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Nations at war
This time around we look at four recent airpower books that deserve more attention.
Breffort, Dominique and Andre Jouineau. French Aircraft from 1939-1942, volume 1: Amiot to Curtiss. Paris: Histoire & Collections, 2004
Foreword; photos; color profiles; technical specifications; Abbreviations and Glossary; Selected Bibliography
French military forces (like all of French history during World War II) fall into three distinct periods and categories: that of the 1939-1940 Third Republic defeated by Germany; that of Petain's Vichy state under some degree of German pressure and/or control; and that of General de Gaulle's Free France under some degree of Allied pressure and/or control. In this first book of a planned two-volume set, Breffort and Jouineau take a look at French aircraft of the first two categories, the Third Republic during 1939-1940 and Vichy from 1940 through November 1942 when the Armistice aviation arm was disbanded.
While not the subject of hundreds of learned tomes, Third Republic and Vichy French air forces have not been heretofore completely ignored in English. Christienne and Lissarrague deal with the history of French aviation from 1794 through 1980 including significant amounts of information on operations and OBs during the period covered by Breffort and Jouineau. Camelio and Shores cover the Armee de l'Air from 1937 through 1945 in much the same manner as Christienne and Lissarrague, complete with OBs, but in a style visually much closer to Breffort and Jouineau. An earlier book with a significant amount of technical specifications for French aircraft, Combat Aircraft of World War Two by Elke Weal et al, should also be mentioned.
Breffort and Jouineau in their new book write approximately six pages concerning overall plans and operations from 1939 through the end of 1942 (not nearly as much text on that subject as in either of the other two books), and then begin examining in alphabetical order each of the fighter, bomber, reconnaissance, and observation types that comprised French aviation during that period. Depending on the importance of the machine, each of these entries ranges from a few paragraphs to a few pages, plus technical specifications and color profiles. Those model-by-model descriptions and specs are completely lacking in Christienne and Lissarrague as well as Camelio and Shores. In terms of specification, Weal provides at least as much technical data (plus an OB for May 1940); that book, however, gives no narrative description about development and employment of the planes and it has no color profiles.
For anyone who collects books about French aircraft, this is a must. For those interested in complete information as opposed to a complete collection, most of the material in Breffort and Jouineau (plus quite a bit more) can be found in a combination of the other three books discussed above. For those mostly interested in the French Air Force and its operations, this is not the best book available. The strength of the new book rests in its more detailed text about each model of aircraft and its very nice color plates. For those interested in planes rather than air forces, especially in a visual sense, this might be the best choice for information on French aircraft.
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Mackay, Ron. Britain's Fleet Air Arm in World War II. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2005
Foreword; photos; Sources; Index
Appendices: Color Aircraft Profiles; UK Naval Air Stations
It seems like the market was about ready for a fresh book on the Royal Navy's aviation force. Ian Cameron produced a good account in the 1960s, but it has grown a bit dated. John Winton's 1980 title was less complete. Ray Sturtivant has several Fleet Air Arm books to his credit, notably British Naval Aviation: The Fleet Air Arm, 1917-1990 from 1990, but it spanned a much longer period of time in about 220 pages. David Wragg published his book only four years ago, but it was explicitly intended as a handbook, not a history.
By planning or by luck Ron Mckay arrived on the scene with a solid, serious history of the Fleet Air Arm at a propitious moment, and he delivers a quality product which should find a large audience.
In essence, Mckay revisits the entire course of the Royal Navy's war and highlights the critical role played by the FAA on multiple occasions. In addition to the Battle of the Atlantic, the book covers the 1940 Norwegian campaign, the Mediterranean in general and Malta in particular, the Arctic convoys, and the war against Japan. Here's a representative sample of how the author deals with his topic:
INDOMITABLE, VICTORIOUS and EAGLE were to
provide the air cover as far as the approaches to Malta, when
the RAF would take over. Twelve FAA Sqdns. were represented
on board the three carriers, eight of which comprised the tighter
force totalling forty-six Sea Hurricanes (with four more in
disassembled form on EAGLE), eighteen Fulmars and ten
Martlet IIs. The Sea Hurricanes fixed wings and consequent
inability to be 'struck down' into, and 'ranged' from. the
hangars of VICTORIOUSa disability not shared by the other
two carriers, the dimensions of whose lifts were adequate for
this functionmeant that they would of necessity he first into
action. On the other hand the decidedly limited performance
(by 1942) of the Fulmar, allied to the small number of Martlets
with a Hurricane-matching performance. were probable factors
dictating the priority of launch in favor of the Hawker fighter,
especially since these fighters were to form the top layer of
the defensive 'screen' around 20,000 ft. The Martlets would
assume a medium altitude role, while the Fulmars and Sea
Hurricanes on VICTORIOUS would be assigned the low-level
position. In addition a total of thirty-six Albacores were on
hand to provide anti-submarine cover.
. . .
Several days before 'Pedestal' was initiated, the three
carriers exercised together in a bid to iron out the problems
likely to arise in joint operations of what was a newly-formed
sub-force. while attempting to maintain a comprehensive
convoy cover at both low, medium and high levels; the latter
duties, as well as the maintenance of a Combat Air Patrol over
their own warships, were assigned to INDOMITABLE and
EAGLE but events at the very beginning of Axis incursions
would see this defensive aspect limited almost wholly to the
fighters based on the former-named vessel. The provision of
radar equipment was vital to the Operation in order to
'scramble' the maximum number of fighters in time to properly
engage the incoming enemy formations. The Type 79B sets
on VICTORIOUS were judged to posses a superior height-finding capability compared to the Type 281 equivalent
mounted on INDOMITABLE and the cruiser SIRIUS The latter
two warships were therefore assigned to operate their
equipment in an 'all-round' search role. VHF radio/telephony
sets were installed in both ships and fighters along with
Identification Friend or Foe (IFF).
The latter facility was intended to minimise the chance
of, even if it could not guarantee total immunity from, AA fire
downing one's own aircraft. An added refinement was for any
returning formation to circle at a safe visual distance for both
lookouts and radar operators to establish its 'friendly' status.
Should a fighter pursue an opponent in over the convoy then
yellow stripes on the wing leading edges, forward engine
cowling and the fin were (hopefully) intended to provide a
timely warning to the ships' gunnersall very well in theory
but hard if not impossible to act upon in the heat of an air/sea battle such as was sure to develop as the mighty force steamed 'in harms way' toward its goal.
Quite good work and well illustrated with a nice assortment of photos. Certain to be admired and enjoyed by anyone with any interest whatsoever in the Fleet Air Arm, and also probably the best of this lot.
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Bowman, Martin and Tom Cushing. Confounding the Reich: The RAF's Secret War of Electronic Countermeasures in WWII: The Story of 100 (Special Duties) Group RAF Bomber Command 1943-1945. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2004
x + 246 pages
Acknowledgements; Introduction; Glossary; photos; Index
Appendices: 100 Group OB; 100 Group Fighter Air-to-Air Victories
Although Bowman and Cushing have written an air unit history, this is neither your typical air unit nor your typical air unit history. 100 Group was formed in late 1943 specifically to control squadrons specially equipped and employed for electronic countermeasure operations. In some cases this meant bombers (Lancasters, Halifaxes, Stirlings, Wellingtons) and in some cases Mosquito night fighters. The aircraft carried a variety of new-fangled electronic equipment designed to spoof, mislead, and jam enemy air defenses. In addition, the RAF Mosquitos stalked Luftwaffe night fighters in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
While the authors write about the usual kinds of day-to-day air unit activities and the comings and goings of squadrons, aircraft, and pilots, they also devote quite a bit of additional ink to the electronic equipment utilized in these nocturnal operations. In Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare, 1939-1945, Alfred Price tells the full story of airborne electronic warfare over Europe, but for the most part he focuses on technical aspects and the broader strategic and operational elements of the campaign. Bowman and Cushing, on the other hand, often put readers in the cockpit and describe through the eyes of pilots and crew exactly how they flew these high-tech missions.
Here's how the authors integrate wider unit history with the view from the cockpit:
For twelve nights from 4 December, not one heavy bomber had operated because of a
full moon and bad weather. When Bomber Command resumed operations on 16/17
December with an attack on Berlin by 483 Lancasters and fifteen Mosquitoes, two
Beaufighters and two Mosquitoes of 141 Squadron took off from West Raynham on 100
Group's first offensive night-fighter patrols in support of the heavies. It was hardly an
auspicious occasion and became known as 'Black Thursday'. Bomber Command lost
twenty-five Lancasters and a further thirty-four were lost on their return to England
owing to very bad weather causing collisions, crashes and some bale-outs after aircraft
ran out of fuel. One of the Mosquitoes was flown by Squadron Leader (later Wing
Commander) Freddie 'Cordite' Lambert and his navigator/radio operator, Flying Officer
Ken Dear. Lambert had picked up the nickname while flying Westland Wapitis policing
the North West Frontier. Later, he had commanded 110 Squadron in India, flying Vultee
Vengeances against the Japanese. The two Beaufighters and Lambert and Dear patrolled
the airfield at Hoya. One of the Beaufighters was forced to return to base early after
Serrate and AI both failed near the German border, while the second Mosquito aborted
with engine trouble on the way over the Dutch coast. Flight Sergeants Coles and J. A.
Carter reached Hoya but had to abort the operation when their back hatch blew open
during a hard turn to port. They turned for home and were chased for about twenty
minutes by what was presumed to be an enemy night-fighter.
Lambert and Dear pressed on in their Mosquito II. From 30 miles (48 km) within the
Dutch coast and all along the route they received indications of some eighteen to twenty
aircraft, all about 10 miles (16 km) distant. Nevertheless, they proceeded as ordered to
Hoya where, at 1920 hours, Dear picked up a Serrate contact 10 miles ahead and 25
degrees to port. The enemy aircraft was flying at about their height of 21,000 ft (6,400
metres). It had clearly picked up the Mosquito because the next indication they had was
when the bogey closed, and some five minutes later an AI back blip at a range of 2,000
ft (610 metres) was picked up slightly to port. Lambert peeled off to port and lost height.
He levelled off at 10,000 ft (3,050 metres) hoping that the enemy would reappear in front
or allow him to turn and get behind it. The blip split into two and Dear suspected that
there were two enemy night-fighters tailing them. A violent dogfight ensued and the
enemy aircraft fired a long burst from close range and two more bursts from within
2,000 ft (610 metres) but without doing any damage. Throughout the fight the enemy
aircraft clung on like a leech. Finally it overshot beneath the Mosquito as both turned
hard to starboard. The enemy aircraft was close enough to be identified as a Bf 110.
Lambert immediately gave it a burst of forty rounds from his cannons, lasting about two
seconds, opening at 900 ft (275 metres) and ceasing fire at 1,200 ft (370 metres) from
slightly above and with 1 'A rings of deflection. Several strikes were observed and
Lambert claimed a 'damaged'. He tried to follow up the attack but the Bf 110 was now
lost to view and the AI set had packed up. Lambert and Dear returned to Norfolk and put
down at Downham Market before returning to West Raynham.
Regrettably, the authors include no bibliography, but they clearly have had access to many 100 Group veterans who provide firsthand accounts throughout the book. This allows, among other things, comparative versions of the same event from different witnesses, such as the emergency landing of a Ju 88G night fighter at the RAF base of Woodbridge in England. With general information about the Group as a whole, stories from veterans, a complete compilation of air-to-air victories, and a good amount of technical information on e-warfare, Confounding the Reich makes an engrossing book.
In sum, this is a very good air unit history with the extra advantage of adding a great deal of information about electronic warfare in the sky. Recommended.
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Carter, Ian. Coastal Command, 1939-45: Photographs from the Imperial War Museum. Hersham, UK: Ian Allan Publishing, 2004
Preface; Introduction; photos; Select Bibliography
Where Ron Mckay has produced a complete account of the RN's Fleet Air Army during the war, Ian Carter sets his sights on the RAF's Coastal Command, the third in his series after Bomber Command and Fighter Command. About this subject, as with the previous two, Carter actually has little to say, mostly allowing the photographs to do all the talking.
The book is divided into seven chapters with one for each year of the war. Each chapter is introduced with a few pages of text, then (except for 1939, which is shorter) offers roughly twenty pages of photographs with captions.
This sort of thing is frankly not our cup of tea, but the photos are crisp and clear, so it's likely that aficionados of books full of photographs of airplanes will find much to enjoy here.
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Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from the publishers.
Thanks to the publishers and their importers/distributors for providing these review copies.
Reviewed 22 May 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone