Squadron Airborne, the novel by Elleston Trevor has been reissued by the Imperial War Museum to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Like the other titles in the IWM Wartime Classics series, Airborne gives us real insight into the lives of service personnel. It’s vivid and intense, presenting a week in the life of a south coast squadron and giving us a cockpit and ground-level view of the action for pilots, mechanics and support staff alike. It rewards slow, sustained, concentrated reading such is its richness.
There are so many themes explored that I would rather not do a standard review. Instead, here are five quotes from the book which I think are representative of the themes explored in the novel:
The experiences of the pilots and ground crews are obviously different. When the base is attacked, the ground crews who are usually far from the action are interested to see what is going on:
‘The others were standing up now, interested in the distant battle. They worked hard on the flights, and saw little result. A machine came down with its tail shot to bits or the engine streaming oil, and they made it good, and sent it up again. There wasn’t much joy in that. During the past four days Vestal had brought down 47 of the enemy, confirmed kills with many probables; but these men were not responsible. The score cheered them, but they had had not hand in it, despite what the CO kept on telling them. So they stood here now, excited by the distant scene. That was the war, up there.’
That’s not to say there aren’t other moments where the ground crews feel involved. The introduction to the novel highlights a different passage describing the squadron’s take-off: for these few moments there was no difference between the men in the aircraft and those on the ground, for they had worked this little miracle together with one man’s bare hands and sweat as honest as another’s.
Leaders understand psychology. They really understand it.
CO Mason makes a point of correcting newbie Stuyckes in the open air, so that no one can say he received a dressing down in the office. Mechanic Daisy realises she also needs to make Stuyckes feel at ease:
‘Nobody knows how to say your name, sir, and it’s very important to get it right.’ She made it sound as if the entire squadron had devoted its morning to this dilemma and was on tenterhooks for the answer. To a small extent he believed her, and the feeling that he was unwelcome here diminished.’
Other examples are Mason’s handling of a pilot who is exhausted and broken, and a pilot making up stories about their own supposed cowardice to make a new pilot feel less wretched.
War brings action, but the silence can be equally oppressive
There are plenty of action scenes, but also occasions where hanging around on standby can unsettle all involved. There are rushed romances, but Mason hangs back from a dalliance with Felicity because it would provide a heaviness to his missions that he believes could be unbearable. And also this:
‘Slowly the sound of the squadron died away, as the wings tilted, catching the sun, then straightened on course, becoming smaller in the blue. Very soon, silence came back’ the deep silence that has in it a sense of loss.’
The action is incredibly personal, intense and routine
Stuyckes dreams of having a story to tell someone – anyone – whether or not they are listening – that includes the line, ‘Then I saw Jerry’. His first mission is going to be a big deal:
‘There would be only one more moment bigger than this one, for him: it would come when he made his first kill…it had not registered as sharply as he had expected. Pilot Officer P J Stuyckes was taking off on his first combat mission, and it should have been written in fiery letters all over the sky; but a lot of others were taking off with him, and they did this every day, and they didn’t look as if they thought very much of it.’
It didn’t feel glorious to those taking part
‘Mason turned…the day was only half-way through, and the aerodrome had been hit because they hadn’t been able to stop the bombers getting in, and they had lost six machines, and two pilots were known to be dead, one of them Bill. And this smug little bastard with his white-mouse face and tin-hat and notebook said that it was a bloody good show. The dreadful thing was that, in cold figures, he was right.’
Thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation to take part in the Squadron Airborne blog tour and to the Imperial War Museum for the review copy.