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Once again it's time to dig into an accumulation of review copies of aviation books. Here are brief notes about four titles whichalthough they might not qualify as extremely spectacularrepresent a very credible, workmanlike cross-section of WWII aviation history.
Sarkar, Dilip. Johnnie Johnson: Spitfire Top Gun, part 1. Worcester, UK: Ramrod Publications, 2002
Air Vice Marshal Johnnie Johnson was a fighter pilot, wing commander, author, and revered elder of the dwindling band of Battle of Britain veterans until his death in 2001. He was also the RAF's top-scoring ace in World War II with thirty-eight victories (all against German fighters, as the Foreword reminds us, "...the most difficult opponents of all"). In addition to his own memoir, Johnson wrote a book on the evolution of air-to-air combat and collaborated with another celebrated RAF veteran, Laddie Lucas, on a book of reflections about airpower during World War II. Prolific BoB author Dilip Sarkar adds to this wealth of material by and about Johnson with part one of what will eventually become a two-part look at the pilot's life in the RAF. Not really a biography, Sarkar has assembled this material mostly from transcripts of interviews with Johnson, giving the pilot a chance to tell much of the story in his own words. Sarkar adds contributions from those who flew with Johnson as well as archival material from squadron war diaries and pilot logbooks. Another fine effort by Sarkar to help preserve the memory of some of "the Few."
Beurling, George and Leslie Roberts. Malta Spitfire: The Diary of a Fighter Pilot. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002. Softcover reprint edition; published in the UK by Greenhill Books
Another high-scoring fighter ace, Canadian George Beurling joined the RAF not much later than Johnnie Johnson but did not survive so long. While Johnson lived until 2001 and authored three books, Beurling died in an air crash in 1948. Five years earlier, shortly after the events he describes, Beurling had co-written Malta Spitfire with Leslie Roberts. The first chapters cover Beurling's enlistment, his training, and his early operations on fighter missions over German-occupied France. Ostracized by his squadron-mates for peeling off to go hunting when he was supposed to cover his leader's tail, Beurling managed to get himself transferred to Malta where his aggressive style of dog-fighting led to an incredible string of twenty-seven victories in a span of fourteen flying days. Beurling and his co-author write very much in the rat-tat-tat, gee whiz, strong-and-silent macho style of the Forties, describing aircraft, colleagues, and air combat with a boyish enthusiasmand North American sensibilityconsiderably different from the understated memoirs typical of British RAF pilots. A fast, exciting account with all the strengths and weaknesses of a wartime quickie. Christopher Shores adds to the new edition an engaging Foreword and a very helpful and enlightening appendix of thumbnail bios of the pilots mentioned by Beurling.
Miller, Kent D. The 363rd Fighter Group in World War II in Action over Germany with the P-51 Mustang. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2002
The 363rd Fighter Group was officially activated on 1 March 1943 in California with 380th, 381st, and 382nd Fighter Squadrons and in August of that year moved to Santa Rosa, California (where these notes are being written in 2002) for training. From Santa Rosa the 363rd transferred to the UK, arriving in Scotland aboard the Queen Elizabeth on 20 December 1943. As the third Group in the ETO equipped with the P-51 Mustang, the 353rd began flying combat missions at the end of February 1944. Kent Miller, author of the authoritative two-volume set Fighter Units & Pilots of the 8th Air Force, does not write a narrative history, but he provides about thirty-five pages of day-by-day combat chronology for the Group through the end of August 1944 when it was reorganized as the 363rd Tactical Recon Group. Eleven appendices, amounting to more pages than the chronological account, include statistical totals for the Group, organizational details, a list of pilots, aircraft markings, etc. A further seventy pages comprise the photographic section, and the book closes with almost twenty pages of colorful aircraft profiles. This is another solid air unit history of the kind we've come to expect from Schiffer and its authors.
Hill, Michael and Betty Karle. The 464th Bomb Group in World War II: In Action over the Third Reich with the B-24 Liberator. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2002
Although the fighters might get the glorysee the three books abovethe bombers get the work done. Michael Hill (another respected member of Schiffer's stable of aviation writers, author of The 451st Bomb Group in World War II) teams with Betty Karle (Group historian and sister of one of its officers) for this history of the 464th Bomb Group. Unlike Miller's book on the 363rd Fighter Group, Hill and Karle write a complete, 200-page narrative of the unit, broken into chapters such as "Stateside Training," "Crossing the Atlantic," and "Into the Fight." These describe formation of the 464th in August 1943 in Utah and its movement to Europe. While the ground echelon of the group moved to Europe by sea, the air echelon flew the southern air route via Brazil and Dakar with their B-24s. The transfer to Italy did not go smoothly, and the group also botched its first combat operation so badly they weren't even given credit for the mission. Hill and Karle do a good job of following the progress of the 464th, charting its failures and successes, tracking individual B-24s and crews, and keeping an eye on all the mundane details that defined what it meant to be part of a heavy bomber group in Italy. In addition to the photos illustrating the chapters, the book closes with a "Photo Album" forty pages in length and a section of color profiles. As with Kent's book, this is another strong effort in Schiffer's excellent series of air unit histories. Of the four good books described today, in fact, this is probably the best of the lot.
All of these books are available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the publishers or their distributors.
Reviewed 8 December 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone
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