War memoirs

Geoffrey Wellum, Spitfire pilot


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.

Geoffrey Wellum First LightFirst Light, at first light.

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."

Spitfire at RAF Little RissingtonGeoffrey Wellum trained here at Little Rissington in Gloucestershire. The late model Spitfire on this postcard is now on display at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, McMinnville, Oregon. 

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

Five Reasons to Visit Used Book shops Instead of Going Online

Used book shop

It’s quick and convenient to buy old books online, but it’s not always the best, or even the most enjoyable way. Here’s five good reasons to make a plan, look away from the screen, (that's right, the one you are looking at right now!) go out, and look for yourself.

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A Slice of Life in a POW camp.

WW2 RAF mapsHanover is in the middle of the right hand side of this picture.

On 18th October 1943 a Lancaster Bomber on a bombing mission to Hanover in Germany was shot down by a night-fighter. The pilot was Warrant Officer Geoff Taylor, and Piece of Cake is his story.

The whole crew of seven survived, but were all captured and became prisoners of war. Geoff Taylor remained a POW until he was liberated by the Russians in 1945.

Piece of cake close upGeoff as a POW, I suppose.

This book is full of vivid descriptions of what it’s like to be in a Lancaster on a bombing mission, and about the lives of prisoners of war struggling to keep their minds and bodies intact in Stalag IVb, 33 miles North West of Dresden in the East of Germany:

        “We had corkscrewed into our evasive action really fast and this time I thought we’d never pull out of the dive. Heavy with her bomb-load, “Z-Zebra” had her nose well down. I grabbed the stick with both hands, applied sheer brute force. She was really wound-up. Slowly at first, as I strained, and then almost too suddenly the nose came up.

      “Hello, gunners, climbing port,” I called. Then, “Rolling.” Pause, “Climbing starboard.” Floating, harness straps biting into my shoulders, “Diving starboard.” Over we go, “Rolling.” Then again, “Diving port.” Over and over again I called the litany. On a black night the weaving and corkscrewing of a bomber, if it didn’t confuse the attacker, certainly disoriented the defending gunners.

  Lancaster bomberWe all know what this is, don't we children?

(In the POW camp)

       “Potato peelings are saved and boiled up again as soup for an evening meal. From the two slices of black bread which, with half a dozen rotting potatoes and a mug of turnip or millet soup, is your ration each for twenty-four hours of sub-zero cold, you cut the crusts and shred them into crumbs.

      The precious crumbs are accumulated for a week in a tin can no bigger than a saucepan in which you would boil a couple of eggs.

      Mixed with water and a hoarded spoonful of ersatz German jam made from turnips, the crumb pudding is a weekly treat.”


      “There are, of course, fleas and bed-bugs and lice”

After the war Geoff Taylor went back to Australia and became a journalist. I have quite a few of these wartime memoirs, and this is one of the two very best ones. I bought this book at The Ryde Bookshop, on the Isle of Wight. In 1972, his book Return Ticket was published, in which he goes back to Germany and Stalag IVb to attempt to retrace his steps. On the strength of Piece of Cake, I’m going to buy a copy.

Geoff Taylor  Piece of cakeThe man himself, in about 1957

Piece of Cake by Geoff Taylor, this edition 1957.

What I Did on my Holidays

Books to take on holidayThursday afternoon on the campsite.

I spent this early May Bank Holiday weekend on a campsite, on the South coast of the Isle of Wight. I took a couple of books with me. One was A Clockwork Orange, and this is from the back cover:

“Fifteen-year-old Alex and his three friends start an evening’s mayhem by hitting an old man, tearing up his books and stripping him of money and clothes.

“Or rather Alex and his three droogs tolchock an old Veck, razrez his books, pull off his outer platties and take a malenky bit of cutter”

“For Alex’s confessions are written in ‘nadsat’ - the teenage argot of a not too distant future

"Horror Farce? Social prophecy? Penetrating study of human choice between good and evil? A Clockwork Orange is all three”

A Clockwork Orange was first published in 1962, but this is a 1973 copy. I’ve read it before and read it again over the weekend; I recommend it.

My other book was John Buchan’s The Power-house. It’s an adventure set in London from 105 years ago; rather a different sort of tale from the unpleasant activities of Alex and his contemporaries, and that's why I chose these books as a pair.

The Powerhouse is an anarchist’s organisation, and yes, that is a contradiction in terms, but it's a criticism of anarchists, not of this book.

Published first in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine in December 1913, it was written before Buchan’s much more well known The Thirty-Nine Steps, but was first published as a book nearly a year later in 1916.

Books bought on holidaySunday morning on the campsite.

In the end I didn’t read it, choosing Castle For Rent by John DeChancie instead. This was a much better counterpoint to Burgess’s book. Castle Perilous is a gigantic castle where magic works, and there are portals to thousands of other realities and worlds. It’s a scifi/swords and sorcery novel.This is the first edition, 1989.

It’s okay, but light fantasy isn’t my thing and I think his science fiction Skyway trilogy is rather better.

I bought Castle for Rent along with a couple of World War Two escape memoirs from the Ryde Bookshop while I was on the Isle of Wight (look out for a post on this shop coming soon).

Over the Edge RallyCompletely off topic, but here's what I was up to in the evenings, The last Over the Edge Rally. Thanks to Stan & Co., who know who they are.

Piece of Cake is Australian Geoff Taylor’s own story of being a pilot with Bomber Command. He is shot down over Germany, wanders alone across the country, is captured, attempts to escape, and eventually gets released at the end of the war. First published 1955, this is a 1957 edition.

Dare to be Free is by a New Zealander, W.B. “Sandy” Thomas. During the airborne invasion of Crete, he is seriously injured and captured. He makes several unsuccessful escape attempts until he gets away and hides amongst the monks of Mount Athos, a peninsula in Greece. First published in 1951, this edition is from 1955.

There’s a picture of a hand waving the Greek flag, pasted opposite the title page. I believe this was put in by a previous owner.

I’m back home now, tired but refreshed.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, The Powerhouse by John Buchan, Castle for Rent by John DeChancie, Piece of Cake by Geoff Taylor, Dare to be Free by W.B. Thomas.