Book Review – First Light by Geoffrey Wellum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you want to know what it was like as a spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, then this is the book you need to read. The author was a public schoolboy that joined the RAF just before the outbreak of war. He signed up in the spring of 1939 and started training as soon as he finished school in July 1939.
The first third of the book is a very detailed account of his entry to the service and the flight training. Through this we get to know the author as a typical public schoolboy, he struggles with the academic side, but has no problems with the discipline and dealing with being in a service institution. Flying is clearly his passion, and is most of the focus of the book. Other than his struggles with the training matter, and the mental stress of combat flying and dealing with the progressive loss of his friends there is little else in the story.
There is no bigger picture, or even narrative of the wider progress of the war to put things in context. When he is rushed out of training and posted directly to an operational squadron (no.92) it is because the Germans have invaded France, however we’re not directly told this. The closest he comes is when the rest of the squadron patrol over Dunkirk, losing many of the old hands including the CO Roger Bushell (who lead the Great Escape). If you didn’t know how the war went then you could be baffled by some of this. Also, there is nothing about the Battle of Britain directly, other than accounts of some of his more notable sorties (the first, some where he has narrow escapes or shoots down or damages enemy aircraft).
That said, it is a very good first hand account of what it was like on a very personal level. The flights are very well described in some detail. It is clear that Geoffrey Wellum was deeply affected by his war experience and that being an operational fighter pilot represented the pinnacle for him. His tour as an instructor between operational tours is dispensed with in a couple of pages. The narrative between flights shows him moving from an enthusiastic schoolboy to a novice pilot and eventually to a mentally exhausted veteran.