Thursday, 23 April 2009

“Phoenix Squadron”, Rowland White

Sometimes it's obvious where a book has come from. Rowland White's “Phoenix Squadron” is clearly cut from the same cloth as his previous “Vulcan 607” in celebrating the extemporised innovation and heroism of British military aviators, more striking however is how much is owed to the seminal fly on the wall documentary “Sailor”, which charted HMS Ark Royal's final deployment. Both the 1970s television series and the 2009 book successfully evoke the spirit of life aboard the ship, and the manner in which the Royal Navy operated.

Like “Vulcan 607” White hangs the wider story of how an organisation functions and how the constituent personalities interact on the pillar of a particular operation. While this worked in the case of the Vulcan raid on Port Stanley for his first book, the Ark Royal's engagement in a classic late colonial exercise of gunboat diplomacy in Central America in 1972 does not quite provide enough material to really drive the book of this size. White almost admits as such in the preface, where he makes it clear that he wanted to write about Ark Royal, but that it was comparatively late in the process when the idea of looking at the deployment in support of Belize, and the sortie of 809 Squadron on 28 January 1972 came to him. This lack of central focus in the writing process does come through in the course of the book, where often it feels like a loosely connected series of vignettes about the navy, the Fleet Air Arm, and a group of people serving aboard the ship rather than a clearly constructed narrative connected to a specific issue.

The lack of sufficiently powerful central theme might have reduced the effectiveness of the book, but it testament to White's ability to capture atmosphere and personality, as well as the basic charisma of Ark Royal herself, that much like “Sailor”, the simple telling of shipboard life and how the vessel operated makes for a highly engaging read. It doesn't have pretensions to being high naval history, but is none the worse for it, and indeed this populism is interesting given the current climate.

Despite its periodic bittiness “Phoenix Squadron” remains a useful addition to the body of literature on the phenomenon of gunboat diplomacy in its coverage of the Belize/Guatemala incident. Indeed, while the dispute over British Honduras has a long history giving rise to successful British applications of purposeful force dating back at least to 1948's deployment of Sheffield and Devonshire, yet there is little narrative history on the nuts and bolts of how the Royal Navy was able to successfully shape Guatemalan policy and how limited naval force can be used for political ends.

Equally valid is viewing the work as a contribution towards Cold War naval history. Striking in this aspect are the passages concerning Ark Royal's role within NATO as part of Striking Fleet Atlantic. This makes clear that the roots of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s, with its very aggressive use of naval aviation north of the Greenland-Iceland-Unitied Kingdom gap truly had roots stretching back into the 1970s. Descriptions of operations in Norwegian fjords and targetting of the Kola peninsula are very reminiscent of Hank Mustin's leadership of 2nd Fleet during the 1980s (related both in numerous articles in US Naval Institute Proceedings and in John Morton's 2003 family history), and show that the Nelson's dictum that a captain can do little wrong by laying their ship alongside their enemy was just as applicable in the 1970s as ever.

“Phoenix Squadron” could be seen as being a highly timely work. Just as the the intervention in Belize could be seen as the final flowering of Royal Navy big carrier gunboat diplomacy and the use of a capability that went away with the scrapping of Ark Royal, the retelling of this story, in a highly populist work, could be seen as a useful ploy in explaining why, in highly straightened economic times, the United Kingdom is seeking to re-enter the large carrier club with the two Queen Elizabeth class vessels.

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