Thursday, July 16, 2020

Si vis pacem, para bellum

We may have mentioned once or thrice in the past that we've got a thing for aerial combat of a nocturnal nature around here. (After all, night-time is the right time.) Well, among the earliest books that your then-young blogmeister read while still a fledgling nut for things with wings was one titled simply, 'Night Fighter', by C.F. Rawnsley and Robert Wright.

That book caught your blogmeister's imagination and held it as tightly as any, and he has since read it again, numerous times. Matter of fact, so often have its pages been turned, that old paperback is now on the verge of falling to pieces.

Anyhoo, 'Night Fighter' is a wartime memoir; that of Cecil Frederick 'Jimmy' Rawnsley. It's also largely the story of one of the more successful aerial collaborations of the Second World War; that between Rawnsley and his pilot, John Cunningham. The two were pre-war members of 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, which was in those early days flying the Hawker Demon. Rawnsley started off as a seemingly ground-bound aircraftman, but soon finagled his way into the back seat of a Demon, something which he managed more and more often, eventually training to become an air gunner. As 604 Squadron's mission changed from that of a day-time fighter outfit to night-time, Rawnsley again trained for a new job; that of radar operator. The Squadron's equipment also changed, first to the Bristol Blenheim, which was outfitted with some of the early AI (airborne intercept) radar sets and flown as an ad-hoc night fighter, then to the Bristol Beaufighter, a type that was built specifically for the purpose. Ultimately the outfit would transition to the fabled de Havilland Mosquito, as would 85 Squadron, the outfit with which the pair would fly their last tour in night fighters together. Cunningham ended the war as one of the most successful RAF night fighter pilots, scoring twenty victories (one during daytime), and Rawnsley was there for most of them.

Success rarely comes outright, however, and many a page of the book tells of the frustrating struggle to develop the equipment, operating procedures, and tactics involved in conducting early night fighter operations over England. Your blogmeister found all of this to be rather enthralling, but it was the parts of the book that dealt with the Beaufighter which truly had his imagination off and running.

Here's what 'yer typical Beaufighter from 604 Squadron looked like. This is Beaufighter IF T4638, 'F for Freddie', finished in the oh-so attractively ugly 'sooty' black paint scheme typical of British night fighters of the period, and equipped with the Mk.IV AI; note the aerials on the outer wings and that just visible on the nose.

604 Squadron Association via 600 Squadron Association Newsletter: 'The Right of the Line' Nov. 2013

Here's the duo in question, 'Jimmy' Rawnsley on the left, and 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham on the right, with a Mossie.

Cunningham disliked the 'Cat's Eyes' nickname, which sprang from the whole 'carrots improves your eyesight' myth that may or may not have originated in Britain during the war, but was certainly popularized and perpetuated there. The connection of this myth with that of successful RAF night fighter pilots was an attempt at disguising the actual reason for the success of the night-flyers; radar. Radar was still a tightly-held secret in those days and the RAF wanted to do all it could to keep it that way, even if it meant telling tall tales. Cunningham was touted as having such good eyesight, even without the benefit of a carrot-rich diet, that he could see in the dark like a cat. Ridiculous, but the public ate it up, apparently, and the name stuck.

Oh, and here's the old paperback in question...

There's much, much more to this book than what little is described above, and your blogmeister truly recommends it, with two thumbs up, for anyone interested in air warfare of the Second World War.

One last thing... for those wondering about the title of this installment of TWW, it's a Latin phrase meaning: "If you want peace, prepare for war."

'Twas 604 Squadron's motto, as well as a sad and timeless truth.

Fade to Black...

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