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Geoffrey Wellum


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).

Like many other boys in the second world war, I was deeply envious of fighter pilots and desperately hoped that the war would last long enough to allow me to participate. Only a little older than I, Geoffrey Wellum was one of those who achieved that ambition and he felt deeply conscious of the privilege. Still a schoolboy in 1939, he applied to join the Royal Air Force and was accepted. Within a few months he was training to be a pilot, and a year later he was flying a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain. This book is both a brilliant description of aerial combat and a memoir of a youth's forced maturation from boyhood to manhood under the stress of war.

The opening chapters deal with Wellum's induction into the RAF and his training as a pilot. The course was demanding and a good number of the pupils failed; some were killed. Having won his wings, Wellum was posted to 92 Squadron and introduced to the Spitfire; he was just eighteen years and nine months old. Like other fighter pilots he fell in love with the Spitfire, although flying it was a new challenge and his first landing nearly resulted in a crash; a later landing in the dark was even worse and he was grounded for ten days. But eventually he was allowed to start flying again and before long he was participating in the Battle of Britain.

Wellum describes his combat experiences with astonishing vividness; almost entirely from memory, we are told, since he kept no diaries and did not start to write until thirty-five years later. We know that he survived, of course, unlike many of his comrades, yet his descriptions are so hair-raising that one constantly fears for his safety. Dogfights with Me-109s are at centre stage, naturally, yet one of his most terrifying adventures involved hardly any action at all. Wellum was on a sortie over the North Sea in atrocious weather when his radio failed and he became lost; he had to find his way back to base alone in failing light below the clouds at near-wavetop height. His fuel had almost run out when he landed, and had he arrived only five minutes earlier he would have been completely unable to see the airfield. Another image that stays in the mind is his appalled view of a British bomber as fire spreads slowly along its wing until it turns over and plunges to earth; only two of the crew escape.

In 1942 he was taken out of his beloved 92 Squadron, much against his will, and was posted to Debden as a Flight Commander; a little later he went to Malta, leading a flight of Spitfires from the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. He participated in the defence of the embattled island but soon was invalided back to Britain, suffering from severe sinusitis and utter exhaustion. But he recovered, and the blurb tells us that he continued in the RAF during and after the war, first as a test pilot on Typhoons, then as a gunnery instructor, and finally as a staff officer in Germany. After leaving the RAF he worked in the City of London until his retirement. As he makes clear in his book, his life reached an intensity of experience in his youth that it was never to achieve subsequently, and everything that happened afterwards was an anticlimax in contrast.

There have been other first-hand accounts of being a fighter pilot but this must be one of the best. A number of photographs of pilots and aircraft are included.

%T First Light
%A Wellum, Geoffrey
%I Viking
%C London
%D 2002
%G ISBN 0-670-91248-4
%P xiv + 338 pp
%K biography
%O hardback, illustrated
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