SpyFuchs cover

By Mike Rossiter

Reviewed by Kevin Rickard

It was just before dawn in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945 when a bright flash filled the pre-dawn with a penetrating daylight.  Next there was a huge shock wave as a great purplish column rose up into the sky, then there was a blast, duller than thunder.  The first atomic bomb explosion had just occurred.  Project Manhattan had succeeded.  The atomic arms race had begun and with it the Cold War.


Among the onlookers at the Los Alamos explosion was a brilliant German mathematician and theoretical physicist, Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, DSc(Edin), PhD(Bristol).  Fuchs and his theoretical physics colleagues had calculated the exact shape and size of the assembly on top of the tower for the release of the energy in the atoms of plutonium such that a huge explosion would result.

This was all the expression of the science of nuclear physics.  A science barely 50 years old and based on the pioneering work on radiation and the structure of atoms by the New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, at the Cavendish laboratory in Cambridge, England and Madame Marie Curie in Paris, France.

Fuchs was a refugee from Nazi Germany where he had studied mathematics at the universities of Leipzig and Kiel.  There he became involved in student politics and joined the German Communist Party (KPD).  He eventually fled Germany, spent time in Paris, where he met his future wife, Grete Keilson, and found his way to Britain in 1933.  There, as a refugee, he was treated most kindly be British Academia.

Fuchs subsequently worked on British atomic research activities and was selected to be a member of the British team in New York working on the Manhattan Project.  There he began passing information about the atomic project to his handler, Harry Gold, who then passed this crucial information onto Soviet Russia.  Fuchs continued with similar espionage activities on his  return to Britain.   Ultimately, even secrets regarding the development of the hydrogen bomb, were passed on to the Soviets.  Dr. Klaus Fuchs was involved in espionage for the Soviets for more than a decade in both Britain and the U.S.  He could justifiable be called ‘the spy who changed the world’.

Mike Rossiter’s book on Fuchs is a gripping story of betrayal, intrigue, security service ineptitude and a confession, which eventually led to the final conviction of Fuchs at the Old Bailey.  Truth, however, is stranger than fiction and the account of Fuchs’ life and activities may be likened to a story penned by the Cold War storyteller, John le Carre.


Fuchs was born in Russelsheim in the Duchy of Hesse in December 1911, the son of a Lutheran pastor.  He grew up in Germany during the turmoil of the First World War.  In Britain he gained his PhD in Physics for a thesis on “Why the Resistance of a Wire Changes with Alterations in Electrical Current”.  He had become involved with Matrix Algebra to explain probabilities and the behaviour of sub-atomic particles.  He was also involved in studies of the theories of Quantum Mechanics and received a Doctorate in Science from the University of Edinburgh.

His application for British citizenship was dealt with in a rather unfortunate and haphazard manner but he did receive support from the British Academic Assistance Council.  It was probably at this time when he really slipped through the net.  He was granted British citizenship in August 1942 and signed the official Secrets Act but soon after was in contact with the Soviet Embassy in Britain.

At the university of Birmingham he worked on the “tube alloys” program, the British pseudonym for their atomic bomb research project. At Columbia University in New York, Fuchs worked on gaseous diffusion as a means of uranium enrichment for the Manhattan Project.  By 1944 he was in the theoretical division at Los Alamos.  Fuchs’ area of expertise was theory related to imploding the fissionable core of the plutonium bomb.  The bombs that killed 80,00 people in Hiroshima and 70,000 people in Nagasaki were created by nuclear fission – or splitting the atom!  With Hans Bethe, Fuchs began work on bombs caused by nuclear fusion where the nucleus of atoms of light elements like hydrogen and helium were joined together.  Then it was on to the classical super bomb using deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, – thus the hydrogen bomb.  One way or another Fuchs passed most of these secrets on to the Russians through Gold in New York, who was executed in Sing Sing prison in 1953.  Fuchs insisted that these atomic secrets be on the desk of the Soviet Atomic Agency “Enormoz” within a few days of the US reception.  This was achieved through the help of the notorious NKGB Head, Laventry Beria.

It is not surprising that when Truman was in Berlin for the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 and told Stalin the uranium 235 fuelled “Little Boy” would be ready for use against Japan, the Russian dictator showed no particular interest.  Fuchs’ treachery had forewarned him.  Fuchs attitude all along was, the more useful he was to Britain, the more valuable he was to the Soviet Union.


The pursuit of Fuchs by MI5 displays much about the inertia and lassitude of the British security agencies.  One agent, Michael Serpell, had produced a well-organized case against Fuchs but this report was conveniently ‘shelved’.  Serpell was shunted to a colonial posting and nothing further was heard.  An authority at Harwell said “the advantages gained to Harwell through the ability of Dr. Fuchs outweigh his slight security risk”!

By late 1949 Fuchs was well and truly under suspicion.  The police was following him and agents of MI5 were on the case, especially ‘Jim’ Skardon who met Sir John Cockcroft at Harwell.  Soon after Cockcroft advised Fuchs that he would need to leave Harwell.  Fuchs toyed with Skardon and others because of their lack of facts about his clandestine activities.

It was not MI5 that finally uncovered the extent of Fuchs’ betrayal but Fuchs himself when he confessed to his lover, Emma Skinner, the wife of a colleague.  Fuchs’ definitive confession took place at the War Office in Whitehall in the presence of an MI5 technical expert in January 1950.  MI5 legal advisers believed there was a case to answer!  Accordingly security services requested the Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, to forward the relevant documents to the Director of Public Prosecutions.


Fuchs trial was held at the Old Bailey in February 1950 presided over by a rather vindictive Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard.  Fuchs pleaded guilty.  Finally Goddard, in sentencing Fuchs, mentioned he was lucky not be fund guilty of treason which carried the death penalty.  Instead Fuchs was found guilty of betrayal of political asylum, of national secrets and the work of many other scientists.  Goddard passed a sentence of 14 years imprisonment on Fuchs with a non-parole period of 9 years.

Fuchs left Stafford prison in June 1959 and flew to Schonfield in East Germany.  He married Greta Keilson, his lover from Paris days.  But he was always under the suspicion of the Stasi.  Nevertheless, he became a privileged member of the German Communist Party and eventually the Director of the East German Atomic Research Institute in Dresden.  He died in Germany in 1988, aged 76 years.  It is ironic that considerable information about Fuchs’ story in MI5 and FBI files relating to Fuchs still remains heavily censored.  By 1955, the US had over 2000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had about 200 and Britain just a few.  Nations were stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.  In 1955 the bespectacled boffin, Fuchs was behind bars, serving 14 years and sewing mailbags.

Rossiter’s book contains much information of both an historical and technical nature and follows one scientist’s progress along with his acts of betrayal and utter contempt for those who generously helped him.  The story answers many of the questions about Fuchs, the shy, notorious man who spied for Russia.  Perhaps the chronological details of the tale could have been better marshaled but the book is written in a presentable style about events which took place during the tumultuous years from the defeat of Hitler and the Nazis to the start of the Cold War.


Descent into chaos

Descent into chaos

book review by Kevin Rickard
chaosfwRashid, A. Descent into chaos. Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2008. pp 477, RRP $65.

More than a century ago the contest between the empires of Britain and Tsarist Russia for supremacy in Central Asia was a subtle conflict of spies and diplomats – rather than open war between their armies. The prize then, as it is today, was Afghanistan. As the world’s front line of terrorism, Afghanistan is a very dangerous place – a place in which the Australian military is currently involved. The protagonists are the Taliban, al Qaeda, Pakistan and the NATO-led international security force predominantly led by the US military, but with Australia and other nations playing a part.

Compelling, challenging

In his compelling but challenging and at times controversial book, Descent into chaos, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid meticulously analyses the Afghanistan and Central Asian conflicts, recounts their recent history and background and strongly suggests that the war against Islamist extremism is being lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. The mid-2009 humanitarian crisis and military confrontation with the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, predicted by an Australian counter-terrorist consultant for the Obama White House and pre-empted in Rashid’s book, now presents a real and present threat to the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in Islamabad. In accord with this notion, Rashid’s chapter on “al Qaeda’s bolt hole” maintains that FATA (Federally Administered Territorial Areas) in Pakistan had become “terrorism central”. They provide training and manpower for the insurgency in Afghanistan and thus push forward the Talibanisation of the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP), while guarding the sanctuaries of al Qaeda for international terrorist training. Almost all latter-day al Qaeda plots around the world had FATA connections, from the 9/11 Twin Towers in New York, the London Underground and the Madrid train killings to the Bali bombing.

Australia commits

The Australian government recently announced an increase in the Australian military commitment in Afghanistan. At that time there were 1090 Australian military personnel in Afghanistan participating in Operation Slipper – Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led international security assistance force fighting international terrorism in Afghanistan. All this is within the context of the US-led coalition against terrorism in the broader Middle East. Accordingly, Rashid’s book could be said to be modern Central Asian and Australian history in the making. As such, the book provides a valuable understanding of the reasons for Australian deployment in Afghanistan.


Central Asia

The location for the analysis in Rashid’s book is Central Asia: the five independent but dictator-led states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and, to some extent, Iran. He maintains that years after the 9/11 attack in 2001, the US-led war on terrorism has produced a far more unstable world. The US invasion of two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, billions of dollars, armies of security guards and new technology have so far failed to contain the original Islamist organisation while the al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, is now a global inspirational figure and still at large.

Military regime

Pakistan’s military regime led by President Pervez Musharref has also undergone a bloody meltdown. In 2007 he suspended the constitution, sacked the senior judiciary, imprisoned 1200 lawyers and muzzled the media. Musharref’s plunge from hero to villain was compounded by the assassination of the larger than life Opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007. Rashid claims the future of the US, NATO and the European Union are at stake in Central Asia. How can NATO survive if the Taliban is not defeated in Afghanistan or if bin Laden remains at large?


Al Qaeda leader Osama-bin-Laden (left) and Pervez Musharref, Pakistan President 1999-2008.

At least the Afghanistan President, Hamid Karzai, was elected by a democratic Loya Jurga that mobilised a national response and, in so doing, resisted the influence of the hitherto all powerful billionaire war lords. But there is an international hesitancy to commit to a cause perceived by many as led by US incompetence, incoherence and complicated strategies.

For instance, there is a perseption that Bush, on election, thought the Taliban were an all-girls “Pop group”. In Pakistan the threat is more much more concrete and palpable. Pakistan has a nuclear armed military and an intelligence system that has promoted Islamic extremism as an intrinsic part of Pakistan’s foreign policy for nearly four decades.

Military buildup

Ninety per cent of the $10 billion in aid that the US has provided to Pakistan since 9/11 has gone to the military, rather than to national development. Pakistan with a population of 175 million is the sixth largest country in the world and its society is riddled with deep ethnic, social and economic fissures. The Pakistan Army, particularly through the agency of its very own but sinister Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), has backed the Taliban and encouraged thousands of youngsters, especially through the proliferation of madrassas (12,000 in Pakistan) teaching Islamic extremism, to fight and die for the Taliban.


Four horsemen? George W. Bush President USA 2001-2009 (left above) and Dick Cheney, Vice President 2001-2009.
Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of Defence 2001-2006 (left below) and Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence 2001-2005.


“Marshall Plan”

The ISI also mobilised Pakistani terrorists to fight in the Kashmir insurgency against India, before despatching them to Afghanistan. Ending the “failing state” syndrome in Central Asia would require nothing less than a Western-led “Marshall Plan” for the region. However, G.W. Bush, aided and abetted by Rumsfeld, maintained that US troops are not to be used for nation building.

Three disturbing themes run through the book. First is the evil, sinister and two-faced behaviour of Musharref in his nefarious dealings with the US and his duplicitous arrangements with the ISI and the Pakistan army. The second is the absolute resistance of the Bush administration, particularly the “neocons” Rumsfeld, Chaney and Wolfowitz, to prevent any attempt at nation building in Central Asia: “it is either their way or the highway.” To some extent the neocons were the classic imperialists who use 9/11 to exempt themselves from American and international law. The third theme relates to the amount of money the US has lavished and wasted on this part of the world. In 2008 the US Defence budget, with a 1.37 million strong defence force, reached $647 billion. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were expected to cost more than $l trillion.

Bush steps down

The Bush era ended in 2008 and Rashid argues cogently that America is shattered, the US army is overstretched and broken, US credibility is compromised and the world is a far more dangerous place. There are full blown insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan and al Qaeda has expanded around the world, very much funded by the drug trade of opium and heroin. Rashid calls it “drugs and thugs.” These drugs are derived from the poppy fields of Central Asia. The poppy provides opium, which is readily converted to heroin. The value of the Afghanistan opium crop in 2006 was $3.6 billion – all used to fund the Taliban and al Qaeda. In 2008 alone the US allocated $780 million to counter narcotics in Central Asia. PM Blair warned Karzai he would not deploy British troops to Helmand Province unless Karzai’s “friends” in the poppy fields were removed.


This is a well researched, multi-referenced, factual and stimulating book. It is to some extent a detailed, concentrated and challenging book, but at the same time it is a rewarding one. Muslim nomenclature is ever present but it is an informative book to read. Having read it, one has a more realistic appreciation of the challenges facing the Western world, particularly the US, NATO and the European Union. Australia is very much involved in all this although our current contribution, including 10 Army deaths and one action that resulted in an Australian Victoria Cross, does not rate a mention in Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into chaos.

Iraq War

Running the war in Iraq

book review by Kevin Rickard



Molan, J. Running the war in Iraq.Harper Collins Publishers: Pymble. 2008. pp.358, $32.99. (Seen at $3.99 on some remainder tables.)


Australian Major General Jim Molan’s service in Iraq, outwitting a dangerous enemy and reporting exactly what it takes to fight and defeat violent extremism, are precisely portrayed in his book Running the War in Iraq.

Be flexible

Following a request to Australia from US General John Abizaid, Commanding General of US Central Command, for a Chief of Operations of Coalition Forces in Iraq, General Molan, AO was sent there to fulfil this role. General Peter Cosgrove, AC, CDF at the time, warned General Molan to be flexible and prepare to be “Assistant to the Deputy or Deputy to the Assistant”.

Despite publicised statements and attendant guidance from the Prime Minister and Defence Minister at the time, General Molan arrived in the Green Zone in Baghdad, to be met with the question from US Lt. Gen. Ric Sanchez “What do you think you can contribute?” Sanchez was polite and correct, but finding General Molan an interesting job was not a Sanchez priority right then.

Complex war environment

Molan soon realised he was not about to be given the job he was sent to do in Iraq by General Peter Cosgrove. In a very complex war environment Molan decided to adopt responsibility for the protection of Iraq infrastructure. This huge task involved the maintenance of flow of oil, electricity and the railway system.

He needed to prevent the insurgents’ extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that damaged the electricity grid, destroyed oil pipelines and compromised the flow of benzene by road throughout the country. Twenty bombs per day exploded against Coalition Forces and a soldier was killed by these bombs every second day. If Molan were to be successful, Iraqi morale would be improved and the Coalition would be able “to keep some of the lights on for some of the time”.

Insurgent enemy

The insurgent enemy was a complex group comprising Sunni Arabs, Islamic extremists, hardened criminals, militias, including Shiite factions, and terrorists linked to al Qaeda. It was suggested that insurgent infrastructure sabotage activity in Iraq grew at ten times the speed of that of the IRA in Northern Ireland. Molan fought the battle rather successfully for his full year in Iraq and ensured some power supply.

Further challenges in the military career of Molan occurred with the arrival in Iraq of the new military Chief, four star General George Casey, Jr, and the new US Ambassador, John Negroponte. Molan was to find Casey inspirational. Casey asked Molan whether he would be his Chief of Staff for Strategic Operations of the recently formed Multi-National Force Iraq (MNFI). This meant, in effect, “running the war in Iraq”.

Paper force of 300,000

Molan had a headquarters staff of 315 and an MNF of 175,000 troops, supplemented with 125,000 Iraqi Security Forces. Casey’s suggestion to Molan was to “fight your way to the election”.  The first ever democratic election was to be held in Iraq in January 2005. At first, the Chief of Staff task appeared to be an overwhelming responsibility for Molan, who admits he did not understand the language of US Intelligence and was fast learning the concept of “targeting”. He did carry a rifle everywhere and had a bodyguard of 12 tough SAS soldiers. Molan’s convoy was ambushed twice, once on “Route Irish”, but after a gun fight was rescued each time. The bodyguard later advised him, “Boss, when we get you away from the bad guys we might let you fire a shot or two”

Second battle for Fallujah

General Molan was now occupied with two major strategic missions. The first was to plan and coordinate the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004. The second was to plan and coordinate the election planned for January 2005. These two interlocking missions were in addition to the onerous tasks of the coordination and planning of the day-to-day military conflicts and tactics of MNFI in an intense and unforgiving war environment.

There were daily Battle Update Assessments (BUA) and Centron Component Commanders Brief (CCCB) by state-of-the-art communication systems. Molan was very much to the forefront of all of this activity.

Bleak city of 300,000

Fallujah, adjacent to Baghdad, on the banks of the Euphrates, is a bleak city, five kilometres square with a population of 300,000. It was also a hotbed of insurgency networks and headquarters of Zarqawi. Accordingly, a process of “shaping targets” began. “Time sensitive targets” were “taken out” and it was decided Fallujah would not be a “three block war” but a conventional urban operation.  The US “Force Flow” system was utilised by Casey for this battle. Apart from ground force control, Molan was able to utilise considerable strike air power and surveillance with “drones”, simultaneously delineating targets to ground commanders and airborne pilots. Accordingly, there was no misunderstanding about target selection. Molan’s priority weapon was the 500-pound bomb dropped with deadly accuracy. By November 2004, the second battle for Fallujah was heading for success.

The election

Molan could now turn his attention to the election. For this there was a UN timetable and a very human justification. There was a counter-philosophy prevalent among the Iraqis of “you vote, you die”. It was thought the oppressed Shiites would vote, but the Sunni were an unknown quantity.

Eventually Molan took control of the Interim Election Committee Iraq (IECI) to support election logistics. He also assumed responsibility for the security of 5,200 polling stations on Election Day, 30 January, 2005. The ultimate success of the election changed the strategic calculations and the landscape of Iraq for the better.

Soldier diplomat

As Molan left Iraq, Ambassador Negroponte said Molan excelled as a soldier diplomat. General Casey awarded Molan the US Legion of Merit for “exceptionally meritorious services as Chief of Staff”. In Australia, Molan received the Distinguished Service Cross in the 2006 New Years Honours List. One of Molan’s most prized possessions is Ballot Paper No. 00000009 for the Iraqi election given to him  by the Iraqi people.

Jim Molan makes two crucial points: 1. “Do not get involved in a counter insurgency unless you intend to win,” (p. 331) and 2. “There is a need for both consistent and agreed counter insurgency policy and strategy, and infinite flexibility in tactics” (p.334). These Iraq lessons would seem to apply equally to current operations in Aghanistan.

Challenging comments

There are some challenging comments in the book’s epilogue. One is that Molan should have been replaced by another Australian General. The second is that our professional military system is not preparing senior officers to be competent joint operational “field” commanders. Finally, Molan mentions that, at the time of writing, the US had lost 4000 soldiers killed in Iraq and 28,000 wounded and that the Iraq war would cost the US $2 trillion if it runs for 10 years. But the campaign plan in Iraq is part of the long term battle against terrorism.

This is a cleverly constructed and well-written book with clear explanations of a raft of military scenarios taking place in a current 21st century war. If you have an opinion about the war in Iraq, then you will obtain valuable insight into that war and profit from reading this book. You will also be able to appreciate the contribution of one distinguished Australian to the eventual independence of a very troubled Iraq.


Tlingit book cover

The Tlingits, of the north west coast

book review by Fred Lane

Hancock, D. Tlingit: Their art and culture. Hancock House Publishers: Surrey. 2003. Paperback, 94 pp. US$11.95.

Nearly all those who completed Sociology 101 in the past 50 years will be familiar with the ground-breaking work of Franz Boas (Boaz) investigating the complex anthropology of the Kwakiutl and other indigenous people of the north-west USA and Canada.

For the first time, Boas conducted a thorough investigation into baffling ceremonies such as potlatch where, contrary to the worldwide “wealth is good” and “market forces” economic theories, whole tribes gave away or even destroyed their assets. The economists eventually concluded, rather weakly, that the chiefs traded wealth for enhanced social standing, or “face”.

Boas reported that as well as overtly destroying or giving away property, potlatch ceremonies were important trans-tribal and even trans-national opportunities for the recitation of family histories, recognition of genealogies, offerings to ancestors, ceremonial dances and the transfer or confirmation of titles and possessions. What has become of these bold seafaring traders today? Do they still observe potlatch? Are they still a matrilineal and highly stratified society?

Potlatch vs tax assessors

Government officials of the USA and Canada, naturally, could see little benefit from potlatch. The tax accountants, especially, could not understand how people could save for years, only to give everything away, or even destroy valuable property. Indian Agents, missionaries and other zealots actively discouraged potlatch between about 1884 and 1950. This was correlated with the wholesale decimation of North-west Coast Indian populations by measles, smallpox and other epidemics.

The big questions are not easily answered. There have been dozens of books on the culture published over the past 20 years or so. (Google: Tlinglit – books.) One of the better ones is David Hancock’s very popular paperback.

Confirmed by this reviewer’s recent visit to the area, nowadays the indigenous people are virtually indistinguishable from their white counterparts. Of about 15,000 Alaskan natives today, Hancock says, more than half are Tlingits (p. 4). However, “Most of the people have some Russian, English, Irish, Norwegian or other blood in their veins,” (p. 8).

The Indians no longer practice potlatch and their shamans are gone, as well as their slaves. Small cultural centres remain, where the old skills and some of the traditions are taught, but they are oriented towards the tourist trade, in the form of museums and other displays. The dying pillow has been thoroughly smoothed, as some might say; or perhaps not.


Kan, S. Memory eternal: Tlingit culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through two centuries. University of Washington Press: Seattle. 1999.

The 13th night

13th night book cover

 F-III crash aftermath

McNess, J. The thirteenth night: A mother’s story of the life and death of her son.  Fremantle Arts Centre Press: Fremantle, 2003. 319 pp. $24.95 paperback.

This is a poignant story written by a mother who raised a difficult but beautiful child, proud to see him join the RAAF Academy, qualify as a pilot, pass out top in nearly all his courses, achieve his life-long ambition of flying an F-111, but crash at night under moderately difficult conditions. The author claims that a possibly inefficient accident investigation and clean up process preceded years of institutionalised political and legal duckshoving due to “lack of backbone” in senior RAAF officers.

Flight Lieutenant Jeremy McNess and his navigator Flight Lieutenant Mark Cairns-Cowan crashed in their F-111 while performing a moderately difficult Terrain Following Radar (TFR) simulated toss-bomb attack on the meatworks at Guyra, NSW, about 7:16 pm, Monday 13 September, 1993. The RAAF claim the cause was primarily a loss of situational awareness (read pilot error), but acknowledge the remote possibility of a number of other factors.

The first two-thirds of the book is devoted to McNess’s birth and development into a fine young RAAF officer. As a baby and child, he displayed a number of the florid signs of mild autism, a very serious and usually chronic disorder that afflicts chiefly males born to high-achieving parents, such as his mother and father. The interventions employed by the family were straight out of modern cognitive-behavioural textbooks, whether they knew it or not, and they seem to have succeeded, though no mention is made of any formal autism or similar diagnosis. This said, even though the behaviour features so prominently in the early stages of the book, it is abundantly clear that the mental and social retardation that frequently goes with autistic behaviour never affected McNess in his adult life and the disorder almost certainly played no part whatsoever in the accident.

The remaining third describes a post-accident process that left the mother and some parts of the family feeling alone and suffering badly. Of course no mother is quick to accept that such a brilliant son could commit “pilot error”. On the other hand, there appear to be a series of less than optimum performances by the RAAF, not the least of which were the body parts found at the crash site by McNess’s widow during each of two visits there weeks after the crash. Oddly, there was no Board of Inquiry or Coroner Inquest.

 “Knot of anger”

It must be acknowledged that mothers and fathers, however committed, must remain secondary to spouses when processing next-of-kin issues, but there has to be a better approach than a perceived wall of aggressive silence to everyone but the widow. Simply talking over the accident, time and time again, for instance with a RAAF chaplain, would certainly have assisted the mother’s grieving process. Predictably, talking it through over a couple of days with Air Marshal Les Fisher, Chief of Air Force, nearly four years later, allowed “the knot of anger” to “begin to soften”, as the mother claimed.

The author discusses important crewing and night flying continuity issues, but these are probably irrelevant. Strangely, neither she nor the RAAF, in the letters she quotes, make any mention of the usually mandatory simulator training that might have some bearing. An entirely different perspective might be considered had their been no simulator training whatsoever by either of this crew in recent months.

Some eyewitnesses claim that the aircraft was on fire or dumping fluid before it hit, but this also seems never to have been explored systematically by the RAAF, according to the author. However, in one aspect, catastrophic fire in the air or airframe failure after, say, a birdstrike, could have been irrelevant. Had there been an emergency like that, short of a birdstrike that rendered the aircrew senseless, competent aircrew such as McNess and Cairns-Cowan almost certainly would have ejected their cockpit capsule. It is also almost certain that these issues would have been explained to the author by such an experienced and compassionate a pilot as Les Fisher.

Pelican birdstrikePelican birdstrike

A simple birdstrike can do a lot of damage to an aircraft travelling at attack speeds.This RAAF F111 collided head on with a pelican, 11 April 2008, during a practice bomb run. The impact virtually destroyed the nose cone and severely damaged one engine to the extent that it could deliver only partial power. Had the bird struck a millisecond later, it might well have penetrated the cockpit.

Fly Boy

Fly Boy

Book review by Fred Lane
Flyboy book coverLitchfield, G.  Fly Boy. 278 pp plus index. Self published, 2002, Eltham Vic. $36. email:

It is a tragedy, some might argue, that the RAN and various Australian governments let down so many brilliant young men who dedicated a good part of their lives, and some even that, for so little return. What a waste it was to see nearly all of the most able of the brilliant young RAN aircrew opt for job security and professional recognition in Qantas, TAA or some other airline in the 1950s and 1960s. Many lost even that in 1989 in yet another political imbroglio.

Geoff Litchfield was one of the many young aircrew who should have made flag rank in the RAN. Responding to the first of the erroneous Menzies statements about abandoning the Fleet Air Arm in 1960, he elected to retire and join TAA. It is perhaps ironic that he also fell foul of the Hawke-inspired AFPA pilots dispute in 1989.

To close the circle on tragedies, it is disappointing to see such an engrossing book as Fly Boy not edited and promoted by a mainstream publisher. It would be hard to imagine such a book about a USN pilot not being snapped up by an American publisher. This means that while the yarns are riveting, there are also a number of errors that a good professional editor would have caught.

Visual hook check?

For instance, it seems highly unlikely that Freddy Sherborne would have forgotten to lower his hook and conduct a mutual visual hook check before entering the carrier Charlie pattern (page 1). Damaged concrete heads might have made the three-inch rockets a little unstable (page 87), but usually it was broken cordite, that was more to blame. Bill Dunlop’s fatal crash was in a Vampire Trainer, not a Sea Fury (page 117), and its cause was a stray “Murphy” dinghy lanyard ferrule fouling the backwards movement of the control column. Finally, Peter Seed’s “rocket attack” on the New Zealand cruiser was not a deliberate pass in a Sea Venom in 1957 (page 121), but an accidental launch more than two miles outside the screen from one of Sydney’s  Sea Furies off Tasmania in 1951.

There are many other minor errors of fact and style, all of which detract from the book’s validity. However, there are one or two errors of omission that seems strange.

Phil R… effect

No mention is made, for instance, of the famous “Phil R… phenomenon” at a cocktail party. In his younger days Phil was the ultimate “chick magnet”, long before that phrase was coined. All Phil had to do was to stand around at a mixed function and all the eligible women flocked to him. “Until Phil made his choice of the evening clear, it was a total waste of time and effort to try to cut out one of those women,” Bill Vallack avers.

Geoff also fails to mention the famous “Huski duck-shoot” when a load of relatively senior aviators climbed into a Sycamore with shotguns in 1954 to put a little duck meat on the table. Unfortunately, they hunted in what turned out to be an animal sanctuary and in any event the RAN Sycamore helicopter had not been cleared for the highly politically sensitive task of firing shotguns from it. To make matters worse, the entire crew had taken up postings to different corners of the Earth within a week or so of the incident. In a final twist, they only bagged one decrepit worm-ridden shag, they claimed.

Still, there are enough hard data and rollicking good yarns here to more than justify the book. Let us trust that our local publishers one day will see the commercial opportunities and give such books the editorial and other support they so richly deserve.

Fly Navy 1945-2000

Fly Navy

FAA Anecdotes

book review by Fred Lane

Manning, C. (Ed.) Fly Navy: The view from the cockpit 1945-2000. Leo Cooper: Barnsley. 2000. 224 pp incl. index and photos. US$61.42.

The 2800 members of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm Officers Association were invited to contribute recollections and photographs of their notable flying experiences between the years 1945 and 2000. A total of 113 responses are published in this book.

Professionally edited, the reports make a very colourful collation of carrier- and shore-based flying, in war and peace.

It is sobering to note that the year 2000 Fleet Air Arm Roll of Honour carried the names of 915 men who lost their lives in RN flying operations since 1946 (p. xiii). The book does not wail about the dead. It is about the survivors.

Each chapter describes operations relating to a specific decade and each carries a list of aircrew numbers killed during that period. Clearly, a proper analysis requires comparison with data such as the total number of hours flown that year by the RN, whether nasties were shooting back, and other operational factors, but the raw scores suggest the 1950s were the most lethal, with an average of 33.5 pilots plus 10.8 aircrew and others killed each year.

The 1950s saw the entire nature of naval flying change, with the introduction of jet fighters, air-to-air missiles, turboprop aircraft and helicopters. It also saw the introduction of the angled deck, steam catapult and mirror deck-landing sight. Fighter weights more than quadrupled, from an 8500 lb (3850 kg) Seafire in 1950 to a 40,000 lb (18,144 kg) Scimitar in 1958. The Seafire trundled in at 90 knots. The Scimitar hit the wires at 135 knots.

It required a number of years to install the angled deck on all RN carriers, but meanwhile, until the mirror replaced the LSO, the entire landing signals system changed from “British” to “American” around 1950. This meant that, for instance, the old British “Go Lower” signal, answered reflexively by experienced pilots, now meant the opposite: “You are Low”. Late finals is no time for cognitive deliberations. Not all the extensive retraining was successful. Then, unlike the USN, the RN discarded the LSO entirely when they introduced the mirror. The RAN followed the RN and made do without LSOs, until Skyhawks and Trackers arrived in 1969.

Personal reports

The heart of the book, however, lies in its very personal reports. For instance, what do you do if the “spectacular, unsafe and unpopular” RATOG doesn’t fire when you press the tit in a Sea Fury? If you are quick enough, you throttle back and apply the brakes. In most instances the aircraft slowed to graceful walking pace before it swan-dived off the bow (p 38).

Then there are a number of hair-raising stories about accidents that led to overcoming novel problems, like engine failure in Wyverns due to fuel starvation off the catapult, to pitch-up and stall problems in Buccaneers due to slow acceleration after catapulting (p 59).

Ejecting could ruin your whole day. Worse, one pilot pointed his sick Seahawk seawards off Scotland and deliberately ejected over land, only to find that his aircraft doubled back to crash ashore while a strong offshore wind blew him out to sea (p 68).