Book reviews

We remarked some time ago that the number of books on war-time flying experiences published recently was simply astounding. This was not to say that it was unfortunate and, while the quantity of books of this kind that has now appeared is such that any further examples of poor quality would be quite inadmissible to anyone who has read them all, the fact exists that the three additional books reviewed herewith proved extremely enjoyable, in spite of such experience. This ability to go on deriving enjoyment from these books is partly due to the fact that air fighting takes a very tight grip on the imagination so that every variant is welcome in attempting to appease one's thirst for a complete and exhaustive knowledge of an undertaking second only to motor racing in point of skill, daring and technical perfection, and partly because, so far, each book has contrived to deal with the matter from its own angle. Some of these accounts, like "Arise to Conquer," cover early fighting over France and the Battle of Britain, others with flying over this country alone. Some concern life in many squadrons, others, like "Spitfire Pilot," deal solely with life with one particular squadron. Some have been breezily written, even to capturing the spirit of life in the R.A.F., its slang, its parties, its unquenchable boisterousness; others have been seriously written, almost, if unconsciously blasé. Technicalities have been included by some authors and left alone by others. The earlier books dealt with Hurricanes, later books have been by Spitfire pilots. In some there are descriptions of the author baling out to save his life, perhaps ending his flying career in hospital; in others nothing of the sort occurs. So, either by design or accident, there has been room for all of them – and, to date, the total of such accounts must approach a dozen. Personally we have enjoyed them all, some more than others naturally, and we even believe that there is room for more, although by Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command and Bomber Command pilots, by way of variation – and we look forward to C.G. Grey's forthcoming "Sea Fliers," which Faber and Faber have in hand, as a useful breakaway.

However, in spite of dealing with an activity which, however enthralling, is necessarily of much narrower scope and a much greater sameness than a personal account of his racing by a racing driver, these first-hand accounts of flying on active service, by the R.A.F. fighter boys, have been well worth while, and we have no compunction about reviewing three more such books.

Arise to Conquer, by Wing Commander Ian Gleed, D.F.C. (Victor Gollancz. 8/6.)

This is a book, running to 111 pages and with 15 photographic illustrations, which certainly puts over the atmosphere of a fighter squadron very effectively. Forgive Gleed a far too frequent use of "Hell" – variants can always be substituted by the reader – and here is dialogue which is hall-marked R.A.F. in no uncertain fashion. Technicalities are well interwoven and a very good book results. The visit to Buckingham Palace to receive his D.F.C. from the King and attendance at a fellow-pilot's funeral are incorporated to separate descriptions of patrols and encounters, each one a magnificent adventure in itself, yet possessing an inevitable sameness. The pilot who builds and flies model aeroplanes while the boys hang about "at readiness," sending a van across the aerodrome after his models when they land, the naming by make of different motor vehicles, whether or not they play any particular part in the scheme of things, these and other items emphasise the writer as a mechanically-minded young man living in an age of intense mechanisation. Somehow this book, perhaps more than any of the others, gets over that great spirit, born of combination of public school and university education and a mind trained to mechanics, that makes the British Royal Air Force what it is. This schoolboy spirit, this ability to live every minute of their lives, was evident among our pilots throughout the grimmest days in France as well as in the comparative security of life at English aerodromes. No one would suggest that bravery is the prerogative of R.A.F. personnel, but it does seem that the spirit common amongst our pilots is essential to continued high morale in a calling which makes such severe demands not only on bravery as such, but on nerves, temperament and skill. Gleed's book is the essence of this especial outlook which seems to promote ability to meet these demands with a minimum of relaxation. A most absorbing book. There is a foreword by Flight Lieut. John Strachey.

Spitfire Pilot, by Flight Lieut. D.M. Crook, D.F.C. (Faber and Faber. 5/-.)

This book is written in a simple, almost blasé, manner which makes a great appeal. There are 18 good photographs, some of the author's own collecting, and the book runs to 104 war-economy-standard pages. It is divided into different periods in the career of the author in one squadron – 609, and C.G. Grey has said that it is the best book on flying in this war that he has seen. Apart from very well-described accounts of patrols and battles, and quiet emphasis on the losses amongst his friends, interesting variations include the shooting down, in error, of a Bristol "Blenheim," the baling out of a fellow pilot when one undercarriage main wheel stuck, and bringing a Ford Ten-engined Drone up from Wales for his C.O. – this last-named proof that some sporting flying has been possible under present conditions. There are, too, interesting character studies of pilots of various nationalities who flew with "609," and accounts of transport journeys in Harvard and Miles "Magister," of being bombed at the home aerodrome and brief mention of typical, equally brief, spells of leave.

The Way of a Pilot, by Barry Sutton. (Macmillan. 5/-.)

Another very well-told story is contained in this little book of 117 pages, quite devoid of illustrations. This account commences before the war and covers Sutton's training with the R.A.F.V.R. on D.H. "Tiger Moths," Miles "Magisters" and Hawker "Harts" and "Hinds," first at Sywell, afterwards at Tollerton. It continues with his entry into the R.A.F. proper – training at Uxbridge, flying Hawker "Furies" at Brize Norton, and so to Active Service with No. 56 Squadron at North Weald in Hurricanes. Sutton's descriptions of his air battles are no better and no worse than those in the other books, but his accounts of everyday episodes are certainly more detailed – car journeys home on leave; holidays with his wife, Aircraftwoman Sylvia Sutton; buying a puppy; the inevitable parties…. This book is of interest, too, because the author confesses to enthusiasm for fast motoring and motor-cycling and has done a certain amount of motor-cycle racing. He says: "I still think nothing comes so near to the exhilaration of flying a modern fighter as the feeling of riding a fast motor-cycle." He tells us that his first car cost £8 and that his first motorcycle was a 5 1/2-h.p. s.v. Ariel, bought for £4. His remark that "although I have never been able to afford a fast car I had driven them" is typical of so many of the greatest enthusiasts. Knowing his outlook on motoring, one is disappointed that he has to report a car accident as a means of improving his status as newsreporter on a provincial newspaper. But, as his gallant story unfolds, one easily forgives P/O. Sutton such indiscretion…. Eventually he was shot down and entered hospital, but of this episode he writes but a few lines. His is a great story, but perhaps the best writing in the book is found in the introduction and postscript by his uncle, Lovat Dickson. What he writes of Sutton applies equally to all the few to whom we owe so much.