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To War in a Stringbag Paperback – May, 1980
All Books, All the Time
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If you are interested in WWII history and in particular the role of the RAF,this is a book for you.
A tremendously maneuverable aircraft that was difficult to stall, the Swordfish was the only British aircraft that was flying at the outbreak of the war and still flying against the enemy in 1945. It had a stalling speed of 55 knots and could out maneuver but not outrun virtually every airplane in the sky and for good reason; it was a biplane. In many ways the Stringbag as it was also called was an obsolescent aircraft. It was very slow and poorly armed; equipped only with World War I era forward firing Vickers gun and a rear cockpit mounted Lewis gun fired by the air gunner or the observer. It had to rely on deft maneuvers, nighttime operation, and secrecy to survive against much more modern aircraft. It had an open cockpit (brutal when operating for instance in the North Sea), didn't have radar, and lacked a sensitive altimeter (at least in the beginning of the war), a crucial bit of equipment as the rather temperamental torpedoes had to be dropped from a height of 60 feet, no more and no less. Aircraft to ship communications were difficult - when they weren't blacked out due to the security concerns - so the possibility of not finding the carrier upon completion of a mission was a real possibility (and one that occurred several times).
Despites its shortcomings the Swordfish played an impressive role in World War II. Lamb provided a riveting (thought at times strangely humble and sometimes even understated) account of his actions in the war as a Swordfish pilot. He was there from the very beginning of the war, his 815 Squadron's history a "constant repetition of involvement in campaigns which ended in German victory" despite heroic efforts to the contrary; he saw some dark days indeed when days into the war his carrier the _HMS Courageous_ was sunk by a U-boat, laid mines off the German coast, attempted to stem the advance of Germany into the Netherlands, flew over Dunkirk to provide cover for the retreat, and operated against the Axis first in Greece and later from a secret base in Albania, in both cases forced to retreat as the enemy overran his position. He was involved in some very notable success, in particular the epic raid on the Italian fleet in Taranto Harbor and in virtually ending the shipment of goods to Rommel in North Africa.
About the first two thirds/three fourths of the book recounts his days flying against the enemy (with a small section at the beginning of the book describing his entry into the world of naval aviation and the interwar years in British military aviation). The last section of the book describes Lamb's unfortunate experiences in a Vichy French interment camp (most of his stay was at Laghouat, a facility in southern Algeria, deep in the Sahara). Caught while doing cloak and dagger missions, landing operatives in Vichy French territory, the book completely changes in style and tone in the part recounting his months in the camp as Lamb details the revolting conditions and the horrid Vichy French and Arab jailers. Though I knew obviously (or at least probably) that Lamb escaped as he survived to write the book - his post World War II days are recounted at the very end - I did not know for sure how he would get out of the camp and found that section quite engaging, the tale filled with stories of torture, escape attempts, and guards both cruel and sympathetic. Suffice it to say he did manage to survive that ordeal and even served in the Pacific against the Japanese.
The only complaint I have to offer about the book is that several times Lamb provided dialogue in French from his captors without a translation. I do not speak French, and while I could puzzle out some of the passages, either through my limited exposure to French (as well as other languages) or through context, I wasn't always able to do so. I have seen this before in other works both fiction and non-fiction and have never cared for it then either. The author didn't do this too frequently so this is not a major complaint.
All in all it was a very good book and I one I really enjoyed. This edition has black and white illustrations of every aircraft even mentioned in passing in the book which I liked, as well as a few maps. It provided to me some insight into the Mediterranean theater of operations, something I don't know as much about as I would like, as well as a view of the Vichy French in North Africa, and even the American role prior to Pearl Harbor (among other things Lamb recounts the actions of the American diplomat in Vichy French territory - officially neutral - in trying to help the British internees).