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.