Mark Huxtable's review of 'Terror in the Starboard Seat' by Dave McIntosh

 

Quite literally from the first sentence of Terror in the Starboard Seat, readers will understand just how well Dave McIntosh can write. A career journalist, McIntosh takes us through the highlights of his 41 operations as a navigator aboard an RCAF Mosquito in this tremendously readable work.

Understandably, McIntosh devotes much of the book to his relationship with his pilot, Sid Seid, who, in stark contrast to the author, wants to sink his teeth as deeply into the Third Reich as he can. In fact, the title refers to the author's station in the aircraft, as he desperately tries to curb the worst excesses of his companion's bloodlust. Despite the differences in the two men's personalities, what comes through is how well the two worked as a team in the hostile skies over occupied Europe.

Interspersed with vignettes from McIntosh's childhood and post-war career, the story starts with his enlistment in the Air Force (for reasons peculiarly his own, rather than any strong sense of patriotism), through his abortive pilot training and subsequent schooling as a navigator. Finally, McIntosh takes us along with Sid on the long-range sorties only an experienced crew could undertake.

Sid and McIntosh seem destined to work together. Both appear to have been left on the shelf, but for very different reasons. McIntosh seems fairly happy to be left behind, as it keeps him further from German guns, but the pugnacious Sid, who talks back to superiors, champs at the bit to get into the action. Eventually, the two are crewed up together, and the book's main action gets underway.

After some early, tentative forays across the channel into France, Sid and McIntosh move on to the pursuit of V-1 rockets coming up from the occupied coast. This is where we get our first real glance at how the two worked together, with Sid getting so close to an exploding V-1 that the aircraft is burnt bare of paint, and a jittery McIntosh, at Sid's prompting, spending large quantities of time "looking out the back."

Eventually, as their experience grows, McIntosh and Sid go on long day-rangers through Europe, and on to the bread-and-butter of 418 Squadron, night intruder missions to enemy airfields. On each of these missions, Sid hungrily scans the skies for signs of airborne targets, while McIntosh gazes longingly at the coast of neutral Sweden and the temptingly lit-up city of Stockholm.

McIntosh's journalistic skill comes through strongly all through the book, which reads with the "can't put it down" feel of the great story it is. He continues to present us with vignettes and asides, some hilarious, many horrifying. In one passage, Sid's bloodcurdling thirst for destruction comes through in graphic detail as McIntosh describes the shooting-up of a train one night in France.

As McIntosh's skill as a navigator grows, he is better able to keep Sid out of needless danger, a talent which is acknowledged and even encouraged by their Commanding Officer in a brief but moving scene. Late in their tour, the pair goes on epic journeys across Europe to shoot up airfields well behind enemy lines.

As their experience together and confidence in one another builds, we are able to see how the pair come to depend on one another, despite their initial qualms. McIntosh keeps Sid out of the flak and searchlights, and Sid gets McIntosh safely home on one engine or without functioning landing gear, which as McIntosh describes it, makes Sid "the greatest pilot ever born or made."

Through all of this, McIntosh conveys the sense of wonder in being a young man, far from home on an insane adventure not of his own making. He takes us through hysterical field trips in pursuit of ale, the almost suicidal cheerfulness of London, even to desperate, drunken trysts in whatever dark space could be found.

This is an autobiography that reads like a novel, and as such is not packed with illustrations or technical drawings (at least not in the First Edition, which is the book being reviewed here - I would welcome hearing if this has changed in the latest release). If you are looking for a photo album or a modeller's guide, this book will not help you. However, this book is a truly wonderful read, whether you happen to be a Mosquito fan or not. Literally anyone who appreciates a good book should make a point of reading Terror in the Starboard Seat.

Mark Huxtable, December 2000

 
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