27 November 2020

Worth the wait - how to do a squadron history

One of the operations for which the de Havilland Mosquito is best known is the low-level attack on the prison at Amiens in France - the Amiens raid. The main striking force consisted of aircraft from two squadrons predominantly crewed by airmen from the Southern Hemisphere. These two units - the Australian No 464 Squadron and the New Zealanders of No 487 Squadron - worked closely during their wartime service, but, until now, save the various books about Operation Jericho and the Leonard Trent biography for example, there hasn't been a detailed treatise of the Kiwi unit. It's been worth the wait.

Like the Australian squadron, superbly profiled in The Gestapo Hunters by Mark Lax and Leon Kane-Maguire, 487 began life as a Lockheed Ventura bomber squadron and committed to the RAF offensive over Europe. The Ventura, a replacement for the venerable Hudson, was not ideally suited to the role of medium bomber, but it was available and, like the Douglas Bostons, Short Stirlings, and the Bristol Blenheims before those, it could be used to entice German fighters into the air for the escorting RAF fighter wings to engage. The bombing force on such raids was hardly ever enough to cause significant damage to the targets selected, and the Luftwaffe could choose to engage at its leisure, but there was never any doubt of the courage exhibited by the airmen on both sides. The Venturas are perhaps best remembered for their raids on the Eindhoven Philips factory (Operation Oyster) and the disastrous Ramrod in early May 1943 when only one 487 Squadron aircraft, of the eleven that crossed the Dutch coast, made it home. The type did a lot more than that, of course, but the Aussies and Kiwis were not sad to see the back of the Venturas when they were replaced by the Mosquito, an aircraft ideally suited to the intruder work that epitomised the work of the Second Tactical Air Force.

The Mosquito operations of 487 Squadron are, partly due to their success and also because of the eternal popularity of the Mossie, the stuff of legend. Considering The Gestapo Hunters was published in 1999, it is surprising we've had to wait this long for a similar Kiwi effort. Add issues with the publisher initially selected in New Zealand, believed to have delayed publication for several years, and it's been quite the frustrating wait, especially for 'airheads' in the antipodes (a surprising number in Australia). What we finally have in Through to the End, however, is nothing short of pure unadulterated brilliance. 

This book is a large format hardback of more than 360 pages (bibliography, glossary, roll of honour, index etc included). It is printed on a semi-gloss paper stock that allows the photos to be clearly reproduced throughout. Such a thing is a necessity for a unit history. The multitude of personalities, in particular, need to have 'faces put to names' as the narrative progresses, not relegated to a single glossy photo insert as can often be the case. Similarly, on the subject of images, lovely clear maps are often presented at the start of relevant chapters, allowing for quick referencing should the need arise. These maps are often of the same areas, but the relevant targets for the period are highlighted. Again, this is much preferred over one or two maps placed in fore or endpapers. 

Then there's the story itself. Happily, more than 130 pages pass before the Mosquitos arrive. Considerable effort is made to reflect the impact of the massive losses suffered by the squadron during the Ventura era (and in no way is this discounting the later Mosquito losses). This is what lifts this book above the relatively standard unit history with the Operations Record Book at its heart. Throughout, the writing is evocative, while remaining grounded, and paints quite the picture of squadron life and, combined with the memories of those who were there (in the air on both sides, on the ground, military and civilian alike), makes for the most captivating read. Indeed, in preparing this 'first impression', I was regularly lost, emerging several pages later either wrung out from an operation or shaking my head at just the thought of what these men did. This is the effect of David Palmer and his ability to bring everything together historically, creatively and accurately, tempered from his admitted 'storyteller's flights of fancy' by Aad Neeven's advocacy for 'hard historical fact'. 

Interestingly, some of the chapters are more or less dedicated to a particular airman, following his path to, and life on, the squadron. This is an effective tool as it allows the authors to concentrate on a particular individual, and his place in the unit history, and avoids disrupting the flow of the 'operational narrative' with an extensive biographical tangent.

Through to the End is the perfect literary tribute to 487 Squadron. While its size, and resultant cost, does not make it as accessible as contemporary squadron histories, some recently released, it is the equivalent of Graeme Gibson's Path of Duty and Owen Clark's Under Their Own Flag, and in some respects surpasses the benchmark set by those magnificent titles. I didn't think that was possible. While it took me a year after the book's release to buy a copy, thereby adding to the 'wait', all that time fades away as 487 Squadron is so wonderfully brought back to life.

ISBN 978-9-08264-7-532 

I bought my copy from the Air Force Museum of New Zealand. Given 2020 has not been terribly kind to museums, please consider, if you are in Australia or New Zealand, buying your copy from this organisation. With postage costs as they are at present, the mid-year worldwide increase making things just that much more difficult, and this being a large book, those of you in the Northern Hemisphere, would be best served by ordering from Aad Neeven's Aviation Warbooks (he's also the publisher of Through to the End).

19 November 2020

Landmark title from Avonmore Books

Avonmore Books, now in its tenth year, is probably Australia's highest profile aviation history publishewith an established international distribution network (i.e. stock in stores overseas) and continued and justified accolades for its continuing South Pacific Air War and relatively recent Pacific Adversaries series. The first book from this South Australian-based business was the groundbreaking Zero Hour in Broome, a book that set a lot of things straight and challenged accepted truths about the disastrous attack on one of Western Australia's north-west centres. Not taking things at face value, no matter how entrenched, has been an enduring theme for Avonmore's books ever since.

Tom Lewis was there from the start, co-authoring Zero Hour with owner Peter Ingman. They followed up with Carrier Attack Darwin 1942. Tom published several other books with Avonmore, The Empire Strikes South for example, and Peter joined forces with Michael Claringbould for the South Pacific Air War series (Volume 4 coming soon!). 

With Eagles over Darwin we see Tom return to the very first air combats over Australia as it and its allies reeled in the face of the Japanese onslaught. From the back cover blurb:

A massive Japanese attack on Darwin on 19 February [1942] had left the town and its air base in ruins. An understrength squadron of USAAC P-40E Warhawks had fought a gallant defence but was all but wiped out.


Northern Australia was now at the mercy of Imperial Japanese Navy Betty bombers and Zero fighters whose crews were both skilled and experienced. However, help was on the way. The 49th Fighter Group was the first such group to be sent from the US after the start of the Pacific War. Its destination was Darwin.


From modest beginnings on make-shift airstrips, the 49th FG entered combat with its feared Japanese adversaries. Its P-40E Warhawks were poor interceptors but were rugged, reliable and well-armed. 


Over several months the 49th FG pilots fought a brave and innovative campaign against a stronger enemy that did much to safeguard Australia in its darkest hour. Today, lonely and long forgotten airfields still bear the name of American pilots who made the ultimate sacrifice.

This is going to be an important book when it's released. I don't think much has been written on the subject, about American Warhawks defending Darwin, for a few years, and the last book I can remember reading on the subject was James Morehead's In My Sights. The most recent work I can think of is the well-regarded Darwin's Air War by Bob Alford. The Ferguson and Pascalis Protect & Avenge is perhaps the largest work on the 49th FG, but, a product of the mid-nineties, it's getting long in the tooth now and can be found wanting. Tom Lewis has been investigating Warhawks ops over Darwin for a while now and uncovering new information that will surprise and, as usual, challenge. A vignette of Australia's defence, and USAAC/USAAF history, very much deserving this treatment. 

12 November 2020

The Boy with Only One Shoe - John Henry Meller with Caroline Brownbill

We’ve been fortunate to see some heavily promoted Bomber Command memoirs/biographies see the light of day this year (as mentioned below). One that has been seemingly ‘everywhere’ is The Boy with Only One Shoe. The authors are working on a post-war sequel, which will make a nice companion, that will hopefully provide some insight into how a Bomber Command veteran adjusted to life outside the RAF. He served as a policeman after the war, so perhaps it was a more gentle transition, moving from one institution to another as it were. Anyway, BC historian, oral history interviewer, and long-time ABR guest reviewer, Adam Purcell kindly sent in his review of The Boy with Only One Shoe. You may remember him from his reviews for Norman Franks’s Veteran Lancs and Night Duel over Germany by Peter Jacobs. He also runs the Something Very Big blog about his ongoing research into a relative’s Bomber Command career. Andy Wright

It’s a familiar sort of story. World War II begins. At first, the boy is too young, but he enlists in aircrew the instant he turns eighteen. Basic training follows and he’s awarded an aircrew brevet. Then comes operational training, crewing up, converting onto big four-engine bombers. The new crew joins a squadron, flies on operations and has one or two close calls. Then the war ends. Call it a fairly standard career for a surviving member of Bomber Command. With greater or lesser degrees of variation, stories like this have been told in countless books over the years. Yes, the story of John Henry Meller, in the new book The Boy with Only One Shoe, follows much the same arc, but what’s notable about this book is that it’s been published in 2020, seven and a half decades since the end of the war. It’s the rarest of rare things: a recently written first-hand account by a Bomber Command airman. There just aren’t many veterans left alive these days, let alone ones who still have the drive and skill to vividly write a story about events of so long ago and then publish it.     

To be clear, Meller’s daughter, Caroline Brownbill, a former airline pilot, is credited as a co-author. It’s not clear how much of the work is hers, but that doesn’t matter. The narrative is cohesive and in a consistent voice. Brownbill is also, it seems, doing a lot of the publicity work around the release of the book, which was self-published via Amazon in May 2020. The authors are planning to donate proceeds from sales of the book to the RAF Benevolent Fund, and Meller signs and writes a personal message on virtually every copy they sell, which is a nice touch.

John Henry Meller served as a wireless operator with 149 Squadron, flying operations on Lancasters from February 1945. That experience, and all the bits and pieces that go with it, necessarily forms the core of The Boy with Only One Shoe. This book, however, has so much more to offer too. The early sections about growing up in the English town of Warrington in the 1920s and 30s are detailed, and the descriptions of life as a teenage civilian in the early years of the war are full of life. Post-war, Meller remained in the Royal Air Force for a few years and there are some very interesting sections about postings to exotic places like Egypt and Libya. 

His personal recollections are great, and include some unusual details. I knew that RAF recruits, undergoing basic training in London, ate their meals in a restaurant at London Zoo, for example, but I didn’t know that while there they were also told they would be responsible for ‘protecting or detaining’ any of the zoo animals that might escape as a result of air raid damage. There’s also one of the better descriptions of the training and operational role of the wireless operator I’ve seen in an aircrew memoir. 

These are the sorts of details you can’t easily get from official files and archives; you really need the recollections of someone who was there. There’s a fascinating discussion of a lecture attended during Meller’s wireless operator course, during which it was clearly communicated to the trainees exactly what risk they were taking by becoming aircrew. The fatality rate in Bomber Command at the time, they were explicitly told, was 46%. Common knowledge now, of course, and certainly by the time a crew had been on a squadron for a few months they would have been well aware of the ‘chop rate’, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of aircrew being directly told about it while still in training. It makes their decisions to continue that training all the more courageous.  
The Boy with Only One Shoe (the significance of the title is explained in a short introductory section in the book) came about after Meller’s son-in-law persuaded him to write about his wartime experiences, primarily for his grand-daughter. The book is therefore pitched at an audience that may not have much understanding of Bomber Command and the context into which it fitted. Meller provides a lot of that context with explanations of what was going on in the wider conflict at the time and, while some of these bits aren’t done as well as the parts of the story based on his own experiences, he nevertheless manages to successfully weave his own story into the wider one.

My only criticisms about the book are, I think, a direct result of its self-published roots. The story is great and the writing is engaging, but in some ways the execution doesn’t do the story all the justice it deserves. Editing can be hit and miss, with the occasional superfluous punctuation and, on one occasion, ‘where’ used in place of ‘were’. There are one or two minor errors in terminology that probably should have been picked up, too: cumulonimbus clouds are called ‘Cumulus Nimbus’ on page 175, for example. Formatting inside is a little inconsistent, particularly when dealing with block quotes. There is a contents page, but it’s not very useful: it only lists ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter 2’ and so on, despite all the chapters being individually titled. The cover, though attention-grabbing with an illustration of a Lancaster with an engine on fire, is printed on cheap stock and not very hardy. My copy marked too easily, copping several dings from one or two trips in my bag. 

Don’t get me wrong, I really liked this book, and Amazon’s global reach makes it very accessible to the widest possible audience, but it’s a great shame this story was not picked up by a traditional publisher, who might have had the expertise to overcome the few niggles I had with it. Putting that to one side, though, The Boy with Only One Shoe is a good read. It’s honest, engaging and true to life, and it’s a never-before-heard Bomber Command story, written by someone who was there.

06 November 2020

Heaven High Ocean Deep - Tim Hillier-Graves

Last year was quite exciting for a wartime Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm tragic. Hot on the heels of David Hobbs’ then latest work, The Dawn of Carrier Strike, came a book any aircrew enthusiast could get excited about: a title about the Grumman Hellcat-equipped 5th Fighter Wing. A book on the subject was incredibly welcome and, considering some of the recent attention and study directed at the British Pacific Fleet, would bring some of the ‘forgotten’ men of ‘the forgotten fleet’ into focus. Heaven High Ocean Deep certainly does that, but in doing so it ignores everything brought to light in the past three decades (at least).


One of the great traits of the wartime FAA was adaptability. This was born mostly out of having to face the odds with aircraft that were either of ‘another era’ or pressed into an environment for which they were not designed. Hamstrung from well before the outbreak of war, due to the RAF’s desire to control military aviation into the thirties, and an Admiralty in love with the ‘big gun’, the Fleet Air Arm did what it could with what it had. What it achieved with its biplane torpedo bombers, hastily converted land-based fighters, and two-seat long-range fighters, in the first years of the war is legendary. The effectiveness and flexibility of the carrier strike force began to hit home and the Americans and Japanese massively reinforced that point in the first year of the war in the Pacific. The British aviation industry, already pushing hard, could not hope to fulfil the FAA’s resulting need for more, and new, aircraft. The US, however, was beginning to pump out aircraft. The Hellcat—with its rugged construction, docile landing characteristics and excellent forward visibility—was a development of the Wildcat (also used effectively by the FAA) and Grumman refined the design as encounters with the Japanese ‘Zero’ were analysed. Its simplicity meant it went from drawing board to carrier deck far quicker than the troubled Corsair, a design that had flown before the US entry into the war. The Hellcat, as mentioned above, settled into the USN easily and became so well established that by the time the USN had carrier qualified its first two Corsair units in 1943 (before the RN received its first Corsairs), commanders in the Pacific didn’t want the headache of another fighter requiring yet another supply chain of unique spares. The US Marine Corps were happy with the ‘surplus’ of Corsairs and, despite the type’s tricky handling, so did the RN, recognising the bent-wing fighter offered a significant jump in capability. Its issues would be dealt with and made to work in typical FAA style.


The RN went for the Hellcat at the same time and the 5th Fighter Wing came into being in late 1943. Only two squadrons, 1839 and 1844, made up the Wing due to a shortage of pilots and space considerations on board HMS Indomitable, the assigned fleet carrier. They worked up in Northern Ireland before embarking on an escort carrier in February 1944. The loaded-to-capacity carrier took them to Colombo where they finally met, and started flying from, Indomitable mid-year. The Royal Navy’s pivot to the Indian Ocean, which it had never left despite the reversals of 1942, was well and truly underway (as was its return to a legitimate role in the Pacific). The fleet began to make forays to Sumatra, initially hitting lightly defended targets before going after the oil refineries from late 1944. These raids—the inexperienced Hellcat units were left off the early ones, with the exception of the photo-reconnaissance Mk.IIs—revealed a lot of issues from beginning to end of a strike (excessive time taken to form up, control over the target etc), and these had to be ironed out, to the satisfaction of the Americans, some of whom weren’t keen to bring the RN into ‘their’ theatre, before the fleet arrived in Australia to establish itself as the British Pacific Fleet.


That arrival in Australia followed the well-known raids on Palembang in late January 1945. By the end of March the now accepted BPF had begun its attacks on the Sakishima Gunto, an island chain pointing the way to Formosa (now Taiwan) from Okinawa. Its role was to prevent Japanese aircraft, many assigned for kamikaze attacks, using the islands to hop from Taiwan to the US invasion fleet at Okinawa. It was hardly a glamorous job, the fleet’s aircraft, Hellcats included, hitting the same airfields and installations time and time again, and at quite a cost, withdrawing to re-supply from the fleet train, and then returning to do it all over again. This was kept up until late May. The return to Australia, to prepare for attacks on the Japanese Home Islands, meant the end of major operations for the 5th Fighter Wing. Only its specialist photo reconnaissance and night fighter elements would see combat with the BPF to the end of the war. The PR pilots were particularly hard pressed and returned excellent results.


The above is a barely potted history of the BPF’s activities. It, obviously, doesn’t include that most vital component of any unit history—the human element; the memories of the people involved. Fortunately, Heaven High Ocean Deep leans heavily on a number of veterans interviewed by the author, inspired by his father and godfather both being wartime naval aviators, during the 1990s. The book is built around these interviews. They span the range of experiences, from joining up all the way through to the end of the war and demobbing, and sees several interviewees quoted throughout the book. There are some valuable passages looking at the operational side of things, and the steep learning curve, but also several that reflect on losses and their impact. Diary entries abound, but there is little, save the acknowledgements, to indicate the extent of other records referenced as there is no bibliography. Indeed, only three secondary sources—in the form of Winton’s The Forgotten Fleet, Hanson’s superb Carrier Pilot and Admiral Vian’s Action This Day—are directly mentioned, the youngest of these first being published in the late seventies. The work of John Winton, who the author was in contact with and whom he received completed research from, appears to underpin the entire narrative. Fair enough, it was a ground-breaking work, but doesn’t stack up to the claim ‘it was and remains the most important account…’ as that accolade now sits with The British Pacific Fleet by the aforementioned David Hobbs. That’s probably the theme of the major issue with this book. All of the research is at least two decades old and a good chunk seems to rely on work from the 1960s. Granted, history doesn’t change, but new analyses and discoveries greatly enhance its understanding and to ignore recent ‘developments’ is akin to sticking your head in the sand.


It can also lead to repeating information since disproved or, at least, incomplete. Early on there is a suggestion the RN led the way with the operation of Corsairs from aircraft carriers, even mentioning the nickname ‘Whistling Death’ which has since been understood to be a creation of the manufacturer’s marketing department. As mentioned above, the USN had carrier qualified Corsair units before the RN even received its first aircraft. Yes, the FAA developed modifications and improved techniques to operate the Corsair at sea, but it was not the pioneer. Similarly, there is also a discussion regarding the preference for American types because the USN Pacific supply chain could be relied upon for replacements. One of the requirements for the RN to operate alongside the USN against Japan was it had to be self-sufficient. That’s why there was a mad scramble to assemble supply ships for a fleet train that ultimately stretched from the east coast of the US across the Atlantic to the UK and then east to the Indian Ocean, Australia and beyond. Then there’s the extensive modifications the RN made to its aircraft.


Opinions and analysis seem to be largely driven by the comments made by the interviewees. If a veteran says ‘It was a bloody waste of time’ (I’m paraphrasing) in reference to an exercise or raid, it’s taken as gospel. There is no attempt to prove it was or wasn’t. The bigger picture of everything leading up to the BPF was to prove to the Americans the RN was good to go, was capable of effective, standalone strike operations. Similarly, the attitude of some of the veterans to Admiral Vian seems to have rubbed off on the author. I’ve not read a lot about the man, but to say he didn’t care for the men under his command is too much. My first thoughts upon reading that was to recall the efforts he made to recover downed airmen, including sending a Walrus to a Sumatran lake, at a predetermined time and date, in case evading flyers had managed to make it there as briefed. That means keeping the fleet within range, and therefore in danger, so the Walrus could make it back. Hardly heartless. 


As usual, a ‘hook’ to open the book—something exciting to draw the reader in—would have been good to see. Hanson’s Carrier Pilot is quoted and that opens with one of the most perfect hooks I have read. The author’s godfather shared a kill during his time as a Hellcat pilot and that would have been ideal to open the book with.


This is a beautifully produced book from Casemate. Black and white photographs are liberally sprinkled throughout, many featuring men mentioned in the narrative. There is also a superb glossy colour photo section that brings everything to life. Combined with the veteran interviews and ‘real time’ diary entries, the more than 125 photographs included in this 210-plus page hardback work hard to make up for the out-of-date, unbalanced narrative. Heaven High Ocean Deep could have ranked with the best of the current crop of FAA authors (Hobbs, Willis etc). Sadly, it falls disappointingly short.


ISBN 978-1-61200-7-557