Grub Street, Books Reviewed in 2010
Author: Richard C Smith
ISBN: 978 1906502157
Publishers: Grub Street
Publication Date: 2008 1st Published hardback in 2001
A Definitive Account of the RAF Fighter Airfield, its Pilots, Groundcrew and Staff, 1941 -1962
A fascinating study of an airfield and its units at the forefront of the air battle for Europe. Through 1941 to the end of the war, action was continuous with famous characters like Harry Broadhurst, Paddy Finucane, Wilfred Duncan-Smith and Max Bygraves joining the myriad of nationalities based there.
The base was predominant during vital events such as the Dieppe raid; the Channel Dash; Operation Starkey; D-Day; and in countering the V-1 menace.
Post-war it was an Air Crew Selection Centre from 1948 - 1956 and fondly remembered by men such as Ronnie Corbett and Norman Tebbit.
This is the second volume covering Hornchurch, which was a fighter-base, defending London and South East England. It existed until 1962, having started life as Sutton's Farm.
I resided there during what the book calls 'New Responsibilities 1947-1950'. This adequately describes what it must have been like for the RAF as my Father lived there in married quarters. I have happy and vivid memories, as far as a child of between 5 and 8 can have. Hornchurch can boast an association with at least two entertainers, viz Max Bygraves and Ronnie Corbett. However there is no mention of the small gallant band of children who must have driven the RAF Police mad as they found all manner of ways of getting into the Station other than the main gates. I lost count of the times my mother said, 'your Father's been up before the CO again'.
To be able at last to read the real story of this Air Field has been an experience and a little trip into the past for me. Two photographs are very poignant for me, one 'Nature takes over' reminds me of a visit to RAF Bridgnorth where my Father was later stationed - when I returned very little remained, the other an aerial view in 1962, which shows the married quarters at Hornchurch where we lived.
One factor not mentioned is that I recall at one stage a German POW doing our garden. He was carving something from a solid piece of wood, which he showed me. I understand that the last German POW went home in 1949 and that would have been about correct.
My early personal memories aside, this is a full, fascinating study of a front-line station recording all of the events in great detail. All in all a book I shall treasure and it has prompted me to find out more about Hornchurch.
Author: Steve Bond
Publishers: Grub Street
Publication Date: 31st Aug 2010
Publisher's Title Information
For years Steve Bond has been interviewing and recording veterans from all sides of the conflict, including air and ground crew. His aim was to transmit their engaging stories faithfully to a wider public. He spoke to British and German, German and Russian, British and Italian, American and German, who all shared the same piece of sky at the same time, in a sense, re-uniting them, sometimes also literally.
This is not a book about the rights and wrongs of war, nor the strategies of the military commanders. It is about the experiences and feelings of those in the front line charged with delivery of said strategy. It deals with the sharp end of key campaigns, but also the less 'glamorous' sides of service life - selection, training, aircraft ferrying, etc.
This is all original material and the stories of the veterans selected (some of them household names) are not edited but put in context by Bond, with overviews and annotations. The result gives the reader an up close series of snapshots in time, which is always fascinating, often remarkably so, and will stand as a worthy and valuable testament to the airmen themselves.
Veterans quoted are from the following groupings: Air Transport Auxiliary, British Army, Civilians, Fleet Air Arm, Italian air force, Luftwaffe, Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and Navy, Soviet air force, US Army, US Army Air Force, US Navy et al.
Part of the Foreword
Air Marshal Sir Roger Austin, KGB AFC FRAES RAF (Ret'd)
'History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.' Winston Churchill
The history of air warfare is well documented because every take-off, every landing and every engagement of the enemy was logged and recorded. That record of action is generally accurate and comprehensive but statistics alone do not tell the full story. To complete the picture, eye-witness accounts are invaluable as they bring the story to life by illustrating the tension, the emotions and the atmosphere surrounding the events.
Steve Bond has done a remarkable job in gathering the tales of over 100 people from the armies, navies and air forces of six nations, both aircrew and ground crew, plus civilians such as Alex Henshaw. He has sensibly avoided the temptation to edit their contributions, thus preserving the very personal nature of their accounts which reveal their characters and the differing approaches of the various nations.
The result is a compelling and fascinating compilation of stories from every area of air warfare which add so much to the bare statistics. This is a first class book which will be a most useful reference for anyone with an interest in the history of air warfare.
Hero: "A man distinguished by extraordinary valour and martial achievements; one who does brave or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior."
Oxford English Dictionary
In the world of the 21st century it has become commonplace to refer to high achievers in almost every walk of modern life as heroes. One only has to turn to the sports pages of our daily newspapers to find the term applied to, for example, footballers who' have saved their national team from disgracing itself against the opposition. Worthy though such endeavours may well be, turn back the clock sixty years or more, and the common meaning of the term was very different. and indeed little used.
Then, young men and women of a similar tender age to today's sporting stars were fighting a very different kind of campaign, with far more serious, almost unimaginable, potential consequences for both themselves and their losing side. A 2007 study of the United Kingdom premier football league revealed that the average age of the team players at that time was a little over twenty-six years. The average age of crewmen in Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command during the Second World War was just twenty-two. An airman in his mid to late twenties was often referred to by his comrades as 'the old man', while at the other extreme, the youngest airman to lose his life during the Battle of Britain, air gunner AC2 Norman Jacobson, was just eighteen when he died during the late evening of his very first day of operations on Blenheim-equipped 29 Squadron. His body was recovered a day later and buried at sea, and he is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial. Today such fresh-faced youngsters, hardly out of school, are again making the supreme sacrifice in conflicts in far-flung places like Afghanistan.
The toll in human lives throughout the Second World War was enormous. In Bomber Command alone, 55,573 airmen lost their lives in action, out of a total of 70,253 casualties for the entire RAF. Similarly, Luftwaffe losses, which will probably never be known for certain, amounted to 96,917 up to the end of 1944, after which no reliable records remain, even if they were completed. United States Air Force (USAF) records indicate 79,265 killed in action in just the European theatre of operations (ETO).
Looking back, the first wartime heroes I came across were during my school days in the 1960s. At that time, only a decade and a half after the end of the war, there was not the intense interest in that conflict that is so prevalent today, so those who had been there perhaps tended not to be paid much attention. At my school, the master who was the officer in charge of the RAF section of our combined cadet force, one N H 'Blanco' (inevitably) White had been, so I later found out, a pilot during the war, while my English master, John Perfect, a very quiet and unassuming man, had been one of those incredibly brave souls in the Glider Pilot Regiment who had flown Horsas into Arnhem. Again, this fact was not widely known, I recall being told about it by another boy one day, and was only able to confirm it recently. Sadly, in the intervening years, John Perfect had died; how I would have loved to have talked to him about his role in that momentous event.
In recent years there have been many books published that have included the thoughts and memories of those who were there. Hearing the airmen bring to life such well-known events as the Battle of Britain, the bomber war, the air war on the Eastern Front, as well as lesser-known aspects, is a privilege not granted to many today. This is not just because the veterans are reluctant to talk about their experiences; often I have found that they need to be persuaded that the listener is genuinely interested they worry about boring us! Today, the survivors of the armed forces that took part in that great conflict are all elderly and they are rapidly fading away. Yet still they retain almost to a man, a remarkable degree of self-effacement, and during my many visits to interview them, the conversation frequently starts with something along the lines of: "Oh, I didn't do very much." As former Warrant Officer Jack Bromfield of 158 Squadron put it:
"The memories are still there; they're there all the time. You can go maybe two weeks and think nothing; there's a little snippet in the paper or on the television and suddenly it all starts to wind up again. Or somebody mentions a name, you've forgotten about him for years, and suddenly you remember about him."
Convoy Peewit August 8, 1940: The First Day of the Battle of Britain?
Author: Andy Saunders
Publishers: Grub Street
Publication Date: 28/05/10
Publisher's Title Information
During the morning of 7 August 1940 over twenty merchant ships set sail in Convoy CW9 “Peewit” and edged past Dover, hugging the shore, slowly heading westwards as daylight faded. Under the watchful eyes of the Germans, the large convoy had been seen from Cap Gris Nez and warning messages flashed to the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. At Boulogne E-Boats were readied and left port in the early hours of the 8th to take up station off Beachy Head to watch and wait for the inevitable convoy. With horrendous suddenness the E-Boat Flotilla was amongst the convoy as it passed Newhaven. Like a pack of wolves into a flock of sheep, the German boats scattered the convoy and mayhem ensued until the E-Boats called off the attack in the gathering light. The rest would be left to the Luftwaffe.
What ensued was initially and correctly recorded in history as the first day of the Battle of Britain, and resulted in the heaviest losses witnessed in the war so far. After sustaining massive damage RAF fighters were scrambled from Tangmere to defend the convoy and clashed with attacking Me 109s, Me 110s and Ju 87s in a vicious battle over the channel.
Andy Saunders gives a blow by blow account from the perspective of the RAF, Luftwaffe, Merchant Navy, Royal Navy and Kriegsmarine on this milestone day. Using personal accounts of the action, official diaries, logbooks, contemporary records and a host of new photographic material, Convoy Peewit 1940 gives a chronological breakdown of events on land, sea and air, successfully setting them into context against the wider picture that was the Battle of Britain.
Published to coincide with the screening of a BBC programme, based on the author's research and writings.
The author has now been commissioned to write an article for BBC History magazine on this very subject.
Andy Saunders' most recent book is the highly successful Finding the Few.
In the 70th Anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, this book presents a completely different insight into events.
Given the shelf-groaning number of books on the Battle of Britain published during the past 60-odd years, it is no easy task to produce a new slant on that hard-fought series of actions.
But Andy Saunders succeeds with this book. He centres on a single day's fighting, that which took place over and around Convoy Peewit as it headed westwards through the English Channel on 8 August 1940. This action occurred near the end of the first phase of the Battle of Britain, during which the Luftwaffe had concentrated its attacks on the merchant shipping that plied the waters round the British Isles. And, painstaking researcher that he is, Andy has assembled an account of that day's actions that goes far beyond any that has appeared_ previously.
'Peewit' set sail from Southend early on the morning of 7 August, bound for Weymouth Bay. It comprised twenty-four small coasters, the largest being a tad under 1,600 tons and the six smallest having a displacement of less than 400 each. Most of the vessels were laden with coal from pits in the north of England, intended for power stations, industrial concerns and domestic use in the West Country. Other ships were loaded with raw materials and foodstuffs. The smatt Royal Navy force escorting the convoy comprised two destroyers and ten smaller ships.
On the afternoon of 7 August the convoy rounded North Foreland and plodded at 8 knots into the English Channel. The action opened during the early morning darkness of 8 August, when four E-Boats (fast motor torpedo boats) of the German navy ambushed the convoy as it sailed past Beachy Head. They sank three coasters and inflicted damage on several others.
From mid-moming to mid-afternoon on the 8th the Luftwaffe launched three major attacks on the convoy involving 188 sorties by Junkers 87 Stuka dive bombers. Escorting them was a large number of Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters. The first attack missed the main convoy and spent its fury against six coasters that had intended to join Peewit as it sailed past the Isle of Wight. Two of those coasters were sunk and the remaining four suffered serious damage. The RAF went into action in force against this attack and a series of dogfights ensued. Soon after noon came the second attack, which sank one of the coasters and damaged three more. Again there were fierce dogfights. Due to poor visibility the third attack failed to connect with the main convoy, 'though one of the Royal Navy escorts damaged previously was finished off.
The actions around Peewit were the largest so far to take place in the Battle of Britain. The ferocity of that air fighting is borne out by the scale of the losses suffered on each side. All told the Luftwaffe counted around twenty aircraft destroyed that day, while RAF Fighter Command lost a similar number. Most of those losses, though not all, were inflicted in the vicinity of Convoy Peewit.
The losses inflicted on the convoy itself amounted to six coasters and one Royal Navy escort sunk and several ships damaged and requiring repair.
Convoy Peewit is a good story, well told. I hope it achieves the success it deserves.
Dr. Alfred Price
The sub-title is 'August 8 1940: The first day of the Battle of Britain?' Regarding the date in the Introduction, we are told that Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding changed his mind in 1946 and 10 July 1940 was settled as the first day, therefore denying some Pilots such as George Lott of the 'Battle of Britain' clasp to his 1939-45 Star.
I suppose it is too late now to alter it again. When you consider 'The Battle of the Atlantic' started on the first day of the war and ended on the last day. If that wasn't a 'Battle of Britain' then what were the Merchant Seamen and the Royal Navy fighting for? Additionally as the author points out in his preamble, the Battle of Britain and the story of 1940 generally, was not only about the air fighting.
This is a very informative and well-researched book packed with facts and photographs which fully describe convoy Peewit, which sailed from Southend on Sea 7 August 1940 and ended South West of the Isle of Wight. During that period it was attacked by E-Boats, Dorniers, and Stukas, one ship that figured large in the story is HMS Borealis, which now lies thirty-eight metres beneath the English Channel and is a wreck which still has a tale to tell.