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.