Wednesday, 22 May 2013

LZ Hot: Flying in South Africa's Border War - Nick Lithgow

Title: LZ Hot Flying South Africa’s Border War 
Author: Nick Lithgow
Publisher: Helion Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-908916-59-4
Pages: 168
Photographs: 16
Nick Lithgow has written a book outlining his operational experience during the South African Border conflict during the 1970’s and 80’s. His intent has been to provide the reader with an informal rendition of those events that have most influenced/impacted his military and personal development. This is not a book exclusively about flying and flying operations; rather, it is more an oral history put to paper.
Commencing his career as a National Serviceman he outlines his recollections of basic training and the challenges that he faced and overcame. Following that, his effort towards becoming a pilot and his successes on the different airframes (Harvard, Impala, Allouette III and Puma) are rendered in a easily followed and casual manner. He enjoys passing on stories (both humerous and not) of personalities that he has come across and they read like a discussion over a pub beer.
As he moves forward into his operational flying recollections one is struck by the stress and variety of wartime flying. Regardless of the intensity of the conflict, the impact is similar upon ground and aircrew alike. One is also struck by the degree to which the SAAF (South African Air Force) flying experience is similar in many ways to any other western nation in terms of interagency rivalry and competitiveness. Much of Lithgow’s book is dedicated to the retelling of pranks and mess experiences.
By the title one would anticipate a significant amount of the book to be dedicated to flying ops in the border region. It is clear from reading it that this is not the case. Lithgow spends perhaps fifty percent of his time discussing his exposure to flying operations and the rest discussing basic training, personal relationships, flying training and pranks. I will give credit where credit is due and say that his recollection of National Service Operations does provide the reader with an appreciation of what the South African troopies/pongo’s (ground forces) go through and an additional respect for the authors breadth of experience. He discusses his field time as an infantryman as one would relate any distinctive period of one’s life; better for the experience but glad that it is over.
LZ Hot is casual and easy as far as it goes. It reads well, is engaging and, as long as one accepts and understands that this is simply the reminisces of Lithgow’s military career and the personal experiences he has had along the way, it is enjoyable. It is not really for the serious student of history. That is not to say that Mr Lithgow has not produced a book worth reading, far from it. Mr Lithgow served his country well and has passed on some interesting stories of his adventures. He obviously cares very deeply and is very proud of his service and the opportunities that it provided.
His tales will make you laugh and pause for those left behind, so crack a beer and raise a toast to anyone that has ever been yelled at by a Cpl in basic training, slept on the floor to make sure a bed is fit for inspection, had a close call during an operation and lived or have lost a friend in the service of your country. This book is for you.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Damned Good Show - Derek Robinson

Title: Damned Good Show 
Author: Derek Robinson
Pages: 316
Publisher: Whistle Books, 2009

              Robinson has presented us with another work in his World War 2 British aviation series. Each of his books may stand alone but are also interwoven with the others; characters are found overlapping between the novels. All are outstandingly readable, educating and entertaining.
              In the case of Damned Good Show, Robinson focuses upon 409 Squadron, a bomber unit flying Hampdens (an early war period two engine long range bomber). The period in question runs from the early days of the war in 1939 through to early 1942. The unit is highly motivated and full of characters that, as with all of his books, grow as the book progresses. The author knows his subject extremely well both from a technical and psychological perspective. Thus, as the hardships and horrors of war gradually emerge from the early halcyon days of what the Germans called Sitzkrieg (sitting war), the reader can follow as the characters begin to experience the shortfalls of their equipment, doctrine and preparation.
              Unique amongst the authors of books of this nature that I have read, Robinson is able to pass onto the reader a sense of the impact that war had upon the tightknit community that was a pre-war bomber squadron in the RAF. Without giving away the plot, the reader experiences the wrenching and sudden confusion and loss as characters disappear from the narrative. One becomes reluctant to form an association, however transient, with a character as you do not realize how long they will be a part of the text. It is unusual and dislocating for the reader which is exactly the impact that Robinson wished to convey.
              All is not gloom and doom. Robinson skillfully weaves into the storyline the efforts of the British propaganda machine to maintain morale during the dark days of the Blitz and the fall of France. Thus the reader is carried along as the challenge of what constitutes truth in war is debated and argued from the perspective of idealistic film makers and “reale politique” government agencies who realize that truth is perception and not necessarily reality. Caught in between is the 409 Sqn; representative of the only arm of the British military to be carrying the fight to the enemy during this period. Film makers, imbedded within the unit struggle trying to capture a true sense of what happens during an operation while, at the same time, creating a film that will meet the needs of the audience.
              Robinson engages the reader and makes them think. His caustic, black humour and the cynical outlook of his characters capture the essence of those trying to make sense out of the insanity around them. Of course, finding that they cannot, they find solace and comfort where they can, when they can and with whom they can. It is the nature of war.
              Robinson is a master of his trade and his work holds lessons for all who are astute enough to see them. He entertains and he educates and one cannot ask for more than that. Well done.