This is the autobiography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Basil Embry, one of the RAF’s outstanding leaders off the 2nd World War. Perhaps his greatest belief was that commanders should lead from the front and throughout the war this is what Embry did. Whilst the war years take up most of the book, the early chapters cover Embry’s early career from joining the infant RAF in 1921, whilst the last couple of chapters take the story from 1945 to his retirement in 1956, via his roles as C in C Fighter Command and NATO.
Embry was one of the pioneers of the early RAF. On completion of flying training he served in Iraq in the air policing role, where he also helped pioneer the first Baghdad to Cairo air route (to say airline would be to overdo it) as well as the Air Ambulance role (for which he received his AFC). On return to the UK he became a senior flying instructor with the CFS and was involved (though he doesn’t take the credit) in the development of Instrument Flying instruction. After this tour he served as a Sqn Ldr on a 5 year posting to India’s NW Frontier where he was to receive the 1st of 4 DSOs.
Starting the war as a Wing Commander in the Air Ministry he quickly set about organising himself a posting to command an operational Bomber Sqn (107) equipped with Blenheims. Throughout the book it is clear that Embry put a premium upon morale which he believed to be always improved by his example of leading from the front. Additionally Embry was a pioneer of operational analysis and a successful innovator, using lessons learned and attempting to perfect performance thinking about how his crews could improve their performance and following through on these ideas, often cutting through bureaucracy to achieve his ends. An early example in the winter of 1939 being the rigging up of a practice Blenheim gun turret from a crashed aircraft and a factory supplied electrical test system that was obtained by Embry’s claiming to be acting on the order of the Air Ministry when in fact he was calling on his own behalf. Later, when AOC 2 group he would analyse the group’s average bombing performance, the result of which was to reduce the margin of error from 1800 yards to 200 yards. Also in 2 Gp he pioneered, against official wishes, the use of models to allow low level Mosquito crews to improve their navigation and target recognition which were crucial in the pinpoint attacks on targets such as Amiens gaol and the Gestapo headquarters in Aarhus and Copenhagen amongst others. Although
Embry flew a number of missions throughout the Battles of Norway, including attacking the German Heavy Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and France in 1940 and these are well covered in the book, though Embry is laconic with regards to his own participation. 1940 was indeed a busy year for Embry as apart from his leadership of 107 Sqn (for which he received a 2nd DSO). Told on 26 May that he was to be promoted to Group Captain, he took the opportunity to fly one more mission, after having formally handed the Sqn to his successor. It was on this mission that he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. He and his observer Pilot Officer Whiting became POWs but the unfortunate recently married Gunner, Corporal Lang was killed. Embry was quickly captured but whilst being marched to captivity in a column of British prisoners, he and another airman made their escape when they took as a good omen a road sign ‘Embry, 3 km’ at which point they rolled down a bank unnoticed by their captors. Although both men were at once separated they both made it back to the UK. Embry would evade recapture for two months before becoming the 1st evader to return to Britain. Whilst the story is more fully covered elsewhere (‘Wingless Victory’ by Anthony Richardson) the story of the escape is well covered here also. Back in Britain, Embry spent 3 weeks at but when offered command of a night fighter wing he jumped at the chance despite reverting to the rank of wing commander. The wing disbanded in December 1940 and Embry became AOC RAF Wittering returning to the rank of Gp Capt in March 1941. As in the future Embry continued to fly operationally in the radar equipped night-fighters of No. 25 Sqn.
Embry - at right as AOC 2 Gp
In October 1941 he was seconded to the Desert Air Force as an adviser the AVM Coningham in the use of tactical bombers and he saw operation during the relief of Tobruk during operation Crusader. In early 1942 Embry returned to the UK to serve, briefly as AOC Wittering again and then on promotion to AVM as AOC 10 Group Fighter Command before transferring back to Bomber Command and taking up command of 2 Gp just before its transfer to the 2nd TAF in preparation for Overlord. It is well known that Embry’s dynamism and leadership were outstanding this command, though in this book Embry, whilst recalling a number of key developments and operations, including the attacks on V1 and V2 sites and the Overlord invasion, he is certainly not one to blow his own trumpet so one doesn’t realise just how much operational flying he continued to undertake. Even in the rank of Air Vice Marshall, Embry continued to fly on, and often lead, all of the high profile operations carried out by the group although he would fly under the pseudonym of ‘Wing Commander Smith’. It is a shame that Embry did not make more in the book of the operations that he flew during this time as many of them now are regarded as classic attacks , well planned, well led and superbly executed.
This book, which was written in 1956, on Embry’s retirement starts and finishes with discussions around what was then ‘current’ policy. Embry rails against the Treasury’s failure to deliver what operational commanders need and of the division of responsibilities within between the Air Ministry and the Ministry of Production - now both long since disappeared. It is interesting to look back at 60 years later and how the world has moved on but many of the points made ore of course no longer relevant, particularly the concerns over operating in the nuclear battlefield (itself a doctrinal casualty of NATOs switch from Tripwire to Flexible Response in the late 1960s). In addition to the issues of the day, time has also affected how one sees the style of the book. In today’s terms it is incredibly formally written. Throughout surnames are used and Embry continually refers to his wife as ‘my wife’ rather than by her name! These are minor niggles, however and this book is well worth reading.