Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
An RAF Officer’s memoir of the Battle of France 1940
Alastair Panton & Victoria Panton Bacon
Biteback, 22 July 2014
Recommended to me by a pilot friend, Six Weeks did not disappoint. It has high production values with a charming jacket design and good print quality; albeit that the overgenerous print size disguises what is quite a slim volume.
Six weeks is a mere pinhead for most autobiographies, but my goodness Panton squeezed a lot into the early summer of 1940. On 11 May Panton and the rest of his Blenheim crew were shot down over Northern France, but with an enormous amount of luck and cunning, he made it back to his squadron. The chaos of the BEF, and the accompanying RAF squadrons, in 1940 has been well chronicled, but the author brings an illuminating personal slant to this in a deft style. His bravery, and concern for fellow squadron members, are soon established.
He had a bird’s eye view of the Dunkirk evacuation, and explains well why there were such widespread taunts from ignorant army types then and in its aftermath. On one such mission a shell passed between his legs, and he made it back to the UK steering his Blenheim just by throttle control. On another Dunkirk protection mission he was shot down by an ignorant squaddie, and seemed to bear remarkably little malice towards the brownjobs afterwards. But the constant (and constantly Westwards) relocation of his squadron in France gave him an opportunity to witness the low behaviour of many refugees, and the increasingly defeatist attitude of the locals.
Panton paints an especially poignant night-time scene inside Chartres cathedral. Indeed it can be no coincidence that the author finds himself in situations that are infinitely more interesting than in most biographies of this era. As the Allied defence of France crumbles to dust, the elements of the RAF retreat to England by sea and air (in readiness to begin the Battle of Britain, were they to know it). Panton draws well the emotional turmoil as he is separated from his beloved crew, and their fate was not as fortunate as his own.
In July 1940 Panton’s luck finally runs out, and he is shot down over Belgium. And the narrative stops with a jolt.
Badly injured, he spends the rest of the war ‘in the bag’. The book concludes with end pieces from his son, and Victoria (his granddaughter), together with three of his short stories inspired by his kriegie experiences. These last seventy or so pages are less than satisfying, but only by comparison with the meat of the book. I, for one, would have loved to have heard about Panton’s PoW career (and indeed his highly successful post-war RAF one), in the same sensitive manner as his wartime flying period. I suspect his main motive for putting down his experiences over those six weeks was that it was so intense, and that he wanted a wider world to know how, and for what, his crewmates suffered.
Victoria Panton Bacon is well connected with the East Anglian military mafia (her husband being MP for South Norfolk, and presumably his co-authored book led to the publication via Biteback). The forward by Lord Guthrie adds further lustre. In what is generally a well-produced volume I am surprised the photos are reproduced in a size as to make them almost unintelligible. That apart, a wonderful addition to the WW2 RAF lexicon.