Pick your heroes wisely

They say that you should never meet your heroes for fear that they may leave you disappointed. The S&G’s recommendation is simply to pick your heroes wisely. In writing the Haynes Manual on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the defining day of the whole experience came in Bristol with the opportunity to interview the man who first made this writer want to tell stories of any kind: Derek Robinson.

It’s nearly 50 years since Robinson turned the literary world on its head with Goshawk Squadron – the Booker Prize runner-up of 1971. Until its publication, the image of airmen in World War 1 had been based upon the myth of a ‘cavalry of the clouds’ (as Lloyd George’s spin doctors put it). They were daring, chivalrous knights of the air jousting high above the squalor of the trenches with their silk scarves a-flutter.

Robinson wrote of a war that was no less squalid than that on the ground from the perspective of an S.E.5 squadron commanded by Stanley Woolley; a foul-mouthed working class combat veteran. Woolley presides over a rabble of idealistic young public schoolboys who believe that they are taking part in a gallant contest with the enemy – a delusion that Woolley tries to beat out of them by any means necessary.

The inspiration for his story had come in 1968, when the Sunday Telegraph ran a feature marking the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force in which a First World War veteran was interviewed. ‘He said it was much more like meeting a guy down a back alley with a sock full of broken glass and cracking him over the head and running like hell,’ Robinson remembered.

‘He said it was just as bad to be shot at 15,000 feet as it was in the trenches so let’s forget all the chivalry stuff, there was no fair play, there was no duelling in the sky… I was reading this and thought: “Hey! Never thought of that!” So that was it, after that I was off and running and so I read everything that I could lay my hands on.’

There were two things that Derek Robinson knew about – writing good copy and the Royal Air Force. The former came from a career spent in the advertising trade, a fair bit of local journalism and generally being a pen for hire… whilst all the while dreaming of writing the perfect detective novel. When it came to writing about wartime airmen, however, the aspiring novelist was able to draw on a wealth of first-hand knowledge as a trained radar operator and fighter plotter.

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Robinson’s characters owe much to his encounters with WW2 veterans while on National Service

‘I did my national service in the RAF and I knew various pilots – this was at the time of Korea, and the reserves had been recalled from among the pilots of the Second World War,’ said Robinson.

‘I was at Exeter Airport and one of these reserve squadrons arrived in Spitfires and flew there all summer… and of course they were all crackers.

‘The railway line comes out of Exeter and it runs through alongside the River Ex estuary and then it goes down the coast to Cornwall. Because it’s marshland down there the railway line is built up on embankments and these guys in Spits used to hang around – we could watch them from the radar station, we could see it – so when the train was steaming out of Exeter and picking up speed they used to dive down and sweep level with the train driver. A lot of that sort of behaviour went into Goshawk Squadron and all the books.’

The full canon of Robinson’s stories of the air begins with a quartet of tales from the First World War that run chronologically from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (War Story, 1987), to the battles of Arras and Passchendaele in 1917 (Hornet’s Sting, 1998), to the German Spring Offensive in 1918 (Goshawk Squadron, 1971). The final instalment tells of the deployment of Royal Air Force units to fight for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in 1919 (A Splendid Little War, 2013).

Then we get to World War 2, in which the series begins with Piece of Cake (1983), the story of an RAF fighter squadron from September 1939 to September 1940. Intertwined with this is a later book, Damned Good Show (2002), which tells the story of the bomber crews in 1939-41 before the arrival of ‘Bomber’ Harris as their commander.

The survivors from Piece of Cake are then found in the vast expanse of the Sahara, fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps alongside the SAS during 1942 (A Good Clean Fight, 1993). The WW2 quartet ends with Flight Lieutenant Sweet, the central character from Damned Good Show seeing out his war, struggling in civilian life and jumping at the chance to fly a nuclear-armed V-Bomber at the height of the Cold War in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (2008).

‘I don’t know of anyone who is competing with me: I don’t know anyone who writes this kind of stuff about First and Second World War flyers,’ Robinson said. He has a very good point as well but sells himself rather short because no novelist has ever come as close to explaining the truth of war in living memory.

Certainly in the case of airmen, only the terminally ill First World War pilot Victor Yeates, in his book Winged Victory (1934), really compares in terms of the rawness and the willingness to address uncomfortable truths. Unlike many veterans who have written about their wartime experiences, Yeates wrote without a care for how posterity might view him or his comrades. Even after a century it is a truly shocking read.

In recent times, novels that have been set in either of the World Wars have merely used elements of the conflict as a backdrop to melodrama. If you read Birdsong after reading Goshawk Squadron, then Sebastian Faulks’ efforts are revealed as a genteel middle-class soap opera that pays only lip service to military history.

‘I’m pretty good at what one critic described as “putting people in the cockpit”,’ said Robinson.

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Goshawk Squadron puts the reader here, sat between two machine guns at 15,000 feet

‘So you feel you know what it’s like up there and it’s complicated, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous and yet it’s hugely exciting and you can do things up there that nobody could dream of. I research that very, very closely but I don’t put a lot of process and procedure in the books because people get fed up with it pretty quickly – but it informs the story. Secondly, the jokes are not bad!’

In fact, the rich vein of humour that runs through all of the books is often riotous. In Robinson’s version of events, the pity of war is something that we the readers experience through the author’s voice or characters like the outspoken intelligence officer ‘Skull’ Skelton who appears in every one of his World War 2 books – usually before getting the ‘chop’ and being sent to some backwater or other as penance.

The airmen seldom, if ever, take time for a wistful glance or mournful sigh – they’re too busy living and dying. Gravitas, pity and sorrow are what we bestow upon wars long after the event, like a hushed BBC commentary on Remembrance Sunday.

‘It’s a point I try to make that, for these young men, being given the most amazing machinery of their times and the means to shoot things down and blow things up – it was bloody good fun!’ Robinson chuckled. Over the years some veterans have complained that he has not done their legacy any favours – but on balance many more have found the ebullience of his fighting men to be right on the money.

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Derek Robinson at home with a selection of his handiwork. A thrilling interviewee for a writer.

‘I was talking to a D-Day veteran once, and he was complaining that we make such a fuss about that landing when there were others before it that never get a mention,’ Robinson recalled.

‘He said: “I remember when we were going into Sicily, and we were in the landing craft, and the Lieutenant stood up in front of us and he said that it was going to be rough stuff that we were going into and it may well be that half of the men in that boat would not be coming back.” And this chap said that he looked around at the bloke next to him and he thought: you poor bastard!’

In recent years, Robinson has produced two non-fiction books that tackle big issues in popular military history. First came Invasion, 1940 which looks at whether or not Britain was in fact under imminent threat of German occupation during the Battle of Britain. In Why 1914?, Robinson’s gimlet eye for history was turned upon the circumstances and misadventures that fuelled Europe’s descent into the First World War.

These books, together with his authoritative works on Rugby Union, books about his beloved Bristol, a series of spy stories and even an American novel, all delight the Robinson faithful. But it is the stories of airmen that have come to define his oeuvre – all of which stem from the writing of Goshawk Squadron.

‘We were on our uppers but I guess it’s part of being young and having lots of energy – I had a lot of energy in those days.  And a fair bit of anger at the world in general,’ Robinson said.

‘I wrote it – according to my wife, who remembers it far more vividly than I do, I’m sure –not so much in a fit of rage but in a fit of defiance. I had already wasted four years writing stuff which nobody wanted to publish. So I said to myself – and I think I said to her too – “well, I don’t give a shit. I’ll write it for me and if somebody else wants to publish it then that’s good luck!” …that’s what I should have done in the first place!’

Although now in his eighties, Robinson remains a cheerfully restless author. The shelves of high street bookshops are groaning under the weight of newer and lesser war novels, while the maestro’s most recent works are mostly self-published and sold directly to his followers. Such is the case with his latest novel, Holy $moke, which came out last year and follows a mismatched group of intelligence men into Rome and the chaos that reigned after Mussolini’s fall.

One cannot help but feel that a return to the screen is long overdue. It’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was broadcast as a six-hour miniseries by ITV but it remains utterly fresh and vital, thanks in no small part to the source material. Sir Peter Jackson has built an entire air force of 1914-18 machinery – not to mention a hangar full of Lancasters – and has yet to find a suitable vehicle for any of them. He need hardly look further than Bristol for inspiration.

All of Robinson’s books can be ordered directly from the man himself by visiting www.derekrobinson.info and this is to be heartily recommended. As for the S&G, our time of chuntering about old aeroplanes and good books, with accompanying tea and doughnuts, will long be remembered. Because sometimes meeting your heroes is very well worth it.

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Advertisement feature: S&G’s book

Did you know that Ronnie Peterson agreed terms with Ferrari to fill Niki Lauda’s seat after the Austrian’s fiery crash in 1976?

Or that Lauda himself fully expected the whole field to pull into the pits behind him at Fuji?

Or that James Hunt’s deal to drive for Ferrari was scuppered by Vauxhall?

Or that one of Ferrari’s senior designers was kidnapped and, sadly, murdered in a story that could have been ripped from the pages of an Inspector Montalbano mystery?

Not for the first time, the S&G has written a book. It is the latest in the series of Haynes Manuals for enthusiasts of the most iconic cars in motor sport history – in this instance, the Ferrari 312T series. So if you like pretty red things and are looking for something to leaf through on holiday this summer, here’s the sales pitch:

This manual contains a guide to owning, restoring and enjoying one of these iconic 1970s Formula 1 cars.

If you happen to have a spare couple of million dollars that you don’t know what to do with, there is guidance on owning a 312T, T2, T3, T4 or T5. Even a T6, if you will… although not the fictional T8. There is also expert advice how to tackle an auction from the chaps at Bonhams and insights into ownership and maintainance from Hall & Hall.

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If you want to get under the skin of this little beast, there’s now a book for you

This book won’t follow Haynes tradition and give you a step-by-step guide to replacing the wiring loom but then we are talking about a Formula 1 car and not a Morris Ital. If you can afford a 312T then you’ve doubtless got a man in a mews garage with grubby fingernails who can handle that sort of thing.

Alternatively, you might want to give it back to Ferrari, where Gilles Villeneuve’s former crew chief, Pietro Corradini, will tend to its needs in the Corse Clienti workshops. He is also a prominent contributor to the book.

But for those who want to revel in the history of the 312T there is, we hope, plenty to enjoy. Lots of pictures. Quite a few words. Many of those words came from the mouth of Mauro Forghieri, designer of the breed and of pretty well all things Ferrari from 1962-82. That interview, ladies and gentlemen, was a good day’s work.

Forghieri also had plenty to say about the storied summer of 1976 and the epic battle for the Formula 1 world championship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. And if Forghieri had plenty to say then the team manager from that fateful season, Daniele Audetto, was a positive Vesuvius of information that had been bubbling away unseen by anyone for decades.

Certainly unseen by anyone in the English speaking world. The story of that summer of ’76 is often told but much of Audetto’s version of events was news to your humble scribe as it will be to any of you in the English speaking world because, let’s face it, the coverage at the time was rather patriotic in tone.

Unsurprisingly the Italian version of events is significantly different to the ‘official story’ as told by the Anglo-Saxon contingent and benefits from a whole host of scandals and intrigues never before mentioned in polite society.

This was all somewhat exciting to be told, but then it was rather an exciting project to be given. The 312T belongs to an age of unalloyed heroism exemplified by Lauda’s return from the Nürburgring, the likes of Hunt, Scheckter and Reutemann wrestling with their considerable fears about surviving each and every race weekend and Gilles Villeneuve’s devastating speed. Revisiting those days with such expert guides was a joy.

The making of the movie Rush and the cars that starred in it is also a feature. So too are those vital ingredients to the true story of 1976 that Rush missed out like the British Grand Prix riots – as reported by someone who was there lobbing beer cans onto the track.

The Ferrari 312T Owners’ Manual marks the second time that Haynes has offered the S&G an opportunity to write about the red cars. Almost 14 years ago your scribe was allowed into the inner sanctum at Maranello to document Ferrari’s resurgence under Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. This resulted in the book Cavallino Rampante, which was one of the few times when life offers the chance to create something that will last a good deal longer than you will.

It’s been a pleasure to revisit that sort of territory again and one hopes that some of that enjoyment is passed on to the reader. So if all that tickles your fancy, please do dive in with both feet.

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There are a few handy hints for those awkward plumbing and wiring jobs

Signed With His Honour

A forgotten literary gem

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.

A captivating account of long-forgotten heroism

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.

Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last?

One could be forgiven for thinking that the model making community was a tranquil oasis amid our turbulent world: a place for calm, reflective pursuit. Yet this is not so – indeed, the pursuit of accuracy can create more online mayhem, hair-pulling and name-calling than a busload of boozed-up celebrities accessing their Twitter accounts at the same time.

Undoubtedly one of the greatest causes of model making fracas is the question of what colours the Spitfires which valiantly defended Malta against unspeakable odds during World War 2 were painted. These aircraft hold a semi-mythical status not only for the deeds done 70 years ago but also for their allegedly unique paintwork – and now one brave soul, Brian Cauchi, has revealed the results of his 14-year research into the matter.

A great Spitfire riddle resolved? This new book offers an exhaustive trawl through the possible permutations.

Mr. Cauchi’s new book labours under the title Malta Spitfire Vs – 1942: Their Colours and Markings, which makes up for its lack of blockbuster appeal by delivering an accurate summary of the contents. Within we find forensic analysis of the many and various colour schemes captured in often poor quality photographs during the dark days of 1942, backed up with fragments of original paint from recovered wrecks and an array of accounts both firsthand and by respected historians on the subject.

The mystique of the Malta Spitfires stems from the fact that they have often been described as being blue – and a blue-painted Spitfire is far more exotic than the muddy tones of camouflage that typify its wartime history. The prospect of R.J. Mitchell’s timelessly beautiful fighter with its lines drenched in blue paint is one that has beguiled model makers for many years – and their interpretations have varied from mild to wild, thus sparking many a heated debate.

Why should we care about such minutiae? After all, the world has moved on and now we are preoccupied by reality TV shows and the Eurozone crisis and… oh, hold on. Let’s have another look at these Spitfires, shall we?

S&G didn’t make a bad stab at deciphering this one, according to Mr. Cauchi

Malta was beseiged from June 1940 until November 1942, standing alone in the centre of the Mediterranean with 1000 miles of open sea between it and friendly soil – while the massed ranks of Italy and Germany sat just 60 miles to the north in Sicily. Despite being only the size of the Isle of Wight, the strategic importance of Malta was absolute as it was from here that submarines, aircraft and ships were able to all-but sever the supply routes to Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and in so doing safeguard North Africa, the Suez Canal and the invaluable oil fields beyond.

As Sir Winston Churchill put it; Malta was the master key to the entire British Empire.

The Luftwaffe devastated the Island in January-May 1941 but when these forces were redirected to the invasion of Russia, Malta was soon back in action. As a result the Luftwaffe returned to the Mediterranean in the winter of 1941-42 with even greater strength and made the Island the most bombed place on Earth. At its peak, during March-April 1942, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Malta was greater than that dropped on London during all 12 months of the Blitz.

It was in March 1942 that the Spitfires finally arrived; replacing the few outdated Hawker Hurricanes that hadn’t been shot out of the sky or blown up on the ground. They came in small numbers and were quickly bombed out of existence but in the weeks ahead more deliveries followed and, despite continued losses on the ground, the Spitfires began to hold the Luftwaffe to account and blunt its furious assault – while the hope which these aircraft brought to the beleaguered Maltese was more valuable still.

Were they painted blue? Yes – more or less. The reason was that they were ordered with desert camouflage of sandy yellow tones which stood out like a sore thumb over the Mediterranean, while flying against enemy forces which outnumbered them by a ratio of more than ten to one. As a result the Island’s defenders took it upon themselves to paint the Spitfires in a more suitable scheme for the unique conditions in which they fought.

About as blue as it gets: a reasonable representation of a Malta Spitfire

Despite the unprepossessing title given to his work, Brain Cauchi’s book is beautifully laid out and his long years of painstaking research are brought to vivid life in the text, photos and colour profiles within. Ultimately there were almost as many different paint schemes worn by these celebrated Spitfires as there were aircraft themselves, because they were usually painted on an ad hoc basis under severe bombardment with whatever materials were to hand.

Even after all his hard work, Mr. Cauchi is at pains to point out that his hypotheses are still only the best guesses he can give in each case. It won’t end the grouchiness among modellers seeking to create an accurate Malta Spitfire but his book does bring some order to the chaos and gives non-modellers a much-needed insight into a story that is too often overlooked by the major historians of World War 2.

In 2005 a Hurricane and a Spitfire returned to Malta to commemorate 60 years since the end of the war in Europe – and both were painted to represent aircraft which flew from the Island. The Hurricane was spot-on but while the Spitfire was perhaps a touch too ‘Hollywood’ in recreating the mythical blue defenders it made for a stirring spectacle…

World Book Day with an old friend

It’s World Book Day, which is an ideal time to revisit one of the most influential books I’ve ever read – Mini: Icon of a Generation by L.J.K. Setright.

Doyen of motoring scribes: Setright in later years

Doyen of motoring scribes: Setright in later years

The story of the Mini, as retold by Setright, is almost as enjoyable as being in your first, doubtless rusty, 1000cc screamer with your foot on the floor. Rather than recount the hoary old tale of Alec Issigonis’s wonder-baby in a straightforward fashion, Setright veers from one theme to another: covering the entire spectrum of influences, applications, successes and failures of one of the most brilliant designs and designers with panache.

It’s brilliantly conceived and enjoyably written but most of all it makes me smile. Precious few motoring books can lay claim to that achievement, while many of us who earn a crust from writing about cars would do well to refer back to this old master at times.

Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland and their famous 'wicker' Mini

Peter Sellers, Britt Ekland and their famous ‘wicker’ Mini