- Francis, Richard
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval Aviation, WWII operations, Book reviews, Royal Navy, Aviation, Biographies
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2002 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Title: War in a String Bag – Autobiography of WW2 Fleet Air Arm Pilot Charles Lamb
Author: Charles Lamb
Publisher: Cassell ISBN:0 -304-35841-X
This is an autobiographical account of Charles Lamb’s exploits in the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War, flying the slow and antiquated Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber in all weathers and predominantly in darkness. He had the misfortune to be serving in the first RN casualty of the war, surviving the torpedoing of his carrier. HMS Courageous, at the outbreak of the conflict, and air-to-air combat against the much more modern aircraft of the German and Italian Air Forces. This he achieved by his exceptional flying skills and the ruggedness and manoeuvrability of the remarkable Swordfish aircraft, operating from HMS Illustrious with 815 Naval Air Squadron.
The book opens with the author’s account of his training prior to the outbreak of war whilst serving in the Merchant Navy and as a member of the Royal Naval Reserve. He desperately wanted to fly, but at that time the Fleet Air Arm training had been disbanded after the First World War and all military flying was controlled by the Royal Air Force. Accordingly, he enlists in the RAF (with another famous Battle of Britain pilot “Sailor Malan”, interestingly also a member of the RNR). As hostilities become more imminent, the Fleet Air Arm is resurrected after much lobbying in Parliament, and an opportunity occurs for his enthusiastic transfer back to the Navy.
Progressively, the effectiveness of the Fairey Swordfish as a torpedo bomber at night became very apparent. During night attacks on Axis shipping, the quietness of the aircraft made it difficult for the enemy to determine from which direction the low level attacks were being launched, resulting in devastating losses to their ships. That some aircraft survived after dipping their fixed undercarriage into the sea and remained airborne, showed the true ruggedness of this machine. This was further illustrated, when one aircraft actually lost its propeller in flight and was able to crash land in a dry creek bed without injury to the crew.
The second half of the book is devoted to the author’s experiences as a captive, after landing in a saltpan lake whilst on a clandestine operation for the Special Operations Executive, with the aircraft becoming bogged. Whether he was set up by the SOE he is not sure, but was highly suspicious after capture. He and his crew were interned by the Vichy French, and suffered unbelievable privations for 15 months in the notorious Laghouat POW camp, deep in the desert 150 miles south of Algiers. Fortunately he was released after the Allies invaded North Africa. On repatriation and survivor’s leave in England, he returned to operational flying as Flight Deck Officer in HMS Implacable although not fully recovered from his ordeal in captivity.
With the British Pacific Fleet operations against the Japanese, he suffered a near fatal accident, whilst directing aircraft on a poorly-lit flight deck, when he was struck by fragments of a shattered aircraft propeller. He was returned to the UK for major surgical repairs and recuperation at hostilities end. He served on in the post-war Navy and is remembered for his founding of the White Ensign Association after retirement to the City, where retiring and retrenched naval officers could obtain sound financial advice with no strings attached (pun intended!)
In summary, this is a fascinating book not only from the viewpoint of the author’s undoubted courage in the face of adversity, but the insight he gives into the surprising capability and operational effectiveness of the obsolete Fairey Swordfish aircraft when flown to its optimum.