Thursday, July 21, 2022

Bristol Beaufighter - John F. Hamlin

 


There I was sitting at my local cafe, kids-back-at-school celebratory coffee and book session delayed by one day, when I get a phone call from the post office to say I had a parcel that had somehow missed the day's delivery. A short walk and 4.5 kg of Air-Britain magic was in my hands. Flintham's Truculent Tribes bargain and the 2022 Propliner were incidental to the real reason for the order: John Hamlin's Bristol Beaufighter made up most of the weight, 420+ pages of glossy A4 hardback goodness to be exact.

 

It is a beautiful book and is loaded with superb photos, all magnificently reproduced on quality paper and leaving few aspects, if any, of the aircraft to the imagination. There is a surprising amount of colour too, from ‘sidebars’ to period advertisements and a great number of clean profiles that feature some of the rarer markings seen on Beaufighters.

 

I am not an Air-Britain aficionado or member. While I love all aviation to varying degrees, my focus is fairly obvious, so I’ve never been able to justify membership of an organisation with a much broader (and understandable) remit. The few A-B books I’ve seen – Hamlin’s earlier Flat Out, the history of No. 30 Squadron, for example, was bought secondhand – are unsurpassed on the quality front, but I’ve never been one for lists of serial numbers, as useful as they are for regular referencing. The 240 pages of Beaufighter serials, a la Morgan and Shacklady’s Spitfire: The History (but on far superior paper stock!), are the raison d'être of this book and clearly the product of years of work. That’s a big chunk of an expensive book. What’s left is roughly 20 pages of the type’s development, including a column and a half on the Australian production line, ten pages of an ‘Operational overview’ and then a comprehensive 100 pages of potted histories of the units (squadrons, wings, OTUs, etc.) and air forces that flew the Beaufighter, which is effectively a longer ‘operational overview’. The appendices are also of interest, but everything outside of the serials section is all too brief. 


The unit listing is impressive and there’s some fascinating inclusions, although the South Africans deserved more than two pages, despite only having the two units. Happily, the Royal Australian Air Force – squadrons and support units – gets a decent ten pages, the USAAF five and everyone else (France, Turkey, Portugal, Israel and the Dominican Republic) seven. However, again, it’s all in overview territory. There’s little more than the occasional one-liner quote from aircrew, but that’s perhaps a rabbit hole the author didn’t want to/couldn't go down. 

 

Speaking of the personal connection, there is a sobering tribute in the later pages dedicated to those who became casualties while serving with a Beaufighter unit (killed, wounded/injured, prisoners, etc.). Three columns per A4 page for 20 pages. It is a lovely inclusion. Imagine, though, the power of including the words of some of those listed or their contemporaries – giving them a voice. It would have made for a much longer book, of course, or a mighty second volume, but perhaps this is one of the few paths A-B rarely treads (if at all).

 

The Beaufighter’s full story continues to this day with long-term restorations to flight underway and great work being done on Hercules engineering in Queensland, Australia. Coupled with recent wreck discoveries, and even the important recovery of crew remains over the years, it is clear the type’s history did not end when the last airframe left military service. Again, the inclusion of such material was probably beyond the parameters the author was required to work within but would have highlighted the present stature of the Beaufighter in today’s historic aviation community and its exciting future. Extend that to a survey of the few surviving examples and the story is (more) complete. All this present-day material is, granted, nice to have.

 

It's a Beaufighter book and that's why I now own a copy and, if you're a fan, you should too. It is good, but it is not the comprehensive treatment expected. I wanted more, what it says on the tin, ‘The Full Story’. It is an expensive book and will be a standard reference, though the cost needs to be weighed with what the reader is after. It's more than just a serial number listing, and there are some gems throughout, but if you're after an in-depth narrative on the type, how it influenced strike operations, what it was like to live with and fly, this is not the book for you. Indeed, there's still not one book that can do that (but have a look for Neville Parnell's Beaufighters over the Pacific, Graeme Gibson's forthcoming Road to Glory, Athol Sutherland Brown's Silently into the Midst of Things, and anything relevant by the great Roy Conyers Nesbit, to name a few). It is, however, certainly the most significant overall Beaufighter title since Chaz Bowyers’s 1970s/80s works.

 

ISBN 978-0-95130-5-127

Monday, June 27, 2022

Thinks He's a Bird - Ian Campbell

 


I'm still flat out with manuscript editing so nothing original from me for now. However...

Ladies and gentleman, Sean Feast.

There have been a good many books on Bomber Command published recently, but not many good ones. Thinks He’s a Bird, by Ian Campbell, I am delighted to say, is one of those that is very definitely worth adding to your shelf.

It tells the story of Keith Watson, a young man from Queensland, who after the usual pattern of training overseas ultimately arrives in the UK to join Bomber Command before volunteering for Pathfinder Force (PFF), the corps d’elite. 

Describing the story in such simple terms, however, immediately does the story a gross disservice, because it is so much more than the standard bomber pilot’s biography. It is both poignant and funny, sad and uplifting in equal measure. It manages to weave in considerable detail of what life was like for a journeyman crew in training and operations with a front-line squadron with what was happening outside of Service life, relationships both inside and beyond the station and how, for example, a chance meeting while hitching a lift by the side of the A1 can lead to a lifelong friendship being forged!

For those who have little or no knowledge of Bomber Command, Thinks He’s a Bird is a great way of finding out more about what these brave men went through, and the often perilous training they had to undertake at the various AFUs, OTUs and HCUs dotted around the UK, often in some of the most inhospitable places. Factual detail is complemented by first-hand memories from Keith’s contemporary diary and subsequent interviews and is the stronger for it. 

Whereas some books are wont to gloss over the training, perhaps in fear of boring the reader or wishing (with understandable logic) to spend more time on their (‘more exciting’) operational flights, the author almost appears to take the contrary view and should be congratulated for it. Even as, dare I say it, an experienced author and – first and foremost – an avid reader of anything Bomber Command, I didn’t find myself speed reading to ‘get to the good bits’. The author’s easy style, helped by some intelligent editing, made this a very comfortable and enjoyable read from start to finish.

What I particularly enjoyed was how – intentionally or otherwise – the book helps to explode some of the myths of Bomber Command generally and Pathfinder Force specifically. The way, for example, that the pilot rejected one of the crew as not being up to the mark, which flies against the generally held belief that every crew was an unbreakable unit like a merry band of modern-day musketeers. They were not: tensions among crew members could easily spill over into something worse; personalities often clashed; competency and skill were not a given. Some were not up to the job.

Pathfinder Force, similarly, was not the well-oiled machine it is sometimes made out to be. Chaos and disorganisation were constant spectres at the feast, as evidenced by Keith’s own experiences in joining PFF. 

Having initially been identified as ‘gen’ crew in training (usually because of the skill of the pilot, navigator and air bomber (PNB) team), he did not go straight to PFF as was usual. (At one stage of the war, one third of new PFF crews were drawn direct from training, with the remainder taken from crews that were currently operating or those returning from a ‘rest’). Instead, he is posted to a Main Force squadron prior to being posted to the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit at Warboys. But even when he does finally commence his PFF training, he is sent back to Main Force, owing to an administrative foul-up. It transpired that 5 Group had sent down too many crews for training – undoubtedly the result of a miscommunication between 5 Group and 8 Group (PFF), which was similarly no doubt a by-product of the enmity that existed between the respective AOCs – Cochrane (5 Group) and Bennett (8 Group).

So is there anything wrong with the book? Nope. Not as far as I can see. It is long, which when your glass is half full means you’re getting excellent value for money. It’s a shame it’s not a hardback, or that the quality of imagery isn’t better, but that’s only a minor issue, and in fairness – as a paperback – I would argue the production is as good as you will find. There are a few very minor points I could take issue with, but to do so would be churlish. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, well researched and well-written book which deserves every success.



Monday, April 25, 2022

ANZAC Day 2022

 


April 25 is, as many know, commemorated as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand (and wherever you find ex-pats of both countries). It is the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1915 and plays a big part in the national psyche and culture of both countries. It is commercialised, yes, and it is regularly used by politicians and media alike for self-promotion, such is its importance. Once it passes, and the hoopla wanes for another year, it's like the hangover from a grand final or election. Everything seems to move on.

However, every day is ANZAC Day. Every day is a day we should be grateful for, and remember, those who served and continue to serve. If you're reading this, I doubt you need to be told that, but there it is. Pass on your passion for keeping history alive.

While we're being thankful, take a look at the ABR 2022 ANZAC Day book pile above. These are the new books by/about Australian and New Zealand aircrew, or released by Aussie/Kiwi publishers, that have crossed my desk in the past twelve months. It has been a bumper year. Eighteen titles is a record since I started doing this and at least half are the result of the collaboration between the RAAF's History & Heritage Branch and Big Sky Publishing (or BSP on its own). It hints at a rejuvenation of interest in the genre, but the RAAF's centenary last year will be responsible for a fair chunk of that. 

I've worked on five (*) of these and can vouch for them being a credit to their author/s. If you see something you like, get to it, support these authors/publishers and do your bit to keep these stories alive. Enjoy!

Just in case the photo doesn't zoom in well, top to bottom:

Full Circle - JM Davis
The Gypsy Air Gunner - Tony Vine

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Boys, Bombs and Brussels Sprouts - J. Douglas Harvey

 


More than three months into 2022 and all I've done is add several covers of new books as they've crossed my desk. As before, the manuscript editing work is keeping me busy (follow Wright Stuff Editing & Proofreading if you want to get an idea of what I'm up to) and away from review writing, even reading. For the lack of content on here, I apologise. I must also proffer humblest apologies to Robert Brokenmouth, guest reviewer, for holding on to this and two other reviews since July. It doesn't feel like that long, but the emails say otherwise. Here, then, from a writer who knows how to get inside the head of a Bomber Command author, is a review of a book that some have said is quite hilarious (in a good way). That's not something you come across too often with BC, but there you have it. It's also a book I simply have not been able to find a nice copy of for a decent price. When I do, the postage is silly. Anyway, that's too many of my woes. Enjoy. Andy Wright.


We all have our favourite aviation books. You might think mine can be guessed at: Cheshire, Gibson, Charlwood, Cusack, Ollis.

 

Well, those five, yes. But there are several others; Yates (see here) is one, and this little cracker is another.

 

While some of us buy a military autobiography because we have an interest in the historical events, the small boy inside us (certainly me, I’m afraid) wants nothing but incredible adventures. Mel Rolfe’s series of books were hugely popular for that reason. Sprouts is brimming with events and details I have never read before in an aviation biography (never mind one on Bomber Command). Harvey’s knack of recall of specific things brings into sharp focus the grimmer everyday aspects of RAF life – told in such a way that sharp cackles of laughter on the bus are so frequent that you’ll get looks from disapproving teenagers. I won’t spoil it – though I’d love to – but Harvey tells his story with frankness, comic contempt, and an astonishing tenderness. It’s a hugely powerful book and, if you've not read it, you are in for a treat.

 

Harvey, a Canadian, joined No. 408 Squadron, Bomber Command, in June 1943 and survived to be screened in April 1944. Like Cusack and Ollis, he has little respect for the RAF system of promotion (arguing with the CO about the fact that officers get more pay than sergeants and all essentially do the same job; again, I won't spoil it). Unlike those two, however, he can recount a fantastic and very rare appearance by Bomber Harris.  

 

Lastly, if there’s a sorely overlooked book of the bombing war just waiting to be written, it's about the fussy, impractical, bullet-proof officer who wangles a posting to ops and proceeds to stuff everything up with a sort of self-justified glee. Cusack and Ollis each encountered one of these ding-bats (to the point where one surmises that a principal reason for writing about their experiences in the first place is to reveal and humiliate the ding-bat). Yates was one of these training characters, but he at least comprehended that he was far from invincible and endeavoured to bring back his crew (and himself) alive. Harvey encounters not one but two (leading me to think there should definitely be more known about these characters); and, not wishing to spoil the surprise, I’ll leave it there.

 

Let your fingers do the walking, as they say, and fish out the credit card. This is a somewhat under-appreciated (I won’t say ‘forgotten’) work that should be a perennial like the works of the ‘famous five/six’ mentioned above.

ISBN 978-0-77104-0-481