28 July 2017

Shot Down - Steve Snyder

When the fates of the ten men shot down in an Eighth Air Force Flying Fortress range from killed in action, capture, imprisonment or evasion, to fighting with the Resistance, there’s a lot of ground to cover and the challenge is to keep a tight rein. Throwing in a myriad of brave French and Belgian civilians, and families back home, only serves to make that task more difficult. Steve Snyder provides an incredible amount of detail without getting bogged down and is guided through his father’s war by a treasure trove of material left behind by his parents. Shot Down is a fine example of an immediate relative taking the time to understand and explain the greater conflict while placing the reader alongside the main protaganists as they experienced their greatest adventures.

Howard Snyder’s crew named the bomber they flew to the U.K. after their skipper’s first daughter. As expected, although not by them, they never flew the aircraft again once it was delivered to the air depot in England in mid-October 1943 during the build-up of aircraft and crews following the Schweinfurt raids that almost spelled the end of the USAAF’s European campaign. Each man was destined to fly a number of missions each, but rarely with all of the men he had completed training with. Due to illness and an injury, Snyder had flown three missions by the time his co-pilot had flown seven. Towards the end of their time on operations, however, the crew came together and flew a series of raids before they were shot down on 8 February 1944.

Some were captured, but several evaded to varying levels of success. This is where the book is at its strongest. By the halfway mark, having experienced the breathless account of the bomber’s last moments in the first chapter (setting the hook), the narrative emerges from the rabbit hole that is USAAF equipment, tactics and opponents. It is quite well done, weaving the Snyder crew’s experiences in and around the bigger picture of American strategic bombing operations in Europe. At times, though, the crew gets a bit lost and there is a need to remind oneself who is who (there is a useful crew list on page 47). When they are shot down, it comes at the end of a series of missions where they finally appear to be hitting their straps, getting into gear to push their tour along.

Then it gets really complicated. Each of the eight survivors is followed from the time of their bail out to the eventual culmination of their journeys. For those that were hidden by the local community, the constant fear of discovery or betrayal, or both, is palpable. Many French and Belgian civilians are involved and, again, it becomes quite difficult to keep a handle on the various players. Several contextual paragraphs or chapters, where the author lifts his gaze to explain what is happening at that stage of the war, don’t make this any easier. Footnotes would have worked perfectly here as I was itching to know what Snyder, for example, was going through and not what General Patton’s nickname or mantra was. Snyder had by far the most interesting story of survival (the majority have relatively short tales one way or the other), but he seems to get a bit lost here and there among these well-researched passages and even among the accounts of the fates of the other airmen.

Exceptionally illustrated, complete with images of the buildings in which the men hid or were hidden, the proportion of two-page spreads without at least one photograph included is quite low. This is no small feat for a main body of text that fills 340 pages and is, in turn, supported by twenty pages of bibliography and a very good index. The technical detail is very readable and mostly on point especially where entire books have been written on several of the areas covered. There are several photos, however, that either need to be swapped out with something else or have their captions re-written entirely. 

I did read this with a lot of interruptions due to pressing deadlines so keeping track of the crew, and the brave French and Belgians, would obviously be easier if the reader were to tackle this book in long sittings. It is certainly not one that lends itself to dipping in and out of, but it was never intended to be. There are some wonderful gems of information to be found, not least being the left waist gunner, Joseph Musial, having flown 72 missions in the Pacific prior to this tour! He is certainly someone deserving further research. The excerpts from Snyder’s letters, too, provide a window into his life in England as well as the relationship with his wife. The descriptions of English civilian life, partly based on Snyder’s writings, are fairly standard from ‘an American in England’ (and a married father at that!), where everything is interesting and different, and worn down by four years of war, but not a patch on back home. Snyder, however, proves an astute observer (unlike Ernest C. Ford who commented that all Australian women had wooden teeth!) with an empathy indicative of his age and fatherhood.

A beautifully put-together book, complete with a semi-gloss finish to the boards which accentuates the gold lettering and does not soak up greasy fingerprints (you take the dustcover off to read, don’t you?!), Shot Down is at the top end of self-published works. The author, as tireless as he was to bring together the stories of what must be easily more than fifty people, has gone above and beyond to spread the word about the book and, therefore, raise awareness of the Snyder crew and the many thousands like them. It is an effort that matches the epic sweep of this book and long may it continue. This is one of those books that has reached, and educated, thousands. What they take away from it is entirely up to them, but, at the very least, there are ten young men who will live on in the hearts and minds of some who had no previous connection to them. Education and remembrance, it’s all an aircrew book can hope to be, and Shot Down is an admirable example.

ISBN 978-0-9860760-0-8

14 July 2017

The Mallon Crew - Vic Jay

Bomber Command seems to be everywhere at the moment. While I don’t exactly pepper ABR with reviews these days (I do try!), I still have to be careful not to feature Bomber Command book after Bomber Command book because, in reality, I could and that’s not really fair on the other areas of the air war and, of course, the men who served in them. Publishers, while relishing the popularity of the subject, can afford to be picky to some extent so, coupled with a healthy self-publishing industry, there is an impressive number of ‘solo’ aircrew books being released. Some are the result of years, decades even, of research while others are very obviously put together quite quickly with little time taken, or effort made, to understand the subject beyond the main protagonist. At a little over 200 pages and loaded with detail, The Mallon Crew easily falls in the former category.

The author’s father was a flight engineer with No. 75 Squadron (NZ) and part of the crew led by Kiwi Bill Mallon. Jay Senior was one of three RAFVR members on the crew with the other four being New Zealanders. They joined the squadron in early 1945 and flew their first op on 8 March. It was a short war for the Mallon crew, with less than ten ops completed (plus Manna drops), but don’t let the brevity of their operational service fool you. It was still very much a dangerous job and, with daylights regularly flown, the crews could clearly see the fate of those bombers shot down around them. At least the darkness of night ops hid some of the horror.

What is refreshing about TMC is that it doesn’t muck around with Bomber Command history, its tactics or equipment. Most of the people who would pick this book up would already be familiar with such things. As a result, there are no chapters or passages where the author is effectively preaching to the converted. There is an assumed knowledge and any clarification or explanation is kept to, at most, a short paragraph. It certainly makes for a shorter book, but it also means a more focused one. The focus, as you’d expect, is on the crew.

Admittedly, the background, training and operational experiences of the crew could be dropped into any Bomber Command scenario and fit nicely. They all follow the expected path, but there is no escaping this. You need to know the men in order to fly with them and, boy, do you know them once you finish the book. There is a strong impression that no stone was left unturned when it comes to uncovering the lives the crew led before, during and, importantly, after the war. It is less journey of discovery and more lesson in how to use modern resources to hunt, track down and learn about men who had all passed away before the author even began his research. In the case of the author’s father, 38 years passed from his death to the beginning of the work that would lead to TMC. That is not terribly unusual, but the author’s tenacity, and the coincidences that come with this sort of research, really shines through. What is especially impressive is that this extends beyond the core members of the Mallon crew. They occasionally flew with ‘spare’ or extra airmen (a mid-under gunner, for example) and these chaps are not ignored. For the author to examine and learn about their lives is to learn more about his father’s experiences. This is the clear driver behind this work.

There is a lot of Vic Jay in TMC and that’s not just because he is the author. He has been fortunate to experience being inside two separate Lancasters while they were running (one taxiing, the other flying) and both momentous occasions, particularly the taxi ride, serve as inspiration. There are not many authors of this genre who can lean back in their chair, close their eyes and transport themselves to the time they were shaken to the very core by four Merlins vibrating through the thin skin of a bomber. The descriptions of these experiences are really the only time the author allows himself to be overly sentimental and romantic, but few, if any, could avoid doing so when sitting in a living, breathing example of the aircraft that played such a big part in a relative’s life.

As with all airmen that have their lives laid bare in an aircrew book, there is a fervent wish for them to survive and go on to live a long and happy life. TMC, as a crew biography as opposed to a memoir, provides the most extensive ‘follow up’ I have encountered for some time even down to the legacy the men left because they survived. Again, it is a case of ensuring the circle is closed on each man’s life. Here, however, it must be mentioned that one member of the crew, the mid-upper gunner Don Cook, could not be traced nor was his family found (if you have any leads, the author would be most grateful). His absence from the research, not for the want of trying, is more than made up for by the author ensuring non-Mallon crew airmen mentioned in the text are also given their time in the spotlight as if to prove they are not forgotten. This analysis of the ‘supporting cast’ reveals some fascinating operational careers that would benefit from further research. That said, it can be difficult at times to keep up with who’s who, even among the Mallon crew, but there is a useful crew listing at the front of the book if a little bit of confirmation is needed.

A tidy and well-presented paperback, TMC is copiously illustrated. The photos are reproduced within the main body of text so are largely dependent on the paper stock for their quality. There is a little bit of grain in the period images because of the paper, and not just the circumstances in which they were taken, but this is kept to a minimum by keeping the sizes to respectable dimensions. To find a page spread without an illustration of some sort is a rare thing. There is no index, but this is not unexpected with a self-published book. To counter this somewhat, dates, targets and some names are printed in bold and stand out very clearly.

There is little to suggest that this book was developed from an internet blog, save the mentions of it of course, although it is clear what discoveries and developments the author was particularly fascinated by. He maintains a good balance, however, and remains mostly objective despite his closeness to the subject and the general first person narrative feel to the text. It is a very active narrative more akin to a presentation or magazine style of writing, but this is part of the adventure of it all and a legacy of the blog style of regular updates detailing the latest discoveries.

All in all, happily, this is another Bomber Command crew that has had its story told and told well. Operationally, there was not a lot to go on, but the twists and turns of each man’s life is what really makes The Mallon Crew work. Nothing is overtly dramatised, nor is it avoided for lack of existing information. It is a son’s honest and pragmatic tribute to his father and his crew that gets the point across, but largely avoids waxing lyrical about sacrifice and doomed youth. It doesn’t need to, such were the fates of some of the men featured. It had a job to do and it got it done, just like the crews of Bomber Command.

ISBN 978-1-523252-89-3

13 July 2017

Carrier Pilot - Norman Hanson

There comes a time when a book hits you fair between the eyes. Every book I read for ABR is a privilege, but some, obviously, do stand out among the others. I’m not talking about that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you know you’re onto something good. I’m talking about the giddiness, the euphoria, when you discover something extraordinary. As long-time ABR readers will know, this first happened with Norman Hanson’s Carrier Pilot when I got my hands on the 1979 first edition several years ago. At the time, it was the only edition available and it was really hard to understand why it had not been reprinted. What is remarkable is that there is now a new paperback edition (2016) that has been published by an independent publisher, Silvertail Books. I don’t know the specifics of the genesis of this new edition, but it is quite possible that Hanson’s family wanted to see it brought back to life. While not as pretty as the original edition, this new printing does the job and is no different to its predecessor. It is an incredible read.

Hanson was 26 years of age in 1940 and married! He joined up hoping to be a pilot or observer, much to his wife’s amusement, and was eventually selected for pilot training in Pensacola, Florida. Realising the great opportunity before him, he took to his training with gusto and, with his mates, thoroughly enjoyed a very different world. His time at Pensacola was coming to an end when the Americans entered the war and the observations of the wave of ‘war hysteria’ that swept the country are as amusing as they are patriotic, such was the change of gears to apparently get everyone pulling in the same direction.

Having flown American types (N3N, SNJ, Buffalo), and different ones to the norm as well, Hanson’s return to the UK required a readjustment to British aircraft and, namely, the Fairey Fulmar. Carrier qualified and raring to go, he was sent to Egypt and a communications unit where he flew mail runs and the like into the Middle East. After a year of that, he returns to the UK and is appointed senior pilot of 1833 Squadron. This new squadron was about to begin working up on Corsairs, one of the first two FAA units to do so, so it was back to the US.

It is quite likely Hanson’s account of getting to grips with the big new American navy fighter was the first written by a member of the Fleet Air Arm to appear in widespread publication. It was certainly not easy as the Corsair was a challenging aircraft to fly and, unlike Hanson, many of the pilots were considerably younger and far less experienced. When they arrived back in the UK in October 1943, they had still not operated from a carrier. The new Corsairs were shipped over on board an escort carrier.

The squadron joins HMS Illustrious after completing their period of dummy deck landings. The ship and the air wing work up for a coming deployment that soon finds them in Trincomalee, Ceylon, in the Indian Ocean. It is here the squadron really begins to gel as a fighting unit. This is made so much easier by excellent leadership, Hanson included, particularly from the very senior commanders, many of whom had been in action from the start of the war. ‘Dickie’ Cork features heavily during this period and his involvement, so crucial to any of the FAA fighter units passing through Ceylon, is phenomenally beneficial. He is just one of a myriad of remarkable characters Hanson encounters in his travels and all are passionately described.

Having flown several strikes in company with the USS Saratoga, and ranging as far east as the north-west coast of Australia and up to Sumatra, the Illustrious requires extensive repairs in South Africa so Hanson and his mates end up with a sojourn there.

They return to Ceylon and then begin the first operations of the British Pacific Fleet with the raids on the Palembang oil complexes. Moving into the Pacific proper, the FAA hits the Sakishima islands over and over again to prevent their use as Kamikaze staging bases. Life becomes a routine of airfield strikes, withdrawing to the fleet train to replenish, and Kamikaze attacks. It is during this time that the Illustrious is hit by shells from an escorting cruiser and it is the account of this event that opens the book in a style that is powerful, moving, amusing and heart-breaking all at once, and truly sets a tone that is maintained throughout.

Before he realises it, Hanson and his squadron, and the Illustrious, have done their bit in the Pacific and head for Australia in April 1945. The Canadians and the New Zealanders were sent home while those left sailed for the UK aboard their proud ship.

Carrier Pilot can only be mentioned in the same breath as First Light, the eternal The Last Enemy, A Thousand Shall Fall and No Moon Tonight. It is a classic of the genre, yet it has not had its time in the sun. Naturally there would have been some fanfare upon its release, but it then seemed to slip beneath the waves. Of course, it was first published in 1979 so it had a few things going against it. At the time, the war was relatively fresh in the memories of millions, the people who fought it were still very active in the workforce and, frankly, the general public abhorrence for war had never been higher. The following year, too, 1980, was the fortieth anniversary of that most popular of wartime aviation achievements, the Battle of Britain. What chance did a memoir about a group of naval aviators who fought on the other side of the world have against ‘The Few’? It seems the further east, from the UK, British forces fought during the war, the more they were forgotten. Burma, of course, is the ‘forgotten war’ and the British Pacific Fleet is still regarded as the ‘forgotten fleet’ despite the efforts of the likes of John Winton and, more recently, David Hobbs and Will Iredale.

Hanson certainly left nothing wanting in the manuscript, but he passed away not long after publication. Carrier Pilot remains his literary legacy and, quite simply, he went out on top. The reader is able to inhabit his mind for he wears his heart on his sleeve and the dialogue, ignoring the passing of almost forty years, is vibrant, amusing and on point. To that extent, he employs dialogue sparingly, perhaps realising he wouldn’t be recounting it verbatim, and really only uses it to illustrate a character, or convey the weight, or comedy, of a particular moment. At times, despite being a prominent part of the scene, he is able to step back to observe and comment on the absurdity and devastation around him. Absurdity and devastation, sadly, regularly go hand in hand.

Part of this has to do with his age. By the time he was steaming about in the eastern Indian Ocean, and then in the Pacific, he is already into his thirties. Compared to his charges, he is quite literally an old soul. His age makes him a bit more empathetic and able to understand another’s position. He perhaps borders on being sympathetic as he feels the gut-wrenching loss of friends and colleagues deeply. He never seems to develop any armour to deal with the pall of ever-present death and loss. Perhaps that is the forty years of life and reflection coming in to play.

The time in Egypt building up flying hours in Fulmars, and navigating vast expanses of hostile terrain in sometimes trying conditions, built the foundation that the rest of his war would rely upon. Had he been sent to an active carrier unit, there was every chance he would have been thrown into the deep end from the start, be it in the Med or escorting convoys in the Arctic, and his chances of survival would have been far less. It doesn’t seem fair, but it was the luck of the draw and the FAA gained a fine leader because of it.

From a technical point of view, there is not much conveyed, but in no way does this take away from the book. If anything, its relative absence enhances the read. A novice reader will not notice it and an experienced one won’t be left wanting. There is, however, a superb few pages about learning to fly the Corsair and mastering its various foibles. Hanson adroitly conveys the trepidation of learning to fly a tricky aircraft. His turn of phrase is typically clever and entertaining for this genre and little snippets of brilliance in describing something, often with just a few words, regularly generate a knowing grin or a chuckle. Referring to the weather at sea as something a householder would think twice about putting the cat out in is the perfect example. The reader immediately understands and is entertained at the same time and, if you are familiar with the FAA or wartime flying in general, you will find several more layers to absorb. It really is a masterpiece.

Drop everything you are doing and read this book. This new edition is not perfect. Some of the page layout is odd and the maps and diagrams seem to throw things out a bit and are not as finely printed as they were in the first edition. However, it is a good quality paperback that does its job in presenting everything Hanson wrote to a new audience. That's the most important bit. Carrier Pilot is the finest Fleet Air Arm memoir ever written. It is the forgotten book about the forgotten fleet and the forgotten men, many just names on memorials if they’re lucky, who gave their all. I want to read it again and I think I just might.

ISBN 978-1-909269-59-0