Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Luck and a Lancaster - Harry Yates DFC


Well, I'm still struggling to find the time to get reviews written, despite the increasing stack of finished books accumulating on one end of the desk. I am planning a return to 'Monday review writing' but that assumes I can continue to manage the manuscript edit deadlines. It is good to be busy! Anyway, I've pulled a guest reviewer out of my quiver and he's pointed himself at a very worthwhile target. Robert Brokenmouth, intrepid local music scene reporter, auction house denizen, and raconteur, has appeared on ABR before as a reviewer but, more importantly, as the editor of new, annotated editions of the Australian bomber aircrew classics 'They Hosed Them Out' and '101 Nights'. His work on these titles produced two of the greatest additions to wartime aircrew literature of the 21st century. Therefore, it is a pleasure to publish his review of a title from the end of last century, from the end of a decade that was arguably the high watermark in terms of wartime memoirs seeing the light of day. Andy Wright.

Originally published in 1999 by Airlife (and then Wrens Park and Crowood Park), Luck and a Lancaster tells the oft-repeated tale of a young man who wanted to fly and ended up in Bomber Command ... but the writing, the vivid nature of the author’s recall, and his overall story, commands attention.

Yates takes us through his initial training in 1940, through his eighteen-month unwanted stint as a flying instructor, and then op by op to the end of his tour with No. 75 Squadron on 30 December 1944. It is ironic in so many ways that Yates, with his heart set on Beaufighters or Mosquitos, insisted on getting himself transferred to ops and ended up on Lancs in Bomber Command. Luck?

Running through it all is his reflection on luck, as if it is some sort of tangible imp peering down at us and occasionally cackling. Chance plays a huge part in warfare; most soldiers take part in only a few battles in their career; but almost any bombing operation was effectively a battle in itself. As aviation buffs know, a tour of operations was ... thirty battles. 

If you survived.

Yates has a story to tell and he gets on with it, occasionally contrasting related events with observations of history which are well known today, but were unknown to the airmen at the time. His easy to digest style means you power through the book, occasionally pausing to gasp in disbelief or horror (Yates’s crew had an eventful tour, to say the least). Despite the passage of the years, we are gripped by a matter-of-fact narrative of a crew in the midst of powerful events and a determination for Yates and his men to survive.

One thing which strikes me on this reading (my fourth or fifth) is the large number of people we should know more about, but simply don’t. They either haven’t written a book or haven’t left sufficient detail of themselves to survive into the digital age. Squadron Leader Jack Leslie is a perfect example.

Luck and a Lancaster does not have the bitterness of Gibson, the naivete of Cheshire, or the reflectiveness of Charlwood, but its measured, tense pace, and contrast between the young man who the old man remembers, means this book belongs on your shelf. 

Nutshell? Forgotten classic.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Sailor Malan - Philip Kaplan


Humblest apologies, everyone. I've been incredibly busy with editing work that I haven't had a chance to get any review writing done (let alone reading!). It is great to be busy but I have been missing my, as of this year, new 'Mondays are for review writing' sessions. Anyway, here's a new guest reviewer for ABR. Andrew Kitney works for an airline in the UK. He gets around a fair bit as a result, more so eighteen months ago (!), and is a regular airshow attendee. With a passion for just about everything in aviation, he's more often seen over on Flight Line Book Review. This is the first ABR-relevant title I've managed to get in front of him. It's a bit odd seeing the same publisher release two books on Malan from two different authors so close to each other, but there hasn't been much focussed work on the chap of late so no major complaints on that front. Enjoy! Andy Wright.

Anybody with more than a passing interest in the Battle of Britain will have heard of the South African RAF Ace, ‘Sailor’ Malan. He led a fascinating and varied life, so I was looking forward to this book

With a somewhat different than normal path to the RAF, his early days on the family farm in South Africa are well conveyed. As a young boy he became a fantastic marksman, something that would stand him in good stead throughout his flying career. 

Detailing his early career as a sailor, which is where his nickname originated, starting on a South African training ship and then into the merchant fleet, he experienced European and Atlantic ports. The city of New York and ports in Germany both had a significant influence on him. His spent a short spell training in the RN and, with war on the horizon, his application for the RAF and subsequent flight training is nicely covered.

The scene is set with a fulsome account from his friend, and fellow Battle of Britain pilot, New Zealander Al Deere, covering their relationship from the early to latter parts of Malan’s RAF career. A subsequent chapter on the Spitfire moves onto Malan’s time at Hornchurch and some of the early sorties flown during the war and in the Battle of Britain. 

Describing nicely what Malan is renowned for, a chapter talks about the changes he introduced to combat formations and fighting, together with his ‘10 Commandments’, the golden rules, of air combat. These tactics contributed significantly to his success. 

The frantic days at RAF Biggin Hill at the height of the Battle of Britain are well described, including the frenetic sorties and what it was like living on the base at the time. His tenure as base commander several years into the war is also covered. Accompanying combat reports spotlight the relentlessness of combat. 

With a nod to the inclusion of a like-minded character in the famous Battle of Britain movie, a later chapter covers reflections and plaudits from a number of pilots and commanders of the period as well as historians. 

The book finishes with how Malan has been remembered after his death. This follows a chapter looking at his post-war life in the political turmoil of his native South Africa. The narrative is accompanied by a few black and white photos of Malan and his compatriots to add to the scene setting. 

To call this a complete and comprehensive biography of Sailor Malan would be erroneous, especially with numerous pages of his wartime life being devoted to such key compatriots as Al Deere. They do, however, provide the context for the period in which Malan served and add to the overall atmosphere of the time and place of his service. Overall, I enjoyed this book and it took me back to my younger days where I searched high and low during my weekly library visits for similar accounts of Second World War heroes. 

ISBN 978-1-52678-2-274

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Life of Barry E. Gale - Andrew Arthy

 


As much as I am a fan of the physical book, I do begrudgingly accept there is a place, and a definite need, for digital editions. Most of the titles featured on Aircrew Book Review are now available in some digital format, making them accessible almost immediately from anywhere with a half decent internet connection. It was still a bit of a surprise, however, when I was asked to review a pilot’s biography produced by specialist publisher Air War Publications. How to tackle what is essentially appears as a long, well-researched magazine feature supplied as a PDF? The same way as everything else: fairly and honestly. What I found would put most magazine articles and shorter books to shame.

Barry Gale was an Australian Spitfire pilot, albeit born in England, who joined No 111 Squadron in mid-1942. He stayed with this unit until July 1943, initially flying on offensive operations across the Channel before the squadron moved to Algeria in late 1942 to support the Torch landings. Gale had already had some success flying the Spitfire Mk.V against the far superior Fw 190 and this would continue in Africa, although the Spitfires were now weighted down by Vokes chin filters. Conditions on the airfields were very basic and the men were subjected to regular raids by the Luftwaffe. It was an unpleasant existence, but the best was made of things and the squadron kept busy with interceptions and regular successes against their generally better-equipped enemy counterparts. Gale became a flight commander in March 1943, an indication of his experience and leadership qualities, and was awarded the DFC at the end of his tour.

The requisite rest spell followed, as an instructor at the RAF Fighter Leader School, before Gale was posted to No 165 Squadron. Now flying the Spitfire Mk.IXb, Barry and his colleagues were very much on the offensive in the second half of 1944 and converted to Mustang IIIs in January 1945. Barry was already acting as the CO of the unit and was promoted to squadron leader during this period, making him one of the few Australians to fly the Mustang in RAF service, perhaps one of the most senior too. He remained with the unit post-war but was eventually back in Australia by March 1946. He became a respected civil engineer and passed away in July 2011.

While I printed off my copy of The Life of Barry E. Gale (because I stare at a screen enough as it is!), the eArticle is designed to be viewed and read on a screen with all the advantages that offers (scalability, clarity, colour etc). While not restricted by space, although perhaps working to a predetermined in-house length and layout, the author (Western Australian Andrew Arthy) keeps the focus firmly on Gale yet manages to capture some of his contemporaries in passing. The fine control of the narrative indicates an author across his subject, at ease with it and definitely not flying his first solo. Considering the subject didn’t leave behind a diary or bundle of letters, there is a lot here; the references listed, consuming almost a page and a half of the eighteen-page document, put a lot of books to shame. 

This is not a long read, of course, and might barely consume thirty minutes. That said, taking your time with it, absorbing the supporting tables and the excellent map, will easily chew up an enjoyable hour. The useful glossary and ‘life at a glance’ sit on the inside front cover and, with the map on the following page, provide the ideal snapshot of Gale’s war.

The important thing about this work is it tells the story of a pilot who, at best, probably just gets a mention when featured elsewhere in photos or operational reports. A more than capable fighter leader, Gale falls into the ‘one of the many’ category, the thousands of remarkable aircrew who got the job done. We can only hope the author has the chance to apply this treatment to other Australian airmen. Who knows, perhaps a book of collected stories might eventuate. In the meantime, consider this and other titles from Air War Publications and you’ll discover a small publisher doing big things, and a Western Australian aviation historian ranking among fellow West Aussies like Cyril Ayris and Charles Page.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

We Together - Adam Lunney

 


Titles featuring the Spitfire can always be counted in aviation best seller lists yet, even with such a focus on its history, there remains areas waiting for their time in the sun or, perhaps worse, that have been written about and forgotten. As a whole, Australian-flown Spitfires don’t fall into this category. However, once Truscott and co returned from the UK, and the focus understandably turned to the defence of Darwin, the remaining Australian-manned Spitfire units in the European theatre effectively ‘disappeared’. Indeed, there’s even been very few memoirs/biographies published about those who were there. Compare this to the comparable New Zealand RAF fighter squadrons who, it is fair to say, have more than made up the shortfall of published works. Even the renewed interest in Bomber Command over the past decade, and Anthony Cooper books highlighting what Australian aircrew were doing ‘away from home’, have failed, so far, to direct any ‘overflow’ elsewhere. It was not really until Adam Lunney released his first book, Ready to Strike, that a lot of pennies dropped. With We Together, the author returns to the familiar No 453 Squadron to complete its wartime story, a story involving No 451 Squadron towards the end and, therefore, requiring a book with a greater scope and a lot more threads to bring together. We Together does this and more.

If 453 Squadron was effectively overlooked, due mainly to a (continued) local preference to focus on the war against Japan, then what of 451 Squadron? Another Article XV unit, the squadron’s first operations were flown in the second half of 1941 in North Africa in the army co-operation/tactical reconnaissance role. It then moved to the Eastern Mediterranean for a long, quiet and frustrating stint flying newer Hurricanes from Cyprus and the likes of Palestine. This period rolled into 1943, but, slowly, the squadron began to see improvements and, having earlier received several Spitfires to better intercept high-flying German recce aircraft, eventually evolved into a Spitfire unit deployed to Corsica. In the meantime, among the occasional operational ‘spike’, it helped assess the Hawker Typhoon in desert conditions. 

The squadron now began to resemble many other Spitfire units in that it was equally as capable escorting bombers as it was flying armed recces, the aircraft dive-bombing and strafing a multitude of targets. The invasion of southern France, Operation Dragoon, in mid-August 1944 finally had the unit operating in the same country as 453 Squadron.

Ready to Strike left 453 Squadron in Normandy at the end of August. September was a stop-start month of operations with the Australians moving bases several times. Poor weather contributed to the sporadic nature of operational flying and it was a worn-out group of men that flew to Coltishall, in Norfolk, at the end of the month. The squadron began ops again several days later, flying strikes across the Channel, with a focus on finding and destroying the Germans’ offensive rocketry and associated infrastructure. In among the Jim Crows, weather recces, Rangers and the like, the anti-V2 operations were a mixture of success and underlying frustration, the latter often because the pilots would see tell-tale trails of rocket launches reaching into the sky from areas they had only recently attacked.

This intensive period for 453 Squadron continued into the new year, but 451 Squadron now entered the fray. The new arrivals, who had reached the UK via Italy at the end of November, flew their first ops in January, but had a relatively quiet time of it until March when the Australian wing (of two squadrons) finally became an operational reality. Combat sorties really began to slow down in April before the eventual end of the war in Europe. Both squadrons were based in Germany to support the occupation and the repatriation of personnel, a regular feature throughout the final eighteen months of the European theatre, ramped up substantially. The lack of enthusiasm to stay on to man an Australian occupation force into the future led to both units disbanding in January 1946.

As suggested above, the scope of We Together far exceeds that of the author’s earlier Ready to Strike. The style, of course, is similar (and improved), but the entire work is presented in a far more impressive package. Published as a jacketless hardback, the book has a superior shelf-presence, combining Mortons’ black-based house style with a dynamic cover design. All of the supporting endpapers – notes, index (sadly missing in Ready to Strike), bibliography etc – are there and contribute more than forty pages to this 320-page book. 

The biggest problem, however, was the traditional glossy photo insert. A section of 46 nicely reproduced images, it includes important photos from 451 Squadron’s time in the Mediterranean. It would have made for a better reading experience if these photos were sprinkled throughout the narrative to better illustrate events and break up the swathes of solid text. Not usually an issue with something like a novel, or even a memoir, but when there are inescapable periods of unit history where little can be done to spice up the operational record (even by an author like Lunney with an inexhaustible capacity to hunt down and inject ‘colour’), things drag a bit and a few well-placed photos with good captions would have done wonders (and help put faces to names in a timely manner). Shorter chapters would also help, but each does encapsulate a defining period, particularly for 451 Squadron.

Speaking of injecting colour, the flesh on the bones of the operational record, this was particularly well done in Ready to Strike and has reached new heights with We Together. Firsthand accounts are the pinnacle, but the best kind, the author’s interview, are, regrettably, harder to achieve these days (although they are a strong contributing factor here). Despite the paucity of published accounts mentioned above, and the loss of 451 Squadron’s records from its first stint in the desert, a major strength is in the plethora of personal accounts drawn from a variety of sources. These are not limited to operational details either. They extend to following pilots as prisoners of war (some revisited as they are incarcerated for the duration), pilots on the run after being shot down, and, importantly, into the immediate post-war period, revealing the frustrations of having to hang around in Europe, the needless loss of men in accidents and dealing with the Russians. It is as comprehensive as it gets; nothing will come close in terms of these two units. 

Personnel, where possible and even if only appearing briefly, are generally introduced with the typical ‘Joe John Bloggs was born in 19XX in Anytown to John and Sue Bloggs (nee Smith) etc etc’. While not repetitive in terms of detail, they all read the same and the longer ones interrupt the flow or focus. Footnotes are not used (endnotes instead), but such details would still add value using such a format (like in Mark Lax’s Alamein to the Alps and his works with Leon Kane-Maguire). This slight style issue aside, the character building throughout is exceptionally strong, even if limited to a line or two. The reader invests in an airman and is keen to see how he fares. The important term here is ‘airman’ as the detail, and personal reminiscences, is not restricted to the pilots. For 451 Squadron in particular, a unit that celebrated its 1000th day overseas in early 1944, the groundcrew were long-term members of the unit and they are certainly not forgotten; they are more in the background during the frenetic final months of the war in Europe though. While a pilot’s time with a squadron could be measured in months, sometimes far less, groundcrew often counted the years. They formed a bond as strong as that recounted in most aircrew analyses. Their losses, therefore, were incredibly keenly felt and no more is this evident than in the aftermath of the May 1944 German air raid on the squadron’s airfield. Eight members of the unit were killed. This episode is handled well, revealing the impact on the squadron and causing the reader to reflect on the undercurrent of ‘repatriation fever’ that sometimes surfaced among the ‘old timers’ during quieter times. Even for the pilots of 451 Squadron, many of whom did spend a long time on strength because of the lack of flying hours required for a transfer out, the deaths hit hard, stepping around the usual coping mechanisms. 

We Together is a solid, well-structured history. There are periods where the reading bogs down, where even the tenacious author has found nothing to add, but these also reflect the flying at the time. Briefing, fly, debriefing, repeat, survive. Not much more can be said, but Lunney does latch on to the smallest of details and the book is the richer for it. Like the airmen, the reader must press on. Enjoy the ride, the highs and lows, and revel in the history of two Australian Spitfire squadrons now very much remembered.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Sticky Murphy - James H Coley

 


Every now and then a book comes along that reminds why you got into this ‘game’ in the first place. You know, the exuberant flyer who worked hard, played harder, led by example and, somehow, seemed unruffled by what he had seen, done and narrowly escaped. If that all seems a bit of a cliché, it is, and the reality, as we are so often reminded, and should always be cognizant of, was a hell of a lot harsher. No one can go through a war and emerge completely unaffected. Some didn’t emerge, of course, so their character, and how they’re remembered, remains frozen in time. One man who fit the cliché like a glove was Alan ‘Sticky’ Murphy, lauded as a special operations Lysander pilot and intruder Mosquito squadron CO. His wartime biography, written more than thirty years ago, and published by Fighting High in 2018, has the perfect title: Sticky Murphy, Lover of Life.

Joining the RAF before the war, Sticky graduated from Cranwell and flew Battles and Hampdens with No. 185 Squadron. Evidently chafing at the bit to get into action after years of training, culminating in a specialist navigation course, he wangled an op as second pilot of a 3 Group Wellington in June 1940. He met his future wife, Jean, at Lossiemouth in late 1940. Sticky was posted to No. 1419 (Special Duty) Flight at Stradishall in March 1941 and commenced flying clandestine ops with Whitleys and then Lysanders. As the latter type proved itself in this role, care of men like John Nesbitt-Dufort, demand for pilots to fly it increased. Sticky’s first operational Lysander trip in December 1941 (as part of what was now No. 138 Squadron) almost became his last. The dramatic description of the events that unfolded, partly gleaned from German records and even the agent involved (found and interviewed by the author in the 1970s), is indicative of the author’s dogged pursuit of primary sources, albeit a mere thirty years after the fact.

All good things, and perhaps the pushing of one’s luck in a certain field, must come to an end, and Sticky reluctantly left Lysanders behind in May 1942 for a ten-month rest, mostly flying a desk with the Navigation Branch at the Air Ministry. While continuing to fly several different types, it was, as you’ll no doubt already understand, not to his liking. Solo in a Mosquito in late June 1943, having already crewed up with navigator ‘Jock’ Reid, led to a ferry flight to Malta to become a flight commander with No. 23 Squadron. This unit was flying night intruder sorties over Italy and soon moved to an airfield in the country as the Allies advanced up the peninsula. Conditions were far from ideal, but Sticky’s leadership and his joie de vivre helped contribute towards turning the squadron’s morale around. The hot weather greatly affected the performance of the Mossies so, coupled with suspected contaminated fuel (traced to open drums at Naples) and the hilly terrain over which they operated, nothing was easy for the aircrews or the men who maintained the aircraft. However, operate they did with Sticky somewhat learning on the job and gaining the trust of his colleagues. 

The squadron returned to the UK in mid-1944 to become one of the Mosquito units to fly from the famed airfield at Little Snoring. Sticky, now a father, wing commander and the CO of the unit, never missed a step, flying intruder ops with Reid and, despite his seniority, causing mayhem and hilarity with his hi-jinks on the ground. On the night of 2 December, however, his luck well and truly ran out when his Mosquito crashed on the way home near Oldebroek in the Netherlands, ‘in sight of the Zuider Zee’. Even his death sounds like a cliché (or even part of a movie plot): it was late in the European war; a staff posting pending, he’d told his wife ‘Just one more trip, darling’; Reid was off sick so he flew with a different navigator; and his mother suffered ‘excruciating pains’ at the time of his crash. Whatever it sounds like, the RAF had lost another two men, another daughter had lost her father, another wife had lost her husband, and another squadron mourned the loss of its leader.

Throughout, Stick Murphy, Lover of Life, trips along despite a liberal dose of minutiae that helps build a well-rounded, colourful picture of the subject. This apparent lightness is due in part to the fond memories and amusing, reflective stories told by friends, relatives and colleagues. There is barely a negative word said about Sticky, such was his larger-than-life personality and presence (six feet tall with a typically epic moustache), and many of the reminiscences include a tale of hi-jinks or, at the very least, talk of the unflappable nature of the man. Indeed, his wife, who only knew him during wartime, said ‘I never saw him unhappy’. It seems almost impossible, knowing what we do now about the effects of war on an individual, that Sticky did not have a moment or two of introspection, but I suspect to do so he would have had to let his mind wander (possibly when flying home wounded) and, by all accounts, he pressed on in all aspects of his life. Perhaps this was his coping mechanism, albeit evident well before he joined the RAF. The overwhelmingly positive comments and memories do, therefore, smack of blinkered hero worship on behalf of the author and his interviewees. Written by a junior flyer under the command of the subject (the author was a nav with 23 Squadron), this would not be the first time such a book has ventured into such territory. However, the breadth of memories collected by the author from an impressively large population of people, including some of the agents Sticky flew in and out of France, doesn’t support this. Having cast his net so wide, and so relatively recently after the war (compared to now), the author would have ‘landed’ people who perhaps didn’t remember Sticky as favourably. He did, but they are in the minority. Author’s prerogative aside, you can reach the conclusion Sticky truly was an irrepressible character as well as a capable flyer.

Of course, save the several family members and friends featured, none of the heavily quoted sources (at least a quarter of the narrative is given over to valuable memories), were to know a post-war Sticky Murphy. How would the prospect of demobilisation or, at best, much reduced flying duties, have affected him? Would the war years have caught up with him somehow, like they arguably do for everyone, or would he have kept ahead of them by continuing to live life to the full? No one knows. Like so many, Sticky’s life exists only in the memories of those who are left and a finite collection of photos and written records. His service persona defines him and is etched in the minds of those who knew him. While his loss is naturally lamented, he is fondly remembered without exception. If anything, that’s a life well lived.

As this is a book from Fighting High it is, of course, about the finest hardback of the genre money can buy. Cover to cover, the design is crisp and clear and the glossy photo section features some fantastically interesting group and aircraft imagery. A useful index at the end of this 190-plus page book follows six appendices and an epilogue. Five of the appendices apply to clandestine flying and are written by those who flew with Sticky; the great Nesbitt-Dufort being one. He was one of many remarkable flyers who were either interviewed by the author or ‘star’ in the three periods of Sticky’s operational flying.

As is obvious, and alluded to above, this book is a tribute to Sticky Murphy. The author, an aircrew veteran himself, could easily have written about his own clearly extensive experience, but only mentions it in passing. This is typical, heap adulation on someone else. Indeed, even Sticky’s post-operation reports are modest and, despite flashes of understated humour, without the flourish expected from such a character. 

While this manuscript was written more than three decades ago, and the second half lost for years before being rediscovered in the family’s attic, such is the quality of the author’s research and writing (occasional meandering aside), and his eye for the ridiculous, as often accompanied Sticky in his travels, that, like an older classic, it stands the test of time. Many unsung people are remembered as a result. Telling their stories is what matters and the last words in that vein deserve to come from the ‘Author’s Note’:

The world of old comrades, now grandfathers galore, must be those of the gladiators of Rome – morituri te salutamas (We who are about to die salute you). Soon no man will survive to tell his story, and history is notoriously academic.