Great War fliers - 5 books.

Whining Civvy

War Hero
This is not a review of a single book but of five, all first-hand accounts written by pilots and observers fighting during the first world war. Most people with a basic awareness of the air war of that period will know of James McCudden, but fewer will know either Norman Macmillan or Haupt Heydemarck, a German whose trilogy of books was and still should be considered classics of the period.

Major James T.B McCudden, R.F.C & gongs, did not survive the conflict and we are fortunate that his account was written in diary form at the time, beginning with his joining the R.F.C in 1913 and covering his nervous first experiences with the very earliest of aircraft and continuing forward into the war. It seems a little dry to begin with, written in the terse style of a man used to logbooks rather than diaries, but as the book progresses it becomes both engaging and, quite frankly, terrifying. The dangers to which early pilots were subjected were absurdly high to modern eyes, and the book is liberally sprinkled with the fates of other fliers - many, many names mentioned in the text are asterisked with the footnotes a litany of death when the wings fell off, death when 'something flew off the bonnet of the aircraft and hit him', death in battle, badly smashed up in an accident, and promotions to positions of rank for others. In those years, it is clear, it was quite literally death or glory for many young men, with death as much due to aircraft unreliability and inadequate training as enemy action.

McCudden himself was as preoccupied with the mechanics of his aircraft as he was the flying, and went to great lengths to gain that extra bit of speed and height and to increase the reliability of his guns (a major frustration for all three of these authors). He was, I would say, one of the very earliest entirely professional fighter pilots, disinterested in the chivalric code commonly attributed to fliers of the era and seemed to take a very scientific approach to the job in hand, with his respect for an enemy dictated entirely by the level of flying skill demonstrated during combat (and utter contempt for those who do not, as described in one notable incident when he shot down an obvious rookie who, he said, must have been paying more attention to the bars in Berlin than to the instructors and got what they deserved as a result). He comes across as a cold man, but given that this is a war diary written between combat operations, it can reasonably be said to reflect more upon the mindset of a man in battle than his wider character.

His death in a simple accident was unquestionably a tragedy; suffering an engine failure during takeoff he tried to turn around and land and sideslipped into the ground. It is even more tragic if you consider that Heydemarck found himself in exactly the same situation and knew to fly straight on rather than turning, considering the maneuver a rookie error. Given McCudden's skills, I find it hard to believe that he wouldn't have known that and can only assume that his mind was elsewhere at the moment of failure and acted instinctively, losing his life as a result. Bad luck resulting in death is a common theme in all of these books, and his unfortunate fate is no more than that.

Into The Blue, written by Wing Commander Norman MacMillan R.F.C and gongs, is very similar although the author, being fortunate in that he traversed that hideous fire successfully, was able to write his memoirs with the benefit of a few years of reflection. Very clearly a man of his time and social station, he does exhibit some moral judgementalism which makes the more conservative members of even these esteemed forums seem positively whacko liberal in comparison, but it is not my place to criticise. I do feel sorry for the poor bugger who got his end away with a hussy after getting dumped and then had to sit through what must have been a very uncomfortable breakfast with him the next morning though. I can feel the freezing disapproval across a century. But anyway. This book is utterly fascinating and gives a very detailed depiction of the aircraft and dangers faced by the airman of the period. Well written and engaging, one of the best - or worst - things about it is those moments when he writes of the deaths of his comrades. Giving names and the manner in which they die drives home the human cost of the war and mercilessly strips away the comforting statistics which subsumes the pain of individual men. These weren't a pilot and observer killed when their two-seater went down, this was so-and-so the pilot, aged x, who died when it hit the ground, and so-and-so the observer, aged x, flung out during the spin and fell four thousand feet to his death. It's nasty to read and truly horrifying when you sit and actually think about what happened. Rest in peace.

Haupt Heydemarck begins his trilogy with Flying Section 17 and is an entirely different kettle of fish to the above. Light and chatty, great fun to read, he shies away from the horror and fear and treats the war as a gentlemanly sport, governed by honour, in which the pleasures of outwitting the enemy and completing the mission are as much a part of the war as the actual fighting. An observer rather than a pilot, he is naturally less keen on getting stuck into an air battle than a scout pilot, and his books detail dodging anti-aircraft fire, observation methods and, in the final book, bombing missions. He writes about the almost comical codes developed by aircrew to communicate during flight - whacking the pilot on different parts of the head or body to denote directions of flight, pilots blipping the engine to send signals to the observer, and turning the engine off mid-flight if they need to shout into each other's ears. He manages to make frankly hair-raising events into fun, sometimes funny, adventures. These books are, however, filled with sadness and grief. A far warmer and emotional writer than the other two, Heydemarck builds up the sense of comradeship and, I will say it, love for his fellow crewmen in a way which makes the reader grieve alongside him when they, as they sometimes do, die in battle. The second part of the third book in particular seems more eulogy to an unquestionably brave and good man than anything else, and it is a reflection of the writers skill that I left the series saddened by the death of what was, of course, a skilled enemy responsible for deaths amongst our own RFC pilots. Heydemarck includes numerous photographs taken by himself during his career as an observer and in many ways builds the narrative around them. A friend was shot in the legs - here's a picture of a grinning young man giving the thumbs up from a hospital bed. The English score a direct hit on his airfield - here's a photo of a destroyed aircraft. It's fascinating.

These books are filled with great stories, pathos and grief, horror and humour, and if you're interested in the Great War, and even if you aren't, they are cracking reads and I very heartily recommend dipping into your pocket and buying them. I bought McCudden from a second hand shop, but the rest are available through the Naval and Military Press and they're as cheap as chips.



Flying Fury - Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps - Major James T.B. McCudden

Into The Blue - Norman MacMillan

Flying Section 17
Double Decker C 666
War Flying in Macedonia
- Haupt Heydemarck
 
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Most people with a basic awareness of the air war of that period will know of James McCudden, the Canadian ace flying on the Western Front,
James McCudden wasn't Canadian. He was English/Irish, a pads brat who was born in barracks in England his dad was a SNCO. He joined the Royal Engineers as a boy soldier and then joined the RFC as a mechanic when it was first formed.

He was awarded an MM as a gunner/observer and was subsequently commissioned and completed flying training. That was why he was always tinkering with his aircraft with the mechanics to get the maximun performance out of it.

He was always thinking of new tactics and many times would set up new boys for kills. Very much a team player compared to Richtoften who always seemed to be a glory hunter to me.
 

Whining Civvy

War Hero
James McCudden wasn't Canadian. He was English/Irish, a pads brat who was born in barracks in England his dad was a SNCO. He joined the Royal Engineers as a boy soldier and then joined the RFC as a mechanic when it was first formed.

He was awarded an MM as a gunner/observer and was subsequently commissioned and completed flying training. That was why he was always tinkering with his aircraft with the mechanics to get the maximun performance out of it.

He was always thinking of new tactics and many times would set up new boys for kills. Very much a team player compared to Richtoften who always seemed to be a glory hunter to me.
My mistake, I'll edit to correct it. Thank you.
 
Bishop, Collishaw, McClaren and Barker were the top scorers for Canada..

All scored over 50
236 Betweeen them
2 VC's (Bishop and Barker)
All survived the war
 
Bishop, Collishaw, McClaren and Barker were the top scorers for Canada..
And Collishaw went on to command what became the desert Air Force during and after Operation Compass.
 
MacLaren broke his leg wrestling with another pilot and might, just might, have caught or overtaken Collishaw's tally had he not missed the last month of the war; all his 54 'kills' came in 9 months.

Given that he was the most successful Camel pilot, lived to the age of 95, founded the Air Cadet League in Canada, and was something of a mover and shaker in Canadian civil aviation, it's a bit surprising that there doesn't seem to be a biography of him.

Arthur Gould Lee's No Parachute is also worth a read if you're into WW1 aviation; Collishaw's 2nd World War efforts are covered in a recent (and very good) book by Mike Bechthold.
 

Mölders 1

Old-Salt
I find WW-l in the air very interesting also.

A number of myths and facts were born then that are still alive today.....

Most notably most people think that Von Richthofen was the best pilot of WW-l simply because he was the highest scoring Ace, (in my opinion it was René Fonck).

Oswald Böelcke was literally the man who wrote the book on Air To Air Fighting and was the world's first Fighter Leader and was beyond any doubt the finest Fighter Leader of WW-l. Much of what he wrote in the Dicta Böelcke still holds true today and l believe it gave the Luftsreitkräfte a big advantage over the Royal Flying Corps. I tend to think that the Luftsreitkräfte was better organized than the Royal Flying Corps and were able to hold their own right through to the Armistice.

The Aviators of those times were (and still are) referred to as Knights Of The Sky......far from it! Many of them were both physically and mentally shattered from their experiences of Air To Air Combat, also as a previous poster mentioned Aircraft in those times were every bit as dangerous to their pilots as they were the enemy. Many pilots were badly injured more than once in crashes (Lothar Von Richthofen spent more time in Hospital than he did with his Squadron).

The scores of British/Commonwealth Fighter Aces should be treated with some caution.....the R.F.C. were some casual about awarding victories to it's pilots, (example "Driven Down Out Of Control" was given as a victory even if said victim was not see to crash). Also shared victories were credited as a whole victory to each pilot involved.

The most dangerous task for a pilot would be Balloon Busting and a destroyed balloon would very rightly be awarded as a victory.

Finally despite the primitiveness of Fighter Aircraft in those times no Fast Jet Fighter Pilot has ever come even close to achieving the number of victories many of those pioneering Fighter Pilots/Aces have done despite the immeasurable advances in Aviation Technology in the 100+ years since.
 
as luck would have it, I’m half way through Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis. His account of his service with the RFC published in 1936. I might manage a review when I’m done.
 

Awol

LE
as luck would have it, I’m half way through Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis. His account of his service with the RFC published in 1936. I might manage a review when I’m done.
Brilliant book. Doesn’t he talk about visiting a whore in London during his R&R? Racy stuff, given the era.
 
Brilliant book. Doesn’t he talk about visiting a whore in London during his R&R? Racy stuff, given the era.
He does indeed, and in a very tasteful manner very much of its era.
 

Whining Civvy

War Hero
The most dangerous task for a pilot would be Balloon Busting and a destroyed balloon would very rightly be awarded as a victory.
A pilot in one of the books I reviewed above was killed when the enemy wired up a large bomb into the basket of the balloon with a dummy observer and detonated it when he reached the bottom of his dive during an attack. I only thought that happened in Biggles.

Edit: It was that pilot's attack upon his third balloon. The observer of the first balloon leapt out and parachuted safely down as the burning balloon fell. The observer in the second balloon leapt out and, as he pulled the ripcord of the parachute, the straps holding it to him tore off and he fell to his death. Many were the ways in which inadequately tested equipment could kill you in that war.
 

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