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Book Reviews

Aces, Warriors & Wingmen: Firsthand Accounts of Canada’s Fighter Pilots in the Second World War

by Wayne Ralph

Mississauga, Ontario: John Wiley & Sons, 2005 272 pages, $34.99

Reviewed by Paul Hussey

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Book coverThis book is not about “extraordinary” heroes and their exploits, although there are some contained within its pages. It is more about “ordinary” heroes and their experiences, and there are many of those in this new offering from a gifted and proven writer.

Over the last 15 years, Wayne Ralph has “hunted after men to hear their war stories.” In his prologue, he sets out his goal, which was not to write an operational history of the Second World War, nor to write a chronological narrative history from the beginning to the end of the war. What he set out to do, and I for one am glad he did it in this manner, was to write “more about people than campaigns, about humanity rather than fighter aircraft, about sociology rather than technology.” I believe Aces, Warriors & Wingmen achieves that goal very nicely, but, along the way, the author has woven in a supportive fabric of background, including many gems about fighter aircraft and technological innovations of the war period.

This must have been a difficult book to write. As part of his research, Ralph taped interviews with 106 individuals, 19 of whom have since passed away. He was turned down by many, and passed on to others by quite a few who felt that they had nothing significant to contribute. Memories fade, memories are selective, and still others are fragmented. Sometimes the right questions were asked, and they elicited bountiful replies. Sometimes they generated nothing. Many of our ordinary heroes are reticent to talk about their time in the war, perhaps because they feel the real heroes are the ones who did not survive and are not around to be asked to tell their stories. I sympathize with Wayne Ralph, and I must commend his efforts, because I can personally relate to how difficult it is to get these people to open up. I have the same experience with my own father, a Second World War Spitfire pilot, who, as a Newfoundlander, joined the RAF in 1942, trained in Canada then went overseas, joining 610 Squadron in May 1943. He then flew operationally until the end of the war. He does not talk much about his experiences, other than that was how he met and married my mother, who was a WAAF radar interceptor controller. I gave my father a copy of this book to read as well. It opened up many similar memories for both him and my mother, and for that I am grateful to Ralph. I am sure that the experience is being replicated or closely paralleled by many others across Canada today, as they make their way through this wonderful book.

The book is not a continuous, “building block” read, but, rather, it groups over a hundred individual fragments and stories of experiences, some frustrating, some very sad, others quite humorous. Wayne Ralph has linked people together where their paths have crossed on one squadron or another. It is one of those books one can pick up from time to time and jump into an individual’s story for some gem of interest, or to discover something one did not previously know. However, once having read the entire book, the reader will have become aware of many common and shared experiences behind the exploits and headlines of a few of our more famous fighter pilots. Ambitious in scope, the book is organized into 13 sections. It begins with the Western Desert campaign and the moves on to cover operations in Malta and Italy. Separate sections then deal with photo reconnaissance; Canadians in RAF and Fleet Air Arm service; the deadly years of ‘Rhubarbs’ and ‘Circuses’ on early offensive operations; Beaufighter and Mosquito operations as they were conducted from Britain; Americans in RCAF service; RCAF Spitfire operations; Canada’s Typhoon pilots; the fighter pilots’ war in India and Burma; and, finally, representative Canadian pilots serving with the Fleet Air Arm in the Pacific Theatre. Aces, Warriors & Wingmen closes with a chapter entitled Rehabilitation, Readjustment and Re-entry, the aftermath of combat and the return to civilian life. The book also has several very useful and interesting appendices, of benefit to casual readers and learned audiences alike.

I particularly enjoyed the section on India and Burma, perhaps because it was an area about which I had little previous awareness. However, there are a great many other interesting elements to the book, such as the 418 (Intruder) Squadron operations conducted in June 1944 by Russ Bannock and his navigator, Robert Bruce, who witnessed one of the very first pilotless V1 flying bomb launches directed at Britain. Their squadron mates, pilot Don MacFadyen and his navigator, James Wright, then figured out how to best attack this new weapon, and they became the first aircrew to destroy one of these new menaces.

There are funny and poignant stories scattered throughout the text. The humour can be found in the experiences of George “Red” Sutherland and David “Blackie” Williams, who arrived together at 406 Squadron in 1943, and liked to tell stories about one another’s escapades, correcting each other as to what “really” happened. Then there are the poignant stories, such as that of brothers Rod and Jerry Smith from Regina, who served together on 126 Squadron in Malta. Just two short months after Rod’s arrival on the island, after several successful and harrowing missions together, Rod and Jerry were placed on scramble readiness together. But while Rod was over at the base supply section getting new liners for their gloves, Jerry and another pilot were scrambled. Jerry never came back. Rod then went looking for his brother long into the night, but, not wanting to be a further imposition to his squadron and to those waiting for him at the airfield, he reluctantly turned for home without any sign of his brother or his aircraft. Jerry’s body was never recovered.

This is how the stories ebb and flow throughout the book, from the silliness and frustrations of recruiting tales, to the sadness and sorrow of family and friends who never came back. This is a book that needed writing, and I am glad Wayne Ralph took on the challenge. Every year, Canada is losing these warriors who can tell us first-hand what it was really like – to grumble about the food, or to put your fear away and go out to meet the enemy, and then to lose the mates you cared so much about, but never got around to telling them so.

I commend Aces, Warriors & Wingmen to all veterans who, like my father, will find in its pages memories, perhaps long locked away, of the daily experiences and trials and tribulations of that time. I also recommend this book to the ‘baby boomer’ generation who would like to experience or learn what their parents, relatives and family friends went through behind the hype of the headlines. Finally I commend this book to the younger generation, who will find in its stories, not only our heritage, but the life lesson that a sense of duty, honour and a willingness to extend oneself to follow a dream are not confined to extraordinary people. For, in sum, this book is, or should be, about the “Aces, Warriors and Wingmen” in all of us.

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Major-General P.R. Hussey, OMM, CD, is Commander of the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario.