27 December 2021

'Sailor' Malan, Freedom Fighter - Dilip Sarkar

As I continue to try to save ABR's 2021 from being the 'year of lowest number of posts since inception', I've again turned to a guest reviewer. Guest reviewers have contributed half of the content this year and I am eternally grateful to them. This time around, it's Adrian Roberts, a First World War aviation specialist who maintains a solid interest in all things maritime and in the Second World War. A retired nurse practitioner who has spent a fair bit of time at the controls of a glider, Adrian is an honest and constructive reviewer. Andy Wright.

Group Captain Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO* DFC* was probably the greatest British Empire fighter pilot of the Second World War; even ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, who had a slightly higher victory score, held that opinion. To be a great ace it is necessary to also be a great fighter leader and inspirational commander, which both men were. In his later life, Malan showed moral as well as physical courage in his struggle against apartheid in his native South Africa and his debilitating final illness. 

On the whole, this book gives a good account of Malan’s life, but it could be better. Pen & Sword have produced some very poor-quality books recently by amateur historians: erroneous and quoting Wikipedia in their research. However, Dilip Sarkar is a respected historian specialising in the Battle of Britain. The section in this book on that period is detailed and comprehensive, as is the account of Malan’s influence on air fighting; Sarkar has clearly done the primary research. He gives a balanced account of the Barking Creek incident in which two Hurricanes were mistakenly shot down by Malan’s flight; the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Malan insisted he gave an order to abandon the attack and the pilots concerned insisted he did not. The section on the post-war anti-apartheid ‘Torch Commando’ is good. There is an index and a comprehensive bibliography. 

Unfortunately, there are no references for the quotes (other than those in the foreword), and no footnotes or endnotes. This is a bad decision, whether made by the author or the publisher. A book without references is entertainment at best; it cannot be a research tool. For instance, there is a quote from an Air Ministry Order of 1944 prohibiting racial discrimination in the RAF; it is important future researchers can verify the source of this. When Malan is quoted directly, it is not clear whether it is from a report from the time of the incident or something he was remembering years later. When Johnson is quoted as criticising Bader, was it in public or in private, and was it after Bader’s death? 

The author is not so good when he is outside of his area of expertise. Malan’s career in the Merchant Navy took up ten years of his life, but it is dismissed in two pages. There is no attempt to list the ships on which he served or their history; some readers are interested in maritime history as well as aviation history. We are not told anything about his wife, her family or how they met. A professional historian should have been able and willing to research these aspects. Sarkar states that Dowding had been a fighter pilot in the First World War, which derives from a single line in Wikipedia. In fact, he only flew reconnaissance aircraft until late 1916 and subsequently only had desk jobs. There is also a considerable amount of padding and background information, but this is probably necessary when writing about a single individual. 

Generally, however, this is still a book worth reading. Malan comes across as an officer who did not suffer fools gladly but who cared about his men and gained the respect of all who knew him, except possibly those involved in the Barking Creek episode, and his later life showed him to be a liberal humanist thinker ahead of his time.

ISBN  978-1-52679-5-267

22 December 2021

2021 - a year in review

Right, so, for the past few years, in the lead up to Christmas, I’ve been asked to contribute a recording or list of my ‘books of the year’. This invariably dribbled on a bit to include books I was looking forward to. I’ve had my head buried in manuscript edits, hence my utter failure on the review front for the website this year, and have suddenly realised I haven’t been asked to do a list this year (probably because of the aforementioned dribble). Therefore, I’m doing one now! While I’ve edited manuscripts across an array of subjects in 2021, I will, of course, only (mostly) mention those that are relevant here. Of course, by the time you read this, unless you happen to jag next day delivery or whatever other 21st century postal malarkey I’ve never seen, it will be too late for a pre-Christmas arrival. However, any good book person might expect Christmas money or book shop vouchers from Santa or the family. A book arriving early in the new year, or any time for that matter, is just as good!

Where to start? As an Australian, the biggest impact on the market here has been the books released by the Royal Australian Air Force’s History & Heritage Branch. This second year of lockdowns, vaccines and isolating was also the centenary of the RAAF, the planning of which was years in the making. Many events were cancelled, including airshows and book launches, but the H&H Branch, in particular, pressed on with its new releases. All were produced by the Branch’s publishing partner, Big Sky, and have reportedly sold well, partly due to their favourable pricing but mainly because of their incredible content. Aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force and Sky Pilot were the only two to directly cover the 1939–45 period but, even then, only in part. The latter is an updated and revised edition of an early nineties title about the RAAF’s chaplains. The biggest success of the year, and probably the best aviation seller nationwide, was Aircraft of the Royal Australian Air Force. This 600-plus page hardback details every aircraft type (150 of them) to wear the RAAF’s A-series serials. Heavily illustrated and written by a swathe of subject-matter experts, this massive book has set the bar high. 

To close out H&H’s 2021 releases of Cold War Warriors (Australia’s P-3 Orion era to the early nineties), Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation (self-explanatory) and the new edition of From Controversy to Cutting Edge (Australia’s history with the F-111), another centenary title, Then. Now. Always., is starting to hit shelves and letterboxes. An illustrated history of the RAAF’s first century, this is another large book that is very attractively priced. Next year will feature a bit of a maritime theme so, if you like Australian Sunderlands …

The aforementioned Big Sky Publishing continued its resurgence in aviation history and released Bombs and Barbed Wire and Best of Times, Worst of Times, both by Jeff Steel. I have yet to read either, and have very little idea what they’re about (the latter does look at the wartime careers of two flyers with very different paths, hence the title), but if you like your Bomber Command tales then these are worth a go. On that subject, one of two exciting releases for Big Sky early in 2022 (January) is Ian Campbell’s Thinks He’s A Bird. Here we have a Queensland postal clerk become a Pathfinder pilot. The narrative is exceptionally well done with the author having access to his relative’s detailed diaries and letters. Strong to Serve, the second early 2022 (February) release from Big Sky is by first-time author Joseph Mack. It tells the story of Fred Riley, an English-born Australian who flew Spitfires over the Normandy landings and chased V-1s over England before living a frenetic existence on the Continent in late 1944. What’s the only thing better than diaries and letters? Firsthand interviews. Strong to Serve’s foundation is a series of interviews between Fred and the author with everything else skilfully weaved around to create a fine biography. Before I forget, Big Sky also has Viking Boys almost ready to go. Beaufighters and No. 455 Squadron anyone?

Since we’re talking about Australian aircrew books, it has been quite the bumper year (the 2022 Anzac Day list is looking healthy). It looks like Geoff Raebel may finally release his delayed Sink the Tirpitz in 2022. Some of you may be familiar with his The RAAF in Russia and I believe this is similar but now includes a number of images of Hampdens not previously published. Michael Veitch’s latest book, The Battle of the Bismarck Sea, came out mid-year and is his best yet. While I’ve seen some press about that title, and have yet to write my own review, I’ve seen nothing about the new edition of Colin Burgess’s Australia’s Dambusters which was released at about the same time. It’s quite odd as it’s really nicely done by a major publisher with a good network and pricing.

Two privately published Bomber Command memoirs caught my eye recently. I’m currently reading the most recent one, I’ll Be Back for Breakfast. It is the story of Edgar Pickles DFC*, a Lancaster pilot with Nos. 100 and 550 Squadrons, and is a finely crafted tale that is, unfortunately, frustratingly, littered with technical and historical errors pertinent to Bomber Command. If you can get by them (they will be fixed), it’s actually a really good read. The slightly older title, Full Circle, printed by the good people at Digital Print Australia, long-time supporters of ABR, is a daughter’s tribute to her father, Howard Hendrick DFC, as No. 460 Squadron and BOAC flyer. I’ve spoken at length with the author (as I have with Pickles’s daughter) in South Australia and she said the book is selling well locally. I’ve yet to read it, and may not immediately as I’m coming off a string of Bomber Command titles and need a change of subject, but it again appears well written (and there’s no glaring errors leaping off the pages). I’ve at least convinced the author to get DPA to sell the book via their website, a service they offer for all the titles they print. Oh, keep an eye out for Don McNaughton’s Lucky Pommie Bastard too.

Before leaving Australian-centric books, don’t forget about Avonmore Books. Their South Pacific Air War trilogy has turned into four volumes, soon to be five, and there is a promise of another Pacific campaign series on the way. Watch out for some very Western Australian history with Ian Duggan's Black Swans over Java. It's available from the publisher, Hesperian Press, but Avonmore also has stock.

I’ve also recently finished Will Iredale’s The Pathfinders and found it an ideal way to refresh basic knowledge of the PFF. A good chunk of a book, the narrative skips along nicely, perhaps too much over the technical stuff, but this is indicative of the more general audience it is written for. It certainly keeps the focus on the aircrews, however, which is the point of the whole thing. This is one of those landmark books that can be remembered for sending readers down the rabbit hole.

That rabbit hole will lead to the likes of Fighting High Publishing, Grub Street and Bomber Command Books. Fighting High has continued along quietly, most recently releasing typically beautifully produced books like Resolute, Extremes of Fortune and The Lost Graves of Peenemünde. I’m not quite up to speed with what books Fighting High has planned for 2022, but they’ll be worth adding to your shelf. Grub Street has added to its Boys series with Fleet Air Arm Boys, Groundcrew Boys and, more topically, the paperback edition of Beaufighter Boys. I’ve also just received a copy of Andy Saunders’s Dowding’s Despatch, a very heavy 220-page hardback featuring Dowding’s history of the Battle of Britain fleshed out by Saunders and heavily illustrated with less well-known images of the era. Not your normal BoB book which is quite the relief to be honest. Before we leave Grub Street, find a copy of Gavin Hoffen’s Restoration Force to understand hard core aviation obsessions! I’d argue books are less mobile in some cases though! Meanwhile, Bomber Command Books, Simon Hepworth’s publishing house, has had a flurry of releases in the second half of the year. I’d like to say I’m impressed with The Battle of the Barges and Steve Smith’s No. 218 Squadron histories, Courage was not Enough and In Time, but they’ve been intercepted for Christmas! If the revised and updated editions of Chris Ward’s 467 Squadron RAAF and David Gunby’s Sweeping the Skies are anything to go by, they’ll be well received albeit while causing more headaches for the rapidly shrinking available space on the large format shelves.

Sean Feast has been published by all three of these publishers in the past year or so and, as a favourite, currently writing author, regularly consumes shelf space. I was just about to say I need to add his recent Halton Boys (by Grub Street) but turned around and saw it on the shelf. I don’t have a problem. Not at all. While other favourites like Anthony Cooper, Kristen Alexander, Graeme Gibson, Steve Darlow and Peter Ingman are neck deep in other projects, authors like David Hobbs and Matt Willis have pending releases, The Fleet Air Arm and the War in Europe and Fairey Swordfish (Fleet Air Arm Legends Book 2) respectively. Hobbs is, well, Hobbs, and always worth getting excited for, while Willis goes from strength to strength across a variety of genres, subjects and formats (he published the third Fortress of Malta novella this year as well). He has massively increased his back catalogue with Key’s Fairey Firefly and Mustang: The Untold Story, and the first volume of Tempest Books’ Fleet Air Arm Legends, Supermarine Seafire.

Finally, two things to remember. Keep an eye out for Air War Publications’ two-volume history of No. 450 Squadron RAAF. Each book is going to be a large format hardback and will be to a standard, for Australian squadron histories, we have never seen before. Be patient, as the principals have day jobs, but their work with Doug Norrie will set a new standard. Also, I know Pen & Sword has copped a bit of stick lately with regard to poorly edited books, questionable research and author dealings, but they are still producing quality work (like Hobbs through their Seaforth imprint). Keep an eye out, especially on their coming soon listings.

Well, there you have it. Looking back, looking forward, there’s aircrew books aplenty and always the possibility of the next holy grail or unknown title find. I hope it’s a fine copy, affordable and everything you hoped for when you finally settle down to read it.