Sunday, 25 January 2009

Contrary En-djinns of war

Most of us can trace our existence back through time.

We may even come to know the strange vicissitudes, narrow escapes or long wanderings of our fore-fathers. If we are lucky they may relate something of their adventures to us.

That is, if they have not fallen in the former holocausts of war or suffered some tragic or premature fate. When that happens we have not just lost some enlightenment, we have lost our past.

Letting slip the dogs of war invites all sorts of consequences.

War is a particularly cruel sieve that scatters or sorts the genes from which we may derive.

My father was a pilot and intelligence officer in WW2 for 454 squadron and would not have been my father if he had not sidestepped an unfortunate fuel starvation fault in the Baltimore bomber. This was no random shrapnel event (one that he also survived) but a design fault that was only exposed in the necessary extreme manoevers of war. See: History.htm

So for me war, the architecture of war, the design of the engines of destruction, was personal before I became or could become a sentient being. It was going on when I was innocent. It goes on today…and for my name if not in my name.

What then of a design fault that condemned others to an early sudden death if they were brave, or left the survivors facing the charge of lack of moral fibre for excusing themselves from the fray when they knew the odds were so bad it was best to run and fight another day. This is not a cynicism about wartime exploits or a judgement on cowardice in the face of the enemy, but a warning against any overconfidence by the architects of war.

Now, I know the best equipped troops can come a cropper. I know that the new President’s new limousine, as fully armoured as it is, is vulnerable to a simple disc of copper in an improvised explosive.

Google: …concave copper armour pierce Obama….

No one is safe from ‘the dog-whip’s reach’ now. And we all have microwave ovens which can easily be modified to take out our neighbour’s if we have that intent.

But I also know that we (and the children we might have had) can be wiped from the ledgers of life by the stroke of a designers pen, with a complete absence of intent on their part. More so in the scrabble of total war when an unfortunate design oversight can be made unnecessary by a simple improvement in technology by the enemy.

All the more reason for intelligent design, anticipating your enemy, or outwitting him, rather than a negative cynicism.
Even Diogenes carried a big stick for when argument or example failed. But neither might have been enough if his enemies were more determined than him.

Then anything, any means, becomes a device, a design, a construction erected in our name. Otherwise there might be no one to erect anything in our memory.

I have just been reading the papers of a recently deceased uncle, an ex-Halton boy who joined the RAF in the days of string-bag aircraft and worked as an engineer on radial engines, then the Vulcan bomber and the Concorde, seeing the best of design and at least hearing about some of the worst designs that cost many lives.

Also he was stationed with some of our then 40 national nuclear strike Vulcan aircraft, assisting the crews who were in their cockpits at one point (on October the 27th, 1962). They were on 15 minute standby for a whole weekend waiting to see if they were required to unleash nuclear bombs at the heart of the Soviet Union. This has only recently become public knowledge.

That would have cost many lives more than the assassination of a President or the engineering faults of a few aircraft.

He was a patriot who nevertheless passed another story down to me, about the WW2 “Brewster Buffalo” aircraft.

Here are a few excerpts from a book he mentioned:

A Captain Phillip R White said in the book ” that any commander who orders pilots out for combat in a Brewster should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground”….

…it seems the Americans had made the awful mistake of believing their own PR…. Aided no doubt by early models, one ton lighter having some success with the Finnish Air Force against enemy biplanes.

In comparing the ‘Brewster Buffalo’ to its then Japanese opponent, the Mitsubishi Zero, ….the Brewster was a big barge, full of armour plate but with rotten little guns; while the Zero was extremely light, with fantastic range, and two big cannons firing explosive shells. A Zero could out turn a Brewster without even trying….

As if that wasn’t enough, there were reports of sabotage in the American factory…drilling holes in a life saving arrester hook to weaken it. One flight of three buffaloes intercepted some bombers only to find that out of their combined total of twelve guns only one was working. In three months 154 Buffaloes were destroyed by Japanese enemy action, one entire squadron was wiped out to a man. Only one Buffalo survived the fall of Singapore.

The above was published in a book “ the World’s Worst Aircraft” found in Nelson Public Library, New Zealand, but my late uncle appended this note which as far as I know has never been published about a Far East incident regarding the 27th Squadron.

…”21 Squadron RAAF were with them and were supposed to be an escort for 27 on the way out to their target and to rendevous half way on 27’s return from their mission. On the last 27 mission there was no escort awaiting them at the halfway mark and when they got back to Sungi Patani airfield they found the base deserted with Buffaloes all over the place and fuel tankers belching out fuel unattended, the stores ransacked and all the Aussies vanished off the base.
The only ‘erks’ or ground staff were 27’s and they were stationed on the opposite side of the airfield to 21 Squadron. Apparently there was a fifth column report that the ‘Japs’ were five miles away in the rubber advancing and the Aussies just up and skidaddled leaving 27 to cope with the situation. …but there is no doubt that they had to fly with an aircraft which they knew was useless against the ‘Japs’ who bombed Singapore from 27,000 feet and the Buffaloes could only reach 17,000 feet . Not that they could have done much good against the Zero escorts”.

From the book again, “one pilot , ‘Pappy’ Boyington, speaking from a mess bar that was understandably riddled with machine gun bullet holes, was told as a newcomer that “Long before the RAF gets around to announcing an alert, you will see two Brewster Buffaloes take off in a Westerly direction regardless of the wind sock. That’s the signal”, he was told, The Japanese were flying in from the East.”

So much for distant events.

Also passed down to me, this time, from my Grandfather, I have a rare Tissot gold hunter stopwatch that he had been given to him by a wartime ‘test’ pilot, Walter Handley.

They flew together as civilians before the war. Walter was a famous TT rider, motor-car racer and a test pilot. Once in practice he found himself going in the wrong direction but often won races and once managed to set the fastest lap record.

He broke every bone in his body apparently and was helped by my Grandfather from time to time according to family testimony. He would have been an unfortunate choice of pilot if the aircraft he flew failed on him, being a celebrity much admired by his peers. This is exactly what happened

He died flying an RAF Bell P-39 Airacobra in Scotland in 1941. Whilst later models had some success, apparently RAF fighter pilots soon dismissed the heavy fighter as a “widowmaker” and simply refused to fly it. Internet forums have noticed USAF pilots in the Pacific joking saying “they would have preferred to fly trucks, as they had “better speed and a higher service ceiling”.

It was mid-engined and with a propshaft leading forward to the propeller, accidents were best avoided. I am a veteran of a propshaft failing beneath my feet and the complex mathematics of physical force usually prevails over the supposed easy arithmetic of flight.

But for me, the architecture of war, even the failure or near failure of the design of the engines of war has touched my life in benevolent ways. But not for the millions who have died. Some unnecessarily.

And we are right to be cynical if it will save lives.

It is all about the survival of the fittest normally. Normally those with the most flexibility are those who will prevail.
But that flexibility must also allow for cynicism, dissent, and insisting on safety. It is not all about Heros and Zeros.

I am grateful that my father survived the design flaw of the Baltimore. Because he survived and reported the fuel starvation in a particular manoever, others lives were probably saved. Walter Handley’s sacrifice early on probably saved many more lives. But war insists on sacrifice, and
The organisation of war does not allow for pilots to refuse to fly, for a squadron to run away or to fly in the opposite direction when ordered to engage an enemy. Yet it happens.

Much truth is lost in war, morale has to be kept up, Defeatism has to be kept in check. I hope this account some 60 years after events, offers some hope that lives will today not be wasted at either end of the barrel of a gun, and that other methods are employed so that some good might prevail. We should learn from history that the only ‘sin’ is unnecessary cruelty. Lest We Forget.

Otherwise we might all become cynics. And then we could not prevail. We might as well hole up in a barrel complaining about people stealing our light.

And the inspiration for this piece:

Books, like men, have their fates. Some meet solitary and tragic ends, some fall in holocausts; and some, after strange vicissitudes, narrow escapes, and long wandering, find peaceful asylums where, nursing their scars and mellowed by experience, they will relate something of their adventures to the curious.

James Westfall Thompson,
The Medieval Library.

1 comment:

The Preacherman said...

Too many have forgotten - or have not cared to remember.

Interesting history of some aircraft I thought I knew but obviously didn't. Thank you.