“Derek Robinson does for the Royal Flying Corps what the War Poets did for frontline soldiers”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Oliver Paxton is a young, inexperienced subaltern in the RFC. His first mission is to lead four of his comrades, in their shiny new BE2c fighters, from England to the front in France. What should have been an afternoon’s flight takes five days, during which time Paxton misplaces all of his flight, gets horribly lost himself, crashes (twice) and pisses his pants quite spectacularly. Things couldn’t get much worse, could they? Apart from alienating everyone else in his squadron including his room-mate, his c/o and his batman, probably not…

Derek Robinson is the author of “A Piece of Cake” a fictional novel about an RAF Hurricane squadron’s exploits during the early days of WW2 and the Battle of Britain. The book was made into a TV series in the 1980’s and was criticised by some who disliked it’s less than heroic portrayal of the pilots, preferring the more traditional mythical image of the clean-cut, clear-eyed Brylcreem boys. Robinson also wrote three other books about the RAF, in much the same vein; A Good Clean Fight, Damned Good Show and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.

As well as that (he was a good deal more prolific that I suspected) he wrote what is known as “The RFC Trilogy”, the subject of this review. The series follows the travails of a Royal Flying Corps squadron over, behind and occasionally in the trenches in war torn Belgium in 1916-18. The mythical squadron changes names through the series from Hornet Sqn to Goshawk Sqn and back again and is the same Hornet Sqn that reappears in France 1939 in A Piece of Cake. The RFC Trilogy was written out of order and should be read thusly; War Story (1987), Goshawk Squadron (1971) and Hornet’s Sting (1999). The series has come in for similar criticism to A Piece of Cake, being very much a warts and all portrayal. While it is de rigeur to show WW1 generals in a bad light, criticising the lions who were led by those donkeys is not the done thing. However, Robinson doesn’t shy away from reminding us that the RFC pilots were for the most part ordinary young men thrust into extraordinary circumstances and were as likely to be cowards, fools and bullies as they were heroes, paragons and idealists.

The series certainly owes far more to Catch 22 than Reach For The Sky. It is written in a humourous tone and the pilots’ banter is likely to raise many laughs, but there is a richly cynical vein running through the novels. The senseless waste of human life, the casual savagery of the world’s first truly industrial war, and the protagonists’ struggle to come to terms with their part in it are starkly portrayed and Robinson outdoes Joseph Heller with considerable skill. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. If it seems that he overplays the blood thirst of some of the protagonist, it’s worth remembering that some of the War’s most famous aces took some considerable pleasure in sending German aeroplanes (and of course their occupants) down in flames; “Crackle crackle! Frying tonight!”

The series is very well researched, and the aviation enthusiast will enjoy reading about the various aeroplanes operated by Hornet Sqn and the tactics they used. Robinson puts you right in the cockpit of the squadron’s Quirks, Biffs, Pups and SE5s and the aerial combat scenes are exciting and vivid.

One difficulty with the reading is keeping up with the characters, many of whom come and go with great rapidity. This is hardly a valid criticism. In reality, the training given to the RFCs pilots was so lamentable that many died on their first operational patrol, often without having had the chance to unpack their kitbags (which at least had the benefit of making the orderly officer’s job a little easier). Generally, the old sweats rarely bothered to learn the new pilots’ names until they had completed a couple of flights over the trenches.

This is a fantastic series that will be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a good war adventure; funny, thrilling, poignantly thought-provoking, intelligent and cynical.

“If you’re worried about Foster’s state of mind,” the adjutant said, “you could always send him to see a doctor called Jackson. That’s who my general sent me to see after I shot young Ashby. Jackson’s the Army’s top man on heads, I understand.”

“How did you get on with him?” “Useless. The man’s mentally defective.” “As a matter of interest,” Dando said, “how could you tell?” “Simple. He wanted to talk about panic. How could one recognise panic? So I picked up the poker and chased him round his desk for a couple of minutes. He knew all about panic. Didn’t thank me for it, though. Got very angry, screamed, made no sense. Touch of insanity somewhere in the family, I shouldn’t wonder.”

 

Reviewed by:

Campbell McAulay

Added 3rd July 2015

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Campbell McAulay

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