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Nations at war
Among many other titles recently received from publishers and distributors for review, this week we turn our attention to four books focusing on various aspects of the air war frommostlythe Allied perspective.
Jong, Ivo de. Mission 376: Battle over the Reich: 28 May 1944. Crowborough, UK: Hikoki Publications, 2004
vi + 218 pages
Acknowledgements; Preface; photos; maps; documents; color profiles; Index
Appendices: USAAF Losses; Luftwaffe Aircraft and Personnel Losses; US Fighter Pilot Air-to-Air Victory Credits; Roll of Honour
First up, Dutchman Ivo de Jong offers a panoramic view of one eventfulbut not out of the ordinaryday in the air war over Germany. Spurred by his father's story of witnessing the nearby crash of a B-17 in 1944, the author spent twenty years tracking down all the details, leading to a fully-rounded description of the 8th Air Force bombing mission, the escorts, the interceptors, the flak crews, the lost aircraft, the evaders, the POWs, and even all the facts about one airman who was murdered on the ground after safely bailing out of his bomber.
Much of this material has been assembled after years of corresponding with survivors of the day's events, allowing de Jong to piece together almost every aspect of what happened. Although he devotes a few pages to setting the scene with background information on equipment, organization, and units, the bulk of the book follows the action in almost airplane-by-airplane fashion. De Jong allows the veterans to tell most of the story, often in their own words, and sometimes very graphically:
Wounded around the same time was the waist gunner,
Sgt Harry M. Norris, who received head wounds. Norris, on
his very first combat mission, became frantic. He took off his
own oxygen mask and ran towards the radio-room, possibly
for the purpose of just letting somebody check his wounds.
Unfortunately, the crew flew with only one waist gunner, so
Norris did not have anyone near him to help him. Now, he
stumbled towards the nearest crew member, William Morris
in the radio-room. However, the lack of oxygen and possibly
the head wound, caused Norris to fall into the electrically-operated gear train of the ball turret, which was in full
operation at this lime. He subsequently was caught in the
rotating gear and died instantly. Still in his radio-room,
Morris looked for help and opened the doors to the bomb
bay: "I looked to the front of the aircraft and saw the windshield was shattered and that both pilots and engineer,
S/Sgt Junny O. Jackson, were dead. I assisted the ball turret
gunner, Sgt Charles G. Jenkins, out of the ball turret and
snapped his parachute on him. He seemed as though in a
daze and sat on the radio table, possibly from lack of
oxygen. The tail gunner, Sgt John J. Jackson, and I
jettisoned the waist escape door. That's all I remember since
I passed out from lack of oxygen. When I regained
consciousness, I was very confused and in shock, but very
relieved to find my parachute had opened by itself. The rip
cord had been shot away while it was lying on the floor
prior to snapping it on, and the parachute itself had eight
holes in it. There were fighter planes all around me, dog-fighting. I saw one P-51 fighter strafe a flak position in a
straight, vertical dive from which he never pulled out. I saw
his crash and flames shoot all around the area. I think the
town I landed in was Bernburg."
Morris indeed came down in Bernburg, close to Dessau,
where he was captured and admitted to a hospital for
treatment of his wounded arm. It was here that he saw the
crews' bombardier, Lt Edward S. Onken, bleeding badly.
Since Morris believed Onken was bleeding to death, he
offered a blood transfusion, which was declined by the
German medics, saying '...they didn't care whether
American pigs and Chicago gangsters died or not.' After his
wounds were dressed, Morris followed the normal
procedure of being sent to Dulag Luft and then to Stalag Luft
IV, at Kiefheide near the Baltic Sea.
Although a few gaps (and a few contradictions) remain, de Jong manages to bring together enough first-hand information to account for most of the day's activities from both sides. For example, many of the air-to-air actions can be reported from both USAAF and Luftwaffe witnesses, and the author also includes some information from those who observed downed airmen on the ground. As to the B-17 his father watched as it bellied in on 18 May 1944 in Groenekan, Holland, de Jong includes its complete story on that day.
Quite a good job by an amateur historian and writer to make so many actions of a single day so clear.
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Myers, Jack R. Shot at and Missed: Recollections of a World War II Bombardier. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004
x + 309 pages
Preface; Prologue; photos; diagram; Epilogue
Almost exactly three months after the 8th Air Force mission chronicled by Ivo de Jong, bombardier Jack Myers arrived in Italy with his B-17 crew to join the 15th Air Force. The Myers book is yet another in a long line of memoirs of varying quality by American airmen, but this is decidedly one of the most professional and engaging to come this way in quite awhile.
On the face of it, Shot at and Missed closely resembles a ton of other air books with the same kind of action in the air and hijinks on the ground, but Myers writes more deftly than most of his colleagues. In the first place, he mostly eschews the typical "Later we heard...." kind of misinformation that tends to warp memoirs with unreliable, unattributed scuttlebutt about events outside the author's own knowledge. In general, Myers is also careful with the facts when he occasionally provides background and context about the wider air war. Most importantly though, the authorfor all his own adventures, including test runs as the bombardier in a "droop snoot" P-38writes tellingly about the men with whom he served. Among them, Lieutenant Ruhlin takes the cake as one of the most interesting airmen to appear in a work of non-fiction. The book also does a fine job with a wide cast of supporting characters including Big Leona and an unnamed British major who pops up unexpectedly on more than one occasion.
After several more stories we finally all became quiet and I was soon
lost in my own personal thoughts. In the anonymity of the darkness
it was easier to express your deepest fears that were always hidden
from your friends in the light of day. Breaking the silence, someone
brought up the subject of our own invincibility. Even Ruhlin became
serious as we discussed the chinks in our personal armor.
Bender recalled the Debreczen mission when his plane burned
clear across the target. He said he was always afraid of fire and told
of how absolutely terrified he was that he was going to die from the
flames. We were surprised to hear this from him since he had never
mentioned it before. He also told us how when he pulled the handle
for the fire extinguisher to the burning engine he pulled the cable
loose from the handle. When they arrived back at our base the crew
chief had remarked that he had never seen this happen before and
that Ed must have had superhuman strength at that moment.
I joined in and admitted my biggest fear would be to have to bail
out over a target that we had just bombed. I dreaded the thought of
having to parachute down to the waiting Germans below, knowing
the reception I would likely get. I could imagine the forlorn feeling
of floating down and watching my friends in the other planes flying
away, leaving me to my own devices to try to survive. That would
have to be the loneliest feeling in the world.
Moritz reminded us of his bailout near Naples on his return from
rest camp. As he and his crewmates floated to the ground, the crippled bomber circled them like a living monster. He said he was terrified it would hit him and those four big props would chew him up.
We all became silent, lost in our own reverie as our thoughts
swirled in our minds.
Then out of the quiet darkness came Ruhlin's somber voice. At
last he was reluctantly admitting his deepest, darkest secrets. Slowly
the words came out, pulled from the dark recesses of his mind. We
listened expectantly. Mr. Macho was finally going to admit that he
too was human.
"My greatest fear," Ruhlin mumbled, "would be to get shot down
over Rumania and get the clap."
There was a moment of stunned silence and then the small hut
erupted with laughter. After the noise quieted down, Bender said,
"Ruhlin, you irreverent son of a bitch. Is nothing sacred to you?"
The moment was broken. You could always trust Ruhlin to put
everything into perspective. With my hidden fears dispelled by Ruhlin's irreverence, I soon fell asleep.
The jokes and parties on the ground serve as a counter-point to the usual horrific combat experiences. Myers's buddies come and go constantly, with planes shot down and crews steadily lost. Right from the beginning, the author's eager rookie expectations are rudely shattered by the bloody reality of war in the air, including the neat row of dead crewmen pulled from one shattered B-17 that barely makes it back to base. The juxtaposition of horror and humor very much brings Catch-22 to mind, especially with oddball characters like Ruhlin jumping off the pages, and sometimes this book seems too vivid to be non-fiction. When he completes his tour of duty, Myers wraps up the book with his return to the States (including an unexpected round of partying with a Hollywood star) and notes about the fate of most of his comradessome going on to much bigger things, and some who never make it home.
Sure to be devoured with pleasure by anyone who enjoys reading first-hand accounts by WWII airmen.
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Ludwig, Paul. P-51 Mustang: Development of the Long Range Escort Fighter. Crowborough, UK: Classic Publications, 2003
Preface; Introduction; Acknowledgments; Foreword by Col. Don Blakeslee; photos; diagrams; color profiles; Sources; References; Glossary; Index
The third book inspected here proves to be something of a departure from the first two. It's also more ambitious and less successful. Paul Ludwig writes almost entirely about the technical and bureaucratic aspects of getting the P-51 Mustang designed, accepted by the Air Force brass, and finally into in the hands of American pilots who flew them in the skies over Europe. Along the way he inevitably detours into the British experience with the Mustang and the USAAF-RAF rivalry over the aircraft's suitability for various roles, apportionment of production, and control over Mustang-equipped squadrons in the months before Operation Overlord.
Where de Jong relied to a large extent on eyewitness accounts provided by veterans, and Myers wrote almost exclusively about what happened to him and his buddies during his tour in Italy, Ludwig conducted considerable research in the National Archives and further utilized a wide range of relatively well-known biographies, unit histories, and secondary sources. While it looks like he did all his homework, in assembling his account Ludwig seems unfortunately to have created a bit of a jumble with enough extraneous material to make the central theme sometimes difficult to follow. Tucked away under the author's Acknowledgements is the line "The publishers wish to thank Jerry Scutts for his assistance during the editorial preparation of this book," which might lead to speculation that Ludwig's manuscript needed some extra work.
Glenn Curtiss and his company had impressed the Army and
Navy with his fine aircraft early in the 20th century and
Curtiss himself is as revered in the US as are the Wright
brothers. By 1940, the Curtiss company was almost
automatically handed new contracts, while other companies
pleaded for business. In the same month - October 1940 - in
which the NA-73 made its first flight, Curtiss received orders
for two prototypes for what was to be a stop-gap fighter
design designated XP-53. General Arnold had realized that the
fighter situation was not going to improve because
production would not make fighters available until 1942.
Arnold needed a stop-gap fighter that would fill a void until
more P-38s arrived.
The Curtiss P-36 and P-40 were already production items
and the XP-37, XP-42, XP-46, XP-55 - and now the XP-53 - were
experiments Curtiss was allowed to try. NAA had been forced to
pay Curtiss for NACA belly scoop technology, but Curtiss did
not have to pay the NACA for laminar-flow wing design
technology used on the XP-53. The Air Corps decided the XP-53
should be re-engined even before it was completed. The
unfinished XP-53 was to have been powered by the XIV-1430
but the AAF gave Curtiss the Packard V-165 0-1 and redesignated
the airplane as the XP-60. The XP-60 made its first flight on 18
September 1941. The USAAF handed unlimited opportunity to
Curtiss to jump itself into the modern age with fighter design,
but Curtiss did not and the P-40 was its last "good" fighter.
Shortly after the war, a failed Curtiss jet fighter was the very last
design and the company went out of business.
Some indication of how highly the AAF thought of
Curtiss is shown by a contract that was signed on October 31,
1941 for 1,950 P-60As, a full year before the XP-60A flew for
the first time! In the entire history of the Army and Navy to
that point in time, no other aircraft design had been
promoted in advance with such confidence and no other
aircraft was promised such vast military funds in advance. The
fervor engendered by the contract drew officers into
believing the XP-60 would be the new wonder weapon. The
XP-60 was the USAAF's way of helping Curtiss over the
problems with the XP-46. Probably on orders from Materiel,
Capt. Lee had extinguished interest in the Mustang in order to
enable Materiel to provide funding for the Curtiss P-60As.
On the other hand, perhaps Ludwig's work suffers in comparison to de Jong and Myers simply because his subjectmanufacturing and bureaucracyisn't nearly as sexy as air-to-air combat. Whatever the cause, this book never quite seems to get off the ground, it just doesn't measure up to the others covered here, and it's not the strongest title ever published by Classic.
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Spick, Mike. Allied Fighter Aces: The Air Combat Tactics and Techniques of World War II. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2004
Preface; Prologue; photos; diagrams; tables; Epilogue; Bibliography; Index
Although not much of it will be news to battle-hardened veterans of a hundred air-war books, Mike Spick offers a terrific survey of fighters, fighter combat, and fighter pilots in what could be the best book of these four titles. He covers all theaters and makes clear countless points which might otherwise escape the notice of sailors and ground-pounders.
For example, Spick demonstrates over and over again that air-to-air combat was not just a melee of individual fighters randomly shooting at each other. Instead, air forces developed precisely choreographed tactics designed to provide the most protection for friendly planes while simultaneously exposing enemy aircraft to maximum deadly firepower. Ample well-executed diagrams of aerial formations and maneuvers accompany the author's text. Spick also describes a wide assortment of fighter aircraft, but rather than the machines he emphasizes how the pilots flew and fought.
For the first year, the USAAF attempted to protect its bombers by
packing fighters around them. They soon found, as had others before
them, that this restricted their freedom of action, and reduced their
effectiveness. In any case, proximity to the bombers was not a good
idea when battle was joined, as the aircraft recognition talents of the
bomber gunners left something to be desired. The answer was to keep
station well out from their charges, and keep their speed relatively
high in order to be able to react quickly to a threat.
A large raid typically consisted of several hundred bombers strung
out over many miles. There was no way in which even the Mustang
could stay with them over the entire trip, and so the escort was carried
out in relays. The P-47s could reach central Germany; the P-38s a bit
further; and the P-51s handled the rest. This called for fine timing at
the changeover points if part of the force was not to be left exposed.
The basic USAAF fighter unit was the Group, composed of three
squadrons of 16 aircraft each. Typical escort cover was provided by
two flights of eight fighters wide on each side of the bomber formation, and two more about 3,000ft (900m) above. These weaved
continually in order to maintain a high cruising speed without outrunning the bombers. In addition there would be an entire squadron lurking up-sun, rather higher, and up to 10 miles (16km) ahead.
Unlike the Battle of Britain, where early warning was short, the
Jagdflieger were given ample warning by radar. This allowed them
time to form up en masse. The initial attack took the form of a head-on charge, which hopefully damaged a few bombers, which would
then become detached from their formations. After this they broke up
into sections which attacked individually, concentrating on the
Hopefully the initial attack would be spotted in good time by the
leading escort fighter squadron which, from its high perch up-sun,
would be well placed to intervene and break them up before they
made contact. But often this failed to work as advertised, and the
interception turned into a race, with German fighters streaking
towards the bombers hotly pursued by the Americans, then both
racing past the bombers, whose gunners shot at everything with less
than four engines. Once battle was joined, formations were split, with
little chance of reforming. While pilots tried to stay in pairs this was
not always possible. For a solo pilot, Germany was an unhealthy place
to be, and anyone separated from his unit automatically tried to join
up with the nearest friendlies.
A feature of the deep escort mission was the protection of
stragglers. Only infrequently did a bomber go down as the result of a
single attack. Those lost were usually damaged early on; unable to
stay in formation for mutual protection, they were easy prey for the
scavenging German fighters. Provided that they had sufficient fuel,
pairs of American fighters were often detached to provide limited
protection to these unfortunates. The more usual alternative was to
come home 'on the deck', shooting up targets of opportunity as they
For all ten chapterseach one devoted to a specific phase of the warthumbnail biographieseach one amounting to about one pagecomprise the bulk of Spick's text. In each case he chooses some of the highest scoring and most interesting Allied pilots to demonstrate no only individual achievements but also the evolution of air-to-air combat.
The main narrative, always breezy and fairly brief, is heavily supplemented with OBs, diagrams, quotes from pilots, technical information on weapon systems and radar, and so on. Spick also explores some possibilities but leaves the reader to answer the question, "Who was the greatest ace of all?" The book concludes with a tabular listing of the leading Allied aces, including a great deal of specific detail about their accomplishments. Allied Fighter Aces only lacks information about the Soviets. Other than that, there's plenty of thoughtful and entertaining material here for just about every student of the air war.
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Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the publishers.
Thanks to the publishers and distributors for providing these review copies.
Reviewed 1 August 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone