First light

First Light Geoffrey WellumEven by the standards of the Battle of Britain, Geoffrey Wellum’s story is astonishing.

He joined the RAF in August 1939, aged just 17, and was flying his first combat missions within a matter of months. At the sharp end of many of the ferocious dogfights, he was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, promoted to Flight Commander and, in 1942, transferred to the Mediterranean to lead a group of eight Spitfires patrolling the skies above Malta.

He wrote about his experiences in a moving yet startlingly clear-eyed memoir, First Light, which was first published in 2002 and went straight to the top of the bestseller lists.

Matthew Whiteman directed  a one-off adaptation, which was aired on BBC Two in September 2010. He comments that Wellum’s self-effacing approach is why the book resonates today: “All the other memoirs that I’ve read from the period are very much, ‘How I won the war.’ Whereas the last thing Geoffrey talks about is his own heroism. The effort was heroic, but the only thing about Geoffrey that’s truly heroic is that he found a way to endure.”

Perhaps the book’s reflective tone is due to the fact that Wellum wrote it decades after the end of the war. It’s a strange twist that something written so long after the event should resonate with such truth and capture the immediacy of the Battle.

Twenty-five years ago, Geoffrey Wellum was at the lowest ebb of his life. “The family business was going into liquidation,” he recalls in an interview with the Telegraph. “I was losing my house, my divorce was coming, my son was at university, I had nowhere to live. Everything was pear-shaped.”

In despair, he started writing a memoir about his youth. “I just wanted to sit quietly and convince myself…” He takes a deep breath. “That at some point in my life I had been of use.”

He writes in the prologue:

“Thirty-five years later I am sitting at the dining room table in my small cottage. The french windows are open and the sound and smell of the steady summer rain create a peaceful atmosphere. Before me on the table is a pencil, sheets of foolscap and an old exercise book containing some reflections I jotted down at odd times during those momentous early days of the Second World War.

“Without realising it, I pick up the pencil and start to write. Something seems to guide that pencil as my hand moves back and forth across the paper. The daylight fades. I switch on the lamp and continue until my hand finally stops. The writing has totally relaxed me. I must write some more one day when I think about it and before memory fades further with advancing years. I kept no diaries, so I’ll just have to put all that I’ve written into some sort of order and call it a manuscript.”

Wellum never intended his memoir for publication, but gave it to James Holland, a young author researching a novel set during the Second World War. “I didn’t expect much,” said Holland. “Most fighter-pilot memoirs are fascinating, but they tend to be anodyne, devoid of any emotional punch. But Geoff’s was different.”

Even at the height of battle, Wellum suspected that their heroism would be forgotten. “Well, it has been,” he says during an interview. Recent Battle of Britain Association visits of schools revealed that virtually no children were aware of the events of 1940. Nor were their teachers. “It doesn’t matter,” Wellum says, unconvincingly.

Independent journalist Julia Llewellyn Smith interviewed him in 2002. She noted that he was a natural writer and asks him whether he’s got another book in him. “But what would I write about, darling? Nothing else mattered after that, nothing was worth recording.” But was the writing at least cathartic she asks? Wellum looks sad. “No, darling. It unwound me, but it couldn’t get it out of my system. People say, ‘You’ve got to forget all this, it was a long time ago’. And I say, ‘I quite agree with you, but can you tell me how?'”

 

“England is being tested and, with her, my own personal testing time is about to begin. This is the moment for which I was trained and the moment that has been on my mind largely since I joined the squadron. I am down on the order of battle for tomorrow morning at first light; readiness at dawn.

So be it. Soon I shall know what the others already know. I shall be a man or a coward. I’m afraid of being a coward. If the truth were known, most people are, I should think. I suppose cowardice is the most common of all skeletons in the cupboard.”

-Geoffrey Wellum, 131

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