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review 2017-06-16 14:45
A little dry but worth reading
Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I Espionage and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History - Joseph A. Williams

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


                Joseph A Williams’ book isn’t so much a chronicle of a sinking, but a history of a salvage mission.  The best parts of the book are the ones that describe the development of diving technology.  It also illuminates a lesser known story about WWI.  The writing is a bit dry when moving beyond driving, but the use of background material does keep the reader interested.

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review 2017-06-13 15:40
The Summer Before the War
The Summer Before the War: A Novel - Helen Simonson

It is the summer of 1914, and Beatrice Nash, 23, finds herself in Rye, in Sussex, attempting desperately to get a job as a teacher at the local grammar school.  (As Latin mistress, of all things - very shocking for a female!)  She has fled her late father's family, wealthy but highly controlling, to try to make her own, independent life, and is not finding it easy.  For one thing, she's neither as old or as plain as they were expecting.


Down in Rye, she becomes involved in the lives of her sponsor there, Agatha Grange, Agatha's husband, John ("something at the Foreign Office"), and their two nephews, close as sons, Hugh Grange and Daniel Goodham.  Hugh is studying medicine, and Daniel has aspirations as a poet. 


When the war does break out, life becomes ever more complicated.  Young men start to join up.  There are panicked runs on food and other goods in the stores.  The mayor's wife is even more impossible than usual.  Young ladies of good breeding but little brain start handing out white feathers to young men not in uniform.  Poor harmless dachshunds are attacked.  And the town does its bit by taking in Belgian refugees.


There are four narrators - mostly Beatrice or Hugh, but occasionally also Agatha or "Snout," a boy in the village.  Simonson writes well, so it's not really an issue; it's always easy to tell them apart.


This novel is every bit as good as Simonson's first novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and a good historical novel.  (I don't recall seeing any historical detail that struck me as improbable or just wrong.)  A thoroughly enjoyable read - I dithered between 4 and 4 1/2 stars.

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review 2017-04-18 18:41
Fighting the Flying Circus (Wings of war) - Edward V. Rickenbacker

As a First World War aviation enthusiast of 40 years standing (I bought my first book on the subject when I was a preteen in April 1977), I had known about "FIGHTING THE FLYING CIRCUS" for some time. But it was only a few days ago that I at long last made the time to read it. And truly it is a fantastic story.

Before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1917, Eddie Rickenbacker had achieved national renown as an auto racer. Though he had little formal education (comparatively most of his squadron mates were college or university students or graduates), he had worked at a variety of jobs and had become a skilled mechanic with a deep, intimate knowledge of engines. Rickenbacker managed to transfer into the U.S. Army Air Service (USAS), received his flight training in France, and was assigned in March 1918 to the newly established 94th Aero Squadron - one of 2 U.S. trained fighter units on the Western Front at that time.

In the book, Rickenbacker shares with the reader the full scope of his combat experiences. Despite the 94th Aero Squadron lacking armament for its fighters when first activated for combat, it began flying over the lines to give its pilots a feel for the challenges and perils of frontline flying. Rickenbacker flew many of his first combat missions with who was then America's leading fighter ace, Raoul Lufbery, who had had extensive experience flying with the Escadrille Lafayette in France's Aéronautique Militaire during 1916 and 1917. Lufbery had been brought over to the 94th as a steadying influence after transferring to the USAS.  For instance, in describing his first experience with German anti-aircraft fire (dubbed 'Archy'), Rickenbacker admitted that "[n]ever before did I, and never again will I quite so much appreciate the comfort of having a friend near at hand. I suddenly noticed that Major Lufbery was alongside me. Almost subconsciously I followed his maneuvers and gradually I began to realize that each maneuver he made was a direct word of encouragement to me. His machine seemed to speak to me, to soothe my feeling, to prove to me that there was no danger so long as I followed its wise leadership."

This marked the beginning of a long and overarching learning curve for Rickenbacker. And as a reader, it was fascinating to see how he developed in skill, confidence, and knowledge over the following months. The 94th Aero Squadron would, after flying a few weeks lacking armament, acquire machine guns for its Nieuport 28 fighters (the unit would be re-equipped with the robust and redoubtable SPAD XIII fighter by August 1918), and be in the vanguard of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in its offensive actions against the Germans during the summer and fall of 1918. By war's end, Rickenbacker would be commanding the 94th, having scored 26 confirmed victories. (The 94th Aero Squadron would emerge by November 11, 1918 as the top scorer among the 20 U.S. fighter squadrons in France.)

This is a book in which Rickenbacker shares with the reader the full gamut of life at the Front as he lived and experienced it. He speaks in considerable detail about his combat missions, which read like something out of the movie, "The Blue Max" --- flying through barrages of 'Archy' above the trenches, as well as the thrills and perils of aerial combat. Rickenbacker also conveys the pain and sorrow from losing friends in battle --- such as his buddy Hamilton Coolidge, an ace whose SPAD received a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire, disintegrating it in mid-air. This happened less than 2 weeks before the end of the war.

Anyone who has an interest in reading eyewitness accounts from the First World War or like to read thrilling tales of aerial combat will enjoy reading "FIGHTING THE FLYING CIRCUS."

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review 2017-04-02 18:16
The Fledgling (WWI Centenary Series) - Charles Bernhard Nordhoff

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War (April 6th, 1917), it is good to read a book like "THE FLEDGLING" whose author (Charles Nordhoff, who would later acquire fame with James Norman Hall, as one of the authors of the novel, "Mutiny on the Bounty", which in turn, was adapted to the screen and became a successful movie in 1935, starring Charles Loughton and Clark Gable) had served as a fighter pilot (pilote de chasse) on the Western Front.


Nordhoff begins his story with a series of letters describing the experiences he had as an ambulance driver at the Front with a French unit from January to June 1917. Then he goes on to provide the reader with some revealing and insightful perspectives on his experiences both as a trainee pilot and later in 1918 as a frontline fighter pilot in the French Aéronautique Militaire.


Originally published in 1919, "THE FLEDGLING" provides the reader with a fresh and sober appraisal of a war that had only been recently concluded. This freshness makes the book worth reading for anyone wanting to better understand an era only recently receded into history.

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review 2017-03-27 02:42
Hawker VC - The First RFC Ace: The Life of Major Lanoe Hawker VC Dso 1890 - 1916 - Tyrrel M Hawker

Originally published in 1965, "HAWKER VC - RFC ACE" is a well-balanced biography of an exceptionally talented pilot and squadron leader by his brother Tyrrel Hawker.


Tyrrel's older brother, Lanoe (born in 1890), began his military career when he joined the British Army in 1910. A year later, he earned an officer's commission in the Royal Engineers and proved remarkably adept in any task allotted to him, for Lanoe had a very agile, inventive mind. While in the Army, he became deeply interested in aviation. Both he and Tyrrel were members of the Royal Aero Club and as a result, both were able to visit Hendon aerodrome near London in 1910, where Hawker made the acquaintance of some of the airmen and mechanics there. A few of them were French and Lanoe (who had acquired fluency in the language from the years he had attended school in Switzerland) avidly chatted with them and was taken aloft on a flight. Lanoe would go on to earn, in March 1913, his "ticket" (i.e. certification as a pilot) from a flying school at Hendon. This allowed him to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), where Lanoe received more extensive flight training at the Central Flying School (CFS) at Upavon. Flight training at that time was not so much a systematic process as a haphazard series of steps designed to produce what the authorities judged to be a competent pilot. (Only later, under the pressures of wartime demands and necessity, would the Gosport system of flight training come into being which gave the pilot trainee a thorough grounding in both theory of flight, navigation, aerobatics, and flight training from a basic to an advanced level in a variety of aircraft types.)


Lanoe passed out of CFS in October 1914 with a high rating and was soon assigned to No. 6 Squadron, RFC. This was one of the newly formed squadrons which were soon sent to France to assist the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in its operations against German forces by gathering intelligence (via reconnaissance flights above and behind the lines) and providing artillery support.


Air warfare as such in late 1914 was in its embryonic stages. What I found particularly interesting in reading this book was how, over the following 2 years Lanoe saw action on the Western Front, the tempo of war hastened revolutionary developments in aviation that produced planes capable of carrying out a variety of functions above and beyond the frontlines (e.g. 2-seater planes capable of carrying machine guns, a camera, and bombs as well as single-seater 'scouts' with one or two machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller arc - a plane which didn't exist when Lanoe first arrived in France).


Lanoe, while with No. 6 Squadron, flew many reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions against the Germans. It was highly stressful, hazardous work, especially as German anti-aircraft guns improved in accuracy and the emergence of the Fokker Eindekker - one of the first true 'scout' or fighter planes which carried a single forward-firing machine gun - served as a potent threat from the late summer of 1915 in challenging the RFC for air supremacy on the Western Front. Lanoe also undertook in a Bristol Scout a number of offensive patrols against enemy aircraft. On one of these patrols in July 1915, he took on single-handed 2 enemy planes, one of which he managed to shoot down in flames in plain sight of thousands of British troops. For this remarkable achievement, Lanoe was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery in combat. (He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order - DSO - for his overall work with No. 6 Squadron.)


After about a year on active service, Lanoe Hawker was promoted to Major and returned to Britain to take command of a new squadron, No. 24. No. 24 was one of the first true 'scout' or fighter squadrons in the Royal Flying Corps. Its role would be to provide escort to RFC reconnaissance and bombing aircraft to ensure the completion of their missions against the enemy. Furthermore, No. 24 was also free to engage in offensive patrols against enemy aircraft.


The book goes on to provide much information on the service record - through combat reports and personal letters from Lanoe Hawker himself - of No. 24 Squadron under Hawker's leadership. Though a stern commander, he was always attentive to the needs of his pilots and squadron personnel. And, though his flight time was restricted, given his responsibilities as squadron commander, Lanoe flew patrols whenever he could and inspired fierce devotion among his "chicks' as he called the pilots under his command. Indeed, from the time of No. 24 Squadron's arrival in France in February 1916 with the new DeHavilland D.H. 2 fighter, it went on to play a significant role in re-establishing air supremacy for the RFC against the Fokker Eindekker, which it outclassed in terms of flight performance. This supremacy would last well into the summer of 1916 (the Battle of the Somme) and was later lost before year's end by the introduction of superior German fighters (such as the Albatros DI and DII) and specially trained fighter squadrons (Jastas) now arriving at the front in increasing numbers.


Yet despite the challenges these changes in the air war placed before Hawker's squadron, it continued to maintain (notwithstanding some heavy losses it sustained) a high standard as a combat unit. Lanoe was slated for higher command at the time he undertook what proved to be his last patrol on November 23, 1916 in which he engaged in an epic 35 minute fight against the rising star of the German Luftstreitkräfte - Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, aka 'The Red Baron' - who killed him just as he was within striking distance of reaching safety behind the British lines. He was 25 years old.

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