Book Report: the Kamikaze Hunters

My commute to and from work involves a 20-minute ferry ride, which gives me time to catch up on some reading. The first book I polished off was one that had been staring at me from the book store shelves until I finally succumbed to it Will Iredale’s the Kamikaze Hunters (2016, Pegasus Books).

 

The title’s a little deceptive – you might be inclined to think it was about U.S. Navy or Marine Corps pilots. Not so – this deals with a much less thoroughly covered area of World War II, the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm’s operations in the later years of the war.

 

And it doesn’t just cover the Pacific – combat starts with the Home Fleet’s attacks on the Tirpitz in European waters. But really, the book starts much earlier, with the training of a handful of men who would go on to fly Corsairs from British carrier decks. Iredale mixes in contemporary letters and recent interviews splendidly to paint fully realized portraits of these men. One trick he accomplishes is to avoid tipping his hand that one of these men doesn’t survive the war. Usually, authors telegraph someone’s demise by quoting only their letters or third-person versions of their stories; Iredale deftly avoids this so when the pilot is lost it’s a genuine surprise.

 

The attacks on the Sumatran oil fields are discussed in depth, as are the raids capping the Japanese special attack airfields. Iredale does an excellent job of explaining these raids; I’m building a Firefly FR.I that flew during them, and I was unaware their primary task, improvised on the spot, was to bust barrage balloons (which they were not great at!).

 

Of grim interest are the accounts of kamikaze attacks on the British Pacific Fleet and its armor-decked carriers, which were more resilient in shrugging off suicide planes than their American counterparts (but paid for it in carrying fewer aircraft). Just the same, the crews suffered horrible injuries and death the same as any men exposed aboard U.S. carriers.

 

The book also touches on the incredible aircraft attrition rate for the FAA – only about 15 percent of it suffered during air combat. The rest owed to deck accidents and kamikaze damage.

 

There are a couple of boo-boos – Iredale repeats the myth about the Japanese carries at Midway having packed flight decks when they were bombed, and at one point says the carrier crews overpainted their aircraft’s camouflage with blue paint (in reality, attrition and a change in painting specs turned FAA carrier units blue all on their own).

 

Corsairs take center stage, but there are also Hellcats. Avengers, Barracudas, Fireflies and Seafires – a virtual airshow of types. But it’s the brave young airmen who are the stars of this excellent and eminently readable book. Strongly recommended for students of the Pacific War.

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