Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Derek Robinson - Goshawk Squadron

I first read Goshawk Squadron in the 1980s when I found books with aircraft on the cover irresistible. I tended to find World War Two much more exciting than the first global war as the planes were faster, sleeker and had bigger guns. But Goshawk Squadron is the sort  of novel that takes hold of you and shakes you hard. Thirty or so years later I found the book as gripping as the first time, though likely for different reasons.

The novel begins with Squadron Commander Stanley Woolley watching his pilots land their S.E.5 aircraft at a new base. Several of them crash, others barely make it down. He curses them, and later when fresh-faced replacements arrive for dead airman he mocks and belittles their innocence and ideals of chivalry. "The firs Hun you met would cut you in half without even taking the sausage sandwich out of his mouth. You know nothing - nothing." Woolley is angry, violent and a drunkard. But he is also a survivor. Despite being only 23 he looks grizzled and he tries desperately to transfer some of his knowledge and experience to the young men under his command.

Few of them make it. Accidents, inexperience and stupidity finish many off before the better equipped and more experienced enemy even find them. There's a powerful section where a couple of new recruits are shocked at Woolley telling them to shot at the enemy pilots, preferring to think they'd chivalrously aim for the enemy propellers. Withing a few days they're partaking in shooting up unarmed artillery observers.

This is a book full of painful violence - the pilots cope through heavy drinking, and the protection of Woolley. But the German push in early 1918 means everything is thrown into the sky and the whole system reaches breaking point. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments - mostly because the banter of groups of young men getting drunk is funny - which Robinson describes brilliantly. But it is Woolley's story that holds the tale together - he is Goshawk Squadron and the pilots live or die around him. The ending is remarkably poignant.

When it was first published, Goshawk Squadron received great praise. Yet according to an afterword by Derek Robinson, it also received some veterans of World War One's Royal Flying Corp were angered and felt it insulted their former comrades. In his defence Robinson argued that "War is not sport. War is not fair. War in the sky... had to be unusually callous and cold-blooded". He explains that it is based not on imagination, but on reading the "real history" of the war, the letters and diaries of the airmen themselves. Twenty odd years later Churchill would praise the "few" of the RAF for their work in stopping a German invasion. His praise suggested that the myth of knights of the sky continued. Despite being fiction, Goshawk Squadron should be read as an insight into the reality of war.

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