Saturday, November 26

Review - Combat Chronicles of the Black Widow - Warren E. Thompson

Right about now there are plenty of people really in need of references of the P-61 Black Widow night fighter from Northrop. The Great Wall Hobby kit in 1/48th and the Hobbyboss kit in 1/32 about to rock people’s socks off the need to know as much as they can about this aircraft as fast as possible. I have found just the book to clue you all in…

Read n' Reviewed: Combat Chronicles of the Black Widow
Stock Number #SS6701
Written by: Warren E. Thompson
Pages: 112
Illustrated with 152 photographs
ISBN: 978-089-747-638-6
RRP: $17.96 Softcover & 22.46 hardcover
Available from: Squadron Signal

This one hundred and twelve page book - written by Warren E Thompson holds a wealth of information on this successful design from Northrop which – although entering service in 1944 and 1945, still served tremendously well for the Americans in the pacific, the ETO, MTO and the China-Burma conflicts. The “combat chronicles” part in the title was right, as this book is no dry technical account of the day-by-day play. It is a bunch of stories from the men who flew, navigated, crewed and acted as gunners in the powerful nightfighter. There is nothing dry about the story telling, always interesting and told in a carefully crafted way – this book is great from start to finish.

I am not going to lie to you or make you think I didn’t like the book at all then change my mind at the end – I thought this book was great – if you want to know why then read on…

This book is separated by theatre in chapters covering the initial preparing to use the P-61 and initial experiences of the aircraft, through to the operations in each theatre – First the pacific, then the ETO, then the operations in the China- Burma- India theatre, and of course the less well known but equally as interesting theatre of the Mediterranean. I’ll tell you of the highlights we found in each chapter in turn…

The specialized design of a purpose built night fighter from Northrop was adopted after the American need to emulate the performance of other allies dedicated designs. The AAF experimented with A-20 Havocs (called the P-70 officially after the nightfighter conversion) The P-61 entered service in 1943 but only really came into their own in sufficient numbers to really make an impact until the last year and a half of the war. The development of the specialized training of the pilots, gunners, navigators and ground crew is told in this first part of the book. How the people picked were often considered for the task was amongst the best the air force could possibly have. The author, it is clear has spent a lot of time interviewing these exceptional people. His recollection of their amazing stories is as insightful as it is interesting.

The Pacific conflict these aircraft took part in - from New Guinea to Japan the stories of these men flying this beast of a machine are recounted in depth and interesting detail. The quirks of the aircraft and the way the combat was flown to exploit its best characteristics are explained, the CGI radar interceptions in the darkest of night are discussed in detail which never seemed to me to be a dull or disinteresting read. It would be quite easy to make this into a bad book as a lot of the sorties would involve no contact – but some of the actual flying at night was just as interesting as the intercepts. The ocean being so large and the airfield on the tiny islands so small, the risk of anything going wrong could result in tragedy for the aircrew.

Not to say that nothing happened – far from it! The stories here range from the attack on the crew in their quarters by Japanese troops who had not yet surrendered and were at large when they over ran the airbase. To the mission over a highly defended target where no one even got a chance to fire a shot at the P-61s, to a mission where the black widow had to shoot down a B-29, through to missions trying to intercept floatplanes which kept on skimming the waves and avoiding the radar this is never a dull tale.

Moving on to the next chapter in the recounting of the P-61’s actions in the European theatre of operations the enemy was soon discovered to be the British! On proving themselves against the much vaunted Mosquito (read the book to explain why) the P-61’s then had to deal with the unpredictable weather and the skilled German pilots who had been doing this sort of thing for years against the RAF for years. The Black Widow pilots proved themselves in combat readily and were found to actually decrease the enemy activity in the areas they were operating when the enemy found out of their presence.

Towards the end of the war when there were less enemy aircraft to be intercepted troop and train attacks became more of an increasing priority - and the P-61 became quite adept at night strikes on trains and road targets. These aircraft were as destructive as the Thunderbolts with their mix of .50cal, 20mm cannon and general purpose bombs and napalm strikes against the enemy. The stories of heroism, of amazing actions and of lucky escapes are told here again with great aplomb.

Not only ground targets but the contacts with V-1’s Ju 188s and the capable Me 410s are recounted here in detail as well as stories of nightfighter aces who sometimes flew from Dusk till dawn – which is a long time in winter in Europe!

The story travels all the way to the other side of the world in the China – Burma-India theatre next. The tyranny of distance has never been so harsh as – just like over the vast pacific the chances of failing to come back from a mission were just as great as the Black widows ventured deep into enemy territory with no hope of escape if downed. The lack of aircraft opposition in the China conflict made the black Widows ground attack and interdiction aircraft while the attacks on the enemy boats, rail and factories here are a riveting read and no less interesting than the night time interceptions.

The last part of the book describes the oft-forgotten story of the P-61 Black Widow squadrons in the Mediterranean theatre – the misnomer being a little misleading actually – as the squadrons flew mostly Beaufighters through the war and the most of the P-61 missions were actually in southern Europe while the allies advanced northward.

While the conversion to the type is described the stories of the airmen tasked with supporting the troops in such battles as “the Bulge” in the Ardennes and the near action against the Afterburning toting ME-262 is described – It all makes for some great reading I am glad to own.

The title is hands down the best P-61 book I have read to date – not only does it tell you a lot about the aircraft, but about the men involved with tit as well in an entertaining and interesting way. You learn a lot here – and that is what I like in my books I use for reference. Many of the people who did not know and mention in their reviews of the “nose problem” with the great wall hobby kit would have known if they had read this book.

The only thing this book could have done with is a profile section to help modellers – this isn’t really what the book is about though so I suppose this time I’ll look elsewhere! The colour pictures I will note in this book though are great and with the black and white pics, there are many good references for the modellers out there.

Well done to Squadron an excellent book which punches well above its selling price! A great book for anyone wanting to know more of the Black Widow’s exploits.

Adam Norenberg