Review: "Stringbag:The Fairey Swordfish At War" David Wragg

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Review: "Stringbag:The Fairey Swordfish At War" David Wragg

Post by phylo_roadking » 06 Jan 2013 22:01

"Stringbag: The Fairey Swordfish At War" 2004 by David Wragg, Pen & Sword Aviation, ISBN 1-84415-130-1

This is a book that I found to be a more complex a historical study than I expected; but not necessarily for the right reasons. On the surface it's a pretty comprehensive operational history of the Fairey Swordfish, leavened with a moderate amount of technical history and development history...but in several ways I found it to be disappointing, though strictly personally speaking.

It's an excellent study on an older way of doing "tertiary" history - I suppose you could call it the Charles Whiting school of writing for want of a better name! Take several admittedly VERY good memoirs and earlier histories, and base your account around the details and anecdotes in those. When it comes to the Swordfish, the Second World War left us a number of quite incredible exploits, with Taranto right at the top of the pile...and on these exploints, Taranto in particular, Wragg doesn't disappoint; in fact, it's great to see him make such good use of older memoirs such as John Godley's and Charles Lamb's, as well as newer gems such as Gerard Wood' well of course as classics such as Ernest Cunningham's own memoir from 1951, and Roskill's official history of the RN during WWII. But apart from a couple of the author's OWN books from the noughties, the most up-to-date tertiary source in his bibliography is 1997. This is not a product of the Internet Age, it is not a product seemingly of long hours spent in Kew pouring over unit war diaries and carriers' deck logs; the authors of his tertiary sources may have done so - but if they did, it's not made obvious in this book. This is an operational history made from people's memories committed to print and thus set in amber decades ago - not from faded, fragile sheets of cheap paper and fountain pen ink dated 1940 or 1941...

However - whether it's because I'm as much of a rivet-counter as I am interested in general wartime history, this was one of the areas where I found the book to be lacking. There's a shortish "development history" chapter...and here and there through the book some more technical details dropped in as needed to explain circumstances or factors peculiar to any given geographical or campaign environment. But for me - not enough; the Stringbag's technical history...and, admittedly, some might say the lack of it! as fascinating as that of any other aircraft, and here and there I can't help smelling a faint whiff of...disdain?...for the old dinosaur that the Swordfish was. Even when its virtues are being extolled it was almost grudgingly. Okay, the Fairey Swordfish was never going to occupy the same "coffee table fodder" niche as anything with a Spitfire on the cover, or the name Montgomery, unless the reader is a SERIOUS aircraft enthusiast - but I can't help wondering if the author held any of the said enthusiasm for the subject of his book.

Another aspect of this as a potentially comprehensive wartime history of the type was that it glossed over some of the lesser-known exploits of the Swordfish - and these were the reason I had been looking forward to reading it so much. I knew about exploits like the attack on the Bismarck, Taranto, the Channel Dash etc....don't we all?...but I was looking for something more when I began reading - in particular the Stringbag's activities as a land-based the time of Dunkirk, and the months of "gardening" minelaying operations afterwards. Here I was disappointed. The exploits over Dunkirk and Gravelines for instance got some small mention...and more was afforded the "gardening" ops - but to go back to my second paragraph above - ONLY as detailed in his various source memoirs. I suppose I wanted to learn more, and learn it in one place - but this "operational history" left me wanting more, if it was supposed to be "comprehensive" wartime history.

This is however where the book DOES excel - it is a pretty comprehensive wartime history at a certain level - with the more well-known events better detailed. As I mentioned above - we all know something of the Stringbag's wartime exploits - and about each of those you'll learn a lot more than you did before. Not as much as a dedicated history of, say, Taranto - but a very close second, as close as a general history of an aircraft will teach you. I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad it has been written, for the Swordfish DOES deserve far more respect than it has ever received - and it is indeed very well written; I can't find fault with Wragg's style for holding my interest. I only came across a small handful of typsetting...rather than editorial...errors.

You will not be disappointed if you read this book. You may not find exactly what you wanted - but that doesn't mean you'll be disappointed by the whole experience.

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Re: Review: "Stringbag:The Fairey Swordfish At War" David Wragg

Post by Petersm » 14 Sep 2017 02:28

Hullo. Great post. A while back I google "good books fairey swordfish ". Led me to this review which point me to the lamb and Godley books. Great stuff! (Preferred lamb to Godley).
Can't seem to track down the cunningham one you reference. Can you share the title?
Any other good swordfish memoirs you can recommend?

Many thanks!


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