Book review: Harrier 809 by Rowland White

Rowland White had a smash hit a few years ago with Vulcan 607, the story how a farcically ill-equipped RAF managed to drop a bomb on a runway. The target was an occupied airport in the Falklands. The mission involved flying 6,600 nautical miles (12,200 km) and 16 hours for the return journey in terrible weather and facing enemy anti-aircraft defences. Organising the air-to-air refuelling effort for the mission was madly complicated; imagine the riddle of the chicken getting to the island cubed and you get the gist (or you might get a stock cube now I come to think of it). Rowland specialises in meticulous research and excellent story-telling, something he combines with an old-fashioned celebratory tone.

In this book he returns to the Falklands for the story of Harrier 809. Like Vulcan 607, the title includes a classic British aircraft name plus a number. The number refers to 809 Naval Air Squadron, a Fleet Arm Arm unit that was reformed in 1982 to take Sea Harriers to war.

The book features tropes long popular in military mythology – that of British forces being outnumbered and having to improvise to compensate for second-rate or incomplete equipment, unforeseen situations and leadership shortcomings. And of course, the perennial idiocy from Whitehall. Some very interesting historical examples of this rushed wartime improvisation are cited, such as the Royal Navy addressing the chronic shortage of fighter cover for merchant ships in World War Two with “A plan to fire knackered, battle-scared battle-scarred Hawker Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmars from merchant ships using catapults or batteries of 3-inch rockets was approved.”

What was the Sea Harrier?

According to a Sea Harrier pilot interviewed by this site it was an adaptation of land-based aircraft capable of a taking off and landing like a helicopter: “The modification from the already well-proven ground attack Harrier was a design masterpiece. It included a raised cockpit, a superb albeit physically tiny mono-pulse radar, the Blue Fox, a very reliable inertial standard navigation system (NAVHARS) and a very user-friendly Head-Up Display weapons aiming system including a hotline gunsight.”

But it was very slow for a fighter, and had short range and could only carry two guns and two missiles (large fighters of the time carried eight). It was not known how well it would perform against the Mirage, a type which had proven deadly in Israeli hands in the 1960s and 70s. Britain had had the wisdom to stay out of the Vietnam War, which meant it had little in the way (or likely no) combat seasoned pilots by 1982. The uncertainty of how well Sea Harriers would do in the war provides much of the tension in the earlier part of the book.

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When we chatted earlier this year, I asked Rowland what he believed is the biggest myth about British Harrier operations in the Falklands War. He replied. “That twelve Phantoms aboard the old HMS Ark Royal would necessarily have done a better job than twenty Sea Harriers. In the end it was, as it so often is, more a numbers game than anything. The F-4 was undoubtedly a more capable naval interceptor than the Sea Harrier. Heavily-armed, long-legged and equipped with a powerful pulse-doppler radar, Phantom on CAP ‘up-threat’ of the islands would have wreaked havoc against incoming Argentine raids – including the Exocet carrying Super Etendards. But six weeks is a very long time to keep just twelve Phantoms and their crews flying without any possibility of reinforcement or replacement. The F-4 was maintenance heavy and temperamental in comparison to the SHAR which chalked up astonishingly high mission availability rates during the war. Then there was the weather. Given the conditions in which some of the Sea Harriers were able to get back on deck it’s hard not to imagine that some of the F-4s might, at the very least, have suffered damage in landing incidents. Once your force of twelve F-4s is reduced to ten, or eight, or six serviceable airframes it all starts to look a little more tenuous. The SHARs, on the other hand, could be reinforced almost as required by RAF GR3s. In what was a largely visual fight against enemy aircraft that had little or no radar capability of their own, Sidewinder-armed GR3s were a viable alternative.”

The research is again first-rate and offers many treats and insights for dedicated aviation enthusiasts. There is certainly enough technical information to satisfy any gear-heads, and much of it is refreshingly drawn from first-hand sources rather than the usual Gunstonesque canon.

The story itself is exciting. It is a little jingoistic however, which may put some readers off, but is likely to delight the core readership. To be fair it seems an old-fashioned world view, though it is created with an old-fashioned diligence. Rowland White is a superb communicator, taking herculean research efforts and transmuting them into an easy to understand story. In reviewing this I took a second look at his other books, in his Big Book of Flight I was again impressed with the clarity and confidence of his style.

Next in his series is Dambuster 617 which keep his title convention and is no doubt to be followed by Lightning 111 or Spitfire 29.

You may order his book here, you may order the similarly essential Hush-Kit Book Warplanes here.

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