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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Farewell to 2017

Well, that was a year. It was called 2017. It’s over now – although its ramifications may well carry on clanking through history for some considerable time.

Once again the S&G observed fairly limited opening hours due to a number of factors, not least a rather frantic year of book-writing. After 30 years, the longest and dearest-held dream of writing a book about the S.E.5 came to fruition. We also spent a welcome few days with the ancestors of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which may well bring forth some stories.

A new record was set in the number of visits and the number of people coming through the door and settling into the snug. At almost 35,000 we should probably get a bigger sofa. These were the people’s picks for 2017 A.D.:

  1. Gladiator Survivors #3 – What Hope for Faith?
  2. The Racing Driver’s Bride
  3. Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 4: the final journey
  4. Beyond the British Grand Prix
  5. Visiting the TT Garage, Farnham
  6. The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave
  7. Setting Sail with Errol Flynn
  8. Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last
  9. Ken Miles Part 2: 1966 and all that
  10. ‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

It’s gratifying to see a number of Malta-related stories bubbling up to the top 10 (as well as the inclusion of fresh stories like those of the post-British GP world and Ken Miles’s finest hour). History was not kind to Malta’s supreme importance in the story of WW2, both in Europe and in Asia. Gradually and belatedly this campaign, and the uncommon valour that it produced among the armed forces and civilian population, is receiving more attention. There can never be enough.

Interestingly, the movie Dunkirk was released in 2017. Apparently it inspired and infuriated both experts and the uninitiated in a very even-handed way. The S&G has yet to see it, although the absence of a single cigarette among the soldiers and statesmen in the trailers was notable and leads one to question its commitment to history. Apparently, depicting tobacco usage is a no-no to Fox, which produced the film, because of the evil weed’s risk to human health.

Dive-bombers are less of a problem, apparently…

In other news, one publisher to whom the S&G spoke declared that books on subjects pre-1966 were now ‘commercially dead’.  This may come as a startling revelation to Lord March, who continues to maintain about just about the only viable racing venue in the UK based upon a rather different business model! It is remarkable that people are considered unlikely to shell out £10-20 for a book on the era when the classic cars that they describe continue to rocket in value.

We now live in a world where it is possible to spend in excess of £30,000 on a mid-Eighties hot hatch, like a Peugeot 205 GTI (£38,000 being the new record for such a car). The white heat of inflation in values continues to astonish, to the point where the S&G was informed that there is now a queue of around a dozen investors with ‘a minimum of $30 million cash’ waiting to be spent for any Porsche 917, irrespective of condition or racing history, provided that it was built in Zuffenhausen.

Wowsers.

2017 was a slow year for aviation-related stories at the S&G, for which we apologise and promise to make good in 2018. Our air-minded regulars are the most loyal and enthusiastic imaginable and there have been lean pickings for them. This will not do.  We did manage to get the S.E.5 book out successfully, and despite one or two issues with getting the right pages to the printer it was an emotional moment to see 30 years of research and passion take the chequered flag.

There will be much to-do about the centenary of the Royal Air Force in 2018. The S&G will do its bit, with one aim: encouraging the powers-that-be to give its missing VC his name back. July will see the 100th anniversary of Edward Mannock’s death and we all know where he lies. It’s time for him to rest up.

So that’s what to expect when crossing the hearth at the S&G in 2018: more aeroplanes, some valuable reminders for racing folk and a bucket full of derring-do. God knows we need the latter above all else.

A safe and peaceful 2018 to you all.

The S.E.5 and the Camel

With the S.E.5 book on the shelves, a few requests have come in for stories about the machine and the men who flew it. Here’s one that went out on History of War, in case of interest.

It could be said that posterity has been cruel to the airmen of World War I. As a society, we have an apparently bottomless well of sympathy and interest when it comes to the men in the trenches. Yet the men who fought and died in the bitter campaign three miles above them are often portrayed as comical figures in fluttering silk scarves like Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart.

Perhaps that is why, if ever we have cause to think of their war, the recurring images are those of the anthropomorphic Sopwith Camel and the Red Baron’s scarlet Fokker Triplane. Yet it is the prosaically-named S.E.5, which entered service almost exactly 100 years ago today, which was arguably the greatest fighting aircraft of 1914-18.

Designed around the remarkable Hispano-Suiza V8 engine, a product of pre-war motor racing genius Louis Béchereau, the S.E.5 was a conventional biplane intended to combine manoeuvrability with greater structural strength than earlier aircraft. The V8 engine carried it faster and higher than most other front-line machines while its solid construction made for a stable gun platform.

The Royal Aircraft Factory’s designers Henry Folland and John Kenworthy, together with chief test pilot Frank Goodden, worked to the premise that the war would not be won by flying rings around the enemy but instead by shooting him down. The days of gallant lone hunters jousting in the sky – and the romantic vision of the ‘cavalry of the clouds’ – were coming to an end by the time that the S.E.5 debuted above the Battle of Arras in late April 1917.

Formations of aeroplanes, as many as 50 on each side, would instead jockey for position before unleashing a blitz attack, regrouping and then attacking again. This was not a method of fighting that the swashbuckling pilots who started the war easily adapted to: most notably Britain’s celebrated hero Albert Ball, who was initially an outspoken critic of the S.E.5.

Ball helped modify the original design to its definitive S.E.5a specification, with a raft of improvements that gave the pilots better visibility, greater firepower and even a degree of warmth in the icy world of an open cockpit at 15-20,000 feet. Despite his early misgivings, Ball eventually came to rely upon the S.E.5’s rugged construction but he remained a lone hunter at heart, which ultimately led to his death in combat on 7 May 1917.

Yet despite Ball’s loss the S.E.5 went on to see more of its pilots reach the status of ‘ace’ – namely shooting down more than five enemy machines – than any other Allied aircraft in the war. The most successful S.E.5 pilot was diminutive South African pilot ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp Proctor, credited with 54 victories made exclusively on the type.

In total, 215 pilots ‘made ace’ on the S.E.5 on the Western Front and in the Middle East, while the type also served with distinction in defending Londoners from the terror of large scale bombing raids. Among these men were the classically-educated Arthur Rhys Davids, the working class heroes Jimmy McCudden and ‘Mick’ Mannock, as well as India’s only ‘ace’ of the war, Indra Lal Roy.

“The S.E.5 is a very modern aeroplane in many respects,” says Rob Millinship, who has flown the last original airworthy example of the breed for 25 years as part of The Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in Bedfordshire. “It’s 100 years old but nothing about it would surprise or disconcert a pilot used to modern high-performance designs.”

Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel accounted for more enemy aircraft destroyed than their counterparts in the S.E.5 but their successes came at an almost insatiable cost to their own lives. Unlike the S.E.5 with its long, stable V8 engine, the rotary-engined Camel was designed to be unstable in flight – perfect for dogfighting at close quarters but dreadful for inexperienced or wounded pilots trying to land safely.

Losses among Camel pilots stood at 831 dead (with 424 being killed in action and 407 killed in flying accidents), with 324 more pilots wounded or made prisoners of war. Among the S.E.5 squadrons, 286 pilots were killed of whom 207 were lost in action and 79 in accidents, with 170 more wounded or POW.

This means that while the Camels scored 3,318 victories in air combat to the S.E.5’s 2,704 the cost was infinitely greater. In statistical terms, one Camel pilot was lost for every four victories scored compared to one S.E.5 pilot for every six victories scored.

“Young guys with very little experience were getting thrown into these machines and it was sink or swim,” says Gene De Marco, head of The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, which has built three Hispano-Suiza powered reproduction S.E.5s under the watchful eye of proprietor and Lord of the Rings movie mogul, Sir Peter Jackson.

“If you’re a pilot with maybe ten hours of experience in total before reaching the front line, it would be very easy to kill yourself in the Camel… in the S.E.5 there were so many luxuries and so many potential problems had been engineered out of it that it was a very modern, very pleasant aeroplane to fly.”

The original story can be found here: History of War

And the winner is…

First of all thank you to everyone who took part in the first S&G readers’ competition. Hopefully it will not be the last.

The question was to name the three men credited with designing the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5 and they were H.P. Folland, John Kenworthy and Major Frank Goodden.

In case of concern, there is method in the madness of such an apparently unrelated question to win a Haynes manual about Ferraris from the 1970s. At present the S&G is a hive of activity while yours truly finishes off the Haynes manual for the S.E.5, which will be available from early next year to mark the centenary of the type.

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The correct competition entries have been counted, shuffled, re-shuffled, placed in a hat and jiggled around a bit for good measure. After these preliminaries an independent body (well, the independent fingers of Miss Sonal Patel at least) produced the winner’s name. Step forward please, James Miers – one signed copy of the Ferrari 312T series manual will be heading your way.

James, if you could post a reply on this entry including an email address, I shall contact you directly to get your address and delete the blog reply immediately to maintain privacy.

Thank you once again to everyone for taking part, for visiting the S&G and offering to give a good home to the Ferrari book. If you haven’t seen the growing range of classic aircraft manuals by Haynes, please do feast your eyes on the array to date. The S.E.5 will be the second World War 1 title in the catalogue, following the Sopwith Camel published earlier this year.

Normal service will soon be resumed!