28 July 2015

Striking Through Clouds - Simon Hepworth and Andrew Porrelli

If there is an RAF or Commonwealth unit I can claim any sort of personal connection to, and it’s fairly tenuous, it’s No. 514 Squadron. Back in 2006, for one reason or another, I decided to start recording the stories of aircrew veterans. I was eventually introduced to former 514 mid-upper gunner David Bennett and his son, Nigel. Both lived at the RAAF Association’s retirement home at Bullcreek, Western Australia. How we came to be introduced now escapes me but it was probably via the RAAFA’s reception. There followed a series of sporadic, but warmly received by all parties, interviews over a couple of years. David’s logbook remains the only example I have read and researched in detail and, to my everlasting regret, I have yet to do anything with the hours of recordings we committed to digital disk. However, the experience honed my 514 radar and I developed a soft spot and intense interest in any mention of the squadron. It, therefore, was pleasing to discover the beginning of a series about 514 in the form of Striking Through Clouds. My interest in this unit is nothing compared to the efforts the two authors have made to make this project happen. More of that later but this title is the first of what will be a significant series of books in the world of Bomber Command. If only all squadron histories could be done like this.

The squadron is perhaps best known for being one of the few to fly the Bristol Hercules-powered Lancaster B II. The idea behind using the radial Hercules was in case the production of Rolls Royce Merlins, the engine synonymous with the Lanc, was badly affected in some way. This, of course, didn’t happen, and, consequently, only 300 ‘alternative’ Lancasters were built. Inexplicably, they did not perform as well with a lower ceiling and reduced payload. The Merlin was the perfect engine for the Lanc in much the same way as the Hercules suited the Halifax so well.

It was with the B II that 514 first went to war. The squadron was formed in September 1943 and was initially based at RAF Foulsham in Norfolk. It had only just begun operations, in November, when it moved to RAF Waterbeach (roughly 100 kilometres to the south-west) to make room for some elements of 100 Group. No. 514 Squadron was one of the many Bomber Command units that pressed on and carried the war to the Germans. As with all of these squadrons, it was manned by personnel from a number of different countries and crews often had two or more nationalities among their family of seven. Just another bomber squadron.

Yes and no. Outwardly, it doesn’t appear any different. Crews doing their job, some with good doses of luck and others with none at all. Unsung groundcrew toiling away, it’s all there. Look a little deeper though and 514 is a bit different. Obviously, there’s the aircraft it first operated. Flying at lower altitudes, like the Stirlings that were being phased out, risked danger from bombs falling from above and the lighter flak from below. Almost as soon as the squadron was operational, the Battle of Berlin, over the winter of 1943-44, began. Trips to the ‘Big City’ were always daunting and 514 was to contribute aircraft to sixteen raids during that period. David Bennett’s crew, having joined the squadron as an experienced ‘foundation’ crew with several ops under their belt, were screened from their tour (having completed about 25 ops) because they had flown ten trips to Berlin. They had done enough. That’s how the Berlin raids were regarded. The squadron was up against it from the start.

However, as part of 3 Group, 514, for want of a better, less used word, specialised in the use of the Gee-H navigation system which measured the distance from transmitting radio stations and, very basically, allowed for very accurate bombing. This included attacking targets that were obscured, striking through clouds, or relatively small. The squadron’s first operation was also the first Gee-H raid. The system proved to be invaluable when attacking targets in support of the D-Day landings and in trying to limit collateral damage in Occupied Europe.

The squadron flew through to the end of the war, its Lancaster B IIs were finally replaced in September 1944, and was disbanded in August 1945. In its less than two year existence, 426 aircrew and nine groundcrew were killed and 59 of the 67 Hercules-powered Lancs taken on strength were lost to all causes (out of a total of 80 aircraft destroyed). That’s 59 aircraft from November 1943 to September 1944.

I’ve said before that talking about Bomber Command often ends up being a discussion about statistics. It can’t be helped. Statistics are raw and impersonal. When they relate to Bomber Command, however, they take on a power that always leaves me open-mouthed and shaking my head. STC doesn’t dwell much at all on the statistics, other than to rattle them off in the brief history of the squadron, but it does provide the flesh to the bones of the 435 (access to records post publication has increased this number to 437) personnel and 80 aircraft lost. At the core of the book is the squadron’s Operational Records Book, the war diary if you will. Depending on the author of the ORB, this document can provide a lot of information or the absolute basics. Fortunately, in the case of 514, it fared well in this respect although the styles of the men tasked with completing the daily entries do clearly differ. It is important to get this point across. The majority of this book is not a narrative. It is the entries of the ORB as they were written during the war but subtly improved (spelling, typos etc) by the authors to improve clarity and readability. However, the authors did not stop there. Where possible, comments (in italics to distinguish them from the ORB entries) about particular raids or other points are included and often provide much needed context and depth. Every single combat report detailing an encounter with a night fighter/s is included and the fates of each of the 66 Lancasters lost is included. Of those, only two remain a mystery. Much research and cross-referencing with published works, like The Bomber Command War Diaries and the Nachtjagd War Diaries (both regarded as ‘bibles’), enabled the authors to trace each of the losses and reach their conclusions. This had not been done for this squadron before. This remarkable accomplishment alone makes STC, and the 514 series as a whole, indispensable and on a par with the aforementioned ‘bibles’.

I approached this book in two ways. Obviously I wanted to see if David Bennett and the rest of the Payne crew featured. They do on occasion but my knowledge of them was not increased. I did not expect to find a combat report from them as David once mentioned he never fired his guns in anger (despite some very close encounters, the Payne crew did not give away their position in the night sky unless they had to). There is no personnel index for this book, indeed there is no index at all, which makes things hard if looking for mention of a particular person. However, anyone searching in this way will more than likely have more details, dates for example, at their disposal so it is simply a matter of finding the relevant part of the book.

The other approach was, clearly, to look at the squadron as a whole and this is easily done. Despite the rapid fire entries and the way the ops and combat reports tend to blend together after a while, as with all publications of this type, the extra information added by the authors lifts this book far above anything similar. As part of a serial approach, the war diary had to be done, and it will be the driest read of the lot, but when you come across pages of italics (the authors’ additions) outlining the losses suffered, and the cause of those losses, you know Hepworth and Porrelli have gone above and beyond. Both have a vested interest in the squadron of course, having lost relatives who were aircrew, but they have not been content with simply making the ORB publicly available. In this one book they have set the scene. Here’s what the squadron did and here’s what happened to those who did not return. It has been done before, of course, but this has an air of completeness about it. Everything fits.

STC could have stopped with the disbandment of the squadron and the dispersal of the crew but, no, that’s not what the authors are about. Once the ORB comes to its natural end, they provide more than fifty pages of “War Stories” featuring several of the men who were No. 514 Squadron. After the 440-plus pages of operational entries, if you’ve waded through them, these narratives are a welcome reward and add the perfect human touch to the operational detail. They are also a precursor of the 400 page second volume, Nothing Can Stop Us, which is subtitled as the definitive history of the squadron.

This is as good an operational diary as you are ever likely to get in book form (also available on Kindle). It has been painstakingly recorded, often from barely legible microfiche, and researched. A solid and heavy paperback of almost 550 pages, STC is also intelligently illustrated although a bit of clarity is lost as all images are reproduced alongside the text. That said, all are perfectly and necessarily placed to illustrate the story and add another step above the basic ORB. The publisher, Mention The War, has produced a fine and affordable title appropriate for the subject matter and, in doing so, has demonstrated an understanding and respect for this genre (perhaps a given considering the publisher’s name!). As I look at a copy of Nothing Can Stop Us, it is clear STC was not a one off. 

The 514 series has flown under the radar somewhat. It has achieved some good sales rankings online and occasional coverage in the aviation history magazines (both paper and electronic). Its existence, however, needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Admittedly, the market isn’t a massive one, but in Striking Through Clouds we have a book that, despite its narrower scope, can rank alongside Middlebrook/Everitt, Chorley and Boiten/Mackenzie in being a landmark Bomber Command-related work … and there’s more to come!

ISBN 978-1495440489