In the mass of new books that are published each year on the Second World War it is inevitable that old news is raked over yet again. This is no bad thing because each book looks from a fresh perspective, includes new information and replaces those books that have gone out of print and out of stock, but every now and again there is a gem of a new book that provides a valuable insight into an aspect of war that has somehow evaded previous authors. This rare book is even more valuable when it is based on the recollections of someone who was actually there.
This book is such a gem and covers the operations over Burma by 656 Air OP Squadron
NAME: Fire By Order, Recollections of Service With 656 Air Observation Post Squadron in Burma
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: E W Maslen-Jones
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: soft back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: Gunnery direction, AOP, Auster, army aviation, WWII, Second World War, World War Two, Burma, Japan
DESCRIPTION: In the mass of new books that are published each year on the Second World War it is inevitable that old news is raked over yet again. This is no bad thing because each book looks from a fresh perspective, includes new information and replaces those books that have gone out of print and out of stock, but every now and again there is a gem of a new book that provides a valuable insight into an aspect of war that has somehow evaded previous authors. This rare book is even more valuable when it is based on the recollections of someone who was actually there.
This book is such a gem and covers the operations over Burma by 656 Air OP Squadron. It is the story of the resurrection of British Army Air Service. When the RAF was formed in the closing days of WWI, it was built by the combination of the Royal Flying Corp and the Royal Naval Air Service in what may have been logical to politicians but which was not necessarily a benefit to the military capability of Great Britain. Both war service organizations were formed by breaking the naval aviation out from the briefly established bi-service Royal Flying Corps. The divorce served Britain well because the Army and the Royal Navy were then tasked with developing air power to suit their different but vital needs. The Royal Navy took aircraft from trusted commercial companies and the RFC was mostly stuck with the products of the State-owned aircraft factory that initially provided some very frail unarmed BE2 reconnaissance aircraft that did provide a vital service in photographing the enemy positions with great frequency and directing the fire of British guns when WT radio was added to their aircraft. The RFC got into the business of air combat more through the innovative and aggressive actions of its pilots than through a grand master plan to develop British airpower.
The Royal Navy took a different path that was eased by the fact that they bought aircraft from innovative manufacturers in the fledgling British aircraft industry. The result was that the RN had developed tactics and thought through combat roles before 1914 and when it got its aircraft and crews back a month before the outbreak of WWI, it was ready to hit the deck running. It dropped the first torpedo a month before WWI started and it had developed a range of essential technologies to drop bombs, depth bombs and fire guns. When it joined the RFC in France, its aircraft were more frequently employed on aggressive actions, bringing down German airships, bombing shore installations and defending shipping supplying the British Army across the narrow English Channel. The RNAS enjoyed a particularly close and productive relationship with Sopwith and Shorts and it was the RNAS flown Sopwith Triplane fighters that inspired Fokker to build the Fokker Triplane that made the Red Baron famous. The Royal Navy also developed the concept of strategic bombing using large multi-engine land planes and aircraft flown from carriers. In fact the RN was at an advanced stage of planning a carrier strike against the German High Seas Fleet in port, when aviation was taken away from them and given to the newly formed RAF.
After 1918, the RAF was really only interested in being a strategic bomber force, with a secondary interest in using obsolete WWI vintage aircraft to bomb and shoot up tribesmen in the backwaters of Empire as a cheap way of keeping revolt under control. The Navy and the Army had not given up on regaining their aerial capabilities. The RN was in a better position because it continued to develop its carriers and build new carriers. It was also able to move naval carrier aircraft back onto its own funding, which enabled it to increase pressure on the RAF to accept only naval officers as observers and increase the proportion of naval officers who were trained as pilots. That allowed the Navy to recover its carrier aviation two years before the start of WWII and begin to make up for all the lost development time. The RN was also helped in 1939 by the ability to purchase some very capable aircraft built for the US Navy, which had managed to retain control of its aviation.
The Army made much less progress and what ground it did recover from the RAF was in Army co-operation and assault gliders. Where these capabilities were permitted to the Army, great success was made within the narrow confines. One great achievement was made by Air Observation Post aircraft in Burma. The reason for the success was in part due to the reduced interest and capability of the RAF in Burma. In the Mediterranean and Europe, the RAF was present in very large numbers. Until air superiority could be achieved, slow light aircraft were vulnerable to German attack. It was much easier to use the growing numbers of ground attack aircraft to serve as flying artillery and to serve as gunnery directors when required. That meant that in the close confined European airspace, the Army made its main aerial contribution by training its soldiers to fly assault gliders and then become infantry again when the glider was landed.
Burma created a very different environment where the RAF was only able to send aircraft that were obsolescent in Europe and where the Japanese never operated strategic bomber fleets over Burma in the same way that aircraft were used in Europe by both sides, leading to great aerial battles and sweeps by large wings of fighters and ground attack aircraft. Many who served in Burma thought of themselves as the “Forgotten Army” but being forgotten was a double edged sword in that it allowed commanders to use whatever resources were available as they considered best.
Burma was to see the first use by the army of an early helicopter for casualty evacuation, the routine use of light aircraft for Air Observation Posts, and also to use man-carrying kits. It was due to the courageous and dedicated work of these Army pilots that the Army was to be given the opportunity after WWII to develop a very effective fixed wing and then rotor wing Army Air Corps. Today, the Army has its own helicopter gunships for observation, troop insertion and extraction, and close support of troops. It is in this context that the work of 656 AOP Squadron pilots should be seen. They not only made an important contribution the campaign in Burma, but they also provided the examples on which the Army was later to justify the Army Air Corps as it exists today.
The book makes for good and easy reading. The author is an involving writer who pulls the reader into the story. Illustration is almost entirely confined to a black and white photo plate section, but the images there are interesting, appropriate and rare. As with all gems, grab it while you can, this is a book not to be missed.