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& Bullets

Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.


With reviews of books that cover these topics


Forever Vigilant

Naval 87 / 208 Sqn RAF, a centenary of service 1916-2016

Graham Pitchfork                  Grub Street, April 2016

There is a rash of unit centenaries coming up because of the explosive growth of Britain’s air power in WW1. But only a small rash, you understand, as the diminished state of our air power means that many squadrons have never made it to their centenary. However ‘Naval 8’, as in RNAS, has survived, just, in its 1918 incarnation as 208 Sqn RAF. Some idea of the cultural problems that this transition caused can be gleaned from the illustrations in this handsome book, which showed the (ex-matelot) CO of 208 keen to retain Naval garb even in its new incarnation!


Graham Pitchfork, a well known writer on military aviation, covers the subject with plenty of emotional attachment,  since he was CO of 208 in the ‘80’s. He concludes the illustrious record of the unit in WW1 by reproducing the almost eulogistic summary of CG Grey, the then editor of the Aeroplane, and a journalist not noted for effusive praise!


The squadron soon developed a skill in tactical reconnaissance, and ended up practising this, in both peace and war, in the Middle East. It acquired the esoteric name of The Flying Shuftis (as in having a quick shufti). By the outbreak of WW2 it was still in sandy places, and acquitted itself very well in the Western Desert despite the twin handicaps of being equipped with obsolescent aircraft (the Hurricane Mk1), and the frequent blue-on-blue AA from the British Army. The squadron was showered with DFCs. Late in the war it endured an arduous campaign through Italy. No peace for this crowd as they were soon in Palestine, defending themselves against Israelis in Spitfires.

Somehow this squadron has had the knack of being at the epicentre of Middle Eastern unrest through at least three decades! The descriptions of the squadron’s move into the Jet Age, equipped with Meteors, contain plenty of evidence of how dangerous this airframe was to pilot health. Its later equipment, the Hunter and then Buccaneer, enabled 208 to remain at the forefront of tactical reconnaissance.


Latterly the squadron has been central to fast jet training utilising the Hawk at Valley. It was and is clearly a very distinguished squadron, and Pitchfork writes with his customary authority. Some quibbles though. His primary source material would appear to be the squadron’s Operations Record Books. These are official tomes, usually penned in fairly stiff language, and inclined to be quietly upbeat rather than describe any low points in morale or performance. So the book feels a little one dimensional.  Added to this is Pitchfork’s own writing style, which seems overly-influenced by his very successful RAF career. He loves the use of the verb ‘commence’, for example: it is a bugbear of mine, as I was always told to use Anglo-Saxon words in reference to those derived from the Latin. Sound advice.


More broadly I do not think the author has used all available sources. The book would have been much less dry if he had added colour from the biographies of squadron members. Gus Dudgeon, whilst not on 208, would have injected much excitement to the narrative from Habbinaya in 1941, for example. And certainly Rod Dean’s recent autobiography, Fifty Years of Flying Fun, includes much colour from his days on Hunters with 208.


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