Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
(The Daily Telegraph) Airmen’s Obituaries
Compiled & Edited by Air Cdre Graham Pitchfork Grub Street, 2020
The previous two volumes are a delight to read – in dipping in and out, rather than cover to cover. The latest volume upholds Graham’s high standards. The so-called Dramatis Personae are listed ”in order of appearance” – this should be “disappearance”, as the contents run by date of death! This means that volume three includes many military pilots who started their service careers in the second half of WW2. The book starts with a fine foreword by ACM Sir Richard Johns (himself a Grub Street author).
The list of obits is not exclusively British: I was pleased to see the inclusion of Robin Olds, the legendary US developer of innovative fighter tactics – we learn that he also served with the RAF on the exchange programme in 1948. The equally legendary Paul Tibbets is included; given his main claim to fame was captaining the Enola Gay, the B29 which dropped the first atom bomb (in anger), there is a fine irony in the next entry being Air Cdre Ricky Wright - who suffered rather badly as a PoW in the hands of the Japanese.
Another entry of particular interest is Flt Lt Walter Morison, who ended up in Colditz after trying (with a fellow inmate of Stalag Luft III) to nab an aircraft from a Luftwaffe base and fly it to Sweden – full marks for ambition! A later entry, Belgian Lt Gen Baron Mike Donnet, succeeded with a similar plan. Another escaper, Flt Lt Tony Snell was so determined that he was awarded a DSO for his efforts.
Pitchfork has clearly given great consideration to which obits to select: it is great to see, for example, an entry for one of the Tuskagee airmen (who went on, post-War to found a private equity firm). Indeed one of the absorbing facets of such a selection of obits is to see how the post-War careers of such aviation luminaries developed. Adding to the breadth is the entry for Flt Lt Tom Fletcher, who had an illustrious wartime career in air-sea rescue. I also enjoyed the story of feisty Yorkshireman (apologies for the tautology), Air Cdre Peter Cribb, who despite being in a staff job at the time, commandeered a Lancaster in order to participate in the April 1945 raid on Berchtesgarden!
A tale that stretches credulity is of the PR Spitfire of Air Marshal Sir Alfred Ball, who in 1943 had a partial engine failure over Cologne at 38,000 feet, and managed to glide his craft to a landing in Kent!
As ever with obituaries, reading them makes one wish one had known all that information when the subject was still alive. Lettice Curtis, for example, and (together with Joy Lofthouse) the only subject of this book I actually met, was very well educated by the standards of that era - she read Mathematics at Oxford.
This book is written with Graham Pitchfork’s normal assured authority; he has selected his subjects wisely. The result is a volume that most readers will find absorbing. The difficulty comes now: subjects with valorous WW2 histories are now thin on the ground; secondly, Graham is looking to hand on his relay baton. He will be a hard act to follow.