Tag Archives: Royal Air Force

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

RAF in the desert

The RAF had begun to build up its strength in the desert just after the Battle of Britain and just in time for the first offensive in 1940. When it opened, the RAF had about 220 aircraft, mostly bombers, with just two full squadrons of Hurricanes (hardly enough to establish air superiority).

In mid 1941, the RAF’s newly appointed AOC-in-C Middle East, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, sat down with Auchinleck (Montgomery’s predecessor) to work out how the RAF and the Army should work together to defeat a common enemy. The RAF would bomb ports to disrupt supply lines and attack the lines of communication behind the battlefield. Casting pre-war RAF doctrine aside, it was also agreed that the army would receive air support directly on the battlefield (Bungay 104-107).

Disruption of supply lines was critical to winning the Battle. Fighting at desert war has been likened to a battle at sea- where the actual territory counts for nothing (waves of a salty ocean or windswept, featureless sands), and advancement cannot be made without machines (ships or tanks…). In this hostile environment, survival meant supplies. In theory, a mobile infantry unit needed 350 tons of supplies a day, including water, i.e. about 10,000 tons a month (Bungay 44).

Tedder re-organised his Command, turning his forward group into Air Headquarters, Western Desert, which soon became known as the Desert Air Force. In July, the Desert Air Force also got a new commander in the form of the New Zealander Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Connigham, who was known as ‘Mary’ (a corruption of ‘Maori’).

The British desperately needed Spitfires to stem their fighter losses in 1942, but they did not arrive. Keith Park acidly observed:

“Early in 1942, Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory had 75 fighter squadrons in England, carrying out massive sweeps over France, as compared with only 52 squadrons when the Luftwaffe was at its full strength during the Battle of Britain. When the C-in-C Middle East asked for Spitfires for Malta,Fighter Command refused…when as few as five Spitfire squadrons could have saved Malta from the terrible blitz of spring 1942. This all arose from the mania of Sholto Douglas and Leigh-Mallory for Big Fighter Wings.”

Douglas intended to tie down the Luftwaffe and force it to withdraw fighters from Russia, but instead pointlessly lost many pilots and planes over France. The only Luftwaffe units ever to be withdrawn from Russia were sent to the Middle East because of the RAF’s activities in Malta and the desert. The Desert Air Force had to wait until May 1942 before it got it first operational squadron of Spitfires.

Following the Battle of El Alamein, Rommel was eventually driven back into the a strip of land between an outcrop of hills and the Tunisian coast. The battle for North Africa did not end until May 1943.

One of the lessons Rommel was to take from Alamein to his later role as commander of the German defences in Normandy was the significance of air power. During the battle, the Allies had flown 11,586 sorties and had lost 97 aircraft. The Axis air forces had managed to put up 3,000 sorties an lost about 84 aircraft. The Desert Air Force hounded the retreat until it ran out of targets, but the Luftwaffe was unable to have any impact on the pursuers (Bungay 196-98).

The Second World War in North Africa

El AlameinThere are now many posts on this site about Bomber Command and their campaign over Germany. Although important for context, they don’t tell the story of Grandpa’s service. His flights were not through the flak- riddled nights of Europe. His war was over North Africa.

Historian Stephen Bungay writes that the British Navy, Air Force and Army each had a battle that they had to win during the Second World War. For the Royal Navy, it was the Battle of the Atlantic; for the Royal Air Force it was the Battle of Britain; for the Army it was El Alamein.  So, before turning to the skies, we’ll stop to build a picture of the war from the ground up.

In 1940, Egypt sat, like a spider in its web, at the centre of a crucial geo-strategic network that included the Eastern Mediterranean, Abyssina (invaded by the Italians in 1936 and liberated by the British in 1941), the Middle East and the Suez Canal.

For three years, Axis and Allied forces chased each other over the hostile terrain of the North African desert. The tide turned in the Allies’ favour at the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942. British General Montgomery spent months building up an overwhelming advantage in men and armour, before launching his attacks against Field Marshal Rommel’s German and Italian troops.

Montgomery was a charismatic British commander, matched by Rommel, one of the most striking German generals. The theatre of war was both harsh and romantic, the classic tactician’s paradise and quartermaster’s nightmare.

The battle signified ‘the end of the beginning’ of World War Two, as the Allies forced a decisive breakthrough and broke the Wehrmacht for the first time. Churchill’s faltering reputation was saved, Russia was briefly appeased by Britain’s military contribution and Hitler was forced to turn his attention to more than one front.

With Alamein as a starting point, I’ll explore the issue of supply lines, the importance of air power in this theatre and the harshness of desert life. This will lead us to a dusty outpost in Egypt, where we finally meet up with Grandpa.

“All that is necessary is that each and every officer and men should enter this battle with the determination to see it through, to fight and kill, and finally to win. If we do this, there can be only one result – together, we will hit the enemy for six out of Africa.”


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. 

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