Book Reviews, October 1973, October 1973

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“Black Lysander”, by Wing Commander John Nesbitt-Dufort, DSO, C de G, RAF rtd. 184 pp. 8¾ x 5½ in., (Jarrolds Publishers Ltd., 3, Fitzroy Square, London W.I. £2.50.)

Flying books are on the increase again, as a change from the interminable flood of motoring books. Wing Commander Nesbitt-Dufort’s is one of the best I have ever read. It ranges from the author’s first experience of learning to fly with the RAF in 1930 to his post-war aviation as the Captain of York and other large aeroplanes. Because there is a large chunk of between-wars flying in this book I found it especially enjoyable. As the author says, peacetime in the RAF was a pretty marvellous time and he makes the days spent in routine flying and the occasional adventure in Avro Trainer, Avro Tutor, AW Siskins and Hawker Harts into a most fascinating account. This is a period which has at last begun to receive literary coverage and I now await, if it is not too late, the reminiscences of someone who joined the RAF in the early nineteen-twenties. To return to “Black Lysander”, there is something of most things aviational in it, the author capturing exactly the atmosphere of his time, with a notable economy of words, while never omitting relevant and absorbing technical detail. He flew flying boats, instructed on Ansons and other aircraft, spent the war mostly in Westland Lysanders picking up agents in France at night, this being the most significant part of the book, yet again tackled without tedium, over-dramatisation or any of the writing styles which could have detracted from the description of this remarkably exciting aspect of the author’s long and varied flying career. He was eventually to abandon his faithful Lysander after an appallingly difficult and dangerous battle against bad weather, being forced to hide in France for a long time to escape the Germans. This is the very stuff of adventure, yet as I have said, most economically told, which enhances rather than detracts from the merit of this quite outstanding book.

Anyone of our many readers who served with the RAF, was associated with flying before, during or after the war, or who just likes aeroplanes must make a point of reading Nesbitt-Dufort at the earliest opportunity.

Apart from the many accounts of the tough training days in the 1930s, the accidents, the cross-country flights without present-day navigational aids, the Hendon Pageants, etc., there are the exciting stories of this experienced pilot’s post-war flying, with York freighters under often fearful weather conditions, with defects in the aeroplane to add to the hazards and fire in the air when flying home from the Lebanon with his wife in a York laden with eight tons of silver ingots. Almost every flying happening is there, told in very readable fashion, with none of the stuffy language one might have feared from a Winco.

There are even cars in this excellent book, from the straight-eight Bugatti the author bought for £45 and sold for less than half, while flying Ospreys and Nimrods for the Fleet Air Arm, to the R-R Silver Wraith he owned after the war. There is passing reference to Morris Isis, the Mulliner Daimler sold for £65 in 1941 when the author was posted Overseas and so on. Fascinating! There are also some very funny episodes, such as the end of a HP Hyderabad flown by a single-engine pilot and a case of mistaken identity when Nesbitt-Dufort thought a twin-engine instructor had been sent to initiate him into flying a twin, the AS Oxford, for the first time, only to discover that the circuit and bump was made by a young pilot who had never previously flown a twin-motored aeroplane either!

For me the book is at its most intriguing when the pre-war flying days are unfolding. The days when, as the author reminds us, there were few regular air routes and the air was available for carefree aerobatics which could never be countenanced today. He tries to imply that even in the post-war York days it was still “barnstorming” at times, but the magic for me lies with the Siskin/Hart era of peacetime long ago.

Among the narrow escapes, there is a hair-raising account of a flat-spin in a Tiger Moth, pupil in the back seat. The pupil had nodded (seen presumably in a rear view mirror?) before the aerobatics when he was asked if he could see St. Albans Cathedral to the left of the Tiger’s nose? Soon afterwards came the astonishing flat-spin.

This book, with Foreword by Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Dickson, GCB, KBE, DSO, AFC, is thoroughly recommended. Do not misjudge my remarks about the economy of Words to mean that detail is skimped very much the contrary. Excellent stuff. – W.B.