29 August 2019

Just As It Happened - Merv Pike

Sing this to the tune of the Christmas song ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’: “It’s a most Sunderland-y time of the year (so far)”. This year has seen me, from a Short Sunderland point of view, make discoveries, acquire a holy grail and, embarrassingly, be the recipient of the utmost generosity. Both Alan Deller’s The Kid Glove Pilot and Guy Warner’s We Search Far (230 Squadron) were new to me and, weirdly, both published by Colourpoint. The latter also sees funds go to the squadron association so everyone is happy. The holy grail was Tom Docherty’s Hunt Like a Tiger (another 230 Squadron book). Always ridiculously priced, I had all but given up finding a copy until I made contact with Tom and bought it direct. Finally, a paperback copy of one of the hardest Sunderland books to find these days, Ivan Southall’s classic They Shall Not Pass Unseen, was gifted to me for safe keeping. It’s the first copy I’ve ever seen in the flesh and I’m sure I hear triumphant trumpets playing when I look at it. Into this mix of superb titles, comes another new discovery. Merv Pike’s memoir has been around for more than a decade now. Short Sunderland aircrew memoirs aren’t exactly common, and RAAF ones rarer still. Like its author, it’s honest, humble and bears little in the way of airs and graces.

There is not much of a pre-war preamble detailing the author’s childhood, so the reader is thrust straight into Pike’s eighteen months in the Army and an immediate indication of his character – what will be, will be. Transferring to the RAAF, he applies himself to any task at hand to the best of his abilities, but remains open to other opportunities should he fail the pilot’s course (committed to doing his bit). This endearing attitude, combined with no inflated importance regarding his obvious skills and abilities, is maintained throughout. Pike completed his flying training in Australia, on Tiger Moths and Ansons, before crossing the Pacific to the US, on the way to the UK, where he eventually joined 461 Squadron RAAF. He followed the usual path to Sunderland captain to the extent he flew as second pilot etc with a crew, but, rather than eventually becoming that crew’s new captain, he was sent on his skipper’s course with a new crew (and then spent nine months with them).

The transition to the Sunderland, vastly larger than anything he had flown before (or perhaps even seen), still had the author in awe when he wrote the book. It is completely understandable and the cover image perfectly conveys the size of the aircraft. There is mention of completing a radar course in a Wellington (part of his role as a pilot in a Sunderland crew was to rotate through the radar operator role during an op), but it is unclear whether this was attended before Pike’s introduction to the big flying boat. Either way, his passion for the Sunderland is palpable and, after more than 1300 hours on the type, he certainly knows what he’s talking about.

Besides the flying time mentioned in passing (Pike is self-effacing and spends more time heaping praise on his colleagues), there is also a brief mention of him having flown 32 ops by the time of his wedding in late July 1944. Seeing out the end of the war, and not returning to Australia until sailing from the UK in September 1945, means he was a phenomenally experienced airman. That’s what makes Just As It Happened all the more valuable. Any discussion about 461 Squadron inevitably includes the late, great Dudley Marrows, his success against U-461, the coincidences involved in that action, and the subsequent post-war meeting of U-boat and Sunderland captains. In Merv Pike we have another 461 pilot who certainly did his fair share, another angle, one of the many as it were. His book adds further depth to our understanding of the Australian Sunderland crew experience (in the same breath, I must also mention Phil Davenport’s Hurrah for the Next Man). 

It’s the wrong word, but the narrative suffers from the post-war loss of the author’s logbook, ironically to water damage. It therefore largely relies on fairly detailed memories that are not, naturally, a comprehensive record of service, but the closest there ever will be. To that extent, events are recounted sequentially, but the author allows himself the freedom to detail something as it comes to him. The genesis of the book was a request from a high school, and that does show in the style somewhat, but, in doing so, the life and challenges of a Sunderland pilot (long hours, terrible weather, the unforgiving ocean, the enemy), and the part ‘lady luck’ played, are laid bare. Pike is particularly reflective on his good fortune, detailing a flight up the Gironde Estuary (southwest France), following a Bay of Biscay night patrol, in daylight to look for a German warship. You can see him still shaking his head, at how they made it home, as he wrote about that particular op (during which they also happened upon a crash-diving U-boat). It is one of the few ops written about in any detail so is clearly, and obviously, a standout among the many patrols he flew. There is also some important introspection about dealing with loss and continuing on, something we need to remember especially with regard to these men bearing such things for decades after the war. The reflection continues in the final few chapters as the author summarises his service and then looks at his post-war life, during which he and his wife made several wise real estate decisions to settle on a family home, including following up on business opportunities that led to a well-earned retirement.

A small, solid paperback of 220-plus pages, the interior layout contributes to a lot of wasted white space, but it is very neat. The narrative, though, does need a tidy up to tighten it and remove errors without losing the author’s voice. Among various spelling typos and the like, ‘aerolons’ appears several times when the reference is clearly to the machine’s ailerons. A few facts, such as the number of surviving Sunderlands (none left per page 184, but this perhaps refers to Australian museums only), and a few statements included in the W.W.II introductory summary, also need to be reviewed and refined. Admittedly, however, the reader is ‘here’ for the memories of flying with Coastal Command, not a proper history lesson, but correcting such things is what editors are for. Many of the sourced images (i.e. not from the author’s collection) in the reviewed edition appear to have been acquired, perhaps downloaded, as low-resolution copies so have reproduced so poorly they add nothing. Removing these altogether, or obtaining better replacements, would be a vast improvement. All other photographs included are printed on the same paper stock as the text and are spread throughout the book. The moustachioed Pike, cap at a rakish angle, looks quite the character − a fine mix of joie de vivre and the utmost professionalism. 

Every one of my reading sessions ended reluctantly, but with the glow of looking forward to the next one. Just As It Happened is one of those books that reminds the reader how lucky he or she is to have such a window into a man’s life, or part thereof. Like this review, it is not a finely polished piece of writing. It is, however, honest and written by a classic quiet achiever. Not since Dick Dakeyne’s Radar Gunner has an Australian aircrew memoir captured my attention to this extent. Take a bow, Merv Pike.

ISBN 978-1-87687-013-3

13 August 2019

Ready to Strike - Adam Lunney

There is a living legend airworthy in Australia, yet, despite there only being two flying Spitfires in the country, it is often seen as ‘the other Spitfire’ alongside its more ‘toothy’ stablemate. Of all the aircraft flown in combat by RAAF squadrons in Europe and the Middle East, Spitfire Mk.XVI TB863 is the only one left flying. It is a mobile reminder of the RAAF commitment to the air war against Germany, but, despite the European war claiming the lion’s share of attention for much of the rest of the world, save Bomber Command, it comes a distant second to the local study of Australia’s role in the South Pacific. The Spitfire is painted in the markings it wore in early 1945 when it saw service with 453 Squadron RAAF. Most, if not all, Australian fighter squadrons in the northern hemisphere are overshadowed by the accomplishments of 3 Squadron in North Africa and beyond. It was exciting, therefore, to learn of Adam Lunney’s project, and its subsequent publication in late 2018, focussing on 453 Squadron’s activities over Normandy in mid-1944.

When the unit formed in Scotland in June 1942, it did so as a new, ‘green’ squadron within the RAF. The squadron’s nameplate, however, had already been through the wringer in a previous incarnation during the defence of Malaya and Singapore. Flying the Brewster Buffalo, the squadron did what it could against the all-conquering Japanese (everything was inferior to the ‘Zero’ at the time, yet the Buffalo did better than many believe, but was completely hamstrung by poor spares supplies, and the lack of time to complete repairs, with most examples lost being destroyed on the ground). Still, admittedly embarrassed by the chain of events down the Malayan Peninsula and into the Dutch East Indies, the authorities were not terribly enthused with the squadron’s legacy or its continuation. However, just a few months after its disbandment, it was reborn on the other side of the world. While admittedly two separate entities, ‘453’ was again active and, despite its unwarranted reputation in the Far East, its pilots would continue the tradition of courage and dedication begun by the Buffalo men.

A significant part of the RAAF’s commitment to the air war in Europe, 453 Squadron was really just another Spitfire unit within the RAF’s Fighter Command. Its early leaders, squadron and flight, were posted in from other units where they had gained valuable combat experience. They were not necessarily Australian, though. Indeed, in addition to the predominantly British leadership team, there were three Poles and a Canadian among the pilots assigned to the new unit, all of who were generally senior to the Australian pilots posted in (mostly pilots officers and flight sergeants). The groundcrew were also local despite the plan for the Article XV squadrons, and the desires of the Australian government, to have RAAF squadrons solely staffed by Australians. At the time, despite the obvious success of the Empire Air Training Scheme, Australian aircrew (and other nationalities flowing into the UK) went where they were needed within the RAF. Still, the effort was made to place them with RAAF units. Despite a pool maintained in 1944, 453 Squadron still could not guarantee having an Australian pilot posted in as a replacement post-Normandy.

Working up in the relatively quiet airspace over Scotland, the squadron was eventually posted south where, like any other Spitfire squadron on the frontline, it was heavily involved in the RAF’s offensive over occupied Europe. Convoy and local patrols aside, the pilots’ lives consisted of a steady diet of bomber escorts and fighter sweeps from their airfields on the English Channel. It’s all very familiar stuff, but for a book that mentions Normandy on the cover, the extent of the coverage is surprising, but necessary. This discussion runs to about 100 pages and, more so than the Far East, shows the development of the squadron as a fighting unit and, importantly, the evolution of its culture and character. Typical of an operational squadron, many pilots come and go, for various reasons. For those who return for a second tour, the author goes to great pains to welcome them back with reference to the response from the incumbents (often highly amusing). This builds the feeling of family that is at the heart of such an organisation.

Ultimately, 453 Squadron becomes part of the Second Tactical Air Force, the RAF’s major direct contribution to the forthcoming Normandy landings. Initially operating from RAF Ford, as it had been before the invasion, the squadron’s personnel were the first Australians to fly combat ops from France when staged through Advanced Landing Grounds before making the move proper to ALG B.11 on the coast just to the west of Arromanches. Life now consisted of a frenetic, endless, dangerous mix of ground attack, escort and interception operations, with the former certainly making up the majority. Fighter pilots being fighter pilots, the Australians yearned for some action in their preferred role – encounters with the Luftwaffe. While rare, per the narrative, the squadron performed well when it did have the chance to tangle with German aircraft. Worn out at the end of September, the squadron was back in the UK for a well-earned rest, but that, as the author tantalisingly closes the operational discussion, is another story.

This is the first book of any depth to be written about the squadron since Duty Done, ‘Rusty’ Leith’s biography written with, and published by in 2001, the esteemed Cyril Ayris (Leith also had the most time in TB863 during its operational career). While the squadron continued to fly sorties to the end of the war, the book finishes its look at ops as August 1944 closes. It is, as the cover says, ops ‘over Normandy’. That said, ‘Normandy’ doesn’t kick off until page 163. For a book a touch over 400 pages, that’s a good chunk of what is effectively an operational preamble. The author steps the reader through the squadron’s history, starting with the Far East, before jumping sideways to introduce the Spitfire as the weapon the unit used to great effect. These first two chapters are almost polar opposites. The Far East chapter is not the most sparkling of openings for an operational history. It feels laborious, but I think this is a function of trying to condense a hell of a lot of information (Brian Cull and Christopher Shores did it over several books!) into a single chapter that, in the great scheme of things, isn’t vital to the book. On the flip side, the following chapter, meet the Spitfire, a subject that could easily get away from any writer given the breadth of detail and stories available to draw from, is handled beautifully. It is a well-written analysis of the most famous of aircraft that avoids the expected stereotypes and emotion (or the gushing and waxing lyrical!), but shows respect and a genuine passion for the design. Comments from those who flew the Spitfire were chosen carefully and range from published memoirs and accounts to recorded interviews on archive or conducted by the author himself. A little over forty pages long, with some illustrations, and almost 200 references (more on that shortly), it is the chapter that sets the hook in the reader and confirms the author’s ability to get to grips with a sweeping subject. 

Then it’s down to business. The operational history is very nicely handled. While, at times, there is not a lot of action pre-Normandy, the narrative avoids being dry and repetitive. Quotes, anecdotes and mini-biographies/vignettes, particularly as the pilots come and go, are used to good effect to break up the day-to-day reporting and present a very readable account. The momentum builds as the reader approaches the date of the Normandy landings, but despite the incessant operational flying, the author takes the time to follow a pilot’s escapades as he evades the Germans after being shot down, for example. Such a thing could quite easily be limited to ‘Joe Bloggs was back with the squadron three weeks later after evading the Germans and making it back to the Allied lines’ if there was a desire to keep things centred on operations (I’m looking at the disappointing The Stabber of the Sky as I write this), but, as you’ve hopefully worked out by now, this is far more than an operational history. After all, what is a squadron, what is a Spitfire, without the men who were part of it?

Ready to Strike is available as a print on demand book (and at shops that have acquired stock of course). This enables it to be printed locally to the buyer, thus saving on dreaded postage costs. The review copy is the softcover option and makes a good, solid book. I would suggest, however, if you can afford it, getting the hardcover. The covers of the softcover have a matt finish and, weirdly, are quite adept at absorbing pen ink from other paper (like handwritten review notes). In either format, however, this is an attractive publication illustrated throughout by images sourced from families, archives and, once again, the author’s own legwork during at least one visit to Normandy. As alluded to above, it is extensively referenced and the bibliography is equally epic. There is no index, however, and that is a let down for a book as important as this, a key, latter day feature in the recorded history of the RAAF in Europe. The referencing at the end of each chapter helps soften this blow a little. That said, for the author’s first book, this is how operational histories should be tackled. Focus on the people, keep it personal and don’t get bogged down in the numbers and stats. They’re vital, yes, but they wouldn’t exist were it not for the people to whom we owe so much. Adam Lunney achieves this fine balance with Ready to Strike.

ISBN 978-0-6483552-2-9

11 August 2019

Air Battle for Burma - Bryn Evans

Long time readers (thank you) of Aircrew Book Review, and those of you who know me personally, will be well and truly aware of my eternal fascination with the Burma campaign and, of course, the aerial aspect of it. I will therefore, competing pressures allowing, excitedly devour anything I can find on the subject. By far the best Burma aviation book to be released recently is The Flying Hours by Andrew Millar. Written by someone who was there for several years, from soon after the withdrawal into India right through to the Allied advance and post-Japanese surrender, it is an incredible and sobering account of squadron life in the region at the time. It is a personal account, obviously, with a fine balance of exquisite detail and enough context to mark the author’s important place in the big picture. That big picture, despite being part of the ‘forgotten war’, has been written about fairly extensively, although it’s relatively little compared to Europe or the American side of the Pacific. Bryn Evans’ book was, therefore, gleefully welcomed with a touch of ‘what can be new about it?’ An Australian author, Evans has added a distinctly antipodean aspect to his narrative with reference to some superb written records. As gripping as this book is, though, some of it borders on the frustrating.

Poorly equipped from the start, albeit with hindsight once the Japanese were engaged, the Allied air forces could initially only resist and fall back in the face of a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut that was better equipped for the terrain it was fighting for. The weather in that part of the world, however, always maintains supremacy. It stopped the Japanese in their tracks, but allowed both sides to consolidate their positions. Several passages in the book include memories of flying in atrocious weather and are as harrowing as any of the many combat accounts included. 

In the case of the RAF in India, from late 1942, the long, quiet, bad weather periods enabled a major re-equipment and airfield building program. However, it was not until the arrival of Spitfires, with their superior rate of climb, in the second half of 1943, that a true advantage, from an air supremacy point of view, could be regularly exploited over Japanese formations that continued to be heavily escorted. Even so, the Japanese cottoned on that the Spitfires could not be everywhere. Before then, it had been Hurricanes, Mohawks, and Beaufighters at night, holding the line. Like New Guinea, despite the eventually overwhelming aerial advantage achieved by the Allies, Burma was a long, slow grind and still not completely resolved by war’s end.

This growing superiority in the air was particularly important when Allied drives into Burma required significant, life-saving resupply by streams of transport aircraft (not to mention behind the lines operations by the likes of the Chindits). Legendary battles, such as the ‘Admin Box’, became Allied victories, strong Japanese aerial opposition aside, because the men cut-off on the ground could be supplied entirely by large transport aircraft, and the wounded could be evacuated by vulnerable, short-field capable machines like Austers, L-Birds and even Fox Moths.

The benefits of the Allied control of the air are reflected in the evolution of the narrative. The backbone of the book, the finely curated collection of aircrew accounts, gives way to descriptions of the later land campaigns, particularly Imphal, Kohima and the taking of Rangoon, or, generally, combined operations with an emphasis on air-to ground support and forward air control. Admittedly, I queried the relevance of discussing cab-rank and the visual control post on the ground, not to mention an entire chapter devoted to the ‘war in the shadows’ (Chindit operations and agent delivery behind the lines), but all are direct results of achieving air superiority evolving into air supremacy. Fighter-bombers can go about their work while fighters watch their backs, allowing the former to loiter as required, soldiers behind the lines can be supplied in sufficient volume by Dakotas and the SOE types can get on with their jobs with less risk of interception and not even making it to the drop zone in the first place.

Despite this valuable look at the ability of ground support to proceed with little enemy air interference, there is very little mentioned about the mainstay of the Burma ground attack strength – the Beaufighter. As above, I would initially question its inclusion at length when focussing on the achievement of air supremacy, but its long-range attacks on enemy airfields and infrastructure, among other things, should surely rate more discussion than the ‘war in the shadows’ angle (as important as that is). Instead, all but two of the references to Bristol’s twin pertain to its use as a night fighter in the theatre.

Air Battle for Burma should be of interest to any student of the campaign, casual or otherwise, but it varies from riveting to clunky (this review probably gives it a run for its money regarding the latter!). As just mentioned above, everything is built around the superb collection of memories from those who flew in combat there with several Australians and New Zealanders featuring prominently. The records of Noel Constantine RAAF (the book is, pleasingly, dedicated to him and his wife) are heavily leaned on and prove valuable given his time in theatre rising through the ranks to become one of Australia’s unsung fighter leaders. Kiwi Vic Bargh, referred throughout as ‘Kitchy’, as done in other publications (not ‘Ketchil’ per his biography), is also heavily referenced early on as is the likes of Jack Storey etc. There really are some engrossing memories recorded. A lot of the names of recurring ‘characters’, however, are often repeated in full, complete with rank and nickname, sometimes on the same page. Other repetitive aspects creep in too – such as biographical details, full squadron titles, Spitfire re-equipment (consecutive pages!), scene setting details, and even the occasional concluding discussion (particularly regarding the Admin Box, the first large-scale resupply by air alone) – and all act as speed bumps to an otherwise nicely flowing narrative. A bit more attention on the editing side of things would have tidied these up easily, perhaps shortened the book by several pages, and caught misleading items like the Hurricane Mk.V typo (for Mk.IV) and the Mk.IIc carrying four 40mm cannons (instead of four 20mm).

The ‘Allied’ on the cover is perhaps a misnomer, however, as it focuses on the RAF (if we ignore the cosmopolitan nature of the air arm at the time) with the Flying Tigers and USAAF fighters only mentioned in passing. That said, that makes it even more ideal for inclusion in ABR!

While it falls a little short in places, to embrace a theatre where the hectic fighting was separated by months of inaction, and then concentrate on examining one aspect in context, requires the ability to hold a reader’s interest and ABFB certainly succeeds there. The photo section contains some nice, relevant images and there are some very useful maps early on that, in all honesty, could do with a bit of tweaking to make clearer (either that or use them as the basis for newly drawn examples). Each chapter is extensively referenced and the glossary, bibliography and index are pleasingly comprehensive. The epilogue serves to remind the reader no one is immune from war, nor have we yet learned to avoid it ‘at all costs’. A useful postscript provides potted biographies of some of the aircrew whose memories contributed so much to the narrative. Through the extensive use of Noel Constantine’s records, it is clear the author has developed an affinity with him. Air Battle for Burma cements Bryn Evans’ place in this genre, following earlier works on the air war and other subjects, so perhaps he might consider the biography of the interesting, albeit ultimately tragic, life of a forgotten Australian leader. Tackling a subject as broad as the air battle for Burma, and doing so competitively, surely means such a worthwhile project is within the realms of possibility. Either way, the author’s next work is happily anticipated.

ISBN 978-1-47385-892-3