Thursday, February 08, 2018

Pre-order discount on new Catalina book


Many of you will be familiar with the work of Hans Wiesman, 'The Dakota Hunter'. As you'll know, his interests range far beyond the realm of the legendary DC-3 family. His adventures have extended to several Catalina safaris with the aircraft, the former (famously) Z-CAT, that now operates in New Zealand. Those adventures, and his extensive network, have led to a book, no, to use the author's words, a "luxury photo album", about one of perhaps the two or three aircraft types that can rival the DC-3/C-47 for longevity in service. 

There is something about the Catalina and I reckon it is almost a household name. Perhaps that's a little too optimistic, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, this new book covers the history of the Catalina through a vast selection of images that extend well beyond the author's own impressive collection. The emphasis is on the photos (400+), but much of the research and proof-reading of this 288 page work has been performed by the doyen of Catalina research, David Legg.

The author and publisher are offering a 20% discount to enthusiasts who pre-order the book. That amounts to a US$10 saving which is nothing to be sneezed at. You'll also get a 'first day' photo print signed by the author. This can be framed or kept with the book.

This is something a little different to the norm for Aircrew Book Review, but if you visit the website below to look further, click on the cover as you'll find a sample of pages full of RAF and Commonwealth bods. For the RAAF, the Catalina remained, until relatively late in the war, the only type capable of deep, offensive sorties behind enemy lines.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Lancaster Bale Out - Clive Smith


I get a bit twitchy when I see a new Bomber Command book written by a relative of an airman. That’s a bit jaded so don't mind me. My ultimate desire when reading is to bury myself in a memoir. A book written by a relative could never be regarded as a memoir. Or could it? Lancaster Bale Out is a quality Bomber Command book written by the second cousin of a 106 Squadron RAF WOp/AG. It is not really, however, a gunner's story. It is largely the wartime tale of his bomb aimer, the sole survivor of the crew. More than anything, it is his memoir.

The author’s second cousin, Jack Hougham, trained in the UK and was ready for OTU by late 1942. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was from County Durham and a coal miner like his father. Interestingly, a number of the eventual Lanc crew had been miners or were from a mining family. Perhaps a sixth sense for that sort of thing contributed to bringing them together. Anyway, Fred began training as an observer proper in Canada. Clever and astute, he unfortunately suffered from terrible homesickness and gave up during his course to the point that he failed. He was re-mustered on the first bomb aimer course in Canada, returned to the UK and had joined a crew of five at OTU by the end of October 1942. His pilot was an American, a relatively rare thing in Bomber Command, and a chap who proved to have his head screwed on straight when it came to flying ops.

Before long they picked up another gunner and a flight engineer and converted to the Lancaster before joining 106 Squadron at Syerston. Their first operational trip as a crew was to Lorient in France on the night of 2/3 March 1943, but the intercom failed and they wisely returned home. Their first completed op was to Essen three nights later. They flew their fifth completed op at the end of April. Rosner, the American pilot, was one of those skippers who liked to keep weaving and rarely flew straight and level when not on the bomb run. He would also ‘go downhill’ on the way home so the Lanc picked up a bit of extra speed. His actions were indicative of an impressive, competent crew who got through a few scrapes during their tour.

Sadly, all the skill and attentiveness can never make up for a bomber crew’s luck running out, be it on their first op or their thirtieth. On the way home on three engines after their 20th op, a raid on Cologne on 8/9 July, they were shot down by a German fighter. The rear gunner managed to bail out, but was killed. Fred Smooker, the bomb aimer, was the only man to survive. He managed, through the help of a dizzying array of brave French men and women, to spend the best part of three months evading capture and was on the way to Spain by train when the authorities caught up with him. Amazingly, he then spent 56 days in solitary confinement in a Parisian prison before arriving at Stalag IVB in early December 1943. There he remained for the duration. He returned home with a desire to pick up where he left off and finished his mining studies to become a mining engineer. He took his young family to India for six years in 1951 to work on the railways and eventually retired in the early seventies for health reasons. While working in coal pits could never be referred to as good for anyone’s health, Fred’s experiences in France and Germany – the injuries, rough treatment and general malnutrition – must have also played a part. He died in 2008, some thirteen years after replying to the author’s initial contact.

This book has two main strengths. Firstly, the majority of the narrative was put together by Fred Smooker. He had written about parts of his wartime career over the years. Indeed, the author discovered he was still alive when he read one of these accounts. Once Fred and Clive got together, however, Fred committed to writing a full account of his war from start to finish. This is what LBO is all about and why it is really a memoir. The style is quite conversational and Fred is surprisingly honest about his fears and trepidation throughout his adventures, be they training in Canada or on the run in France. He is not afraid to expose his failings despite his upbringing in a stable household and ability to work in harsh conditions. His time underground built a natural strength, physically and mentally, that was tested time and again after he was shot down. It takes a special person to continually go deep into the earth to follow a relatively narrow coal seam and this determination played a large part in getting him through.

The second main strength of LBO is the author’s beautifully light touch. He recognises the value of what Fred provided him with in instalments over the years. Footnotes are many and detailed and the appendices include copies of official documents and list the crews, and the details of their losses, that some of the men Fred encountered were a part of. There are several sections in the narrative where it is clear the author has added some context or additional detail, but I am certain there are a few more I didn’t pick up on such is the seamless way they have been stitched into Fred’s words. There is very little discussion of bomber tactics, or the development and evolution of same, so the narrative remains focused on the crew and, of course, Fred. His writing is supported by a large number of letters written by his Canadian mid-upper gunner and the author inserts passages written by contemporaries, most notably the author of Lancaster to Berlin, Canadian Walter Thompson DFC*. That said, the training and operational side of things last for just over 100 pages, in a 300-plus page book, with Fred’s evasion and incarceration taking up the majority of what's left. His account of his time as a POW paints quite a bleak picture, but he slowly rebuilds his confidence and general health to the point where he begins to work on escaping. There is little mention of escape committees and the like. If anything, the theme is one of survival rather than continuing on with tales of derring-do. It doesn’t stand out in the myriad POW accounts, but it is well written and pulls few punches despite Fred having had the benefit of several decades to reflect.

You know how you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Well, to some extent, and perhaps necessarily, I still do, so you can imagine what I first thought of LBO. Horrendous. The book has sold well, however, so a possible second edition should see a much more attractive and accurate design. This one was a product of the publisher and, considering how well Tucann did with the rest of the book, it’s a bit of a let down if you look for accuracy in a cover as an indication of an aircrew book’s content.

Lancaster Bale Out is a true page-turner. It suffers from very few niggles – some weird comma use and the mention of the US not being at war in 1942 were about it – that are almost completely hidden by a narrative that will hold any reader in rapt fascination. This book will not last long as a purely self-published (more or less) effort. A specialist publisher is bound to pick it up and run with it and it is exciting to think of Fred’s story, and the author’s fine work with the narrative, being presented in a second edition. Either way, this is one recent Bomber Command book that should be on your shelf. It is a solid, well-illustrated paperback that you will struggle to put down. While the author, when he set out to satisfy his enduring fascination with his second cousin’s wartime service, did not intend to tell Fred Smooker’s story, it is the outcome of one of those coincidences so often encountered when researching Bomber Command. A truly impressive package.

ISBN 978-1-907516-26-9


Sunday, November 05, 2017

High in the Sunlit Silence - Commander Tony Vine RANR


A formation of Cessna Cranes on the cover of a book about the members of a RAAF training course is not something you expect to see. Surely an Australian book should feature Ansons or Oxfords if it’s going to showcase twin-engine trainers. It does, however, suggest the journey of many Commonwealth airmen as the vast majority, drawn from almost all points on the compass, converged on the war in Europe. While Tony Vine’s first book, High in the Sunlit Silence, focuses on just the one course, the men’s stories are, like the cover, representative of those who undertook earlier or later courses in Australia, or those who did the same in New Zealand, Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. Representative, yes, but all unique. As I often say with a book about a bomber crew, “here’s another x aircrew that have had their stories told at last”, and that is very much the case here. To tackle the lives of fifty men, however, takes some doing.

The trainee members of an elementary flying training course share a bond equivalent to those shared with the squadron mates most eventually served with. To trace the various service paths of each trainee is relatively straightforward. After all, that’s what archives are for, albeit full of abbreviations, acronyms and jargon that are just screaming to be fleshed out. That’s where the challenge lies. Successfully telling the stories needs more than service records. It needs family members and friends, diaries and letters. Even then the rich vein of information deposited by one man, and keenly followed by the researcher, simply does not exist with another. Some were prolific writers, for better or for worse, while others may not have had the chance to do so and left little behind. Multiply that mix of endless hope, occasional despair, and enduring fascination by a factor of fifty and you can understand what the author has gone through to trace the men who made up Pilots’ Course 20 at No. 5 Elementary Flying Training School, RAAF Narromine.

The timing of the beginning of the course, December 1941, is significant, as another ‘front’ requiring men and machines opened as the training progressed. The vast majority of the men who became aircrew ultimately served in Europe, however, and they arrived, for the most part, in the second half of 1943 and many ended up in Bomber Command (a surprising number joined Coastal Command or flew medium bombers with 2 TAF). That time of the bombing campaign was not a good one for the RAF. The Battle of Berlin was soon to get underway and losses were already incredible. That’s why so many of the men who were part of Course 20 ended up in the UK. They went where they were needed the most.

The genesis for this project was the author researching his uncle. Bill Gunning was killed at the controls of a Wellington in 1943. He had trained with some of his course mates in Canada (hence the Cranes on the cover) and kept in touch with others so his influence is fairly consistent through many of the biographies.

Eighteen of those on the RAAF Narromine course were killed in accidents or in combat. Several did not become pilots in the end, instead re-mustering in another aircrew role, while a couple did not make the grade at all, but continued to provide good service. Eighteen out of fifty, relatively and a little indelicately speaking, is not the worst attrition rate considering some of the earlier courses were all but wiped out, and there are memoirs, like Hugh Garlick’s excellent One Life Left or ‘Bush’ Cotton’s marvellous Hurricanes Over Burma, that provide sobering evidence of this. How many times have we seen photos of ranks of men lined up in front of an aircraft with some, many even, having a little cross drawn in pen over their heads?

The great thing, of course, is that most of the men featured survived the war. Unsurprisingly, a decent proportion lived fractured lives in peacetime. We call it post-traumatic stress disorder today, but back then, while it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by those close to the subject, it just wasn’t dealt with.

High in the Sunlit Silence is a page-turner, but its 330 pages are best read in short sittings. That’s a weird thing to say as everyone wants a book that is hard to put down, something you can lose yourself in. However, each biography is presented as a standalone chapter. Each chapter has effectively been written for the family of the man featured. There is, therefore, a lot of necessary repetition from chapter to chapter, especially for those men who travelled the same path to war (Narromine, Pacific crossing, Canada, Atlantic crossing, UK). While the author has done a fine job to tweak each biography to make them all read differently, there’s only so much you can do with the same information and the first few paragraphs, pages even, rapidly become familiar territory. If the reader is not careful, they will find themselves succumbing to the temptation to skim these parts and, frankly, not giving each man the respect he deserves with a good, thorough read. I caught myself doing that a couple of times before I changed my reading sessions from “I need to cross another book off the list”. I recommend tackling five chapters in each sitting. There is less chance of the stories blending into each other. Take your time.

There’s also a feeling of dread that permeates the book as the reader progresses through it. This is partly caused by the anticipation of wanting the subject to survive, but is largely due to the footnotes. When other personnel are mentioned, the author helpfully includes a footnote listing basic biographical detail. When a crew is listed, and there are dates of death after many of them, you know what’s coming. As mentioned above, less than half of the men from the initial course were lost, but it feels like a lot more.

A solid paperback, the book is not heavy with photographs, but it does provide a good selection beyond the headshots (from various sources) that kick off each chapter. The writing is to the point and the author does not embellish where the information available is lacking. Rather, he ensures as well-rounded and as careful a biography as he can before moving on to the next one.

There’s the occasional missing word in the text, but nothing out of the ordinary or of a material nature. It would be good, however, to see some of the aircraft names tidied up. ‘Montrose Master’, ‘Oxford Anson’ and ‘Hampton bomber’ escaped the proof-readers and, while perhaps worthy of a wry grin when encountered, are details that might mislead, especially when the chapters are written so families can use them in memorial services or other relevant events or displays.

So many of the men featured in High in the Sunlit Silence would be barely known outside of their families. The author has done remarkably well when, in several cases, he hasn’t had a lot to go on. Each subject is given equal attention, and obvious research effort, lack of material notwithstanding. It’s a bit of a dark horse in the way the practical writing style lays out the story in a straight-forward manner, but allows the circumstances of each tale to dictate the reader’s connection and emotional response. There’s a depth to this book that is not immediately evident. It is all the more valuable for its very existence.

ISBN 978-1-925590-21-0

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Pilot of Fortune - Ted Beaudoin


Civilian and pioneer aircrew don’t get much of a look in here in the corridors of ABR. Well, the groaning trestle table that serves as a desk, anyway. When they do, it’s usually a former military pilot managing to gain flying work in a world swamped by eminently qualified candidates, some of whom, admittedly, never wanted, or had the chance, to fly again. An aircrew book generally only includes this period of a life in great detail if the author, having completed the most exciting part of the story, sticks with it and doesn’t condense the post-war period into a chapter or two.

Pre-war civilian flyers feature even less here. Some airlines - like Pan Am, Qantas and BOAC - kept flying in support of the war effort so those men not called up kept circulating. Like the legendary P.G. Taylor, many were brought in to the Ferry Command fold. They are more than welcome here.

That is how Pilot of Fortune came to be added to the review pile. Its author is an authority on the civilians of Ferry Command and originally wrote this biography, about the great Canadian aviator Sheldon Luck, in the early eighties when it was released as Walking on Air.

Luck was born in Ontario in 1911. His father was a reverend with a dim view of aviation. This did not deter his son who, like many boys at the time, became enamoured by these new flying machines. His education prevented a military flying career so by sheer hard graft, during a time when jobs were thin on the ground, young Sheldon earned the money that would allow him to fly. By doing any job he was offered he managed to pay for his tuition, his solo (at eighteen years old) and then subsequent commercial training.

Married by the time he was twenty, and a father shortly after, Sheldon’s first work as a commercial pilot was for a client who was prospecting for fish in the myriad lakes of the north. With a recalcitrant aircraft, an American Eagle (one of many classics to feature throughout the book), this was not a successful venture, but it led to the first of the many survival stories perhaps all of the pioneer bush pilots experienced more than once.

Looking for work from the various mining outfits in the north usually led to the same result – someone had beaten him to it. This flying entrepreneur was a man who would help shape Sheldon’s career for the best part of a decade. He was Grant McConachie, one of Canada’s airline pioneers. A man of vision, and no slouch in the cockpit himself, McConachie, as time wore on, was deskbound more and more as he kept his company running. His promises of greater pay and better aircraft in the future, if Sheldon could just hold on, were far from hollow, but they did tend to take longer than first expected. Sheldon loved the flying, he loved the people he met and carried, he loved the wild north and the respect he had for his boss was reciprocated in spades. He also liked to keep a low profile and get on with the job. It was not a volatile relationship, and Sheldon’s career benefitted from McConachie’s input more than once, but there was only so much a bush pilot could take once the success he had helped achieve made United Air Transport/Yukon Southern one of the operations that would be merged to make Canadian Pacific Air Lines.

Sheldon’s life of flying the entire UAT/YSAT fleet on wheels, floats or skis, and landing on everything from frozen rivers to sandbars, surviving terrible weather and the occasional failing aircraft, gave way to ‘polished’ airline flying. The politics were too much, however, and, with a war on, the improved conditions of Ferry Command beckoned. With his experience and survival skills, Sheldon was ideal for the role. Towards the end of the war, he was flying Consolidated Coronado flying boats with 231 Squadron. Once again, there was no shortage of adventures and misadventures.

Post-war he spent a frustrating time with CPAL and then a pioneering, but equally frustrating period with the Argentinian national airline. He then became a corporate pilot flying a Lockheed Lodestar. The 1950s is where he truly became a pilot of fortune, flying for money wherever he could find it. Supplying the DEW Line (radar stations strung across the north) construction project proved lucrative while his time farming did not. Building time in Cansos and Catalinas helped him become one of the original Flying Firefighters and you can imagine what that entailed. After close to fifty years as a commercial pilot, he let his licence lapse and, as all good legends do, lived a quiet and unassuming retirement.

This is a book full to the brim with tales of remarkable flying, the sort of tales that leave the reader buzzing. What stands out is that Luck, while living up to his surname, is completely at home in the air and a man with a lot of common sense and good judgment. The author also gives McConachie enough space to be a well understood part of Sheldon’s life. Early on, the measure of the man is laid bare when, in response to Sheldon’s second crash, he puts together a recovery program that sees our hero back in the air as soon as possible. While bearing the weight of successively burdensome corporate positions, McConachie is clearly shown to be the progressive, intelligent and insightful aviation professional that he was.

The variety of interesting characters inhabiting the wilds add wonderful colour to a life of considerable adventure, as do the many aviators. All are suitably researched and portrayed, with handy references when they return after a long absence. This commitment to detail, coupled with observation and measured assumption, reveals the veteran journalist in the author. As one of considerable merit and experience, he has a particular style and unique take on things that is at first, admittedly, a little off-putting. It is far from a bad thing, but be prepared for a quirky way with words. It works, though, as the author really knows how to spin a yarn, and makes for a rollicking good read.

Even the layout of the book, with regular headings throughout each chapter, hints at a strong newspaper background, but these often serve as signposts to the next adventure. There are, however, in this edition at least, a few sentences that seem out of place and the inclusion of weird extra words at times. Whether these are the product of the revised and expanded edition is not clear, but, if they are carried over from Walking on Air, they should not have survived the most recent round of proofreading.

A book of this nature, with its fascinating people, far flung destinations and wonderful variety of classic aircraft, would benefit greatly from a fine selection of photographs. Not counting several images of Sheldon’s logbook, which are actually quite hard to read as they are printed on the same paper stock as the text, there would not be more than fifteen photographs in the entire book. While photos specific to Sheldon and his career are probably thin on the ground - you’re not going to take a photo of a Fokker on skis when your fingers are freezing – there must surely be images representative of the conditions he flew in, the towns he visited, the people he met and so on. While a lovely glossy photo section would increase the cost of the book, at least then the images would match the vibrancy of the writing. The cover, too, might be better served with an image of a Barkley-Grow, or something of that ilk, rather than a seemingly generic DC-3/C-47 photo (it’s actually an apparently irrelevant Russian Li-2!).

The vibrancy is a little lacking right at the start as the first chapter lays out the history of UAT. If the reader is not familiar enough with the history of Canadian aviation, and, to be fair, who outside of Canada would be, it’s a bit of a slog up front. It does, however, add needed context. The same can be said for when Sheldon joins Ferry Command and when CPAL came into being. Again, it is valuable context, but at that stage of the book, the reader is deeply invested in Luck’s story and wanting to read of his next adventure.

At a little over 300 pages, Pilot of Fortune is a paperback that, for the most part, is hard to put down. Canadian bush pilots are the stuff of legend, and the aircraft they flew aren’t far behind, yet very few have ever been written about in such detail and with such candour. There is little doubt Sheldon Luck deserved such treatment, but perhaps his name just popped up at the right time. Either way, his life was one worth sharing and it is pleasing to see it done so well.

ISBN 978-1-943492-19-0