No end save victory

Victory WW II


No end save victory

Book review by Fred Lane

Cowley, R. (Ed.) No end save victory. G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 2001. 688 pp.
($69.95 Dymocks to USD$16.99 Barnes and Noble paperback.)

Some prefer their war histories laid out in infinite precise detail, backed up by footnotes and attributions, like Antony Beevor’s Berlin and Stalingrad. Others prefer broader but still well-written presentations. Robert Cowley edits this selection of 45 brilliant essays, each describing an important event or series of events in WW II.

The essays are backed up by 20 maps, but no photographs, and range from eyewitness accounts to broad strategy discussions. Each essay is prefaced by a short introduction that sets the scene and lists the essay author’s credentials.

David Balme, for the first time publicly, tells how he recovered the Enigma cryptography machine from U-110, blown to the surface by depth charges on 9 May 1941. He was the SBLT in charge of HMS Bulldog‘s boarding party but had never rehearsed the boarding evolution. With considerable trepidation he clambers up the wallowing submarine’s side and, with his communications sailor, not only secures the Enigma machine, but also an envelope containing its June settings.

Antony Beevor offers a 16-page virtual precis of his Stalingrad book (first published in 1998). All the essential details are here, but this essay lacks the meat-grinder detail of the book.

No doubt many readers will prefer this potted version.

Operation Cerberus, the escape of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau through the English Channel, 11-13 February 1942, and Ord Wingate’s Burma Campaign are described, but there is little or no mention of events closer to home, such as Kokoda, the Battle of the Coral Sea or the Battle of Milne Bay. Perhaps this is a side effect of a perceived anti-MacArthur bias. The chapters on MacArthur’s Philippines performance certainly do not praise him.

Australian contributions?

Then again, it might well be that Australian authors or those who write about Australia’s part in WW II lack the support or skill of their contemporaries. As another example of poor Australia-related reporting, a personal account of the El Alamein assault makes no mention whatsoever of the brilliant Australian Ninth Division’s assault.

On the other hand, Cowley correctly reminds us of the amazingly brave, resourceful and successful Italians of the Decima Mas. This speedboat and frogman unit created havoc from Alexandria to Gibraltar between March 1941 and August 1943.

This book is strongly recommended to all those who seek brief descriptions of many of the most seminal WWII events.

USN WW II Fighters

USN Fighters, WW II

USN Fighters of WW II

book review by Fred Lane

Tillman B. and Lawson R.L. US Navy fighters of WW II. MBI Publishing: St Paul. 1998. Paperback 96 pp with index and photographs. US$20.00

This volume preceded the excellent US Navy WW II dive and torpedo bombers. It is an equally gripping and well-written tale by the same pair of highly skilled aviation and naval historians. As the title suggests, the book describes the development and operational records of both successful and unsuccessful USN WW II fighter aircraft.

Starting logically with a brief description of pre-war USN and other fighters, the authors rebut some of the criticism of the much-maligned Brewster Buffalo fighter. It was never an ideal carrier-borne fighter for a number of reasons, including a delicate undercarriage unsuited to landing on a pitching and rolling deck.

Land-based Marines, who were used to receiving cast-offs, also found it wanting because of its lacklustre performance in the air. At Midway, one black day in June 1942, a dozen of 19 aircraft in one USMC Buffalo squadron were destroyed by Japanese carrier aircraft. Nevertheless, when flown by experienced aircrew using better tactics it could achieve considerable success. In Finland, the Brewster Buffalo recorded an impressive 25:1 kill:loss ratio against Russian aircraft (p 60).

Grumman ironworks

The old reliable Grumman ironworks, naturally, dominates the book, because Grumman fighter aircraft dominated USN inventories in WW II. Developed from an original biplane concept, the brilliant Grumman F4F Wildcat (RN Martlet) held the fort until the even better Grumman F6F Hellcat entered the fray in August 1943. No fewer than 5,156 aircraft were claimed shot down by F6Fs alone in the Pacific theatre, versus 3,705 by all the USAF’s fighters in the same theatre. Another 1,006 fell to the USN’s F4F Wildcats (p35).

The other significant WW II USN fighter was the bent wing Vought F4U Corsair. It suffered from slow development associated with a host of early modifications, many of which were required to solve early deck landing problems. Employed initially as a land-based fighter in Guadalcanal from February 1943, it ultimately more than proved its worth and was accepted aboard American carriers towards the end of 1944. The first of the RN’s eventual 13 Corsair squadrons to see action was from HMS Victorious in a strike against Tirpitz in April 1944. Hauling a substantial weapons load, the “Hose-nose” also proved to be an excellent Army Support aircraft in Korea, operating from both carriers and airfields ashore.

F8F-1 Bearcat

The authors also describe a number of other very interesting naval fighters that were in production or in advanced stages of design by the war’s end. The Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat was one . It arrived too late to see combat in WW II, but it won enormous respect for a performance that challenged even the Hawker Sea Fury around the racing pylons in the USA.

Like the Sea Fury, the F8F-1B version mounted four 20 mm cannon, a highly significant upgrade on the .5 inch or smaller machine guns of most of its USN and USAAF predecessors. Both aircraft, however, were quickly overtaken in the 1950s by an entirely new generation of jet-propelled fighters.   

USN WWW II Bombers

USN Bombers

 USN Dive and Torpedo Bombers of WW II

Book review by Fred Lane

Tillman B and R.L. Lawson. US Navy dive and torpedo bombers of WW II. MBI Publishing: St Paul. 2001. Paperback 128 pp with index and photographs.US$24.95.

This highly interesting book, together with a companion piece, US Navy Fighters of WW II, vividly describe the vitally important parts played by USN aircraft and their aircraft carriers in WW II. It is not a “mom and apple pie” book. It critically analyses the shortcomings of some aircraft types and some misguided tactics. No matter how good a new aircraft type looks on paper, if it is not developed properly and flown with commonsense, it tends to kill the wrong people.

On the other hand, recovering from an appalling start with inferior aircraft on that “day of infamy” 7 December 1941, the USN, aircraft manufacturers and especially operational aircrew forged a strike weapons system that halted and turned back the then seemingly invincible Japanese. USN dive and torpedo bombers had an important anti-shipping role, but they were never employed simply to sink ships.

The same aircraft that sank the biggest battleship in the world, HIJMS Yamato in 1945, also enabled Nimitz’s highly successful direct thrust strategy. The WW II Pacific Ocean battles might have been bigger than anything in naval history yet, but to put the USN’s strike effort in perspective, “From 1942 through 1945, only 18.8 per cent of carrier aircraft sorties were launched against enemy ships” (p.113). The remainder were chiefly strikes against land targets, invaluable close air support to invading ground troops and fighter defence.

Naval historians Tillman (see In harm’s way: The saga of Gambier Bay) and Lawson (see USN navy Fighters of WW II) show how the USN, like the RN’s Fleet Air Arm, were woefully under-equipped at the outbreak of WW II, with an inventory of only 239 scouts, dive bombers and torpedo planes, “including 89 biplanes” (p. 8) embarked in five aircraft carriers. On 7 December 1941, six Japanese carriers launched 386 aircraft, including the then incomparable Zero fighter, to attack Pearl Harbor. By an amazing stroke of good fortune, the American carriers were at sea. They were the kernel from which all initial retaliation sprang and from which grew the versatile and overwhelming force it is today.

Hard times

The early WW II days were hard. The first all-carrier naval battle in history was fought in the Coral Sea that laps Australia’s shores, in May 1942, when aircraft from the USS Lexington and Yorktown sank the light Japanese carrier Shoho, but at the cost of the much more valuable fleet carrier Lexington. The Americans more than evened the score, with the help of some clever signals intelligence, on 4-5 June at Midway. Tillman and Lawson show how the tempo of USN strike operations increased, particularly with the introduction of the Grumman TBM/TBF Avenger and the magnificent Essex class carriers.

The Grumman TBM/TBF Avenger quickly replaced both the TBD-1 Devastator and SB2U Vindicator torpedo bombers/scouts. Meanwhile, the well-loved SBD-2/SBD-3 Douglas Dauntless became the dive bomber of choice. Devastator crews experienced 83 per cent losses at Midway while on the other hand the Dauntless dive bomber was credited with sinking all four Japanese carriers. A planned Dauntless replacement, the new Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, arrived in April 1942, but with expectations not matched by performance. “Problems as diverse as hook skip, collapsed landing gear and structural failures cast a cloud over the entire program,” Tillman and Lawson note (p. 44).

There are dozens of excellent quality photographs of naval aviators, their carriers and their aircraft in the book. It is recommended reading.

Nicky Barr OBE MC DFC*

Nicky Barr book cover

Nicky Barr

Book review by Fred Lane

Dornan, P. Nicky Barr: An Australian air ace. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest. 2002. Paperback 281 pp. $16 plus postage.

The legendary Andrew W. (Nicky) Barr is well enough known in aircrew circles, but few non-flying Australians know much about his amazing WW II service. This book by Peter Dornan puts this into perspective. Nicky detested war, intensely and vehemently (p. 227), but this did not prevent him from becoming one of the top ten RAAF WW II aces in numbers of enemy aircraft shot down. He accomplished all this despite being shot down three times, forced landing in enemy territory, repairing his engine and flying home. As a POW, he was captured or recaptured three times; and escaped four times. He died recently, on 12 June 2006.

OBE, MC, DFC and Bar

Nicky earned a very rare combination of decorations the hard way: OBE, MC, DFC and Bar. He also became a member of the highly selective Red-eyed Caterpillar Club (parachuted from a burning aircraft) and the Flying Boot Club (returned to operations at his home base after landing behind enemy lines) and he gained a triple “Escaper” qualification.

In September 1940 Nicky Barr qualified as a brand new Flying Officer pilot at RAAF Point Cook. In action in the Western Desert 23 November 1941, he flew Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks against German and Italian aircraft supporting Rommel. Six months later, by 26 May 1942, he was a Squadron Leader in command of 3 Squadron, re-equipped with P-40D Kittyhawks. A month later he was shot down, severely wounded and taken prisoner.

It was amazing that more RAAF aircraft were not lost in the Western Desert. In the early days, Dornan says, they used tactics such as flying in vics or box fours and forming defensive Luftberry circles in the presence of enemy fighters. Giving barely more than lip service to the German-developed imperative of fighting in pairs, RAAF tactics frequently resulted in pairs splitting to attack targets of opportunity. This in turn led to bad habits such as haring off after a target any old time anyone sighted an enemy aircraft. It was rare, it seems, for Barr to return to base after a dogfight as a member of an intact pair. In contrast, some German fighter pilots, in marginally better-performing Me 109s, were shooting down aircraft at four or five times a RAAF squadron’s rate.

Murder trial

Shot down, wounded and captured in the Western Desert, Nicky was sent to Italy, where he escaped from hospital but was recaptured in sight of Lake Como, on the Italian-Swiss border. Tried for the murder of a border guard, who Nicky had knocked unconscious with a rock, he faced an automatic death sentence, until a Swiss official dramatically proved the guard was still alive. Other escapes followed, including one from an SS prison in Austria.

He evaded back into Italy and made his way south, where he fell in with a group of British and American commandos 50 kilometres or so behind enemy lines. This group passed on intelligence, conducted sabotage and herded escapees to safety.  

Caught by the SS, he escaped yet again. He had a price on his head but he became the group’s leader. The poor Italian peasants he befriended never betrayed him. All this earned him a well-deserved MC.  When he finally crossed into friendly territory he was emotionally exhausted, emaciated, suffering from malaria and had a debilitating blood disease linked to infections in his old wounds. The book describes his slow return to health, his triumphal return to full flying duties and his tender reunion with his wife, Dot, in Melbourne. Discharged as a Wing Commander after the war, he enjoyed a highly successful non-flying career in civilian life. The book concludes with an interesting series of vignettes describing both enemy and Allied characters with whom Nicky re-established postwar contact.