• Taking Flight Lores Bonney's Extraordinary Flying Career

The Aviation HistorianIssue 18 January 2017 . '... an excellent and well-rounded biography of one of Australia’s important early aviators'.

*****

RAAA News, Autumn 2016: '... author Kristen Alexander tells the airwoman's incredible story with warmth and understanding'.

*****

Aircrew Book Review 22 July 2016 http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2016/07/taking-flight-kristen-a...

Aviation today doesn’t often make the headlines unless it’s bad news. Aircraft cross six of the seven continents hourly and usually do so to reach another continent on the other side of a vast ocean. Long distance flying is accepted if you want to see the world yet pilots of all ages still accept the challenge to tackle a route solo. Some do it in modern aircraft, some do it in vintage aircraft with or without a support crew. These flights remain remarkable achievements. If anything, today’s political and security landscape makes long-distance solo flights harder to plan let alone fly. This is especially so when trying to follow the flight path of a pioneer. Destinations have to be carefully picked and diversions assessed for their suitability and safety. Really, not a lot has changed since the early days of aviation. It is still an amazing effort to fly solo around Australia or fly to England in a Tiger Moth but, because of the airliners passing thousands of feet overhead, the mainstream don’t get it. It’s all been done before.
 
That’s the key point. Being the first to do something can’t be taken away. With the birth of aviation, everything was a challenge. That said, it still took something incredible to be lauded as a pioneer. There are two types of pioneer aviator. Those in the first group remain household names to some extent: Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Jean Batten, Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler, Charles Lindbergh, Wiley Post, Alcock and Brown etc. They have been extensively memorialised, their aircraft, or replicas thereof, reside in museums or attend airshows, books are still written about them and their likeness appears on currency. Then there’s the second lot. The unknowns. Those who have achieved just as much, perhaps more, but have been almost lost to history. Were they the less attention seeking perhaps? They might be remembered on a plaque somewhere or have had a book published, or written about them, that remains long out of print. To me, someone who inhabits the world of historic aviation, but who regularly wears blinkers out of necessity, Lores Bonney is one of the forgotten.
 
Well, with a bit of luck, and a good book, perhaps this will no longer be the case. One of Australia’s leading aviation biographers, Kristen Alexander, was asked by the National Library of Australia to write Bonney’s story using the library’s Lores Bonney Collection as the core. This collection, among various personal items, includes Bonney’s letters and diaries. Why is she significant? In a time when female pilots were regarded as somewhat of a novelty, Lores was determined to fly and, once she had achieved some semblance of proficiency, immediately started planning long distance flights. She first set a record for the longest one-day flight in Australia (more than 1,500 kilometres) and her second was a mere solo jaunt around the country. She was the first woman to achieve this. Mother England beckoned, as was its wont, so Lores set out to become the first aviatrix to fly there from Australia. Her trusty DH.60 Moth ‘My Little Ship’ was her companion on these first adventures and Lores, being the confident and driven type she was, trained as a mechanic and fitter so she was capable of maintaining the aircraft and effecting repairs. Husband Harry backed her flying financially but was always reluctant to let her go (although he did propose an idea that became her longest flight).
 
While she is credited with that first flight to England, a prang while landing to avoid weather in Burma’s very southern regions, led to Lores disassembling the Moth on the beach and having it transported, by barge and ship, to Rangoon and Calcutta respectively. It was a journey of more than 1,800 kilometres. Her timetable flew out the window as did her ability to get through the rest of the flight ahead of the known worsening weather en route. In typical Lores fashion, however, despite moments of self-doubt and frustration, she battled through and made it. It was 1933 and something no other woman had done before.
 
Lores followed the England flight up by becoming the first person to fly to South Africa, her country of birth, from Australia. This time she did it in a Klemm and the relative comfort of an enclosed cockpit. The destination was an inspired choice as, even by 1937, there were few aviation firsts to be conquered. The Klemm was falling apart and once again the weather played a big part in delays. Add in a little dysentery in India (and other health issues on the way) and bureaucratic bungling, and she didn’t arrive in the Union until mid-August, having left in April. What would be her final major achievement had been completed before her fortieth birthday.
 
Her plans for further adventures were scotched by, first, the loss of the Klemm, now fully rebuilt, in a hangar fire and, second, the outbreak of the Second World War. She continued to fly, but eventually gave it up in her early fifties, and kept travelling overseas exploring the world before her death in 1994.
 
To be honest, it is quite likely I would not have read this book if it were not for the author’s name on the front. It is outside what I like to think I specialise in (those blinkers again). That makes me a bit of an idiot as Lores Bonney was an unstoppable, albeit shy to a fault when out of the public eye, force of nature, her diminutive size belying an incredible fortitude that even managed to overcome her crises of confidence. With the resources available, I cannot think of a better author to tackle a new book (there is another, much older biography) on this pioneering aviatrix. The Alexander factor, as I like to call it, of teasing out personal minutiae, of tying together an inordinate number of threads, to sculpt an almost tangible image of a flyer long gone, is in full song here. Indeed, given it is a return to the individual biography for this author, after several years working on a collection of personalities, the Bonney work has captured a biographer at the top of her game. Having stepped away from wartime aviation and embracing the finicky, almost artisan, world of pre-war civil aviation, Kristen has got inside Lores’ persona and produced an insightful and revealing book.
 
A large format softcover of more than 270 pages, the endpapers include a very useful map of Lores’ travels in the Moth and the Klemm. The photos, at least one per two page spread, are reproduced well with the left-hand page being dedicated to either a full page photo (usually of Lores) or a smaller image accompanied by a detailed caption. Many of the better photos of Lores are well-selected, and enlarged, and often speak volumes particularly those featuring the aviatrix elbow deep in an engine or at large in one of her many destinations. The narrative, therefore, is limited to the right-hand pages and effortlessly combines excerpts from letters and diaries with details of Lores’ preparations, innermost thoughts, flying, failures, successes and adventures. It is an incredibly easy read and those personal photos of Lores really make an impression.
 
 
Will Lores Bonney’s history-making life emerge from the wilderness and into the mainstream because of this book? Probably not. Aviation enthusiasts will appreciate it and her name and achievements will continue to pop up because they will always maintain their sense of awe. She flew in the time of Johnson, Batten and Earhart, to name the obvious ones, two of whom were published authors, and remains overshadowed by these contemporaries. If, somehow, Lores Bonney does enter the public interest, it will be because of Taking Flight and, who knows, perhaps this book will be the genesis for the release of Bonney’s two unpublished (due to rejection!) manuscripts. Now that would be good news

*****

Aero Australia. Issue 51 July/Sepember 2016 

Kristen Alexander is building a solid reputation as an aviation biographer, and this one about aviatrix Lores Bonney adds to that. Born in South Africa, Lores came to Australia when she was five years old and considering her achievements, its surprising she's not as generally well-known as perhaps she should be. This book helos put things right.

Those achievements are substantial: an Australian record for a one-day flight by a woman in 1931; the first woman to circumnavigate mainland Australia by air (1932) and fly from Australia to England (1933); and the first person to fly solo from Australia to Cape Town in 1937.

Among the sources of information the author had access to were the detailed diaries Lores Bonney kept. The clever use of these makes the storytelling come alive, leaving the reader to feel he or she is in the cockpit sharing all the emotions, fears, highs and lows (of which there were many) that Lores did. The diaries also reveal personal struggles and the relationship with her husband, who bankrolled much of her early flying adventures.

Published by the National Library of Australia in large format soft cover 'coffee table' form, the book is nicely produced and features a large number of illustrations including maps, newspaper clippings and diary extracts.

And important and fitting tribute to Lores Bonney's 'extraordinary flying career'. 

*****

Aviation Historical Society of Australia News. Volume 32 Number 3, July, 2016. Reviewer: Anne West

Lores’ first flight was with Bert Hinkler in his Avro Avian, on 7 September 1928 from Eagle Farm, Brisbane. She learnt to fly under the tuition of Captain Charles Cuvet Matheson, the highly regarded owner of Matheson Flying School, in a Gypsy Moth (VH-ULJ). In December 1930, she was gifted a Gypsy Moth (VH-UPV) from her husband (which she affectionately called “My Little Ship”); obtained her private “A” Class licence on 19 August 1931; completed the then-longest flight for an Australian woman in December of that year; obtained her commercial “B” Class licence on 10 January 1932; and went on to become the first woman to fly around Australia later that year. Thus began Lores’ flying career. She went on to complete two further record-setting long distance flights from Australia – taking her Moth to London (1933) and her Klemm KL32x (VH-UVE), also known as “My Little Ship II” to Cape Town, South Africa (1937).

Lores’ contribution to aviation occurred during a time when aeronautical developments were opening up the world (as we know it today), and the “explorers of the skies” were putting their life on the line, pushing machines and humanity equally to their limits. Lores was amidst it all. Through this book, we come to appreciate the high regard and genuine respect offered to her by the male dominated aviation industry, as evidenced by her involvement is numerous official celebrations for national and international aviation achievements. We also grow in understanding about Lores - the woman, who was keen to assist in searching for the lost Stinson, who grieved the untimely deaths of many aviation contemporaries, who held strong ambitions to achieve long-distance flying records, and who balanced this with a deep respect and gratitude for her Husband, whose support of her desires enabled her to pursue them.

Taking Flight evokes the experiences of flying in the 1930’s. It awakens the senses to the realities of flight faced by the pilots of the era – open cockpits, constant vibration, exposure to extreme temperatures and weather conditions (wind, rain, monsoons, heat), the need for emotional and psychological resilience, self-denial of fluids prior to flights, etc. It also reminds us of the dangers that were frequently encountered – engine problems, machine damage, unplanned repairs, forced landings, navigational issues, inadequate maps, fuel supplies, and so on. This book provides open and honest insights as to how Lores responded to, and at times struggled with, exposure to these types of hazards.

Taking Flight is a very informative and engaging read, incorporating many of Lores’ own words to describe how she persevered through the many challenges that came her way. It has been meticulously put together, using multiple primary sources, most notably Lores’ own notes recorded at the time. It is complimented by a large number of visual accompaniments including excellent photographs and highlighted extracts from Lores’ notebooks, to further illustrate her experiences. The 280 pages includes 20 pages of glossary, references, a bibliography, illustration credits and a comprehensive index. Taking Flight is a timely tribute to a little-known Australian pioneer aviatrix, who helped to lay the foundations and blaze the trail for future generations of women, encouraging them to take on various roles within a burgeoning aviation industry. Ultimately, it preserves the realities of Lores’ aviation achievements, and ensures they remain more than just a footnote to history. This book is highly recommended for all those interested in this pioneering era of aviation.

*****

Flightpath, Volume 27, Number 4, May-July 2016. Reviewer Andy Wright.

From the cover's gold-embossed lettering to the beautifully clutter free map in the endpapers, this large format softcover demands to be savoured.

Lores Bonney's extraordinary flying career is on a par with the great Australian, male, pioneers. The first woman to circumnavigate mainland Australia by air. That was 1932. A year later she became the first woman to fly from Australia to England. With flying in her blood, she beat everyone and was the first to fly solo from Australia to Cape Town.

This was all achieved by the second half of 1937 before her fortieth birthday. It was a time of continual aviation achievement, and a very different period socially, and here was a shy (not he public persona) determined pilot flying a DH Moth, and later a Klemm KL 32, on epic solo flights. She was remarkable.

Even a seasoned aviation reader develops a true feeling for the period through the incredible number of images that support the engaging narrative, The personal photos of Bonney, particularly during her travels and working on the aircraft, are astounding. There are no rose-coloured flasses here, and that is also reflected in the writing that is typical from this author. Access to the Bonney Collections held by the NLA and the Powerhouse Museum, and the author's famous eye for social detail, has resulted in a very personal, revealing and sumptous look at a person we should all know. Not until Bonney's manuscripts are publuished, if ever, will there be a greater insight into her life. 

*****

The Weekly Times 14 April 2016 http://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/country-living/taking-flight-kristen-alexander-national-library-of-australia-rrp-3999/news-story/5183fd2108916b6179a4205580c071c7

A FIRST joy flight in an open plane when she was 30 was the start of a brilliant career for record-breaking Australian aviatrix Lores Bonney.

Perhaps a little-known figure from Australian history today, Bonney was a celebrity in her heyday during an era when parts of the globe were still unsurveyed and even experienced solo pilots risked their lives in the air.

Author Kristen Alexander examines the life of Bonney, born Maude Rose Rubens in 1897, in this account of the pilot who was the first woman to circumnavigate mainland Australia by air, the first woman to fly from Australia to England, and the first solo pilot to fly from Australia to South Africa.

Taking Flight uses her diaries, newspaper reports, photographs and official documents to piece together a comprehensive history emphasising the great stamina, skill, fitness, diplomacy and courage needed to get her flights off the ground.

Educated in Melbourne, Bonney settled in Brisbane when she married businessman Harry Bonney who largely financed her life in aviation.

Alexander explains how Bonney’s 1931 circumnavigation of Australia was the equivalent in distance of flying from Darwin to England.
 
She also details how Bonney lived through the death of famous Australian solo pilot Bert Hinkler — the man who took her on that first joy ride in outback Australia — when he crashed and died during a flight.

The book also offers a fascinating array of anecdotes such as newspapers reporting a possible fatal accident when Bonney’s plane dropped off the radar during her solo attempt to reach England in 1933, and the time she masterfully handled a plane weighed down with so many treasures from a trip that it took five attempts to get it in the air at take off.

Taking Flight is a lively, fascinating account of a gutsy woman with a grand passion for flight and of a long-gone world before budget journeys on Tiger Air or luxurious travel with Emirates business class.

*****

Sharon Mascall-DareHonest History 31 March 2016 http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/review-note-kristen-alexanders-taking-flight-lores-bonney/

It is rare that the word ‘extraordinary’ is justified in the writing of biography. Intrinsic to the craft are stories worth telling, lives less ordinary. In the case of Lores Bonney, however, the word is justified.

As a pioneering female pilot, an aviatrix, of the 1930s, Bonney lived an extraordinary life. Born in South Africa and raised in Melbourne, she was the first female pilot to circumnavigate Australia and the first to fly solo from Australia to England. In 1937 she was the first pilot, of either gender, to make a solo flight across the Indian Ocean from Australia to Cape Town.

Her achievements as an aviatrix – a word rejected by some feminist writers as parenthetical, in setting women pilots apart from their male colleagues – cannot be separated from the sociocultural context that prevailed at the time. Bonney’s ‘unfeminine pursuits’ were largely frowned upon and she banged her head against the proverbial glass ceiling (or enclosed cockpit, as her biographer Kristen Alexander points out).

Alexander’s account of Bonney’s life is highly readable and accessible, with an emphasis on diary extracts, Bonney’s recollections and contemporary newspaper accounts. Notably, there is no agenda beyond engaging scholarship and compelling story-telling – well-executed and presented in this case. Taking Flight captures an extraordinary life in a high quality volume that exploits format and design to maximum effect.

*****

Andrew Willox, Aerogram. Journal of the Friends of the RAAF Museum Inc, March 2016

Kristen Alexander ... takes us into the world of Queensland society in the 1920s and 1930s with her fifth book, and the determination of one woman “...to fly ... or die in the attempt.”

Maude Rose Rubens, who became Lores Bonney, was born in Pretoria and came, with her parents, to Australia in January 1903. Lores’ first flight was with Bert Hinkler, who was related to her by marriage. Marrying into money, Lores found herself supporting her husband in his endeavours, both business and sporting, while she secretly yearned to learn to fly.

Finally persuading her husband, she joined the Matheson School of Flying at Eagle Farm, Brisbane. Charles Matheson had been a pilot with 3Sqn AFC and had continued to fly as a career after the War. Lores displayed aptitude, with Matheson having the confidence to reinstate the student’s control stick of his DH60 Gipsy Moth. Within months of her first solo flight Lores acquired, through her husband’s largesse, her own Gipsy Moth which she name My Little Ship. From this point on she knew that long-distance flying was her passion.

Lores Bonney’s successes spanned an intensive six years through the 1930s. Acknowledged as the first solo woman to do so, she circumnavigated Australia, flew from Australia to Britain and flew from Australia to South Africa.

Kristen Alexander has had unprecedented access to Bonney’s material, much of which is kept in the National Library of Australia and the book quotes liberally from her diaries, which in detail describe her triumphs and tribulations as she encounters appalling weather conditions, mechanical failures and the interaction of those involved in the early days of pioneering aviation.

Kristen manages to engage the reader in these heady times and, as with all her works, she skilfully weaves a tale that is engaging and educational.

Lores Bonney is one of aviation’s lesser-known identities and she deserves far more recognition for her accomplishments. She rubbed shoulders with all the big names of these early years – Amy Johnson, Nancy Bird Walton, Hinkler and Ulm.

Taking Flight is a worthy addition to anyone’s bookshelf, whether you are an aviation aficionado or simply interested in the achievements of pioneers. 

*****

6 March 2016. Alison Guesdon, Pittwater Online News http://www.pittwateronlinenews.com/taking-flight-lores-bonney-by-k-alexandernla2016.php

Taking Flight: Lores Bonney's Extraordinary Flying Career enhances understanding of Australia's era of pioneer aviation, and reinforces Lores Bonney's reputation as a significant Australian airwoman. ... This book will ignite the passion for flying in some and be a welcome addition to the library of all those who are enamoured of all aviation history or anyone who once flew or flies still. A wonderful and a great book about an Australian lady written by an Australian lady - perfect for all as a celebration of women for women and men everywhere.

*****

29 February 2016. The Pilots Blog http://www.thepilotsblog.com/the-pilots-news-and-videos/taking-flight-lores-bonney-s-extraordinary-flying-career

‘Taking Flight: Lores Bonney’s Extraordinary Flying Career’ is the latest offering from the established aviation biographer, Kristen Alexander. In this title she builds further upon her reputation as a meticulous researcher with the ability to convey history in a very readable form.

Lores Bonney's life was indeed extraordinary and her airborne achievements were nothing short of remarkable. Her first flight was with no less than famed aviator Bert Hinkler and like Hinkler, she would undertake her epic flights 'solo'. This was made all the more remarkable given the era in which she lived and a woman's work was most certainly not to conquer the skies. And yet she did.

Perhaps it was this male-dominated era and realm that led to her remarkable efforts being somewhat lost in the wake of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and his contemporaries. Whatever the reason may be, Kristen Alexander has contributed substantially to the preservation of this great aviatrix's legacy. Aided by personal diaries and documents, Bonney comes alive through the pages.

Further enhancing Alexander's book is its tremendous format. Filled with wonderful images and intriguing artefacts, the book itself lives in both the worlds of biography and the coffee table. This endearing title can be read comfortably from start to finish as a detailed life's tale or be at home as a richly illustrated book that can be revisited time and time again as an inspiring reference.

Bonney was a remarkable aviator and an inspiring woman. Her achievements are now recorded precisely and presented attractively in ‘Taking Flight’ by Kristen Alexander in a fitting tribute to Lores Bonney’s extraordinary flying career.

*****
 
20 February 2016. Aircrew Book Review, Facebook post.
 
Driving home down the Hume today, tuned to 774 ABC, and I happened to stumble upon the first episode of CanvasWings I've had a chance to listen to. I swear I was thinking of catching up on Kristen Alexander's two ABC interviews only ten minutes before! Anyway, what followed was a good 25 minutes of listening to a friend's voice that I have not heard for some time (the perils of being in regular contact via email and Facebook). I said, in my review, that Kristen's coming of age as an aviation author was her sublime 'Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain', and it is, but 'Taking Flight' truly cements her as an aviation biographer of note (yes, I can remain objective in this case). While she admits to being handed the national Bonney collection on a platter, there is no denying the amount of work, thread pulling and thread weaving that went into this book. Andy Wright.
 
*****
 
20 February 2016, CanvasWings http://www.canvaswings.com/
 
Canberra based author, Kristen Alexander recently dropped by to show us her new book which has taken a lot of research and one that she has been trying to finish around the release of other work for the last couple of years.

I really enjoyed this book and learnt a lot about this Australian Aviatrix, her life and her record breaking flights.

I very much enjoyed how this book was set out and found it an easy read which made sense chronologically so you follow her journey, if you like, into the world of aviation and her later years when she stopped flying.

Interview with Kristen at http://www.canvaswings.com/listen/

 

*****
 
20 February 2016. The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Fairfax online
 
We tend to think of Amelia Earhart or Amy Johnson in regard to pioneering women flyers - not so often the Australian Lores Bonney. This very readable study of her flying career, which among other things, draws on Bonney's diaries 1933 [&] 1937, puts her achievements well and truly on the record. Born in South Africa in 1897, she and her family moved to Melbourne (the parents separated after her mother shot her father), she married and eventually settled in Brisbane. Childless, she started flying, in part, to do something. And she did. Bonney was the first woman to circumnavigate [mainland] Australia in 1932. A year later she flew to England, a fraught journey of monsoonal weather, a crash landing, and deserts, arriving at Croydon to a minimal reception. In 1937, she made the first solo flight to Cape Town. Well written, excellent illustrated production.
 
*****  
 
From James Kightly, Vintage Aero Writer
 
A lovely surprise in my recent post was a special preview copy of her new book on the aviatrix Lores Bonney. … Kristen's done a terrific job telling Lores’ story, and I think the book’s turned out magnificently. It’s a great production, well footnoted and presented, and the hard graft of the writing and research has been made to look easy. … Lores Bonney's story is well worth a read, and well told here. 
 
*****
From Andy Wright, Aircrew Book Review.
 
After a missed delivery and then much gnashing of teeth over where it was in the system, the myriad shades of blue that is Kristen Alexander's latest book, Taking Flight, arrived late yesterday afternoon. The tale of Australia's globe-trotting Lores Bonney is in good company at ABR Central (my desk in the corner of the dining room). It is a big bit of gear - almost A4 dimensions and more than 270 pages - and is copiously illustrated by photos, artwork and some sublime maps. I wish every historic aviator would receive this treatment. 
 
*****
 
From Tammy Augostin, National President, WAI Australian Chapter.
 
What a lovely surprise to receive this wonderful book detailing Lores Bonneys’ life and her epic adventures. I have always referred to Lores as a true trail blazer of her time, pathing the way for female aviators in a man’s world. She certainly accomplished a great deal in her lifetime and set records along the way. An amazing lady and still an inspiration to many women today. The book is well written, factual and contains some wonderful pictures. Thank you for sending us a copy. 

*****

From John Ulm's foreword to Taking Flight.

Kristen Alexander's Taking Flight has it all. The sheer lyricism of flight - the curves and swoops, your own dimension. The lady of the sky has grace of line - with a mind of steel.





Britain at War Magazine April 2016

Of the many books covering the subject that were published across the 75th anniversary of the battle of Britain this is certainly one of the most readable and engaging titles of the genre and Kristen Alexander, the author, is to be highly commended on this valuable addition to the literature dealing with the history of 1940.

In this volume, the author has not only used exacting academic rigour to compile what is a fascinating and worthy account of those Australians who participated in the Battle of Britain but she has also produced what is a most readable and engaging book.

To the reviewer, immersed in the hostory of 1940, the names of all the men Kristen has covered were more than familiar - although not their individual stories. In this respect she had the reviewer's rapt attention from page one and it is fair to say that this particular reviewer is sometimes hard to please when it comes to books on Battle of Britain related topics! Not so with 'Australia's Few'.

Looking in detail at the lives of just eight of Australia's national contribution to the Battle of Britain, Kristen Alexander is painstaking in giving an insight into the lives of each of the men she details, although it is harrowing to discover that only one of the eight came home at the end of the war. Nevertheless, throught assembling details gleaned from interviews, letters, private papers and official records the author has been able to construct the detail opf those seven young lives cut short in the Battle of Britain. Included in that detail, for example, are accounts of the battles in which they were engaged and in which they were often the victor but, ultimately, also the victim. The accounts of the actions in which they were involved are  pacey, well-written, superbly researched and historically accurate in detail.

In her assembly of the facts, Kristen has also produced a book which is full of genuine empathy for her subjects and she has managed to construct a piece of work that stands not only as testament to the Australian 'Few' but also as a most useful reference source. Additionally, and importantly, it is also a truly excellent read. It is certainly a masterful piece of work and is one which is sure to be well-thumbed on this reviewer's book shelf over the coming years.

Nicely produced, and with a selection of evocative accompanying photographs, this book stands head and shoulders above many published in the Battle of Britain 'genre' across recent months and stands very firmly as this reviewer's favourite. Britain at War Magazine has no hesitation in recommending most highly this lovely book. 

*****

Judges comments for Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain,  winner of the nonfiction category of the 2015 ACT Writing and Publishing Award:

This is a very well-researched, well-documented, well-structured and well-written book. It looks at the role of the ’30 or so’ Australians who took part in the Battle of Britain through the lens of the lives of eight young fighter pilots. Each man’s story is brought to life using letters, diary entries, official correspondence, public records and family reminiscence. The eight stories are interwoven and, taken together, give readers a detailed perspective of how this historical battle unfolded. The use of family photos reinforces the ‘everyman’ nature of the pilots and brings home the real cost of war at many levels: individual, family, community and national. It is a book that can be read both for its engaging and sympathetic portrayal of the individual men and for its consideration of a pivotal time in the history of World War II. The writing is always fluid and engages the reader intimately with emotion and pathos. The need to convey accurate information never hinders the flow of the narrative. The author has an exceptional ability to set specific material, such as quotations from original documents, into a broader familial, social and political context, and in this way inform the reader at several levels at once. In addition to the incomparable writing style, this book stood out because of its very high production value, with excellent use of subheadings, maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, contents pages, author’s notes and index.

*****

XXXXX Five Star review on Amazon

5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific book.... highly recommended 14 July 2015
 
By Thomas Berekally - Published on Amazon.com
 
I was on Kristen's mailing list for this book right from the get go when she asked expressions of interest for orders of this title.
 
Her book arrived in the mail but I couldn't read it until my return from an overseas holiday. It more than fulfilled the triad of qualities I look for in a book on military aviation, namely a 'catchy' title, an easy to read writing style and a well researched subject matter.

I've read many books about the Battle of Britain both old and contemporary. I would rate this book as one of the best in my library collection and highly recommend it to all readers of military aviation history. 

 
*****
 

 

A great read about 8 very brave Australian airman. You can feel the love and admiration that Kristen has for these men. They were a diverse group of pilots with varying skill sets and back grounds but they came together in The Battle of Britain.
Kristen explores the individuals and you get to know and start to understand their personalities and motivation as she weaves their story together in the context of the Battle of Britain.
They were 'ordinary' men rising to meet extraordinary demands in an extremely courageous manner; such is the manner of heroes.
Well done Kristen, as usual, wonderfully descriptive and empathetic towards the individuals who are the heroes of this book. this is a must read!

*****

Australian Defence Force Journal Issue No. 197, July-August 2015

Kristen Alexander’s latest title continues her exploration of her themes of the exploits of individual Australian pilots (Clive ‘Killer’ Caldwell and Jack Davenport) and also those who contributed to the fateful victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain.  

Epic battles must, of necessity, focus primarily on the bigger picture—the strategic balance and the forces contending, the rival commanders and their battle plans, the weaponry utilised by the opposing sides and, sometimes, almost as an afterthought, the individual combatants who fight, and, all too often, die in the subsequent struggle.

The author, in this extremely well-researched book, has skilfully reversed the focus without the reader losing this valuable larger perspective. The eight Australian pilots featured were carefully selected by the author to represent a wide cross-section of young pilots-to-be: state/private school education, Catholic/Protestant upbringing, RAAF/short service commission/RAF Volunteer Reserve-trained, married/about to marry/single during the struggle and finally, the ‘natural’ pilot/others about whom the training officers had doubts. In a period of just 11 weeks in the summer of 1940, seven were to perish during the Battle of Britain—all young men in their twenties. The sole survivor died more than 60 years later, aged 83, in 2001. Hail the fallen warrior.

The author has gone far beyond the normally brief outline of the subjects’ family background. Using diaries, letters, newspaper articles and interviews with family members, she provides a detailed background of not only each of the eight but, where she considered it relevant, their parents. This almost forensic analysis assists the reader to better understand the men, their view of the world and some of their subsequent actions. As the author takes the reader through the early flying experiences of each of the individuals and then the various stages of their subsequent flying career, initially it takes some effort to disentangle their stories but as their stories unfold, you soon develop the feeling that you ‘know’ and understand each of these men.

While the focus of the narrative is naturally on the eight individual pilots, the author is not only able to provide a incisive analysis of the Battle as it developed and the major turning points but also how other Australian pilots were to contribute to the RAF efforts during this period. Of the eight, Dick Glyde was to share the claim to be the first Australian to claim a victory during the Battle with Stuart Walch, both destroying a Me-110 in separate actions on 11 July. Two days later, the first of the eight was to die in combat.

As the Battle intensified, the physical and mental strain on the pilots increased. The unit histories, log books, combat reports, personal diaries and interviews with surviving squadron members allowed the author to provide further insight into each man and how he coped—or didn’t. One was convinced he would not survive the war but was determined to claim at least two victories: one to even it up for his own expected death and the second to justify his training. Another suffered from depression and other ill-effects of battle fatigue, a condition little understood at the time. As the author points out, the desperate shortage of pilots meant that there was no possibility of taking a few days off and no counselling or psychological treatment for anxiety was available. Everyone just had to ‘get on with it’ as best they could.

The author also provides an insight into their life away from ‘scrambles’, glycol and combat. A number of the eight found love, with one marrying and another becoming engaged. These carefree times provide glimpses into another side of the men in this narrative so carefully and lovingly crafted by the author. But the war is never far away. Combat sorties are ever-present and as the eight dwindle in number, the reader feels they are losing touch with friends one has come to know and admire.

With the Battle finally won, the author turns to the family and friends of the seven who had fallen. And this is another strength of the book—the painstaking detail the author provides regarding how these people took the loss of these young men. All were proud of their courage and achievements: ordinary men who had made extraordinary efforts and died for a cause in which they fervently believed. Their short lives were celebrated by the people they had left behind, people who would never forget them.

Kristen Alexander’s respect and admiration for the eight Australian pilots is evident in every page of this excellent book. It is a testament to both her writing and research skills and their lives and devotion to duty.  

*****

 RAAF Chief of Air Force's 2015 Reading List  

The Battle of Britain has long attracted writers and historians as subject matter for books and articles. In the nearly 75 years since the events of 1940 unfolded in the skies over the United Kingdom as the Luftwaffe and RAF battled for air superiority over south east England, the literary market place has been awash with books recounting various aspects of this epic contest. Kristen Alexander’s Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain is a worthy contribution to this not insignificant body of literature.

Alexander has produced a well-researched and written work which looks at the experience of eight Australians who flew as part of the RAF’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Rather than simply recount their personal experience of combat flying, Alexander has endeavoured to recount the pilot’s journey from early life to their subsequent operational flying careers with as much detail as possible. This approach renders the pilots as complete personalities with more to them than just being fighter pilots. ....

In many ways the manuscript blends the attributes of biography with those of a historical reference as it recounts with some depth the life and experiences of eight Australian pilots who flew with the RAF during the Battle of Britain. The inclusion of detail of the RAF training regime, squadron routines and, to a lesser degree, the political climate means that the context of the events described in the book is as well established as the personal perspective of each of the pilots.

An additional aspect of the book is that the all-important relationship between the pilots and their families and loved ones is recounted in surprising detail. Even more importantly Alexander endeavours to communicate the impact of the pilot’s service on those families and loved ones. Alexander should be congratulated on the effort she has put into ensuring that this all-to-frequently overlooked aspect of military service has been included.

If there is one aspect of this book which sets it apart from many the many others that recount the Battle of Britain it is encapsulated in the titles of the final two chapters ‘Loss’ and ‘In Memoriam’, fitting reminders of the tragic loss of at least 13 Australians in the Battle of Britain.

*****

Kathy Mexted in Australian Pilot, the magazine of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association of Australia, June/July 2015 

 … a group of stories so compelling … a book of such depth and character …

In this year, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the few Australians who fought in that battle are remembered in an engaging and heartfelt way.

Having known Kristen for a couple of years, I find her capacity for recounting, in great detail, the events and personalities of her subjects, impressive. This book does not disappoint with its meticulous academic research and down-to-earth story-telling.

From the beginning, Kristen seeks to probe, communicate and gain access to a rich stash of memories, mementos and insights into the lives of eight Australians who flew in the Battle of Britain. …

Using resources such as letters and diaries, logbooks, combat reports and personal records, Kristen puts these men’s stories in their own words, as much as possible, against the overview of events. With her penchant for dipping into their personal lives, Kristen introduces us to the men, not just to the pilots, and you can’t help but be there with them, imagining a beer at the bar, a tender kiss from a sweetheart, and a fraught farewell as each returns to duty. …

While only one survived the war to recount his tales in his old age, Kristen takes the stories beyond the battles to examine the preamble that made the men, the ongoing effects of the war, the losses and other impacts on those that are left behind. But this is balanced with faithful attention to their war experiences and draws on their combat reports and official squadron records to place them within the larger, more well-known story of the Battle of Britain.

*****

'Wincanton' in 1940. The Magazine of the Friends of the Few, No. 15, 2015 

AUSTRALIANS FIGHTING FOR BRITAIN

For Kristen Alexander The Few are heroes. They are also human beings. Men who loved, lusted, missed their families or kept them at a distance, grew old with the strain of combat, drank too much and, sometimes, died unnecessary deaths.

In Australia's Few  and the Battle of Britain, the Canberra-based author tells the stories of eight pilots, of whom seven were killed defending Britain from Nazi invasion and one survived the war. Using detailed and wide ranging research she combines eight stories of young lives with enough tales of the RAF of three quarters of a century ago, on the ground and in the bullet filled air, to satisfy any aviation buff.

Sergeant Ken Holland was somebody who probably did not need to die, at least on September 25 1940, the day he was taken. Flying a Spitfire of No 152 Squadron he shot down a Heinkel over Somerset and parachutes appeared. Alexander then tells us that, "the Australian positioned himself on the Heinkel's tail, perhaps to have another shot at an obvious lame duck or perhaps to follow it down. Whatever his intention it was a mistake, as both gunners were still on board, and one continued to fire even as the Heinkel hurtled downwards. Ken was too close, he copped a burst at short range. Spitfire N3173 dropped its nose and ploughed into the ground."

We also find that The Few are not always treated with reverence. Holland had effectively abandoned his family in Australia and had an English "guardian", though the, apparently innocent, relationship was never formalised. The grieving Englishman placed a memorial on the crash site at the village of Woolverton, only for it to be removed when its presence no longer suited the farmer. Today, thanks to the Royal British Legion and RAFA, it stands beside a nearby road.

Ken Holland is joined in this outstanding book by Jack Kennedy, Bill Millington, John Crossman, Dick Glyde, Pat Hughes and Stuart Walch, whose graves are scattered around England, or whose names can be found at Runnymede. Only Des Sheen, came through his adventures and lived to a good age. I am glad I read this book and I recommend it.

*****

https://militarybooksaustralia.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/new-book-australias-few-and-the-battle-of-britain/

It is no surprise to me that there is an extensive list of people and institutions mentioned in Kristen Alexander’s acknowledgements. This book, which tells the individual stories of eight Australian Spitfire and Hurricane pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain over the period July to September 1940, would have taken some very detailed and dedicated work. Of the eight young men, only one survived, but through Kristen’s work they are now much more than long forgotten names on a memorial or a fading and mis-remembered family story. In fact defining an ‘Australian’ was even difficult then, as she points out. Up until 1949, Australians were simply British subjects and the men were absorbed into RAF squadrons. This book is by turns engaging and sad; so many fine young men, their lives wasted, their future promise snuffed out; their mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends left to grieve. In Kristen’s book their spirit lives on. She tells their stories against the backdrop of the events of the time in such a way that we come to understand how the intimate everyday stories formed part of the whole and how they fitted into the broader context of momentous and historic events. Forget the statistics and the grand strategic themes: this is what war is really about – individual courage and commitment and the grief and loss of those who remain.

*****

The West Australian, 17 March 2017 Deserved tribute to brave pilots.

‘How could someone so vibrant, so full of love, so passionate, be dead,’ Jack Kennedy’s fiancée wept. He was the first Australian fighter pilot to die in the Battle of Britain, less than two months after his 23rd birthday. Winston Churchill’s famous words immortalising those in Fighter Command who defended Britain between July 10 and October 31, 1940, are still as evocative 74 years later, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.

This is the author’s tribute ... to the Australian ‘Few’, to give due recognition to the ’30 or so’ Australians who fought in the Battle of Britain. She relates the stories of eight of them, following their lives from an almost unanimous childhood fascination with flying, through their flight training to the gaining of their wings as pilots. The book bears intimate witness to the relentless stresses facing them daily as fighter pilots in wartime, doing a job they loved which was dangerous, demanding and carried a short life span. Seven of these eight were killed in combat. They felt that they were fulfilling their destiny.

A stained glass window in Christ Church, Claremont, commemorates Perth pilot, ex-Guildford Grammar alumnus Richard ‘Dick’ Glyde, who overcame a spinal defect in his determination to achieve his childhood ambition to join the air force. When his Hurricane was shot down in Belgium, he escaped ... back to his squadron to continue fighting in the battles of France and Britain. Finally, having used the last of his nine lives, Dick was lost over the waters off Selsey Bill. He had ‘fought so well and so hard’ and his DFC and medals are on display at WA’s Aviation Heritage Museum’s Battle of Britain exhibit.

The narrative intertwines their stories into the chronological unfolding of events leading up to the Battle of Britain. Revealed through the details of their diary entries are their emotions, feelings for loved ones and hopes for a future that would be denied them. The photographs accompanying become more meaningful and poignant as we share the lives they had led and sacrificed. ... They were young, impetuous, courageous and did their duty to their utmost and beyond. Read of their valour with gratitude.

*****

Extract from JG Cornish, Reveille. Magazine of the Returned and Services League of Australia (New South Wales Branch). Volume 88, No. 1, January-February 2015

'The Battle of Britain was a vital milestone in WWII, and the author has captured its spirit in this book. It creates an authentic background for the exploits of the selected pilots who were some of The Few.' 

*****

Andy Wright, Rag and Tube, the Magazine of the Antique Aeroplane Association of Australia. Issue No 160, December 2014

For as long as books are written about aviation there will always be books about the Battle of Britain. It is perhaps the one enduring ‘household name’ from the war. Indeed, even its ‘stars’—The Few, Churchill, Dowding, Bader, The Blitz, Spitfire, Hurricane—still roll off the tongue.

It must be considerably difficult, given so much has been written about this period of the war already, for an author to come up with a new angle that will be of sufficient interest to publishers and, of course, the target audience.

Such was the impact of the RAF’s victory against the odds that the campaign still resonates with astounding clarity. It is a popularity that has been myths and tales repeated until they are accepted as fact before, thankfully, being debunked through good old-fashioned historical research. This research, and the continuing interest in the subject matter, has ensured documents are re-discovered, or re-interpreted, and crash sites continue to be found.

The household names are such because, for the most part, they endured. They add to their achievements beyond that summer of 1940 and provided future biographers and researchers with enough material to generate countless volumes of work. The same can be said for those who survived. They had a life after the Battle. They had a voice with which to tell their own story. What then, of those who did not make it? How can their voice be heard when, perhaps, it is hidden safely away in a shoebox in the cupboard of a still grieving widow or relative? For many they are simply a name on a plaque alongside others on a war memorial, or on a small stone in a field ‘somewhere in England’, or on a headstone. A pilot. A Battle of Britain pilot.

What was he like? Why did he fly? Was he married? Who and what did he love? Where did he come from? Someone always remembers and that is how the lost are heard. In the case of this book, realisation came before remembrance. The author became inquisitive about the Australian involvement in the Battle after reading one of HE Bates’ classic works. There followed a journey of discovery that produced astounding access to the personal papers and records of eight men who flew in the Battle of Britain and who are certainly not household names. The result is a perfect blend of military and personal biography. Now these young men have a voice again.

Crossman, Glyde, Holland, Hughes, Kennedy, Millington, Sheen and Walch. All were Australians in the RAF. Some learned to fly at Point Cook. Others in England. Some became aces. Some earned the DFC. One survived.

As expected, there is a lot of combat but these sequences are, as much as possible, told in the pilot’s words through snippets from logbooks and combat reports and judiciously selected comments from diaries and other musings. This is, of course, what we expect of a book about the Battle of Britain. What is expertly woven into the narrative, however, is exquisite detail of the personal lives of the men—their thoughts when on station and, most importantly, their experiences when not on duty. Here we really learn who these men were.

The most valuable material is, however, in the pre-war/pre-Battle narrative. Logbooks and diaries are expected sources when writing about pilots in combat. Discovering their lives before their greatest achievements requires a much more personal approach and a desire to tell the whole story and not just the exciting stuff. The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in each respect, is an understanding beyond anything official records will ever provide. All eight men come to live as their lives are laid bare. The reader develops an affinity with each to the point where the losses are keenly felt.

This is the set-up for the final chapters as the stories do not end as seven men are shot down. They leave behind families and friends who struggle to accept their shining light has gone. This is where the author’s writing really comes to the fore. While the entire book is written with emotion and caring, the final chapters are moving as each family unit comes to terms, more or less, with their loss. It is a delicately and expertly assembled section of the book that deserves to remind us that these men were never truly forgotten or ‘unknown’.

Such sublime content deserves and equally well-crafted package to be presented in. As much as this is the author’s coming of age as an aviation history writer, the publisher has gone above and beyond in ensuring this book is well presented. Indeed, the sheer presence of this beautiful hardback demands attention on the shelf. The hardcovers replicate the dust cover artwork and prove there is more to life than dark cloth and gold-embossed text. The pages are clean and crisp, the text is (justified!) the perfect size for reading and the photo section, cut down from a large number of images the author had collected, happily focuses on personal and intimate images of the men rather than stock photos of Spitfires and Hurricanes etc. The effort put into the design and layout is evident. Add the professional notes and index and we have an example from the very pinnacle of book design.

So, in this world of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Battle of Britain books, and with the 75th anniversary just around the corner, why would you buy this book over the others? The question really should be ‘why wouldn’t you?’. From cover to cover it is the perfect tribute to these eight Australian pilots. It can be a bit tricky at times, as the narrative changes to another ‘character’, to keep abreast with who’s who but this is really only experienced early on before the reader gets to ‘know’ each budding pilot. The timelines of all eight are well managed and I hate to think of the headaches weaving them all together must have caused. At a little over 360 pages of text, you’d thing this would be a longish read but it flows so nicely, and there is always something to discover on the next page, that progress is swift.

Eight men have finally had their stories told. It couldn’t have been done better. I am bloody glad to have this on my shelf.

*****

Robert Brokenmouth, Sabretache, Journal of the Military Historical Society of Australia, Volume LV, Number 4, December 2014

When people who only read ‘for work’ say that the best non-fiction reads like fiction, this is wrong. Those of us who read militaria know that the most satisfying read usually comes from books so well-researched and sharply written that we whizz through their pages in delight, discovering new elements which bring a well-known tale more vividly to life.

Kristen Alexander deserves great fame, huge respect and—most importantly—a huge following of devotees and sales figures to rival Rowling. Why? Well, we aviation readers all think we know everything there is to know about the Battle of Britain, that touch-and-go critical moment in World War Two. Surely there is nothing left to dig up, no approach we have not considered, and no heroes left unspaded?

Armed with primary documents, family permissions, experience and determination, Kristen tells the stories of a representative eight (of the thirty or more) Australians who fought in the Battle of Britain. Seven of these eight ‘bought it’. Kristen lets the men and the surviving documents tell their story, moving through the War, each hoping or believing they would get through. The degree of intimacy Kristen evokes is surprising and rewarding. Of over 2360 men involved in the Battle, over 440 died—almost a fifth. This figure doesn’t include accidents, later death in battle, nor injuries, and the percentage killed was much higher for ‘colonials’.

Kristen tells us eight parallel crackling tales in a matter-of-fact style. By the end of the book we want to know more, more about the men, more about the Battle - because we realise that for all our knowledge we just don’t know enough. Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain is an important, approachable book. History really is what happened only yesterday, as Kristen demonstrates with masterly skill. Put this one on your Christmas list (geezers as well as children) and tell your MP to add this to student reading lists.

*****

Aero Australia Issue 45 January/March 2015

The subject of Australians in the Battle of Britain has always provoked discussion as to home many were involved. The number has often varied, depending on the definition of ‘Australian’ in 1940. Even aircrew born here were defined as ‘British’ in those days and the issue is further complicated by many having British parents, or being born in Britain and then coming to Australia.

Kristen Alexander attempts to define ‘Australian’ in the context of this book and then instead of presenting us with a general and overall story covering all ’30 or so’ of them, selects just eight and tells their stories in great detail. It works well, and the different backgrounds, education, lives and careers of the eight provide a variety which in effect represents all the Australians involved in the Battle.

Alexander’s research is to her usual high standards and the book tells the stories of the eight from go to whoa, with as much emphasis on their lives away from the cockpit as in it. It draws on family documents and records, interviews and reminiscences and the result is a very different approach.

This isn’t to say the operational side of things is ignored—it is also covered in detail and there is considerable historical perspective, something I always like to see. The eight stories are not dealt with in separate ‘blocks’ but instead intertwined within a basically chronological structure. Again, this approach works very well.

The eight Australians covered are John Crossman, Jack Kennedy, Dick Glyde, Stuart Walch, Ken Holland, Pat Hughes, Bill Millington and Des Sheen, the latter the only one to survive.

I like the different approach Kristen Alexander has taken with this book. Perhaps it reflects—dare I say it without being shot down in flames by the ‘thought police’—more of a woman’s perspective. If so, that can’t be a bad thing because the result is excellent.

*****

Aircrew Book Review 21 November 2014

http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/australias-few-and-battle-of-britain.html

For as long as books are written about aviation there will always be books about the Battle of Britain. It is perhaps the one enduring ‘household name’ from the war. Indeed, even its ‘stars’ – The Few, Churchill, Dowding, Bader, Spitfire, Hurricane – still roll off the tongue. It must be considerably difficult, given so much has been written about this period of the war already, for an author to come up with a new angle that will be of sufficient interest to publishers and, of course, the target audience. The key, however, is “The Few”. The aircrew. Every single one deserves to have his story told. Many have. Many haven’t.

Such was the impact of the RAF’s victory against the odds that the campaign still resonates with astounding clarity. It is a popularity that has seen myths and tales repeated until they are accepted as fact before, thankfully, being debunked through good old-fashioned historical research. This research, and the continuing interest in the subject matter, has ensured documents are re-discovered, or re-interpreted, and crash sites continue to be found.

The household names are such because, for the most part, they endured. They added to their achievements beyond that summer of 1940 and provided future biographers and researchers with enough material to generate countless volumes of work. Those who survived had a life after the Battle. They had a voice with which to tell their own story. What, then, of those who did not make it? How can their voice be heard when, perhaps, it is hidden safely away in a shoebox in the cupboard of a still grieving widow or relative? For many they are simply a name on a plaque or on a headstone. A pilot of the Battle of Britain.

What was he like? Why did he fly? Was he married? Who and what did he love? Where did he come from? Someone always remembers and that is how the lost are heard. In the case of this book, realisation came before remembrance. The author became inquisitive about the Australian involvement in the Battle after reading one of H.E. Bates’ classic works. There followed a journey of discovery that produced astounding access to the personal papers and records of eight men who flew in the Battle of Britain and who are certainly not household names. The result is a perfect blend of military and personal biography. Now these young men have a voice again.

Crossman, Glyde, Holland, Hughes, Kennedy, Millington, Sheen and Walch. All were Australians in the RAF. Some learned to fly at Point Cook. Others in England. Some became aces. Some earned the DFC. One survived. As expected, there is a lot of combat but these sequences are, as much as possible, told in the pilot’s words through snippets from logbooks and combat reports and judiciously selected comments from diaries and other musings. This is, of course, what we expect of a book about the Battle of Britain. What is expertly woven into the narrative, however, is exquisite detail of the personal lives of the men – their thoughts when on station, the evident tension experienced as time passed and fatigue grew and, most importantly, their experiences when not on duty. Here we really learn who these men were.

The most valuable material is, however, in the pre-war/pre-Battle narrative. Logbooks and diaries are expected sources when writing about pilots in combat. Discovering their lives before their greatest achievements requires a much more personal approach and a desire to tell the whole story and not just the exciting stuff. The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in each respect, is an understanding beyond anything official records will ever provide. There is a reason why Kennedy never smiled in photographs, for example. Yes, there is some reading between the lines but, given the extent of the source material at hand, it is very much an educated, informed and perceptive interpretation.

All eight men come to life as their lives are laid bare. The reader develops an affinity with each to the point where the losses are keenly felt. Hughes, a phenomenally aggressive (Point Cook might still bear the scars!) and successful pilot and flight leader, particularly got under my skin as he built the foundation of a loving relationship and potential future family (he was, of course, not the only one to find love while overseas). The progressive losses set-up the final chapters as the stories do not end as seven men are shot down. They leave behind families and friends who struggle to accept their shining light has gone. This is where the writing really benefits from the author’s unsurpassed ‘eye for the personal’, as I like to call it, developed in her earlier works (Clive Caldwell Air Ace and Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader). While the entire book is written with emotion and caring, the closing chapters are almost heartbreaking as each family unit comes to terms, more or less, with their loss over the decades that followed the war. The immediate reaction by colleagues and loved ones to each death is recorded in the main ‘action’ chapters but the Battle moves on and, of course, so must the narrative. The last few chapters, however, are a delicately and expertly assembled section of the book that serves to remind us that these men left so much behind.

Such sublime content deserves an equally well-crafted package to be presented in. As much as this is the author’s coming of age as an aviation history writer, the publisher has gone above and beyond in ensuring this book is well presented. Indeed, the sheer presence of this beautiful hardback demands attention on the shelf. The hardcovers replicate the dust cover artwork and prove there is more to life than dark cloth and gold-embossed text. The pages are clean and crisp, the text is (justified!) the perfect size for easy reading and the photo section, cut down from a large number of images the author had collected, happily focuses on personal and intimate images of the men rather than stock photos of Spitfires and Hurricanes etc. The effort put in to the design and layout is evident. Someone at NewSouth really understood what the book is all about. Add the professional notes and index and we have an example from the very pinnacle of book design.

If I’m honest, and that’s what ABR is all about, I tend to steer away from books on the Battle and prefer to hunt down those from lesser known campaigns, battles, squadrons and theatres. That summer of 1940, however, is what I cut my teeth on when I first ‘discovered’ the world of Second World War aviation. It’s always there, in various forms, on my shelves, online or, most of the time, at a local bookshop. Why then, in this world of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of Battle of Britain books, and with the 75th anniversary just around the corner, would you buy this book over the others? The question really should be “why wouldn’t you?” From cover to cover it is the perfect tribute to eight Australian pilots and, hands down, the best-presented ‘package’ I have seen in a while. It can be tricky, as the narrative changes to another ‘character’, to keep abreast with who’s who but this is really only experienced early on before the reader gets to ‘know’ each budding pilot. The timelines of all eight are well managed and I hate to think of the headaches weaving them all together must have caused. At a little over 400 pages of narrative, notes, bibliography and index, you’d think this would be a longish read but it flows so nicely, and there is always something to discover on the next page, that progress is swift.

Eight men have finally had their stories told. It couldn’t have been done better. I am bloody glad to have read Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain. I am bloody glad to have it on my shelf.

*****

From Andy Wright. Flightpath Volume 26, No. 2, November 2014-January 2014

The sheer presence of this beautiful hardback demands attention. The hardcovers replicate the dust cover artwork and prove there is more to life than dark cloth and gold embossed text. They are a taster as, once the book is opened, the crisp, clean pages, the superb layout and the professional notes and index are the pinnacle of book design. Such effort was required because the content is sublime. Yes, it’s another book on the Battle of Britain but, rather than another angle on this most famous of aerial campaigns, this one is very personal and re-introduces eight relatively unknown Australian flyers. Only [Pat] Hughes, [Dick] Glyde and [Des] Sheen were familiar names. Even so, for Glyde, this is the first time his story has been told in detail. Indeed, the same could be said for the others too—[Bill] Millington, [John] Crossman, [Ken] Holland, [Jack] Kennedy and [Stuart] Walch. Most, if not all, simply became one of ‘The Few’ in photos or on plaques and headstones in semi-forgotten fields in England. These young men have a voice again (notably Des Sheen was the only one to survive the war). Their lives are laid bare via an impressive collection of letters and diary entries. There is, of course, a lot of combat but these sequences do not outweigh the pre-war lives, training and personal lives and loves in England. The final chapters emotionally detail the families’ struggles to live without their beloved boys. Everything is so well done and, importantly, eight men can live on in the hearts and minds of all who read this book. They deserve it. Postscript. First published in Australia, a UK edition is now due in 2015.

*****

From Neil Follett, Aviation Historical Society of Australia: AHSA Newsletter Volume 3, No. 4, October 2014

This is AHSA member Kristen Alexander’s latest extremely well-researched book on Australian airmen of World War Two. This 400 page books tells the stories of eight Australian fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. The pilots remembered are Jack Kennedy, Stuart Walch, Dick Glyde, Ken Holland, Pat Hughes, Bill Millington, John Crossman and Des Sheen. Sadly only one returned home after the end of WW2. Kristen covers the early life of her subjects and follows them through their flying career to the Battle of Britain, often giving the feeling that you are in the cockpit with them. Very highly recommended as an informative and very read-able book.

*****

Extract from review in Tasmania's Launceston Examiner, 11 Oct 2014: 'Alexander’s research is thorough and gives us a remarkably clear picture of these committed young men.'

*****

Extract from review in Aerogram. Journal of the Friends of the RAAF Museum Inc, September 2014

'Kristen Alexander is a member of the Friends of the RAAF Museum and is currently specialising in Australia’s Few and brings to life the stories and lives of eight Australian pilots ... Kristen is known widely for her thorough and painstaking research and these stories are engaging and informative.'

*****

A selection of readers reviews (blush):

From aviation author, Charles Page. ‘...well written. By the time you get to the end you feel you know the pilots well, and it’s so sad when they get killed, and the girlfriends, wives, fiancées are left behind, not to mention the families. But your book ensures they will not be forgotten, and their stories will be more widely known.’

From Dr Anthony Cooper: ‘The accent you place upon the lives the men left behind in Australia and the personal lives they created for themselves in the UK is welcome and long overdue in Fighter Command historiography. ... [A] contribution to normalising those men. It’s like a demythologisation to see the pilots like this, seeing them as a bit callow like ourselves, and providing a humane antidote to the hollow heroisation that gets bandied around so cheaply. Wartime aircrew were just ordinary men caught in a bad situation. ... Thanks for bringing these men back to us after all these years, it was sad but it was good. ... I liked it!’

Louise from Perth: Big congratulations Kristen, I have finally had the time to read your wonderful book and couldn't put it down. You have achieved a beautiful balance between the technical detail and the emotional side of the lives of these selfless men. How on earth did you manage such a huge amount of research? Thank you so much for putting it all together and helping the air men's stories to remain extant in such an accurate and accessible account.

Phil from Belmore: I am not an avid book reader however your book was an exception. I found it very informative, humorous in parts but also very sad, not only about Pat Hughes, but also the demise of the other brave pilots.

Nick from Adelaide: 'I can't put it down, the level of detail and insight into the life and times of these brave airmen is phenomenal.'

Peter from Melbourne: ‘A fine read ... a wonderful job of putting the reader into the time of the Battle of Britain and as good an insight as we are likely to get of what people went through’.

Diana from Sydney: ‘I was gripped to the end ... it is such a fine piece of work Kristen. ... Australia’s Few ... is a really great book, and does justice to your research and your writing and to your boys. ... Congratulations!’

Stephanie from Perth: ‘Thank you very much for this great book! A wonderful account of the eight young Australian pilots written in such a very warm way describing their short lives into which they packed so much. ... I loved the way you wove their stories together telling of their youthful endeavours, their personalities and their family lives leading to their time in the Battle of Britain ... The extensive research gathered from the families and friends gave us insight into their personal lives both in Australia and while in UK which was fascinating. It gave us such a lovely background to the boys as they grew up with their desire to fly so important to them. ... Your accounts of the air dogfights are very easy to read and imagine what they went through as well as the heartache they suffered with the loss of their friends and comrades.’

Peter from Canberra: ‘I now feel much better informed about the progress of the Battle of Britain. I was really impressed with the way that you wove the stories of the various Australians into the overall story of the Battle. Your research must have been prodigious. With best wishes and many thanks for giving us another great book.’

Bob from Perth: ‘It is so easy to read ... I just love the manner in which you have fitted each of the boy's stories into a flowing story, your research is so complete and you must be congratulated on it. Very well done!’

Alistair from Coraville : ‘Thank you for a wonderfully inspiring book about Australia’s Battle of Britain pilots, it is absolutely outstanding, captures the essence of the time totally. ... As an ex Royal Air Force pilot (1960's) I am amazed how you understand what makes pilots tick - well done!’

John from Worcestershire: ‘I really felt I should write to you, now I have read your book. I so enjoyed it, wonderful descriptions and you have empathised so well with these young pilots and their contribution to the Battle of Britain. I loved your style of writing and your detail, it is not surprising it took so long to write ... Well done a superb book, the best book I have read this year! ... I learnt such a lot more from your descriptions than I knew before. These young men were very special indeed and you must be so proud that you have put their story into a fine book.’

*****

Review in Spring 2014 issue of Wings, the Journal of the Royal Australian Air Force Association: 'A fascinating insight into the pilots' lives, their pre-war days in Australia, how they came to serve in the RAF and their aerial battles against the Luftwaffe. A worthwhile and enlightening read.'

*****

Five star review from Aussie Rick of Goodreads. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1003352443

I have just finished reading Kristen Alexander’s latest WW2 aviation book, covering eight Australian pilots who flew Spitfire and Hurricanes in the RAF and fought over England during the Battle of Britain.

The pilots that the author decided to cover in her book were Jack Kennedy and Ken Holland from Sydney, Stuart Walch from Hobart, Dick Glyde from Perth, Pat Hughes from Cooma, Bill Millington from Adelaide, John Crossman from Newcastle, and Des Sheen of Canberra. Of these eight pilots only one survived.

Firstly a disclosure; I was given a copy of this book from the author who I know as a result of a shared passion in Australian military history and books. My review below is based solely on the contents of the book.

Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain is well researched and finely written, easily drawing the reader into the young lives of these eight men. We get to read about them growing up in Australia, their love for flying, their training, and the various reasons for them leaving Australia to join the RAF, then the accounts of their missions over England during the Battle of Britain.

The book is so well written and easy to read that we get caught up in their lives and loves and then are saddened as we read of their deaths whilst fighting against the Luftwaffe in 1940. You know what the likely outcome is to be with these young men but still their demise in action still hits a nerve, a feeling of loss for men the reader never knew, and in some cases had never previously heard of.

The author has utilised numerous first-hand accounts, after action reports, diaries and letters to help tell the story of these brave young men. Like this account of one of the pilots training flight back in Australia: "One damn bump after another. Tried some forced landings to such a reckless extent the poor old instructor couldn't say a word. I damn near hit a fence about 20 times." And this account from the period known as the ‘Phoney War’ in France in 1939: "His fellow Australian Flying Officer Johnny Cock overshot the landing strip on one occasion and ended up in a reservoir. On another, Flying Officer Roderick 'Roddy' Rayner landed with his wheels still retracted. His excuse? 'Just forgot them, old boy.' As Flight Lieutenant Ian 'Widge' Gleed recalled it, 'life was rosy' during the Phoney War." This incident occurred during the early stages of the Battle of Britain and it brought a smile to my face, although I wondered if Sergeant Badger was smiling at the time: "Dick returned from battle uninjured, but his Hurricane was not so lucky; it was pocked with bullet holes. At least one other Hurricane was holed as well: such was the confusion in the air Dick had mistaken Sergeant Ivor Badger's Hurricane for an enemy aircraft. With a broad grin, Badger later declared to Dick, 'You are a rotten shot, sir!' "

I have read many good books on the Battle of Britain and this new title ranks up there with the best. Although this book is written about the life and death of Australians who flew during the Battle of Britain, anyone who has an interest in the RAF, RAAF or this battle will enjoy this book. It shows the progression of keen young men full of life and energy being worn down by constant missions and combat against the Luftwaffe till they paid the ultimate price. The stories of those they left behind; friends, lovers, wives and family is also well told and the book continues past the end of the battle to the years after the war and how these men were remembered and commemorated. Overall this is a book every Australian, or anyone who has an interest in this period should read. It is about what these young men gave in the service of their country and to defend England at a time of dire need. Although I felt sad every time I read of the death of one of these brave young men I am glad I read this book. I think we all needed to be reminded at times that history is more than dates and places, it is about what others have given for the benefit of all.

In closing here is something that one of these young pilots, Pat Hughes, wrote as a school boy back in Australia that resonated with his death, titled AN AUTUMN EVENING: “The cool evening wind came whispering over the lonely land … The watcher rose slowly to his feet, and with the beauty of that autumn evening impressed on his soul, he started again on his journey. For a moment he was lost to view behind an outcrop, but then for a short time he stood, vaguely outlined against the lighter gloom of a wide-arched sky – and then he passed from sight – over the skyline.”

*****

Australia’s Few and the Battle of Britain has already elicited some insightful comments from early readers. Here are the comments that appear on the dust wrapper

‘A story we take for granted, here told afresh with insight and empathy.’

– Professor Peter Stanley, UNSW Canberra

 ‘In telling the stories of some of the Australians who flew in the Battle of Britain, Kristen Alexander has combined academic rigour with compelling personal detail. She has demonstrated that the ‘unknowns’ of the Battle are as fascinating as those who gained celebrity status. This is a book for those who know much about what happened in 1940 and those who don’t.’

– Geoff Simpson, Trustee, Battle of Britain Memorial Trust

 ‘The lives of eight Australian fighter pilots, from backyard to cockpit and beyond, lovingly and expertly told.’

– Andy Wright, Aircrew Book Review

 



  • Clive Caldwell Air Ace
    Clive Caldwell Air Ace
    (Allen & Unwin 2006)

Aircrew Book Review 6 July 2009 by Andy Wright

(Thanks to Andy Wright of Aircrew Book Review http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au for permission to post the full text of his review)

Clive Caldwell. Heard of him? Well, if you’re here because you’re an avid reader of the type of books I review, chances are you’ve heard of him. If you haven’t, don’t feel too bad. He’s Australia’s highest scoring ace of the Second World War and most Australians have not heard of him. It is safe to say, however, that in the past few years that number of Australians has become smaller thanks to the subject of this review. What might stir your interest further is the author of Clive Caldwell, Air Ace, prior to initial research, had not heard of our hero either. He simply had not popped up on her reading radar. It’s not as odd as it sounds. If you have not read this or any other book on CRC, how much do you know about him off the top of your head? Let’s go with what’s generally known (and, sadly, about the sum total of my knowledge retention pre-CCAA): Australia’s highest scoring ace; flew Tomahawks and Kittyhawks in North Africa; had the nickname ‘Killer’; developed shadow-shooting; flew a Spitfire with CR-C as squadron codes; and was part of the infamous ‘Morotai Mutiny’. Not a lot there but, at the same time, there is if you screw down into each statement. However, up until CCAA no one bothered to get into the gritty detail and the majority of written work on this remarkable man was limited to rather generalist articles. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.

In 2002, Kristen Alexander and her husband purchased at auction some papers that had belonged to Clive Caldwell. Their original intention had been to sell them on but Kristen sat down and read the letters and became enthralled with the “vibrancy of writing, the immediacy of action and the almost breathless thrill of an operation, written as they were so soon after the actual incidents.” She was hooked and used the documents as the basis for a presentation to her local branch of the Military Historical Society of Australia. This she did to some acclaim including comments about there being a “book in there”. With further research and support from Mrs Caldwell herself and former colleagues of Caldwell’s - such as fellow ace, desert veteran and fighter leader Bobby Gibbes – Kristen’s first book became a reality.

Clive Caldwell the man challenges the reader within the first few pages of the book. While there is no reference to him doing so, he advocated shooting downed enemy airmen in their parachutes. Now, this is something we usually associate with those dastardly Germans and barbaric Japanese (stereotypes intended) and not ‘our’ boys. But, this was Clive Caldwell and was part of the reason for his public, but personally disliked, nickname (he had also witnessed a close friend meet that fate ... see, you can’t jump to conclusions with this man). Older than other pilots during training and squadron life, Caldwell was the loner with a job to do. After a patrol he invariably flew home at low-level looking for ground targets. He was always on the hunt and, to some extent, alienated himself from his fellow 250 Squadron pilots. Always looking for ways to improve his natural fighting ability, Caldwell discovered he could practice deflection shooting (aiming for where the enemy would be) by shooting for his aircraft’s shadow on the desert floor. What became a widely-accepted training method was just one of the many skills that saw Caldwell grow into a leader. His initiative, experience and, of course, survival led to an ever-increasing score and desire to pass on what he had learned the hard way. He was often accused of regular, glorious ‘line-shooting’ in the Mess but he saw few other ways to pass on his experience. Command of the legendary 112 Squadron and pioneering another seminal desert development – the Kittybomber – precedes War Bond and flying tours of the US before an eventual return to an Australia that, well, lauds him while at the same time trying to cut his legs out from under him.

I’ve come across a few circumstances of senior Australian airmen returning home from Europe only to discover incompetence and jealousy from staff officers senior to them. Caldwell experienced some of this on his return but was back in the thick of it in command of The Spitfire Wing in Darwin after a very short stint instructing. The Australian government had been screaming out for Spitfires to defend the top end. When they finally did arrive, there was little support and ground crews had to make do. With Caldwell in command and adding to his personal score, the Spitfire defence was effective but, because of the high profile, very open to criticism if there was a sniff of a failure. Raid 54 on Darwin, the day the Spitfires ‘all fell into the sea’, is the perfect example. What became a very difficult tactical situation was exacerbated by General MacArthur’s Melbourne headquarters releasing a communiqué after the fact blaming a non-existent weather factor and poor strategy. This was latched onto by all and sundry during the war and since and, unfairly, heaped blame on Caldwell. The resulting analysis of the events and actual truth is a masterpiece of research and interpretation.

The Americans had a further hand in Caldwell’s war when General Kenney, and a complicit Australian government, side-lined the Spitfires of 80 Fighter Wing when based on Morotai. After a proper stint instructing, Caldwell had taken command of the Wing but had little to do. The move to Morotai suggested more worthwhile duties but it brought a whole lot of additional problems. The Spitfires continued to struggle for parts and basic supplies to keep a squadron running and quartered were hard to come by. Warned of the RAAF’s inability to meet the demand, Caldwell was advised to acquire a stock of liquor for trading with the well-supplied Americans. Let down by hierarchy, Caldwell’s hand was forced in order to keep his Wing at readiness and the morale of his men high. This same hierarchy then charged Caldwell with illegal liquor trading and the subsequent inquiry rolled into a ball the issues surrounding Caldwell’s involvement in the co-ordinated resignation of senior front-line RAAF officers protesting over the lack of worthwhile assignments.

The terms of reference and proceedings of The Barry Inquiry are very well handled by the author and lose none of their impact despite being made easy to read and understand. One might think of the subject as dry but having followed Caldwell this far, you’ll want to see him come out the other side. As suggested above, a more comprehensive study of the man has not been attempted and, it can be argued, might as well not be. Everything, it seems, is here. The writing is honest, to the point and without pretension – the perfect reflection of Caldwell’s character. Numerous direct quotes are used but these fit seamlessly into the main body of text. I found the style a tiny bit clunky at first but, as Kristen must have as she wrote, I found my feet and sailed through the text. By the way, she writes like a girl. Funny I should say this, you ask? Well, yes and no. Who else would have bothered to provide well-written details of Jean Caldwell’s wedding attire? This level of detail is also evident throughout with the copious annotations and extensive bibliography. This style developed by Kristen works well so it will be good to see her let it loose on a lesser-known RAAF personality in the future.

Clive Caldwell deserves to be regarded and recognised alongside other Australian aviation greats such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Bert Hinkler and the Reverend John Flynn. To the greater Australian public, I don’t think he is but this book can certainly change that. Here we have a comprehensive biography written by an expert researcher with an eye for detail and the ability to keep things simple and enjoyable.

...A good, solid paperback of more than 300 pages, there are three photo sections which ably illustrate Caldwell's entire life including post-war which many biographies seem to peter out on. Wait till you see the endnotes and bibliography!

Selected review extracts: Clive Caldwell Air Ace

  • ‘When [Clive Caldwell] died in Sydney in August 1994, the tributes poured in, but only now do we have one worthy of the man.’ Barry Oakley, The Australian(http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/clive-caldwell-air-ace/story-e6frg8...)

  • Clive Caldwell Air Ace is a thoroughly researched, well written and insightful account that will stand the test of time as the definitive Caldwell biography.’ Mike Nelmes, Wartime

  • ‘It will be the standard biography of Caldwell for some considerable time and is highly recommended.’ Ric Pelvin, Sabretache

  • ‘This book is highly detailed, draws on all available references and was compiled with the blessing and assistance of Caldwell’s family…The book pulls no punches and is very well written.’ Mark Lax, Defender

  • ‘Kristen Alexander has written a magnificent book about this enigmatic man...the definitive book on a man who loved his country and flew with a passion.’ Lt Cameron Jameson, The Soldiers’ Newspaper

  • ‘[This] is a well-rounded and often very detailed look at Caldwell’s life, career and problems with officialdom. This is reflected in the substantial part of the book dealing with Caldwell’s late-war troubles—the so-called ‘Morotai Mutiny’, his liquor-running activities and the resulting Barry Inquiry and court-martial. This is dealt with in detail and is surely the final word on the subject. Overall, it’s well-researched, readable, well-structured and interesting with appendices and a good selection of photographs.’ Aero Australia

  • ‘Kristen Alexander’s excellent Clive Caldwell Air Ace is...a fitting testimony to the man, his machines and his times. Read it!’ J. H. Farrell, Australian & NZ Defender



  • Jack Davenport Book Launch
    Jack Davenport Book Launch
  • Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader
    Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader
    (Allen & Unwin 2009)

Aircrew Book Review 8 September 2009 by Andy Wright

(Thanks to Andy Wright of Aircrew Book Review http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/ for permission to post the full text of his review)

If you ever get into collecting sooner or later you’ll end up with favourite works or examples of a genre. My book collection, while not layered with rare first editions, extends beyond aviation. Naturally I have my favourite fiction authors and avidly await their next instalments. Looking over my shelves as I type this I can see numerous books by Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Jack Du Brul, Alexander Fullerton, Patrick O’Brian, Douglas Reeman, Patrick Robinson etc etc. My wife, a much faster reader than me, is building her numbers of Kathy Reichs, Di Morrissey and Jodi Picoult, among others. The same applies to our non-fiction titles, namely the aviation ones. Over the years, I’ve developed small piles of Brian Cull, Steve Darlow, Lex McAulay and Mark Lax to name a few and am always excited to hear of new titles being published. To this list of favourite authors I can now add Kristen Alexander. With the release of her second book, Jack Davenport, Beaufighter Leader, Kristen has firmly established herself as a quality writer shedding new light on the exploits of Australian wartime airmen.

Jack Davenport had a childhood in country and metropolitan New South Wales that is largely familiar to the men who fought in the Second World War. Living through the Depression, the Davenport family was perhaps more unfortunate financially than the norm with bailiffs making their entrance on more than one occasion and numerous changes of address before things began to settle down in the second half of the 1930s. A natural athlete and a good student through sheer determination, Jack’s leadership ability begins to appear when he is made class prefect. His ambition and application sees steady progress within the ranks of the Commonwealth Bank and he readily accepts additional responsibility while in the militia. Joining the RAAF, he is initially mustered as an observer but is told if he does well he will be reassigned for pilot training. The Davenport determination steps in once again and Jack graduates first in his course … and then goes flying.

Now, you’d assume any young bloke learning to fly would want to progress to fighters right? Perhaps, but not Jack. Modestly claiming he ‘scraped’ through Tiger Moths with a first-in-class pass of 88 per cent, Jack is chasing a challenge and succeeds in being assigned to multi-engined training. Being responsible for other people beyond himself appeals to Jack and this theme, which first appeared at school, continues throughout the book. There is a reason why ‘Leader’ is mentioned in the title!

Anyway, training on Ansons in Canada follows where Jack is again recognised for his leadership abilities and also begins his passion for helping the community. Arriving in England and making the most of the requisite stay in Bournemouth, Jack is posted to 14 OTU for conversion to Hampdens. A woefully inadequate aircraft for bombing mainland Europe, the Hampden was filling the gaps in Bomber Command while the squadrons waited for large numbers of the new heavies – Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. Inadequate as she may have been, there wasn’t time to wait for something better. Besides, Jack was one of many fine men who flew her and was able to get the best out of the Hampden. With less than 19 hours on type – and an almost fatal spin in which Jack ordered the crew to bale out but stayed with the aircraft when he realised his navigator had not heard the message – Jack and his crew are assigned to 455 Squadron RAAF.

Jack’s beginnings with Bomber Command are not the greatest but the ‘sprog’ pilot with the ‘sprog’ crew soon gains in confidence and experience and his skill as a pilot is evident. After several ‘shaky dos’ they are perhaps lucky when 455 Squadron is transferred to Coastal Command – lucky in terms of the enforced rest and removal from the Ruhr’s defences as opposed to a lucky transfer. What lies ahead for Jack and his colleagues is torpedo training and the risky operations any torpedo crew will of course face. 455 doesn’t have long to perfect its new-found abilities before it, in conjunction with 144 Squadron RAF, is ordered to Russia to help defend the Arctic convoys. Now a senior pilot with the squadron, Jack’s experiences traveling to, and serving in, Russia are eye-opening and a very valuable record. While not much was achieved militarily, these flights to Russia will forever be remembered.

Returning from Russia in January 1943, Jack meets his future wife which adds another ‘angle’ to the unfolding story. Flying continues with Jack leading detachments and commanding the squadron as needed (getting a taste for command while the current CO is hospitalised). In a very short time, he had come a long way. With the loss of close friends and because of his senior position, Jack struggles to write letters to the next-of-kin. He feels the loss of his friends and colleagues keenly and, through happy (for want of a better word) circumstance, is able to commemorate those lost with a moving ceremony at the Dundee War Memorial – a ceremony that is still fondly remembered. This is a most moving part of the book and the culmination of a chapter that analyses Jack’s growth as a leader.

Tour-expired, Jack instructs at 1 Torpedo Training Unit where he has an instrumental effect on lowering the accident rate – another example of him taking an innate interest in the men under his command. Now Acting Squadron Leader Jack Davenport DFC, and with more time on his hands, his romantic life comes to the fore and his relationship with one Sheila McDavid grows ever stronger. A proposal is accepted and arrangements made. A posting to command 455 Squadron arrives and the Beaufighter makes its entrance en force.

You get the feeling Jack’s first tour is almost ‘marking time’. It is the foundation for which everything is built on and pales in comparison to what is accomplished during Jack’s second tour – even with the trip to Russia. Rated as exceptional by 1TTU and at just 23 taking command of 455, Jack, like his beloved squadron, comes of age. Re-equipping with Beaufighters, the squadron is a mix of experienced anti-shipping types (particularly the two excellent flight commanders Lloyd Wiggins and Colin Milson) and new boys but Jack and his flight commanders work hard to instill discipline and professionalism into the crews and, in the end, this pays off with the Leuchars Strike Wing (455 with 489 Sqn RNZAF) earning an enviable reputation among the labyrinthine Norwegian fjords. Never one to rest on his laurels, Jack, while bedding in the ‘new’ 455, marries Sheila. This is where the author’s writing shines. She gives the wedding ceremony and anecdotes from the honeymoon (low-flying mice on nuisance raids) as much importance as Jack’s military achievements. This firmly rounds out the understanding of the man, his life and character.

With 455 operational again, the Beaufighter crews waste no time getting among the enemy shipping. The attacks are well documented and largely successful although not without some controversy which is well-handled by the author (friendly fire). Importantly, Jack’s role in the development of rocket attack tactics against surface vessels is well-documented. Really, a better pilot could not have been chosen – the consummate professional always keen to improve his already considerable abilities. As always during this frenetic time (before and after the invasion of Europe), Jack is close to his crews and well respected in return. The inevitable losses are moving and Jack’s efforts to rescue a colleague and subsequently earn the George Medal are told with typical detail and just a hint of modesty – a reflection of the man himself.

The ace ship-buster’s success and influence on anti-shipping tactics led to a role as operations planner for the Group, a role he took on with typical dedication and care for those he was sending into the cauldron. War’s end sees his eventual return to Australia where the now young family settled and Jack began his work in industry. Applying the same drive and ability as he had shown in the service, Jack became one of Australia’s most respected business leaders – his achievements in industry perhaps only equaled by his commitment to his family and the greater community. His passing left a void that could never really be filled. He was mourned by several generations of Australians many of whom had the privilege of knowing a truly great man.

I mentioned in the review for Kristen’s first book, Clive Caldwell, Air Ace, that the author had developed a style capable of providing immense detail in a very readable way. I also commented how well I thought this style could be applied to a lesser-known personality. Happily, my guess was correct. This book is so easy to read - devour - and yet, as you can see from the ‘summary’ above, there is so much going on and so much to get across that it could easily have come off the rails. That it didn’t is testament to Kristen’s ability to keep a tight rein on everything – operations, Jack’s character, romance, the context of the conflict. Despite one technical detail hiccup, the writing is precise and Kristen has certainly found a style that not only conveys her research (again, great endnotes and variety of sources) but also makes it easy for a wider audience to be drawn into the world of Jack Davenport.

This book will appeal to aviation historians and enthusiasts keen to learn about 455 Squadron, its members and the Davenport family (Jack had two brothers who also flew … there’s a story in itself) as much as it will attract a more general audience of readers looking for a bit of realistic adventure. With an excellent cover typical of A&U (how often do you see a Hampden on the cover?) and three sections of brilliant photos this is a well-presented book and the perfect way to honour one of our great leaders...Do yourself a favour and invest in a copy. You will not be disappointed.

Selected review extracts: Jack Davenport Beaufighter Leader

  • ‘[Kristen Alexander] writes with empathy and understanding, in crisp prose, building a sense of awe for her subject. She also has real understanding for the technical details...A considerable achievement.’ Michael McKernan, The Canberra Times

  • ‘A fascinating story...A terrific read.’ John Caples, Launceston Examiner

  • ‘Kristen Alexander has brought to her work the same thorough research and storytelling skills so evident in her previous success, Clive Caldwell Air Ace, and has achieved an equally impressive result. With sensitivity and insight she has made available to all the story of a truly great Australian.’ Wings

  • ‘A very readable life.’ David Whittingham, Sunday Tasmanian

  • ‘Kristen Alexander has excelled herself. I thought her biography of Group Captain Clive Caldwell was outstanding and could not be bettered. I was wrong. This is one of the best biographies I have ever read. The style is engaging for a start and makes Jack Davenport appear to the reader just as engaging a person as he really was in life. One is most impressed though by the extent of Kristen’s research and the wealth of detail she has uncovered.’ Brigadier Philip Carey AM RFD ED (Retd), Reconnaissance

  • ‘A good, solid well-researched and well-written biography....’ Aero Australia

  • ‘Following her well-received 2006 biography of RAAF ace Clive Caldwell, Alexander has turned her attention to the life of another courageous and inspiring pilot of World War II...Blending sound research and enlightening anecdotes, the author explores the personal qualities that underpinned Davenport’s leadership.’ Chief of Air Force’s Reading List 2010

 



  • Australian Eagles and the Battle of Britain
    Australian Eagles and the Battle of Britain
    Barrallier Books 2013

Australian Eagles was shortlisted in the non-fiction category of the 2014 ACT Writing and Publishing Awards.

Judges Notes: Highly Commended. Kristen Alexander writes extremely well and her experience in writing about aviation history is evident in her confident handling of the material. Her thorough research provides detailed and poignant portraits of six Australian pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. One of the strengths of the book is the commitment to telling the personal stories of the men, and not simply the details and technicality of their missions, through the inclusion of many excerpts from the diaries of the pilots themselves, accounts of the pilots’ personal relationships, as well as the struggle for those who wait at home. Beautifully presented, with very good layout and clear well produced photographs, especially considering that some of them are quite old.

Australian Pilot, Volume 67, No. 1, February-March 2014. Ain't no chick flick. By Kathy Mexted

Not a review but an article about me. Talks about how I got into aviation writing and tells the story behind one of the stories that will be included in Australia's Few and the Battle of Britain (NewSouth September 2014). Also says some good things about Australian Eagles. 

Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Volume 99, Part 2, December 2013. By Group Captain Doug Roser

Australian Eagles is a particularly well-researched book which tells the stories of six pilots who served in the Battle of Britain – five Australians and one British RAF officer who retired in Australia but maintained his passion for flying and the commemoration of the Battle of Britain. ...

Like many of my generation I have been reading books and material on World War II, including the Battle of Britain, since I was very young and before I joined the RAAF as an apprentice. I also served in the RAF on exchange and participated in the Battle of Britain commemoration ceremonies in England. ...

Against this background I was most surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, as its scope is relatively narrow in that its focus is the stories of six pilots. Kristen Alexander’s research, her understanding and presentation of the strategic issues embedded in the battle and the sensitivity in presenting the personal stories of the pilot make the book an engrossing and, being only 187 pages, a very easy read. It has left a lasting impression on me.

While the scope is narrow it does provide the deepest possible insight into the type of young men who volunteered to serve so readily in World War II and who, in the process, had to transfer to the RAF to serve in Britain. It not only covers the areas in which they lived, their schools, their early careers but also shares with the reader the pride of the families in these young men as well as the grief when they were lost.

The maps and general illustrations add much to the book but the photos of the young men in the service and with their families are treasures and add so much to the stories. Alexander has also captured the actual passion they had for flying and also describes accurately the environment in which the Battle of Britain was fought, the overall strategies of both sides as well as the tactics used by the fighter pilots.

Of particular interest to me also is the way in which the author researched and presented the training environment for these young men as well as the camaraderie of service life and the teamwork and mateship which is so fundamental to any military operations. It is extremely well researched and presented in a most readable style which is often not the case with books on the history of military operations. It is very accurate, readers will live with the pilots whose stories are told and will appreciate the courage with which they faced their most daunting challenges. ...

 

Australian Defence Force Journal No. 192, 2013 by Dr Mark Lax

‘I have a knack of getting into and out of trouble’. So wrote Desmond Sheen in a letter to his parents after his second successful bale-out of a damaged Spitfire in 1940. Sheen was an Australian fighter pilot who flew in the Battle of Britain and was one of the survivors. He later recalled he had about 700 hours in fighters but only 20 minutes he would never forget. This was a common theme.

Each year on ‘Battle of Britain Day’, on the weekend closest to 15 September, veterans and representatives of today’s RAAF, and their families, gather in Hobart to commemorate the sacrifice of ‘the Few’ in the Battle of Britain. There is also a service at the Australian War Memorial. But why do we still remember a distant air battle with such devotion and ceremony?

Officially, 2949 pilots from Britain, the Commonwealth and other allied nations flew in the Battle of Britain, with 544 being killed. However, less than 40 Australians fought in the battle, 13 of whom were killed. Compared to the Australian contribution to the land campaigns in North Africa and Southeast Asia, and the efforts of the men of Bomber Command, such ceremony seems hardly relevant.

Perhaps it is the connection many Australian still feel to the ‘Mother Country’ and how we rose to her defence in her ‘darkest hour’. Perhaps it is the Australian characteristic of cheering for the underdog which appeals—or our respect for the hero who overcomes impossible odds. Maybe it was because the battle was the first time in history that the outcome depended solely on air power. Whatever the reason, those heroes of ‘the Few’ remain in our collective consciousness and we still remember them.

Australian Eagles: Australians in the Battle of Britain by Canberra author Kristen Alexander provides a further clue. The book is a biographical collection covering the lives of six Australian pilots who fought in the battle. Through these vignettes, we come to realise these young men were just like the many others who rose to the call. Their stories contain all the excitement, the expectations and fears held by that generation as they went off to a distant war. Through this book, they are portrayed as very human, not poster boys—they are just like today’s young men and women who go off to a distant war.

This book is Kristen Alexander’s third foray into airmen biography and Australian Eagles follows her books on RAAF World War 2 airmen Clive Caldwell and Jack Davenport. Both previous publications were well received and Australian Eagles should be likewise. Alexander’s sometimes forensic detail about her subjects allows the reader to fly with them in life and, in some cases, follow them down to their death. The book is well researched and a moving tribute to a few of ‘the Few’ and I thought was pitched at the right level and tone. Each is a very human story and often quite emotional. You cannot help be touched by the sense of loss felt by each family when told their loved one would not be coming home.

Each of the six has their story told using official records, personal documents and letters, and family interviews. Importantly for the stories, Alexander has taken great pains to trace the aftermath of the loss of four of the men and, in so doing, brought out the human tragedy of a wasted youth. I found John Crossman’s story particularly moving as Alexander describes the family reaction to his death and the drawn-out aftermath, not just with grief, but with the need to clear John’s debts with the RAF before personal items could be returned. In Crossman’s case, this took some time but, today, visits continue each year to his grave in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire.

Apart from Dennis Newton’s A Few of ‘the Few’ published in 1990 and released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the battle, very little has been written specifically about Australians in the battle. Kristen Alexander’s Australian Eagles is thus a fresh reminder of their service and sacrifice and adds to the rich biography we have of Australian military airmen.

Why do we still remember the Battle of Britain? Perhaps the best answer was given by Des Sheen, another of Alexander’s ‘Eagles’, so many years ago when he said: ‘It is not enough to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. We must honour its obligations, particularly to the airmen who won this and other battles leading to victory’. I am sure he was right.

For those interested in RAAF history and the Battle of Britain, this book is not only well written and a great read, it is a must. Highly recommended.

 

*****

 

Wartime Issue 64, Spring 2013 by Michael Nelmes

The new Battle of Britain London Monument records in bronze 32 Australian airmen; in Australia, an additional three are officially recognised as participants in the battle. Ten were killed in action. This latest work from Kristen Alexander tells the stories of five of these flyers and one ‘adopted’ Australian. Four of them, Jack Kennedy of Sydney, Stuart Walch of Hobart, Dick Glyde DFC of Perth and John Crossman of Newcastle, died in the battle. The two who survived – Des Sheen DFC and Bar and the recently deceased Englishman James Coward, who lost a leg in the battle – lived in Canberra, where the battle is annually commemorated in a ceremony at the Australian War Memorial.

The Battle of Britain itself needs little introduction, except perhaps to note Winston Churchill’s assertion that “the survival of Christian civilisation” depended upon its outcome. Were it not for ‘the few’ Royal Air Force fighter pilots sent up against the onslaught of German air attacks through the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain may well have fallen. ...

Alexander has chosen some lesser-known pilots; the biographies are brief, reworked from [her previously published articles]. But in a short 25 pages or so for each, she has achieved a good balance of personal background, historical context and the post-war lives of the men, focusing on each man’s part in the battle. Wartime letters and other family records, supported by interviews with family members and with James Coward, form the basis of the personal side of the stories. The photographs are well-chosen and include images of some poignant artefacts: the ripcord handles from the two parachutes which saved Sheen’s life, and his bullet-holed leather earphone cover, to name a couple.

As former Chief of Air Force Air Marshal David Evans AC DSO AFC RAAF (Retired) wrote in his foreword, this book offers an insight into the “insouciant attitude of a few Australian pilots and…the true meaning of the word hero” during what was both a desperate few months and a turning point in the war.

*****

Aviation Historical Society's September newsletter (Volume 29, No 3)

This book tells the story of six Australians who flew in the Battle of Britain. None of the six airmen, Jack Kennedy, Stuart Walch, Dick Glyde, DFC, John Crossman, Des-mond Sheen, DFC and Bar, and James Coward, are household names but they were just six of "The Few". The book is well researched and illustrated and gives a very good insight to the short lives of the four that did not survive the battle.

 

*****

Westweekend magazine of the West Australian on 10 August 2013 by Derry McCarthy

In a clear labour of love, Alexander has compiled biographies of six Australian airmen who took part in the Battle of Britain. Piloting Spitfires and Hurricanes, these dauntless youngsters took on the might of the German Luftwaffe after just a handful of flying lessons. Their often poignant histories—including that of Richard Glyde DFC, an alumnus of Perth’s Guildford Grammar School—describe how ordinary lads who loved flying became embroiled in the conflict. Alexander brings to life the stories of these heroes in a handsomely produced and generously illustrated volume.

*****

The Sunday Tasmanian on 4 August 2013 by Reg A Watson  

I first met the author, Kristen Alexander, at the unveiling of a plaque at Hutchins School to commemorate an old school boy, Stuart Crosby Walch.  Stuart was the only Tasmanian to be killed in the Battle of Britain.  With the annual ceremonies looming for that historic event mid September, the release of Australian Eagles is timely.

Kristen has listed and written on six Australians, they being Jack Kennedy, Dick Glyde DFC, John Crossman, Desmond Sheen DFC and Bar, James Coward and our own Stuart Walch.  The author is the Australian representative for the Battle of Britain Historical Society. The Battle was fought over the skies of England in the summer and autumn of 1940. Those pilots who participated were called by Winston Churchill “The Few”. Out of the 2940 who fought, 36 were Australians. Of Fighter Command, 544 airmen were killed, among them were thirteen Australians.

The chapter on Stuart Crosby Walch is number two of six. Walch was born 16th February 1917 in Hobart. He was of the prominent business family of the city. Outstanding at sport he was a well known figure around town in the mid 1930s and joined the RAAF early in 1936 and sailed to England to further his flying career. He was there when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain advised that “this country (England) is at war with Germany”. Stuart would never see Tasmania again.  Later he was posted to 238 Squadron based at Tangmeere as Flight Commander. It was in July 1940 that Stuart saw his first action. Flying a Hurricane fighter he began to get credited with kills (downing of enemy craft).  Within three months of joining 238, the 23 year old, became known as being the “father” of his squadron and took on the most dangerous jobs himself.  On the 11 August 1940 with Stuart leading the squadron, he encountered an enemy force of more than 150 aircraft.  It was his 55th sortie. Undaunted by the overwhelming numbers they met the onslaught, but he and his section leader plummeted into the waters five or so miles south of Swanage.  He had accounted for two destroyed enemy aircraft, two shared destroyed, one unconfirmed shared destroyed and one damaged.  The lost of the young Tasmanian, naturally, was devastating for his family.

Like all airmen his name is recorded on the Air Force memorial at Runnymede (England).  He is also remembered on The Hutchins School’s Second World War Roll in the Chapel of St Thomas.  On 21st September 2011 Hutchins was presented with a Battle of Britain Historical Society School Plaque to honour Stuart.  This was the first and to date, the only School Plaque presented in Australia.  Stuart’s status is being the only Tasmanian on the Battle of Britain Honour Roll in Westminster Abbey (London).

Kristen has produced a wonderful read.  It is an important book in that those six who served and died are now to be remembered more fully.  Tasmanians will be proud to know that one of our own paid the supreme sacrifice over the skies of Great Britain. Her research is good and her style is easily read.  Comes fully recommended.

 

*****

Sabretache. The Journal and Proceedings of the Military Historical Society of Australia Vol LIV No 2, June 2013 by Peter Ingman

Australian Eagles comprises the stories of six Australian fighter pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain. There are no lengthy dissertations on the rise of National Socialism or the design history of the Spitfire; Alexander gets straight down to business after a brief reminder of the importance of the Battle of Britain, including Churchill’s famous words, ‘Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation...’. So it was that an extraordinary weight was placed on the shoulders of ‘The Few’—generally young men barely out of school.

The Australian pilots in the Battle of Britain were indeed just a few (around 30—the number varies depending on your definition of ‘Australian’) among ‘The Few’. These men had joined the air force during peacetime so their stories immediately differ from the typical WWII pilot biography. Some trained at Point Cook but then joined the RAF in short service commissions—so there was a cadre of Australian fighter pilots flying years before the first fighter squadron would be formed in Australia.

This book is about the less celebrated pilots. ... Four of these pilots were killed in 1940, although there were still another five hard years of war ahead—five years of significant events that would further obscure this period. It is touching to see how these men are remembered today—particularly by their school communities, but also by others. Only the most passionate of researchers would explore these relatively brief stories to find something about the nature and character of these men—and Alexander does just that. Underlining these difficulties, there is an ‘interlude’ describing the dearth of records concerning one of the pilots, Dick Glyde, who is barely remembered in squadron records and even excluded from certain accounts.

Alexander has her own style as an aviation writer. She does not try and put the reader in the cockpit, nor are actions embellished with detail that can only have been assumed. This is a difficulty for aviation writers: often complex events are accounted for very tersely in squadron records or logbooks. It is easy, then, to borrow from the experiences of others and in doing so overshadow the primary character concerned. Alexander does not go down that path. In fact by focusing on some relatively brief careers she gives her subjects a certain humility—and as a result treats them with due reverence.

 

For this reason the book is in many ways a refreshing angle on this subject. It reminds us that there is more to fighter pilots than just their tally count. In particular, all of those who lost their lives leave behind a rich legacy in their communities and family which lives on to the present day.

 *****

Justin Sheedy on his Goodbye, Crackernight blog. 

http://crackernight.com/2013/07/08/australian-eagles-australians-in-the-battle-of-britain-by-kristen-alexander-reviewed-by-justin-sheedy/ 

Sometimes history doesn’t seem real.  Especially when it seems too dramatic, too tragic, too surreally heroic to be true.  In her latest book, ‘Australian Eagles – Australians in the Battle of Britain’, author Kristen Alexander renders such history quite arrestingly real through her accounts of the part played by young Australians in the making of that history.

The Battle of Britain of 1940 remains one of the most famous battles in history, to this day a perfect model of resistance of good against evil and victory against that evil despite staggeringly overwhelming odds.  In that dark year the air force of Nazi Germany, having just rolled up Western Europe, sought to knock out the by comparison tiny British Royal Air Force as a prelude to Nazi invasion of Britain.  The Germans thought they had won before they started.  The iconic battle that ensued proved them wrong.  Of the victorious defenders, Winston Churchill coined one of the most famous lines in the English language: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  ‘Australian Eagles’ is a portrait of six of the Australians within that now immortal “Few”.

Kristen Alexander portrays six shining young men.  Four of whom lost their young lives in the battle, a fifth losing a leg though continuing to fly until 90-something, the sixth remaining unscathed despite bailing out of his Spitfire in hot air combat no less than three times.  Shining young men?  It’s no exaggeration:  Alexander’s beautifully-researched account of each of them reveals the kind of exceptional personalities they were, often top-notch sportsmen as well, and all so very, very young:  Their photographs within the pages of ‘Australian Eagles’ attest to this and reveal fairly each of them as arrestingly handsome, usually with a brave new moustache – as if to mask the fact that they were just boys.  By portraying them as such and quite simply as they were, Kristen Alexander encourages us to feel their loss just as profoundly as it deserves to be.  To marvel at their selflessness, their courage, their dog-fighting brilliance and their contribution towards victory against one of the worst evils the world has ever known.  To remember them.

‘Australian Eagles’ in indeed a fitting testament to the young Australians who fought to win the Battle of Britain but most poignantly as they did it a whole world away from home.

*****

Aircrew Book Review's review by Andy Wright

http://aircrewbookreview.blogspot.com.au/2013/06/australian-eagles-kristen-alexander.html  

The Battle of Britain is where it all started for me. At the age of nine I borrowed a book on this most famous of aerial battles from the school library. The title and author are now forgotten but I do remember it was a large format book with good-sized colour profiles of some of the aircraft involved. I lapped up everything in what was my first detailed foray into WW2 aviation. Over the years, as I read widely, I became additionally enamoured with the American experience before concentrating on the RAF and Commonwealth air forces. Always preferring to discover and learn about the more obscure and forgotten, my reading gravitated to feeding a fascination for North Africa, the Mediterranean and Burma. It was almost like I had cut my teeth on the BoB, learned the true meaning of courage and moved on.

It’s always there though. All WW2 aviation-minded types at least know the basics – Spitfire, Hurricane, The Few etc. Indeed, some of the men involved – Bader, Dowding, Park – are still almost household names. Winston Churchill, the man who coined the famous phrase “The Few”, most certainly is. Such was the impact of their struggle against the odds that their achievements still resonate with astounding clarity.  This clarity will never fade due, in no small part, to the extensive research and writings published, almost constantly, since the RAF ‘victory’ in October 1940 and look set to continue for some time yet as new crash sites and documents are discovered.

The vast majority of the books written about Britain’s finest hour have, naturally, been campaign studies. Practically all angles have been considered but still new analyses, insight and material comes to light (and, in all honesty, it sells). There have been memoirs and biographies of course and several authors have concentrated on groups of pilots and their involvement in the battle. In many cases these men survived and were able to tell their story or, at least, left behind some sort of record beyond their entries in the Squadron Ops Book. What, then, of those lost? Are they to be consigned to a list of names on memorials, a headstone in a churchyard or a small plaque in a corner of the field in which they crashed? Of course not. Happily, someone always remembers and that name on the memorial will shine from having been touched reverently, the headstone will sit in a well-manicured lawn and that plaque will regularly receive visitors with fresh flowers and the time to reflect.  To many, though, the name is ‘just’ that of a Battle of Britain pilot who died saving the country, the Empire, from tyranny. What was he like? Why did he fly? Was he married?  Who and what did he love? Where did he come from?

Jack Kennedy. Stuart Walch. Dick Glyde. John Crossman. Desmond Sheen.  James Coward.  Battle of Britain pilots.  With the possible exception of Glyde, I knew for certain I had only read about Sheen and Coward.  I may have come across the others in one of the myriad of photos from the period – photos that give a little detail, list off the names of those identifiable and leave it at that.  They were just names.  Names remembered by some but collectively honoured whenever The Few were commemorated.  Besides their combined efforts in the BoB, these men had another thing in common – they were all Australian (Coward settled here post-war so his title is ‘honorary’).  However, we would not be talking about them at all if it were not for another common theme.  These six are the focus of the new Kristen Alexander book, Australian Eagles, Australians in the Battle of Britain.

The Few, as a collective group, will never be forgotten.  But for the writers and researchers, many of the individuals would be lost beyond their ‘sphere of influence’ (families, schools etc).  A few of The Few were Australians who grew up half a world away.  I am not a BoB ‘expert’ so please forgive the generalisations that follow.  The Australian BoB veterans are a bit of an enigma.  They were not a large group of men – a little over 30 in all and there is some conjecture as to the true figure – and they were mostly already serving RAF pilots when war broke out so there was no fanfare about them heading off to serve “King and Country”.  There has not been – other than the high profile individuals and mentions in ‘overview’ campaign works – any concerted effort to trace in detail the lives of these men.  With Australian Eagles this is no longer the case … and it is a portent of things to come.

The author had not set out to research the Battle of Britain and the Australians who fought in it but reading an HE Bates classic got her thinking – were there Australians involved and how could she honour them?  The resulting collection of magazine articles – the first results of in-depth research – has led to a major project still very much a work in process.  It is these articles, though, suitably edited and enhanced, that form the basis of Australian Eagles.

Previous works by the author have revealed a particularly detailed eye for the personal and this is very much evident in AE, especially so for those featured who did not survive the Battle.  Letters and, in some cases, diaries have been pored over and it is clear from each of the ‘biographies’ that there has been much reading between the lines.  The standard format of childhood, education, employment, learning to fly etc is, understandably, followed but as much attention is paid to the pre-service life of each man as it is to the ‘exciting’ stuff – their time as pilots.  This balance is of course not seen with Sheen or Coward as both survived the Battle (and the war).  Reflecting on their survival, the attention paid to the pre-war lives of the men who weren’t so lucky becomes all the more important.  Other than their families, where they are still mourned, who else will know why John Kennedy rarely smiled in photographs or that John Crossman’s first flight in his life was with Charles Kingsford Smith?  The result of such in-depth research and analysis, lovingly so in some respects, is an understanding beyond anything official records (and most books) will ever provide.  The reader is introduced to each of the men and develops an affinity with them – so much so that one can suddenly see behind the cocky grin and rakishly angled service cap.  The grey tones of the photographs are noticed less and less as you see the colour of their lives.

In the case of Dick Glyde, no other treatment could suffice.  It is fair to say that, other than what’s written in AE, no other study of his life exists.  His time in Belgium (pre-BoB) is a triumph for this book and its author and has to be read to be believed (and there’s a photo!).  Such was the lack of material that the author has included an interlude after Glyde’s biography briefly detailing the difficulties encountered in pulling his story together.  It is an insight into the dedication, tenacity and passion the author has brought to bear on the subject.  The life of Dick Glyde deserves nothing less.

Australian Eagles is a work of remembrance.  Bringing the forgotten to the fore, the book has one foot firmly planted in the past but, surprisingly, one also in the present.  These men aren’t as forgotten as I may have led you to believe.  There are several chapters in AE dedicated to the ongoing efforts to commemorate the Australian Battle of Britain veterans in a country whose focus is very much on the Pacific and, most recently, what was achieved and sacrificed by the crews of Bomber Command.  Indeed, each biography ends with how that particular pilot is honoured be it by a stained-glass window, a name on a memorial, a headstone in a churchyard or a plaque in a field.  Really, they will never be forgotten but they do need a bit of attention so they may be remembered by name as pilots of the Battle of Britain … as young men whose lives were more than just that.

This is a beautifully produced hard cover perfectly befitting the fine lives detailed within.  The paper is a high-quality stock that is only surpassed by the dust jacket.  Folded down to size from an unusually much larger sheet, it can only be described as luscious!  You’ll know what I mean when you see the book.  The text is clear and well-spaced and the photos are kept to a manageable size to maintain clarity and to fit in with the text where they are of most relevance.

It is a comfortable read of a little under 170 pages with the remaining 20 or so dedicated to a particularly comprehensive bibliography and, happily, something not always seen in books of this ilk – a good index.  For its size it is not super-cheap but the print version is limited to 500 signed and numbered copies and, as mentioned above, production standards are high.  Everything produced for the hard copy book is replicated in an easily accessible and affordable pdf e-book.  Either way, Australian Eagles will give you food for thought – who were the other Australians in the Battle of Britain?  Watch this space!

 

*****

On 6 June I was interviewed by Richard Stubbs of ABC 774. You can download the interview at:
http://blogs.abc.net.au/victoria/2013/06/australian-eagles-battle-of-bri...

Here are just a handful of the great things he had to say:

'Done herself proud'

'Investigative writing and also emotional writing'

'I found it terribly moving'

'Clearly you've done some research to make these people come alive again'

'A meticulous researcher and a very good writer'

'This is a wonderful book'

I am trying not to get a big head!

*****

 Flightpath Volume 24, Number 4 by Owen Zupp and reprinted in Wings, Winter 2013: 

They were known simply as “The Few”; the 3000 RAF fighter pilots that defended the UK through the Battle of Britain. These were essentially young men tasked with the greatest of responsibilities and the manner in which they rose to the occasion has become history. These men came from across the Commonwealth, including a small band of brothers from far-flung Australia. It is the story of six of these men—Jack Kennedy (Sydney), Stuart Walch (Hobart), Dick Glyde (Perth), John Crossman (Newcastle), Des Sheen (Canberra) and British-born James Coward, an “adopted” Australian—that Kristen Alexander has captured in her new book, “Australian Eagles”.

The history of “The Few” has been documented in word and film a number of times, but what Kristen’s book exudes is the human face. For ‘Australian Eagles’ steps back from the skies over Kent and traces these young pilots back to the schoolyards and sporting fields of their homes. Their deeds in the air made history, but it was their upbringing that made them the selfless men they grew into. Through family interviews and archives, the Australian “Few” come alive.

And yet in seeking out the personalities behind the service numbers, Kristen has also thoroughly researched the operational truths. From personnel files to squadron records and log books, the timeline of the battle is clearly established. This book is thoroughly researched on a number of levels and the role of each young man’s daily life is described to a backdrop of combat operations. There are dogfights and close calls, but there is also time for humour and reflection. These are young men caught in between their vitality and mortality. ‘Australian Eagles’ offers a wonderful blend of history and humanity.

In times of upheaval, the individuals are often lost in the enormity of the undertaking. So dedicated to the greater good that their own stories can slip between the deepening cracks of time. Thankfully, Kristen Alexander has taken the time to catch these six young lives and share them with us. To the boyish faces staring out from the photographs upon the page, Kristen’s words have breathed new life.

*****

 Air Marshal David Evans’s foreword for Australian Eagles:

Many books and essays have been written on that epic encounter, the Battle of Britain. In the vast majority of cases authors concentrate on the strategic and tactical manoeuvres that led to victory. At best one might be informed of a particularly courageous action at formation level but rarely, the bravery, the skill and determination of individual warriors in close combat with the enemy—those who actually achieved victory.

Kristen Alexander shuns the top level conduct of operations and takes the reader into the air with the young men pitting themselves and their aircraft against a well trained, experienced and numerically superior enemy. She reveals the true heroes of her story—a half dozen young pilots who lived from day to day; five Australian-born and one who chose Australia as his home after the war. Their life is perhaps encapsulated by Pilot Officer John Crossman, ‘should this last any time it seems unlikely that I will ever see home again’. John was shot down and killed on 30 September, 1940, aged 22.

Kristen’s book will cause the reader to reflect on the insouciant attitude of a few Australian pilots and to recall the true meaning of the word—hero.

Air Marshal David Evans AC DSO AFC RAAF (Ret.)