Monday, April 20, 2009

Life's Too Short To Cry - Tim Vigors DFC

When a very good friend told me about this book and how it had been put together from an unfinished manuscript after the author had died, I’ll readily admit it went to the top of my wish list. It intrigued me from several angles. First and foremost were the author’s experiences flying Buffaloes over Singapore – not every day you come across that. Secondly, was the slightly frustrated tone in which my friend talked about the book. You see, Tim Vigors DFC had a remarkable wartime career (and post-war life) and he draws you into it with confidence and honesty but...

While educated and spending a good proportion of his early life in England, Tim Vigors is an Irishman. Indeed, he regards his position within the RAF as a mercenary (Eire being neutral) but more of that later. Growing up with a hunting family, Tim’s childhood is full of horse-riding, fox hunts and traditions which were totally alien to me but I could readily understand the passion and enthusiasm for this ‘world’. Much of Tim’s character – the confidence, frankness and love of life – is developed on horseback and/or with a pack of hounds. I imagine having enthusiastic parents and an older brother to keep up with were sufficient motivation.

While not a brilliant student or sportsman, Tim still receives an excellent education and makes some, but for the war, lifelong friends along the way. Scraping through assessments, even the final theory at RAF Cranwell, points to him as a survivor – someone who is going to push on and find a way despite the odds. Even his posting to the Spitfires of 222 Squadron was through sheer bloody-mindedness. Wanting the challenge of twin-engined aircraft, despite his instructor’s warning of not being able to change his mind, Tim chooses Oxfords over Harts while still at Cranwell. With war looming, he realises his ‘mistake’ and manages to be posted to a twin-engined fighter training unit. There, with further diplomacy, he impresses with his handling of the Blenheim so is given a chance on single-engined fighters which he obviously takes and doesn’t look back.

Douglas Bader makes a surprising (to me, my knowledge of him is a bit rusty) appearance as Tim’s flight commander on 222 Squadron and certainly comes across as a hard task-master and one who Tim, despite being a good friend, is happy to part ways with amicably. As the squadron is converting from Blenheims, Tim is lucky to be one of the first to fly the unit’s new Spitfires. He soon has time to put his skills into action when the squadron covers the Dunkirk evacuation and, of course, the subsequent Battle of Britain where he becomes an ace and earns the DFC. Of course, he lives life to the full and his flying in his pyjamas with a bad hangover to successfully intercept a German bomber – at night – makes for much amusement and shaking of the head!

This understandable ‘live hard, play hard’ mentality is challenged when Tim loses a very close friend and squadron-mate. He is unable to treat the loss lightly – a coping mechanism common among the pilots – and, although he always looks after ‘number one’, the mercenary attitude is dropped and the desire to pass on his knowledge to effect the defeat of evil comes to the fore. A posting to Singapore as a flight commander for 243 Squadron is a welcome new challenge for a weary Vigors but his love of life returns and continues unabated and he is again lucky to get away with some escapades. His war with the Japanese is brief, as CO of 453 Squadron, but somewhat effective and his survival is remarkable.

It is here the tone of frustration mentioned above becomes readily apparent. You know you’re close to the end of the book, the writing has been superb and you’ve turned the pages to feed your appetite. However, you’ve already seen the well-produced photos from 1944 and 1945 that are included in the book and you know there’s a lot more to come. However, the book ends with another lucky scrape – there but for the grace of God go I – in what subsequent research reveals to be the end of January 1942. At 300+ pages, this is,really, Volume One of the life of Tim Vigors but sadly, it’s all we’ll get as he passed away in 2003. Perhaps someone will one day have a go at writing about his recovery and service in India and subsequent commands. Mind you, the author will need to know his or her horses as, after the war, Tim became a very successful identity in this arena.

While prone to bouts of over-confidence, all of which become significant lessons (and our hero is a quick learner!), Tim Vigors is frank about his failings but equally forthright with his opinions and experiences. Full of wonderful characters whose fates are often most sobering, you’ll find yourself reading with the same attitude Tim had to life – “On, on”. However, I don’t think much editing was performed on the manuscript prior to publication. There are two sides to this. Firstly, it means Tim had a wonderful turn of phrase and, secondly, it also means little would have been checked for accuracy which is quite disappointing considering the publisher. There are apparently several errors in relation to the time in Singapore but what really stood out to me was the reference to the Swordfish operating off the island. I am almost 100% certain the aircraft referred to should be the torpedo-carrying Vickers Vildebeests of 36 Squadron. Such an apparent error does make me wonder what else might have been slightly inaccurate but then this book is not an authority on any subject and never set out to be. If you’re after something technical, read something else. If you’re after living the first 20 years of a man’s life through the eyes of an irrepressible fighter ace, I challenge you to find something better than this.

I recently picked up my copy of LTSTC in Grub Street paperback from Hyland's Bookshop here in Melbourne.

With the success of the title, it is easily available on Amazon, and elsewhere online, and, of course, in similar bookshops.

8 comments:

  1. I agree no swordfishes in those waters only poor vildebeests. I have ordered the book on Amazon as it sounds good. It is a chance to get a participant's view especially of the Singapore air war.

    Do you know any books on RAF Squadron 166 our of Kirmington?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Navig

    I hope you enjoy the book and am pleased the review might have helped in your decision. First time for everything!

    Nothing springs to mind immediately about 166 Sqn books but I'll get back to you later.

    Cheers

    Andy

    ReplyDelete
  3. A really great and thoroughly enjoyable book. Amazing to think how young most of those pilots were during the hostilities, most 19 year olds these days would curl up faced with the daily challenges young Tim encountered. What incredible luck in survival he had too. Really a most riveting and human story.

    Steve Witfield, Baden-Baden

    ReplyDelete
  4. Just read a large print version of the book, sadly without pics.
    I personally didnt get care much for the privelaged ramblings about hunting and Eton, but as he did so much to serve his country its not a major problem. Other than that I agree with all of the above - such a pity one is left wondering what else happened to Tim Vigors for the rest of the war and how he got through 4 marriages in his life.

    Kevin Wells

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks Kevin. It does leave you hanging, doesn't it?

    Merry Christmas.

    Andy

    ReplyDelete
  6. Just read this, and while its a good addition to the "Battle of Britain" library its a pity that one or two things are a little suspect, i.e. The author actually joined 222 Squadron in February 1940 but Bader joined in April, he could not have greeted Tim Vigors on his arrival as noted in the book, also the statement that the author was the only surviving pilot of 222 after the Battle is
    incorrect. I guess this is nit picking - Vigors was a hero and the book certainly captures the flavour of the times

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi

    Nothing wrong with nit-picking, mate. If you read ABR regularly you'll see I do very much the same when there is the rare occasion I actually know what I'm talking about.

    You've picked up on some interesting points and I have to admit I don't remember the comment about him being the last-surviving 222 Sqn pilot. It's an odd comment to make when it's clearly not right so perhaps it's been written 'wrong'? I'll have to pull my copy off the shelf and have a look.

    'Errors' aside, I completely agree with you on your last point. A fine pilot and a good writer. I always come to the same conclusion though - how good would it have been for an aviation writer/researcher to have written an epilogue of sorts giving a brief summary of at least Vigors' war years after his evacuation?

    Many thanks for your comments. I look forward to hearing more from you.

    Andy

    ReplyDelete
  8. It is unfortunate that the first paragraph of the above review was not included in the preview of the book in some form. This would have clarified the inaccuracies in the compilation of his
    memoirs. It will,however , be interesting to
    anticipate a sequel. Anyone out there interested?

    ReplyDelete