If you want a book about the fall of France and the battle to save the BEF, this is not it.
- Alistair Panton & Victoria Panton Bacon
If you want a book about one man’s extraordinary adventures for six weeks from 11th May 1940, then this is it. Panton’s diaries were discovered after his death and published by his granddaughter, the co-author. It is a very personal account of a reconnaissance pilot of a Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, his crew and his ground staff, as they move across Northern France which is being overrun by the advancing German army.
Time and again Panton and his crew fly sorties over German positions, dodging German fighters and ground fire (including friendly fire). This book does not follow each and every sortie, nor does it describe the aircraft in great detail. This is a personal diary and it reflects Panton’s thoughts and fears. He praises his ground crew who manage to keep the aircraft flying without proper maintenance facilities. He describes the help and the hindrance given by refugees and local French civilians, giving an insight into what a defeated country and its population look like. He almost casually recounts the three times he was shot down (the diary ends rather abruptly after he is shot down a fourth time!) Including once by his own side, when he is forced to beach his aircraft at Dunkirk and wait evacuation. Understandably, the RAF were not very popular with ground forces at the time and Panton is both angry and upset at the reception downed pilots are given.
The end of the evacuations from Dunkirk is not the end of Panton’s involvement in France. He flies back to western France to continue spotting for the remnants of the British Army. This part of the book I found most interesting as it is not a period of the war that is written about very often. For those who thought the RAF upped and left France and the BEF to its fate after Dunkirk (which included much of the Army at the time) think again.
The final couple of chapters of the book are taken up by his granddaughter telling us of his last crash landing and subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Germans. He is moved about Europe including a stay at Stallag Luft III of “The Great Escape” fame. There are also three short stories written by Panton after the war. All three are about POW’s and although they are supposedly fictional, I think there is a certain amount of truth in them.
Six Weeks of Blenheim Summer is an amazing story of courage in the air and on the ground. It is almost impossible to imagine how one man can have done so much in such a short space of time. It tells of a time when Britain’s armed forces where fighting for their very survival and the future was far from certain. I have no problems in awarding 5 mushroom heads to this amazing tale. My only minor complaint is the diagrams and maps could have been a bit clearer.