Going Downtown - Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Going Downtown
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Osprey Books

Author has previously written "The Tonkin Golf Yacht Club"

This book is a history of the Vietnam air war including Laos and Cambodia. It covers the period from 1961 to 1975. The first part of the book gives an overview of the politics surrounding the commencement of the war. The planning and political objectives of the war are discussed in some detail and the lack of preparedness for fighting this type of conflict are highlighted especially with regards to the USAF belief that the threat would be from high flying relatively un-manoeuvreable Russian bombers which would need to be stopped before reacing the USA. The USAF were almost completely unprepared for fighting a nasty little conflict with small agile fighter aircraft. It was assumed that dogfighting was not going to happen and therefore that gun armament was obsolete hence the early marks of Phantom being only armed with missiles.

The book makes a lot of very good points:
  • The general unsuitability of US aircraft e.g. the Thunderchief (Thud) was designed as a supersonic nuclear bomber but was largely used to drop iron bombs.
  • The Phantom lacked a gun which was a major handicap given the unreliability of the missiles. Rectified to some degree by the fitment of an external cannon pod and eventually in the F4E by an internal cannon. The external cannon pod was not universally popular as it was draggy increased fuel consumption.
  • The early model AIM4 and AIM7 missiles were very unreliable. Typically only 1 out of 3 missiles fired would actually guide and they would often drop off the rails "dead".
  • Early marks AIM 9 (heat seeking "Sidewinder" missiles had severe limitations and whilst the Navy was quick to adopt later marks, the USAF was slow to pick these up due to inter-service rivalry.
  • Few USAF pilots had any idea about air-to-air combat expecially Dissimilar Air Combat Tactics (DACT).
  • As many will know, many Thuds were lost but also had quite a good record for shooting MIGs down with their internal cannon.
  • Phantoms were easy to spot from up to 20 miles away due to the smoke trails from their engines. Smaller MIGs were more difficult to spot.
  • One of the main issues was the conduct of the war in terms of the Rules of Engagement which were extremely restrictive and meant that MIGs could simply run away and once over the border could not be pursued.

The book contains descriptions of the air combat (not always dogfights) which are of a factual nature but none the worse for that.

Some minor criticisms of the book:

A glossary of terms would have been helpful - although I'm generally familiar with most acronyms, there were some new ones to me. A list and description of aircraft would also have been helpful. Many of the aircraft are referred to by their code letters e.g. T24D, SC-47, F8F-1 etc and some of these I had to look up on Wiki.

If you have enjoyed some of the fictional works on the Vietnam war e.g. Mark Berent (Steel Tiger, Storm Flight, rolling Thunder etc) then you will almost certainly enjoy this book but it does assume some knowledge of aircraft, missiles and flying.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book as one who has read both fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Vietnam war, but it's probably not the first book to turn to if you're not generally familiar with the geography of the region or the aircraft involved.

Five stars from me as it was an enjoyable and informative read.

Amazon product


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A pity the author nicked the title from a book that was actually written by a pilot who flew missions against Hanoi in F-105s', Col. Jack Broughton
Another book to add to the list.

I’ll also give a 5* shout to Mark Berent’s series’s too.

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