Swift To Battle: 72 Fighter Squadron RAF in Action – Book Review

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Product summary Title Swift To Battle: 72 Fighter Squadron RAF in Action, Volume 1-3. Author Tom Docherty Published by Pen & Sword ISBN 9781844158294 ...

Product summary

Title Swift To Battle: 72 Fighter Squadron RAF in Action, Volume 1-3.
Author Tom Docherty
Published by Pen & Sword
ISBN 9781844158294
Format Hardcover
Price Recommended Retail Price £20.00-25.00 per volume.
Available directly from the publisher at www.pen-and-sword.co.uk

I’ll be frank to admit that despite all my interest in World War II, I haven’t been particularly fond of books written around unit histories. Most of those that I’ve tried were fundamentally spoiled by the very central element of the genre: the unavoidable day-to-day walkthrough of operations, which can make the history of even the greatest, bravest unit to a monotonous, deadly boring read. It is all too often that such histories end up in the far corner of my library, under the “unread but potentially useful” label.

In front of me is one of the newest releases from Pen & Sword: Swift To Battle: 72 Fighter Squadron RAF in Action by Tom Docherty, and I have just finished reading through its Volume 2: 1942 – 1947, North Africa, Malta, Sicily, Southern France and Austria. Yes, this 250-page bound volume is but a second part in a three-part series, a massive work to say the least. At £70 total price, it is also coupled with substantial outlay. The entire trilogy is intended to be a definitive history of No. 72 Squadron RAF. As such, the book could be expected to deliver loads of facts, but how about the reading experience? Find out below.

The subject

The subject of Tom Docherty’s squadron story is one of the most accomplished fighter units in the RAF. Having a brief spell during the last year of the World War I, No. 72 Squadron gained its lasting fame as a Spitfire unit during World War II. Re-formed in February 1937, it was initially equipped with Gloster Gladiators. In 1939 it became of the first to receive Spitfires. In 1940, the initial sporadic action in the “Phoney War” was followed by dramatic fighting over Dunkirk and the burnt of the Battle of Britain. Throughout 1941, the unit took part in the controversial “Circus” offensive over the Channel. 

The above period is covered in the first of three volumes, subtitled Re-formation in 1937, The Phoney War, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain and Offensive Operations.

The second volume of the book, and the proper subject of this review, traces the history of No. 72 Sqn during the later part of the war. In 1942, the squadron moved to North Africa to support the Tunisian campaign, where they were among the first to fly the improved Spitfires Mk. IX and achieved a considerable combat record. They followed with the Allied forces to Sicily and mainland Italy, fought there, then moved to Corsica to cover Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, then once again returned to Italy. When the Germans surrendered they were sent to Austria, where they remained as part of the occupational force until their disbandment in December 1946.

Volume 3, scheduled for release in January 2010, will cover Cold War Operations 1947-1961.

Reading the Book

Tom Docherty first considered writing this squadron history in its entirety when he joined the squadron in 1993 and became the deputy historian. Without a doubt, his writing is a result of many years of thorough historical research, and it shows. There are historical backgrounds,  record of squadron operations, excerpts from interviews and personal diaries, quotes from squadron ORB (Operational Records Book – Ed.). The book is also full of coloured sidebars which quote the relevant contemporary press notes with award citations or articles in which the unit was mentioned. Added to this is a wealth of period photos, including many that haven’t been previously known.

Swift to Battle is richly illustrated with photos.

All this makes Swift to Battle a very good resource for a history-minded reader. This book is a definitive history of No. 72 Squadron RAF. Also, I was impressed by the way it offers a complete, detailed view of a fighter squadron’s flying, fighting and coping with the daily life throughout six years of World War II.

With regard to author’s presentation of the subject, I’m glad to report that my previous reservations proved futile. Doherty does a commendable job of converting the vast historical material to a story which is accessible, inviting and interesting to the reader. Short, informative introductions to historical backgrounds are duly provided for the less experienced, and his writing style is rich, intelligent but accessible.

Documenting the chronology of events, Doherty made a wise choice of not confining himself to the aerial operations. Instead, he sets the story a broader context, equally sharing many stories of the daily life on the ground, be it the misery of tent accommodation in Tunisian mud, the dismay of trading the beloved Spitfires IX on Malta for the “clapped” Mk. Vs, trying out captured German aircraft in Sicily, coping with the lack of spare parts in Italy or details of Christmas Day celebrations. I could go on with numerous examples such as these; together with frequent quotes from personal diaries and interviews, they combine to a highly readable, vivid story, which I found enjoyable to read.

I also liked the fact that the book provides so much detail about fighter squadron operations in Italy – an theatre of operations which usually receives less attention in general aviation literature on World War II.

The main story is accompanied by a number of appendices, including the list of all Spitfires operated by the squadron, together with short description of their fate – very useful.

Some of the photos suffer from poor reproduction.

If there is any criticism I have towards Swift to Battle, it is of technical nature. Unusual photos are always of great value to us aviation buffs, and while the general publishing standard of the book is very good, some (not all) of the printed photos display strange reproduction artefacts. I wish that the standard was a bit more even in this respect in this otherwise excellent addition to my aviation library.

Highly recommended to a history-aware.

Review sample kindly provided by the publisher

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