Robert Stitt recently published his first book, that has already been presented in this Blog. “Land in Portugal” was able to send some questions to the author that present’s the story of the Fortress on service of the Coastal Command, but also the story and their mission in the Portuguese islands of the Azores.
The Agreement to concede facilities in the Azores – Terceira Island, in the Lagens Airfield – was signed in August 1943 between the Portuguese and British Government. With this treaty Portugal conceded benefits to one of the belligerents, continuing although as a neutral country until the end of the conflict. The Fortresses were in the first groups that arrived there.
Part of what happened there in first years after the agreement can be found in this book.
Land in Portugal: Why a book about the Fortress in Coastal Command?
Robert Stitt: I had previously written the history of a USAAF Boeing B-17E Fortress that had crash-landed in Papua New Guinea in January 1943 - I visited the site in 1977. This aircraft was originally supposed to go the Britain for the campaign against the U-boats and documenting the type's history with RAF Coastal Command was a natural follow-on project.
LP: How long and where did you researched to complete the book?
RS: The Fortress with Coastal Command project took six years to complete. I visited The National Archives in the United Kingdom twice to get started. At the same time my network of 'helpers' grew and grew and I was very fortunate to make contact with many generous fellow researchers around the world, veterans who served on the Fortress and their families.
LP: What was the impression of the crew’s about the plane?
RS: They all seemed to love and trust the Fortress. It was stable, reliable and comfortable (well, relatively) and I got the impression that, although the Liberator had greater range and load carrying capability, crews preferred the Fortress.
LP: From your point of view how important were the Azores in the final period of the war?
RS: They were very important for two reasons. Firstly, Allied shipping losses across the central Atlantic were unsustainable until the Azores base became operational. And Lagens quickly became a vital staging point for aircraft being delivered to the United Kingdom, Middle East, and Far East.
LP: How did the crews looked to the Azores and to the Portuguese people?
RS: I believe they were very proud of the role they played in the war and got on well with the Portuguese people, except perhaps when they were being shot at by over-zealous Portuguese anti-aircraft gunners who had recently been equipped with British guns as part of the deal to use the islands! I know too that one Fortress captain married the governor's daughter!
LP: What were the biggest difficulties they found in the island?
RS: There was only tented accommodation when the airmen arrived so they virtually lived outside for several months. Water was often in very short supply and there was a population very large rats. The steel plank runway was covered with red volcanic soil and conditions were both extremely dusty at times and very noisy when aircraft landed and took off, day and night. The dust also contributed to a deadly outbreak of polio. Strong winds were often not in alignment with the single runway and visibility could be very bad, forcing pilots to chose between a blind approach between two ridges or diverting to Santa Ana (in S. Miguel Island) with its soft runway and often similarly bad weather. On the positive side, there were plenty of fruit, vegetables, cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, a town to visit with no blackout, and no enemy aircraft.
LP: Can you describe the situation that most impressed you while you were researching for the book?
RS: The help received from other researchers and the trust of the families of veterans who lent me their precious documents, photographs and mementos.
LP: What would you like to say to your reader?
RS: The young men of RAF Coastal Command who flew Fortresses and other aircraft - crew members were often under 21 - did extraordinary things to ensure the survival of Britain and its Allies. They need to be remembered and I hope my book goes some way to helping this happen.
To know more about this book please click here