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An Operational Record
by Chris War and Steve Smith
Pen&Sword Aviation, 2008
This is going to be a strange book review; this is one of the best books I've ever read....but it's so damned aggravating to read! It's not a "good" book - the written english is right down at middle school level - "Children, here's a set of stock phrases you'll get extra marks for if you use them in an essay at exam time" - and I can't help thinking that that's exactly what I'm reading - a very long school essay!
Just under half the book is a condensed history of 3 Group Bomber Command operations from the outbeak of war to the end of 3 Group's war...then there's a good selection of well-reproduced black&white plates...then the rest of the book is a listing of EVERY squadron in 3 Group, with a very brief resumee of its wartime career, a suprising sets of statistics for each squadron, then a list of known squadron aircraft and what happened to them.
This book is the exact opposite of David Wragg's "Stringbag" that I last reviewed. THIS is what you CAN produce out of paper records in this "next generation" of military history - a truly exhaustive, utterly comprehensive history of a particular specialist topic. The two authors admit in their introduction that this is what they set out to do - create the "missing history" for 3 group, where most other Groups and Commands have been treated well by historians for decades - and ALL of it culled from their absolutely HUGE personal caches of 3 Group records, diaries and logs.
A book like this shows just how far we've come at last from the late 1940s-and 1950s wave of memoirs and personal anecdotal histories, from the 1960s to 1990s tertiary histories. This is real secondary history - a book written from the station logs and the debriefing reports of the men themselves. It doesn't rely on the sadly sometimes faulty recollections of the last of our WWII veterans - this history comes straight from those lines of fading pencil and 1940s-era Stephens' Ink laid down on cheap wartime paper within hours of the events occuring. This isn't "Bomber Boys"...this "operational history" is what those records ACTUALLY say.
The two authors - Chris Ward and Steve Smith - are not born writers. As I noted above, in oh so many places their use of english is very stilted and Olde Worlde. But the flipside of this is the incredible amount of Bomber Command and 3 Group history they cram into 146 pages! In only a couple of hours I had learned far more about Bomber Command's war than I EVER have anywhere else - and in the course of the rest of the book I had just so many cherished beliefs stamped on and sacred cows put down humanely...but with all the force of the bolt gun!
For what it is - it's an expensive book. Unless you love to be immersed in the history of a particular topic, you're going to come to this book looking for specific things and aspects...and to you the rest of the book will look like padding. That incredibly comprehensive history in the first 146 pages is weighed down with an equally HUGE amount of personnel information - so many "dry" transfers, promotions, personal histories, anecdotes etc. of 3 Group aircrew and officers that your head will spin...and sometimes it's hard to cull information you DO want out of all the rest.... but it's always worth persevering.
One of the best things I can say about this book is - it reads for a few dozen pages very much like a continuation of a personal favourite, John James' "The Paladins"! For those first few dozen pages, before the wartime operations and personnel movements start coming thick and fast and threaten to overload the authors' ability to frame it in a comprehensible narrative, the use of english is remarkably similar...and that ties this book into James' narrative, his history of how this particular weapon - 3 Group, Bomber Command - was forged for the struggle ahead. He detailed the 1930s development of the RAF - this book tells you in no uncertain way how that weapon was used. I just hope the writers appreciate that comment if ever they read this!
All that remains for me to say is - if you have ANY interest at all in the bombing war in WWII, read this book. If you don't want to spend the money on a reference work that you'll not often refer to - find a friend or a library with a copy. You WILL learn things you have never known before - a lot of them. Some of them you'll appreciate - some you'll feel like you've been slapped around the head by an old fasioned school teacher, the sort that used to write "Must do better!" on report cards, when you realise you really should have known that before now.
Quality-wise, it's an excellent tome, right up to Pen&Sword's normal hardback quality - and Times New Roman on bright white is just so easy on the eye...and I didn't spot any editing flubs.
I can't help it. I know I really shouldn't for all the faults I mentioned above - but this book HAS to be a 5/5. It's invaluable.
Lord, please keep Kevin Bacon alive...