First Light. Geoffrey Wellum. There are two types of people with regard to this book: those who have read it and those who are going to. Happily, I am now in the former group but have no excuse as to why it took me so long to read this widely-acclaimed title. I didn’t realise what I’d been missing. It is a book that transcends the Battle of Britain. Indeed, it transcends wartime aviation. First Light is the ‘poster boy’ of the genre and is the memoir of the modern day that has impacted the general public in a way I wish all aircrew books could. What is written above (and below) is nothing new. Really, this review could be just six words: First Light. Geoffrey Wellum. Read it.
It would be remiss of me to leave it at that as there is so much to talk about with this book. At 17, the author applies to join the RAF and is successful – the application and approval process through his school and the selection board is supported by a delightful dialogue – but completes another term at school before ab initio training, and his RAF career, begins in earnest in late July 1939. Far from a natural pilot, he enjoys the flying but approaches it with some trepidation which eventually turns into serious self-doubt. A naturally self-deprecating type, the author’s general under-estimation of his abilities is a recurring theme throughout the book and an indication that, although incredibly young, he doesn’t take anything for granted. It is only through instructors who “know the flying game from A to Z”, and a determination that will become familiar to the reader, that he solos ... two days before the outbreak of war.
There is no real mention of the war up until the time the author earns his wings. If anything, he was lucky to learn to fly when he did as the curriculum had yet to be condensed by the desperate need for pilots. On Harvards at Little Rissington, he progresses well before getting a little too comfortable and receiving a rocket from the Chief Ground Instructor about the poor nature of his progress. He re-invigorates his flying and studies and is soon back on track but then loses a close friend in a flying accident. The reality of the job hits home but the flying continues apace and not without several hiccups on the way. Again good, highly-respected instructors and the Wellum determination get him through.
While this part of the review really focuses on the events of the book, a timeline as it were, it is the way they are related that makes FL such a vivid read. The author, in the introduction, says he just sat down and the words came automatically. This is clearly evident – the writing is more like a stream of consciousness captured at the point it forms in the mind. This is where the true strength of the book lies. The author is remarkably able to reproduce his innermost thoughts – his fears, his doubts and his worries are all countered by youthful exuberance and a genuine love of flying. His descriptions of his various training flights cannot be beaten. He meets every challenge with a mixture of awe, humility and a determination that comes from deep within and the reader is privy to all of it.
A good Wings test and with the end of his training in sight, the urgency of war finally catches up and the author is posted to No. 92 Squadron ... at the age of 18 years and nine months! He settles in happily enough – ever aware of his lack of experience – and finally flies a Spitfire (yet another delightful experience to read). All does not progress perfectly though as he bends a Spitfire on night flying circuits and is grounded for more than a week as punishment. If anything, this is the turning point in his flying. It was almost like he had to get the elephant in the room – fear of pranging a valuable aircraft and writing himself off – out of the way. Assisted by his Flight Commander, the legendary Brian Kingcombe, he works out what went wrong and, rather ironically, once he returns to night-flying, is vectored onto ‘bandits’ over Bristol. He doesn’t see anything but his first operational flight proves to be somewhat of a confidence boost.
The squadron soon moves to a rather battered Biggin Hill. The next flight described in the text is a squadron scramble to intercept incoming bombers. Here, we seem to catch the author already several weeks into the endless cycle of pre-dawn readiness, frayed nerves, squadron scrambles and, of course, combat. He has recently learned of the death of his closest friend and spends several pages dealing with his loss. There is a strong sense of getting on with business and the interception of the bombers is as frenetic as it is successful for the author although he does manage to run out of ammunition and get hit by fire from an Me 109. No sooner is he back on the ground and debriefed is he assigned another aircraft and off again on a convoy patrol.
This day spills over into a chapter titled Mars, God Of War. It is a chapter of 15 pages but feels like two. The action simply does not stop – at one stage the author writes “I’m not cut out for this sort of thing”. Rolling into the next chapter, the reading is just a blur and, as accurately as possible when trying to get such things down on paper, the utter pace of the fighter pilot’s life during the Battle of Britain is well conveyed. On top of this the banter among the pilots is an absolute joy to read – always amusing and very clever, the type that could only be expressed by those of a close-knit team.
What is most remarkable is with the Battle of Britain behind him – and some rather dicey flying at times in some pretty unpleasant weather – you’d think there’d be time for the author to find some time to catch-up and recharge his batteries. With Fighter Command now on the offensive, and the Biggin Hill Wing leading from the front, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Often flying two sorties a day, the author now finds himself escorting small formations of bombers over Occupied Europe to entice the German fighters into the air. It is a reversal of the previous summer when the Germans did exactly the same over Britain. As detailed in Peter Caygill’s The Biggin Hill Wing 1941 (one of the first books reviewed on ABR), the small forces of bombers did not prove terribly enticing and the Germans were able to dictate their contact with the British aircraft to a considerable extent. September 1941 rolls around and a very tired author, despite the regulatory periods of leave he must have had, is, in Kingcombe’s word, “over the hill”.
Five initially “unbearable” months as an instructor - a blossoming romance keeps him going and helps him to finally unwind and enjoy his flying again. A very understated visit to Buckingham Palace to receive his DFC is recorded almost absent-mindedly and, suddenly, it is February 1942, RAF Debden is ‘home’ and No. 65 Squadron marks a return to sweeps over Europe and combat in Sptifire MkVbs against the far superior Fw 190. The fatigue returns and manifests itself in a piercing pain across the top of the author’s eyes. Its development is subsequently way-laid somewhat by a posting to Malta via the great convoy that formed under the banner of Operation Pedestal – the maximum effort to force through vital supplies and aircraft to an island under siege.
This period is condensed into some 30 pages but offers great insight into the preparations the pilots made to fly their Spitfires off the carriers. Wellum leads one of the four formations to Malta off the deck of HMS Furious but not before seeing HMS Eagle torpedoed and sunk while still sitting on the deck in his Spitfire. I found this observation of particular interest as I could put myself on board Eagle through the words of Mike Crosley who had survived the sinking and recounted the event in his They Gave Me A Seafire (also reviewed here on ABR).
The author leads his Spitfires successfully to the island and, upon landing, is greeted by none other than Keith Park who remembers him from his Biggin Hill days in 1940. There is no rest for Wellum as, with the convoy still sailing to Malta, he is flying operationally the next day. Although it is not mentioned directly that he bore witness to the arrival of the battered tanker Ohio, the description is very moving and the relief the residents must have felt is palpable.
The stay on Malta is comparatively short with the high tempo of flying causing the rapid return of fatigue and the pain across the eyes. A diagnosis of chronic sinusitis and a slightly amusing but rather disturbing ‘procedure’ to clear the fluid follow before the author is sent home via Hudson to Gibraltar and Catalina to Plymouth. Mentally and physically exhausted, he recuperates in the English countryside before becoming a production test pilot for the Gloster Aircraft Company and flying Typhoons which, compared to the Spitfire, is such a brute of a single-engine aircraft that he looks around to “see if it’s got two of everything”. Beautiful, amusing and heart-warming writing to the very last word.
Convinced? Well, I suspect you wouldn’t need to read the above to be so but thank you for doing so all the same. First Light truly is a remarkable work. Hard to put down, the detail is enough to keep the purist happy yet not technical to keep, well, everyone happy. There are no lists of cylinder-head temperatures, rates of climb at certain power settings or anything like that. The detail is in the author’s observations and his interactions and it is these where the reader can learn so much more. The people Wellum encounters in his travels are all fascinating and worthy of their own stories even though, at times, names are not mentioned. He spends considerable time giving ‘life’ to these people on paper which serves to round out the reading experience. I made a rather clumsy note while reading – “truly great writing is this” and “Page 263” (or the second page of Chapter 11 depending on which edition you have) – but, in all honesty, I could have made a note on every page as it hard to not turn up a wonderful passage.
As already mentioned, the author is a “cheeky young cocky little bugger” (an assessment by none other than his first CO, Roger Bushell of eventual ‘Great Escape’ fame) with a humble assessment of his own abilities to fly and to cope. If he comments on promotions or awards it is only in passing or determined from comments ‘buried’ in the text yet it is evident he is a talented flyer. This talent is only surpassed by his ability to write what he saw and felt. He adds colour to what is otherwise a predominantly black and white war. In terms of the Battle of Britain, he injects the colour of that summer into the pages – the green countryside, the silver of the Thames and the blue of the Channel, the foreboding greens and greys of the German aircraft and “small white clouds against the blue summer sky”. He has written a book that is almost impossible to put down but at times you simply have to look up to catch your breath. Simply superb.
First Light. Geoffrey Wellum. Read it.
The book is easily available throughout the world in a number of different editions – the mark of a bestseller and it’s easy to see why. Thirty-nine photos are included in two sections on glossy paper. Some are generic to the events the author was involved in but most are personal images and include a good selection of the marvellous pilots/characters Wellum flew and lived with.
The reviewed copy was bought secondhand online – “just buy the bloody thing” – and was published by Penguin Books Ltd in 2003. ISBN 0-141-00814-8.