26 August 2015

The Man Who Saved Smithy - Rick Searle

P.G. Taylor. It is a name that is ever-present when speaking of Australian aviation history. It rolls off the tongue easily and when it does everyone instinctively understands with reverence. This is a name, this is a man who can stand alongside Kingsford-Smith, Ulm, Hinkler and others as a great aviation pioneer. A prolific author, Taylor was an independent, insightful and analytical man always on the look out for his next adventure. His is a name that generates some measure of recognition in many Australians although less so than his great friend Kingsford-Smith. This, hopefully, may change with the release of a new book by Rick Searle. It is the first time in some years that a book about our greatest navigator has been available in the mainstream market.

Taylor was born in Sydney in 1896 and grew up in an innocent new country. His childhood was one of outdoor adventures and he spent a lot of time sailing on Pittwater, north of Sydney. It was an idyllic upbringing punctuated by an education that attempted to smother him and set him on the path to the family business.

With the world at war, the twenty-year old joined the Royal Flying Corps and eventually flew Sopwith Pups over the Western Front. His first instructor’s approach to training disturbed Taylor so much that he refused to fly with him. It proved a wise decision and is an example of one of the many occasions when his sense of order and gut-feeling saved his life.

A distinctly worn Taylor, now with a Military Cross to his name, returned to Australia in 1919 and decided his future lay in aviation. Commercial aviation at the time was in its infancy and there were long periods where he did not fly. It was during this time, when his chosen career was not guaranteed, that he applied himself to the study of engineering and, importantly, to that of navigation by air. It had occurred to Taylor that the pioneering flights like that of Alcock and Brown across the Atlantic, magnificent as they were, had not involved much navigation at all, particularly as there was little requirement to arrive at a pinpoint target. Taylor looked to the future and saw aircraft crossing the oceans. He set to mastering navigation from the air and even developed his own equipment, and bought a DH Moth on floats, to hone his skills with practical experience.

It was his love of the water, and the realisation of the joy of operating an aircraft from its surface, that set him on a path that would rule the next forty years of his life. In the meantime, however, he needed a flying job not just to further his desire for a career in aviation but to put his hard-won knowledge into practice. He applied for a position with Kingsford-Smith’s Australian National Airways (ANA) and was initially dismayed by the seat of the pants flying and dead-reckoning that was the norm. He questioned what he had been learning and his vision of the future but, being the man he was, recognised the current state of affairs as an opportunity. There began a decade-long friendship with the men behind ANA – Charles Ulm and Charles Kingsford-Smith.

At the time, ANA only just managed to keep its head above water. It was a familiar tune for Kingsford-Smith’s ventures. They all seemed to simply get by but even that was only after tireless lobbying of the authorities, corporate supporters and careful massaging of the public image. Taylor became one of the few men allowed to fly the famous ‘Southern Cross’, VH-USU, and his navigational expertise made him first choice for Kingsford-Smith’s forthcoming adventures.

Taylor was involved in separate attempts by Ulm and Kingsford-Smith to win airmail contracts but both were thwarted by their equipment and by the authorities that already had the major airlines in their ear. He proved his mettle when he flew the first west to east crossing of the Pacific with Kingsford-Smith in the Lockheed Altair ‘Lady Southern Cross’. Flying a single engine aircraft, albeit the most modern aircraft they were to fly together, across the Pacific was a remarkable feat but a year later, 1935, they were coaxing the ‘Southern Cross’ back to Australia during an aborted mail flight to New Zealand.

The exhaust manifold of the centre engine had fallen off and smashed into the starboard propeller. Now out of balance, the propeller caused a violent vibration. The men managed to find the ideal mix of power and attitude to fly the aircraft, now on two engines, as they turned back home. The port engine, working harder than it should have been, began to burn oil at a prodigious rate. The only solution, to keep this motor going, was to drain the starboard engine’s oil tank. Taylor climbed out of the aircraft, with Kingsford-Smith losing hard won height to lessen the airstream’s impact on his body, numerous times to collect the oil and transfer it, again by climbing out of the aircraft, to the hungry port engine. It is one of the great Australian aviation stories and the stuff of legend. Our hero received the Empire Gallantry Medal (later updated to the George Cross) for his actions.

With the loss of Ulm and Kingsford-Smith, Taylor’s reputation as an aviator grew. It was as almost as though he was the last man standing (barely at times as his health took a knock after the loss of Smithy), and to some extent he was, so the spotlight easily picked him out. In the late 1930s, however, the world was starting to look dangerous again. The flying boat was the last word in long-distance travel and Taylor, ever looking forward, noted the current route from England to Australia could easily be disrupted by enemy action. An alternative Indian Ocean route was needed and Taylor discovered an aircraft, one of the very few in the region at the time, that was perfect for the job. He had found a Catalina.

The flight from Port Hedland via the Cocos and Diego Garcia to Mombasa was not without its problems but the route was proven. It was perhaps the last great pre-war pioneering flight. With the outbreak of war, Taylor, who had seen it all before, applied the same logic to the Pacific and figured his best contribution to the war effort would be to survey the southern half of the great ocean for an alternative air route. The Australian government showed little interest and, after he had wangled a flight to the US to plead his case there, Taylor found the Americans had their own plans and were not about to let an Australian get in the way. England was the next port of call for his lobbying but he met the OC of RAF Ferry Command before he left Canada. He was attracted to the idea of flying the Atlantic ferry and, after failing to attract any further interest for his Pacific venture, did just that after settling his family in a mountain cottage in south-western Quebec. He flew Liberators across the Atlantic and returned to the Pacific to again deliver Catalinas to the RAAF (he had crewed on nine of the original PBY-5s to arrive in Australia early in the war). It was a most satisfying time for his career, state of mind and his family as his wife was recovering from revolutionary radiation treatment for breast cancer. He could at last concentrate and enjoy his flying without wondering whether it would even happen. The Pacific, however, still beckoned.

The RAF finally agreed on a South Pacific survey flight and provided Taylor with a Catalina that he named ‘Frigate Bird’. After much delay, the survey left Mexico for Clipperton Island and, after setting up a base there, continued on to Australia. Taylor returned to ferry work but this time flew the transport version of the Consolidated Privateer, the RY-3, for the British Commonwealth’s new trans-Pacific service.

With the war over, Taylor dabbled in several business ventures and returned to the life of an airline pilot when he joined Bryan Monkton’s Trans Oceanic Airways (TOA) flying converted Sunderlands around the South Pacific. It was like ANA all over again with the upstart airline butting heads with the larger operators and always, it seemed, sailing fairly close to the wind. The death of Taylor’s beloved Joan, however, had him seeking a new venture and, again, he heard the call of the Pacific. Even Taylor saw that the days of the flying boat were numbered and that land-based aircraft would fly the long legs across the oceans. A South Pacific survey, locating ideal places for combined flying boat operations and airstrips, to South America caught his attention and a former RAAF Catalina became, and remains, ‘Frigate Bird II’.

The successful completion of this survey, again not without drama, saw a brief return to TOA before Taylor struck out on his own and bought a Short Sandringham. He fell in love with the aircraft at first sight and ‘Frigate Bird III’ became the flagship, and only aircraft, of the airline Pacific Cruisebird. Now it was Taylor against the giants and despite some initial success as a luxury way of touring the islands, he sold up. Heart problems caused him to fail his medical in 1959 and would continue to dog him until the heart attack that claimed him in 1966.

I have not enjoyed a book as much as this one for quite some time. Rick Searle has managed to fit Taylor’s life in to a 380+ page softcover. The main text covers 349 pages while the rest of the book contains a glossary, good index and a superb notes section filled with eye-wateringly attractive tangents the reader may find themselves following. It is a condensed biography of sorts but that is only to make it manageable and attractive to the mainstream market. I have no doubt the author could easily have written something twice as long and made it just as entertaining.

Taylor’s life and achievements are fascinating and we are fortunate he published many books of his own. Passages from these books are regularly featured throughout The Man Who Saved Smithy and the author makes no apologies for this. Who better to describe something than the man who experienced it? Here, Mr. Searle also highlights Taylor’s talent for the written word. The smaller font appears on the page to signify a quote and you dive in and are instantly immersed in his world. The more romantic reader, or even the pragmatist who appreciates such wonderful creation, will want to find Taylor’s books and completely drown in his delightful writing. I think that is one of the things the author set out to achieve.

While I don’t think we will see Taylor’s works reprinted (someone please prove me wrong), this book will generate renewed interest in the man. To help this along, the author, like Taylor, doesn’t do anything fancy. He gets on with the job and delivers an inviting narrative that gives Taylor his voice when needed but also looks beyond the flying and gets to grips with how and why the way he was. I had a couple of minor issues with the timeline as it jumped about a little here and there but that was purely a function of, correctly, not wanting to interrupt the narrative of a particular event or evolution in Taylor’s life. Other than a niggle with a date during Taylor’s RFC service and the honours precedence error on the cover (to be changed with the next printing), the editing has been well-handled (I haven’t said that in a while!) and, given the amount of information available, due to the author’s access to the National Library’s Taylor papers and the Powerhouse Museum’s (where ‘Frigate Bird II’ resides) P.G. Taylor collection, it is clear the publisher and the author have worked together well. They really have created an excellent, easy to read and accessible book.

With luck, one of Qantas’ future aircraft will be named “P.G. Taylor”. While this is somewhat ironic, given the frosty relationship Taylor had with Hudson Fysh etc, it will bring, albeit briefly, the name of Australia’s greatest navigator back to the public domain. But for The Man Who Saved Smithy, this may have been the final tip of the hat to Taylor. Now we have a book that re-introduces and celebrates the great man in as fine a fashion as possible. It is as good as any adventure tale with the added bonus that the quiet, intelligent, unassuming hero of the story receives the modern-day attention his life deserves.

ISBN 978-1-76011-340-7

18 August 2015

Men Of The Battle Of Britain - Kenneth G Wynn

Several old friends, some neglected but never forgotten, dropped on our doorstep yesterday with a resounding thump. Somewhat mystified, I carried the large and heavy box to the kitchen table and set to slicing through the layers of tape and cardboard. Packaging moved aside, there laid a behemoth. The new edition of Men Of The Battle Of Britain had arrived.

Its cover instantly conjures up a myriad of imagery, anecdotes and knowledge from the time. Young men lounging in the sunshine, of what would otherwise have been the perfect summer, enjoying some rest and camaraderie but still having to force a smile for the camera while one of their aircraft sits quietly attached to its starter. It is a picture (colourised as it is) of tranquility but, like the Hurricane behind them, the men are ready to go at a moment’s notice. Who knows, perhaps they were all airborne and climbing for height three minutes after this photo was taken.

These seven men are, of course, included within the pages of this “Biographical Directory of The Few”. They are accompanied by almost 3,000 other aircrew – pilots, air gunners and observers. The Few, as is known well today, were actually quite a lot but never has a collective noun been so emotive. These were the men who stood before the overwhelming and seemingly unstoppable force that was the Luftwaffe. For the first time, however, the Luftwaffe, the brilliant tactical air force that it was, was not supporting its own. It was on its own and being asked to carry the momentum. Despite this unfamiliar situation, German expertise almost won the day. A change in tactics, egotistical upper leadership and, of course, a defending force that would become a legend, decided otherwise. That’s all a bit simplified but it was a close run thing and the character of the RAF was well and truly tested. It was not found wanting.

In this 75th anniversary year of the most famous of air battles, the one that remains a household name, the author, Kenneth G Wynn, has updated and expanded his landmark work that was originally published in 1989. The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust is behind this new edition that includes recently discovered photos (mostly printed as headshots to accompany the relevant entry), new aircrew entries and additional information for the ‘original’ men listed. All of this is contained within a hardback of epic proportions – more than 600 pages, about two inches thick, and a large format. I never know the official measurement details of books but this thing is as tall as a sheet of A4 but wider. It could be a coffee table book but there would be few items of furniture that could withstand its weight.

Every single page of this book has character. Every single man in this book needs to be lauded whether they flew one sortie or 100. I do not read Battle of Britain books regularly but, as I have mentioned before, it is what started me off in this ‘game’ so I have a lot of affection for this period of the war. Going through this new edition was like catching up with old friends. There are chaps in this book I haven’t thought about for years but instantly recognised them and even greeted them quietly with a nod and a smile as I read their entry. Men who I know well from their books – Wellum, Vigors, Hughes, Page, McDonnell and Crossman to name a very few – leap off the page. It is those they share the page with, however, that are just as deserving of attention. This is where Wynn’s work is at its most important. Many of the men listed have featured in previous books, some have written their own as mentioned above, but, for the most part, they are often just a name in a photo caption, ORB or casualty list. Here, as much as is reasonable is written about them and, like the memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, they are permanently remembered. This book is as much a memorial as any stone wall.

This is one of those books, like Middlebrook’s Bomber Command War Diaries, that, when it was first released, set many hearts aflutter. It is a legend pure and simple. The layout is straightforward. The men are, as you’d expect, listed alphabetically with their full names, service number, nationality and postings during the battle. Each entry is at least fifty words long, and some run to half a page, but the majority are considerably longer than that. Most include a photo although it was interesting to note how many still don’t. There is a short appendix of additional photos which, having checked some of the names, I can only assume were discovered very late in the production of the book. The author’s work, and that of the Memorial Trust, clearly continues.

The writing is of a high quality despite its necessary brevity and, being a “Biographical Directory”, the men’s pre-war and post-Battle lives are detailed well. It is fascinating to read of an airman’s actions during the Battle and then follow his service career while yearning for him to survive the war. So many didn’t.

Grab every superlative you can think of and throw them away. None can come close to describing this book. It has a presence, a gravity, about it. It is not something that lends itself to being read cover to cover like a memoir but it draws you in and it is hard to stop reading, to stop discovering, and tear yourself away. Every page is one of interest, adventure, valour, courage and sacrifice. Flick through to a name you know and you will discover it surrounded by others of equal stature. One thing leads to another in this book and time seems to slip away. Time is slipping away for the last remaining Battle of Britain veterans and there will sadly come a day in the not too distant future when they are all gone. There will, however, always be this book. It is an encyclopedia, a Who’s Who and a bible all in one. It is Kenneth G Wynn’s Men Of The Battle Of Britain.

ISBN 978-1-47384-767-5

01 August 2015

Wings Of The Dawn - Kate Johnson

The journey an airman takes to war is often familiar but always fascinating. One man’s path sometimes precedes, follows, mirrors or even intersects with another that you’ve encountered. It’s funny how regularly it does happen when you read enough of these tales but each journey is unique and there is always something new to learn. Bomber Command is the perfect example. Main Force flew from England so, for some aircrew, the journey from childhood to RAF to bombers could be quite straightforward. That’s a bit basic of course but when the bomber war was at its height, and aircrew were being consumed at a terrible rate, there were many who only had the chance to fly the heavy bombers. Some, however, were fortunate to have flown extensively before being drawn into the machine that was Bomber Command. One such man was Cyril Johnson. Some of his experiences are rare to find in the memoir of a Lancaster pilot. His journey, however, is one of a kind and it is has been recorded lovingly by his astute granddaughter.

Cyril was born in England in 1920 and grew up in and near the village of Ormskirk. Liverpool was only several miles away which was probably convenient for Cyril’s father who was a ship’s captain. His mother was the daughter of a doctor and, when Cyril was five, shortly after his father’s retirement from the sea, the family moved in to a house on Doctor Cooke’s property which included suitable grounds for a young boy to get up to mischief. Five years later he was packed off to boarding school and quickly learned to hide his loneliness under a cheery exterior. A sickly boy, having suffered rheumatism and tonsillitis by the time he was six, Cyril’s early years were plagued by periods at home recuperating. He was quite content to coast along at school but, after being read the riot act prior to his final year, managed to top the class.

Flying was never far from Cyril’s mind with models and the like consuming a lot of his pocket money. He was a student of the political situation in Europe and read Mein Kampf at an early age so as to understand the situation in Germany. His first application to the RAF was rejected due to a heart murmur (classed as unfit for any service), the legacy of his rheumatism, but he refused to be defeated. He worked his body hard to strengthen his heart and studied engineering to satisfy his appetite for all things technical. A second application, with some family assistance, was successful.

Cyril learned to fly the Miles Magister rather than the ubiquitous Tiger Moth. He was the first of his class to go solo and, to his ever-present surprise, excelled in the air. After a stint at No. 12 SFTS, Cyril was posted to RAF Kemble. There he flew a surprising variety of aircraft ranging from the Miles Master to the Harvard, Hurricane, Tomahawk, Blenheim and, because he had done schoolboy French, the Martin Maryland. He suspected he was being groomed to fly anything with little to no instruction. When he was posted to Africa, a month later, his suspicions were confirmed. His destination was the ‘armpit’ of Africa and the beginning of the Takoradi Route.

Rather than risk the Mediterranean passage, or the long voyage around Africa to the southern end of the Suez Canal, aircraft were shipped to Takoradi, in present-day Ghana, assembled and flown to Egypt and the war. The trip usually took four or five days and twenty flying hours. Cyril arrived in Africa with 31.5 flying hours in his logbook! The flights were over vast tracts of “Unexplored Territory” where flying a single engine aircraft was not the wisest thing to do. But, there was a war on, and Cyril began his first ferry, with several other Hurricanes and a Blenheim lead, in early November 1941.

In February 1942, however, he contracted malaria and confined to bed. He was back flying before the end of the month, not without incident, and it was in mid-March that he was detailed to fly a Blenheim to Iraq. His return to Egypt was hampered by the weather so he accepted the job of flying a Blenheim to Singapore. Singapore. In March 1942. Fortunately, given his destination, the formation got lost on the way to Karachi and he ended up landing on the coast where the Blenheim nosed over in soft sand and Cyril suffered a severe back injury that would leave him in almost constant pain.

The malaria returned in late June and Cyril was in and out of hospital until being ordered home in mid-September. It was while in the transit camp that he accepted the task of leading 25 RAF NCOs on board the Cunard liner, the Mauretania. They were to escort 500 German prisoners to San Francisco! Cyril, of course, continued across the US by train before boarding a Belgian freighter not suited for a North Atlantic crossing. He was flying Wellingtons by April 1943, Halifaxes in November and then Lancasters before joining No. 576 Squadron. He flew his first operation, to Berlin, on January 1, 1944, and on the night of January 5/6 he flew his third.

Cyril appeared to take to his new role like the proverbial duck to water but he was on borrowed time. After each trip, due to his back injury, it would take him considerable time to get feeling back in his legs and it was only the wait for the ride to debriefing that helped him straighten up. He was finally grounded in April and once again re-trained but this time as an Intelligence Officer. His first posting was Prestwick in Scotland where he met his future wife. He was then posted to Burma to help repatriate POWs and, more or less, tie up loose ends on behalf of the RAF there. On his return to the UK, in mid-1946, he married Elizabeth, re-commenced his engineering degree and eventually moved to Australia in the 1950s. Quite the journey.

Wings Of The Dawn is a flowing read that is much more than a memoir about a Lancaster pilot. This short period of operational flying is easily the most dangerous of Cyril’s wartime flying, and is a very popular subject at present, but the real strength of this book is the time spent in Africa. It is a rare account and to be delivered with so much detail, ably supported by excellent diary extracts, with equal effort given to describing the flying, landscape and the people, makes it almost feel like a privilege to read. Africa is still a wild place in parts and has now been crisscrossed by many aircraft but, in Cyril’s time, when the maps contained areas of “Unexplored Territory” bordered by accurate coastal details, to fly the Takoradi Route was akin to flying across the great oceans albeit with several fuel stops thrown in.

The African flying is what really drew me in to this book. However, the hook had already been set by the 100 pages of pre-war life. Not only was it the most entertaining and informative that I had read for quite some time but it was written in a way that it was easy to keep track of Cyril’s large family. It was a strict and structured home life but the Johnson family was supportive and loving and, from several discussions with the author, clearly remains so to this day. Such a welcome commitment to recording the years before the war is only ever seen in biographies that set out to lay a life bare.

The book has been written to be approachable to all ages but particularly to younger generations who are encouraged to ask after their older relatives and discover the lives they have led. Consequently, Cyril’s time as a Lancaster pilot section is effectively Bomber Command 101. All of the basics are explained from bomb loads and crew positions to Pathfinders, corkscrews and being chased by the sun home. It is all pretty standard stuff and perhaps the weakest part of the book because it feels more like an essay than Cyril’s experiences. It is, however, necessary if a reader unfamiliar with this form of warfare is to form some sort of an idea of just what was encountered at night over Germany. There are some superb gems from Cyril scattered throughout, though, and the most powerful is his description of the worst part of any op. It was not the flak or being coned or the risk of collision. It was that moment, after debriefing, when the crews shuffled in to breakfast. There, as they sat at their usual tables, they would watch and wait for other crews to come in. Some tables would remain empty and that was what got to Cyril the most, perhaps more so than the constant, almost debilitating pain from his back. The tables would not remain empty for long as replacement crews arrived but it was very much “There but for the grace of God go I”.

The review copy I read is the first edition of this book.  Several typos were found and some of the photo captions required more work or, quite simply, correcting. As each printing is sold out, the author orders more from Steve Lewis’ excellent Digital Print Australia in Adelaide. WOTD has sold so well that it is now in its sixth edition and with each printing the author and publisher have spent hours rectifying issues to the point that the current edition is about as spot on as a book can be. The Bomber Command section I read could also be tightened but to do so would only really benefit those familiar with the subject and that is not what this book is about. A thick, solid paperback printed on good quality paper, it is full of unique photos from Cyril’s collection that have been reproduced well. I would love to see this picked up by a publisher in the UK.

WOTD’s cover suggests this is another Bomber Command book and on that alone it will be read. In doing so, the discovery that it is more than that will be made. Most importantly, the life of a man, a talented but modest aviator, whose legacy is a family who shares his love of flying, is recounted with astute attention to detail in the hope his story, his history, inspires others to delve into their family’s past. Cyril, who passed away on his 95th birthday in January, will always be alive in this book and he will always be an inspiration.

ISBN 978-192120716-7