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Martin W. Bowman
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
There’s a scene in “Band of Brothers” when our heroes in Easy Company are being dropped into France, post D-Day. It’s a great roving shot of hundreds of planes in formation flying, deadly flak and tracer rounds zipping through the fragile skins of the transports, exploding planes shedding troops and equipment as they plummeted to the cold French soil. It was all very impressive.

Air War Varsity is the real story of those hardy souls who braved all the hostile fire that a desperate Axis army could throw at them in a last-ditch defence of their outer borders.

Reading about the soldiers who were riding gliders, sometimes two to a tow plane as the Wehrmacht fired upon them all the way down to the ground is a humbling experience. Upon “landing” which was normally a semi-controlled crash, the Germans would open up with 88s and MG42s at the stricken vehicles, shredding any survivors of the crashes, it was truly merciless.

Coming under sustained MG fire, the troops had to fight for every inch of territory and although some pockets of resistance collapsed quickly, there was plenty of resistance from the remnants of the Wehrmacht, Hitler Youth and home guard.

Logistically, the operation was an incredible feat, landing 1350 gliders, thousands of men and tonnes of vehicles, ammunition and supplies within just four hours – the largest airlift in history.

Air War Varsity does a fine job of putting the reader into the flimsy wooden gliders, both as troops riding in the back, or the pilots frantically looking for the drop zone through thick smoke and when it went wrong, the pilots usually died, even if they managed to successfully deliver their precious cargo.

It makes for a great read and the first-hand accounts are worth the price of admission in my opinion, however, the book is not without its problems; the main one being repetition.

The book follows the story of the glider build up and deployment, then rewinds to cover the transport tow planes build up and deployment, then rewinds to cover the paratrooper deployment, then rewinds to cover the Liberator cargo drop. Instead of having the four narratives run in four separate streams at the same time before converging toward the end of the book, Martin W. Bowman runs each narrative stream to conclusion before telling another one. This can lead to reader fatigue as it feels a little like Groundhog Day, albeit with different characters.

Another problem for me is in the early stages of the book, which details the different units and their roles, tasking and officers. It’s quite a long section, which although valuable to unit historians or wargame fans who paint miniature figures, it’s a little bit like All-Bran for the rest of us. Persevere though and we soon get to the lush, tasty first-hand accounts, delivered with typical understatement by the soldiers and pilots themselves who tell harrowing tales of loss, injury and death of friends and comrades.

Air War Varsity is educational and entertaining despite the odd dry patch and is worthy of your wallet’s attention.

4/5 Hamilcars

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