31 May 2014

The Republic Thunderbolt Mk I - Phil Listemann

It is always quite a thrill to find a book written by or about a flyer who crewed on a lesser-known or rare aircraft (dare I say “forgotten”). I tend to get a bit excited when I discover, for example, an RAF Marauder book or something featuring the pre-war Hawker biplanes. It’s the thrill of learning something outside the norm or helping remember a small group of men who experienced the war in some far-flung corner of the world. I love the ‘obscure’ stuff. Fortunately, theatres like Burma and East Africa are being researched and remembered. North Africa, along with the Far East, is a particular favourite of mine and has certainly seen welcome attention from historians, authors and enthusiasts alike. Campaigns within campaigns – like Greece and Crete or, later, the Balkans and the Adriatic – throw up aircrew who have led fascinating lives and wartime careers. It is, happily, never-ending. There is always something ‘odd’ to learn more about.

The Republic Thunderbolt saw limited service with the RAF and so qualifies as one of the aircraft that, wearing roundels, instantly becomes, in my eyes, much more intriguing. The two variants, the Thunderbolt Mk.I and Mk.II (the ‘ridgeback’ and ‘bubble-canopy’ versions respectively), were particularly powerful aircraft and generally loved by the relatively few pilots who flew them for Britain and her empire. Phil Listemann’s new addition to his Squadrons! e-book series focuses on the Mk.I and, in doing so, shines a welcome light on a rarely covered subject.

The big, imposing fighter was intended to replace the Hurricane and Kittyhawk. Both of these workhorses were employed effectively in the Middle East in the ground attack role as the air superiority role was handed over to increasing numbers of Spitfires. The ‘Jug’ was considered a good replacement in the fighter-bomber role (the Typhoon had been found unsuitable during its African trials) and its impressive performance with the USAAF over Europe certainly helped this decision. The effectiveness and availability of the preferred Mustang, however, meant that, in the end, all RAF operational flying on the Thunderbolt was performed in the Far East with only training and conversion units using the aircraft in Egypt.

The general format of this new e-book series is to introduce the type’s usage in the RAF and Commonwealth air forces by presenting numbers and variants delivered and employed. The best detail, however, lies in the subsequent squadron ‘biographies’ which are drawn largely from the relevant ORBs. The Mk.I’s days were numbered, even as it entered service, as the Mk II was already available in considerable quantities. This makes the Mk.I the perfect subject for the second volume of what promises to be an affordable and valuable series. The first editions will feature types that were not used in great numbers like, for example, the Spitfire Mk.IX. This will allow the author to find his feet as it were and streamline his process from beginning to end.

Designed to be read electronically, of course, the closing ‘pages’ of the The Republic Thunderbolt Mk I include five full-screen, high-resolution profiles that can be printed as posters and add great colour to an otherwise mostly black and white world. This is a nice touch and the subject matter, again, is relatively rare. The real value for me, however, was in reading about aircrew, especially Australians and New Zealanders, hitherto unheard of. There’s a lot to digest in forty pages.

English is not the author’s mother tongue so there are some issues with grammar but these are being addressed. They take nothing away from what is a useful, readable and easily accessible resource. I’m not a massive fan of the e-book as a format but the value is in the affordability of production and distribution. This allows a prolific and hard-working author like Phil Listemann the ability to produce a number of comprehensive publications quickly and easily which, with a readership itching for something different and fresh, is a bloody good thing.

15 May 2014

But wait, there's more to come

Time certainly does fly when you’re having fun. It doesn’t seem that long ago when Steve Brew’s momentous work on No. 41 Squadron’s war from 1942-45 – Blood, Sweat And Valour – was being brought forth into the world. I can still remember, it was only January 2013 after all, the immense package being delivered to the door. The courier seemed a bit more puffed than usual and, in the background, I could see the suspension on his van only just beginning to recover. I was soon to find out why.

BSV is physically surprising. As I said in the review, it is more than 900 pages long, quite heavy and very imposing yet maintains a manageability when it comes to handling. It’s just as surprising, pleasingly so, on the inside. The illustrations and detail are staggering but it is easy to read despite the necessary ‘evils’ required of a squadron history/diary. This is one of two squadron history titles that I use as a benchmark for all others (the other being Graeme Gibson’s magnificent Path Of Duty). It has clearly been an epic undertaking and the author is about to do it all again as he rapidly approaches the final stages of his latest project.

Blood, Sweat And Courage is Volume Two but, obviously, really Volume One of the squadron’s history. It will cover the period from September 1939 to July 1942 and complete the wartime saga begun by BSV. The book will be in the same format and contain the level of detail experienced in BSV. Much of the information detailing the squadron’s operations over Dunkirk and during the Battle Of Britain has been gathered from previously unavailable personal accounts, combat reports and intelligence reports. As expected BSC will be superbly illustrated with an array of tables, sketches and maps ably supported by more than 350 photographs. There will even be eight colour aircraft profiles so there will be truly something for everyone to sink their teeth in to.

The release of Blood, Sweat And Courage towards the end of this year will be the culmination of 11 years of research into the wartime history of No. 41 Squadron. The two books, using BSV as the example, exceed all expectations but combined they will be a shining light for their genre. Simply brilliant. Keep an eye out for BSC later in the year (news of its cover and launch will be reported here) and be sure to warn your postman or courier driver! If he or she delivered a copy of David Vincent’s The RAAF Hudson Story Book Two, Neville Parnell’s Beaufighters In The Pacific or the new edition of The Bomber Command War Diaries then they’ll have a fair idea of what to expect. Steve Brew’s books are easily on a par with these classic, comprehensive and weighty titles. Just superb.

13 May 2014

High Flight - Roger Cole

Every aviation enthusiast will encounter the most famous of John Gillespie Magee’s poems.  Its oft-repeated lines have, in varying levels of completeness, been quoted by newsletter editors, orators, authors and even a US President.  Even I quoted a small part at both of our children’s christenings and, naturally, it has been used for more than one epitaph.  It is a staple of aviation literature.  At its very heart is an omnipresent love for, and fascination with, flying.  The poem, therefore, appeals and applies to all and it is this that makes it so widely known and loved.

I have seen mention of its overuse, appearing regularly in the ‘fore-papers’ and appendices as it does, perhaps reducing its effectiveness or impact or even becoming a cliché.  Indeed there are times when I’ve found it in one of my books “yet again” and have skipped ahead to what I, most likely, haven’t read before.  To do so is a dis-service.  The perfect antidote for this ‘laissez-faire’ attitude?  Take a moment, for that’s all it takes, to read “High Flight” again.  Take a moment to marvel at the perfection.  Take a moment to consider the ability of a man to put into words something he has felt that even those with little interest in aviation will, upon reaching out and touching the face of God, sit back and stare skywards.

Who was this man who captured the essence of flight and freedom in so few words?  “High Flight” is, these days, correctly attributed to John Gillespie Magee but “An American serving in the RAF/RCAF” is still found among older titles.  This latter attribution suggests little was known of Magee until relatively recently.  With the release of Roger Cole’s High Flight there is now no excuse (although this is certainly not the first biography to be written about Magee). 

John Magee was born in 1922 in Shanghai.  His American father and English mother were in China as religious workers and both hailed from families where the patriarch was a religious leader.  The American side of the family had done particularly well for themselves since their descendants had emigrated from Ireland in the late 1700s.

Just after he turned six, John and his family moved to Japan to escape the escalating tensions in China.  This was a temporary solution as John, with his two brothers and his mother, was in England by Christmas 1931.  His education began in earnest and it was his years at Rugby School under the direction of its head, Hugh Lyon, that were to have the greatest influence on his life.  Lyon would prove the steadying hand to the tearaway and headstrong Magee.  It was Lyon who recognised the potential in the boy and it was Lyon who gave him his last chance to “reflect on what has been and what might be and what must be”.  He provided the inspirational fatherly influence that Magee Senior, in his long absences, was unable to provide.

A holiday in the US to visit relatives gave John a taste of how well off his American family was.  He enjoyed himself but he yearned to return to England, to the family he knew, to complete his studies at Rugby.  War intervened.  Stranded in the US, he had little choice but to complete his education as directed by the family.  The bright side was that he re-discovered his love of literature and eventually published a small book of poetry in 1940.  These works, included in their entirety in HF, show the development of the artist, the man, and are the stepping-stones to his later efforts.

Watching sea birds and “sea eagles” while on holiday is the first indication of an embryonic interest in flight.  Certainly, he liked to drive fast, to climb tall trees (or ship’s masts!), to test himself.  Flying was the logical progression and the interest matured into enlistment in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October 1940.  He could not return to the US for fear of being imprisoned as a ‘belligerent’.  Not being able to properly farewell his family and friends would have cut deep but the sense of adventure and challenge was a worthy distraction.

By all accounts John was a gifted flyer and was remembered by one his instructors, many years later, as his best pupil.  He soloed at six hours, the first to do so in his class, and regularly topped the marks in the written exams.  He was, however, still John Magee and still prone to bouts of ‘exuberance’ that saw him in hot water on numerous occasions with the most serious being writing-off a Harvard on landing and coming within a hair’s breadth of being washed out, just before receiving his wings, for dogfighting and low flying with another Harvard (it was his finishing first in the ground school exams that saved him).

Arriving in England, at last, in July 1941, now Pilot Officer Magee was posted to No. 53 Operational Training Unit.  Here he experienced the Spitfire for the first time and it was here that ‘that poem’ was written.  If you are familiar with the poem you will notice, as John becomes a more experienced pilot and discovers ever more wonders of flight, the narrative building towards its inception.  With each discovery and experience he finds another piece of the puzzle that would form “High Flight” and, even after writing the poem, he continued to try to “capture the inspiration of flight”.

Throughout his time in England, the Lyon family was never far from John’s thoughts or heart.  He was particularly fond of the eldest daughter, Elinor, and this was reciprocated.  They spent a good deal of time together sharing their love of literature and fascination with the world.  Both wrote poems that truly expressed their feelings (and are included in the text) but neither openly confessed their love.  In the end, they never had the chance to do so.

John was posted to RAF Digby and No. 412 Squadron RCAF.  He served with the squadron for less than two months and flew his first operational sortie (Circus No. 110) in early November.  His time at Wellingore, a satellite field the squadron moved to, is an interesting snapshot of life on the squadron.  Intensive training, acceptance by the squadron, flight tests and convoy patrols are interspersed with good detail of the men’s living arrangements and, of course, John’s observations, relationships and knowledge.  A theme begins to emerge however.  Accidents were a fact of life on an operational squadron and the author gently introduces them as if to familiarise the reader.  Most are mentioned in passing as part of the chronology of John’s time on the squadron. These passages, and the combat losses of close friends, highlight the tenuous hold these men had on life.  You really do understand why some felt themselves to be already dead.  This feeling is evident in the darker tones of some of Magee’s poems – “Then it seems that I am doomed to extinction…”

Magee’s death is handled superbly.  Even before opening the book I knew it was coming but it still hit hard.  It is the abruptness that makes it so effective.  Bang.  It’s done.  He’s gone.  The author built up to the inception of “High Flight” and, as just mentioned, slowly builds to the collision with a regular stream of non-operational accidents.  There is no conclusive realisation.  Only swift and sudden death.  One moment a squadron of Spitfires is diving through a hole in the clouds and the next one of those Spitfires and an Oxford (flown by LAC Ernest Aubrey Griffin who, pleasingly, is honoured by the inclusion of his photograph) have been torn apart and their pilots cease to be.

Everyone, of course, grieves for John but his memory seems to linger and breaks the expected stereotypical ‘move on’ coping mechanism so many employed to deal with constant loss.  The reaction of his roommate is an indication of the effect John had on people’s lives long before his writing became widely known.

Part-biography, part book of poetry, HF must surely be the most complete look at the man yet written.  Wrapped in a typically beautiful Fighting High hardcover, it is a look into the very soul of the man.  That’s something that’s been said before about other books but the inclusion of what might be Magee’s complete works makes this possible.  The author brings the story into the ‘modern’ era by recounting the event that thrust Magee’s work into the spotlight – the Challenger space shuttle disaster.  Ronald Reagan ended his address to the nation eloquently by combining the first and final lines of “High Flight” into one sentence.  This account is preceded by a creative little chapter featuring two workers at the Wellingore Woodsheds as they come to the realisation that the “lad they called Maggie” who “used to hang around here” was appearing in the newspapers.  I found the scenario a little odd but I think the fact that one of them is quoted as being 26 is what threw me.  Maybe I’m missing something but I think I’ve been thrown by the first typo I’ve ever found in a Fighting High book (surely it was meant to be 76?)!

Never mind all of that though for the final third of the book is dedicated to the poetry of John Magee.  Reading them reminded me of high school English Lit classes but never have I been able to understand so clearly where each poem has come from.  For that we must thank the author of High Flight.  Roger Cole has lovingly brought John Gillespie Magee to life through extensive access to the many letters and diaries written by Magee and his family and friends and a writing style that includes a necessary, well-managed touch of creative flair. 

“High Flight” truly has a life of its own.  While expressing what every flyer has felt it also serves a higher purpose.  Magee’s voice is also that of the thousands who did not live to see peace.  As much as Laurence Binyon’s “For The Fallen” gave us the perfect words by which to express our eternal respect, “High Flight” does the same for a generation of young aviators by telling us how they lived and died as they reached higher and flew faster than all before them.

You know the poem.  Now know the man.