Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The focus of (aviation) military history titles seems to have switched this year from WW1 anniversary tie-ins to 75th Battle of Britain tie-ins. But Grub Street is doing a commendable job in bringing back into print some of the best of WW1 aviation writing. There are much fewer British pilot memoirs from the first conflict than from WW2. This is mainly, I feel, due to the appalling rates of attrition amongst RFC/RAF aircrew in the Great War, compared to WW2. Perhaps also there was less of a willingness to commit to print than forty or so years later. Whatever, this means that good WW1 autobiographies are to be treasured.
The received wisdom out there is that Duncan Grinnell-Milnes’ Wind in the Wires is one of the best to evoke life above the Western Front. I first read it some time ago, and it does not disappoint – deserving its place at or near the pinnacle of WW1 writing. On a recommendation, I then read Into the Blue, by Norman Macmillan, first published in 1929. These two have been re-published this year by Grub Street. Joining them is I Chose the Sky by Leonard Rochford – strangely not first published until 1977, but republished in June 2015. So, I thought I would review this trio jointly.
The early chapters of I Chose the Sky carry some interest as they describe the very haphazard method of training RFC pilots. It is of note that one of Rochford’s instructors was a Ben Travers, later to gain fame as a British playwright. He was also taught by one Alcock (as in & Brown). In passing, Rochford sheds light on the child-like bickering between the RFC and the RNAS in matters of procurement. Later he comments on the lackadaisical approach to instruction in the critical skill of gunnery. Tactics required fighters to fly at what would now be considered absurd heights for piston-engined unpressurised aircraft with no oxygen. These young pilots must have been supremely fit. However fitness did not prevent the occasional case of frostbite so severe that it required repatriation to England.
So the book has some interest for avid researchers keen to find a little colour on operational issues. However it cannot be recommended. Written many years after the event, it is clear that Rochford kept no diary. He relied on his log book and his squadron’s operational record book. So it reads like a litany of flights. There is almost nothing about his squadron’s social life, precious little about his comrades, indeed no insight into life in the RFC at all. Although towards the close, Rochford briefly notes that the squadron’s CO was killed by a Verey pistol fired at him at close range - in the Mess. Extraordinarily errant behaviour!
Moreover the book is written in a somewhat buttoned-up style which bedevils many pilots, and lacks any great literary merit.
Into the Blue, in contrast, is more stimulating. Aside from painting colourful pictures of battle, Macmillan (an AFC in contrast to Rochford’s DFC) also gives us a deeper understanding of his compatriots. He always sets his activities in the broader context of the war, and the story is further enlivened by his squadron’s transfer at the end of 1917, to the Austrian Front. Not many accounts I can recall of that air war!
Grinnell-Milne (DFC & Bar) wrote Wind in the Wires more or less contemporaneously, the final chapter being penned in 1919. It was not (first) published until 1933. After service in WW2, he went on to become a full-time author, his books including, of all topics, a portrait of de Gaulle. He writes with an emotional intelligence rare in military authors of the era. Although, like the fellow volumes, the toll of near constant warfare is clear, Grinnell-Milne loves squadron life. The closing chapter gives a moving account of the emptiness, and loss of purpose, caused by the stasis of peace; perhaps felt all the more keenly because he was by now CO of his squadron. The book’s only drawback is that it is rather lightly illustrated by comparison with the other two, but it is a must-read for anyone interested in WW1 aviation.