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

Monday, December 27, 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


Wednesday, December 22, 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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Luck and a Lancaster - Harry Yates DFC


Well, I'm still struggling to find the time to get reviews written, despite the increasing stack of finished books accumulating on one end of the desk. I am planning a return to 'Monday review writing' but that assumes I can continue to manage the manuscript edit deadlines. It is good to be busy! Anyway, I've pulled a guest reviewer out of my quiver and he's pointed himself at a very worthwhile target. Robert Brokenmouth, intrepid local music scene reporter, auction house denizen, and raconteur, has appeared on ABR before as a reviewer but, more importantly, as the editor of new, annotated editions of the Australian bomber aircrew classics 'They Hosed Them Out' and '101 Nights'. His work on these titles produced two of the greatest additions to wartime aircrew literature of the 21st century. Therefore, it is a pleasure to publish his review of a title from the end of last century, from the end of a decade that was arguably the high watermark in terms of wartime memoirs seeing the light of day. Andy Wright.

Originally published in 1999 by Airlife (and then Wrens Park and Crowood Park), Luck and a Lancaster tells the oft-repeated tale of a young man who wanted to fly and ended up in Bomber Command ... but the writing, the vivid nature of the author’s recall, and his overall story, commands attention.

Yates takes us through his initial training in 1940, through his eighteen-month unwanted stint as a flying instructor, and then op by op to the end of his tour with No. 75 Squadron on 30 December 1944. It is ironic in so many ways that Yates, with his heart set on Beaufighters or Mosquitos, insisted on getting himself transferred to ops and ended up on Lancs in Bomber Command. Luck?

Running through it all is his reflection on luck, as if it is some sort of tangible imp peering down at us and occasionally cackling. Chance plays a huge part in warfare; most soldiers take part in only a few battles in their career; but almost any bombing operation was effectively a battle in itself. As aviation buffs know, a tour of operations was ... thirty battles. 

If you survived.

Yates has a story to tell and he gets on with it, occasionally contrasting related events with observations of history which are well known today, but were unknown to the airmen at the time. His easy to digest style means you power through the book, occasionally pausing to gasp in disbelief or horror (Yates’s crew had an eventful tour, to say the least). Despite the passage of the years, we are gripped by a matter-of-fact narrative of a crew in the midst of powerful events and a determination for Yates and his men to survive.

One thing which strikes me on this reading (my fourth or fifth) is the large number of people we should know more about, but simply don’t. They either haven’t written a book or haven’t left sufficient detail of themselves to survive into the digital age. Squadron Leader Jack Leslie is a perfect example.

Luck and a Lancaster does not have the bitterness of Gibson, the naivete of Cheshire, or the reflectiveness of Charlwood, but its measured, tense pace, and contrast between the young man who the old man remembers, means this book belongs on your shelf. 

Nutshell? Forgotten classic.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Sailor Malan - Philip Kaplan


Humblest apologies, everyone. I've been incredibly busy with editing work that I haven't had a chance to get any review writing done (let alone reading!). It is great to be busy but I have been missing my, as of this year, new 'Mondays are for review writing' sessions. Anyway, here's a new guest reviewer for ABR. Andrew Kitney works for an airline in the UK. He gets around a fair bit as a result, more so eighteen months ago (!), and is a regular airshow attendee. With a passion for just about everything in aviation, he's more often seen over on Flight Line Book Review. This is the first ABR-relevant title I've managed to get in front of him. It's a bit odd seeing the same publisher release two books on Malan from two different authors so close to each other, but there hasn't been much focussed work on the chap of late so no major complaints on that front. Enjoy! Andy Wright.

Anybody with more than a passing interest in the Battle of Britain will have heard of the South African RAF Ace, ‘Sailor’ Malan. He led a fascinating and varied life, so I was looking forward to this book

With a somewhat different than normal path to the RAF, his early days on the family farm in South Africa are well conveyed. As a young boy he became a fantastic marksman, something that would stand him in good stead throughout his flying career. 

Detailing his early career as a sailor, which is where his nickname originated, starting on a South African training ship and then into the merchant fleet, he experienced European and Atlantic ports. The city of New York and ports in Germany both had a significant influence on him. His spent a short spell training in the RN and, with war on the horizon, his application for the RAF and subsequent flight training is nicely covered.

The scene is set with a fulsome account from his friend, and fellow Battle of Britain pilot, New Zealander Al Deere, covering their relationship from the early to latter parts of Malan’s RAF career. A subsequent chapter on the Spitfire moves onto Malan’s time at Hornchurch and some of the early sorties flown during the war and in the Battle of Britain. 

Describing nicely what Malan is renowned for, a chapter talks about the changes he introduced to combat formations and fighting, together with his ‘10 Commandments’, the golden rules, of air combat. These tactics contributed significantly to his success. 

The frantic days at RAF Biggin Hill at the height of the Battle of Britain are well described, including the frenetic sorties and what it was like living on the base at the time. His tenure as base commander several years into the war is also covered. Accompanying combat reports spotlight the relentlessness of combat. 

With a nod to the inclusion of a like-minded character in the famous Battle of Britain movie, a later chapter covers reflections and plaudits from a number of pilots and commanders of the period as well as historians. 

The book finishes with how Malan has been remembered after his death. This follows a chapter looking at his post-war life in the political turmoil of his native South Africa. The narrative is accompanied by a few black and white photos of Malan and his compatriots to add to the scene setting. 

To call this a complete and comprehensive biography of Sailor Malan would be erroneous, especially with numerous pages of his wartime life being devoted to such key compatriots as Al Deere. They do, however, provide the context for the period in which Malan served and add to the overall atmosphere of the time and place of his service. Overall, I enjoyed this book and it took me back to my younger days where I searched high and low during my weekly library visits for similar accounts of Second World War heroes. 

ISBN 978-1-52678-2-274

Friday, February 26, 2021

The Life of Barry E. Gale - Andrew Arthy

 


As much as I am a fan of the physical book, I do begrudgingly accept there is a place, and a definite need, for digital editions. Most of the titles featured on Aircrew Book Review are now available in some digital format, making them accessible almost immediately from anywhere with a half decent internet connection. It was still a bit of a surprise, however, when I was asked to review a pilot’s biography produced by specialist publisher Air War Publications. How to tackle what is essentially appears as a long, well-researched magazine feature supplied as a PDF? The same way as everything else: fairly and honestly. What I found would put most magazine articles and shorter books to shame.

Barry Gale was an Australian Spitfire pilot, albeit born in England, who joined No 111 Squadron in mid-1942. He stayed with this unit until July 1943, initially flying on offensive operations across the Channel before the squadron moved to Algeria in late 1942 to support the Torch landings. Gale had already had some success flying the Spitfire Mk.V against the far superior Fw 190 and this would continue in Africa, although the Spitfires were now weighted down by Vokes chin filters. Conditions on the airfields were very basic and the men were subjected to regular raids by the Luftwaffe. It was an unpleasant existence, but the best was made of things and the squadron kept busy with interceptions and regular successes against their generally better-equipped enemy counterparts. Gale became a flight commander in March 1943, an indication of his experience and leadership qualities, and was awarded the DFC at the end of his tour.

The requisite rest spell followed, as an instructor at the RAF Fighter Leader School, before Gale was posted to No 165 Squadron. Now flying the Spitfire Mk.IXb, Barry and his colleagues were very much on the offensive in the second half of 1944 and converted to Mustang IIIs in January 1945. Barry was already acting as the CO of the unit and was promoted to squadron leader during this period, making him one of the few Australians to fly the Mustang in RAF service, perhaps one of the most senior too. He remained with the unit post-war but was eventually back in Australia by March 1946. He became a respected civil engineer and passed away in July 2011.

While I printed off my copy of The Life of Barry E. Gale (because I stare at a screen enough as it is!), the eArticle is designed to be viewed and read on a screen with all the advantages that offers (scalability, clarity, colour etc). While not restricted by space, although perhaps working to a predetermined in-house length and layout, the author (Western Australian Andrew Arthy) keeps the focus firmly on Gale yet manages to capture some of his contemporaries in passing. The fine control of the narrative indicates an author across his subject, at ease with it and definitely not flying his first solo. Considering the subject didn’t leave behind a diary or bundle of letters, there is a lot here; the references listed, consuming almost a page and a half of the eighteen-page document, put a lot of books to shame. 

This is not a long read, of course, and might barely consume thirty minutes. That said, taking your time with it, absorbing the supporting tables and the excellent map, will easily chew up an enjoyable hour. The useful glossary and ‘life at a glance’ sit on the inside front cover and, with the map on the following page, provide the ideal snapshot of Gale’s war.

The important thing about this work is it tells the story of a pilot who, at best, probably just gets a mention when featured elsewhere in photos or operational reports. A more than capable fighter leader, Gale falls into the ‘one of the many’ category, the thousands of remarkable aircrew who got the job done. We can only hope the author has the chance to apply this treatment to other Australian airmen. Who knows, perhaps a book of collected stories might eventuate. In the meantime, consider this and other titles from Air War Publications and you’ll discover a small publisher doing big things, and a Western Australian aviation historian ranking among fellow West Aussies like Cyril Ayris and Charles Page.

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.