Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Arthur Gould Lee
Grub Street June 1, 2013, (1st published by Jarrold in 1968)
ISBN: 9781 09166042
Buy it Here
This is a worthy re-release of a great WW1 memoir. It deserves to be up there with the best, such as the lauded Wind in the Wires by Duncan Grinnell-Milne (which sits in my reading pile), or Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising. Gould Lee is by turn lyrical and grim faced. He is too modest to attribute his survival to what would appear to be well-honed flying skills. But he does acknowledge that the starting point for his survival was an accident “due to incompetent instruction during training” on an Avro at Filton. This kept him in the UK, building up hours while some of the most attritional air battles were being fought over Flanders in 1916. Luck too played its part - e.g. a bullet going through his flying suit collar and scarf.
He eventually arrived in Northern France in May 1917 with all of 85 hours in his logbook; yet this was as good an insurance policy as one could then obtain, since his compatriots typically had only 15-20 hours total time (10-12 solo) before they were despatched like lambs to the squadrons. Appalling.
The language is unashamedly of the period (e.g. ginned = drunk), yet not quite so stilted as say Norman Macmillan’s Into the Blue. He describes air combat with vigour – the reader is in the cockpit with him. Gould Lee revels wantonly in the skyscapes, and on clear days has views of Blighty from his patrol height of 18,000’. The physical hardship of climbing to and fighting at that level or higher in winter months (half an hour at 20,000’!) is very evident.
Unlike Macmillan he also gives a strong flavour of life on the ground – usually in tented accommodation on some makeshift airfield hurriedly erected in Picardy. He has a carefree, youthful style to both writing and flying (at least before he becomes battle-hardened). Yet there is a side to Gould Lee that marks him as more mature than many of his colleagues – he is already married. Indeed when his squadron (46 Sqn) is sent back to England as part of the hasty reinforcement of home defences after the Gotha raids on London, he manages to have his wife, Gwyneth, live in. The book is in fact based upon his letters home to her.
Yet that maturity does not stop him flying from time to time as a hooligan – circling within a huge mine crater, just for the hell of it, for example. Talk about tempting fate. Other colleagues are not so lucky – such as a Canadian crashing and burning whilst trying to impress some girl a few feet away.
Formation flying skills are essential for his squadron’s patrol work, and one holds one’s breath as young pilots arrive on the squadron with no formation experience at all. (Gould Lee describes at one point a patrol spinning down in formation!). Indeed much of the book could be taken as a sideways swipe at the many inadequacies of the RFC’s training system – which had hardly been improved under the RAF by war’s end. Combined with the frequent stoppages of the Pup’s guns (in his case), it is no wonder life expectancy was measured in weeks. He makes interesting remarks about how the RNAS was favoured (over the RFC) in re-equipping its Pup squadrons.
46 Squadron in February 1917 - three months before Gould Lee joined them
Gould Lee's mount - the Sopwith Pup, later replaced by the Camel