Mark Huxtable's review of 'Fighter Nights: 456 Squadron RAAF' by John Bennett

 

Fighter Nights: 456 Squadron RAAF recounts the story of the only Australian night-fighter squadron in WWII, and serves as something of an unofficial squadron history. The book begins with a description of the background against which the squadron operated. There is a brief review of Fighter Command, and a short description of the state of night-fighting when the squadron was formed, in June of 1941.

The book is then split into chapters which correspond roughly to the various operations onto which the squadron was deployed, including a short description of the squadron's formation in Australia and transport to the U.K.

The squadron's first aircraft was the Boulton Paul Defiant - a disaster as a day-fighter, which was later relegated to the night role. Fans of the Mossie will understand the Mosquito design-team's concern when pressure mounted for a four-gun turret to be mounted into the airframe - the same approach which had proved so ineffective and costly in the Defiant.

Unfortunately for the members of the squadron, much of their early time in the U.K. was spent on training, with the inevitable level of casualties due to accidents, and on deployment in sectors where the low level of enemy activity made operations frustrating. This was especially true in the squadron's earliest days, on the Defiant, which was bereft of navigational aids or radar, forcing its crews to "grope around in the dark".

The author provides us with a brief and somewhat hectic overview of the radar aids which were subsequently developed to aid the night fighters. 456 Squadron gained its first experience with these aids when it converted from the Defiant to the Beaufighter - the first aircraft capable of giving the squadron a fighting chance at night. Indeed, the first victory attributed to 456 came in January 1942 on the Beafighter, when one of the Flight Commanders shot down a Dornier Do 217. Unfortunately, the squadron continued to be dogged by flying accidents, and by assignment to a sector in which enemy activity was rare.

Of course, the squadron, (and for the Mossie fan, the book) came into its own when 456 converted, yet again, this time onto the Mosquito, during late 1942 and 1943. It is at this point that the squadron adopts the trademark "kangaroo roundel" marking, which was later adopted by the RAAF as standard.

The book picks up in pace quite considerably at this point, with the author taking us through the various operation, both night- and day-based, onto which the squadron was assigned. More comprehensive accounts of the operations types can be found in other works (notably Sharp and Bowyer's Mosquito, reviewed elsewhere on this site). However, other works will not have the level of detail of this book in terms of 454 Squadron's involvement.

The author draws on a variety of sources for the book, most satisfyingly for the reader on letters to him from and interviews with former squadron members - this original information, not to be found elsewhere, is one of the book's most attractive features. In addition, the book is richly illustrated with black-and-white photographs, both of the squadron members and their aircraft and operations. One of the book's most impressive features is the ample list of appendices. Here, the author not only recounts the tale of each aircraft used by the squadron, but also provides a full catalogue of squadron claims against German aircraft and flying bombs. Of course, for those closest to 456 personnel, the most important appendix will be the Honour Roll.

Fighter Nights: 456 Squadron RAAF, is available from Banner Books by following the links on this site. (As of January 2001, Strike and Strike Again, and The Gestapo Hunters, two other Banner books which also deal with the Mosquito [Beaufighters of 455 Squadron are actually the topic of Strike and Strike again I have been informed by Lex McAulay of Banner Books - Andy], were out-of-stock. However, Six Aces, which tells the story of Charles Scherf, Australia's top-scoring intruder and Mosquito pilot, was available.)

Mark Huxtable, April 2001

 
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