06 August 2018

Too Young To Die - Bryan Cox

On 1 July 2018, well-known New Zealand pilot Bryan Cox made headlines when he flew a Tiger Moths he had flown in wartime training. He had only just returned to active flying several months earlier, having relinquished his licence some years before with more than 20,000 hours to his credit. For a veteran to be reunited with a former mount, and still be able to fly it legally, is particularly rare. To some extent, Mr. Cox has youth on his side. That’s a funny thing to say for a 93-year old, but he was eighteen when he learned to fly and not even 21 when he saw the war’s end. What makes him ‘well-known’, however, beyond being a living link to our past, is the books he has written. His air force memoir, Too Young To Die, remains one of the very few accounts of RNZAF Corsairs, or any Kiwi fighters for that matter, in action in the South Pacific. It also makes the author’s choice of post-war career abundantly clear.

Bryan Cox grew up on farming properties and was still at school when war broke out. When he signed up for the air force, having emulated Tiger Moth flying in a Model A Ford with the top down and pining over diving Kittyhawks, three of his cousins had already been lost (and he would lose his brother in early 1944). Young Cox soloed in November 1943 and was posted to 4 OTU at Ohakea to fly Kittyhawks in August 1944. His talent in the air is evident, but what is really interesting is the scientific approach to the training. His time on Kittyhawks, in particular, was one of experimentation, analysis and the testing of theories developed on the ground. Some of the experimentation was a result of seeing his colleagues come to grief, fatally on occasion, and wanting to understand what got them into that situation and, most importantly, how to get out of it. While he escaped major incidents, the author had his fair share of close shaves and learned from them.

A mere month after converting to Kittyhawks, Bryan converted to Corsairs. While a heavy, powerful fighter like the Curtiss machine, the Corsair was a completely new challenge. Likening the climb to the cockpit as something only surpassed by Sir Edmund Hillary some years later (one of many amusing quips throughout the book), the ever studious Cox quickly got to grips with one of the most potent fighter aircraft of the period. Again, the exuberance of young men flying the leading technology of the day got the better of some of his colleagues, but the majority of them made it through. As part of 16 Squadron RNZAF, Bryan arrived at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, in November 1944.

The New Zealanders were well established at Henderson, but the relatively Spartan island life, despite the advantages of operating alongside the always well-supplied Americans, took some getting used to. They were soon off to Green Island, however. The author injured his knee with a machete, and was unable to walk for ten days, so his first flight from Green Island did not occur until 5 January 1945. It was the beginning of a very busy year.

Operations from Green Island consisted of many patrols over the Rabaul area to harrass the Japanese there. Aircraft were inevitably lost over the heavily defended harbour and it was on return from a failed rescue mission for one of these pilots that Bryan had what was easily his closest shave with death. The weather closed in on the returning Corsairs and the author, in trying to see his instruments in the gloom, managed to switch off his battery and, therefore, his lights and radio. Somehow avoiding other aircraft in the formation, and the sea, Bryan, noting his dwindling fuel, was contemplating his impending death when a fortuitous lightning flash revealed the distinctive coastline of Green Island. A ropey landing saw him home, but eight of his compatriots were lost. It was Cox’s twentieth birthday.

His first tour over, Bryan returned to New Zealand in mid-February, but the squadron was on its way to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) on 1 April. They were there for less than a month before heading to Bougainville. The island was still partly occupied by the Japanese who were fending off a large Australian Army contingent. The squadron soon established a routine of close support sorties to assist the advancing Australians. Targets were rarely obvious so intelligence often came from coastwatchers, locals or RAAF Boomerangs. These aircraft often marked the targets for the Kiwi Corsairs as well. Bryan’s tour ended in late June after 34 operational sorties over Bougainville.

After leave, reforming and working up, the squadron arrived at Jacquinot Bay, New Britain, on 14 August. This new base was the replacement for Green Island. With the surrender of the Japanese, there was little to do, but the Corsairs kept flying with patrols, ferry flights and escorts of Japanese aircraft. Entertainment was sparse, so it was with some relief that Bryan headed for home in late October. He’s application to join the Occupation Squadron in Japan had not been successful so he said farewell to the faithful Corsair to await his discharge.

This was not forthcoming, however, as he joined 14 Squadron which was to be the headquarters unit for the occupying Commonwealth air strength. Besides learning new combat tactics, such as rocket attacks, the squadron also had to be proficient at ceremonial drill. Japan was to be an eye-opener for the young man, only just promoted to warrant officer, and a lot different from the airstrips hacked out of jungle and coral.

Everything the soon to be self-sustaining squadron needed was loaded onto the aircraft carrier HMS Glory in early March 1946. Bryan did not fly in Japan until late May, but the real adventure was on the ground. Relations with the locals, many of whom worked for the occupying units, are fascinating to discover after so many years of war. The occupying forces, too, while largely respectful of their hosts and dedicated to the work at hand, certainly enjoyed themselves. It’s an interesting dynamic as these men volunteered to serve a long way from home in peacetime when there must have been a strong urge to just stop. As a (still) very young man, it is clear Bryan felt he just wasn’t ready to quit. Returning to New Zealand in April 1947, Bryan struggled to settle down, but eventually started flying again in 1956, worked in air traffic control and set up his own flying school.

There’s perhaps three major points that stand out in Too Young To Die. Firstly, as mentioned above, it is an uncommon memoir of flying for the RNZAF in the South Pacific. Secondly, the considerable detail of life in Japan, essentially a well put together series of extended anecdotes, is rarer still. Happily, it takes up about a third of the book and should be regarded as one of the most important accounts from that interesting, slightly bizarre, period. It is the perfect foil for the wartime operational life the author lived. The description of Japanese culture, stripped of so much, yet holding tight to tradition (perhaps the best way to start afresh), and their almost non-plussed acceptance of the occupying forces, at least as largely recounted here, is the unsung hero of this book. Yes, get excited about the operational Corsair flying over the Pacific islands, but revel in the almost unique account of life in post-war Japan. Finally, the author’s natural aptitude as a teacher, and his career as a flying instructor, permeates almost every page. Be it a Tiger Moth, Kittyhawk or Corsair, if Bryan is learning something new as part of a course, testing a theory that is very much not part of a course, or simply explaining a routine flight, operational or otherwise, his years of instructing take over. Not a word is wasted. At one stage in my notes I’ve written “Okay, Bryan, what are you going to teach me now?” and that’s exactly what it’s like. The man is a natural storyteller which, I reckon, combined with his flying abilities and innate understanding of aeronautics, gleaned from theory and much experimentation, makes him a superb writer and effective teacher. Too Young To Die is not unique in this aspect, but, again, it is uncommon.

He knows what the reader wants too. His childhood is kept very brief with enough there to pique an interest, but avoiding the extended ‘family tree’ that can often bog down an otherwise excellent book early on. These sections are valuable to know where a man has come from, and they can make for fascinating reading, but are often more suited to the appendices. Speaking of which, there are four here of the biographical and airframe fate type. The one negative is that there is no index. Even a simple personnel index would have been of considerable value here, but the biographical appendix allays this deficiency somewhat. This, however, is a minor blip for a book that is now over thirty years old. The narrative is repetitive here and there with little factoids about ops and other details popping up again, but with so many sorties blending into each other, it’s necessary to reiterate aspects of the ones that stand out.

Bryan Cox is a treasure and I hope he is regarded as such beyond the aviation community in New Zealand. His gift to many has been the effective, almost unassuming, transfer of his knowledge of what it takes to be an aviator. Not just a pilot, an aviator. His audience is not limited to those sitting next to him in the cockpit. With Too Young To Die, and his other books, he has passed this wisdom, to a lesser extent, but no less clear, on to thousands of readers. No doubt some of those readers will have never controlled an aircraft themselves. With luck, Bryan’s writing has stirred something in a few of them and they’ve caught the bug, be it the bug for aviation history, the bug for flying, or both. That is what we, as aircrew book enthusiasts, all hope these books can do. Those of us with groaning bookshelves and long-suffering, but understanding partners, are already converted. We will love and respect these books, and the men within, almost unconditionally. It is the casual reader, the occasional reader, the aviation novice, that we always dream these books will capture. He may not have set out to entrance the non-enthusiast, but Bryan’s natural talent certainly makes it possible. While not a fighter ace, he survived and then took the time to record how he did. His legacy, and his legend, continues to make headlines. What a man. What a book.

ISBN 0-8138-0205-9

01 August 2018

The British Pacific Fleet - David Hobbs

The Royal Navy’s contribution to the war in the Pacific can be likened to a set of bookends. It was there at the start and it was there at the end. That is an exceptionally simplistic analogy that ignores pressures from all over the world, the loss of important bases and the lack of resources to start afresh. It was, however, vitally important for Britain to return to the Pacific, in the last throes of Empire, and it was never really far away with its major presence in Ceylon and heavy lifting during the Madagascan campaign. Europe was always the priority, however, and it was not until things were progressing towards certain victory that eyes, political in particular, began turning towards the Pacific. The end result was the British Pacific Fleet which, sadly, remains relatively unknown despite some recent efforts. An impressive and experienced force at war’s end, the BPF was still only about the size of one US Navy Task Force. How the BPF got there and did what it did is nothing short of remarkable and The British Pacific Fleet by David Hobbs, Britain’s foremost naval aviation historian, lays it all out. There have been several books on the BPF over the decades, and this one builds on them, but this beautiful publication is the ultimate guide to the Royal Navy’s most powerful strike force.

Operation Tungsten, the attacks on the Tirpitz in Norway, could be argued as a practice run for the BPF. Several of the ships and units involved would become integral parts of the BPF, but, importantly, the attacks involved several carriers operating together to send a large strike against a ‘single’ target. American types like the Corsair and Hellcat, particularly the former, saw their first real operations with the FAA during this time and much maligned types, such as the Barracuda, were proven to be effective, albeit somewhat limited. Granted the ships were never far from home and were at sea for days as opposed to weeks and weeks. It was a start, but there was much to learn.

The biggest issue for the proposed BPF was infrastructure. Save the base at Trincomalee, Ceylon, the submarine base at Fremantle, Western Australia, and various harbour facilities, the Royal Navy had very little it could call its own. On top of that, there was no supply chain, no stores, no workforce, no reserves, no airfields, no training facilities, no administration. As the force in Ceylon was built up and began to make further forays to Sumatra, things were well underway in Australia which, despite its own war effort, went above and beyond to help the BPF establish a footprint. Airfields were borrowed and developed, stores and manpower slowly built up, and the foundations of the BPF, once everything began rolling, came into being.

The strikes against the Sumatran oil fields (Operations Lentil, Meridian etc) were effective, but also highlighted a number of deficiencies. The Barracudas did not have a good enough range, forcing the carriers closer to the target, and the coordination of the bomber force was something that would improve with experience. Forming up, in particular, took too long and burnt precious fuel. The signs, however, were promising, as expected from the FAA, with the American types showing their worth and ‘little’ things, like photo-reconaissance Hellcats, being successfully implemented.

Operating range was always a problem that would be exacerbated by the vast expanse of the Pacific. The Barracudas did not initially make it to the BPF for this and other reasons. Seafires were notorious for their lack of legs, but were kept for fleet defence as the variants in use were superb interceptors at low to mid-level altitudes. The ships, too, suffered with even the newer battleships and cruisers proving very thirsty. When the early Eastern fleet operated with the USS Saratoga well before the BPF, refuelling was performed in a quiet part of the remote north-western coast of Western Australia, effectively taking the fleet out of action for several days. This would not do in the Pacific, but the astern at-sea refuelling method the RN used was slow and prone to pipe breakages. So, on top of all of the infrastructure required on land to support the ships, new or modified supply vessels had to be acquired/built to meet the demands of a modern combat fleet that could not afford to be away from the frontline for days. The creation and development of the fleet train, the supply ships that shuttled back and forth, with attendant escorts of course, between Australia (even the UK in some respects), island bases and the fleet was an incredible achievement.

All of this effort, initiative, hard graft and collaboration resulted in a strong naval force that contributed to the invasion of Okinawa, denied the use of the Sakishima Gunto to kamikazes transiting from Formosa, and then flew strikes over Japan proper as it continued to gear up for a long and devastating invasion of the Home Islands.
That it was capable of doing so in such a short period of time is, after six years of war, almost expected of the RN and the FAA in particular. Equipment that was not quite fit for purpose, such as poorly ventilated ships designed for European conditions, and short-legged Seafires, was a constant hurdle to overcome for the FAA and had been since before the war due to, primarily, the combination of the RAF wanting to be ‘the’ air force and the big gun mindset of the RN. Naval aviation was, at best, second string and continued to be even after the war commenced. The loss of HMS Glorious, for example, on 8 June 1940 is partly attributed to the lack of patrolling carrier aircraft (the captain, a former submariner, is often blamed for that) and, as is widely accepted, the aircraft designs used and supplied to the FAA often left a lot to be desired. The conversion of Hurricanes and Spitfires for carrier use was not ideal, but they were made to work. ‘Made to work’ is the theme throughout the wartime operations of the Fleet Air Arm and was there in spades during the BPF era. It bred the culture of innovation and initiative that was required to create the BPF in such a short period of time. When the war ended, the BPF was still being tweaked, still learning and always improving. It set up the Royal Navy as the leader in what was to become a decade of rapid change in carrier aviation. Of course, 'making do' should never have happened, but, as ever, it was the lot of the service personnel to play the hand that was dealt them by the powers that be.

Rather than rattle off dates of operations, fleet movements and the like, this review is a very general, very basic outline of what David Hobbs covers in this magnificent book. The 460+ pages delve into everything that brought the BPF into being, set in the context of a world war. It continues beyond the end of the war as the expected drawdown is countered by a need to show the flag throughout the Pacific and Far East. The breadth of detail, from biographical detail of major players, analysis of ships’ designs and capabilities, the social effect of the RN in Sydney and beyond and, of course, the operational aspects from Sumatra to the east coast of Australia and then all the way up the Pacific to Japan, is mind-boggling, yet the narrative never becomes dry or clunky. The operational accounts, of course, are an exciting read, but the wise reader can reflect on how everything from pencils to Grumman Avengers got there because it is all relayed so well in the narrative. 

From cover to cover, this book exudes quality. The reviewed copy was the 2017 paperback edition of the original 2011 hardback. Paperback makes it sound ‘pulpy’. Softback is a better description. Like the hardback, the new edition is beautifully solid. Photographs abound and there is barely a two-page spread without an image featured. The smallest photos are a full-page width and about a quarter page height while the largest consume almost an entire page. All are relevant to the immediate text which is particularly useful when trying to envisage one of the plethora of ships that make up the fleet (lists of dispositions on certain dates also consume several pages and it’s good to put hulls to names, so to speak). The references and index are excellent as expected, no book like this could ever be without them, and the appendices roll into double digits. If you’re a BPF aficionado like me, you’ll revel in the bibliography and the contents of your shelves will expand as a result. 

While this will not be the final book on the British Pacific Fleet, David Hobbs has perhaps written the last word on the subject. I can’t see how it can be improved upon. The original manuscript would no doubt have been longer, but the entire thing has been seamlessly edited by someone who knows their stuff. The British Pacific Fleet is  perfection. The cover tells a hundred stories at once, familiar and different at the same time, and sets up the reader for perhaps the greatest Royal Navy story of, at least, the twentieth century. It is a story that portrays the epitome of the wartime Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm – determination to get the job done despite the odds. It is a tribute to the thousands of people who made it happen and who have largely been forgotten.

ISBN 978-1-5267-0283-8