There are occasions in reviewing new books where there is a mixture of sadness and gratitude. This is one such book. The author died this year and that is sad because he did not see the reaction to his writing or receive the deserved recognition of strong sales of what is a particularly important book that tells a story much neglected. Gratitude, because he provides a highly detailed account of a single squadron in Coastal Command during WWII. It is a fitting memorial to him and to his comrades, but it is also a very appropriate tribute to all in Coastal Command who made the most of resources restricted by a neglectful political class and an air force command that believed primarily in strategic bombing and point defence land-based interceptors. Coastal Command crews flew long, cold, noisy missions, often without any other aircraft and in weather conditions that would have grounded other aircraft. They also flew into withering enemy fire and pressed home their attacks with outstanding courage.
NAME: An Expendable Squadron, The Story of 217 Squadron Coastal Command 1939 – 1945
AUTHOR: Roy Conyers Nesbit
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWII, World War Two, Second World War, extreme bravery, maritime patrol, maritime attack, anti-submarine, surface ships, naval aviation, political failure, Service neglect, Beaufort, Beaufighter
DESCRIPTION: There are occasions in reviewing new books where there is a mixture of sadness and gratitude. This is one such book. The author died this year and that is sad because he did not see the reaction to his writing or receive the deserved recognition of strong sales of what is a particularly important book that tells a story much neglected. Gratitude, because he provides a highly detailed account of a single squadron in Coastal Command during WWII. It is a fitting memorial to him and to his comrades, but it is also a very appropriate tribute to all in Coastal Command who made the most of resources restricted by a neglectful political class and an air force command that believed primarily in strategic bombing and point defence land-based interceptors. Coastal Command crews flew long, cold, noisy missions, often without any other aircraft and in weather conditions that would have grounded other aircraft. They also flew into withering enemy fire and pressed home their attacks with outstanding courage.
When the RAF was formed in 1918, it absorbed both Army and Royal Navy air assets. It showed little interest in airships, or anything outside strategic bombing. Fortunately, the politicians realised in part their serious mistakes shortly before the outbreak of WWII and returned part of naval aviation to Admiralty control. The newly formed Fleet Air Arm was given responsibility for shipboard aircraft, combining the two elements of naval aviation at sea, the carriers and their embarked air groups, and also those aircraft embarked in capital ships as spotters and communications aircraft. Sadly the RAF was allowed to retrain maritime patrol and attack aircraft. The result was that the RAF came very close to losing the war to German -Boats and surface raiders, by treating Coastal Command as very low priority for equipment.
At the start of WWII, the RAF demonstrated poor understanding of the importance of naval air power and the need for heavily armed long range aircraft to support ships at sea, deny the oceans to submarines that needed to run on the surface much of the time, to catch up with convoys and to recharge the inadequate batteries that powered them under water. By accident, the RAF was to acquire the Sunderland flying boat that was developed by Shorts from the Empire Class passenger aircraft, but in the early stages of the war, Coastal Command was equipped with an odd job collection of short range aircraft with limited offensive or defensive ability and at best suitable for coastal patrol. The result was a huge black spot in the Atlantic that was a happy hunting ground for U-boats who were able to operate almost with impunity against the vital Atlantic convoys that were needed to keep Britain fed and supplied with raw materials and finished goods to arm its military organizations.
In the beginning, many aircraft were designed as trainers and either completely unarmed or equipped with very limited offensive and defensive capabilities. Their primary role was to observe, flying slowly along the British coasts in fair weather conditions. As the war progressed, Coastal Command received a series of hand-me-downs from Bomber Command is it received priority re-equipment with modern and more powerful aircraft that had the range to fly deep into Germany to attack cities and production areas. The personnel of Coastal Command did sterling service in making the most of this inadequate second hand equipment.
Eventually, British and American production was able to produce more first line bombers than were being lost in combat and Coastal Command began to receive some of these long range four engine heavy aircraft that allowed patrols to cover across the Atlantic from airfields in Britain and North America, providing reconnaissance, patrol, attack and rescue support to the Merchant and Royal Navy vessels that were maintaining the vital sea routes.
The author was an observer in 217 Squadron and describes the situation as Coastal Command was receiving modern attack aircraft, but still being treated as an expendable service. These aircraft were used on very dangerous sorties, attacking enemy-held ports and coastal vessels. The Bristol Beaufort and Beaufighter aircraft, together with the superlative Mosquito multi-role combat aircraft, pressed home attacks, often in atrocious conditions and in the face of very heavy fire.
The author tells the story of the critical missions flown against French West Coast ports and then from the island of Malta in Beauforts. The Maltese operations played a key role in denying supplies to the German Afrika Korps to assist the Allied victories in North Africa. These were usually very low level missions, using canon and torpedoes to destroy enemy warships and transports running between Scilly/Italy and North Africa.
The Beaufort was developed from the Blenheim twin engine bomber that had in turn been developed from a fast commercial aircraft, filling the gap left by successive Air Ministry failures to provide the RAF with competent modern aircraft. The Beaufort had an internal bomb bay that was able to accommodate bombs or torpedoes, providing a formidable offensive capability, but with a very light defensive armament that was not adequate in the conditions operating at the time of its introduction into service.
The Beaufighter was a different proposition. It had to carry a torpedo externally, but it could also carry bombs and rockets to provide a very formidable armament able to attack armoured vessels, with the ability to carry depth bombs for use against submerged U-boats. Importantly, it was equipped with a heavy gun armament of canon and machine guns that were fixed and fired by the pilot, with a single flexible machine gun in a dorsal position to provide some rear protection. It was a fast, resilient machine that was also unusually quiet, being dubbed “Whispering Death” by the Japanese. The author tells of the use of these effective aircraft, the Beaufighter re-equipping 217 before it was sent to attack the Japanese.
The author has provided a compelling and involving account of one squadron and of events around it. On its own, this would more than justify buying a copy, but it is also telling the story of a greatly neglected part of WWII aerial combat, and a part that had a profound influence on the conduct of the war. The great aerial fleets of British and American bombers flying deep into German to wreak havoc and the dogged defence of Britain by Hurricanes and Spitfires has captured the imagination of generations and resulted in a huge volume of books on every aspect of these two campaigns. Against this, Coastal Command has received almost no coverage even though it saved the war for the Allies, just as surely as the ‘Few’ saved Britain in 1940. This is an impressive and very human presentation of one Coastal Command squadron, but it also covers much more by including important Coastal Command activities around the squadron and an observer’s experience from the beginning of the war. This is a book not to be missed.
The author provides lessons for the present and the future. The Coalition Government and the RAF scrapped new Nimrod patrol aircraft after they had been paid for and before they could enter service. The Government wanted vote winning spending cuts. The RAF was only interested in Typhoon fighter aircraft and the result was that a key part of naval aviation was once more neglected. Recently, the Government has been forced to buy obsolete American aircraft and rush them into service as intelligence and maritime patrol aircraft. The cost will probably be far greater than the cost of bringing the new Nimrods into service, but at a greatly reduced maritime capability. Sadly democracies rarely learn from history.