It’s been a while since I’ve featured a guest reviewer and now seems as good a time as any what with the amount of work I have on at the moment that is taking me away from review writing for ABR. Robert Brokenmouth is the editor of Wakefield Press’ two most successful aircrew books published this century: They Hosed Them Out and 101 Nights. Both are books written as fiction by their former aircrew authors, but, as Robert was able to discover and then prove with extensive references, both titles are actually slightly fictionalised memoirs. They are also incredible reads and enduring, yet underrated, Australian aircrew classics. Robert is also a music reviewer of note with a particular style and entertaining turn of phrase. It is, therefore, a treat to feature one of his aircrew book reviews here for the first time. Andy Wright
Essential purchase. Cheap, given the fact this monster runs to 475 pages, all on foolscap-size paper. Holy moly! Okay, let's get our breath back. Why is the book so thick? Partly because 75 Squadron flew "more sorties than any other Allied heavy bomber squadron, suffering the second-highest number of casualties”. Also, there's a wealth of photos but, crucially, the publisher hasn't opted for brevity over quality - this series aims to provide the best overview of each squadron possible. It's not just 'a topic' to the writers, it's a vivid reality.
For many years 75 Squadron was famous; consequently it's been covered in other books (Saunders' Return at Dawn, and Franks' Forever Strong, for example). So why on earth would you buy Mention the War's profile? And especially one this fat?
Well, firstly, Saunders' book is very hard to come by. And, second, Franks' book covers the squadron history from 1916 to 1990 and, at 252 pages, that's essentially an overview, not an in-depth look at the unit’s operations in World War Two like this. Ah, see, now we're talking.
Have you ever met a real stamp collector? I mean, the kind who research the period and countries they're interested in, who also collects postmarks as much as stamps? These are the kind of people interested in the reality of history, who don't just read a book, they have period maps, background reading and biographies. And stonking reference books like this.
Ward and Newey's achievement here is quite, quite remarkable, telling a huge story with as much detail as possible (in the circumstances - nothing short of reprints of the Operations Record Book (or Form 540, or ORB) will satisfy some of us), giving us names, details, events. It's a herculean task.
I asked Newey about it (Facebook is occasionally useful). "Chris Ward wrote the initial manuscript, I curated the photos and provided some New Zealand and background content, based on the research I'd done, and the comprehensive squadron databases compiled by Simon Sommerville, who you should mention, as he's put an enormous amount of work into his website www.75nzsquadron.com.”
The squadron became famous for several reasons during the war (I'll let you find out about a few of those yourself), but a couple of members of the squadron you'll have heard of. One of the most incredible acts of bravery to earn the (inevitably embarrassed) hero a VC was performed by ‘Jimmy’ Ward, co-pilot of a Wellington after a raid on Munster on 7 July 1941. After an attack by a night-fighter, one of the fuel tanks on the starboard wing caught fire. Ward volunteered to climb out onto the wing to put the fire out. If you're not familiar with the story, I won't spoil it.
Newey and Ward (apparently no relation) simply quote from the ORB and, believe me, that makes for extraordinary reading (there are other accounts; Hector Bolitho, in Penguin in the Eyrie, describes meeting Jimmy at the Savoy Hotel bar and bandaging his finger, Jimmy died in action a few days later).
Navigator Eric Williams found himself on the wrong end of a parachute after his Stirling was attacked on 17 December 1942. If the name seems familiar, it's because he escaped from Stalag Luft III, with Michael Codner and Oliver Philpot, and reached neutral Sweden a little over a year after his initial capture. See The Wooden Horse, film or book or both.
Other notables rubbed shoulders with the unwashed in 75 Squadron. Frank Gill continued in the RNZAF after the war, rising to be air commodore before entering politics, ending his career as NZ Ambassador to the USA, and Sir Douglas Lowe stayed in the RAF to become quite a senior officer indeed. "Not famous in their own right," continues Newey, "but two individuals who were lost in action were brothers of famous people - pilot Raymond Going, brother of legendary All Black halfback Sid Going, and navigator James Lovelock, brother of Olympic 1500m gold medallist and world record-holder Jack Lovelock. Another unique character was Sergeant Sir Charles Thomas Hewitt Mappin, RAFVR, a baronet and member of the House of Lords, who volunteered as a gunner in the RAF, and is said to have refused a commission and a ground job. Killed in action."
During World War Two, 75 Squadron took part in 739 operations, putting up aircraft for 8017 sorties. They're just numbers until you remember, 'Oh, yeah, there was usually only about a three percent chance of you making it through a tour of 30 operations'.
Unlike stamp collectors and their knowledgeable breadth of history, when you pick up RAF Bomber Command Profiles: 75 (NZ) Squadron, sure, you'll be thrilled, you'll be dumbstruck, you'll have a decent whisky to hand and possibly some cheesy snacks, but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to need a box of tissues handy.