21 December 2016

Images of War: Veteran Lancs - Norman Franks

Adam Purcell is a young professional working in the Australian aviation industry and absolutely committed to recording the history of Bomber Command however he can. This fascination came from discovering, as a child, that his great uncle ‘Jack’ had been a Lancaster navigator with No. 467 Squadron. Adam’s research leads him far and wide as he pieces together the story of his uncle’s crew and this has grown to interviewing Bomber Command veterans on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. Be sure to check out his blog Something Very Big. Few people live and breathe Bomber Command like Adam, hardly any his age, so he is the perfect guest reviewer for this title which, incidentally, would make a decent companion to Franks’ earlier studies in this area, Arms & Armour’s Claims to Fame – The Lancaster from 1994, and the 2015 revised edition of the same from Grub Street, Ton-Up Lancs.

The average Lancaster bomber, flying operations during the war, could expect to return from about twenty trips before crashing or being shot down. So it’s no surprise to learn that out of more than 7,000 examples of arguably Avro’s most famous aeroplane, just 35 are known to have flown on more than 100 raids. In Veteran Lancs, the prolific and widely respected Norman Franks shares the stories of all of those centenarian Lancasters, while also featuring a number of others that ‘almost’ made it to the ton.

The book, a mid-sized paperback of 166 pages, is packed full of facts and figures, and there’s no doubt Franks has done a lot of research. He follows the careers of some pilots, sometimes going beyond the time when they were flying the aircraft concerned, and even names members of groundstaff where they are known. Some of the featured aircraft – like R5868 ‘S-Sugar’ or EE139 ‘Phantom of the Ruhr’ – are quite famous, but most of them are far less well known. Therein lies both the strength and limitation of this book. Including the less-famous aircraft tells a part of the Bomber Command story that isn’t as widely known, and that can only be a good thing. It follows, however, that there is also less information available on some of them. What sources there are sometimes conflict about exactly how many operations some aircraft flew on, and there’s occasional uncertainty about which trip was the hundredth, a legacy of the variable quality of operational record keeping on wartime squadrons. Franks is mostly quite open about what he has and has not been able to definitively determine, but in some places he has fallen into the trap of supposing and assuming, where there perhaps wasn’t quite enough detail in the records. He uses vague sentences like “…no doubt because she was starting to become unreliable and a bit ‘dodgy’” or “after a bit of a refit”. It sometimes reads as filler.

Veteran Lancs feels a little repetitive, with each aircraft profile following much the same routine – this is always a difficulty with what is essentially a book of lists. Perhaps in an effort to break up the monotony, Franks has split his book into chronological chapters. There are large sections of text that each cover, say, half-a-dozen Lancs, and then several pages of photographs featuring each of those aircraft before the next chapter begins. This brings another slight annoyance: having conquered big slabs of unbroken text, by the time you reach the photos you’ve forgotten which aircraft belongs to which. It would have been less confusing, I think, if the photos had been spread out among the relevant sections of the text.

The book is billed as a “photographic record”, so it’s the images themselves that are perhaps of most interest. While Franks has included several well-known photos, he has also drawn extensively from a very large collection of images that have never before been published. The sheer variety is a strength of the book, and there are some outstanding photos among them. Most of the photos appear to come out of the author’s own collection, which he notes has been assembled over several decades, and the final section (a potted collection of nineteen ‘almost-centenarians’) is particularly interesting. In places the reproduction, which is just on the standard paper stock, is not of the most impressive quality, but bearing in mind the varying condition of original wartime prints, it may well be that this was as good as was possible.

Veteran Lancs, as a straight record of the 35 highest-scoring Lancasters, is a reasonable effort. It’s not a particularly exciting book to read, but it does illustrate the hitherto-untold stories of several very high-achieving bombers and their crews, and for that it deserves credit.

ISBN 978-1-47384-726-2

23 October 2016

Radar Gunner - Dick Dakeyne DFC

It’s not common knowledge, although it is relatively well documented, that RAAF personnel served with USAAF units in the Pacific theatre, particularly in New Guinea. They flew mainly with bomber and transport crews and were on strength to make up for an early shortfall in American crews or to provide a bit of local knowledge. Ernest C. Ford, C-47 veteran and author of My New Guinea Diary, regularly flew with an Australian co-pilot. As the war progressed, and the RAAF succeeded in acquiring its own Pacific-based heavy bomber force, entire crews within USAAF Liberator units were made up of Australians as they gained experience (many had already flown with Bomber Command in Europe) flying very long range bombing operations. As I said above, this has been researched to a degree and books by the likes of Steve Birdsall, Michael Musumeci, and the team led by Lawrence Hickey, provide an extent to which these secondments were practiced.

What is interesting with Dick Dakeyne’s Radar Gunner, however, is that the overwhelming majority of his operational flying, two tours’ worth, was with a number of USAAF units as a member of several crews. Dick was a specially trained RAAF Wireless Air Gunner who had proven his mettle beyond air firing to the point that he was selected to train on the Australian-designed SN2 Ultra High Frequency receiver. The job of this ‘box of tricks’ was to detect Japanese radar transmissions from ground-based stations. With careful listening, minor adjustments to the aircraft’s course and co-operation among the crew, the position of the radar station could be estimated. As the Liberator hadn’t been designed for such a position within the crew, the operator, and his equipment, sat on what was the roof of the bomb bay. In Dick’s case, hence the title of this excellent book, he also manned a defensive gun position.

Growing up in Sydney, almost unrecognisable to today’s metropolis, the author’s childhood seems to have been a fairly standard one, living frugally during The Depression, but certainly with tonnes of fun to be had in the outdoors and among the neighbourhood kids. His was one of swimming, backyard cricket, model aeroplanes, stamp collecting and the rest. War was declared just before he left school in 1939 and, not wanting to wait to be old enough to join the Army, Dick volunteered for the RAAF and was naturally disappointed when he wasn’t selected to be a pilot. He volunteered for training in Queensland, having not been quick enough to get to the front for a Canadian posting, simply because he’d never been there.

Dick proved proficient at everything he learned hence his selection for training on the SN2. What he didn’t know then, and it was never made official, was that he was destined to be a member of the highly secretive, multinational, multiservice ‘Section 22’. This later became the Radar Countermeasures Unit and, although he doesn’t mention it, Dick, with his two tours, was to become one of its outstanding operators.

Training complete, Dick’s first posting was to Fenton in the Northern Territory. Initially settling in with the 319th Bomb Squadron of the 90th Bomb Group, Dick and his colleague stayed put when that unit was replaced by elements of the 380th BG. Fenton and, subsequently, Corunna Downs (near Marble Bar in Western Australia), must have been a culture shock for the boy from Sydney despite his love of the outdoors. Corunna Downs was a secret base heavily used by USAAF Liberators and never discovered by the Japanese. It is hard, but ruggedly beautiful, country and the perfect location for a secret airfield, but woe betide the crew that came down in the bush.

Dick flew his first mission on 26 May 1943. It was a long-distance reconnaissance of Surabaya in Java that was aborted after two hours. The fifteen-hour trip was completed several days later. That sort of flying time was to become standard for the crews and was the reason why the Liberator was such a valuable aircraft in the theatre. There was really no other aircraft available in significant numbers at the time, save the Catalina, that had a comparable range and payload.

A bit of an ‘odd bod’, initially flying with whatever crews needed a man, Dick managed to become a permanent part of the crew whose regular aircraft turned out to be the one Dick had flown his first missions in. He became an integral member of the crew, fulfilling both the RCM role and that of a waist gunner, and was really just one of the boys despite having to keep a large portion of his duties secret from the rest of his crew.

Caught in a raid in Darwin where, along with other enlisted men of his unit, he was helping unload a ship, Dick saved the life of an American gunner, but suffered minor shrapnel wounds to his hands. He returned to Fenton five weeks later, in August, to get on with his tour. What followed was a mix of shipping strikes, armed reconnaissances and numerous encounters with Japanese fighters. It was dangerous work. Before Dick’s sojourn in Darwin, his RAAF RCM colleague was killed on his second op and his eventual replacement, arriving in October, was lost in mid-November.

Returning for a second tour with the 530th BS, 380th BG, in January 1944, Dick joined another crew as the unit’s focus switched to denying the Japanese fighters from using the airfields along New Guinea’s northern coast. Interestingly, and an indication of the improving training regime and supply of equipment, Dick was accompanied by four new RAAF RCM operators. He was eventually transferred to the 90th BG at Biak, off the north coast of New Guinea, in August. After three months there, and a mere six missions, Dick bounced around a few postings, got married and was awarded the DFC before he was discharged. Post-war life saw him become a qualified geographer. He saw Kenya and New Guinea before establishing a career teaching geography until retirement in the late 1970s.

For a hardcover book of a little over 140 pages, Radar Gunner packs a hell of a punch. That said, once that final page is read, you are left wanting more. Much like Dick, there are no pretensions in the writing. It is straight-forward and highly entertaining. While a timeline is obviously followed, the narrative does not consist of a series of rigidly sequential anecdotes. Every mission is certainly not recounted in detail. Rather, the highlights of several come to the fore, indicative of the recorded interviews that were to prove the genesis of the book. There are few accounts of missions from take off to landing as, really, there is only so much that can be said before each trip begins to resemble the previous one. The editors, Craig Bellamy and publisher David Welch, include a light dusting of context, but the text never gets weighed down by a desire to paint the strategic picture at the time. Instead, it is all Dick Dakeyne. He doesn’t get terribly introspective, however, and never mentions being afraid or the fear of not coming back despite the fact the threat was real as sadly experienced by at least two of his fellow RCM operators.

Many of the photographs are from Dick’s own collection so it is likely they have not been seen or published before. Every single image is nicely reproduced with a fine balance of operational subjects (strikes, formations, maps, targets) and squadron life making up the majority. It is the latter portion that is of particular value. The USAAF Liberator units were a special part of Australia’s war, more so because they were based here, and remain highly regarded both here and in the US. To see an Australian’s photographic record of life with one of these units is worth its weight on gold. Combined with a great amount of written detail about living with the Americans, and the differences in their culture, food, equipment and opinions, makes Radar Gunner the most significant RAAF biography to be written in quite some time. It really is that good. While comparing the ‘Yanks’ to the RAAF way of doing things is not new, the presentation in this book, both in writing and images, while nothing fancy, is so well done that it makes the entire package something truly special.

This is not a big book nor is it a comprehensive biography that leaves no stone unturned. It is, however, as close to perfect as you could get for a widely appealing tale of an Australian airman in relatively unusual circumstances. Production is really tight and there are no typos or glaring errors. The text includes a few little quirks – such as names or units in bold when first mentioned or a small sketch of a cross bearing “Lest We Forget” next to the description of the loss of a colleague – but these are actually nice little touches that help to make the book stand out. It is, quite simply, a remarkable tale well told in a very enjoyable, easy to read and pleasant format. The best RAAF memoir I have read for a while.

ISBN 978-098713896-5

28 September 2016

An Alien Sky - Andrew Wiseman with Sean Feast

Once again I am busy with magazine and editing work, and have just moved house, so I am turning to a guest reviewer to provide a bit of content for ABR until I can do so myself (I'm looking at another run of five reviews, at least, in mid-October). Zac Yates is a keen aviation enthusiast in New Zealand with an interest in more or less anything that flies.

The life story of Andrew Wiseman is a stunning one of unlikely survival. Born to a Polish father and American mother in 1920s Berlin as Andre Weizman, he was refused a membership in the Hitler Youth ("we don't want any f****** Jews!") and emigrated to Britain to become an air bomber in an Australian Halifax squadron, only to be shot down in 1944 and kept as a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III just weeks after The Great Escape.

His stories of pre-war Berlin, aircrew training, learning the English language, and the day-to-day life of No. 466 Squadron (RAAF) left me wanting to keep reading. He easily relates his travels to the fateful operation that led to him becoming a ‘kriegie’ in Nazi Germany, while his co-author, Sean Feast, adds historical notes where needed.

Wiseman was one of the countless POWs who took part in The Long March, an event I admit I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. His experiences in a camp near Berlin in the last days of the war provide an interesting insight into the often volatile relationship between American, British and Soviet forces. His position as a translator fluent in several languages meant Wiseman was privy to a range of fascinating - and sometimes humorous - events among the remains of the Nazi war machine.

This book is billed on the cover as "The story of one man's remarkable adventure in Bomber Command during the Second World War", but it is more than that. I was surprised that the end of the war came before the halfway point of this book, but I wasn't to be disappointed. Wiseman's post-war career as one of the first television producers at the BBC is covered in a scant few dozen pages but would have made for an excellent book in its own right. Likewise his experiences as an official translator for the British Home Office in his twenty-year “third career” are less than two pages. The final part of Wiseman's story is that of his life as a modern-day veteran, revisiting a former camp and attending reunions, and the long-overdue Bomber Command Clasp and Memorial ceremonies. 

Unfortunately I've used the past tense because, as related by co-author Feast, Andy Wiseman passed away just weeks after finishing the manuscript. I have to admit this news saddened me immensely as Wiseman was an excellent storyteller and I feel that An Alien Sky could have been so much more. His fascinating life could have easily filled a book twice as long.

The final forty or so pages are appendices by Sean Feast including biographies of Wiseman's crew on the night they were shot down, selections from the diary of mid-upper gunner and crewmate Bill Lyall, and a brief history of 466 Squadron and its ops record (again with additional content from Feast) from March to April 1944.

With my comments about its short length, I may seem ungrateful or even dissatisfied with this book. Far from it. I am immensely grateful Wiseman and Feast collaborated to record the former’s stories for posterity and our enjoyment and education. The fact Wiseman died so soon after finishing this work gave me casue to reflect on our veterans and how precious our remaining time with them is.

Happy to repeat myself, I'm grateful Andy Wiseman has told his story and it is a highly engaging one worth adding to any enthusiast's library.

23 July 2016

The Battle Of Britain: An Epic Conflict Revisited - Christer Bergström

As anniversaries go, the seventy-fifth of the Battle of Britain was obviously a big one. There were ceremonies and epic flypasts and decent, occasionally well-informed, coverage in the media. Add in a few new books and any enthusiast had it made, particularly if they lived in the UK. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of many new titles on the subject although there were clearly a few. The hardcover edition of Helen Doe’s Fighter Pilot and the Pen & Sword edition of Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain by Kristen Alexander come to mind but that’s it at the moment. I think that’s probably because I didn’t pay much attention because I spent a fair bit of time with my nose in what just might be the final word on this most famous of aerial battles. Christer Bergström spent more than four decades gathering material for The Battle of Britain, An Epic Conflict Revisited, and it shows. This must surely be one of the last books to be released that will use original, unpublished veteran interviews as source material.

Right from the start the author makes his intentions clear. The BoB, being entrenched in popular culture as it is, is one of those periods of history where myths and half-truths evolve into apparent fact and are spouted left, right and centre by anyone with a passing interest. Alongside legendary exploits such as the Dams raid and the Doolittle raid, the Battle of Britain grabs the attention. There are tales of derring-do on both sides, Britain with its back against the wall, a rampaging Germany stopped in its tracks. It’s stirring stuff and, best of all, it really did happen. Who needs fiction when history is so much better? As time goes on, however, and these things are analysed ad nauseum and different opinions and conclusions put forward, even movies made, the line between fact and fiction starts to blur and some of the ‘faction’ starts to become accepted or even common knowledge and is certainly not helped by being regurgitated by the media. You know about the BoB, you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise. Have a think about these half-truths. What comes to mind? Göring was a bumbling fool. Fighter Command stood alone. The Bf 110 was a sitting duck against the Spitfires and Hurricanes. You know the drill. Bergström sets about proving these to be wrong. Göring, while clearly a man who enjoyed the finer things in life, was an old fighter pilot, and a successful one at that. He related well with his fighter units and understood their desire, their need, to hunt. He was not a fan of tying the fighters to the bombers but had to keep his bomber group commanders happy. He did allow his fighters to go on free hunting sweeps ahead of the day’s bombing raids and these were successful until Fighter Command cottoned on that there were no bombers in the incoming radar plots. It was Göring who had fresh fighter formations, those that had not flown on the returning raids, cover the withdrawal across the Channel. He proved insightful, adaptable and trusting of his men. He had his finger on the pulse but, ultimately, with a rather large commitment to the east requiring attention, the Italians in the Mediterranean needing reinforcing, not to mention a fair bit of angst among his commanders who did not implement his directives in full, he was up against it to achieve the required result especially when the RAF proved so hard to dislodge.

It was such a close run thing, though. Some of the loss statistics are harrowing and you have to remember that there is at least one man involved in each of those aircraft lost. Even in October, when many regard the Battle as more or less having run its course, the Germans shot down more aircraft than the RAF did. At the time much of the daylight activity was centred around fighters escorting fighter bombers in an attempt to draw the RAF up. Within six months, the RAF was trying to do the same thing to the Luftwaffe over occupied Europe. Contrary to popular belief, the RAF suffered at the hands of the Bf 110 crews. It had the range and firepower to be an absolute menace particularly when working in concert with several other ‘110s. As someone who doesn’t read a lot about the BoB, I was consistently surprised, and somewhat disturbed, at the number of Spitfires and Hurricanes that fell to the guns of the big fighter. Some of the Zerstörer units, some of the Luftwaffe’s most effective offensive units, had better kill/loss ratios than some of the Bf 109 units. While units on both sides, and flying all types, were withdrawn to regroup, it was surprising how truly ineffective some of the Luftwaffe’s single engine fighter groups were. It’s not a viewpoint I’ve come across before, partly because of the dearth of recent reading on the subject, but the analysis is due to the author getting to grips with German records.

It is pleasing to see Bomber Command receive regular attention as the author progresses through the timeline. More than just hitting the invasion barges in the Channel ports, the Whitleys, Hampdens, Blenheims and Wellingtons were taking the fight to Germany itself. While they were mere pinpricks compared to what the Germans achieved with their bomber formations, they were a nuisance that led to at least one Bf 110 unit being withdrawn for a rest and conversion to night fighting.

This is as good a discussion of the progression of the BoB as I’ve ever read. It includes the usual formation numbers on such and such a date and losses for the day as expected but, like some books before it, it includes a surprising amount of recollections from the pilots themselves. Again, nothing really new there but these are the product of the author’s own interviews and many were recorded decades ago. Of course, many of the men interviewed are no longer with us.

Chapters are split roughly in to months and the narrative is incredibly detailed when it comes to looking at the machinations of the German hierarchy behind the scenes. The whole thing was really theirs to lose.

This is a book that everyone who is interested in the period should have on their shelf. It is critical, but fair, and pulls no punches. The author is not backwards in coming forwards when it comes to discrediting accepted truths and it is a testament and tribute to his decades of work that everything about the analysis, discussion and conclusions is supported by the most comprehensive bibliography, using sources from both sides (some of which would rarely see the light of day, I imagine), that I have seen. The range of photos used is second to none and include a stunning colour photo section and the ubiquitous profiles. Many of the captions are long and provide excellent detail.

The aircraft are introduced at the start and, weirdly, the Westland Whirlwind is mentioned but the Bristol Beaufighter is not. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Whirlwind included as one of the aircraft that contributed to the Battle of Britain. There are long passages for the Spitfire and the Messerschmitts, little on the Hurricane and the Defiant receives as much attention as the Whirlwind. As great as this book is, this is just one of the odd little things within its pages (and let's not go in to the 'modern' Hurricane on the cover!).

Continuing in this vein, this book needs an edit. A serious edit. It was originally written and published in Swedish and may (I do not know) have been translated in to English by the author. I very much doubt whether this English translation was edited because it really does appear that it wasn’t. There are clumsy sentences and statements where the order of the words is wrong or extra words are included. This occurs on every page. I raised this as I was reading it. Some were not concerned as they felt it took nothing away from the book, and they’re right, while others found it distracting. On top of those opinions, all of which I agreed with, I don’t think it honours the work of the author. Here’s a man who has spent more than forty years collating the material to produce a gem of a book only to have it tarnished by many apparent oversights post-manuscript submission. A full read through edit would have picked up some errors in the captions and some minor double-checking of details in the narrative. I would have no hesitation calling this book the ultimate discussion of the BoB if these errors and oversights were cleared up (and I have a list!) because it would then be near perfect. With luck a further print run or a second edition will clear this up but it will require a good dose of work that should have been done before the book was published.

Don’t let me put you off. This is the book on the Battle of Britain and this review isn’t intended to be a blow by blow account of the Battle or to approach the detail of the narrative. A large, A4 format of 330 pages and hundreds of photos, it takes into account all that have preceded it and gives credit where it is due. It is, however, an entirely original discussion, based on familiar knowledge, that goes beyond anything before it. It is mature, incredibly well-researched and insightful beyond belief.

Epic conflict. Epic book.

ISBN 978-1-61200-347-4