02 December 2019

Beaufighter Boys - Graham Pitchfork

It was a little orange hardback, long since bereft of its dustcover, assuming it ever had one, the embossed floral design being at odds with the content. Its title now forgotten, perhaps something like ‘American Aces of the Second World War’, I read it from cover to cover, over and over again, borrowing it from the school library incessantly (I was at elementary school in the US at the time). It was a collection of stories of the great flyers of the USAAF – Gentile, Blakeslee, Bong – at least, that’s who I remember. So, an anthology was a major influence for this lark.

Could it be argued the anthology is replacing the memoir when it comes to Second World War aircrew books? It’s probably a bit of a stretch, but with ‘untold’ personal accounts drying up as time marches on, can a collection of memories, a collection of mini-memoirs if you will, be as effective? Certainly, the biography has assumed the mantle of ‘best personal insight’, but this too will struggle to capture the subject’s voice unless substantial and comprehensive supporting material can be accessed post-death. Therefore, the anthology of personal recollections can punch above its weight due to it presenting valuable firsthand accounts, admittedly in direct competition with periodicals (whose bread and butter is briefer reading material) and online sources. On the latter point, the anthology can also benefit from the poor attention span many apparently suffer due to social media’s method of presenting information. The ability to dip in and out, knocking off relatively unrelated chapters in short reading stints, is a strength of the anthology. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Grub Street’s Boys series has done so well. To date, the series has presented collections featuring various Cold War types, so the timing is perfect too as the middle-aged reader reminisces about many of the aircraft on the frontline during their childhood. The first move away from this period, however, comes from one of the series’ regular contributors. Having spent years gathering material for a different project that ultimately didn’t come to fruition, Graham Pitchfork delivers Beaufighter Boys. Covering almost every wartime operational use of the Beaufighter, and a post-war one, this is the ideal read for anyone with a penchant for the most pugnacious of heavy fighters.

The Beaufighter was one of those aircraft that seemed to be everywhere, always getting the job done. Consequently, the content of the book spans the globe. Each chapter concentrates on a specific aspect of wartime flying in the type. Some are mini-biographies while others focus on one tour, period, or even just a sortie, as recounted by the pilot or observer (or sometimes both). The chapters can therefore be read as standalones. There is little to no development from one to the next so snatching a chapter here and there is easy if you don’t have the time. 

Importantly, in among the extensive accounts of shipping strikes, operations for which the Beau is best known in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, there are several accounts of the work the crews did at night. A Battle of Britain veteran in its own right, something often forgotten, the type eventually took over night fighting from the hard-pressed, but effective, Defiant crews. This world of AI radar, ground control intercepts, vectors, blips and darkness, extended beyond defence of the British Isles. Beaufighters were active at night over North Africa, and out of Malta, and flew intruder ops, hunting German night fighters among other things, over Europe. This all seems quite obvious if you’ve been reading on the subject for even just a short while, but this sort of work tends to get lost among the accounts of the strike wings. Not here, though. If anything, the chapters covering these sorties were the stars, in a book full of highlights, simply because I hadn’t read about them for a long time. Indeed, probably the last time I read about Beau night fighters over the Med in detail was in the Bob Cowper memoir Chasing Shadows. To give a further indication of the breadth of coverage in BB, about the only night fighting/interceptions not featured was that done by the Beaufighters in India. Never fear, however, there’s plenty of other India/Burma action to keep the reader enthralled.

Naturally, those who have provided their reminiscences, or have been written about, are enduringly fascinating. There are some very familiar names (and several have written books of their own) – Tom Pike, Atholl Sutherland Brown, Bill Mann, Charles Read, Dennis Spencer, and Des Curtis to name a few – but also a lot of relatively forgotten men. Every nationality, more or less, that flew the Beaufighter, be it within their own air force or with the RAF, is featured with notable exceptions (most probably due to the relatively small population of surviving veterans) being South Africans serving in the SAAF units and those few Americans who flew second-hand Beau night fighters over the Med and Italy while waiting for the P-61 Black Widow to arrive in theatre. For a book to cover so much ground in just over 220 pages is impressive.

Some of the chapters, or parts thereof as several include memories contributed by more than one veteran, feel like they were originally written for magazine features. Indeed, one of the introductions even includes ‘writes Graham Pitchfork’. This is understandable given the decades of work the author has performed highlighting forgotten aircrew, and men behind the medals, for UK based aviation periodicals. It is also the nature of the anthology to an extent. I haven’t read any other titles in the Boys series because, well, jets, but I can only assume this book follows a similar format, albeit with a range of operations more extensive than its predecessors. 

A strong feature of the chapters, and the new sections within a chapter, is the early inclusion of a headshot, or crew shot or better, of the men telling the story. This is a lovely, simple tool to immediately put a face to a name. The rest of the photos are liberally sprinkled throughout the text with, it would appear, some attention paid to keeping the lower quality ones smaller so as not to show too much ‘grain’ on the paper stock used. There is, however, some funky text wrapping here and there with little blocks of text floating on a sea of white space next to a photo. This leaves some pages looking a little clunky, but they’re not much of a distraction in the great scheme of things. After all, we’re talking Beaufighters and their crews here!

One of my great bugbears with the Beaufighter, and the reporting of its history, is the continued use of its apparent nickname, ‘Whispering Death’, and its (never proven by evidence) Japanese origin. Why this myth continues to perpetuate is beyond me when the likes of Chaz Bowyer, for one, in the seventies, debunked it as a RAF creation to make fun of journalists. In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote to Grub Street when I saw the dismaying use of the nickname on the original cover design for BB. It was, happily, replaced, but still rears its head (once, thankfully) on page 19. Coupled with referring to the engines as being of the ‘rotary’ type (as opposed to radial) in the introduction, minor repeated typos, some swapped captions and a reference on page 120 to something mentioned on page 103, that’s not there, there’s a little undercurrent of the production feeling a bit rushed in places. 

However, superbly curated by the author, as ever it’s the aircrew accounts that make this book stand out, and the excellent overall production standard of the thing itself. The dustcover design is repeated on the boards, as appears standard for Grub Street these days, and the combination of the shades of blue, and the white font of the title, makes it really pop on the shelf. 

There are few things better than reading an anthology from those who were there and Beaufighter Boys delivers in spades.

ISBN 978-1-911621-44-7