Saturday, November 10

Review - Thunderbolts of the Hell Hawks - 365th Fighter-Bomber Group in Words, Pictures and Illustrations

Every now and then here we review a book that just leaves us with that “wow” factor – there have been four or five I have read that simply are the best in their field and this book is one of them…
If you want to know more about why this book impressed me so much then read this review
Thunderbolts of the Hell Hawks - 365th Fighter-Bomber Group in Words, Pictures and Illustrations
Authors: Don Barnes, John Crump & Roy Sutherland
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780615-56042-7
Landscape format (nearly A4 size) – Soft & hardcovers available
550 + Photographs + 98 colour profiles.
USD$43.95 soft cover
USD$59.95 hard cover
USD$89.95 hard cover autographed by the authors
I confess… My favourite airplane is the P-47 thunderbolt. So right away I had some interest in this title. When I heard about it’s development I badgered Roy at Barracuda Studios for more information – and it is at his suggestion that I read the book that can be considered as a companion to this work – “Hell Hawks!: The Untold Story of the American Fliers Who Savaged Hitler's Wehrmacht “ -  now I liked that book a lot when i read it.  It gave me much of a better insight into the 365th Fighter Group and the men and machines of the 9th Airforce in Europe during WWII. I know that the authors of this book tried to build on this title in every way – but in this book they have surpassed it and made a more interesting and visually appealing title in this reviewer’s opinion.
I must admit the way I usually review books this was a hard task – there are 316 pages packed with over 550 pictures and lots and lots of text. There was so much to cover. Usually I give a run-down of each chapter but at the risk of putting you to sleep reading my opinion rather than telling you about the book I will try to keep it brief.

This book on the “Hell Hawks” 365th Fighter Group stretches in scope from America at the start of the war and tracks right through to after the end of hostilities in Germany and Europe.

"Thunderbolts of the Hell Hawks - 365th Fighter-Bomber Group in Words, Pictures and Illustrations” has an exciting visual style of which you notice straight away. From the three different squadron colours of blue – the 388th, yellow – the 387th and red – the 386th - that flash out from the title and echo throughout the book. The modern styling and graphical style really complement the vintage photographs and in a way connect you with the subjects in the shots a little better. These could be modern stories with these young faces in these pictures and the stylistic look of the book is refreshing. Other publishers should take note.
The graphical style of the book is more like a pictorial coffee table book than a unit history. Indeed the photos are black and white – but they are often in such a good quality that they are as large as the whole page in a quality resolution which is uncommon in a lot of photography from that period The quality of some of these pictures are of an outstanding quality for their age – and many have not been published before – in fact most of them I haven’t ever seen before reading this book. There are over 550 pictures spread through this book, and whilst some aren’t page-wide the smaller shots are just as good a quality and just as interesting.
These pictures are complemented by modern pictures of museum quality aircrew clothing, patches and equipment that come from personal collections. These items – often side by side of the story of these men and what they did – give a human touch to the story that is quite effective. Being interested in uniforms and military sculpting I was really interested in theses shots as well.
To further help you understand the story there are several red boxes with sometimes illustrated side panels which let you know a little bit more in depth about what the pilots were up against, the types of missions they were on and as a general sidebar to the main action in the story. This is like a small book itself with all the information that is here. There are some great pictures of the end product of the “Hell Hawks” trail through Europe – the damage they did and the enemy they encountered, and what was left of them!

To break this book down a little more succinctly the main chapters are:

The Ninth Air Force & the Group and Missions & the Making of the Hell Hawks and Fighter-Bomber Tactics
These three short chapters tell of the roots of the organization and the missions they undertook in Europe. Month by month the breakdown of the early history is discussed. From Richmond Virginia under the original C.O. task master Major Call through to the arrival at their bases in East Anglia in England before the group’s move into France is covered.
The types of missions, from early escorts of bombers thought to the specializing of Air to ground attacks are discussed in detail. There are interesting stories like one of the ground crew sergeants’ devising a better bomb release to help accuracy that became the norm in latter fighters – through to some of the more familiar names and the missions they flew on. Names like Major Coffey and Oscar Cohen. There are several box-out sections that help describe the back story as we go on throughout this book – they are a great addition here.

Invasion of Europe and Move Into France
From the D-day invasions and the group’s move into the rough and ready airfields in France the next section goes into great detail to tell you about the period of  June 1944 onwards.

We go day by day, accompanied by pictures of the men and machines involved in the action, through the war in this most important phase. The Hell Hawks contribution is a little too easy forgotten, but not after reading this book. The text and pictures take you through the destructive path that was these pilots’ everyday reality.
Maps and diagrams are included in this (and indeed all of the chapters in the book) that shoe you the new battlefields that these aircraft were following, close to the front line. There are great stories about a pilot who had to get back from across enemy lines, about the US tank commander who wanted to get his crews better acquainted with the Hell Hawks and in interesting sidebar story about building a shower in the field at the A-7 Airfield – the personal stories help you connect with the action and day to day sorties which mostly fill this book.

Mobility to Mud with the US 1st Army
The drive towards Germany supporting the allied armies on the ground in northern Europe is discussed in this chapter. The constant moving of bases through France – first from the bases near Paris (The stories hint at how much of a good time the pilots had there) through Reims and Mons in September and October of 1944 the fighting got more desperate dangerous and less comfortable as the months rolled on.
Stories of the pilots surviving several missions a day (I remember eight in one day at the most) and their aircraft surviving attacks and collisions (with a telegraph pole as one example) that really make you a  big fan of the thunderbolt after reading this book. As the Americans rolled toward the Hurtgen forest with supplies running out – winter closing in December saw a stalemate arise on the western front along the Siegfried line on Germany’s frontiers.

Belgium, Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge
The “Battle of the Bulge” as it has become known saw the Hell Hawks in the thick of the battle for the forested country in northern Belgium. The Germans wanted to break out and separate the Allied armies and it the Hell Hawks which were tasked in part with helping stem the tide in this desperate time for the Americans.
All of the most well-known places in that battle are name-dropped here – Stavelot, Bastogne and Malmedy – these pilots were involved with the epicentre of this major point in history. When weather wasn’t preventing them from flying - indeed a story of a pilot having to land in 10/10ths cloud cover shows that they flew through bad conditions - they were in the action always.

The attacks of operation “Bodenplatte” – the Luftwaffe mass attacks on allied airfields – are discussed and also are the heroic attempts by soldiers to save their colleges and their precious aircraft.

Shutting Down the German Supply Lines and Counter Attacks
From their airfields in Mets the Hell hawks moved to the Belgian airfield of Florennes to further capitalize on the refreshed advance of the allies towards Germany in February 1944.
There are several smaller pictures here of some varying quality but just as much as interesting showing the pilots – their aircraft and often their prey, there are several shots as well showing the pilots at play and at close quarters. The facial features and candid shots really put you in touch with your subjects. There are also some coloured pictures in this chapter which are a great bonus and insightful especially for modellers.
Encirclement and Final Days
The last months of the war saw the group moving into Aachen and then Fritzlar deep in western Germany in the month of April. As the defence of the German army became more desperate the war for the pilots remained just as touch, and with increased risks from the concentrated German anti-aircraft fire the skies became very perilous.
There are still some intriguing stories from the accounts of the pilots. The story of a pilot called Alfred Longo and his amazing story of being shot down, and his finding his way back through the allied lines in style was  a great sidebar – as was the story of the loot the pilots of the Hell Hawks uncovering at Fritzlar. Even though the war was winding down there was surprisingly much air-to-air combat still going on at that time, and the accounts here are great.

Right up until May of 1945 the Hell Hawks were in the action, and the last mission of the war was flown on the 8th of May 1945.

A Long Ride Home
Once the war had finished several of the pilots were not really interested in flying any hazardous missions. Flying operations were indeed ceased and this short chapter tells of the men’s trip home to the states.
“Pilots and Ships”
In the last major section of the book  there are sixty two – yes SIXTY TWO – pages of aircraft profiles. These cover so many aircraft from the group it is hard to pick five favourites. Since the release of this book Barracuda Studios have released several of these aircraft profiles in 72nd and 1/48th scales. To have this book to use for your research and references is surely the best thing for a modeller of a thunderbolt since the invention of plastic!
There are so many profiles here of which haven’t been seen in print before – Indeed the research of some of these aircraft at all has been only made possible by the team of authors and their long process of interviews they have conducted with the veterans of the “Hell Hawks” and their relatives. The photographical and anecdotal evidence that has been unearthed by the team enables finally – and probably for the last time in many cases – proof of colours and markings of each of these “ships”.
There are several one-to-a-page profiles illustrated by Don Barnes, these pages also include pictures of the pilots and paragraphs of text used to illustrate some of the history of the aircraft - the men who flew them and how they got the names they did on their aircraft.  A Favourite story of mine was “Stinker Too” – the pilot Rinehert Tadych having strafed a snow covered patch of cow manure as it looked different to the surrounding snowy ground. Stories like this littler this tome and they are the heart of it I think. The profiles and the pilot’s pictures next to them just add cream to the cake.
There are several pages of profiles in slightly less detail – they are three to a page – but the pictures of these aircraft can often be found through the book. Still these are a treat for the eye and definitely an inspiration for modellers.

To round out this tome there are several of the records and accomplishments held by the group and her pilots. Citations & decorations, what the group destroyed, the bases they operated on from the start of the war in Richmond Virginia to the final stages in Germany. Also in this section are the commanders and the dates in which they served, air to air victories and most fittingly the pilots who lost their lives are all documented here. There are also a few pages of scrapbook style images of the nose art of each aircraft which I thought was a neat treat – but the last pages of the book have some recollections from the pilots themselves which truly put the whole book in perspective – especially after you have read about their lives in this tome.
 When reading some books we get to review – and this happens very rarely – I get the “wow” factor. From opening the box the book came in - and trough turning the pages this book gave me that feeling. The visual feel and layout, graphical style and finish of the book are just the start.
The stories inside about these men’s exploits and the stories of the mounts they flew had me reading this constantly, part by part until I had read it through more than once. Yes there is a lot to take in, the print is a little small for my eyes sometimes – but just trying to fit it all in would have been a massive undertaking. I for one am glad it is such a great big book. You could casually read this book for several weeks before you finished it.
I guarantee you will not leave it on your shelf long after you have finished it the first time.

Recommended for anyone who is interested in aviation, history, and the men that made history – and especially anyone who loves the P-47 Thunderbolt. This book is now a treasured part of my collection.

Thanks to Barracuda Studios for the book – and for a great read as well.