THE PHANTOM IN FOCUS – Review by Mark Barnes


A Navigator’s Eye on Britain’s Cold War Warrior
By David Gledhill
Published by Fonthill Media
ISBN: 978 1 78155 048 9

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

It’s funny how things work out. I contacted Fonthill to get a book on railways in World War One and I ended up with a book about Phantom jets. Now that is very nearly a slogan for a pretty dull t-shirt. There is an element of the WTFs in there somewhere. The upside is this book by another first time author, David Gledhill, is really top class and I am so glad I went supersonic instead of letting the train take the strain.

I could paint you a picture of a WHO headquarters with a roaring fire on the go, plenty of tea and biscuits and a warm, book brimmed library where I sit and do this stuff. Nope. I am in my kitchen working on a laptop while the tumble dryer pummels some woollens; listening to George Benson giving it large on BBC Radio 2. I’ve got my tea and bourbons to keep things going. Like my reviewing regime, the Phantom, too, had her foibles. It was an ergonomic nightmare, the Rolls-Royce Spey engines were unhelpful and some of the key wizardry for hunting enemy aircraft often didn’t work. Serviceability and air frame life were key factors in all operations and this didn’t always make for a happy ship. But the Phantom did sterling work in RAF service and there is an immense amount of affection for the old lump.

I can remember seeing a huge line up of F4s attending an airshow at Greenham Common a billion summers ago and only wish my photographic skills had matched the event that day (I had a very off day). I remember buying a t-shirt with the slogan “Mess with the best, die like the rest” off some American Phantom pilots and thinking it was so cool. I think I wore it twice. I was young and deluded. My point is I will always have a massive love for the Phantom – the way it looks, it’s history, however wobbly; and remember the last time I saw some flying over Scottish forest thirty years ago. Two USAF F4s streaked across the woods at very low altitude and the noise and the thrill of it on that cold day was very special. Other true aviation buffs will have seen a lot more than me – but I hope you get the point.

The Phantom had not been first choice, there should have been the British built P1154 and the much lamented TSR2 in the fleet, but cost cutting, then as now, ripped through the defence programme and the Phantom was the cheaper option. We didn’t even get the promised F111s to replace TSR2, things were that tight.

This fantastic book by Mr Gledhill comes from the perspective of an immensely experienced RAF navigator who saw service on operational fighter squadrons and as an instructor. He truly knows his stuff and clearly loves his subject. His own photograph collection fills the book and adds a dimension that makes the whole package immensely personal and for us, the reader, incredibly rewarding. This is how things should be done and in many ways I am so glad the train book was stuck in the sidings. There will be plenty of time for it.

We have a policy at WHO to try and stay within the tracks of the two world wars so we don’t cross any paths of controversy with recent conflicts and have to keep in mind that we have a truly international audience with different perspectives. I write with my very British outlook and this will not change. This book tells the story of the Phantom in the service of my country. But if you are interested in the recent history of military aviation there is so much here in terms of detail, experiences and the life of the F4 it really doesn’t matter whose colours were painted on it because you will be rewarded with a genuinely excellent piece of work. This is one of my books of the year and I look forward to seeing much more from this author.


Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.