24 May 2015

The RAAF Hudson Story Book Two - David Vincent

I would like to introduce you to a friend. This friend has been my constant companion for the past three-plus years. As you’d expect, this friend is reliable and can pick me up when I am a bit lost or trying to escape. Always there with the answers and a source of inspiration when I want to know how things should be done. May I present The RAAF Hudson Story Book Two by David Vincent.

This book has been, until recently when a second pair of little hands became very mobile, on my bedside table since it arrived in the mail. We were living a mere seventy kilometres from the world’s only flying Hudson when this book entered my life and, quite frankly, I was, and remain, rather enamored by this aircraft. From some angles on the ground it is a somewhat portly machine, with a deep fuselage born of an increased internal capacity inherited from its civilian predecessor, the Lockheed 14 Super Electra, yet it is all style and there is more than a hint of its art deco predecessors. In the air … it is a somewhat portly machine but it just flows. Even the lumps and bumps that only the military can bring to an aircraft design cannot hide the curves. The wings taper to a point that seemed impossible thirty feet closer to the fuselage. Thank goodness for straight leading edges. The tail is something that could only come from Lockheed. Watching a wingover well past ninety degrees just adds to this aircraft’s appeal.

The Hudson was a machine that was there at the start. Like the Blenheim, it wasn’t the best thing for the job but, in reality, who could have envisaged just what it would have to do before it was needed to be done? The Hudson was there and it did what was asked of it until something better, designed or improved from the lessons learned, came along. Even then, when the Bostons and Mitchells and Beaufighters were on hand to take over, the Hudson soldiered on. It flew sorties against the Germans bearing down on Dunkirk, it hunted U-boats and snooped around Norway for enemy shipping. In Australia, where it was the RAAF’s only modern bomber at the start of the war, it patrolled shipping lanes and was in action against the Japanese in Malaya before Pearl Harbor was attacked. For quite some time it was the RAAF’s sole means of hitting Japanese targets with any semblance of strike power. It was inadequate against Japanese fighters (what early Allied aircraft wasn’t?) but its crews had a stout ship at their command and they, in turn, were stout of heart.

The book. Yes, the book. The whole reason for waxing lyrical above. I have said, several times in the past, that I use the book in hand as a benchmark. Well, The RAAF Hudson Story Book Two is what I use to measure everything against. It made me go out and buy Book One not because I could afford it (or, more correctly, had remembered I hadn’t bought it yet) but because it didn’t seem right not to. Lightning (snigger) can hit twice as it turns out but Book Two is a further refinement. Obviously, it is not the full story.  The rest, of course, is in Book One. Book Two is 420+ pages of RAAF Hudson operations in Australia and areas to the north-west and north-east (i.e. New Guinea etc). These were the final operational areas needing to be covered after Book One so Book Two then continues with the Hudson’s work as an air ambulance and transport (ideal work given its airliner roots) before concluding with its extensive post-war career. If a Hudson did it and it’s relevant to this book, it is in this book. I have spent hours, when not reading ‘properly’, just leafing through and stopping at whatever caught my eye. Often, it was just an interesting photo, easily the most arresting thing on a page, and an awe-inspiring caption. I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of captions that have less than 35 words. Many have more than 150. That’s the sort of detail this book provides. I’m shaking my head now, and grinning wickedly, at the thought of it.

David Vincent’s pedigree is without question. The man who brought us Mosquito Monograph and Catalina Chronicle – both still sought after books – took more than ten years to bring Book Two into the world. It’s pages packed with text, two columns per page, hundreds of photos, reams of endnotes, and a narrative that is as much analytical as it is informative, combine to create a robust and all-encompassing history that I know will never see its equal. Should there be more written about the Hudson? Of course there should be. Will anything new come to light? Most definitely but whoever finds it will have the Vincent Hudson books within easy reach and will have smiled every time they caught their eye. These books aren’t life-changing, they are life-fulfilling. They are big, they need to be, and they are heavy, and they may even crush you if you read them lying down in bed (I know these things!), but they need to be. To leave these books wanting more is just not going to happen. They need to be bending your shelves now if they’re not already. Nowhere will you find a type history more readable or satisfying. And, well, it’s RAAF Hudsons. Enough said.

ISBN 978-0-9596052-3-5

13 May 2015

'Artie' Bomber Command Legend - Vincent A. Ashworth

Arthur Ashworth is one of the relatively few who took the time to record their wartime memories. He is hardly a household name. His awards – DSO, DFC*, AFC*, MID – suggest he should be better known. However, while his long RAF career would be relatively easy to recount, a good biography needs the bookends – pre-war and post-RAF. Not many have much of either and are the poorer for it. Such things are sometimes best left to those who knew the man. In the case of Ashworth, his younger brother does the honours. ‘Artie’ Bomber Command Legend is the result and, yes, there is a bit of hero worship but it is kept in check. However, when you’re dealing with ‘Artie’, it really can’t be helped. Here is a man who, frankly, lived up to the legend.

‘Artie’ was the seventh of the Ashworth children. His father was well regarded in the New Zealand agricultural industry. Such was this regard that, in 1926, he was accepted to manage an experimental sheep station in the Falkland Islands. The entire family followed him over before returning home in 1928. Ashworth Senior died in 1932 and the strength and determination exhibited by ‘Artie’ during the war was in no small part due to his mother who shouldered the responsibility of raising her large brood during the Great Depression.

With his brother and best friend, Corran, ‘Artie’ more or less excelled at everything he did as a teenager. He was fondly remembered by his peers (of whom many were interviewed) and the family in general, despite their financial struggles, were fine members of the community. The war would take anyone no matter their background. ‘Artie’ and his brother Archie would survive. Corran would not.

Flying training for our hero began in late 1939. Training initially on Tiger Moths, ‘Artie’ moved on to Vickers Vildebeests and Fairey Gordons before embarking for the UK to do his time on OTUs prior to joining No. 75 (NZ) Squadron. Eight months later, at the end of August 1941, his first tour was complete after 31 ops. Not wanting to work as an instructor, ‘Artie’ volunteered for service in the Mediterranean and, with a new, all-volunteer crew, flew a Wellington to Malta. In a little more than two months he flew more than 20 ops, from Malta and Egypt, against targets in Italy and North Africa. Certainly quite a change from operating out of an English airfield! An even greater change came when ‘Artie’ was posted to No. 216 Squadron at El Khanka in the Nile delta. Here he flew Bristol Bombays and four engine DH86s to deliver supplies to the front line. The return journey was, more often than not, a more sombre affair with wounded soldiers and aircrew filling the aircraft and heading to the rear for treatment. The flights were classed as operational but it was hardly the best employment for an experienced and effective bomber pilot. His most ‘shaky do’ was to come, however, when he returned to the UK.

‘Artie’ was back with his countrymen on 75 Squadron by mid-1942. By the time he left the squadron again, in August, he had completed 64 operations, been awarded the DSO and developed a reputation for getting the job done. His upbringing of accepting responsibility and excelling at the task at hand was the force that drove him forward. He was the perfect bomber pilot and, at 22, had completed his third tour.

This determination was tested to the hilt when, after a month as a founder member of Don Bennett’s Path Finder Force HQ staff, Ashworth wangled an op to Saarbrücken and flew with an unfamiliar crew. A flare ignited in the bomb bay and set the rear of the Wellington on fire. ‘Artie’ instructed the crew to bail out but found his parachute missing. He made it home alone after side-slipping to put the fire out. He was lauded by the media but, curiously, not by the RAF. He was a valuable member of the PFF HQ that was developing the tactics that would ultimately transform Bomber Command into a force that resembled the early efforts of Ashworth and co in name only. Perhaps this is why the op was frowned upon. Either way, he was soon on a ship home where he was given a hero’s welcome upon arrival in mid-1943.

He was very much a changed man. The modesty was still there but he now had that work hard, play harder, live for the day mentality that those who faced death daily naturally developed. His family adapted, he was still ‘Artie’ behind the chest full of medals after all, but the RNZAF weren’t too sure what to do with someone so over-qualified. Ultimately, he attended staff college and served at some of the RNZAF’s major bases in the Pacific. He was back in New Zealand and training to be a fighter pilot by April 1944 and was flying operationally again by August. This time, however, he was flying Corsairs with No. 17F Squadron on Guadalcanal. He was, by all accounts, not the greatest of fighter pilots but was certainly universally respected. While he was kept busy, ‘Artie’ became desperate to return to the bomber war he felt he was missing out on. With hindsight, given the losses Bomber Command experienced in 1944, perhaps this sojourn in the South Pacific saved his life. That’s not to say flying Corsairs was without risk. It’s just that the chances of survival were considerably higher than attacking Occupied Europe time and time again.

He managed to fly a further thirteen trips with No. 635 Pathfinder Squadron before his war ended. This took his total to 78 bomber operations. His next flights were for Operation Manna, repatriating former POWs and taking ground personnel on tours of a devastated Europe.

‘Artie’ made a career of the RAF and did not retire until 1967. He served as an instructor in the Middle East and commanded a Communications Flight there. A stint as a test pilot at Farnborough followed before he was posted to command No. 139 (Jamaica) Squadron and then No. 59 Squadron (both flying Canberras). ‘Artie’ settled in England and became a hotelier and then ran a small block of holiday units. He remained an unassuming chap with the only public indication of his achievements being the medals he wore when collecting for the British Legion. He died in 1994.

This book, from Fighting High, is the UK edition of the author’s self-published paperback. While the original is a nice and heavy softcover, it pales in significance alongside the new hardback. Like the man, it has an understated presence and the designers have cleverly used Ashworth’s most noticeable feature – his epic moustache – almost as a logo as a rendition of it appears in the front papers and it is the only mark on an otherwise blank back cover. Little quirks like this reflect the care that has been put into the production of the book. There are many pages of Ashworth’s logbook reproduced on both glossy and ‘normal’ paper stock. This is an important addition as the logbook entries were written in copperplate and are beautiful to look at. A lot is added to the book by their inclusion.

While ‘Artie’ did write a short manuscript detailing his life, and this is referred to throughout, he was, as a man who did not blow his own trumpet, quite brief in some of the descriptions of his more harrowing or outstanding achievements. The author, therefore, has had to add depth to what he can by including the memories of those who flew with his brother. Remarkably, two of his colleagues from initial training, Rex Daniell and Bob Spurdle, wrote books of their own and, despite their differing careers, provide wonderful detail as they crossed paths with ‘Artie’ during the war. Where the details of what ‘Artie’ got up to are not enough, the author does a fine job providing a picture of what happened through contemporary reports and recollections.

It is here, however, that things can get a bit disjointed. ‘Artie’ was remarkable. No question there. The author’s writing presents him well and allows the reader to understand the man and, easily, like him. Even where ‘Artie’ remembers things incorrectly, and the author’s subsequent research proves otherwise, Vince gently corrects him. It is this affection and respect in the writing that gives this book such a warm glow. The research, however, more often than not, includes the experiences of others (as mentioned above). Once the passage is complete a mini-biography of the colleague in question often interrupts the narrative in bold text. As fascinating and as useful as these are, I found myself investing in another person’s war, going off on a tangent, when I was itching to get further along Ashworth’s experience. These biographies, and the chapter detailing the fate of each man on that initial training course in New Zealand, could easily have been included as appendices and not affected the quality of the book as a whole. This is a carry over from the first edition. That, frankly, was a bit all over the place and while Fighting High has clearly done a lot of work to tidy the manuscript, I think more could have been done to ensure the focus rarely shifted from progressing Ashworth’s tale. That said, sometimes it felt as though the author was keeping me in suspense as to what his brother would get up to next.

That this is the manuscript from an earlier edition is sometimes evident with a reference in the text to a photo that doesn’t appear until much later and good, flowing descriptions of, for example, the Wellington, weirdly interrupted by a couple of paragraphs regarding something else before returning to the original subject. As I mentioned above, a lot of work was done by Fighting High to tighten up what was in the self-published edition. A few things still got through though. Several names are misspelt, the Tiger Moth is referred to as the DH86 and I was befuddled by the Italian fighter designation “CD425”, amused by the “Fleischer” Storch and, in the otherwise excellent note section, somewhat dismayed by the “torpedo-carrying” Gladiators.

These, of course, are single words in an otherwise high quality biography. They are mentioned for completeness and to honestly reflect the frustration felt when I read them. My typos above are, I suspect, too many to count so, really, who am I to talk?! Nothing is taken away from the very fact that this book expertly paints a picture of who ‘Artie’ Ashworth was. On top of that, the reader fully understands just what he faced. Chapters Six and Seven set the scene for what Artie is about to step in to. The latter chapter does a very good job at examining the quality of character exhibited by bomber aircrew. Even the interlude that is Chapter 16, where Vince details the careers and experiences of two rear gunners who flew several ops with ‘Artie’, is a powerful tribute to the loneliest, and most at risk, member of a bomber crew.

The title is no grandiose statement. It is a fact. Artie completed all but thirteen of his ops in Wellingtons. He did not have the power to fly higher or faster as he would have in the Lancasters of his final wartime posting. He pressed on and added to his tally without a lot of fanfare, not counting solo return flights, and, similarly, earned respect, admiration and honours simply in the course of carrying out his duties to the best of his ability. He just got on with the job at hand be it at the controls of a Wellington or Corsair or using his experience to help develop campaign-changing tactics. The book is the same. It is a typical product of Fighting High – superbly designed with care and intimate knowledge shown in its production. The cover is the epitome of this understanding in that it is mostly a subdued grey with just the information a prospective reader needs. It is modest but imposing. “DSO, DFC and Bar, AFC and Bar, MID”.

A proud brother has shared his hero with the world effectively but quietly. If ever there was a book that resembled its subject, it is ‘Artie’ Bomber Command Legend.

ISBN 9-780992-620752