Category Archives: Recommended reading

Bomber County

Bomber County cover“In bombers named for girls, we burned/ The cities we had learned about in school –/ Till our lives wore out.”
-Randall Jarrell, a flying cadet and navigator in the USAF

Out of necessity, this blog has been quiet for a few months. Remembrance Day seems like a fitting moment to recapture the momentum and coax this project to its conclusion.

Having now amassed a good amount of original research materials, it is finally time to focus specifically on my grandfather- with one last, fitting book review to send us on our way.

Daniel Swift, a journalist and academic in his mid thirties, sets out to discover the fate of his grandfather. He begins his story with the knowledge that in June 1943, James Eric Swift, a pilot with 83 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, boarded his Lancaster bomber for a night raid on Münster and disappeared. He dedicates his book to his father, three years old when the airman – his father – died.

Swift’s book is part literary readings, part history and part personal memoir.

In researching the life of his grandfather, Daniel Swift becomes engrossed in the connections between air war and poetry. A narrative of the author’s search for his lost grandfather through military and civilian archives and in interviews conducted in the Netherlands, Germany and England, Bomber County is also an examination of the relationship between the bombing campaigns of the Second World War and poetry, an investigation into the experience of bombing and being bombed and a powerful reckoning with the morals and literature of a vanished moment.

Swift begins with the poet Robert Graves’s prediction, in 1941, that “no war poetry can be expected from the Royal Air Force”.

Inside a shoebox holding his grandfather’s Distinguished Flying Cross and other remnants, Swift uncovers a book called Air Force Poetry. It contains verse written by serving pilots. “I have never read a more mortal book than this one,” notes Swift. Of the 33 airmen who contributed to it, six had been killed by the time it was published

To Swift, there is “a special kinship between poetry and bombing”. The air crew’s story is a version of the oldest epics of battle: the British bomber pilot is both the soldier of The Iliad, burning the topless towers, and Odysseus, struggling against the odds to make it back to his island home.

Aerial bombardment was to the Second World War what the trenches were to the First: a shocking and new form of warfare, wretched and unexpected, and carried out at a terrible scale of loss. Just as the trenches produced the most remarkable poetry of the First World War, so too did the bombing campaigns foster a haunting set of poems during the Second.

Although using poetry to fill in the spaces between the dry, archival records seems the perfect way to add depth to this history, I found the excerpts discussing his grandfather the most compelling. I sped through the poetry to encounter the next episode in his grandfather’s life.

Journalist David Herman nicely summarises  the impact of the book: ‘...the real achievements are [Swift’s] own – the illuminating details and readings, the eye for the telling absence, the awareness of the importance of fantasy and myth in people’s versions of history.’

For my own work, it also releases me from the pressure of writing sympathetically or creatively. The more I discovered, the more I felt I needed to bind the information into a expertly written narrative. Although Swift writes very well indeed, the quiet facts and thoughtfully research details carry the weight of the story. I’ll leave the poetry to a better writer and will let the crumbling logbook of WO E.L. Britton speak for itself…

Read reviews of Bomber County  in The Observer and The Independent

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Resistance heroine who led 7,000 men against the Nazis

John Lichfield pays tribute to Nancy Wake, the Second World War’s most decorated woman and one of the models for Sebastian Faulks’ fictional heroine, Charlotte Gray

Nancy Wake“Ms Wake, who has died in London just before her 99th birthday, was a New Zealander brought up in Australia. She became a nurse, a journalist who interviewed Adolf Hitler, a wealthy French socialite, a British agent and a French resistance leader. She led 7,000 guerrilla fighters in battles against the Nazis in the northern Auvergne, just before the D-Day landings in 1944. On one occasion, she strangled an SS sentry with her bare hands. On another, she cycled 500 miles to replace lost codes. In June 1944, she led her fighters in an attack on the Gestapo headquarters at Montlucon in central France.

This courageous and resourceful woman reminds us what unforeseen abilities may lie dormant in us all, awaiting extraordinary times to bring them to light.”

From The Independent, 9 August 2011


Charlotte Gray

“Memory is the only thing that binds you to earlier selves; for the rest, you become an entirely different being every decade or so, sloughing off the old persona, renewing and moving on. You are not who you were, he told her, nor who you will be.”

-Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray book cover

Despite previously complaining that the writing of Sebastian Faulks fails to set me alight, I couldn’t resist trying one more novel- the subject matter was too tempting to turn away.

This is the last of Faulks’s French trilogy, following The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Birdsong. Faulks describes it as the most inward-looking of the three books, dealing with themes of memory and loss. The main character’s search for her missing lover, an RAF pilot, in occupied France is set against an uncompromising portrayal of French political life under the German occupation, including French co-operation in the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Despite its harrowing subject matter, it has proved one of Faulks’s most popular novels, remains his best seller in hardback and has sold more than a million copies overall in the United Kingdom (as cited on Faulks’ own webpage).

I struggled to get into the book, and nearly gave up on it after the first 20 pages, but I slowly started to get my hooks into it once Charlotte landed on the other side of the channel.  As the novel escalated to its conclusion, it increasingly invoked tension

and page-turning suspense.

In the small, fictious town of Lavaurette, Charlotte becomes involved with a reckless but courageous architect, Julien Levade, who has saved two little Jewish boys from the clutches of the collaborationist gendarmes. One of the most heart-rending scenes in the book unfolds when the French police in charge of Drancy concentration camp bundle all the Jewish children, including Julien’s two orphans, into the bus that starts their journey to the gas chambers.

Although this book would never make a ‘desert island’ list for me, it is the best Faulks book that I’ve read so far. It was useful to spend some time thinking about the situation in France and helped me connect the importance of North Africa (i.e. its proximity to free France and the Vichy government).

Novelists are masters of the imagination. And Faulks is beyond doubt a master.’
Brian Martin, Financial Times

Read an extract


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…


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. 


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. 


RAF airman blogging from Afghanistan’s front line

A blog about the life of an RAF airman currently on tour in Afghanistan has notched up 80,000 hits, thanks to its blend of humour and gritty realism. A little off topic in the context of this blog, but worth reading…

RAF Airman

Take a look at the RAF History page in particular.