Category Archives: Royal Air Force

Flying Among Heroes by Norman Franks and Simon Muggleton

With the Bomber Command Memorial in London only having been unveiled a couple of days ago, I guess it is pretty fitting to be reviewing the story of a Second World War Bomber pilot. I’ve always been in awe of the job that these very brave young men did, and it’s always interesting to hear of their stories.

This book is the story of a Second World War RAF aviator, Squadron Leader Tom Cooke DFC AFC DFM AE. Joining the RAF as an 18 year old in 1939, he graduated to flying bombers. Cooke won the DFM as a Sergeant Pilot flying Whitlet Bombers, and was later commissioned as an officer. He later served tours flying Wellington’s and Stirlings. He was awarded the DFC and AFC. In between tours with Bomber Command Squadrons he also served as an instructor in Operational Conversion Units, teaching new pilots. In this capacity he took part in the famous thousand Bomber raids on Cologne and Essen, when Bomber Harris combed out the OCU’s in order to put up as many Bombers as possible.

He returned to operations flying Halifax Bombers, but this time in a slightly unorthdox manners – namely, Special Duties, dropping special agents behind the lines in occupied Europe. On his twelfth mission he was shot down over France, and managed to evade his way back over the Pyrenees, and home to Britain via Gibraltar. Having been in contact with the French Resistance he was not allowed to fly operationally over Europe again, as he knew too much about vulnerable contacts in occupied territory. Instead, after ‘escape leave’ he was transferred to South East Asia and Burma. After leaving the RAF in 1946 he re-enlisted, finally reaching the rank of Squadron Leader, and after finally leaving the service worked as a commerical airline pilot.

It’s quite possible to do a lot of research piecing together the career of RAF Bomber Crew. If the man’s log book survives then that’s a real bonus. Also, Squadron records state the aircraft that flew on specific missions, who exactly was on board, what bomb load they carried, when they took off and landed, and a brief report of their experiences. Some crewmembers, in particular gunners, filled out air combat reports when they encountered enemy fighters.

In an interesting way, this book is quite similar to some of the research I have done on Portsmouth RAF Bomber Crew, using the same sources. Only here, Franks and Muggleton were able to call on some oral history interviews in the Imperial War Museum, with not only Cooke but also some of his crew. My one criticism would be that the text does not perhaps flow as well as it could. The authors have chosen to include stories about other men, aircraft and raids, presumably to add context. Whilst these additions do this, they do have the side effect of breaking up the narrative of Cooke’s story. I would probably rather have read Cooke’s story, as there are plenty of good books on the Bomber Offensive in general. None the less, it is still very much an interesting and gripping read.

Flying Among Heroes is published by The History Press

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Bomber Command Memorial unveiled

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memori...

Avro Lancaster of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at Royal International Air Tattoo 2005. . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday the Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, unveiled the new memorial to the RAF’s Bomber Command of World War Two. The memorial, in London’s Green Park, contains a centrepiece statue of Bomber crewmembers, surrounded by a Portland Stone structure. Part of the roof is constructed from metal rescued from a crashed Halifax Bomber, recovered in Belgium.

The ceremony was attended by many veterans of Bomber Command, who of course are now well  into their 80′s and 90′s. The event was also marked by an RAF Flypast, including the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster Bomber – the only surviving flying Lancaster in Britain – dropping thousands of Poppies.

Several years ago I wrote about the injustices that Bomber Command and its veterans have suffered since the end of the Second World War. While the few of the Battle of Britain have been feted, the history of the many of Bomber Command has been largely hushed up out of political expediency.

After the end of the war, the fear of images of wrecked german cities such as Dresden led the authorities – Winston Churchill among them – to unofficially cover-up the role of Bomber Command during the Second World War. Yet more than 55,000 men of Bomber Command were killed on operations – thats around half of all who flew in Bombers. Bomber Command suffered higher losses than any other comparable Command in the British armed forces during the whole war. And while the Battle of Britain raged for several months during the summer and early Autumn of 1940, Bombing raids on Germany and occupied Europe took place from September 1939 until April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war.

I’ve always felt very strongly about the perils of post-modernist history. In a sense, those of us who did not live through the traumatic period 1939 to 1945 should not be able to understand completely what it was like for young men to go up into the skies of Europe night after night as they did. We can’t. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t at least try to form a grasp on what they experienced. And even more so, we shouldn’t try and airbrush parts of history just because they seem slightly unpalatable in the present – we are robbing future generations of their heritage.

I suppose a modern comparison would be the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland. As Ken Wharton‘s books have so eloquently shown us, the role of the British squaddie was a thankless task. Cast into a no-win situation, the British Army was effectively a sitting target for the various bands of terrorists and lawless thugs in the province. Although the British Army in Northern Ireland was often called an occupying force by the nationalist communities, it is usually conveniently forgotten that the Army was deployed to keep the pease after loyalists began targeting nationalists. No violence, no Army.

Yet as soon as the peace process gathered momentum, the role of the Army became marginalised. Instead, current affairs in Northern Ireland revolve around former hard-liners such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, people who, in their own ways, did much to whip up and perpetuate the firestorm that the Army found itself in. Remembering he role of the Army would of course be embarassing to an ex IRA commander turned politician, so for the present, at least, it is consigned to the shadows.

It’s marvellous to see such a fine memorial being unveiled to the thousands of young men of Bomber Command, and I’m sure that it will become a well-known landmark in London.

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Filed under Bombing, News, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Mosquito Menacing the Reich: Combat Action in the Twin-Engine Wooden Wonder of World War II by Martin W. Bowman

I must confess I’ve always known OF the De Havilland Mosquito – apart from the fact that it was constructed from almost entirely from wood. But equally, I’ve never known very much about what it accomplished during the war. This book is an ideal remedy for what I suspect is a common affliction for those of us who know all about Spitfires, Hurricanes and Lancasters but have a knowledge gap when it comes to other Second World War aircraft types!

The Mosquito was originally conceived as a Medium Bomber, but ended up serving a number of roles with the RAF, and indeed with the USAAF as well. With its speed and high operating altitude, it served as a medium bomber, a precision strike aircraft, a pathfinder and marker, an anti-shipping strike platform, in North West Europe and in South East Asia. That it was also used by the Americans speaks volumes of its reputation.

For much of its service, only the Luftwaffe’s new jets could outperform it, speed wise. It had a higher operational ceiling than most other aircraft, and indeed German flak, so could quite often avoid danger. It proved to be ideal for precision bombing, where accuracy was needed that could not be obtained by Heavy Bombers. Leonard Cheshire VC used a Mosquito to perfect precision bombing of railway yards in the run up to D-Day, and Mosquitos were also used against the Tirpitz. Perhaps the Mosquito’s most famous raids were those on German Headquarters in The Hague, Aarhus and Oslo. Popular consesus might think that precision bombing came with Tomahawk cruise missiles, but the Mosquito’s effectiveness came a clear 40 odd years before.

Mosquitos were also often used in daylight, and for diversionary raids at night when Bomber Command’s main force was attacking elsewhere. They also famously raided Berlin night after night, just as much for the nuisance value as anything else. Hermann Goring was apparently furious that a Mosquito raid knocked out a radio station, thus putting one of his speeches off air.

At times perhaps there are more personal accounts than there are history, but the story is much better told in the words of the men who were there. With a crew of only two -a pilot and a navigator – they seem to have had to show more initiative and shoulder much more of a responsibility than other aircrew, given the highly specialised roles in which their aircraft were employed, often with a much greater degree of independence than say a Bomber crew with the main force.

This is a brilliant book my Martin Bowman. It’s choc full of accounts from men who flew and navigated the Mosquito. I enjoyed reading it immensely. It’s a great tribute to not only a wonderful aircraft – which deserves a more prominent place in aviation history – but also the incredibly brave men who flew it. It’s such a shame that there aren’t any surviving in airworthy fashion – I’m sure it would be quite a sight.

Mosquito: Menacing the Reich is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Royal Air Force, World War Two

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost - either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Sergeants Eric and Ronald Osgood

Out of the blue I received an email the other day from a gentleman who had noticed an unusual gravestone in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth. It commemorates two brothers serving in the RAF who were killed on the same day in 1940, and are buried in a joint grave.

Sergeant Eric Edwin Heaton Osgood (20) and Sergeant Ronald Arthur Osgood (22) both died on 17 July 1940. Their parents were Albert and Elizabeth Osgood, of Widley.

The ever-reliable Gerry at the Portsmouth Cemeteries Office informs me that the two brothers were killed in an air crash at RAF Sealand, a training and maintenance base in Scotland. And according to the burial registers their parents were living at Beaconsfield Road in Cosham.

I have emailed the RAF Museum, who hold records of all RAF aircraft crashes. Hopefully we can find out a bit more about the Osgood brothers. I must confess I had no idea about them, although I have previously written about the Venables brothers who were also killed in the same air crash in September 1945.

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

Bomber Boys by Ewan and Colin Mcgregor on BBC1

I really enjoyed Bomber Boys, which was on BBC1 on Sunday Evening. The programme showed Ewen McGregor’s brother Colin - a former RAF pilot who flew with 617 Squadron – learning to fly the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight‘s Lancaster, the only flying Lanc in Britain and one of only two left flying in the world. First McGregor learnt to fly a C-47 Dakota, a classic aircraft that was perhaps as much of a war-winner as the Lancaster and the Spitfire, but has never quite attracted the same glamour. He then progressed to taking the controls of the Lancaster.

I especially enjoyed the insightful contributions of Bomber Command veterans. Of course, so few of those very young men actually survived the war. Bomber Command had the highest loss rate of any comparable command in the British armed forces during the second world war. I think that their views and remeniscences were very interesting, and it is increasingly important that their recollections of everyday life are remembered. It’s not just their memories of flying and fighting that are important, but also of drinking in pubs, life on airbases and chasing WAAFs, and things like that, that really matter. In that sense the McGregors looked at the social history aspect of Bomber Command more than any other programme I have seen. The McGregors also looked at other aspects of the campaign, such as the Germans raid on Coventry in 1940, the Butt report on bombing accuracy, and the raids on Hamburg and Dresden. They also looked at the bombing from the perspective of the German population.

My research into Portsmouth airmen shows just how history has slanted views. Hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed with Bomber Command. And they were young men, mostly in their early twenties and some in their late teens. Most of them have never even driven a car, but some found themselves piloting big, heavy Bombers on marathon missions over occupied Europe – often two or three times a week. It’s impossible to describe what a strain this must have placed on these young men – flying for up to ten hours at a time, facing imeasurable dangers of flak, night fighters and the threat of accidents. The rate of attrition in aircraft and crews was, in retrospect, terrifying.

Yet for some unknown reason, the Bomber Boys have never quite attracted the attention of Fighter Command. Compared to the hundreds of Portsmouth men who fought and died in the Bomber Offensive, only ONE was killed flying with Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it? I cannot help but think that this is down to two historical developments. Firstly, after the end of the war the strategic bombing of civilian targets became distinctly unfashionable. Even before the end of the war Churchill was distancing himself from the historical legacy of the bombers. Secondly, the RAF being the RAF, it has always done self-promotion very well. And since the Second World War, it has suited far more to play up the Battle of Britain rather than the Bombers Offensive. And thus when we think of the RAF, we think of the dashing young public schoolboy, pre-war regulars of Fighter Command, rather than the diverse, international and unsung men of Bomber Command.

This was a brilliant programme, very well thought out and blending history with remeniscence. I also found it very moving and inspiring, and made me think of such brave Portsmouth bomber men as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy, Flight Sergeant Francis Compton, and Flight Lieutenant’s Guy and Arthur Venables. Reading their operational records at the National Archives was a sobering reminder of just what an incredible ordeal they endured.

Bomber Boys is available to watch on BBC iplayer (UK only)

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Reckoning

So, we’ve looked at the various elements that might constitute a re-run of the 1982 Falklands War – the political dimension; the naval war (Aircraft carriers, naval aviation, amphibious warfare, escorts, logistics, submarines); the air war; and the land battle.

I think the key points to emerge are as follows:

  • Lack of carrier-borne air cover MIGHT not preclude a succesful task force, but it would be useful
  • We have JUST enough amphibious capability to effect a landing if need be
  • We have some very high quality Destroyers and Frigates, but nowhere near enough of them
  • We are perilously short of auxiliaries, and would need much assistance from the Merchant Navy
  • Our submarines are very capable, but far too few
  • The four Typhoons at Mount Pleasant would be crucial
  • Any landing force would be battle-hardened, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Argentines forces, although more professional, are outclassed equipment wise

As we can see, there are a lot of ‘might’, ‘just’. Which is hardly ideal when planning to embark on a military operation. The theme that seems to emerge is that the British Armed Forces – in terms of inventory and personnel – are very high quality, but few in number. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, given the economic situation – in fact, it is likely to get worse before it gets better. And if future defence cuts prune back – salami slice – ship numbers, for example, then we would go beyond the point where an operation ‘might’ be possible, to a point where one would be foolhardy.

Politically, the Falklands/Malvinas issue is unlikely to disappear any time soon, and certainly not after the discovery of natural resouces in the seabed of the South Atlantic. The current Argentine President is continually spouting ‘route-one’ politics, ie fooling the population away from domestic problems by targetting an external bogeyman. The current period of South American love-in has also emboldened Kirchner, it seems. How long this might last is anyones guess, given the fickle nature of Latin American politics.

1982 taught us that signs of weakness, such as cutting vital and sometimes symbolic assets, can be the first domino in causing unsavoury types to play their hand. Any possible savings that might have been gained from retiring HMS Endurance in 1982 were completely dwarfed by the costs – human, financial and materiel – that were incurred after Argentina took it to be a launchpad for war. As such, cost-cutting can be short-sighted – cutting a ship might save a few million, but will it cost us much more in the long run? Defence does give traction on the world stage. It was this lack of co-ordination between defence and diplomacy that caused such problems in 1982.

Is it narrow-minded to think solely about the Falkland Islands? After all, history is full of examples of forces and leaders who prepared to fight the last war, only to find that they were hopelessly stuck in the past. Aside from extremist terrorism, and perhaps Iran in the straights of Hormuz, Argentine threats to the Falklands are the most serious threat to British interests today. And we would be sensible to plan accordingly. All the time the Falkland Islanders wish to remain British, we have a duty to defend them.

Also, we should be aware that any ignominious outcome in the Falklands would have big domestic and international repurcussions. If the Argentines were to reclaim the Falklands, what is to stop the Spanish applying pressure over Gibraltar? We might find that we also put other nations in sticky positions over their far-flung possessions. And for Britain to be defeated by a second-world state would be embarassing to say the least – losing wars and surrendering territories does nothing for your international standing. In 1982 the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact cannot have failed to note that the British Armed Forces punched very hard. Showing that you will not be pushed about will surely make other enemies think twice about having a pop.

In 2012 the Falklands could be defended, and retaken if necessary. Just.

 

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Filed under Army, Falklands War, Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines