13 February 2017

263 Squadron Gladiators over the Fjords - Alex Crawford

It is always fascinating to watch an event that happened on the periphery of a larger story become larger than the whole. In war, it’s usually because it’s a tragedy and, sadly, that means considerable loss of life. Take the Channel Dash, seventy-five years to the day as I write this. Over three days, the Scharnhorst, the Gneisenau and the Prinz Eugen, and their accompanying escorts, had the bit between their teeth as they ran north from Brest, through the English Channel to German ports. The Germans certainly did not get away scot-free, but the whole episode is regarded as a failure on the British side. The one thing that always stands out, however, what is always referred to, and has perhaps generated more discussion than the entire event itself is the attack by the Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish led by Eugene Esmonde. You know the rest. Such is the case with the Norwegian campaign. The sinking of HMS Glorious, by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, overshadows much of what happened in Norway – the two Battles of Narvik and the Glowworm aside – perhaps because of the controversy stirred up ever since, but certainly because of the massive loss of life from her crew and the sole survivors from each of her attending destroyers.

On board were pilots from No. 263 Squadron and their Gloster Gladiators. Returning from their second deployment to Norway, the first lasting two days, but this one being better planned and spanning three weeks, all were lost as the Glorious succumbed. Again, an event within a larger story, the loss of these men and their aircraft is certainly more familiar to what they actually achieved in Norway. That was something special.

Originally earmarked to help the similarly equipped Finns against the Russians, the squadron was a logical choice to send to Norway to try to stop the German invasion and cut them off from the supply of Swedish iron ore. The Norwegians made a good fist of it in the air, but were soon overwhelmed. In late April 1940, the Gladiators arrived in Norway after having flown off the Glorious and being escorted by FAA Skuas due to a lack of maps. Their airfield was a frozen lake. A RAF advance party had arrived several days earlier, but despite their best efforts, the primitive facilities and almost complete lack of supplies and personnel, not to mention the regular German bombing and machine gunning, the squadron’s eighteen aircraft ceased to be two days later. In that short time the Gladiator pilots gave a superb account of themselves considering the operating conditions and unfamiliar terrain.

Back in the UK, after what must have seemed a nightmare, the squadron re-equipped to be sent back whence they came. This time they would be accompanied by Hurricanes (No. 46 Squadron) and would operate from prepared airfields. Again, however, the Gladiators were on their own again, initially anyway, as the airfield selected for the Hurricanes took longer to make ready. The squadron was operational shortly after arrival on 21 May and in action the next day. The first combat victory was achieved the following day and the frenetic action did not let up until the evacuation on 8 June. During that time, the pilots, in their lightly armed biplanes, managed to ensure the Luftwaffe did not have its own way. The Gladiators encountered Heinkels, Junkers and Dorniers and, often operating in pairs to make up for their lack of hitting power, were regularly successful against their more heavily armed and sometimes faster opponents. They even held their own against Bf 110s and decimated the majority of Ju 90 and Fw 200 four engine transports that were intercepted. It wasn’t all one way, however, with ten aircraft returning on Glorious from an original complement of eighteen. Importantly, surplus pilots, and those wounded, were sent home via troopship or cruiser thus avoiding the fate of the Glorious and ensuring that something of 263 Squadron lived on.

Alex Crawford is no stranger to the Gladiator family as he has written several books on the aircraft and its predecessors. In tackling the Norwegian campaign, a career highlight for the type that ranks alongside its service over Malta, he has highlighted the actions of a squadron that is often relegated to a passing mention when discussing Norway (save the loss of the Glorious). Perhaps their contribution did little to slow the Germans, a conclusion that could be reached given the eventual evacuation, but to overlook what was achieved, when they were expected to be a token sacrifice, is to miss out. There remains a good deal that remains unknown too and this book gleefully hints that the RAF in Norway will garner more attention in the future as several projects come to fruition.

The book opens with what can only be favourably called the calm before the storm. The squadron’s ORB provides the material for the majority of the flying and equipment narrative and, frankly, it’s not terribly exciting. A buzz soon begins to build, though, as the squadron initially packs for Finland, then unpacks before packing again for the first trip to Norway. Despite the abject failure on the ground in Norway, in terms of fuel, ammunition and relevant personnel, the preparation for the deployment is impressive and the author uses it to build momentum while maintaining the sense of frustration as things, ever so slightly, begin to unravel from the moment the Gladiators meet the Glorious for the first sea voyage.

It’s all very ‘rush and make do’ and the narrative easily reflects this by laying out the events in daily sections. Several pages after the arrival in Norway, the men are heading home. In some cases there is little to work with and that’s one of the strong points of this book. At 120 pages and A4-sized, it is not huge, but the writing never attempts to pad things out. It is solid and to the point. With the relative lack of records for this period and area of the war, this is perhaps understandable. What was a major surprise, however, was the exceptional number, range and quality of the photographs, particularly of the wrecked Gladiators from the first stint and the shot down German aircraft. Being familiar with the loss of records during the retreat down the Malayan peninsula and the withdrawal from Burma, it is incredible to experience such a heavily illustrated book covering a losing British campaign.

The illustrations don’t stop there, however, as the author follows up with a ‘where are they now’ look at the Gladiators recovered from their final resting places in Norway. Add that to eight pages of colour artwork, indicating good detective work in terms of colour schemes (a theme reflected in several of the period photo captions and discussed in the summary section contained in the last few pages), and GOTF borders on being lavishly illustrated. Fittingly, the summary section just mentioned includes short biographies of each pilot, a table of their claims, and a brief history of each Gladiator that flew with the squadron in Norway.

This is a book that is full of information from the first page to the last. It doesn’t waste space or seek to elaborate on what’s not there. It deals with what’s at hand and the author lends his weight of expertise on the subject to tie it all together and produce a flowing, informative text. Just like the squadron, there is no time to muck about, it’s straight down to business. A few typos were encountered, along with two reversed captions, but the design and editing is otherwise on point and what readers have come to expect from Mushroom Model Publications. The use of extended abbreviations for RAF ranks, such as ‘Fly Off’ and ‘Plt Off’, had not been seen before in print form and looked a bit clunky on the page when used in the narrative, but is probably a style rule and certainly one that can be lived with.

Number 263 Squadron’s Norwegian story effectively starts and ends with HMS Glorious. Now, however, the loss of the ship serves as a bookend for this period in the squadron’s history and importantly, while a tragic end, it does not overshadow the courage and determination with which the Gladiator pilots tackled the insurmountable task before them. Flying obsolete, lightly armed biplanes, the squadron did something the RAF was particularly good at during the early stages of the war – it punched above its weight. Gladiators over the Fjords continues this tradition with a focused narrative that places the unit's Norwegian episodes on the pedestal they deserve.

ISBN 978-83-63678-82-1

09 February 2017

The "Easy" Boys - Martyn R. Ford-Jones

From a book that grew from a photo to one that uses something a little more conventional and eminently easier to reference – the wartime diary. In this case, however, the entire package has come together in quite an unexpected way. Take one English Bomber Command historian, add the diary of an Australian mid-upper gunner and, believe it or not, a leading American publisher. The product, after several years on the boil, tells about as complete a story as you can get when it comes to bomber crews. Wrap it up in what remains (only just) my favourite aircrew cover and you’ve got a recipe for a very good book. I certainly went in with a great sense of anticipation and that, believe it or not, was all down to the beautiful production standard.

Remarkably, this crew, the Bourne crew, contained two Arthur Bournes. One, the Australian pilot, was known by his middle name Max (Maxwell), while the English navigator clearly had an advantage when he mingled with his colleagues during the crewing up stage at No. 26 OTU. Besides the man who wrote the diary around which this book is written, there were two other Australians on the crew, the W/Op and rear gunner. Six men, four Australians and two Englishmen, came together at the OTU and were later joined, of course, by their English engineer when they went through Heavy Conversion Unit.

All fairly standard stuff so far and it remains so as they progress through Lancaster Finishing School and join No. 622 Squadron at Mildenhall at the start of August 1944. They fly their first op a week later and complete nine by the end of the month. The total is double that before the end of September and already there is a feeling of it (their tour) all being over by Christmas. It is interesting to look at this run of ops in two halves. The August ops flown are a mix of Bomber Command’s bread and butter – two trips to Stettin, two to Rüsselsheim, one to Bremen – while the rest are in support of the Allied advance across Occupied Europe – Falaise, a petrol dump near Doullens, a railway yard etc. Such tactical support sometimes meant shorter daylight strikes at relatively low levels (under 10,000 feet). That might sound relatively safe and easy compared to what the bomber crews were doing a year before, but the lower altitudes brought them within range of the light flak and, of course, the gun crews could see what they were firing at.

The last trip is a mine-laying op on 19 December before the crew gradually disperses for leave and, ultimately, their rest tour. Here, the book follows Heffron in detail because, after all, he’s the one who wrote the diary. Several members of the crew, happily, kept in touch after the war and managed to reunite on occasion. The photos of these events are a nice way to close.

I will admit to beginning this book with a bit of prejudice. Firstly, as mentioned above, I am enamoured by the physical presence of the book itself. It is a glorious looking hardcover and, one of my favourite things that is surely not cheap to do, the dustcover’s artwork and design is replicated on the hard covers and spine. It’s colourful, glossy and has a good weight to it. Secondly, some of you may remember my underwhelming review of the author’s Desert Flyer (also based on a diary). I could still remember what annoyed me about that book so I went into this one with fingers crossed.

It was a relief to encounter a long and exquisitely detailed introduction to each member of the crew and their path, 68 pages pass before the first op, to becoming ‘The Easy Boys’ (their primary aircraft was E-Easy). Then, however, the diary entries began and out came the square brackets. As with Desert Flyer, but more so in this case, words were inserted into the diary entries to overcome Heffron’s apparent, perhaps necessary, brevity. Very, very few of them, if any, are needed. Such is the language of the diary entries that any reader will understand them without these annoying interjections that ruin the integrity of Heffron’s writing. I don’t think the reader is given enough credit here which is something I said in the review for Desert Flyer, but, in that book, the additions were clearly made for an American readership thought to be poorly versed in RAF desert ops. That sort of thing pops up in TEB here and there – chips are referred to as fries – but it is easily overlooked given its rarity.

Several typos were encountered that suggested the manuscript was produced from hand-written notes or some sort of OCR software. Repetition of ‘Avro Lancaster bomber’ or simply ‘Lancaster bomber’ gets a bit grating and, again, doesn’t give the reader enough credit. The ‘Rhur’ is referred to a couple of times and that cardinal sin, ‘hanger’, rears its unwelcome head as well.

I realise these gripes are trivial, but they were picked up because, firstly, I look for them, and secondly, I wasn’t completely engaged while the crew were on their tour. The detail is wonderful, but most of it comes from the author, not Heffron. I guess the clue there is on the cover – ‘Based on the Wartime Diaries…’. Obviously each op needs to be elaborated upon with reference to the squadron’s ORB and debriefings etc, building on Heffron’s diary, but it’s standard Bomber Command. Granted they were a fortunate crew who managed to complete a tour despite some bumps on the way. It’s just that it feels like the author, a noted Bomber Command historian, is phoning it in. There’s clearly more to the diary entries than what is included in the book as the author’s narrative references detail that could only have been recorded by Heffron. There would have perhaps been more punch to the narrative if there was more of Heffron and less of the author. I don’t know how much more of Heffron there was, but it felt like the description of the ops could have leant more heavily on his writing. Again, ‘Based on the Wartime Diaries…’ reveals all.

There is, however, a lot of Heffron during the crew’s down time or leave periods and the narrative here is entertaining. Where did they put all the food and drink?! As mentioned above, once the crew disperses following the end of their tour, the book follows Heffron and his adventures in the UK. Having already travelled far and wide, solo and with mates, to visit friends and relatives during his period on ops, there are further opportunities to do so as he awaits his repatriation. Again, the majority of the narrative is from the author’s hand with short diary entries from Heffron serving as signposts and date stamps. Here, however, the author does well in painting a picture of the places Reg travelled to, and stayed at, and the photos included support this part of the book perfectly. A well-recounted voyage home and we say farewell to Reg Heffron.

I really wanted to love this book for a number of reasons, but that tinge of frustration in reading it removed the giddying delight felt when actually looking at the thing. Again, it is a truly stunning looking book, but this level of presentation is standard from Schiffer. The detail is there in spades; the photos are the standard fare of aircrew, aircraft, targets, holiday snaps and the like, but all are a good size and as clear as possible; and the narrative does the job it’s supposed to. It allows us to cross another crew, needing their story told, off the list, but there is no feeling of fear, trepidation or stress. Despite that, it is worth tackling for the adventures and shenanigans (I forget how many cars they had) of the crew when they were not flying. While not uproariously amusing, there is a wonderful joie de vivre of men for whom the clock was ticking. The "Easy" Boys promises a lot and delivers to a point, but left me wanting more.

ISBN 978-0-7643-4789-4

04 February 2017

Jimmy Muir from Trois-Rivières - Sara V. Mosher

It can start with just a photo. Indeed, it can even start with just a name. Lucky are those with a shoebox full of memories and memorabilia or a cherished logbook. Of course, such things pave the road of research somewhat in that they already provide clues and leads, but a photograph can be a godsend or a frustration. Where was it taken? When was it taken? Who is that? A photograph can answer all of those or none. An image of a gravesite indicates the end of the story, at least for its occupant, and the two remaining queries – how and why. Sara Mosher had just that. A photo of a grave and its cross, before Commonwealth War Graves Commission attention, shortly after the war, and an apparently rushed photo of the subject returning from an op, was all she had to work with, but things grew from there and became Jimmy Muir from Trois-Rivières. She has given life to one of the many.

Born in Quebec, ‘Jimmy’ Muir instantly stands out in the aircrew stakes or, at least, in the aircrew I’ve read about. The French-Canadians were not overly supportive of the war, but his hard-working, staunchly religious parents instilled a sense of duty in their son and even though he soon, understandably, questioned the role of God in what he saw before him, even before he went to war, ‘Jimmy’ was as faithful a servant to the RCAF and RAF as ever there was.

Trained in Canada and successfully meeting every requirement to become a fighter pilot, Muir crosses the Atlantic and marvels at the clutter that is England and London in particular. For a young man from the wide open spaces of regional Canada, he is remarkably nonplussed by the change. He eventually joins No. 65 (East India) Squadron, one of the better known Tactical Reconnaissance units, and begins flying ops from England during the month leading up to the Normandy invasions. As the Allies push on, the squadron moves to Europe to stay close to the frontline. From June to the end of August, Muir flies fifty ops, the majority being armed recces dealing with bridges and motor transport and always, always, in the teeth of the flak.

The Tac/R sorties flown by the squadron is dangerous work, the rate of attrition steady and the flak indiscriminate. As detailed in the review of Peter Fitton’s Never Been Hit (Australian Les Streete flying Spitfire Mk.XVIs in Belgium with No. 66 Squadron), one aircraft could make it through and the second would receive a direct hit and cease to be. The pilot could be on his third op or his third tour. It didn’t matter. This was dirty, necessary work and survival was certainly down to luck more than skill.

‘Jimmy’ and his colleagues were flying the Mustang III. The squadron would continue to do so after it left Europe for a rest before returning to combat by escorting Coastal Command strikes across the North Sea. The Mustang is not an aircraft that crops up in RAF memoirs too often, relatively speaking, so it is a pleasure to encounter it here. That said, one of the strong aspects of this book is that the author uses quotes and excerpts from Muir’s colleagues on the squadron at the time. It is fortunate that at least three of them – Corran Ashworth, Tony Jonsson and Bob Milton – have had biographies published. They add the meat to the bones that is Muir’s five months with the squadron.

Good things really do come in small packages and this book is the epitome of that phrase. A mere 65 pages long, it can certainly be read in one sitting although I managed to savour it over four due to my wife being away for work and two children who have progressively succumbed to the sniffles. Sometimes it was almost too much to get through just a couple of the deceptively short chapters. It is an incredibly easy read, sparsely illustrated out of necessity, and the author uses her words well. She could easily have gone off on all manner of tangents, and she does to a minor extent, and made the book a lot longer than it is. This, however, would have lost our hero in the detail. A disciplined and focused narrative was needed to keep ‘Jimmy’ in the foreground, as the main player, and this is wholeheartedly achieved and very pleasing to see as it is so easy to succumb, and lose the reader, to the desire to provide context.

The efficiency of the words is what is most impressive. Despite the limited space, the Muir family history is very well done with enough convolutions to challenge the much longer family trees regularly encountered. In much the same way, the threat of the flak and the frenetic nature and danger of the Tac/R ops is in your face with barely a page turned. There is little in the way of build up (not much room for it), Muir’s operational flying just kicks off and settles into something resembling a routine albeit a repetitive, stressful and life-threatening one.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect that allows the reader to understand ‘Jimmy’ Muir in such a short space of time is that he was the author of the squadron’s Operations Record Book for much of his time there. It reveals both his gregarious nature, but also his ability to look inward and a feeling that he could quite easily feel alone in a crowd of friends and not be at all concerned about it. It is a surprisingly valuable gift in terms of ‘character development’ and one that the author surely had to pinch herself when she discovered it. Not all of the entries are included, of course, but what are show a lovely turn of phrase and humour. The quality of a squadron’s ORB depended on its author/s and 65 Squadron had a good one during this time.

The death is handled with both empathy and detachment, perhaps mirroring how Muir’s colleagues would have had to handle his loss. It is presented as but a small event in a world at war, but one that had a profound effect on his family. The detail of his discovery and burial shortly after his death holds little, if anything back, and serves to prove that the flak rarely spared its victims. Such was the nature of Tac/R. Fly low, fly fast, hit hard, get out or go in. After letting Muir grow on you, powerfully so despite the brevity of the narrative, it is a slap in the face.

Jimmy Muir from Trois-Rivières will not leap off the shelf at the book browser. It’s physical stature lends itself to being lost among the relatively bold and brash hardbacks with their aircraft, explosions and gunfire on their covers. It is a book of equal stature, however. With not a lot to go on, and with a clinical efficiency that belies the heart and soul invested in the narrative, Sara Mosher has crafted a remarkably moving and surprisingly descriptive account of a pilot who would otherwise have been consigned to a passing mention in books about his colleagues. Granted he had a much shorter flying career than his mates mentioned above, but that doesn’t mean he deserves anything less. In some ways, this book has given him more.

Then there’s the twist in the last chapter that will leave you with a sense of realisation and the smile to go with it.

ISBN 978-0-9866891-1-6