on 17 August 2010
Max Arthur's "Last of the Few" is another of the many books being released for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. And I must say this is one of the better ideas for a book celebrating the Few's accomplishments those 70 summers ago. Essentially this book is a collection of transcripts from recorded interviews, interviews by the author and other sources of the Few's firsthand accounts of fighting the Battle of Britain and what it was like to be at the "sharp end" at that pivotal point of British history. All of these extracts are organised into chapters which follow the course of the Battle, from the first probings of the Luftwaffe to the decisive days of September with the huge raids over south eastern England.
This is a great testament to the Few and one which feels "very alive" due to the book being entirely the words of the men who were there and lived it. The reader has the very intimate feeling that they are sitting with the Few and being told the events in person. A minor carp, is that there are the odd errors in spellings and suchlike which no doubt arose from the writing down of spoken conversation but as I said this is a small thing.
All in all, a great read and one which does justice to the Few and hopefully will be enjoyed by many, many readers.
on 30 January 2011
Mr. Arthur has taken a slightly different view point for this subject which in the 70th anniversary year is getting a lot of exposure, which some may say, is this & other authors, working the seam frantically to gain a few more book sales.
His view point is taken as a series of vignettes or `word-bytes' as we might say today, from many of the pilots involved, taken from a number of existing published & from some other sources, but strung together in the timeline in which the battle developed and was fought .
This is quite a fresh approach and makes rather easy reading though not being too superficial with the details involved. I enjoyed this read and would recommend it.
on 25 June 2010
For anyone who has read Max Arthur's previous books then you will know what to expect from this Author and his style of work. Max Arthur's books are often clear concise and deal with the facts in a no nonsense, straight from the horse's mouth style and this latest doesn't disappoint.
As we approach the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the recent Dunkirk anniversary Arthur takes us back to the RAF's struggle above the skies of France and Britain.
In their own words the Pilots of the RAF take us back to the skies over England in the summer of 1940.
We also get view points from some RAF ground crew, WAAF controllers and some Luftwaffe pilots to give us some differing perspectives of the battle.
Many of the contributing RAF Pilots will be well known by many readers as some of these testimonies have been used before in previous books and TV programmes.
This doesn't detract from the fact that this book is a must read for anyone interested in the Battle of Britain or The RAF in general during the opening phase of WW2.
The book breaks down into 6 chapters which take us from Pre War RAF and training through to the end of the Battle Of Britain.
Each chapter opens with a brief historical background of the period and state of the RAF as we approach each phase of the battle.
I shall offer a brief breakdown of each chapter
Chapter 1 Learning to Fly and Joining Up
We learn that the pre war RAF was almost a flying club for young gentleman of the well to do.
Many go straight from Boarding school into the RAF many have also learnt to fly privately often in relatives' aircraft.
Many join the Auxiliary Airforce and learn to fly with RAF equipment although in truth it's not much more than pleasure flying.
We also get testimonies from pilots of the less well to do who learn with the RAF Volunteer Reserve and pass out as Sgt pilots.
The RAF VR pilots learn to fly at weekends and are retained on £25 a year; they can be drafted to any Sqn if required once trained.
This chapter also introduces us to some of the overseas pilots from Poland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia and reminds us that the Battle and RAF was multi national.
We learn at this stage that it's a love of flying and the thrill of flying that bond our young pilots together and if they want to fly the modern machines of the day the RAF is the place to do it.
They are all there for one reason - to fly; and to fly two aircraft, The Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.
Chapter 2 First Combat and The Battle For France
The Battle for France provides us with almost two different RAF's one in France and one operating from the UK.
There are the front line Sqn's in France who are taking part in the BEF's defence of France and ultimately the retreat back to Dunkirk.
Pilots describe the shambolic nature of the campaign, no maps or spares, what we would now refer to as logistics, falling apart.
More shocking we learn that the pre war flying club tactics are shockingly out of date against the Germans!
Machine guns are badly harmonised so a lot of ammunition is wasted just trying to get onto the target. A Sgt Armourer informs us that after the battle, dartboards where used to harmonise all 8 guns on to the target.
Formation flying is still the order of the day. We learn that Sqns often landed with aircraft missing and were that busy keeping formation they didn't notice aircraft being shot down around them.
Also we here of Sqn attacks where they all line up behind one another to attack formations. The U.K. based Sqns feed back to senior officers (old men in their 40's(!) one pilot tells us) and "loose" flying is adopted.
An excellent chapter that sets the tone for the forthcoming Battle of Britain.
Chapters 3 & 4 The Battle of Britain Phases 1 & 2
Phase 1 opens with an Intelligence expert telling us they had intercepted Goering's signal instructing his commanders to get the whole of the RAF in the air and destroy it.
We learn that this set the tone for Dowding and he only commits a small number of Sqns at any time units and keeps Sqns in reserve.
The opening phase of the battle begins with convoy patrols and engagements over the channel. The RAF have by now started to adopt a number of the Germans flying tactics and are flying loose formations.
We hear of large scale German formations now being attacked by small RAF sqns flying almost the same tactics as the German fighters.
We hear of the first losses and many of our contributors get shot down for the first time! This is a really interesting chapter describing the race for height and how often many are shot down without even seeing the enemy.
The casual way in which some of the pilots describe the way they are shot down is eye opening to say the least!
One pilot describes how he crashed his Spitfire whilst trying to land next to the HE111 he had just shot down and how the Germans rescue him as he hangs upside down in the cockpit.
Phase 2 opens with the almost horrific description by Geoffrey Page about how he was horribly burned after being shot down in flames.
This sets the tone for this chapter, one minute pilots are sitting playing cards and the next they are struggling for height to engage the German formations.
We are introduced to some of the Luftwaffe pilots at this stage and they offer their opinions on the Battle.
We also hear from Ground crew and WAAF operation controllers to describe conditions on the ground. One thing that resonates through this chapter is the phrases "I was shot down again" or "I was shot down for the second / third time".
There are still moments of humour one pilot tells how he was jailed along with some Luftwaffe crew as he didn't have any I.D. or his uniform jacket on. His adjutant arrived and promptly claimed he'd never met the man before in his life so he was thrown back in jail until he Adjt could convince the police it was just a joke.
We are also reminded that this was mainly a day light battle and at the end of the day, class still prevailed in the RAF. Once the Sqn returned and was stood down for the day, Sgt pilots went to their mess and Officers went to their mess for meals and accommodation
Chapters 4 & 5 The Battle Of Britain Phases 3 & 4
Phase 3 lasts from the end of August until the start of September the Luftwaffe are attacking all British front line airfields in the Kent and the south.
Again some of the most interesting recollections are from ground crew and WAAFs in the control room.
We hear how ground crew are attempting to refuel and re-arm aircraft as bombing raids are carried out against the airfields.
Descriptions from pilots tell us how they are bombed and have to escape destroyed machines before they even get in the air. Pilots are tired, the RAF is being pegged back.
One Hurricane pilot is thrown into the fray with only 5 hours flying time on the Hurricane A week later and having been shot down twice and wounded (once by British ground fire) his battle is over.
Churchill refuses to relinquish an inch of ground to the Germans so the Manston Sqn are getting hit day after day.
The Germans give us their perspective on the battle as their own losses mount. Northern Sqn are brought down south as exhausted and depleted Sqns are rotated for a rest. Yet RAF pilots are still confident that they can win it.
Phase 4 - RAF fighter command is saved by the Luftwaffe and Bomber command.
A lost German Bomber has Bombed London and RAF Bomber Command has responded in kind.
Hitler orders the destruction of London and this gives the exhausted fighter pilots the respite they need. German loses mount as they attack London and more importantly the German fighters do not have the fuel to operate for longer than 30 minutes over London.
Both sides are throwing everything at the each other at this stage of the battle: the Luftwaffe is determined to destroy London and the RAF: the RAF throws everything at the defence of London. At one point every available aircraft is in the air - Dowding has no reserves. Exhaustion and nerves are taking their toll on both sides.
P/O Bob Doe states that by 7th Sept only 3 of the original 21 pilots remained in the Sqn that arrived at Middle Wallop on 14 August.
P/O Doe returns to the battle on the 28th September and after converting to Hurricane (two half hour flights) is shot down and wounded, the Battle for him is over.
He is 20 years old, a gardener's son, a member of the VR and he has 14 confirmed kills.
Officially the battle, and so this book, finishes on 26 October 1940 although we are reminded that the Germans carried on daylight bombing right up to the end of November.
The last word goes to Pilot Officer Doe - "I wasn't fighting for the King I was fighting for me mum - I didn't want them over here!".
Another excellent book and a welcome addition to any collection. If you have a real interest in the battle then it is a must have this book.
The only criticism I have is that some times its chronologically out of order: for instance P/O Neil talks about flying Spitfire pre war and then 10 pages later talks about training in a tiger moth.
This happen in a couple of instances but does not detract from an otherwise excellent book and to be fair the author is aware and addresses it in his introduction.
If you are a student - casual or serious - of the Battle of Britain, this book is essential reading for the simple reason it is almost all in the words of the men (typically aged 19, 20, 21 or so) who fought it. Many of their exploits will make you marvel - not because they were superhuman, but because they were all too human: prone to fatigue and fear like most people, most of them just carried on doing their duty in the face of what must sometimes have seemed like unending waves of determined enemies (welcome accounts from several Luftwaffe pilots are included).