In 1940, the defence of Great Britain rested with a handful of volunteer aircrew, Churchill’s ‘few’. Overshadowed in later folklore by the more famous Spitfire and Hurricane pilots, there were other pilots, observers and air gunners – just as courageous – flying the Bristol Blenheim MKIV-F. The future of the country and arguably that of the free world depended also on their skill, morale and sacrifice. Remarkably little has been chronicled of these men and their aircraft – the ‘Trade Protection’ squadrons formed by Hugh Dowding – allotted to 11 Group in October 1939. The aircraft’s range and endurance made it suitable for defence of coastal shipping against attack on the southern and eastern shores of Britain, and for operations further afield. Indeed during bitter fighting casualties among Numbers 235, 236, 248 and 254 Squadron Blenheims were high on operations over Norway, Holland, France, Dunkirk and then the Battle of Britain where the Blenheims were completely outclassed by Messerschmitt 109 and 110 fighters and fell easy victims, scythed from the sky. But the record of the aircraft and their crew was an immensely proud one. Drawing on contemporary diaries, periodicals, letters, logbooks, memoirs and interviews with survivors, lauded historian Andy Bird reassesses the vital role they played and repositions it in history. In doing so, he justifiably embraces the heroes we have left behind.
"The style is captivating and most importantly, those that would otherwise just be names on a piece of paper, are truly brought to life.”
The latest in Grub Street’s new found talent Andrew Bird, compiling 9 chapters detailing the exploits of pilots, navigators and air-gunners from the RAF’s Coastal Command twin-engine Blenheim fighters in 1940.
The Blenheim fighter men were pioneers. In their hands they had a twin-engined aircraft that, upon introduction, was a step ahead of the single-engined fighters of the day. While this advantage was fleeting, the fighter version of the Blenheim allowed the RAF to provide long-range escort to coastal convoys and begin to develop the intruder role. As we all know, the Blenheim, in any guise, proved to be outclassed when confronted with modern fighter aircraft. Despite this, the type, in bomber form, soldiered on effectively for several years. The Blenheim fighter was, however, very quickly replaced by the Beaufighter but not before the older type had laid the foundations for heavy fighter operations.
The early years of the war were particularly hard for Britain and her allies. The Blenheim fighters were in it from the start. If the aircrew did not know the inadequacies of their aircraft in the role, they quickly found out yet they continued to fly and fight with astounding courage. If anything, what the aircraft lacked in performance, the crews made up for with their skill and commitment.
Despite the high casualties of Blenheim fighter crews from the Phoney War and the retreat from France to Norway and the Battle of Britain, their actions have often been overshadowed by those of the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons. The crews are certainly mentioned in accounts of each of these campaigns but few authors have sat down and pulled all of the threads together. That, happily, is no longer the case.
Andy Bird is best known for his in-depth look at Coastal Command’s Banff Strike Wing in A Separate Little War. With his new book, Coastal Dawn, he turns his gaze to the very beginnings of the RAF’s heavy fighter ‘era’. It is a period poles apart from the hard-hitting, long range strikes performed by the Mosquito squadrons of the Banff Strike Wing when, mostly, the RAF crews had the upper hand. Their predecessors in the Blenheims, though, were almost always up against it so there is certainly a different feel to CD. It is evident as well that the author has adjusted his writing style. The detail is obviously still there but it is wonderfully humanised with long passages from crews’ memories interspersed with very well-researched ‘creative’ scene setting and descriptions of events and landscapes. The recurring theme, however, is one of loss. If you were to flick through this book and stop at 10 different places, I could almost guarantee the majority of those would contain some detail of a lost crew or a forced-landing. It is really quite sobering but you cannot help be uplifted by the spirit with which these crews flew and fought. Just astounding.
Coastal Dawn is a typical Grub Street hardback – solid, good-looking and well-produced (in the UK!). At a tick over 220 pages it feels good in the hand. This is largely due to the good quality paper used. There is no glossy photo section as is often found in books of this ilk. Due to the good paper, the many photographs are reproduced within the text and are comparable to their glossy ‘counterparts’. Indeed, the placing of the photos in the text means they are immediately relevant and many put faces to names now long gone.
Andy Bird has excelled himself with Coastal Dawn. The same can be said for Grub Street who have produced a truly beautiful book and, having seen other recent releases from them, it is clear they have raised the bar in the hardback aircrew book stakes … but then, the Blenheim fighter crews deserve nothing less.