27 December 2023

Flying with the Navy – Steve and Heather Bond


I can't say I've ever seen a landscape format book from Grub Street before, especially an aviation title. It's a surprising package from cover to cover (almost as surprising as ABR showcasing a book with a 'Brick' on the cover!). As a sucker for anything to do with wartime naval aviation, and therefore absorbing anything to do with the subject either side of 1939–45, I expected to see some familiar images, but none were. The photos are the 'cast offs'; those not used in the author's Fleet Air Arm Boys series. That says a lot for the quality of the images in that series as this book is quite magic.

The subject matter, which of course guides the images (or was it vice versa?!), covers almost all aspects of life in the Royal Navy's air arm, from far flung bases and theatres to life at sea and 'coming home'. Just about every aircraft type used by the air arm gets its own chapter and photo spread, as do some of the roles that make everything happen and the cultural norms familiar to the naval family. Some of the captions are quite pithy too.

At first glance, you could argue Flying with the Navy is a potted history of the RNAS and FAA, but it goes so much deeper than that. This is the illustrated story of an air arm that, but for a few long years in the mid-1940s, has always had to justify its existence. Its people have always played the cards they've been dealt and always, always, delivered more than could ever be expected. The proof is in the images and breadth of narrative.

Visit Navy Wings and support them by buying the book from their store. 

Please be mindful the Grub Street website links above are only of use if you are in the UK. For various reasons, the publisher no longer ships outside the UK. Please speak to your local bookshop to buy/order a copy, visit the Navy Wings link above, access your preferred buying website or use this Abebooks link to acquire a copy.

ISBN 978-1-91171-4-033

05 September 2023

Mosquito Intruder Pilot – Jeremy Walsh


The Far East. That’s how you get my attention. Right, the book is off the shelf. Read the back cover description and/or blurbs: ‘Intruder’, ‘night fighters’, ‘strain’, ‘twitch’, ‘Oscar’. Okay, good. Inside flap: ‘lied about his age’, ‘Boston’, belly landings’, ‘engine failures’. Somewhat standard, but what’s this about his age? He turned 21 in February 1945; he flew his first op in the fourth quarter of 1942. I’ll leave that for you to figure out. Mosquito Intruder Pilot makes all the right moves in selling itself as the complete package – the ideal aircrew biography – and, bar a scattering of issues, it does just that.

Ben Walsh, missing the camaraderie of his older friends who had already enlisted and wanting to do his bit, managed (amazingly) to get his parents to sign a letter saying he could enlist when he was 18. Through further acts of subterfuge, he signed on with the RAF quite short of that milestone. 

Training complete, he was posted to No 418 Squadron to fly Douglas Boston intruders; the unit was new to the role and had suffered heavy losses for little return. These losses continued steadily, the system of two nights on/two nights off – with there being a good chance of not even being called for an op when ‘on’ – meant it really was the luck of the draw, despite some casualties from non-operational accidents. Duty crews, as the night progressed, were stood down one by one if nothing was in the offing. Besides the stress of being on call, the nervous energy that must have dissipated when a crew stood down or built as those remaining continued waiting, would have done a number on any man. Indeed, knowing you were flying that night would have been a release, a known quantity to some extent.

By mid-1943, with 18 ops under his belt, and an interminable number of hours at readiness, it is clear Ben has been struggling with his nerves for some time. This was perhaps exacerbated by his desire to remember his friends and colleagues who were lost; throughout his service he maintained a ‘roll of honour’. By this stage, there were 32 on the list. As the squadron began to convert to the Mosquito, however, and the operational tempo increased, Ben could finally see an end to his first tour. The unit, though, as part of the RCAF in the RAF, had become more Canadian and, as a British NCO, Ben’s conversion to the new type didn’t appear to be much of a priority, although he did complete it. It was then he and his navigator were told they were off to the Far East.

An eventful ferry journey east ended with the delivery of the recalcitrant Mosquito to Allahabad. Senses overloaded by a very foreign land, the two men were briefly posted to a PR unit, much to their frustration given their experience (it was all because they were a Mosquito crew), before finally landing with No 27 Squadron in late November 1943.

Initially, the tempo of ops resembled those in the UK. By April 1944, Ben had only notched up another four trips. The decision of 27 Squadron to retain its Beaufighters, however, forced a move to No 45 Squadron. The unit, consisting mostly of Australians and New Zealanders, came under a different command and Ben was told his ops didn’t count and he would have to start his tour all over again! On top of the surprising and distressing loss of his mother earlier in the year, not to mention his obvious homesickness, it is clear the literal and figurative drop in our hero’s shoulders, and subsequent hospitalisation, had little to do with the oppressive climate of the region. 

Still, he fought on, returning to the unit as an ‘outsider’ in some respects. The grounding of the Mosquito in the theatre due to issues with water ingress and the much-vaunted glue issues was just another thing to be overcome if his luck, relatively speaking, held. With the squadron’s aircraft strength reduced after intensive investigations and assessments, its eventual return to operations was welcomed. No one appreciated this more than Ben. Finally, in December 1944, he hit his straps, flying an incredible 19 ops during the month.

Four months later, having reached 75 operational sorties, surviving Japanese flak and fighters in what proved to be the flying he yearned for – challenging, consuming, consistent – Ben was posted out to a communications unit, eventually ending up with a maintenance unit where he flew several initial air tests on Mosquitos before the effects of accumulated stress returned with a vengeance. 

Back home by late 1945, Ben was demobbed in mid-1946. Understandably, he didn’t readjust very well, but his blossoming relationship with his future wife proved the foundation upon which he rebuilt his life. Menial jobs saw him through to a long and successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, his dogged determination led to starting a successful business from scratch and overcoming health issues. He passed away in October 2008.

Mosquito Intruder Pilot goes a lot deeper than just recounting a wartime service career. The depth of understanding and analysis brought by the author, as Ben’s son and a former RAF serviceman himself, extends far beyond the aircraft, the flyers, their operations and the greater war. There is a successful attempt to get inside Ben’s head, based on his letters and other records, to extrapolate the effects of the immeasurable factors that contributed to his mental load, factors that manifested themselves physically one way or the other.

The examination of stress felt by aircrew, Ben specifically, is no mere undercurrent. Indeed, the first chapter, what sets the scene for the rest of the book – therefore one of the author’s most effective tools – sees the subject under examination in 1946 as RAF medical types try to get to grips with Ben’s bouts of fainting. Immediately, the focus is on this man’s mental and physical state. What got him here? The author’s subsequent deft touch in this area, while influenced by his own experiences living under the same roof, raises as many questions as it answers, revealing an understanding of the subject while making it clear just how much more there is to learn in this understudied area of the aircrew experience.

With this early investment in the ‘principal character’s’ wellbeing, the reader develops an affinity with him – the aim of all good biographies – and feels his frustration as the tour drags on. Equally, it is pleasing when he finally gets a good run on operations, flying 50 or so in short order before he is finally rested. However, there is also concern for his willingness to record the losses of his friends and colleagues, even those in other theatres he learns of through the grapevine. While it is clear he wanted to remember these men, did the exercise affect him adversely? We all know the generally accepted ‘line’ or method, often recounted, was to get on with the job, apparently without a second thought for those lost, so seeing something like this (the list is included in an appendix), something outside the ‘accepted’ norm raises an eyebrow or two. It also asks the question as to what was more effective – addressing the losses as Ben did or ignoring them and having the effects of doing so manifest as who-knows-what later in life. No two people are the same, but it is clear both ‘methods’ have their downsides, as you’d expect, with Ben’s laid out for all to see.

Wrapped around this ongoing intrigue is a decent discussion of intruder operations in both Europe and the Far East, as well as the minutiae of life on a squadron and the impact of lives and family outside the RAF. To place all of this in context, while keeping the focus on Ben, most of the superbly titled chapters begin with a small list of major events happening at the same time. While these are useful, they highlight a problem encountered throughout the book – an incomplete grasp of the technology, terminology and ‘basics’ of the era. Don’t get me wrong, everything about Ben is what you want from a biography; it’s the details that let things down. While no doubt the author’s doing, some of the issues need to lay at the feet of the publisher. Typos like Welham (Geoff Wellum), Gypsy, Turpitz, Aircraftsman, Boxcar (the Nagasaki B-29) and Chindwits are inexcusable for a major military publisher. British ships at Midway, anyone? The author’s relative ‘newness’ to the era is also clear with his research leading him to moments of confusion such as Pratt & Whitney Cyclone engines, the Airspeed Oxford being powered by Wasps (less than 300 were) and, similarly, the inference that all Bostons/Havocs had Pratt & Whitneys, not to mention talking to the tower to request permission to take off for an intruder op, there being no autopilots or electronic aids, and clunky references like ‘German riots at Amsterdam Jews’. 

Repetition is also an issue with, most glaringly, ‘Ben’ being used many times in the same paragraph or even sentence (more so that what I’ve used above!). Minor details also regularly crop up, such as the marriage of Ben’s sister or the specifications of the Mosquito. Most obvious is the map on page 198 reappearing on page 206. An author may not see the woods for the trees, understandably, but that’s what editors and proof-readers are for and, as well-intentioned as family members always are, the majority of the time they will accept what is written when it comes to detail and fact. Again, though, I must stress the examples mentioned above made it through several stages, the final ones being the ‘eyes’ of a major military publisher. The buck stops there and in this case prevent the book from crossing the threshold from ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’.

I was always going to buy this book and I cannot wait for the author’s forthcoming Mosquito Intruders – Target Burma, which is sure to be equally well illustrated and produced. Mosquito Intruder Pilot is everything you look for in a biography, albeit a little rough around the edges, with the subject barely moving from the centre of the narrative; the author avoids major tangents and rabbit holes, with even the Mosquito’s issues in the Far East (the one great failing of the type) recounted with just sufficient detail to add depth to Ben’s journey. The editor in me came away frustrated at what might have been, but the reader and aircrew enthusiast/aficionado/activist revelled in experiencing another life lived. 

ISBN 978-1-39908-4-772

31 August 2023

Flying to the Edge – Matthew Willis


Mention ‘test pilot’ to anyone with even just a passing interest in aviation and their mind will inevitably turn to the likes of ‘Chuck’ Yeager, perhaps the astronauts of the ‘Space Race’. Widen the net and Jeffrey Quill, Alex Henshaw, Hanna Reitsch and Eric Brown are sure to be mentioned. What about Mike Lithgow, Peter Twiss, Don Lopez, Roland Beamont and, a personal favourite, ‘Mike’ Crosley? Besides the obvious Western origins, there is one thing they all share. They all came to prominence, and I mean approached being household names, for their exploits during and after the Second World War. What about Duncan Menzies? Never heard of him? Well, you have now and the opportunity to learn more is provided by a book that is a lesson in efficiency and focus.


Born to a Scottish farming family in 1905, Menzies’s future was to follow his father on the family’s land in the Scottish Highlands. What he wanted, though, was freedom and flying appeared to offer that. Perhaps seeing his future in his father made him feel hemmed in; joining the RAF offered a broadening of horizons.


Broaden they certainly did as Menzies trained in Egypt for much of 1928, flying Avro 504Ks before progressing to the ‘bomber’ flight and DH.9As. In the final quarter of the year, he was posted to No 45 Squadron, south of Cairo, to continue flying the DH.9A. Promoted to flying officer early in the new year, he was sent to No 47 Squadron in the Sudan in mid-June, but not before flying the Fairey IIIF as his old squadron began to convert to the type.


The RAF in Africa and the Middle East, and beyond, performed the role of ‘aerial policeman’ throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The Sudan was no exception although there is no evidence Menzies was involved in any raids at the time. He was certainly not underemployed, however. Flying Fairey IIIFs again throughout the region proving routes and performing aerial photography and surveys, he even tried for some endurance records. He returned to the UK in mid-1930, trained as an instructor and, as fate would have it, returned to Egypt, and the school he learned to fly at, to teach.


With hours building, Menzies found the time between instructing to hone his aerobatics; he would be called upon to perform flying displays. With the culmination of the first course, he led a flight of, interestingly, Armstrong-Whitworth Atlases to Iraq, effectively graduating the class while also acting as a show of force to the region. It is a particularly evocative part of the book, with accompanying images, as the aircraft traverse vast tracts of exceptionally inhospitable desert (and not without mishap).


An oft-expressed desire to fly a wider range of types, coupled with his instructing prowess and reputation, saw Duncan posted to the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), the centre of the test-flying world. During his almost three years at Martlesham Heath, after finding his feet, Menzies achieved his goal, albeit most types seemed remarkably antiquated for the time. While he had glimpses of the future, including flying the Heinkel He 64, his testing career gravitated towards naval types and he was part of the team that tested what would become the Fairey Swordfish. 


Coming to the end of his medium-service commission, and now a highly regarded test pilot, Menzies took the opportunity to resign his commission to stay employed doing what he loved. Faireys took him on and he was soon back in the Swordfish programme before moving to the long-overdue Hendon bomber. It was a Fairey light bomber, however, that stole the limelight the following year, 1937, when the first Battle rolled off the production line. Menzies flew this aircraft for most of April, testing it and proving that, weighed down with operational equipment, the Battle fell short. He had his first brush with the aircraft that would define his career, the Fulmar, in mid-1937, but much of the remaining years leading to war were taken up with testing Battles.


The Fleet Air Arm desperately needed a modern fighter and ended up with the Fulmar. Underpowered and carrying a crew of two, this graceful and ‘friendly’ (important when landing on aircraft carriers) aircraft remains the highest-scoring fighter fielded by the Royal Navy. It was the typical FAA type of the period, loved by its crews but lamented for not quite being up to the job given it. This aside, Duncan Menzies was there to test all the improvements and refinements made to the type throughout its operational career, no doubt being one of the main contributors to ‘Winkle’ Brown’s comment about the ‘basic rightness’ of the Fulmar.


After a Fulmar disintegrated around him, the g-force of the destruction throwing the test pilot clear, in early February 1941, Menzies spent the next few years of the war flying whatever Fairey had on offer – prototype and early production Barracudas, reconditioned Battles and even Fairey-built Beaufighters. He worked as an FAA liaison from 1944, taking advantage of being able to spend a few days at sea, ostensibly to see how aircraft handled on and off carriers of course, away from what was becoming an increasingly technical and somewhat troublesome job. He even headed to the Far East to investigate issues with operational Fireflies.


Throughout the later years of the war, the Fulmar, despite being withdrawn from operational service, continued to feature prominently in Duncan’s life; the prototype, having languished at Faireys for some time, was rejuvenated and became the company ‘hack’. It continued in this role post-war, proving useful during the development of the Firefly trainer, a project Menzies pushed hard for upon realising the power differential between trainers of the day and new aircraft like the Sea Fury. After a year in Australia helping with the Royal Australian Navy’s new Fireflies, and 25 years after dragging an Avro 504K into the hot Egyptian air, Menzies stepped from a cockpit as pilot for the last time in February 1952. Fittingly, his last flight was in the company Fulmar. He retired in 1964 and passed away in 1997.


Flying had been Duncan’s path to freedom and it kept him gainfully employed, and challenged, for a quarter of a century. When it became overly technical and bureaucratic – constricted by gadgets, technology and rules – he felt the freedom had gone so, without any apparent qualms, he simply stopped. He did so without fanfare; quietly and modestly, he just stepped aside. That modesty is reflected in Flying to the Edge. While there are some gaps in the account of his pre-war service, per what remains of his records, the author seamlessly fills them with reference to other sources backed by intelligent analysis and conclusions. There is no padding, though, and little in the way of contextual scene setting once Menzies returns to the UK for good. It’s not needed as the focus is kept firmly on the subject.


The accounts of service in Africa are vivid, almost ‘last frontier’ stuff, and are remarkably well illustrated, not by generic photos of the era and region, but by images featuring Menzies and his colleagues. An image of the Atlases flying to Iraq over a forbidding landscape is particularly striking. The focus exhibited in the narrative extends to the photo selection throughout, each having a direct link to Menzies if he’s not actually pictured.


Pre-war test flying was, obviously, the crest of the wave and Menzies was right on it. Descriptions of the types under development with A&AEE border on the exquisite, without disappearing down any number of rabbit holes, and are the product of an author well versed in the technical, and sometimes quirky, aspects of the machines and their time. 


For a book of a modest 120 pages, it is astonishing how much is included. The thoughtful layout helps, but this is certainly a book that punches well above its weight. Like Duncan Menzies, it might have flown under the radar, especially as the author has since been ‘scooped up’ by larger, more prolific aviation publishers, but track it down and set off on a heady journey with the Faireys.


ISBN 978-1-44566-4-415

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

01 January 2023

Looking Backwards over Burma – Dennis Spencer DFC


Like this simple 192-page paperback from Woodfield Publishing, I’m getting straight into this review. Dennis Spencer was a No 211 Squadron Beaufighter navigator, flying a tour of operations over Burma, hence the title, with the same pilot he flew the ferry flight from the UK with. As expected, their bond was strong and the book is simply dedicated ‘for Geoff’ (Vardigans).


It took them 20 days to reach India (Allahabad), slowed by two spare parts delays, and then almost the same again for the author to reach Calcutta, his pilot having been admitted to hospital. The account of their journey to this point reads almost like a travelogue, once the ferry flight from the UK is underway, the author proving exquisitely observant (something that becomes exceptionally useful, both for intelligence officer and reader alike, during his tour) with good descriptions of weather, terrain and people.


Dennis is also particularly good at an almost overwhelming dose of self-doubt. He is consistently worried about his ability and skill as a navigator and, in general, a serviceman. This is evident early on before he flies on ops. Having to travel to Bhatpara (East Bengal, now Bangladesh, just north-east of where the Ganges flows into a major distributary, the Padma River) on his own, despite travel warrants and the like, is daunting. Indeed, this chapter is titled ‘Lonely Journey in a Foreign Land’. His uncertainty is further assaulted by the ‘seething mass of humanity’ he encounters and the general culture shock of experiencing India, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Dennis is eventually warmly welcomed to the squadron, having travelled by Dakota, train, river steamer and truck to get there, and takes up residence on a ‘dead man’s bed’, a fact his new basha mate tries to hide (the standard coping mechanism for most aircrew).


Flying his first op six days later (this is March/April 1944 so the time of Kohima and Imphal) across the Irrawaddy with a ‘mad’ Canadian who felt he did not need a navigator, the author, having been told by his colleagues that map reading was of far more use than keeping an accurate plot, experiences a rollercoaster of emotions as he feels compassion for the Burmese they scare the living daylights out of at low level and then burning hatred for enemy soldiers who try to man an anti-aircraft gun. The realisation sinks in – ‘For me this was the day the war had really started.’


Pilot and navigator were reunited soon after as, by mid-May, Geoff and Dennis were approaching double figures for ops flown. Their tour progresses through to early December, with a few adventures on the way as you would expect, both men earning the DFC as a result and the author starting a rest tour with a Mosquito Conversion Unit near Bangalore; he also casually mentions he’s there as the navigation officer so any doubts about his abilities were clearly all in his head! If you’ve read anything about low-level work over Burma, you’ll be familiar with how these strikes were carried out and how the environment – the terrain and the weather – were as dangerous as the Japanese. What stands out, however, is the author’s description of the flying, the attacks and the sheer effort just to get home. Coupled with his memories of squadron life and life in India, the narrative is on par with Andrew Millar’s The Flying Hours and Atholl Sutherland Brown’s Silently into the Midst of Things in terms of painting a colourful, harrowing, debilitating, and even fragrant picture of the aircrew experience over Burma. The downtime between ops is exacerbated by Dennis being very good at worrying when he has nothing to do. His ‘expanded Inner Self awareness’ means he knows he lets his mind run; these internalisations – the fear, overcoming it, etc. – receive as much weight on the page as the flying.


Lightly illustrated, a small bibliography is included, as are some small, useful appendices. While very much a descriptive account of the ‘highlights’ or, at least, what he could remember – there are a few dates and aircraft/technical details mentioned, but their paucity hardly registers given the rich narrative – a lot is learned about Dennis and, to a lesser extent, Geoff, his pilot. To do so in less than 200 pages is something special. This is the ideal aircrew memoir.  


ISBN 978-1-84683-0-730

*Dennis Spencer passed away in September 2020.