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& Bullets

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


With reviews of books that cover these topics


RAF in Camera

Keith Wilson           Pen & Sword, July 2015

These are two volumes – the 50s and the 60s, by Keith Wilson, best known for his superb air-to-air photographs in Pilot magazine.  So he is known for his camerawork rather than his  penmanship.  Keith must have been like a child let loose in a sweetshop, for he appears to have been given free range over all the photo archives of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch.  The RAF employed highly skilled photographers, and continues to do so. Consequently the quality of the images is uniformly high. (But we do not see images from other great aviation photographers such as Chas E Brown).


That is clearly the strength of these two volumes, but behind that lies a weakness. These are all official shots: the focus is on machines rather than men. Where airmen are shown they tend to be stiffly posed. Formations are all perfect. This is very much the RAF as the MoD would like us to see it. There are very few images of techies toiling under a tropical sun, dripping from every pore to change a recalcitrant component. There are no shots of pilots in off-duty moments, or looking anything less than highly serious. Captions of images of the mighty Shackleton are not enlivened with information that many of the aircrew suffered significant hearing loss from their duty!  There are nuggets of which some readers may not previously have been aware, such as the crash of a Hastings in North Greenland in 1952, whilst resupplying an expedition.


To read these volumes one would never know what grief the abolition of Fighter Command caused – that some senior officers resigned on principle. Indeed the Sixties volume does not include an image of that infamous event in 1968  when Flt Lt Alan Pollack flew a Hunter underneath Tower Bridge in protest that the RAF was not doing enough to commemorate its 50th anniversary!  


There are however copious images of the Queen’s Coronation Review in July 1953. The Fifties had opened with 61,584 aircraft on strength! The main reaction of a 21st C reader is likely to be one of sweeping nostalgia, coupled with awe at the size of the Air Force we then had.  There were more than 300 aircraft for HMQ to inspect on the ground at Odiham, and the flypast was composed of 640 aircraft! Contrast that with the RAF in 2015 where the total force is c 900 aircraft of which 146 are plastic gliders and motor gliders for air cadets.  I somehow think Charles’ Coronation Review will be a more muted affair!


The books also tell of a more relaxed financial and operating climate. For example, the Air Force would willingly participate in races (eg London-Paris, London-New York), and in 1955 there was an “apparently unrehearsed”  four-ship formation composed of four different nations! Only slightly more understandable was a 23 ship formation for Farnborough 1962 comprising sixteen Hunters and seven Lightnings! More seriously, the books underline what a global reach the RAF had in that era, and how busy it was.


In books like these space is at a premium – the larger the image sizes the better. Strange then that in many cases there are several shots from the same formation sortie, with the second or third adding little extra value. Even stranger there is much duplication of prose between captions and the text, which becomes extremely irritating after a while. Wilson also veers strangely off piste sometimes: do we really need to know the current location of every airframe in a book of this type?


There are some dubious captions: a Tupolev TU 104 apparently “waits its turn to depart”, despite having chocks and intake blanks installed! Finally, the books are printed in China: in one of my two volumes there were printing and production flaws. Given that there are such good and efficient printers in the UK, one might have hoped that Pen & Sword would use them for these volumes, which aspire to coffee table status!


Moans aside, if you want to wallow in nostalgia for a few hours, these books would be perfect!


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