9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
War Story without a Hero,
This review is from: Gladiator Ace: Bill Cherry Vale, the RAF's Forgotten Fighter Ace (Hardcover)
This purports to be the story of one of the RAF's top ten fighter aces. Sadly it is not.
Instead there is a well-written account of campaigns in which the subject of the book, Squadron Leader Bill Vale, took part. He was undoubtedly a hero, winning the DFC thrice - two awards from the RAF and one from the Hellenic Air Force - yet one almost looks in vain for the man behind the medals.
Almost - the saving grace is that there is an excellent 3-page foreword, `Grandad Bill', written by Andy Roberts, one of his grandsons, that gives an insight into the man. In this sympathetic profile, he comes across as a cheeky chappie, possibly a bit of a chancer with "a massive ego", according to Roberts.
So to the main narrative and it is very good. I certainly learnt quite a bit. The author has skilfully woven a cohesive story with great use of eye-witness accounts and military records.
He starts off with one of the pre-war bits of nastiness - Palestine where Britain was trying to hold the ring between Arabs and Jewish settlers. When war proper arrived, Vale was in the Western Desert flying Gladiator biplanes against the similarly equipped Italian Regia Aeronautica. With 33 Squadron, he notched up his first victory in July 1940.
Vale's severest test came from November 1940 onwards when he was posted to 80 Squadron, still flying Gladiators, and shipped to Greece to assist that country as Germany stepped in to help Italy in its misplaced attack there. It was a severe winter with very difficult conditions. Yet not so severe that Vale was able to take a lover, Janina. Not that we learn anything about either of them or the affair.
Lengthy quotations from such distinguished correspondents as Richard Dimbleby vividly bring home the sickening nature of much warfare. He also quotes German war correspondents for a view of events from their side in Spring 1941 when the tide was flowing so strongly for the Axis.
"By midday formations of Luftwaffe bombers and fighters were roaming over the plains of southern Greece at will, bombing and strafing almost with impunity..." By this time the Greek cause was lost and the Allied forces were evacuating to Crete, Vale among them.
Less than a dozen Hurricanes and motley handful of others - outdated aircraft like Sea Gladiators, Fulmars and Buffalos - defended Crete in the air. Reinforcements in penny numbers came from Egypt. Also flying in 80 Squadron was Roald Dahl, later to be a famous children's author, who kept a journal. He described a conversation with a tent mate.
"I asked him, `Are things out here as dicey as I've been told?' `It's absolutely hopeless,' he said....'we'll be outnumbered about fifty to one'....'Look', I said. `I have never been in action in my life. I haven't the foggiest idea what to do if I meet one of them.' David stared at me as though he were seeing a ghost".
Despite heroic efforts against superior forces, the Commonwealth forces began withdrawing to Egypt in May by sea and air. On 12 May, the heaviest load ever carried by a Sunderland flying boat was recorded; it carried 74 passengers and 10 crew. It took 3 miles thundering across the sea before it was able to get airborne.
The chaotic end saw airmen fighting alongside infantry. By June the Crete campaign was over. The Germans held the island but at a frightful cost to them in blood and equipment.
Back in Palestine, 80 Squadron was reformed in Haifa. Soon it was in action again, this time in Lebanon and Syria fighting the French. The Vichy administration there had switched sides and lined up with the Germans. It had gained valuable reinforcements from France and Algeria. Both the RAF and Fleet Air Arm maintained attacks against the French forces. Roald Dahl again, reporting one of his sweeps. "It was a Sunday morning and the Frenchmen were evidently entertaining their girlfriends and showing off their aircraft to them, which was a very French thing to do in the middle of a war and at a front-line aerodrome." The French capitulated in July 1941.
For Vale, his fighting war was almost over. He continued flying in Palestine but he returned to the UK in April 1942 after six years abroad. He became a flying instructor and left the RAF in October 1945. His career after that was unmemorable and little documented. There was a failed marriage and a failed business. His life ended at the age of 67 in a road accident.
The author has certainly done a remarkable job of research, matching up combat reports so that, for example, it was Feldwebel Otto Niemeyer in a Bf109 of 4/JG77 that downed a Hurricane piloted by Sergeant Vernon Hill in the afternoon of 18 May. Yet this didactic approach to describing the warfare does not become tedious; it builds up tension by showing the constant pressures that all combatants felt. This book provides a detailed landscape of the war in the Middle East but Vale is a figure who flits across it inconspicuously. It is like a `Where's Wally' puzzle: very detailed but you have to look very, very hard to find Wally. Some times there are more than twenty pages where his name is not even mentioned.
The main story from his upbringing at Framlingham in Suffolk to his death takes about 160 pages. There follows about 70 pages of appendices and notes that provide even more background on the campaigns in which Vale fought. There are 16 pages of photographs of personnel and incidents, showing Vale to have been taller than average, dark and of somewhat dashing appearance. Vale's final tally was 30 kills and 3 shared.