Book Reviews, March 1957, March 1957

“Fly For Your Life,” by Larry Forrester. 367 pp. 8 in. by 5¼ in. (Frederick Muller Ltd., Ludgate House, 110, Fleet Street, London, E.C.4. 18s.)

“Fly For Your Life” is Larry Forrester’s biography of Wing-Comdr. Robert Stanford Tuck, D.S.O., D.F.C. and two bars, one of the great fighter pilots of World War Two.

It follows the pattern of many similar biographies and autobiographies of R.A.F. fighter-pilots — which is not to suggest that it isn’t a thrilling book, definitely in the “won’t let you stop reading” category.

This story, covers 29 enemy aeroplanes shot down, two air collisions, several crash-landings, a ditching, bale-out, and capture and escape from a prison camp. Forrester writes luridly, over-writes in places, while it is a fact that he seems to go out of the way to get crude and vulgar words and phrases into print. Yet he appears to value authenticity — he takes pains to point to apparent inaccuracies in Paul Brickhill’s biography of another fighter ace, Douglas Bader, D.S.O., D.F.C.– and he has obviously had access to Tuck’s log-books and diaries. Incidentally, he exposes the gross inaccuracies to which Tuck was subjected by newspaper reporters.

In many ways there is a great similarity between this book and the Bader biography, “Reach for the Sky.” We learn a great deal, favourable and otherwise, about the subject, read of his early flying training (in Avro Tutors), and of a crash in a Gloster Gladiator which, although not his fault, sobered up his youthful exuberance and later we find him advising the Air Ministry about fighter-tactics, pulling together a slack squadron and meeting friendly German ace-pilots after he had been shot down.

There is an interesting account of Tuck’s first meeting with Bader, which resulted in a clash of similar temperaments, and a fantastic explanation of how, by a chance in a million, Tuck was responsible for the death of his brother-in-law, when a lone J.U.88 he was chasing jettisoned its bomb load on an Army camp to which his sister’s husband had been posted — and he was the only casualty.

This is a war book and Forrester does not flinch from putting in much of which the sensitive will disapprove. There is the story of how Tuck, circling the first enemy aircraft he had shot down in order to wave to its pilot, who had escaped from the wreckage, was shot at by the German pilot’s revolver. Although a moment before he was full of admiration for the flying skill of his adversary, this angered him and his reaction was to climb, then dive and obliterate the German with his machine-gun fire. This conflicts curiously with his compassion for another shot-down German pilot who was helpless in the sea and  whom Turk killed in the same way to save him from the agony of drowning. It can be argued that he was at fault in circling the crash-landed German and waving and that the vanquished pilot probably thought he was being shot-up when he bravely drew his revolver and that, having destroyed the Messerschmitt 110 and killed its rear gunner, if he really felt “no hard feelings,” he might still have flown away and spared the pilot.

The sensitive will flinch, too, at some of Tuck’s expressions and the language in this book. There are, as compensation, interesting accounts of Tuck’s introduction to the then-new Spitfire and of his test-combat at Farnborough in a captured Me.109.

The escape story with which the book ends holds the reader in excited suspense, and if “Fly For Your Life” is one of many similar fighter-pilot biographies, it is one of the best of them and should certainly go on your book-list.– W. B.

“No Moon Tonight,” by D. E. Charlwood. 221 pp. 8 in. by 5¼ in. (Angus & Robertson Ltd., 105, Great Russell Street, London, W.C.1 . 12s. 6d.)

This is an excellent book. It recounts the feelings as much as the experiences of a World-War-Two R.A.F. sergeant (eventually promoted to pilot officer) who was navigator in a bomber squadron, flying first in H.P. Halifaxes, later in Avro Lancasters.

This is not an adventure story of the calibre of so many of the R.A.F. war-time accounts. The author completed his tour of 30 “ops.” without much trouble, although with suspense aplenty. What “No Moon Tonight” sets out to do is to show us the reactions of air-crews on and off a typical bomber station of the last war and to analyse, with ruthless clarity, what the men who flew in the nightly bomber raids (and the women who worked close to them) thought about in an existence in which they faced very nearly an inevitable fate.

Charlwood, an Australian, tells his story with fine simplicity, scorning drama, yet getting home to the reader the true atmosphere of a bomber station (and of those lonely excursions to and from the targets) — and probing the personalities of the men who were its inmates. He does for bomber-crews what Richard Hillary in “The Last Enemy” did for the fighter-pilots, and as his tale unfolds to the climax of mass-raids, as Sqd./Ldr. Leonard Cheshire’s autobiography “Bomber Pilot” does, you experience again a warm admiration for that devotion to duty of these sorely-tried air-crews while sharing with some of them a sense of the futility of it all, the senselessness of the causes and results of war.

“No Moon Tonight” is a book which you will return to long after other R.A.F. war-stories have been laid aside. — W. B.

“Empire of the Air,” by Viscount Templewood (Sir Samuel Hoare). 319 pp. 8½ in. by 5¾ in. (Collins & Co., St. James’s Place, London, S.W.1. 21s.)

This is a book about the advent of the Air Age, 1922 to 1929, as seen through the eyes of a politician, for Sir Samuel Hoare was four times Secretary of State for Air.

Because a politician sees things in a different light from an engineer or aviation enthusiast, “Empire of the Air” does not contain much that is adventurous, nor is sufficient detail about the aeroplanes of the fascinating ‘twenties included to hold the interest of the practically-minded aviation addicts.

What Lord Templewood does is to set down clearly the facts, as he saw them, of the fight that was necessary to establish the Royal Air Force (now, alas, to be diminished) alongside the older military powers and to get air transport off to at decent start. The author worked in those pioneer days under the great Trenchard, for whom he has the warmest admiration. He shows Trenchard’s immense conception of what was required and of how the Auxiliary Air Force (now, alas, no more), the University Air Squadrons and the Light Aeroplane Clubs, all of which Lord Templewood, when Secretary of State for Air, helped actively to bring into being, were all visualised long before that by Trenchard.

Although this book is mainly devoted to the politics of forming the Empire of the Air it is to the author’s everlasting credit that he flew, as passenger, on two pioneering long-distance-to-time-table flights. The first, in 1924, was from Abu Sueir to Iraq in Vickers Vernons (two 450-h.p. Napier Lions) and the second, with his wife, from Croydon to India in a D.H. Hercules (three 450-h.p. Bristol Jupiters) in 1926. lnteresting accounts of these flights are included, written, however, from the angle of a politician, not a pilot. Previous to this Sir Samuel Hoare had flown on shorter journeys in Service aeroplanes and in a D.H. 34, with his wife, from England to Gothenburg for the world’s first International Aero Exhibition of 1923.

The building of the airships R100 and the tragic R101 is dealt with, although not in the fascinating detail of Nevil Shute’s autobiography “Slide Rule,” and the early developments in defence through air power, air meteorology and air medicine, etc., are described.

On the subject of the Schneider Trophy Race we are reminded that in 1927 the Government made a grant of £100,000 so that an R.A.F. team of two Supermarine S.5s and three Gloster biplanes could defend the Cup. This was “to gain greater prestige for the British industry and add to our knowledge about speed and its effect upon men and materials.” We won then and with another subsidised team in 1929, giving “a notable stimulus to the British production of powerful engines and streamlined machines.” How welcome if the Government of 1957 would make a similar grant (some £600,000 by present standards) towards a National Grand Prix effort—and as Supermarine and Gloster shared the Schneider team there would seem to be no reason why B.R.M.,Connaught and Vanwall should not jointly benefit. In 1931, when Britain was-all set to win the Cup outright, of course, the Cabinet of that day repudiated Ramsay MacDonald’s pledge and refused a subsidy. Luckily, Lady Houston, who received Air Force officers “dressed in a pink silk nightdress and lying on a highly decorated bed,” put up the money and British prestige was saved.

“Empire of the Air” will appeal strongly to students of aeronautical history and would-be politicians. It has a few printing errors and there are no illustrations. Amongst the appendices is a useful chronology of the principal air events of 1917-30. — W. B.

“Three for the Road,” by John S. Chaloner. 135 pp. 83/5 in. by 5½ in. (Hutchinson & Co.. Ltd., 178-202, Great Portland Street, London, W.1. 12s. 6d.)

This is a novel and the car therein isn’t named or identifiable. But the adventures an American, an Englishman and a Frenchman have in it on a holiday tour across the North American continent form a motoring version of “Three Men in a Boat” and are extremely true-to-life. This is lunacy that will appeal to every light-hearted motorist. — W. B.