Taken over, merged, renamed: the company is long gone but in its time Gale and Polden of Argyll Street in London and Aldershot were prodigious printers and publishers. During the war a series of small, well-illustrated booklets appeared produced on ‘austerity’ paper and covering a wide range of military subjects.
While they were informative, they were designed to boost morale and spread propaganda. One wonders what German intelligence would have made of a copy. For the wartime reader, excitement was heightened by black bars ‘censoring’ some words or even sections, providing a thrill that this really was cutting-edge stuff!
My copy of the ponderously-titled Beaufighter — The Account of the Part Played by the Aircraft in Defence and Offence had seen its fair share of ‘flak’ damage but at £3 I thought it well worth it. Published in 1944, it sold for a shilling, or a ‘bob’, as it was colloquially known. (A shilling was written as 1/- and is 5p in present-day coinage.) Today, these little tomes are all highly collectable.
Compiled by R H H Macaulay, Beaufighter is an assembly of essays on aspects of the big twin’s exploits. Sometimes it uses direct quotes from aircrew, but mostly adopts the ‘flowery’ narrative that newsreels and official releases brimmed with in those days. Macaulay sets the scene, explaining that the Beaufighter: “first hit the German during the night Battle of Britain, and has been hitting where it hurts most ever since.”
Starting with the faltering nocturnal combats of September and October 1940, with each turn of the page the reader is taken on a tour-de-force of the Beaufighters many capabilities: Western Desert, cat-and-mouse of Ground Controlled Interception (GCI), the jungles of Burma to the Strike Wings and mast-top assaults.
For a wartime publication it is full of dates, some mention of bases (mostly of the ‘Hampshire’ or ‘southerly’ nature), and very specific on enemy ground targets and vessels. Aircrew names are not given, not even of the ‘Jim’ and ‘Ted’ variety. Unit numbers are also taboo, though 600 Squadron is • referred to as the ‘City of London night-fighter squadron’.
Most striking are plentiful statistics throughout and there is a very detailed section giving performance figures, weights, disposable load, fuel tankage and more. Sometimes this brings the ‘censor’s’ black pen out, for example: “although the addition of a torpedo reduced the cruising speed of the Beaufighter as soon as the ‘tin fish’ was clear the speed was stepped up from the torpedo-releasing speed of200mph to the normal 330mph.”
While describing a GCI encounter, a good sample of the ‘banter’ between pilot and control is given. “You are getting close. You ought to bounce one in a minute or two. But there are some of ours about, so watch out!” Then, in the pilot’s words: “Everything happened. A dark shape to the right and slightly above. I thought, ‘Hurricane night-fighter’; then ‘By God, it might have been a Hun!’”
There is an explanation of the coining of the nickname ‘Whispering Death’: a Japanese prisoner of war who described the sound of ‘Beau’ as: “a peculiar whistling whisper.” Macaulay quotes a pilot after strafing a parade of Japanese soldiers: “As I pressed the button, I was surprised to see that they were still standing to attention: they couldn’t have heard us.”
The audacious flag-dropping sortie to Paris is prominently featured. The unnamed pilot thought the navigation not too arduous: “We could see the Eiffel Tower when we were 30 or 40 miles from Paris…” Low over the city, he asked his observer if he was ready: “Yes, I’m ready all right, but the slipstream is nearly breaking my arm.” The furled flag was pushed down the flare chute and history was made.
While discussing the Beaufighters ability to take a lot of damage and still get home, Macaulay writes about F-for-Freddie, which was considered a ‘jinx’. When it arrived on squadron, it disgraced itself with a belly-landing. But it went on to carry ten ‘kill’ markings and clock up 220 hours without further mish ip.
Freddie was not cursed: “It had the reputation of being the fastest aircraft on the squadron, and those swastikas are mute evidence of its airworthiness, its speed and the deadly accuracy of its guns and last, but by no means least, of the skill of the pilots.”
No wonder the ‘Beau’ was: “One of the best-hated machines on the Luftwaffe list.