Within ten months of leaving school, Geoffrey Wellum was flying a Spitfire as the youngest pilot in 92 Squadron. Nicknamed ‘Boy’, he was posted to the squadron in May 1940 before his training was completed, aged just eighteen years and nine months. When he joined the squadron he had never even seen a Spitfire, but he soon saw action in the Battle of Britain.
Geoffrey Wellum had to grow up rather quickly. Fighting for your country, killing the enemy, risking death yourself, and seeing your friends and fellow officers die isn’t for boys; it’s for men. You can see in the photo at this link, flight Lieutenant Brian Kingcome (left) and Flying Office Geoffrey Wellum (right). They are 24 and 20 years old in the picture, but their eyes look older than their years.
Wellum wrote his memoirs, never intending them to see publication, but years later passed them on to author James Holland, who wanted to do research for a new novel. Some memoirs are dry reading, but Holland was impressed enough to pass the memoir over to Penguin Books, who published it as First Light in 2002.
I bought this book a couple of months ago, and it’s a really good read. It doesn’t always go smoothly for Geoffrey Wellum especially during his training, but he describes his failings as honestly as his successes, and with feeling and detail. While looking through First Light today to find quotations, I found myself reading it again, and had to force myself back to work to finish this post.
When Wellum first arrives at 92 Squadron his Commanding Officer isn’t too pleased that he has been sent there before his training was finished:
“‘Well, I haven’t got time to train you and that’s flat. this squadron was re-formed a few months ago and what’s more it’s going to be a damn good squadron. None is going to be better. We were declared operational yesterday and we are waiting for our first action, which, if I’m not very much mistaken, will be any hour now at Dunkirk. We have the best aeroplane in the service, or in the world for that matter, and if you break one there will be merry hell to pay."
Of course Wellum soon learns to fly a Spit., and at last becomes a fighter pilot, which is what he wanted. Later in the book, he describes going into combat:
“Voices over the R/T. Urgency.
’109s above the first lot coming round to six o’clock, 3,000 feet above.’ ‘Six more at four o’clock high.’ ‘I see them, they’re starting to come down, here they come, watch ‘em, Blue Section. Break into them, Blue, break starboard, break for Christ’s sake.’
Things are starting to get rough. Automatically I have followed my self-emposed drill that I always do at times like this. Reflector sight on; gun button to fire; airscrew pitch to 2,650 revs; better response. Press the emergency boost over-ride, lower my seat a notch and straps tight. OK, men, I’m all set. Let battle commence. Please, dear God, like me more than you do the Germans”
It’s like being in the cockpit with him. I recommend this book whole heartedly. It’s one of the best I’ve seen of this genre.
You’ve probably already heard that Geoffrey Wellum passed away on July 18th, aged 96, having been born on August 4, 1921. There’s just a handful of these men left, now. Let’s not forget them.
First Light (2002) By Geoffrey Wellum