Imagine, if you will, a novel about the Royal Air Force in which there are tantrums about the quality of equipment available, criticism of the strategies employed and doubts about the political ethos which drives the entire war effort.
Garnish this with unflinching personal rivalries, ineptitude on an individual and collective basis and the fact that almost everyone is killed by the end. ‘How very revisionist’, one might think. ‘Some pipsqueak writer is trying to make a name for himself by rewriting history towards today’s agenda’.
But that would be wrong.
Signed With Their Honour is a story based very closely upon that of the pilots of 80 Squadron in Greece and Crete during 1941, who attempted to hold back a mighty German and Italian aerial assault with just a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplanes. Yet that is not the most remarkable thing about the book.
It was written by Australian-born writer James Aldridge – who was actually in Athens and Crete alongside the legendary ace ‘Pat’ Pattle and the rest of 80 Squadron as a wartime correspondent. Yet that is also not the most remarkable thing about the book.
What is simply staggering about Signed With Their Honour is that it was published in 1942.
At one of the darkest points in the war for Britain, with the Japanese running rampant through the Empire, with wholesale slaughter taking place on the beaches at Dieppe and with the North African campaign in full swing, it was possible to buy a novel which depicted exactly how and why these reversals were being suffered.
Even the love story of the heroic pilot who falls, with admirable chastity, for the charms of a beautiful Greek girl has an edge to it.
Her father is a known communist whose refusal to flee the advancing Nazi hordes can only end in tragedy – encapsulating the courage of the Greeks, in Aldridge’s mind – and neither did the apple fall far from the tree when it came to the old Greek’s daughter and her political views.
Perhaps, you are thinking, it was given the Lady Chatterley treatment – published but instantly banned. But no: it became an instant best-seller in both Britain and the United States, receiving effusive critical acclaim.
Indeed, the British propaganda wizards even began making a feature film out of it to follow the likes of Target for Tonight and In Which We Serve – but were stymied when two of the Gladiators being used for filming collided in mid-air – more of which is to follow.
Signed With Their Honour is a remarkable achievement and a piece of writing which clearly inspired the brilliant canon of Derek Robinson decades later and, thus, many writers and scholars to this day.
As for its author, James Aldridge was born in White Hills, Victoria in 1918 but emigrated in 1938 from Australia to England, from where his father – also a writer – and mother both came.
His time was divided between university life in Oxford and family life in the Isle of Man until the onset of war. Throughout his youth, Aldridge had been a prolific writer, taking whatever work he could get for local newspapers, and managed to wangle himself a war correspondent’s job.
The young scribe’s war began in Finland where he covered the Winter War – until he was deported for showing some sympathy with the Soviet soldiers. He then covered the doomed British campaign in Norway in 1940 before heading to Greece and Crete. After escaping the Axis onslaught in Greece, Aldridge covered the campaigns in North Africa and Iran – during which time he penned Signed With Their Honour.
A second novel followed, The Sea Eagle, which retold the battle for Crete from the perspective of the Australian soldiers on the ground, which was published in 1944. Aldridge then went to cover the Soviet advance towards Germany.
After the war, Aldridge continued as a specialist foreign correspondent in the Middle East whilst turning out a further 24 novels up to 2006, set mainly either in North Africa and the Middle East during World War 2 and the Cold War or in Australia.
Throughout his career Aldridge’s prose, heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway yet filled with his own observations and experience, resounded with readers in the West. Yet equally his willingness to sympathise with individuals in the Soviet states earned him the Lenin Peace Prize in 1972.
Today at the age of 95 James Aldridge is enjoying his retirement in south west London and his work still makes for compelling entertainment.