Category Archives: Battle of Britain

Air Vice-Marshal Johnnie Johnson

Book cover for Ace of AcesGallant and dashing. A sharp shooter and natural leader. A Spitfire pilot. Johnnie Johnson was an air ace with a relentless desire to destroy the enemy.

Johnson was trained at an Operational Training Unit in Cheshire, where he learned how to fly Spitfires, but not how to fight in them. Pilots were longing for information about the Bf 109, on how to master deflection shooting and how best to keep a look out in the glare of the sun. Johnson relates a story about sending someone to London to buy a novel about World War I, after hearing that it contained some useful information. The booksellers knew about it, but all the copies had already gone at six times the cover price (Bungay 261).

However, his coolness as a pilot and a tremendous eye and judgment once the target was in his gun-sight ensured that he not only survived the war, but went on to become on of its great heroes.

A badly broken collar bone meant that he didn’t fly operationally during the Battle of Britain. Fiercely determined to prove that he wasn’t lacking in moral fibre (an accusation that hung over him during his medical grounding), he made up for lost time and became the RAF’s top WWII ace, accounting for at least 38 enemy aircraft over Britain and Europe.

At the D-Day landings on June 6 1944, Johnson led the first wing of Spitfires over the Normandy beaches. A few days later, they captured the aerodrome at St-Croix and were the first Allied fighters to land in France for over four years. Johnson said:

“…I was very pleased with this new development. Not only would we have the honour of being the first Spitfires to land in and operate from Normandy, but this would give us the extra range needed to sweep South of the River Loire, where we knew concentrations of enemy aircraft were based…Bear in mind that this was a strange experience, landing in what had been enemy territory from which we had previously had thrown at us every description of hostile shot and shell. We touched down…The villagers brought with them gifts of fruit and flowers and wine. Whilst we and the French rejoiced, dead German soldiers lay all around.” (Sarkar 228-229)

Perhaps Johnson’s most impressive achievement was that, in some 1,000 combat missions, he was never shot down. Only once was his Spitfire damaged by the enemy. Apologising, he said, “I was surrounded by six of them.”

Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, former chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, wrote:
“Johnnie’s kills were hard-earned, but then Johnnie had the two skills needed to be successful: he was a good shot and a good pilot. Lots of people were good pilots, but Johnnie was also a good shot – gifted in the art of deflection shooting. Before the war he had been a game-shooter, a sort of “Lincolnshire poacher”. He was a hard man, a very tough man, but a very good leader. He was trusted and he looked after his people. But he was intolerant if a man did not come up to scratch. There were some pilots who had to overcome a great deal of fear; but Johnnie did not seem to suffer like that. It was somehow easier for him. “

This clip from This is your life shows a post-war Johnson adopting his familiar steely-eyed, crossed-arm stance as he encounters personalities from his past. Watching the interview, there is a strong sense of his calmness, professionalism and perhaps detachment.

Johnson prolifically recounted his wartime experiences and wrote several books, including Wing Leader (1956), a wartime autobiography, and Full Circle (1964). With his friend and fellow Wing Commander P B “Laddie” Lucas, he wrote Glorious Summer (1990); Courage in the Skies (1992); and Winged Victory (1995).

After reading two first hand accounts (Richard Hillary and Geoffrey Wellum), I opted for an historian’s approach and turned to Dilip Sarkar’s latest book Spitfire: Ace of Aces. Compiled with information from Johnson’s logbooks, records and writing- coupled with extensive interviews, it is a thorough examination of Johnson’s training and WWII service.

As an independent and external author (a voice that an autobiography cannot provide), Sarkar is able to factually and dispassionately record events. Drawing on his personal friendship is helpful, but it’s still difficult to form a picture of Johnson’s personality, opinions and life beyond the airfield. Faulks captures more of this sort of detail in his biography of Hillary- but he is writing decades after Hillary’s death with no first hand knowledge of the man. The challenge to pin down history continues…

Advertisements

Geoffrey Wellum recalls his recovery from the horrors of war

Epping Forest

Epping Forest, Sir Jacob Epstein (1880 - 1959), circa 1945


“On leaving the Royal Air Force after the war I found that I was just not able either to settle down to serving in peacetime or to civilian life. Only the tranquility of long walks into the depths of Epping Forest seemed to give me any peace of mind. I began to accept that so many of my friends and fellow fighter pilots had paid the extreme sacrifice. One day I ended up at High Beech church, a lonely but peaceful little church. Surrounded by forest I relaxed and gave thanks. Surely God was in that place. The long walk home passing The Forest Gate pub a hundred yards from my cottage enabled me to enjoy what I considered to be a well-earned pint.”

Read the full article. 


Dramatising the real Battle of Britain

Spitfire

“In a way this was a dream come true – getting the chance to dramatise for BBC Two Geoffrey Wellum’s stunning First Light on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain…”

Read director Matthew Whiteman’s blog about the dramatisation of Wellum’s book. 


The first steps for First Light

Meeting author James Holland started Geoffrey Wellum on the road to publishing his memoir.

Holland writes:

“My interview with Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum DFC was one of the first I ever did with a veteran of the war. I’ve posted a piece about meeting him and the publication of his memoir, First Light, on Talking Point, but here is the transcript of the conversation we had in his local pub back in February 2001…”

Read the full transcript on James Holland’s website. 


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


Faulks’ Fatal Englishman

The Fatal Englishman is Sebastian Faulks’s first and so far only venture into non-fiction. It is a triple biography, whose subjects were all men of high promise who died young. They are the painter Christopher Wood (1901-1930), pilot and author Richard Hillary (1919-1943) and Jeremy Wolfenden (1934-1965), an academic and journalist.

Faulks writes on his own website:

“It was in some ways an odd book for me to write, because I have such mixed feelings about biography. But as I wrote, I found odd connections between the three – circumstantial and thematic. I saw that since they came from different parts of the century I could smuggle in an oblique portrait of England and how it had changed in the 20th century.”

David Hare in his Spectator review of 1996 said: “The book is on a great theme; how the failures of Britain in the 20th century have seeped into the soul of its countrymen.”

The second section on Richard Hillary captured my attention. Faulks dashes through the early years to get to where he wants to be: with Hillary in 1940, at RAF flying school in Scotland.

It is difficult for Faulks to be compelling in his descriptions; Hillary’s own words in The Last Enemy grasp the reader around the throat while Faulks is left to mechanically fill in biographical detail. Faulks is helpful though, in contextualising Hillary and in observing his lasting place in history.

Faulks suggests that Hillary returned to flying, against the advice of his doctors, out of some First World War sense of camaraderie, and he draws comparisons with Wilfred Owen. He writes:

“In the Great War many men joined up from a sense of patriotic duty and were then disillusioned. Their motivation after that point was sometimes no more than a will to survive, but in many cases the lost cause of patriotism was replaced by a desire to honour their dead friends: only by seeing it through to the end, only by enduring, could they make some sense of the sacrifice that had been made by so many. This feeling was less common in the Second World War because in 1939-45 most men felt they had a proper moral cause to fight for; they therefore had less need of the subtler claims of the dead. Hillary, however, made it quite clear that this ’14-18 feeling was a powerful if not primary motivation for him.” (217)

Faulks’ account, however, eventually leads one to conclude that it was Hillary’s bloody conceit and indestructible arrogance that made him insist upon flying Blenheims– even after experience had confirmed that his catastrophically damaged hands could not properly control such lumbering aircraft.

Peter Parker argues in The Independent:

“The shared features of their stories are vital to Faulks’s book; without them, it remains a collection of three not especially distinguished biographical essays. What the form dictates is surely something a little more virtuosic than these perfectly decent, very readable but very conventional accounts. We are left to draw our own conclusions, one of which is that while Faulks’s subjects were undoubtedly moulded by their times, their individual falls had more to do with private than public pressures. What proved fatal to these Englishmen were the particular flaws of temperament each carried within him.”

Parker may be correct in his assessment that each of these characters has an individual failing, but I think he understates the significance of history’s processes. Despite the fact that only one of the fatal Englishmen is in active service, all three stories are touched by the effects war.

Much of Faulks’ writing follows a mission: to articulate the horror of war which, for so many, was literally and devastatingly incommunicable. “I felt that these things needed to be explained to people of my generation,” he says. “That may seem rather odd because there have after all been some great war memoirs and poetry written, but they weren’t giving the kind of experience that I wanted to write about. I felt there was something else to say.”

In an interview with Andrew Miller, he describes the need for imaginative access to the past. He explains:

“I have this tremendous greed for the experience of the near past. I never wanted to be a centurion on Hadrian’s Wall or to live in 18th-century London but I would fantastically like to be alive in the 1930s and 40s…

I like the idea that everyone’s life is a complete story, with tiny overlappings and long roots in history. My generation is uniquely privileged in that we haven’t had to go to war, but my father and my grandfather were there and because of that, it’s part of my life. I don’t think I had really grasped that until my first son was born in 1990. That, more than anything else, has been the engine behind my writing.”

I can’t shake the thought the thought though, that Faulks’ writing leaves me a bit chilly. He is competent, applauded and well-trained. But his prose somehow fails to fire me up. I am sure this is a failing and misunderstanding on my part, but as much as I agree with his theories and am fascinated by his topics, I just can’t get my teeth into it.

The Fatal Englishman is interesting and certainly worth reading; but for something that really gets under the skin, we’ll turn elsewhere…


Barrington Gates’s review of The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary

This review was first published in the Times Literary Supplement of June 13, 1942

“This is another book written by a young man who interrupted his youth to become a Spitfire pilot. It will not disappoint those whose appetite for realistic description of the R. A. F. fighters in training and action is still unsated; and it will refresh and sustain many whose interest is rather in the men who are making this tradition than in the details of the battles they fight. This is a book of war aims in which the act of aiming a Spitfire at the enemy is only incidental; if anyone is still unconvinced that this war is a war of ideas over the secret places of the human spirit he will find a proof here. Mr Hillary’s enemy is hardly at all the one he met in the air. The last enemy of his title is drawn from I Cor. xv, 26, but even that is not a very precise definition. It is not death but rather the evil of negation, of life ingrown in self, which engages Mr Hillary as he hunts himself through the fortunes of this striking discourse…”

Read the full article.