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.

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