28 April 2009

Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer - Philip D. Caine

The genesis for many a memoir can be the discovery of a wartime diary. Officially frowned upon, and therefore relatively uncommon, diaries make for remarkable windows into a flyer’s mind. Many sadly end abruptly but it is the diaries that, when the surviving veterans are no longer with us, will provide one of the most realistic and open links to the war. Now, having said these things are relatively uncommon, we are fortunate many are now seeing the light of day and being shared in the form of books or even websites. One example of the former is Spitfires, Thunderbolts and Warm Beer – a most attractive and well-chosen title – which gives you access to the thoughts and emotions of ‘Yank in the RAF’ Leroy Gover. Coupled with excerpts from his letters and interviews with the author, Gover’s diary entries create a vivid picture of an ‘outsider’s’ impressions of wartime England.

A California kid, Gover learned to fly before he could drive and was an experienced pilot by the time he decided to volunteer for service in the RAF. This was before the US entered the war and is an early indication of our hero’s character. After training (in California under the 'civilian' Clayton Knight Committee), where his enthusiasm for flying new aircraft is evident, Gover and his classmates embarked on a long, hazardous journey to England via Canada. Within days, perhaps hours, of arriving in England, Gover is amazed and humbled by the resilience of the civilian population. This is a recurring theme throughout the book. We then follow him through OTU where he finally gets to fly his dream aircraft - the Spitfire - and is then posted to 66 Squadron to commence flying fighter sweeps, convoy escorts etc.

Although aware of his abilities as a flyer, Gover knows he has to be good at what he does to have a greater chance of survival. Through his writings, and the author's clarifications and additional information, Gover comes across as a humble yet ambitious fighter pilot. He knows he isn't invincible and more than once he doubts if he'll ever return home. He never ceases to be amazed at the situations he gets into and his love affairs with the Spitfire, the city of London and the girls he finds there when on leave are crystal clear.

America's entry into the war sees Gover, a little reluctantly, joining the USAAF and eventually converting to P-47s as an early member of the famed 4th Fighter Group. Here, I believe, is where Gover’s personality and combat experience really come to the fore. He grows as a leader who keeps an eye on the men who fly behind him in formation. He is responsible for their well-being and, like his time with the RAF, feels their loss strongly.

Reading this book is like talking to an old friend who has been away for a few years. The author's additional comments and context are worked into the text seamlessly so all you feel is the world of Leroy Gover. Happily unable to tear away, you are inundated with information and emotions experienced more than 60 years ago. It is a candid, sometimes amusing, always eye-opening, look at how one man coped with the day-to-day pressures of combat operations with two very different air forces.

I bought my paperback copy of this title about three years ago from Boffins Bookshop in Perth, Western Australia for A$17.95. Anything of this calibre/genre for less than $20 always gets my interest!

The author is an authority on the subject of Americans in the RAF as he wrote the earlier 'American Pilots in the RAF'.

Reviewed copy published in 2005 by Potomac Books.

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