Dambuster – In – Chief, The Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane, by Richard Mead, Casemate Publishing; Pen and Sword AVIATION Books, Limited; 309 pages, $49.95
Publisher’s Summary: Ralph Cochrane was born in 1895 into a distinguished naval family. After joining the Royal Navy, he volunteered in 1915 to serve with RNAS in airships and was an early winner of the Air Force Cross. In 1918 he transferred to the fledgling Royal Air Force and learned to fly, serving in Iraq as a flight commander under Sir Arthur “Bomber Commander” Harris. His interwar career saw him as a squadron commander in Aden before he became the first Chief of Air Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. During the Second World War he served mainly in Bomber Command and commanded 5 Group from early 1943. He formed 617 Squadron and was instrumental in planning the legendary Dambuster Raid, the most spectacular of the War, as well as the sinking of the battleship Tirpitz.
Reviewed by Don DeNevi
So many new military biographies of American and Allied heroes, and so, so little time available to read them. The obvious answer, read them all anyway. A hero is known for his distinguished valor and fortitude, a noble inspiration, a paragon, a favorite for his exceptional personage taking an admirable part in a remarkable action or event, a person rewarded as a model, someone to emulate.
Why, then, a hard look at the kind of guts that made up Sir Ralph Cochrane?
Because, lest we forget, the mechanics in the airdrome hangers, the designers in the aircraft plants, and the officers behind their desks strategically planning decisive battles are as decisive as those who daily risked limbs and life moving forward, firing away. Commander Cochrane, much-loved by all who served under him, as well as those who planned alongside, believed in alternative methods of hitting the enemy, and in strong support of a round, ball-like bomb dropped by a low flying bomber, regardless of how dangerous, that skimmed the water at high speed then skipped three or four, even five, times to bounce into the target and explode at full force. Planning for such a raid began in the late 1930s in the event of a war with Germany, targeting the strategically critical Dortmund- Mohne-Ems Canal dams.
Although Cochrane was at the heart of planning, acknowledged by all subsequent historians, he was subordinated in the public mind to pilots Wing Commander Guy Gibson and Barnes Wallis, commemorated in the classic feature film, “The Dam Busters”, a must-see motion picture even if sometimes factually inaccurate.
“Dambuster-In-Chief, The Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Ralph Cochrane”, a brilliantly researched biography of a fascinating fighter, albeit at his desk, is long overdue. For the serious World War II reader, author Mean’s minor masterpiece not only adds Operation Chastise to one’s depth of the RAF’s most dangerous, controversial victories, but also a new name to rank alongside Great Britain’s most heroic warriors.
Incidentally, readers should also note that “The Dambusters – The Crews and Their Bombers” by Nigel McCrery, with more than 200 rare black and white photos, will be available from Casemate for $49.95 in late October, early November.
Ratings, 5 to 1, 5 being highest
Historical accuracy – 5 stars
Details – 5 stars
Overall rating – 3 stars (photo section too crowded, poor resolution of each photo)
Overall % rating – 4.5 stars