The Royal Air Force turned 100 on 1st April this year, and carries its age in great fashion. It was the first air service to become independent of the other two, and was born out of the hard-won experience built up over the battlefields of the Great War by the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. The achievements of those two corps and of the air force that emerged from their unification are certainly worthy of celebration, and Penguin is doing so by publishing a collection of books that tell some of the countless great stories of the RAF.
The Centenary Collection is a series of six paperback books, united by same style of cover and by the same agile format, which bring together a good selection of tales of that human courage that has seen the RAF through the great challenges of its century.
Naturally, the skies of the Second World War get most of the attention, but of the many stories out there, Penguin has selected an interesting few:
The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary is not only the story of a Spitfire pilot in the terrible hours of the Battle of Britain, but also the extraordinary tale of a man who was shot down and survived through months in the hospital, becoming a member of the “Guinea Pig Club” that Archibald McIndoe created by pioneering plastic surgery.
Every so often, Richard writes the name of a comrade, of a friend, noting “from that flight, he did not return”. It hits home hard, every time. Not much else needs to be added.
There is no attempt on Richard’s part to reconstruct how he was shot down: just falling into darkness and pain, with hands and face burned, eyesight lost. Weeks of suffering, followed by the return of eyesight and a long struggle to get back in control of his hands and have his face rebuilt. It is a tale of courage and also a story of evolving medical practice. The strength of character that emerges from the pages is hard to describe: Richard is direct, sincere and concise in his memories: the intensity comes from what he sees and goes through, there is no need for tinsels.
Richard decided to write his story, and that of his lost comrades, when he was in the hospital, slowly recovering. He said he wrote for humanity whole, to let at least some of the stories of those men be known, to show what they were ready to do for their ideals.
Richard Hillary was not tamed by what he went through. He helped rescue a mother and her children from a bombed house, and that ensured that he would never rest. He managed to get back to a flying unit.
The Last Enemy was first published in 1941. It is an open ended book, because Richard died 7 months later in a second crash.
Few stories could better underline the value of the men who made the RAF what it is.
Tumult in the Clouds by James Goodson is another inspired choice. Anglo-American, James survived the sinking of the SS Athenia off the Hebrides and distinguished himself by helping other survivors. He decided to become a fighter pilot in the RAF and served in 43 Squadron and for a stint in 416 Squadron, Canadian, before being posted to fly Spitfires with 133 Squadron, one of three Eagle Squadrons set up for American volunteers.
Eventually, those Squadrons would become the core of Fourth Fighter Group, Eight Air Force when the United States declared war, and the Spitfires were hesitantly handed over to be replaced by P-47s. Including this particular story is a tribute to the long lasting and key relationship between the UK and the US, between the RAF and what wasn’t yet, at the time, the USAF, but the USAAF, with the extra A for “Army”. It is amusing to read of how an impudent Texan joyously asked King George VI permission to wear Texan boots with the RAF uniform, and touching that the original Eagle squadrons asked to continue wearing RAF wings on their uniforms after becoming USAAF units.
The book is rich of action, and recalls combat actions and rivalry with the great Luftwaffe units, and even the meetings with the Me-262, the first combat jet. One of the best stories to experience what it was like to fly fighters in the Second World War, and a great story of long range bomber escort flights and daring strafing through hellish barrages of Flak.
Going Solo by Roald Dahl brings us to Africa, where Roald is caught by the war. He trains in Nairobi, on Tiger Moths, then out to the huge base at Habbaniya, before joining 80 Squadron with its Gloster Gladiators. But Roald crashes in the desert and has to go through a slow and painful recovery in Alexandria, before ferrying a Hurricane out to Greece and staying there to fight alongside the remaining few, and they were really few at that point, trying to carry through a doomed campaign.
The book is full of photos that appear on many of the pages, and original letters sent at the time are also reproduced inside. It is another deserving story: the battles over Greece are not the most famous, so it is great to include them in this collection.
First Light by Geoffrey Wellum contains one of the most impressive recollections of training to become a fighter pilot. The pages transmit all the burning desire and all the fears and hesitations. The night flying, with its challenges. The difficulties in mastering navigation. The entry, with very little in terms of flying hours, in newly formed 92 Squadron. There is everything, and Geoffrey really transmits his emotions from the page. His account of his first flight in a Spitfire is particularly delightful.
The pages that follow are intense: the Battle of Britain, then fighter sweeps and escort missions over occupied France. All of them gripping, and culminating with Geoffrey taking part in Operation Pedestal, the desperate bid to resupply Malta.
Tornado Down by John Nicol and John Peters brings us to the RAF of our times. RAF Flight lieutenants John Peters and John Nichol were captured in the desert of Iraq in 1991 when their Tornado was hit by Saddam’s air defences. They were prisoners for seven terrible weeks of torture, abuse and interrogations.
The narration alternates between one protagonist and the other, telling the story of those days in vivid detail. The book contains multiple good photos and a cutaway of the Tornado, and gives us the chance to discover what it was like to go through that infernal experience and return to normality after it, which is a formidable feat in itself.
Immediate Response by Mark Hammond is the last book of the collection but, I will admit, the first one I began reading. Its great merit is to bring Kandahar and Bastion to life on the page and tell the story of operations that are very close in time, yet already distant. The key turning point in the Afghan campaign was in 2006 and the book shoves the reader into a Chinook flying in support of British troops holed up in the infamous platoon houses.
Major Mark Hammond is a Royal Marine, a bootneck with experience on Lynx and on USMC Cobra attack helicopters that refused to “fly a desk” and went on to serve in the Chinook force. In his story there is the joinery of modern day operations, and the intricacy of dealing with rules of engagement, political implications, media considerations that are a cornerstone of modern operations.
The most vibrant pages of the book are about a casualty extraction from an incandescent landing zone in Musa Qala, which required a major combined effort to be carried out and which resulted in the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross. This personal, direct, bootneck-speak story – truly hoofing, if you know what I mean – gives an insight of what Afghanistan was truly like, and shows the hard work of the MERT teams as well.
I want to include this extract from the book, which introduces another powerful part of the book, when Chinooks are instrumental to the first large scale Relief in Place between PARAs and Royal Marines, because it shows the complexity of modern operations and the variety of considerations involved.
The book is rich with images from the campaign and is opened by a cutaway of the Chinook.
Immediate Reaction is certainly recommended reading for everyone who wants to better understand operations in Afghanistan. A multitude of good books have been published, and I haven’t read them all so any list I can offer you wouldn’t be complete, but I can certainly recommend Ed Macy’s Apache and Hellfire for the Attack Helicopter side; Aviation Assault Battle Group – The 2009 Afghanistan tour of the Black Watch (3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland) might be less known, and is a chronicle more than a novel, but is highly recommended. Rich of photos, maps, data contributed by multiple members of the battle group, this is a great summary of one of the most interesting roles covered by British troops in Helmand, written directly by those who were there. I also suggest picking up Company Commander by Major Russell Lewis and Joint Force Harrier by commander Ade Orchard with James Barrington. For me, Immediate Response was another step in a travel that began with those books and which is by no means finished.
The Centenary Collection is a perfect way to celebrate the RAF’s birthday in this special occasion. The stories that have been chosen show in full the kind of human values and of characters that have made the RAF what it is today. It sheds light to lesser known battles; it shows modern day joint force approaches and shows how the special relationship with the US truly went in force.
It is a collection of tales that I think anyone with an interest in the RAF’s story should possess. I’m certainly glad to add them to my own collection, right by my many aircraft models, because Spitfires and Hurricanes and Typhoons will make a good contour for these books.
These days I often stand accused of being a navy type, while my interest is the health of the UK’s military capabilities as a whole. Those that accuse me of an anti-RAF bias clearly do not know me, and misinterpret my comments. They can’t know, and some might not believe even if told, that it was the Spitfire that started my interest in the military. They can’t imagine that I was reading The Great Circus, the memories of Pierre Henri Clostermann, when I was just a boy; nor that the Dambusters Raid and the “thousand bombers” attacks were arguments of my readings and studies at an age when they probably should not have been. I grew up with pilots such as Guy Gibson as an ideal hero and with a great interest in the Pathfinders and in the agile, fast “wooden wonder” Mosquito which managed to improve the picture for Bomber Command while it was paying such a bloody price to get past German defences. The friends who have lived up with me ranting on about the RAF’s exploits could definitely shoot down any accusation of me having anything other than love for the Light Blue.
That doesn’t mean that I always have to agree with its decisions and their impacts on wider Defence, but that’s a story for another time.
The Centenary Collection is an ideal addition to my vast library, and a source of new inspiration. While I’m writing, though, let me also again recommend that you get your hands on The Great Circus (or The Big Show, in other editions) as well, if you get a chance to do so. Clostermann, Free French ace in the RAF, first on Spitfire and then on his beloved Tempest nicknamed “Grand Charles”, has another great story to tell.
It might have also been responsible, at least in part, for my special, (not) secret love for the Hawker Tempest and Fury...