By Dr Ross Mahoney
Sean Feast, A Thunder Bird in Bomber Command: The Wartime Letters and Story of Lionel Anderson, the Man who Inspired a Legend. London: Fighting High Publishing, 2015. Foreword. Appendices. Sources. Index. Hbk. xiii + 169 pp.
Thunderbirds are go! It is not often that you get to write those immortal words at the start of a review to do with a book on Bomber Command; however, this is no ordinary book. Indeed, it is a book that will be of interest to two distinct groups of people. First, there are those with an interest in the experience of Bomber Command operations during the Second World War. Second, there are those with a passion for the 1960s TV show Thunderbirds and other production that came from Gerry Anderson’s fertile imagination. This, of course, begs the question of how these two seemingly disparate interests are linked. Well, as Shane Rimmer, who provided the voice to Scott Tracey, recollected in the foreword to the book, the inspiration was ‘direct and personal – from his elder brother Lionel who had given up his life as a pilot during the Second World War’ (p.ix).
This biography, therefore, tells the story of Lionel Anderson, Gerry Anderson’s older brother through the letters that he sent home while also considering the impact of his death on his younger brother. The book details Lionel Anderson’s early interest in flying and his decision to volunteer as aircrew in the RAF (p.3). The book then follows a chronological order following Lionel Anderson’s experience of flying training to through to undertaking operations as part of No. 515 Squadron, which formed part of Bomber Command’s No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group. The unit had been established in October 1942 from the so-called Defiant Flight at RAF Northolt and at that time formed part of Fighter Command. The unit was then equipped with the Bristol Beaufighter and then the de Havilland Mosquito. Lionel Anderson joined No. 515 Squadron in early 1943 (p.77). The squadron was involved in operating Moonshine, Mandrel, and Serrate electronic warfare systems that had emerged as part of the pantheon of homing and jamming systems that developed during the Second World War. These were designed to provide support in an ongoing battle to defeat German equipment, such as the Freya radar net as well as defeat German night fighters. In this, Sean Feast provides a good overview of No. 515 Squadron’s role in this area.
The section dealing with Lionel Anderson’s time with No. 59 Operational Training Unit is, however, problematic. Feast suggests that in late 1942, Anderson’s course transferred to Brunton, which was No. 59 OTU’s satellite airfield and that while there they became known as No. 559 Squadron. Additionally, Feast suggests that, as No. 559 Squadron, the unit could be called on to intercept incoming aircraft as part of ‘Saracen scheme’ (p.76). This is where it becomes murky as there does not appear to be a No. 559 Squadron. There is no Operations Record Book for No. 559 Squadron and C.G. Jefford’s work on RAF squadrons does not list the unit. However, No. 559 Squadron was a numberplate reserved for No. 59 OTU if activated as part of Plan BANQUET. Additionally, Ray Sturtivant’s work on flying training units does suggest that, in March 1943, the squadron number above was used. So what is to be made of this? First, Plan BANQUET, which originated in 1940, had been revised in May 1942. Part A of the Fighter Command element of the revised plan – BANQUET FIGHTER – called for aircraft and crews from OTUs to form squadrons as reinforcements, as such; they would have received a numberplate. This process was activated by a codeword ‘APPLE’. Nevertheless, as Jefford noted, the squadron numberplates allocated to fighter OTUs were not used as the units were not mobilised. Second, it is reasonable that crews at OTU’s were aware of this plan, and their designation if activated. It is probably this that is being recollected rather than an official designation. This of course raises the question of whether matters, which is clearly subjective. I would suggest that the pilots being trained by No. 59 OTU were aware of their reserve role and the details of the unit’s designation. It highlights the tension between the operational record and memory and how it can be distorted.
The earlier sections of the book that detail Lionel Anderson’s decision to volunteer, his training in America and time at an Advanced Flying Unit are, for me, the real gem of this book as it is here where the letters home find their place. Indeed, the reason for this appears to be that the last letter kept by Lionel Anderson’s mother, Deborah comes from this period. As Feast explains, Deborah Anderson had reproduced the letters into a pair of hard-backed exercise books, and this is all that was left of Lionel Anderson’s correspondence (pp.69-70). This helps explain why the book’s subtitle is ‘The Wartime Letters and Story’ as the latter period has been reconstructed from other sources. Nevertheless, the use of letters in the earlier part of the book help us explore what it was like to serve in the RAF during the war and the experience of training in America. In one letter, Lionel Anderson described the planned graduation dance they held at the end of his training in America. ‘We invite our instructors and friends we have made during our stay here and, of course, we have plenty of girls.’ This recollection (p.55) both highlights the friendly relations between American and Britain but also one recurring theme in the letters, girls.
Overall, as with many books of this type, this is a fascinating insight into life in the RAF. It is made all the more interesting given the links between Lionel Anderson and his younger brother’s later work.
This book review originally appeared at Thoughts on Military History.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: The prototype Boulton Paul Defiant fighter, which first flew in August 1937. This aircraft type equipped the so-called Defiant Flight at RAF Northolt, which eventually became No. 515 Squadron. (Source: © IWM (MH 5507))
 Wing Commander C.G. Jefford, RAF Squadrons: A Comprehensive Record of the Movement and Equipment of all RAF Squadrons and their Antecedents since 1912, 2nd Edition, (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 2001).
 Ray Sturtivant, Flying Training and Support Units since 1912 (Staplefield: Air-Britain, 2007), p.242.
 Anon, The Air Defence of Great Britain – Volume V: The Struggle for Air Supremacy, January 1942-May 1945, (Air Historical Branch Narrative), pp.10-1.
 Jefford, RAF Squadrons, p.188.
2 thoughts on “#BookReview – A Thunder Bird in Bomber Command”
Thank you for the splendid review. On a small point of order, I don’t think I was ever suggesting there was a ‘559 squadron’ – I have always used Halley’s book on RAF Squadrons as my reference and the use of the conditional tense I think tells the reader that it ‘could’ happen rather then ‘did’ happen. I don’t know about Saracen versus Banquet – I wrote the book more than six years ago so short of disappearing into my loft for the weekend and digging out my sources I am happy to bow to your greater knowledge! I know I didn’t make it up, so it will be in an official record somewhere. It is, as you say, subjective viz whether it matters. The point was that having been posted to that unit he might have expected to have been posted to fighters. To have ended up flying Defiants must have been a huge disappointment. That was the reason for its inclusion. Also, in Lionel’s time on Defiants (the main focus of his tour), he was only operational using Moonshine and Mandrel, and it’s a part of RAF history of which there is a dearth of information. The best part for me, as Thunderbirds generation boy, was the real reason why Thunderbirds was called Thunderbirds, dispelling the myth that it was named after Thunderbird Field. It was a privilege to be asked by the family to write the book and ensure that Lionel’s story was told. It was also a privilege to interview one of the last surviving wartime Defiant aircrew in New Zealand to help me put Lionel’s career into context, and capture his memories of those terribly dangerous days.