A formation of Cessna Cranes on the cover of a book about the members of a RAAF training course is not something you expect to see. Surely an Australian book should feature Ansons or Oxfords if it’s going to showcase twin-engine trainers. It does, however, suggest the journey of many Commonwealth airmen as the vast majority, drawn from almost all points on the compass, converged on the war in Europe. While Tony Vine’s first book, High in the Sunlit Silence, focuses on just the one course, the men’s stories are, like the cover, representative of those who undertook earlier or later courses in Australia, or those who did the same in New Zealand, Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. Representative, yes, but all unique. As I often say with a book about a bomber crew, “here’s another x aircrew that have had their stories told at last”, and that is very much the case here. To tackle the lives of fifty men, however, takes some doing.
The trainee members of an elementary flying training course share a bond equivalent to those shared with the squadron mates most eventually served with. To trace the various service paths of each trainee is relatively straightforward. After all, that’s what archives are for, albeit full of abbreviations, acronyms and jargon that are just screaming to be fleshed out. That’s where the challenge lies. Successfully telling the stories needs more than service records. It needs family members and friends, diaries and letters. Even then the rich vein of information deposited by one man, and keenly followed by the researcher, simply does not exist with another. Some were prolific writers, for better or for worse, while others may not have had the chance to do so and left little behind. Multiply that mix of endless hope, occasional despair, and enduring fascination by a factor of fifty and you can understand what the author has gone through to trace the men who made up Pilots’ Course 20 at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School, RAAF Narromine.
The timing of the beginning of the course, December 1941, is significant, as another ‘front’ requiring men and machines opened as the training progressed. The vast majority of the men who became aircrew ultimately served in Europe, however, and they arrived, for the most part, in the second half of 1943 and many ended up in Bomber Command (a surprising number joined Coastal Command or flew medium bombers with 2 TAF). That time of the bombing campaign was not a good one for the RAF. The Battle of Berlin was soon to get underway and losses were already incredible. That’s why so many of the men who were part of Course 20 ended up in the UK. They went where they were needed the most.
The genesis for this project was the author researching his uncle. Bill Gunning was killed at the controls of a Wellington in 1943. He had trained with some of his course mates in Canada (hence the Cranes on the cover) and kept in touch with others so his influence is fairly consistent through many of the biographies.
Eighteen of those on the RAAF Narromine course were killed in accidents or in combat. Several did not become pilots in the end, instead re-mustering in another aircrew role, while a couple did not make the grade at all, but continued to provide good service. Eighteen out of fifty, relatively and a little indelicately speaking, is not the worst attrition rate considering some of the earlier courses were all but wiped out, and there are memoirs, like Hugh Garlick’s excellent One Life Left or ‘Bush’ Cotton’s marvellous Hurricanes Over Burma, that provide sobering evidence of this. How many times have we seen photos of ranks of men lined up in front of an aircraft with some, many even, having a little cross drawn in pen over their heads?
The great thing, of course, is that most of the men featured survived the war. Unsurprisingly, a decent proportion lived fractured lives in peacetime. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder today, but back then, while it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by those close to the subject, it just wasn’t dealt with.
High in the Sunlit Silence is a page-turner, but its 330 pages are best read in short sittings. That’s a weird thing to say as everyone wants a book that is hard to put down, something you can lose yourself in. However, each biography is presented as a standalone chapter. Each chapter has effectively been written for the family of the man featured. There is, therefore, a lot of necessary repetition from chapter to chapter, especially for those men who travelled the same path to war (Narromine, Pacific crossing, Canada, Atlantic crossing, UK). While the author has done a fine job to tweak each biography to make them all read differently, there’s only so much you can do with the same information and the first few paragraphs, pages even, rapidly become familiar territory. If the reader is not careful, they will find themselves succumbing to the temptation to skim these parts and, frankly, not giving each man the respect he deserves with a good, thorough read. I caught myself doing that a couple of times before I changed my reading sessions from “I need to cross another book off the list”. I recommend tackling five chapters in each sitting. There is less chance of the stories blending into each other. Take your time.
There’s also a feeling of dread that permeates the book as the reader progresses through it. This is partly caused by the anticipation of wanting the subject to survive, but is largely due to the footnotes. When other personnel are mentioned, the author helpfully includes a footnote listing basic biographical detail. When a crew is listed, and there are dates of death after many of them, you know what’s coming. As mentioned above, less than half of the men from the initial course were lost, but it feels like a lot more.
A solid paperback, the book is not heavy with photographs, but it does provide a good selection beyond the headshots (from various sources) that kick off each chapter. The writing is to the point and the author does not embellish where the information available is lacking. Rather, he ensures as well-rounded and as careful a biography as he can before moving on to the next one.
There’s the occasional missing word in the text, but nothing out of the ordinary or of a material nature. It would be good, however, to see some of the aircraft names tidied up. ‘Montrose Master’, ‘Oxford Anson’ and ‘Hampton bomber’ escaped the proof-readers and, while perhaps worthy of a wry grin when encountered, are details that might mislead, especially when the chapters are written so families can use them in memorial services or other relevant events or displays.
So many of the men featured in High in the Sunlit Silence would be barely known outside of their families. The author has done remarkably well when, in several cases, he hasn’t had a lot to go on. Each subject is given equal attention, and obvious research effort, lack of material notwithstanding. It’s a bit of a dark horse in the way the practical writing style lays out the story in a straight-forward manner, but allows the circumstances of each tale to dictate the reader’s connection and emotional response. There’s a depth to this book that is not immediately evident. It is all the more valuable for its very existence.
Civilian and pioneer aircrew don’t get much of a look in here in the corridors of ABR. Well, the groaning trestle table that serves as a desk, anyway. When they do, it’s usually a former military pilot managing to gain flying work in a world swamped by eminently qualified candidates, some of whom, admittedly, never wanted, or had the chance, to fly again. An aircrew book generally only includes this period of a life in great detail if the author, having completed the most exciting part of the story, sticks with it and doesn’t condense the post-war period into a chapter or two.
Pre-war civilian flyers feature even less here. Some airlines - like Pan Am, Qantas and BOAC - kept flying in support of the war effort so those men not called up kept circulating. Like the legendary P.G. Taylor, many were brought in to the Ferry Command fold. They are more than welcome here.
That is how Pilot of Fortune came to be added to the review pile. Its author is an authority on the civilians of Ferry Command and originally wrote this biography, about the great Canadian aviator Sheldon Luck, in the early eighties when it was released as Walking on Air.
Luck was born in Ontario in 1911. His father was a reverend with a dim view of aviation. This did not deter his son who, like many boys at the time, became enamoured by these new flying machines. His education prevented a military flying career so by sheer hard graft, during a time when jobs were thin on the ground, young Sheldon earned the money that would allow him to fly. By doing any job he was offered he managed to pay for his tuition, his solo (at eighteen years old) and then subsequent commercial training.
Married by the time he was twenty, and a father shortly after, Sheldon’s first work as a commercial pilot was for a client who was prospecting for fish in the myriad lakes of the north. With a recalcitrant aircraft, an American Eagle (one of many classics to feature throughout the book), this was not a successful venture, but it led to the first of the many survival stories perhaps all of the pioneer bush pilots experienced more than once.
Looking for work from the various mining outfits in the north usually led to the same result – someone had beaten him to it. This flying entrepreneur was a man who would help shape Sheldon’s career for the best part of a decade. He was Grant McConachie, one of Canada’s airline pioneers. A man of vision, and no slouch in the cockpit himself, McConachie, as time wore on, was deskbound more and more as he kept his company running. His promises of greater pay and better aircraft in the future, if Sheldon could just hold on, were far from hollow, but they did tend to take longer than first expected. Sheldon loved the flying, he loved the people he met and carried, he loved the wild north and the respect he had for his boss was reciprocated in spades. He also liked to keep a low profile and get on with the job. It was not a volatile relationship, and Sheldon’s career benefitted from McConachie’s input more than once, but there was only so much a bush pilot could take once the success he had helped achieve made United Air Transport/Yukon Southern one of the operations that would be merged to make Canadian Pacific Air Lines.
Sheldon’s life of flying the entire UAT/YSAT fleet on wheels, floats or skis, and landing on everything from frozen rivers to sandbars, surviving terrible weather and the occasional failing aircraft, gave way to ‘polished’ airline flying. The politics were too much, however, and, with a war on, the improved conditions of Ferry Command beckoned. With his experience and survival skills, Sheldon was ideal for the role. Towards the end of the war, he was flying Consolidated Coronado flying boats with 231 Squadron. Once again, there was no shortage of adventures and misadventures.
Post-war he spent a frustrating time with CPAL and then a pioneering, but equally frustrating period with the Argentinian national airline. He then became a corporate pilot flying a Lockheed Lodestar. The 1950s is where he truly became a pilot of fortune, flying for money wherever he could find it. Supplying the DEW Line (radar stations strung across the north) construction project proved lucrative while his time farming did not. Building time in Cansos and Catalinas helped him become one of the original Flying Firefighters and you can imagine what that entailed. After close to fifty years as a commercial pilot, he let his licence lapse and, as all good legends do, lived a quiet and unassuming retirement.
This is a book full to the brim with tales of remarkable flying, the sort of tales that leave the reader buzzing. What stands out is that Luck, while living up to his surname, is completely at home in the air and a man with a lot of common sense and good judgment. The author also gives McConachie enough space to be a well understood part of Sheldon’s life. Early on, the measure of the man is laid bare when, in response to Sheldon’s second crash, he puts together a recovery program that sees our hero back in the air as soon as possible. While bearing the weight of successively burdensome corporate positions, McConachie is clearly shown to be the progressive, intelligent and insightful aviation professional that he was.
The variety of interesting characters inhabiting the wilds add wonderful colour to a life of considerable adventure, as do the many aviators. All are suitably researched and portrayed, with handy references when they return after a long absence. This commitment to detail, coupled with observation and measured assumption, reveals the veteran journalist in the author. As one of considerable merit and experience, he has a particular style and unique take on things that is at first, admittedly, a little off-putting. It is far from a bad thing, but be prepared for a quirky way with words. It works, though, as the author really knows how to spin a yarn, and makes for a rollicking good read.
Even the layout of the book, with regular headings throughout each chapter, hints at a strong newspaper background, but these often serve as signposts to the next adventure. There are, however, in this edition at least, a few sentences that seem out of place and the inclusion of weird extra words at times. Whether these are the product of the revised and expanded edition is not clear, but, if they are carried over from Walking on Air, they should not have survived the most recent round of proofreading.
A book of this nature, with its fascinating people, far flung destinations and wonderful variety of classic aircraft, would benefit greatly from a fine selection of photographs. Not counting several images of Sheldon’s logbook, which are actually quite hard to read as they are printed on the same paper stock as the text, there would not be more than fifteen photographs in the entire book. While photos specific to Sheldon and his career are probably thin on the ground - you’re not going to take a photo of a Fokker on skis when your fingers are freezing – there must surely be images representative of the conditions he flew in, the towns he visited, the people he met and so on. While a lovely glossy photo section would increase the cost of the book, at least then the images would match the vibrancy of the writing. The cover, too, might be better served with an image of a Barkley-Grow, or something of that ilk, rather than a seemingly generic DC-3/C-47 photo (it’s actually an apparently irrelevant Russian Li-2!).
The vibrancy is a little lacking right at the start as the first chapter lays out the history of UAT. If the reader is not familiar enough with the history of Canadian aviation, and, to be fair, who outside of Canada would be, it’s a bit of a slog up front. It does, however, add needed context. The same can be said for when Sheldon joins Ferry Command and when CPAL came into being. Again, it is valuable context, but at that stage of the book, the reader is deeply invested in Luck’s story and wanting to read of his next adventure.
At a little over 300 pages, Pilot of Fortune is a paperback that, for the most part, is hard to put down. Canadian bush pilots are the stuff of legend, and the aircraft they flew aren’t far behind, yet very few have ever been written about in such detail and with such candour. There is little doubt Sheldon Luck deserved such treatment, but perhaps his name just popped up at the right time. Either way, his life was one worth sharing and it is pleasing to see it done so well.
Two full months (and then some) have passed since I last published a review and, for that, I apologise. The latest issue of Flightpath is largely responsible, but home life has been rather hectic as well. You do not want to know how little reading I've done in the past month! Anyway, as always when I am neglectful of ABR, one of my cadre of very clever guest reviewers is happy to step up to easily fill the void. In this case, it's Adam Purcell, a fine young Bomber Command historian here in Australia. Adam, as I have mentioned before in the introduction to his review of Norman Franks' Veteran Lancs, runs a blog called Something Very Big. It is an account of his research into a relative's bomber crew and also anything and everything to do with Bomber Command that he encounters in his travels. I always find it insightful and informative and I trust you will too. The same applies to this review. Andy Wright.
Royal Air Force Bomber Command flew its first operation of the Second World War within hours of Sir Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany. Its final trip was completed in the last week of the war in Europe. For more than five and a half years, Bomber Command waged an almost nightly war on the enemy. It is therefore an almost unfathomably complex and wide-ranging story, one that is very difficult for a single person to fully understand, let alone condense enough to fit into one book.
Not that this has stopped people trying, of course. The gold standard remains Max Hastings’ magisterial Bomber Command, first published way back in 1979. The Bombing War by Richard Overy (2013) is a close second, but also looks further afield at bombing in the Pacific and other theatres. These are substantial volumes: my 1982 copy of Bomber Command runs to 490 pages in very small type, including notes, and The Bombing War to 852. It’s simply very hard to comprehensively tell the story in less space.
But what if you don’t want or need to read that much detail? What if there was a more accessible, but still comprehensive book about Bomber Command that also looks at both sides of the war and tells a range of stories from the commanders right down to the aircrew? This is more or less what Peter Jacobs has attempted with Pen & Sword’s new title, the 208-page Night Duel over Germany: Bomber Command’s Battle over the Reich during WWII.
Jacobs (a former RAF F-4 and Tornado navigator and the author of several books for Pen & Sword) follows the conduct and background of Bomber Command’s war in a chronological fashion. He includes what was happening at the same time on the Luftwaffe side too. It’s not a bad effort. Some sections are done particularly well, such as the chapter covering the first 1000-bomber raids in 1942, and the section about Hamburg in 1943. The book clearly sets out the distinct phases of the bomber war, taking the reader through the early years, the developing see-saw of the electronic battle, and the campaigns against the Ruhr and Berlin, before turning to the end game and the inevitable section about Dresden. The book is not written in the most terribly sophisticated fashion and Jacobs’ prose could best be described as ‘workmanlike,’ but, apart from a few sentences which I thought were grammatically rather tortured, it is mostly written quite clearly. There’s also a good selection of mostly-new (to this reviewer) photographs and diagrams on glossy paper in the middle of the book that illustrate facets and personalities from both the British and German sides of the conflict.
Unfortunately, though, there are several features which take the shine off the overall effect. Jacobs is perhaps guilty of over-using certain pet words and phrases: ‘coveted’ is one, applied throughout when describing awards like the higher levels of the Knight’s Cross, and the slightly awkward phrase ‘discussions, arguments even’ crops up more often than I’d like. He has, it would appear, been let down by some rather sloppy editing: at one point ‘of’ is used in place of ‘or’.
Editing is sometimes not something that authors will have total control over, however, so these errors and annoyances perhaps reflect more on the publishers than on Jacobs himself. Having said that, I have my doubts about how Night Duel Over Germany was researched, and that is something that the author does control. There is a reasonably extensive bibliography, but what jumped out immediately at me is that it contains only secondary sources. This means that Jacobs is a little too reliant on quotes from books by other authors instead of going to the original source. About the only primary source that Jacobs appears to have consulted is the German Wehrmachtbericht, which he regularly cites throughout the text, but it is not recorded in the bibliography so it’s unclear where he got it from. It’s somewhat indicative of a lack of rigour that is perhaps what led to a few incorrect facts slipping into the final product. Things like claiming that Pathfinder leader Don Bennett was from New Zealand, as happens on page 72, are near inexcusable (he is later correctly identified as an Australian in the caption for a photograph – in the author’s defence, the inconsistency alone should have been picked up in editing). Jacobs has also confused the terminology surrounding the different Pathfinder roles of Supporters and Backers-Up.
These quibbles aside, however, Night Duel Over Germany does pull together enough detail and some gripping stories from both sides of the battle to be, overall, a useful and accessible introduction to Bomber Command’s war.