I’m a big fan of the Handbook series from Sutton Press. My intoduction to them came by way of the Army counterpart, when researching my Granddad’s war service. This edition of the series focusses on the Royal Air Force between 1939 and 1945.
The Handbook opens with a lengthy chapter on the history of the RAF. Whilst this is interesting and adds context, I feel that it is perhaps a little more detailed than is necessary. We then have a chapter focussing on the state of the RAF in 1939. Then several chapters follow describing the RAF during the Second World War, from the phoney war, to Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, the Bomber Offensive, the Battle of the Atlantic, war in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Later Chapters then follow up with focus on the Far East, and the war in Europe after 1944. Whilst this broader context is important, again I feel that perhaps it goes into too much detail – particularly when we consider that there are already a number of authoritative histories of the RAF in the Second World War. The broader, strategic context IS important, but I feel it is a case of getting the balance right.
What really sets this book apart is its focus on the more human aspects of service in the RAF. Rcruitment and training and Personal and Personnel are fascinating subjects and David Wragg covers them admirably. Its only by looking at what the men and women who served in the RAF experienced, that we can get an accurate picture of the wartime RAF. In particular I like the section on training structures – all too often personal stories of wartime serice begin after training – yet surely this has to be one of the most formative experiences of service?
I have been researching the men of Portsmouth who died in the Second World War, and the section on ranks and roles has added to my knowledge and understanding considerably. Its also very interesting to read about Pay and Conditions, Uniforms, Insignia and similar subjects – these are very human aspects that are so important, particularly for family historians. One of the most difficult aspects of military history is investigating medals, and this is covered too.
The Handbook is not limited to the men of Fighter Command and Bomber Command either – passages are dedicated to the Womens Royal Auxilliary Air Force, the RAF Regiment, and anti-aircraft defences. It also includes a comprehensive list of wartime squadrons, with a service history of each, and also a list of wartime airfields. The lists of Squadrons and airfields run well into three figures, so this is a valuable source. To add context to Bomber Command’s war the Handbook includes a list of German cities subjected to Bombing, with the first and last dates they were attacked, together with a total tonnage of bombs dropped. I have never seen this information anywhere else. Finally, a full list and description of all RAF VC winners between 1939 and 1945 pays tribute to some extraordinarily brave men.
One of the most pleasing aspect of this book is the illustrations – its full of great pictures of aircraft, and aircrew and groundcrew at work. I know that there are plenty of training manuals, for example, that might have made good illustrations. But if you want to use it for family history research or just for pleasure reading, its well worth picking up. If you really want to drill down and do some in-depth research, you might like to track down some specialist books, or borrow something from the library. But for off-the-shelf research into the RAF in the Second World War, especially if you are new to military history, this book is very hard to beat.