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We owe an immense debt of gratitude to the courageous service men and women who have sacrificed so much to defend our freedoms, and none more so than the brave "Few*" of the Royal Air Force (RAF) who, in the autumn of 1940, defended our skies against the sustained waves of bombers that the Luftwaffe hurled at English cities during the Battle of Britain. (* the phrase "the Few" comes from a Winston Churchill's speech made on 20th August 1940, when he famously said "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few").
Geoffrey Wellum was one of those men, patrolling the blue skies in his Spitfire with his fellow pilots of 92 Squadron at the tender age of 19, an age where for many of us, our most important decisions revolved around which pub to go to with our mates on a Friday night. He left school, at 17, to join the RAF just two months before the outbreak of World War II, and had barely completed his basic training when he was thrust into combat - so desperate was the country in need of bodies to pilot its fighter planes.
In training, he had spent 168 hours in an aircraft, only 95 of those solo. Not only did he have to learn to fly straight, take-off and land, but he also had to shoot with reasonable accuracy at targets coming at him at over 200 miles an hour, while being aware enough to ensure he and his wingman were not being jumped from behind.
To give you some idea of a modern equivalent, it's like being put behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car to compete in a race with Jensen Button, two weeks after passing your driving test, where the winner takes all. There is no second place. The closest we will ever come to his experience is the plethora of air combat games on our PS3's and Xboxes - only in the world that Geoffrey Wellum inhabited, if you failed, you didn't get to hit the "reset" button. You died.
It sickening to hear, as so often reported in our newspapers, of war veterans being mugged in our streets, their homes broken into and their lives turned upside down, by the very apathetic and nihilistic youth whose way of life they fought so valiantly to defend all those years ago.
Every one of those ingrates who take their lives and liberty for granted, and act as if the world owes them something, should be made to read this book. That's assuming they can read in the first place.
"First Light" starts out with seventeen year-old Wellum's application to the Air Ministry to train as a pilot, and then takes us through his training on the Tiger Moth bi-plane, the North American Harvard trainer and finally on to the awesome Spitfire. The main part of the narrative centres on his combat experiences with the legendary 92 Squadron at RAF Biggin Hill (SE London - near Bromley), before his transfer to 62 Squadron based at RAF Debden (in North Essex).
He was then moved to the island of Malta in the latter part of 1942 where he continued to fly Spitfires on combat missions - most importantly during Operation Pedestal (to get desperately needed supplies to Malta in August 1942) this time from aircraft carriers.
This is where the book ends his story. After three years of enduring the unimaginable stress of continuous combat duty, he continued to serve with distinction as a non-combatant, first as a test pilot flying the developmental Hawker Typhoon, and then as a gunnery instructor until the end of the war.
Following the end of World War II, he served as a staff officer in West Germany and a four year stint with 192 Squadron. He retired in 1961 with the rank of Flight Commander and remains one of our most respected Battle of Britain veterans.
The book is narrated from the first person, and is often interspersed with "stream of consciousness" type thoughts that help us understand what he is thinking. What struck me most was his transformation from callow, eager youth, to a toughened seasoned veteran pilot in an incredibly short period of time, a transition managed without ever losing his humanity and moral compass. The human element - the fear, the adrenaline, the worry, the camaraderie, the grief and loss - is all dealt with sensitively and poignantly without descending into overblown machismo or maudlin sentimentality.
He pointedly reminds us that there were other men - much in the same position - flying the German fighter planes that he, and his fellow pilots shot down. Men who left behind wives, children, sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers who no doubt grieved for them no less intensely than those on the English side who gave their lives. There is no sense of triumphalism here - no gloating or jingoism - just a deep and lasting respect for his adversaries, even as he did his damnedest to shoot them out of the sky.
Wellum himself puts it best:
"My goodness, things don't half happen quickly at this game. Less than a minute ago, two German pilots were contentedly heading back home after another sortie on our south coast, and now, in just sixty short seconds, they are both dead, still strapped in their seats at the bottom of the Channel. I wonder what sort of chaps they were? God knows, but I suppose they are in good company. How many others are down there? Our mate Peter, for one.... What a world Geoff, you've just killed a bloke - a fellow fighter pilot... he didn't even know what hit him... it's all bloody wrong somehow, that 20th century civilisation should have been allowed to come to this. Just total war I suppose. What's it all about for God's sake?"
I expected the book to be heavy going, but Wellum's good-natured and light-heated personality comes through, balancing the darker and heavier moments with humour and levity. The combat sequences, of which there are a fair few are very well handled and really evoke the stress and chaotic nature of air to air combat. As one reviewer from the Independent notes on the front cover: "Reading it, you feel you are in a Spitfire with him, at 20,000 feet, chased by a German Heinkel, with your ammunition gone". I can't agree more.
It's one thing to read historical accounts of the Battle of Britain - and I would recommend doing so as it puts the achievement of Wellum and his fellow pilots into a deeper, wider perspective - but it's entirely another to read about it the war at "ground level" by people who lived through it, both as combatants and civilians. It makes it much more "real" and accessible. With this book, you get the feeling that you are sitting down in a pub, sharing a pint with the old-timer as he recounts his war stories.
It's a compelling, unpretentious story that really draws you in. You sense that this is the tale of a young man who was proud to do his job, but who has never gone out of his way to "dine out" on his experiences. There is an understated humility about the narrative. It whispers quietly that the author did what was expected of him by family, King and country - with the minimum of fuss and nothing in the way of complaint.
As Wellum himself puts it, in the short prologue:
"I am on my way back home to England from Malta and, as the Catalina [a flying boat] drones through the night sky somewhere between Gibraltar and Plymouth...I ponder the last three years. It seems like an impossible dream. Did I really find myself in a front-line fighter squadron within ten months of leaving school? Did I fly through and survive the Battle of Britain before I had reached the age of twenty? It appears I must have done."
The hardback version of this autobiography was published by Penguin in 2002. The review is of the paperback, which was released in May 2003 and runs to 338 pages - including two sections of black and white photographs, some of a personal nature, and others depicting various aspects of military and social life at the time Flight Lieutenant Wellum (DFC - Distinguished Flying Cross) served in the RAF. It retails for £7.99, but is currently available on Amazon.co.uk for £6.99.
Although I must profess to a love of the subject matter - I did a History degree at University and specialised in the two World wars and the era in between, and am also an avid model-builder - this book stands up in its own right as a moving, personal account of Wellum's experiences as a fighter pilot, before and during the war. It was a truly inspiring book, one that will endure repeated reads and hold a prominent place on my bookshelf for years to come.
© Hishyeness 2009 - Previously published under the same user name on ciao.co.uk.