Tuesday, December 12, 2017

World War One air stories long overdue

FEARLESS – The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand's Great War airmen by Adam Claasen. Published by Massey University Press, Auckland, 2017

If the work being put into the First World War Centenary History publications achieves nothing more than to publish this book Fearless then it will have been well worthwhile.

Dr Adam Claasen's achievement is all the more meritorious because it fills a gap that should have been filled many years ago.

It is well known that the history of New Zealand's First World War is poorly served, especially when compared to the effort that went into recording the Second World War histories, flawed as they may be. Possibly it was to avoid the situation after WWI that so much was put into the WWII coverage.

Whatever the story may be, there can be no doubting the worth of Claasen's work which in spite of the years between remains a compelling record of service, devotion, spirit and yes, sacrifice, of those who took to the air to fight between 1914 and 1918.

Remember war broke out just over 10 years after man's first powered flight achieved by the Wright brothers and just over five years and a week after Frenchman Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel. That the technology could expand so quickly to become a fighting weapon is extraordinary for the era.

That New Zealanders, so far removed from the developments in flight, should become so taken with it is little short of amazing, but then again in the wake of engineering achievements in other spheres it should not be a surprise.

However, the stories of these men who numbered around 850 by Claasen's study, most them pilots, some observers or gunners and others - various odd bods working as mechanics or other subsidiary roles - is compelling and readable.

The casualty rate does not make it an easy read but the achievements of these trailblazers cannot be under-estimated.

There had been little Government support for the benefits of flight – it was too early in its development to have been of interest as a means of speeding communication in the eyes of politicians. Some things do not change.

But the entrepreneurial spirit was alive, even in those early years and men like Henry Wigram, a businessman who had turned to politics, could see the benefits to be had but he couldn't sway fellow politicians who were still enamoured of the benefits of naval power.

Claasen describes flight's battle for acceptance in the pre-war years in New Zealand, producing highly readable accounts of some of the daredevil antics which proved so fascinating to citizens able to witness their flights.

It is in this area that the reviewer regrets two facts which emerge in the book, purely on a personal basis.

The first was the fact that New Zealand's first cross-country aircraft flight occurred on February 20, 1914 between Invercargill and Gore by Will Scotland. It was also the first flight in the South Island and was the first 'town to town' flight achieved in New Zealand. Not a word of it passed my eyes in my Gore High School history studies in Southland.

Scotland went on up the South Island to buzz a cricket match between Canterbury and Australia, The Press noting after the fall of a wicket, "Bishop went in, but the appearance of the flying machine caused a stoppage for some time."

Nor was there anything taught about the Gore lawyer Ron Bannerman who would become New Zealand's best fighter ace in the last year of the war.

These things weren't talked about often in that day and age, but they were surely worth more acknowledgment by the local community. Has there ever been an official plaque laid to mark the achievement? Like this book, perhaps it is not too late to mark the feat.

Back to Wigram. He set up one of two flying schools in New Zealand at the airport in south Christchurch which soon bore his name while in Auckland two brothers Vivian and Leo Walsh set up the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama. As Claasen points out, the onset of war only hastened the interest in flying and as he relates those who couldn't gain their training in New Zealand headed off to England to qualify. And from some of the battlefields, especially in the Middle East, there was no lack of volunteers to turn to flying.

What resulted was a significant contribution to the war effort, sadly not all of it was successful, and the loss of life, much of it due to lack of time for proper training, was horrendous.

But it was the intrepid approach of the New Zealanders, and others, which caught the imagination of the British and French. It is difficult to imagine the demands and dangers of night flying to take on the monstrous Zeppelins dropping bombs on England. Yet they not only took on the gas-fired behemoths but flew home to land in the dark.

Then there are the battles and operations over the Western Front, an area of conflict that advanced exponentially as the war continued due to the tactical advantages that could be gleaned from aerial observation.

Claasen has done an admirable job in scouring through all available resources to piece together some remarkable stories of heroism and rather than single out individuals in this review it's best left to the reader to admire the selflessness and courage of those who aspired to be part of this new form of warfare, often at the cost of their lives.

Fearless is precisely that, a story of which all New Zealanders should be acquainted because it is a sad yet powerful example of service that should never be forgotten. Claasen has lent even more strength to the phrase of remembrance 'Lest We Forget'. For 100 years the aviators may have been forgotten but not any more.

Walter Hadlee's diary a reminder of days of yore

The Skipper's Diary, Walter Hadlee, compiled by Sir Richard Hadlee, published by The Cricket Publishing Company. Book and DVD only available online www.theskippersdiary1949.com

Few cricket tours have resulted in quite as much literary treatment as that of the 1949 cricket tour of England and northern Europe.

Autobiographies of Walter Hadlee (Innings of a Lifetime), Bert Sutcliffe (Between Overs), John Reid (Sword of Willow and A Cricketing Life), Merv Wallace (A Cricket Master) and the tour book by NZPA correspondent Alan Mitchell, Cricket Companions, all helped ensure the place of the tour in New Zealand's cricket history.

While confined to three-day Test matches the tour was only ever going to produce Test victories if the New Zealanders collapsed.

They didn't because the side was one of the most skilled batting combinations to represent the country and while the first Test win over England would wait another 29 years, the foundation of New Zealand's cricket future was laid by Walter Hadlee's side on their first post-World War Two visit to England.

Blessed with batsmen of the quality of Martin Donnelly (2287 runs), Bert Sutcliffe (2627), Merv Wallace (1722), John Reid (1488), Verdun Scott (1572) and Hadlee himself (1439), the side proved highly competitive and attractive to the English public who were still getting over hosting Bradman's great Australian side a year earlier.

Hadlee Snr had toured England in 1937 along with Donnelly and Wallace, and fast bowler Jack Cowie, so was well aware of what lay ahead of the side. His diary is a fascinating look into a bygone era, an era never to be seen again, yet a reminder of the sort of devotion to the game such a tour took.

These tours involved six weeks at sea, in each direction, so three months of the year were gone already. The players were amateurs and times were tight. They were paid a basic allowance and due to their success in quickly surpassing expected gate takings they were paid a bonus.

All of it is described in Hadlee's diary, a fascinating record that has been well worth the reproduction in what is an outstanding publishing format and only available through website sales.

This reviewer did not expect to get as much enjoyment as he did out of the book which provides not only reasonable match coverage but a look at the goings on of a group of men thrown together to play international sport.

As captain, Hadlee was required to take issue with some of them at times with the resulting details coming through in his diaried comments.

But what is also obvious is the demanding social requirements of the side. Remember this was the time when Sundays were a day off and there were activities aplenty laid on to take advantage of that spare time. It wasn't all beer and skittles, or golf.

It is also obvious that as an accountant, apparently reasonably well-placed, Hadlee wasn't averse to using his contacts to his own and to the benefit of his clients back at home. What better time to hit up New Zealand's Minister of Finance about the import duty on a car bought in England and shipped home on the same boat as the team returned on, that when Walter Nash visited the side during the tour?

Numerous other business initiatives were taken by Hadlee during the course of the tour, many of them on the mornings before play started in the various towns around England. There were also the many visits to factories and warehouses were the team were able to take advantage of opportunities.

It was little wonder Hadlee required some extra storage room on the boat on the way home. There was none of that cursed extra baggage you have to pay so much for when flying home.

One interesting comment during the second game against Glamorgan resulted from his meeting Cliff Prosser, the secretary of the Swansea Rugby Club. "He told me he saw Rhys T. Gabe pull Bob Deans back from the goal line after Deans had scored a try against Wales at Cardiff in 1905 – it was a disallowed try. He hopes Gabe will publicly announce this before it is too late."

What makes the 'diary' even more compelling is the publication of the tour report and financial returns and the reflections of the players in the years after the tour, clearly taken from correspondence between Hadlee and his team.

His own summation towards the end of the book was prescient.

"It was important to learn lessons from this tour and share the knowledge for future teams and players. All the bowlers needed to learn that direction was as important as length. Length is not effective without direction and direction is hopeless without length.

"By having the emphasis on direction as well as length I was able to set some very good fields – the bowlers were asked to bowl to those fields and as a result the fieldsmen became keener and that helped team spirit. It meant that everyone was involved in the play.

"The batsmen learning the art of concentration had to be maintained. Some of our most successful efforts were due to the intense concentration in a crisis.

"I will never forget this experience and all the players will remain great friends for life," he said.

However, his subsequent career as a cricket administrator may be viewed, there can be little doubt that Walter Hadlee's legacy to the New Zealand game is significant and the publication of his diary is probably the most graphic demonstration of that. It is a commendable exercise and one that further strengthens the historical connection with New Zealand's cricket.