18 July 2023

Barracuda Pilot - Dunstan Hadley


To give you an idea of how busy I've been and how absolutely neglected ABR has been in 2023, besides the obvious sole review to date appearing on 1 January, this review, written by regular contributor (to both ABR and Flight Line Book Review) Adrian Roberts, was sent to me at the end of January. It's taken me this long to remember I had it at the same time as having some time to publish it. I do hope to have more reviews up before the year is out; we'll see how we go. It is interesting to note Adrian's comment about the author's positive views on the Barracuda, certainly in the minority in this age of 'stories' and 'reputations' that take on a life of their own. While I agree some of the criticism towards the Barracuda is justified, Hadley's impressions mirror those of the great Roy Baker-Falkner, as detailed in Drucker's excellent biography 'Wings over the Waves'. Andy Wright

Dunstan Hadley left his studies as a medical student and joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1941. He was selected for training on the Fairey Barracuda torpedo bomber, which implied a greater level of aptitude than those destined for the Swordfish. 

Given the negative view of many aviation enthusiasts of the Barracuda (more of which were produced than any other British naval aircraft), it was interesting to read the views of a pilot with first-hand experience who has a largely positive view of the type. Many pilots will have a prejudice in favour of types on which they spent a large proportion of their career; Hadley seems to find very little reason to be negative about it. Possibly the worst faults had been ironed out before he got to fly them; he acknowledges that the wings came off some of the early examples but does not mention this happening to anyone he knew. One of his friends was killed when he apparently lost control during manoeuvres, but Hadley was prepared to go up and replicate the incident and work out how to deal with it. Readers may have come across some rumours of the undercarriage collapsing into the observer’s position during heavy landings, but Hadley does not even mention this so maybe it was not considered a frequent issue. 

In the end, Hadley only flew one combat operation, from HMS Victorious against Sigli on Sumatra. He is critical of the Admiralty’s decision to withdraw the Barracuda in favour of Avenger squadrons due to their longer range. Readers solely interested in accounts of combat may be disappointed. They would be missing out, however, as Hadley is a very entertaining writer and takes us through the entire process of basic training of a naval recruit, primary flight training and operational training including practice landings on small escort carriers. 

The anecdotes are often humorous and self-deprecating. Obviously, writing 50 years after the events, he must be fictionalising the conversations and possibly re-inventing some characters, but the story opens onto a forgotten world involving people as well as technology. Either way, the small details of life in the 1940s are rapidly moving out of human memory and worth preserving.  

Hadley gives no details of his later life, but the book’s flyleaf implies he went back to Medicine after the war. A Google search turned up a document from University College Oxford (where the book says he was a student) suggesting he died in 2000, aged 79. Aviation enthusiasts have reason to be grateful he committed his flying career to paper. This book is long out of print but well worth searching out on the second-hand market.

ISBN 978-1-85310-1-953