books and endless series of investigative magazine articles have kept the memories of the air war alive and his work has uncovered lost aircraft and men and stoked the fires of a wider interest in a campaign fought over the most unforgiving landscape.

All of this work, though, as good as it is, was really just a prelude to EOTSS. MC joined forces with Italian Luca Ruffato and the pair, both experts in their own right, formed an almost symbiotic relationship as they filled the holes in each other’s knowledge and, with a magnificent supporting cast of contributing editors (a veritable who’s who of leading Pacific air war researchers), have written the most comprehensive English-language history of a Japanese unit we are ever likely to see.

This book is, simply, brilliant (and a little overwhelming at first look ... there is just so much to take in). For a ‘hard-core’ unit history it is wonderfully easy to read with a lovely flow that, I suspect, is largely a product of MC’s years of writing. The analysis of the actions and everything associated with the men of the Tainan Air Group will leave you dumbfounded. If you are familiar with particular combats or pilots from the Allied side, you will suddenly learn whom they were flying against and those opponents’ experiences … combined with the Allied viewpoint. This extraordinary balance – literally the full story – is maintained throughout the book and would certainly have been a challenge at times given the paucity of Japanese records and the fact men and aircraft simply disappeared without a trace.

As a Commonwealth-focused reader, the balance of Allied (RAAF and USAAF) and Japanese detail has resulted in a wonderful learning experience – almost a feeling of enlightenment. My knowledge is now more rounded in terms of the New Guinea air war and my existing knowledge of the RAAF’s involvement is now so much deeper. The exceptionally well-illustrated (period photos from both sides abound) EOTSS has easily set a new benchmark and I don’t think it will ever be surpassed. It has brought to life a unit everyone ‘knew’ about but few understood in detail. This aspect is reinforced with innovative computer-generated images of specific encounters/combats and many, many ‘traditional’ profiles of the aircraft involved (and, amazingly, a progressive colour palette of how Japanese paint faded!). The ‘CGI’ is a very clever device as, for the first time, the reader is treated to visual recreations of what did happen. Even the terrain pictured is the exact landscape over which the action took place!

Eagles Of The Southern Sky is a large-format paperback of 350+ pages. From a presentation and wear point of view, a hardback would certainly have been preferable but this would have placed such a massive work out of the reach of all but the most serious readers. It is, however, at A$80, not a small investment but I challenge you to find better value for money. No superlative can give a sense of how truly monumental this book is. Claringbould and Ruffato have given us their opus and it breathes new life into the lost and the forgotten. They must surely know what they have achieved is remarkable. Aviation history and our understanding of the New Guinea air war will never be the same again … and that is a great thing.

01 May 2013

Lancaster Men - Peter Rees

In the cold light of day war is about statistics.  Lose a smaller percentage of your force than your opponent over a period of time and odds are you’ll emerge victorious.  It’s a numbers game.  Strongest, fastest, heaviest … deadliest.  Deadliest.  That’s what it really comes down to.  The best machine is nothing without the people who operate it.  It is the people who make the sacrifice.  It is the people who make the stories and the history.  It is the people who make the numbers.

The percentages of Bomber Command are well known yet they will never lose their impact.  Generally, of 125,000 aircrew, 46 percent were killed and 14 percent survived being shot down.  Sixty percent, therefore, did not return home as they left (a clumsy way of putting it considering those wounded but you know what I mean).  These are figures we expect to see in relation to the trenches of WW1.

Many of the sons of those who served in the trenches would spend their wartime career flying over the same hallowed ground in machines that could hardly have been dreamt of 25 years earlier.  This ‘new’ form of warfare, though, exacted the same terrible toll.  Like those in the trenches, the men of Bomber Command came from almost every corner of the world.  When the war ended, the survivors – such as they were as not one remained unaffected – returned home to countries trying to rebuild and a public that, largely, would never understand the job they had to do and the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the family, that was a bomber crew.

The stories of these crews are seemingly endless, happily (after all there’s at least 120,000-plus out there!), and the market is certainly well-populated (again, happily) with books by or about the men of Bomber Command.  The ‘anthology approach’ is certainly not rare in this world and the very nature, and number, of bomber crews lends itself to this style of story-telling.  However, given the ‘melting pot’ that was the bomber crew, telling the story of an Australian often involves also telling the story of a Canadian, a couple of Poms and a Kiwi or two among others!  So, Peter Rees, author of the new book Lancaster Men, certainly had his work cut out to maintain his focus.  It is no surprise he has as, over the past decade, this experienced author has turned his attention to groups of Australian servicemen and women who, at times, appear to slip from the collective psyche.

It is hard to imagine more than 10,000 men being ‘forgotten’ especially when they lost roughly 35 percent of their number, but, with the abandonment of the Command as a whole by politicians distancing themselves from previously ‘sanctioned’ raids like Dresden and a return home that was greeted with monikers like ‘Jap dodgers’, it is understandable.  Many would have wanted to have been forgotten given this disregard for their achievements.  A little more than 25 years later, Australian Vietnam veterans received similar treatment and one can’t help but think what pain must have been dredged up in the old bomber men.

Lancaster Men is nothing out of the ordinary.  It tells good stories of fine men and, as expected from this author, it does it well.  It is, however, a very important work.  Produced as a large, well-illustrated 448-page paperback by a publisher with an enviable reputation and an established market, LM is very accessible.  It is written for the ‘everyman’ not the hard-core specialist aviation enthusiast.  This is a book that deserves to be widely read and, dare I say it, part of the curriculum of many schools.  The numbers mean a lot but only if they are remembered for what they really are - people, not statistics.  Lancaster Men does that and will find a wide audience of appreciative and respectful readers.