Boeing B-17 Fortress in RAF Coastal Command Service

Published on
September 9, 2010
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
Robert M. Stitt
Other Publication Information
Softcover, Size A4, 248-pp (64 in colour)
Product / Stock #
White Series #9108
Book front cover

Update 21 July 2011

I have just been advised by the author, Robert M Stitt, that he has prepared a 34-page additions and amendments document for this book. It is available from the Mushroom Books website; here is the link to the product page which has a download link on it:

Lots of valuable information -- the author and Mushroom are to be congratulated for this all-too-rare effort.

John Ratzenberger

This is Mushroom's 100th book, and a grand one it is!! It's 248 pages in their fairly new A-4 format and although still a soft-cover, it includes a dust jacket with ads for about 18 forth-coming books, including the much anticipated (by me) Gloster Gamecock and Grebe and another in the Gladiator series.

This book couldn't be more timely. I have long been a fan of the Fortress, way back since I read Bert Stile's "Serenade to the Big Bird" and John Hershey's "The War Lover" some 50 years ago. Since then I've collected a few dozen books on the aircraft, the 8th Air Force, and its Bomb Groups. The "Queen of the Skies" is probably my favorite aircraft and I am always glad to add something really new to my library.

This year, a group of us established the IPMS/UK Coastal Command SIG. My interest in "The Cinderella Service" is an extension of my interest in the Battle of the Atlantic. For our inaugural display at Scale Model World 2010, I was going to do the Academy B-17C/D in Coastal Command scheme. You may have seen the side view photo of the Fortress I AN537 'NR-L' over a convoy. There are two versions of that photo, one with the squadron code and aircraft serial air-brushed out. Some captions claim that the ASV radar antennas were also air-brushed out but I have no images of any Fortress I with ASV antenna and was hoping this book would help me out.

RAF Coastal Command was established in 1937, from the post-WW1 Coastal Area, to provide land-based aircraft to cooperate with the Royal Navy. Its roles were reconnaissance (general and photo), air escort of convoys, anti-submarine, anti-shipping, air search, and meteorological survey. It is called the "Cinderella Service" not because they went to the ball with the prince in a wonderful coach, but because they were overshadowed by Fighter and Bomber Commands, last in priority for needed aircraft and equipment, and even yet there has not been an official history written to acknowledge their contribution. Coastal Command was caught right in the middle, between the great concern over the Battle of the Atlantic to keep the supply routes open and the emphasis on the strategic bombing of Germany, and struggled to get the long-range aircraft (i.e., heavy bombers) necessary to do its job.

At the start of WW2, Coastal Command had old biplane flying boats and torpedo bombers, the Avro Anson, and even some Tiger Moths for inshore patrol. Aircraft types expanded and the ability to provide air escort expanded accordingly -- the Lockheed Hudson being a particularly good performer as were the Sunderland and the Catalina (Canso) -- but a real long range aircraft was needed. The Liberator was the desired aircraft, and eventually became the workhorse, but in the interim some 75 Flying Fortresses were provided -- and this is what the book is about.

75 B-17's were furnished in 4 versions: Fortress I (8 B-17C), Fortress IIA (45 B-17E), Fortress II (19 B-17F), and the Fortress III (3 B-17G). The Fort's were used for air escort and anti-submarine duty, then when supplanted by Liberators, took on meteorological flying where its stable flight characteristics and ability to hold its own in ice made it a natural. The book is focused on the Fortress II and IIA and on the air-escort/anti-sub role -- this is where a high-altitude strategic bomber flies recon/escort over a convoy at a few thousand feet and then dives to attack a U-Boat at 50 feet altitude!!! If the U-Boat submerged, that was one thing, but if the U-Boat chose to fight it out on the surface, as was the directive for a while, then that crew and aircraft were flying into a hail of point-blank 20 and 30mm.

This book takes full advantage of a fairly limited topic -- 75 aircraft, 3 squadrons, and a single area of operations (well, mostly) -- and covers every aspect of it. The book is not a primer on the B-17 and, in fact, assumes some familiarity with it. After that, it's great history of Coastal Command covering their struggles to get aircraft and equipment and operations over the Atlantic, interspersed with action and crew vignettes. There's detailed lists of aircraft, crews, losses, and kills. Also included are operational instructions, and a final section on met-flights. All the background one could ask for -- amply illustrated with photos.

For modelers, along with all the photos, there is a 2-page chart of variants, 6 pages of scale drawings of the Fortress II and IIA, detailing all the items unique to the Coastal Command version of the B-17. The scale drawings also contain the conversion factors to scale them to 1/72 or 1/48, if you're arithmetically challenged. There's a 15-page discussion of camouflage and markings -- if you've ever dipped your toe in the Lend-Lease paint color pool, you'll know how complex that can be. One US-supplied variant of the Temperate Sea scheme (Extra Dark Sea Grey and Dark Slate Grey) was described as 'sewage and slime'. And there are 10 pages of color profiles to finish it off.

If you want to know more, there is a 4-page list of sources and references, although I'm surprised that Air Chief Marshall Sir Philip Joubert's "Birds and Fishes: The Story of Coastal Command" is not listed -- I consider it the best one-volume read on the history and development of Coastal Command.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough -- well written, virtually error-free, comprehensive, and not just a rehash of over-published information, but a significant contribution to the slender volume of knowledge about RAF Coastal Command and a useful addition to the wealth of information available on the B-17 and the Battle of the Atlantic. This book is a complete one-volume source on the topic it covers.

I would like to sincerely thank Mushroom Model Publications for their superb effort and for the review sample, just as I would like to thank IPMS/USA for the opportunity to review it.

Oh, yes, and what about AN537, my aircraft project? Well, good news, bad news -- I found what I needed but it wasn't what I wanted. AN537 did indeed fly air escort, but sans the ASV radar. It went to the Coastal Combat Development Unit where the ASV was installed along for testing, still in its 220 Sqn markings -- there is a short report and a sketch of the antenna on the spine and sides. The ASV was removed before the aircraft was returned to service with 206 Sqn. So I can model AN537 NR-L with ASV, but while in test service, not combat. However, this all became moot - the SIG Leader asked that I do Lloyd Trigg's VC Liberator GR.V for the display, so the Fortress has been put back on the shelf for just a little while.


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