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.