12 January 2017

One Life Left - Hugh Garlick DFC

Nimrods, Swordfish and Beaufighters. Sold? Thought so. However, what is a little odd is that this delightful book is available via Lulu so is, effectively self-published. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as it is a beautiful piece of work that would put many publishers to shame. It is comparable to Owen Zupp’s Without Precedent which is currently my benchmark when it comes to self-published titles. I do despair, however, as sometimes books such as this don’t receive the exposure they deserve. That can be said for a lot of things, hence the cult followings various forms of entertainment receive, but the breadth of appeal within the pages of One Life Left suggests it could be sold to almost any aviation enthusiast. I am not aware of its sale figures, and it is available in quality digital formats too, but I have certainly not seen it at every turn as I do with some titles. Fleet Air Arm, Gibraltar, Scotland, Malta: the ingredients for what should be a best seller that will have you fascinated and rolling in the aisles.

Hugh Garlick joined the RAF in 1935 and completed his flying training with a rating of ‘Exceptional’. This garnered him a coveted position with No. 56 Squadron, then flying Gloster Gauntlets. A minor error in judgment, unfortunately performed at the 1936 Hendon Air Display, led to him being posted to the Fleet Air Arm. At the time, with the Royal Navy still heavily populated with Admirals and other old salts who clung to the notion of the battleship and regarded naval aviation as mere support for the big guns, and an RAF insisting that it was the sole provider of military aviation strength, there were many RAF aircrew flying from the decks of carriers. Ground crew were RAF and non-pilot aircrew such as observers were invariably naval types. This confusion of responsibilities and experience, coupled with some very entrenched and backward views from higher up, did little to prepare the Fleet Air Arm for what was coming.

The author soon finds himself on board HMS Glorious and heading to the Mediterranean and, specifically, Malta. The cruises appear quite idyllic with much drinking and merriment during port visits and a bit of flying here and there. That latter point is important as the lack of flying hours allocated to the Hawker Nimrods and Ospreys of Garlick’s squadron indicates the navy’s opinion of an embarked fighter force at the time. In the eighteen months spent in the Med, the fighters were used for defensive purposes during only a handful of combined fleet ops. The captain of the Glorious at the time was a strong supporter of naval aviation and the ship, as per Graham Drucker’s Wings over the Waves, was a happy ship although, admittedly, Drucker was writing from the point of view of his uncle, Swordfish legend Roy Baker-Falkner, who flew an aircraft that was always gainfully employed when embarked.

With war approaching, there is much dashing about, urgent recalls and, after a series of 31 loops without losing height, a bout of appendicitis that, due to complications, saw Garlick languish in hospital for what was a frustrating end to his time with the Fleet Air Arm.

What followed, however, was the result of having to be sent somewhere, anywhere. With hundreds of hours on single seat fighters, one would assume Garlick would be an ideal fit for Fighter Command. Not so as he was posted to Gibraltar, arriving shortly after the war began, to command a flight of three target drogue towing Swordfish floatplanes on anti-submarine duty.

If anything, this period only serves to make this book even more fascinating. This is quite likely the only personal account of flying Swordfish from The Rock and it is as entertaining as it is insightful. While the ‘Stringbag’ excelled at almost everything thrown at it, it did so without dash and excitement. A fine aeroplane, it was quite literally a plodder. Still, it was the start of the war and whatever was on hand had to fill the breech until they could be replaced. Garlick took to his command with determination tinged slightly by incredulity. The Swordfish had their towing winches removed, racks hung under the wings for 250lb bombs, winch operators trained as WOp/AGs and the forward firing Vickers gun harmonised. They saw no action against submarines, but the author felt they at least contributed to protecting the ships passing through the Straits. While this part of the book is a good look at day-to-day life on Gib, it is also a wonderful illustration of the make-do/can-do attitude and there are some superb passages of the challenges of operating floatplanes for extended periods of time. It was certainly no picnic.

Such was the leadership and initiative shown by Garlick that he was awarded the DFC although it completely mystified him as to how he had earned it. It was still 1940 and he was volunteering for all manner of jobs in an attempt to get into the war proper. In the end, he was due for a rest and after a stint in ops rooms, returned to the UK, converted to Beaufighters and took command of No. 235 Squadron in late 1941. Based in Scotland, the squadron converted to Beaufighters from the end of the year and began operations over the North Sea to Norway and the fjords. It was a hard existence as the sandy airfield was not conducive to high performance aero engines and when it snowed, it really snowed. Still, as ever, Garlick simply got on with the job with what he had and even, so the story goes, oversaw the fitting of Lewis guns in the observer’s cupola for rear defence.

In the middle of 1942, the squadron was sent to Malta to provide fighter cover for two convoys attempting to resupply the besieged island. Returning to his old stomping grounds, the author expected a short stay but, as with any aircraft and crew arriving on the island, AVM Hugh Lloyd got his hooks into the Beaufighters and Garlick’s stay extended to six weeks of escort work for convoys and Beauforts alike. When he returned to the UK, he finally went through modern single engine fighter training and became a chief instructor at an OTU. He ended the war as the Fleet Aviation Officer on HMS Rodney out of Scapa Flow.

If you like adventure, a delightful take on the work hard/play harder mentality and just good, entertaining writing, then this is the book for you. While Garlick flew a lot of ops and was a supremely skilled pilot, there’s not much detail on them. If anything, especially the time on Beaus, they’re mentioned in passing, as anecdotes, as he paints a broader picture of being in command of a squadron and the challenges that entails. The narrative puts the reader at ease with its eloquence, humour, honesty and self-deprecation. It is classic RAF. That’s probably the best way to put it.

There is a very good photo section containing more than fifty images from throughout the timeline covered by the book. They are printed on the same paperstock as the text so the reproduction is not right up there, but it is sufficient and there are some superb photos specific to Garlick’s career so have in all likelihood not been seen before. The reproduction is probably a product of publishing through Lulu, but, that said, the entire package is impressive. I bought the hardback and it a lovely looking book. All of the design work, including the superbly laid out electronic editions, was done by the author’s nephew, John Hooton, who is the driving force behind this book. While the manuscript existed and the photos remained with the family, it was John who pulled it all together to produce one of the best reading experiences I have had since starting ABR.

As this is a print on demand title, it has the benefit of never being out of print. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be, such is its quality, uniqueness and pure entertainment value. Garlick’s turn of phrase will often crack a smile, if not an audible response and there were several occasions, particularly during Christmas 1938, that I was in stitches. Before writing this review, and after referring to my notes, I went back to Christmas 1938 and was similarly entertained. The sequence of parties, quasi-recoveries, and more parties is something almost unique to aircrew types, particularly the ability to recount the misadventures in such a way that you didn’t have to be there to get it. It is typical aircrew hi-jinks, to use an oft-repeated term, that is always told best by those who were a part of it.

An endless stream of superlatives could be rattled off to try to describe the wonderful reading experience this book provides. Not much else can be said other than this is a book not to be missed.

ISBN 978-1-4466-2884-3

01 January 2017

Riding in the Shadow of Death - Chris Keltie

Another book about Bomber Command. A bad thing? Of course not and stop reading if you think it is! With more than 120,000 aircrew flying operations, Bomber Command is easily the largest source of stories about RAF and Commonwealth aircrew. Therefore, there should be a lot of books. In fact, since the aircrew are finally receiving the widespread attention they deserve, admittedly when it’s almost too late, there is a seemingly endless (hopefully) supply of these books. As ever, they all vary in style and content, but all with aspects that are repeated, and the material available to an author can range from feast to famine. However, imagine living next door to a veteran, I’m sure many of you have, and slowly learning about his war and, as a consequence, becoming immersed in the world of Bomber Command. Imagine too that your research would also benefit said veteran by reuniting him with members of his crew. Chris Keltie, author of Riding in the Shadow of Death, the story of Bill North’s No. 61 Squadron Lancaster crew, has experienced all of that and more.

Chris grew up in the house next door to the Norths and they remained close friends until Bill’s passing in 2011. Over those forty years, the author grew from an inquisitive child, asking about a photo of a Stirling, to an eternally inquiring adult neck deep in all things Bomber Command. Books of this genre, especially those about the bomber crews, need to be written with heart, and it is here in spades.

There was nothing extraordinary about the North crew. They were simply one of many, many Lancaster crews doing their jobs to the best of their abilities despite what they encountered night after night. That in itself, of course, makes them extraordinary, so let’s just say they were ordinary in their extraordinariness. They came together in the usual ways, through a variety of training paths around the world, and became one of the most remarkable things to ever be produced by the air war – a seven-man bomber crew that, for all intents and purposes, had bonds stronger than that of a family such was their reliance and trust in each other. Again, this is not something new within the confines of Bomber Command reading, but it is rarely told with such care and attention by someone who has not lived it.

Battling their way through operational training and the Heavy Conversion Unit, the North crew joined 61 Squadron and, after Bill’s second dickie trip, flew their first op in mid-May 1944. By the end of the month they had flown five ops and, indicating the increased tempo in support of the Normandy landings, had completed sixteen by the end of June. Number seventeen, however, was to be their undoing. Attacking a V-1 site hidden in caves near St Leu, France, the North crew successfully delivered their bombs, but were attacked by a night fighter on the way home. The first attack knocked out the port inner and wounded the mid-upper gunner, Dennis Bartlett, and Bill, who was badly hit. With a shattered and useless left arm and two bullets through his left thigh, the pilot stayed at the controls, while continuing to try to evade the fighter’s fire, to allow his crew to abandon the aircraft. It was only when he realised he had three of his crew still on board, one of whom had lost his parachute to the gunfire, that he decided to attempt to put the ailing bomber down. That he did, in his condition, was nothing short of miraculous and there are equally amazing photos, one of which is on the cover, to prove just how good a forced landing it was.

Two of the three men who rode the Lanc down with Bill refused to leave his side. In the end, five members of the North crew were taken into captivity while the other two successfully evaded. The POWs of the crew would eventually endure The Long March, but all made it home.

It is a fascinating tale of a devoted bomber crew that is made more so by the efforts of the author to not only draw everything together, but the coincidences and reunions that came about as a result of recording, researching and writing it. No (more) spoilers here, but it gladdens the heart when old crewmembers see each other again after decades.

On the strength of that summary, and it should be noted that there is some good detail about the crew’s time as POWs, this is a Bomber Command story that needs to be in the collections of all students of the campaign. However, in the interests of honest reviewing, which ABR is all about, this could be one of the most frustrating narratives currently available. The author is at one with Bomber Command, not an easy thing to do and something that takes years, which many would-be writers don’t necessarily understand. It is the editing that completely and utterly lets the book down. It actually elicited several vocal responses of despair!

Everything you can think of error-wise when it comes to aircrew books is present here on almost every page. Names are spelt inconsistently, aircraft are incorrectly identified, people are mentioned or referenced with no introduction as to where they fit in the story (or their significance), typos abound, photos and details in the text are repeated, and some images are too small to be of any use. The narrative contains too many little diversions, or interruptions, to maintain a flow that builds to the eventual crash landing and, because of these diversions, the repetition comes into play as main characters are reintroduced or the reader is reminded where the crew is up to in their tour.  As an example, the crew’s memories and notes (mainly from the pilot and the Australian bomb aimer, Norman Jarvis) about their first op are riveting, but, for some reason, the narrative goes off on a tangent to discuss flak and then, three pages later, takes two pages to discuss Scarecrows and night fighters. At this stage of the book, more than 120 pages in, the reader has heavily invested in the crew as, despite the faults encountered to this stage, the warmth and heart with which the narrative has been written is prominent. The chapter before the last op is a well-written and welcome discussion of the roles of the ground crew. It is a great tribute to read, but, again, it gets in the way. You want to know how the crew got on. Indeed, you are itching to know and to read about aspects of the bomber campaign that should have been discussed earlier or even in notes or an appendix, is frustrating. If anything, it does make you read on, but there are so many of these interruptions that the book almost develops a staccato quality. It all works, but it is often hard to make the leap to connect it.

A lot of this information, what makes up the interruptions, had to be included, however. Bomber Command readers are going to pick this book up. At the same time, however, it has to appeal to those with little to no idea of what Bomber Command was all about. It is perhaps a case of trying to fit too much, and there is a lot once you dig into the bomber war, into the narrative. More use of notes and appendices would have removed the more cumbersome passages with the flick of an annotation. The focus can then be on the North crew. Just as importantly, the relevant memories of the veterans the author met in the course of his research can also shine through when there is less clutter. One pilot, although from another squadron, flew on many of the same ops as the North crew so his memories are particularly significant as they lend another viewpoint and context.

The North crew lost their flight engineer early on after he cracked up. Rather than be tarred with the dreaded LMF brush, the wing commander takes him on and gets him through his tour. This says a lot about both men and is certainly a rare account. There are gems like this dotted throughout the book, an indication that it holds a lot of merit, but you have to have your wits about you, lest you miss them, as the narrative jumps around.

After all that, should you consider this book? Absolutely! Notwithstanding the myriad of problems (many caused by the mad scramble after the manuscript was corrupted shortly before going to print), this is such a great story. As I said above, it’s yet another Lancaster crew who were shot down. Lots of correlation with everything you have read on the subject to date. Their survival, in no small part due to the skill and determination of their pilot, meant this story could be told at length rather than being forgotten or mentioned in passing. Survival is key, but so is the ability of the author to tackle the mountain of information while keeping a handle on the emotion that inevitably comes with delving into Bomber Command. His research led to life-long friends being made and old crewmates being reunited. However, there is always death with Bomber Command. Indeed, that is true for all aircrew books, but a writer on the subject has to deal with wartime ghosts and, in all likelihood, based on the success of the research, has to deal with new ones as the once young men see their lives out. It is a necessary evil, always unwelcome, and the author is not afraid to let the narrative slow down and reflect on the passing of one of the ‘remarkables’. That said, sometimes a bit of distance needs to be kept to maintain objectivity despite the close relationships clearly maintained with the veterans.

A second edition of this book is currently underway. The author is aware of the issues the first edition has and is working to rectify them. Interestingly and excitingly, he has gained the support of one W.R. Chorley (of Bomber Command Losses fame). To have such an eminent historian on board is nothing short of stupendous and really hammers home just how good this story is. The book is rough around the edges, but that sort of thing can be tidied up with dedication that is certainly not lacking here. It is the tale of the North crew that truly shines and it is fair to say that this is only the beginning for Riding in the Shadow of Death.

ISBN 978-0-9571189-1-1