18 December 2020

From Sapper to Spitfire Spy - Sally-Anne Greville-Heygate


Rather fortuitously, and I am forever grateful for I have had my head buried in several manuscripts of late, this review was first published on Aircrew Book Review’s supporting Facebook page on 15 December. Colin Ford is the erudite ‘Historian by Appointment’ of No. 268 Squadron and the author of its epic history ADJIDAUMO - 'Tail-in-Air' the History of No. 268 Squadron Royal Air Force 1940-1946 (which will, hopefully, one day, be published as a widely available edition). His knowledge of the unit’s tactical reconnaissance work, and the intricacies therein, and intimate understanding of the careers of many of the pilots who flew with the squadron, makes him the perfect reviewer for a book about a ‘Spitfire Spy’. A couple of years ago I edited his comprehensive look at the only two Australians to fly the reconnaissance variant of the Hawker Typhoon (the FR.IB) into a 3000-word feature article for Flightpath magazine. The depth of his research was phenomenal and surely must be one of the very few (only?) comparisons of this version of the great ‘Tiffie’ with the almost ideal (for Tac/R) Mustang Mk.I/IA and Mk.II. Enjoy, then, this review written by quite the cluey chap! Andy Wright.


This biography of Flight Lieutenant David Greville-Heygate DFC has been written by his daughter, Sally-Anne Greville-Heygate, and is largely based around his personal correspondence, diary entries, pilot’s logbook, squadron records and other documentation. During the writing of this biography, where the source material didn’t contain, or the detail of what was noted in the source material was not clear to the author, she made good use of a number of aviation specific forums, especially ‘RAF Commands’, to post questions and seek answers. 


The overall account is an interesting one and despite the publisher’s hyperbole of the subject‘one of the few men who served in both the army and the Royal Air Force during the Second World War’it was a more common occurrence than is generally known (my examination of the aircrew rosters of RAF Army Co-operation Command, and later Second Tactical Air Force Tac/R squadrons, shows a variation between units of 20-35 per cent of their RAF/RAFVR pilots at various times being ex-Army or seconded-Army). What we have is a story typical of many young men who had joined the Army just before or at the outbreak of the Second World War, who then answered the call for aircrew trainees from 1940 onwards. What is more interesting in this instance is the subject followed the path open to commissioned Army officers seconded for aircrew training with the expectation from the Army the role he would find himself in, when he qualified as a pilot, would be with one of the RAF's Army co-operation squadrons in support of Army operations and activities. Also, not surprisingly, a number of them did not always end up in the ACC or Tac/R type roles and could be found in the aircrew rosters of transport squadrons and Special Duties units, as well as being represented in smaller numbers in fighter, bomber and Coastal Command squadrons.


In David Greville-Heygate’s (DGH) case, completing his flying training in the UK, he passed through the Army Co-operation/Tactical Reconnaissance 41 OTU at Old Sarum and eventually joined No. 16 Squadron. There he initially flew Westland Lysanders in support of Army exercises in the UK, then when the squadron re-equipped with the Allison-engined North American Mustang Mk.I in April 1942, he flew the wide range of operational sorties being conducted by RAF ACC squadrons at that time. This included shipping reconnaissance, low-level photographic reconnaissance, Rhubarbs, Rangers and Populars, plus continuing support and participation in Army exercises in the UK including Exercise Spartan in early 1943.


In July 1943, with the disbandment of ACC, and the interim period before 2TAF was formed, there was the opportunity for him to sample the Supermarine Spitfire in the shape of the PR.IV. At that time, it was proposed 16 Squadron would move from the low-level to high-level reconnaissance role, however, due to a number of factors, that ended up being delayed so operations continued on Mustangs until early 1944.


In early November 1943, DGH was deemed to be tour expired and was sent to fill an instructor’s role at 41 OTU. That brought its own challenges and frustration, especially being ‘on rest’ when D-Day occurred. Seeking a way back to operational flying, DGH went down the path of converting onto the Hawker Typhoon, the demand for pilots for the 2TAF Typhoon squadrons being high at the time due to the number of combat losses. So, in early December 1944, he joined No. 168 Squadron flying the Typhoon largely on armed recces at low altitude over the Netherlands and western Germany. 

However, due to a chance encounter with an old friend, and a bit of old fashioned ’string pulling’, he was able to get himself posted across to No.II (AC) Squadron (‘Shiny Two’), as a part of No. 35 (Recce) Wing, flying Spitfire XIVs. This is where he saw out the remainder of his wartime operational flying which included first-hand experiences relating to Operation Bodenplatte—the Luftwaffe attacks on Allied airfields on 1 January 1945—and the series of Allied operations, including the forced crossing of the Rhine, leading to the eventual defeat of Germany. Naturally enough, with hostilities over in Europe, there is the period of uncertainty that follows and the change from a wartime to peacetime Air Force, but with developing tensions with the Soviet Union in the areas of Europe they had occupied and the conflict still ongoing in the Far East.

There are a couple of areas in this biography where I felt somewhat uncomfortable reading his views on certain people. That partly arose from knowing a number of those people personally or, in a few instances, knowing the other side of the story as to why certain decisions and actions were being taken. For example, DGH objects to the demands for pilots to fly a certain number of hours and the introduction of specific training programs after VE-Day and berates his OC of the time regarding this. The OC, however, was following the TAF HQ/British Air Forces of Occupation requirements which dictated that aircrew who may be required for deployment to the Far East, or if the situation in Europe destabilised, were to maintain their operational skills and readiness through regular flying and training activities. This was not helped, of course, by the rapid drawdown in many squadrons caused by the repatriation of aircrew from Allied Air Forces (RAAF, RCAF, RNZAF etc) with the conclusion of hostilities in Europe.


As well, there are a few other places in the narrative where, given the focus of the biography, the bigger picture and the part DGH, and the units he was with, played is not particularly clear. Someone who may not have read about the role of ACC and 2TAF may be left wondering about certain aspects of what is conveyed and why things were done the way they were. As an example, the biography gives some detail of the low-level photography of the French coastline including Normandy conducted by DGH but does not explain the reasons for it, why this specific type of photography was required and why obtaining it was so risky for the pilots involved.


The other thing to be aware of is that, as a large part of the narrative is drawn from diary entries, letters and other documents of the time, some of the views and sentiments expressed by those at the time may seem out of place or somewhat incongruous in the current day; it’s all about how we view things now and how they were viewed then. 

Photos from DGH’s wartime logbook and personal collection, plus those sourced from the family of wartime friends, combined with a number of photo extracts from the logbook and maps showing his key areas of operation, help round out and literally illustrate the story.


Overall, a good biography that is probably somewhere between autobiography and biography due to the high percentage of first-person source material used and the author’s obvious connection to the subject. For those interested in a different type of WWII pilot biography, and a view into a different part of the air war in Europe, this book will provide that difference.


ISBN 978-1-47384-3-882

06 December 2020

2020 - a year in review

While we have seen the release dates of a few books get pushed back for the various reasons that have made this year a tricky one, we’ve been very fortunate to see a steady stream of titles hit the market. As is now fairly standard, there has been a trickle of memoirs proper as time marches on for those who are left from the RAF and Commonwealth air forces of the Second World War. The closest we have now really are, of course, the biographies written by family members. Regular readers will know I have my moments with these books as some are well done, with considerable effort made to understand the world of eighty years ago, while others feel like they have been thrown together. I can be critical of such things, yes, but at least the interest is there to share the story. There’s always something to learn!

Several biographies relevant to ABR have dominated the social media scene purely because they have enthusiastic authors behind them. I’ll say ‘dominated’ but no doubt there’ll be one you haven’t been aware of! Rosemary Parrott’s The Pilot in the Poster, Jane Lowes' Above Us, The Stars and Henry Meller's The Boy With Only One Shoe (written with his daughter Caroline Brownbill) have seemingly popped up everywhere and at least the latter two have received some attention from the popular press. I’ve only read the Parrott book to date, however, and it’s quite the ride (in Peter Parrott’s own words) that ranges from the Battle of France to Italy, post-war test flying and beyond. The initial print runs have done exceptionally well, and Peter’s daughter, Rosemary, is continually improving the manuscript. This book has a bright future with a new edition with better distribution forthcoming.

Two books popped up in the past week and both couldn’t be any more different in subject matter. The first one I was made aware of came via an email from the compiler/editor. James Dunford Wood is the author of the A Story of War blog that, several years ago, finally finished seven years of diary entries; it followed ‘one man's war day by day, 70 years on, from Waziristan and the North West Frontier, Habbaniya, the Burma campaign, India & the Rhine’. That man was James’s father, Colin Dunford Wood, who initially served in the Army on the NWF before cheating an eye test to train as an RAF pilot (that’s the Habbaniya, Burma, India and the Rhine bit!). James has now released the first volume of Big Little Wars covering India and Iraq from 1939 to 1941. At the moment, it’s a limited run available on Amazon, but, as you can see from the blog, the entries are fascinating and have a sense of immediacy about them (along the lines of Andrew Millar’s The Flying Hours, but ultimately wider ranging). The other book to recently ‘appear’ is Ian Redmond’s Bloody Terrified. It’s ostensibly the story of his dad, Canadian navigator Colin Redmond, but time spent with his pilot has immensely fleshed out the story to the extent it’s now ‘the true story of a Pathfinder crew’. That’s a 608 Squadron Mosquito crew of the Light Night Striking Force. If that’s not enough to sell the book to you, nothing will! I have not seen Big Little Wars or Bloody Terrified, but probably will after Christmas. We’re lucky to have new material like this, so let’s support it!

I’m currently still reading Adam Lunney’s We Together, the story of Nos 451 and 453 Squadrons and their contribution to the war in greater Europe. I say ‘greater’ as 451 spent a few years in North Africa and the Middle East before moving to France. You might remember 453 Squadron’s time in Normandy was the subject of Adam’s first book, Ready to Strike, and We Together is more of the same, but this time drawing together the threads of two units and better presented due to the collaboration with Mortons Books. I’m still reading it as I’ve had to tackle several manuscript edits, and even a new book for review, with time critical deadlines. Reading for fun or the usual review stops when there’s work-work on!

Speaking of squadron histories, a book from late 2019 I've only just managed to acquire is Through to the End by David Palmer and Aad Neeven. This is the story of 487 (NZ) Squadron RAF and its wartime flying of Lockheed Venturas and DH Mosquitos. The detail and heart evident in the narrative is a beautiful mix of Palmer's 'storyteller's flights of fancy' and Neeven's 'advocacy for hard historical fact'. It's a big book, published in the Netherlands by Neeven, and my leading contender for aircrew book of the year. There’s a more detailed review here.

Another big book that got worked me up into a lather is Edward Young's The Tenth Air Force in World War II, published by Schiffer Military. It is phenomenal, not perfect, but there's never been something as comprehensive as this when we're talking the USAAF in India and Burma. The Tenth Air Force worked very closely with the RAF, in case you’re wondering about relevance to ABR, and the book features a substantial number of images and information pertaining to the work of the RAF and Commonwealth air forces in the region. 

While we’re on the subject of American-based titles (let’s get them out of the way!), Jayhawk by Jay Stout with George Cooper, and published by Casemate, will have you hooked if you have even the slightest interest in low-level B-25 Mitchell strafers. Cooper grew up in the Philippines and eventually flew strikes against Rabaul et al, hence the regional interest from this end. It makes a nice addition to the recent list of strafer books, including Stout’s own Air Apaches and John Bruning’s excellent Indestructible. On the other end of the scale is the sobering No Way Out by Steven Whitby. Another book from Schiffer Military, this is the (not quite so) untold story of the ‘Lady Be Good’, the B-24 Liberator lost in the desert and found decades later. A lot of aspects of the discovery in this book are very familiar, but it’s the detail of the following USAF expeditions to find the crew, and the phenomenal and haunting images they produced that pushes this book above its predecessors.

It wouldn’t be a report on highlights unless there was some Fleet Air Arm content! The biggest success this year is no doubt Rowland White’s Harrier 809. He knows how to tell a story. The great ABR news of the year, however, has been the relatively recent release of two books from Matt Willis (he of Flying to the Edge and the Edmund Clydesdale trilogy and, incidentally, the artist behind my ABR Christmas cards sent out as a small thank you to those I have worked with this year). He's written the first instalment of Mortons Books 'Fleet Air Arm Legends' series—Supermarine Seafire—and has written the second (Fairey Swordfish), while Key Publishing has also just released his Fairey Firefly book. Both are slim volumes (think Osprey Aircraft of the Aces), but they pack a wallop.

Hikoki Publications released the first volume of Vic Flintham's Close Call - RAF Close Air Support in the Mediterranean. This is a subject we needed covered well. Don't be put off by the 'Defeat in France' on the cover of a Med book as it also looks at the evolution of close air support. Have to start somewhere! I'm already looking forward to the second volume next year. Other much anticipated books are Resolute from Fighting High (the George Dunn DFC and Ferris Newton DFM story), the third volume of the great series Greeks in Foreign Cockpits, South Pacific Air War 4 (the fourth book of a planned and very successful trilogy!) and Eagles over Darwin from Australia’s Avonmore Books, Anthony Cooper’s Sub Hunters, and the great David Hobbs's Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean 1940-1945 (if you want something a little lighter, try Lowry and Wellham’s The Attack on Taranto; that will set you on the well-trodden path to Charles Lamb’s War in a Stringbag, let it happen!). 

Finally, I'd like to give a shout out to the RAAF for their new Air Campaign series and its first book Armageddon and Okra, comparing Australian military aviation involvement in the Middle East a century apart (the second addition to the series is already well advanced and looks at a conflict in the fifties). Indeed, with the Royal Australian Air Force celebrating its centenary in 2021, keep an eye out for an impressive range of titles. Kathy Mexted, the author of Australian Women Pilots, also deserves much praise. Her book, a collection of original biographies of female aviators from all walks of life and all periods of Australian aviation is selling like hot cakes because, besides the subject matter, it is wonderfully written and carefully researched. 

Well, it’s been a fun year, not without its challenges, but I’m glad you’re reading this. Season’s greetings to you and yours and all the best for 2021.