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Brief reviews of four recent aviation books of interest to students of World War II:
Price, Dr. Alfred. Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 1940. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999 (Published in the UK by Greenhill Books)
Dr. Price is the author of many books on aviation subjects, and this one, originally published in 1990, is a very thorough account of a single day -- "Battle of Britain Day," 15 September 1940 -- when the Luftwaffe launched heavy daylight attacks against England. Of the four titles reviewed here, this one is easily the most tightly focused. Structured in a minute-by-minute fashion, the book features headings such as "Lewisham, 12.07 P.M.," "Battersea, 12.07 P.M.," and "Sixteen Thousand Feet Over Brixton, 12.08 P.M." These sections put the reader in the various headquarters, at the many airfields, and very much into the cockpits of the multitudes of fighters and bombers contending in the skies over southern England.
Their escorts in place, the phalanx of German bombers set course for Dungeness. At the head of the force were 43 Dorniers of Bomber Geschwader 2; next, a couple of miles behind, came 24 Heinkels of Bomber Geschwader 53; finally, a couple of miles further behind, came 19 Dorniers of Bomber Geschwader 26. The attacking force of 114 bombers advanced toward Kent at an air speed of 180 m.p.h., passing 14,000 feet in a slow climb and, as during the previous attack, battling against the same north-westerly headwind.
Nicely done with a very satisfactory mixture of personal stories, operational narrative, and thoughtful analysis. Several strong appendices of OB material and aircraft losses.
Ford-Jones, Martyn R. and Valerie A. Ford-Jones. Oxford's Own: Men and Machines of No. 15/XV Squadron Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 1999
This is the complete -- very complete! -- story of the squadron born "No. 15 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps" in 1915 and later taking the usage "No. XV Squadron, Royal Air Force." Converted to bombers in 1934, the unit was eventually equipped with Battles, Blenheims, Wellingtons, Stirlings, and then Lancasters. The squadron deployed to France in 1939 and, although returning to the UK for re-equipping, took part in the campaign in France and the Low Countries in 1940, and then participated in the Bomber Command offensive against Germany.
The authors tell well the history of the unit's missions as well as the tales of individual aircraft and flyers. While the bulk of the book covers the Second World War, the closing chapters carry the story of the squadron into the 1990's. Heavily illustrated with nearly 800 black and white photos as well as a selection of full color paintings. Seventeen appendices of detailed data.
The euphoria which had prevailed on the Squadron two nights earlier, dissipated on the night of 7th/8th June, after No. XV had despatched seventeen aircraft for an attack against railways installations at Massey-Palaiseau. A total of 337 Bomber Command aircraft were involved in the operation, of which twenty-eight failed to return. Four of those aircraft were No. XV Squadron machines. Three of them were lost over France, whilst one succumbed to battle damage and crashed in England. Flying Officer Musgrove was a crew member of one of the Lancaster bombers shot down over France. His request to fly a further five operations with S/L Lamason was granted by the RCAF, thereby enabling the 'tour expired' bomb aimer to stay with his crew. It was a decision which nearly cost Gerry Musgrove his life....
Bergerud, Eric M. Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000
In this field of four interesting and well-written books, Bergerud's is the pick of the litter. Fire in the Sky is a big, important contribution to our understanding of air combat in the South Pacific during World War II, and the author demonstrates a firm grasp of the many intricacies of his topic. This is obviously a book to which Bergerud devoted much time, energy, and thought, and his efforts have paid off handsomely.
Unlike most books about combat operations and the men who endured them, Fire in the Sky is organized topically rather than chronologically or by theater. Structurally, the book covers in turn "air-base networks," the geographical setting of the campaign and its impact on the action, airplanes and airmen, fighter missions, formations, and tactics, and bomber operations. This approach to the material allows Bergerud, rather than simply rehashing battles and dogfights, to show how each factor, no matter how small, multiplied itself into the final equation of life and death in the air.
While the realities of being an American author writing in the English language for primarily a domestic audience mean that the book's emphasis is on American involvement, Bergerud does a good job of balancing that emphasis with other Allied nationalities and as much Japanese information as possible. Likewise, while he quotes quite a few veterans of the air war in the South Pacific, it should be said that Bergerud illustrates his book with their personal anecdotes rather than relying on them to carry the load. In fact, the aspect of Fire in the Sky which most sets it apart from the others here is the depth of the author's thoughtful analysis.
In analyzing the numerical balance of forces it is best to divide the two-year period of study into segments that coincide with major changes in force allocation that in turn coincide with larger military events. Absolute precision is unattainable, but it is possible to see an overall escalation of force on both sides. This was typical of force levels in World War II. Even the countries mobilized for war before the hostilities, principally Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union, found their military economy unprepared for the magnitude of the struggle. This problem was much worse for democratic nations like Britain and the United States, which had been sleepwalking for at least a year before 1939. The size of forces among all combatants continued to rise until 1944, when Germany and Japan began to waver. The question, therefore, was not one of increasing force levels but rather which side would increase force levels faster. That being said, it is important to realize that if relative force levels and strategic objectives were in synch a great deal could be done with forces that, by late-war standards, appear small.
McManus, John C. Deadly Sky: The American Combat Airman in World War II. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2000
John McManus deals with many of the same issues tackled by Bergerud. (And it should be noted that each has a previous volume covering much the same material for soldiers on the ground: The Deadly Brotherhood and Touched with Fire.) Deadly Sky proves to be organized in a fashion quite similar to Fire in the Sky, and chapters include "Who Were These Combat Airmen," "The Planes They Flew and the Clothes They Wore," "People, Places, and Food" (one chapter each for Europe and the Pacific), "Flying the Missions," "Going Down," "Thinking of the Enemy," "Leadership in the Air," "Morale, Deep Thoughts, and Tours of Duty," "Breaking in Replacements," and "Brotherhood of the Skies."
Unlike Bergerud, however, McManus focuses strictly on American airmen. In addition, McManus tends to rely more on brief anecdotal tales and less on thoughtful interpretation of those personal experiences. Ultimately, Deadly Sky by comparison ends up being less rigorous, somewhat superficial, and suffused with much more of a "rah-rah-rah" enthusiasm. These attributes make it a much quicker, easier read which will appeal to a large segment of the market, but those same attributes will also make it less fulfilling for many readers.
Many years after the war, as part of an interview for a Public Broadcasting special on one B-24 crew and its experiences during the war, the ball turret gunner of the crew told an interviewer his true and deepest feelings about his buddies: "I love all you guys. You're different and your politics are different and your backgrounds are different, but I love you guys. You're a very important part of my life."
All four titles are available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the respective publisher.
Thanks to the publishers for providing these review copies.
Reviewed 7 May 2000
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