24 January 2016

Geoffrey Guy's War - Jennifer Barraclough and David Guy

I read this book last year in an attempt to shake off the Bomber Command blues I have mentioned before. What I needed was something that set the hook just from its mere description (not that Bomber Command doesn’t), something based around what fascinated me most. So, what I needed was something off the beaten track. Did I ever make the right choice! North Africa, India, Burma, photo-reconnaissance. Yes, yes, yes and yes. Add text written by a pragmatic, natural author and I was in heaven. It was what I needed then and is what I need now. I haven’t written a review for ABR for months due to other writing commitments and tonight, as I looked at the books on my desk that I owe a review debt to, the slim white spine of Geoffrey Guy’s War did its job. It was then a struggle to find my notes. Could I be bothered even when I did find them? I flicked open the book and began to read. The glow I felt from remembering this book when I saw the spine earlier took hold. Geoffrey Guy’s War is one of those wonderfully written books that, like its author, goes forward with a minimum of fuss and fanfare and drags the reader along “as a magnet draws a helpless fragment of iron”.

After being evacuated to the Midlands in May 1940, Geoffrey Guy begins his first term at Oxford in the latter third of the year. During his short time there, he developed several characteristics that were to serve him well. After a poor showing in a history essay, he determines never to take the first and easiest option again. He discovers a whole new level of fitness through the University Boxing Team, despite already being a passionate cricketer, joins the Air Squadron and meets a girl. An innocent romance weaves around the 1941 season of cricket but paradise could not last forever. There was a war on.

Having served in the University Air Squadron, the author was not posted to the Initial Training Wing. Instead he spent an interminable five weeks waiting for his posting to Elementary Flying Training School. Mid-September saw him board a ship for a rough voyage to Canada. He and his mates then spent another five weeks waiting for the courses ahead to progress. That time was spent shovelling coal out of railway wagons. Winter had well and truly set in when he was finally posted to No. 32 EFTS at Red Deer. After ten hours of dual instruction, and barely a fortnight in to the course, our hero soloed on a Tiger Moth. His half-page description of this flight exudes delight.

Geoffrey is eventually posted to Moose Jaw and No. 32 SFTS to fly Harvards. He received his wings in July 1942 and became a sergeant pilot. Bitterly disappointed at not being made an officer, he was, apparently, ideal in all aspects but was an average pilot, he felt let down by the RAF and the system to which he had been so trusting since joining the University Air Squadron. Little did he know that his very rank would be the cause of his great adventure in Burma and the cornerstone of his personal growth during the war.

Back in England, after three weeks at AFU, Geoffrey is posted to General Reconnaissance School. He protests, to no avail, but finds solace in the fact that his is an elite profession. After navigation training, he is posted, oddly, to a fighter OTU. This time is punctuated by the characters he meets and his first flight in a Spitfire which, like his first solo, is a passionate piece of writing.

February 1943 comes around and finds the author at RAF Benson and finally part of No. 541 squadron. His sense of anticipation is eroded as he finds a distinct lack of camaraderie. That said, after ten days, our man is selected to fly a new Spitfire out to No. 680 Squadron PRU, somewhere in the Middle East, so his observations and conclusions, while often accurate, were certainly conceived in short order.

An almost four hour flight to Gibraltar is followed by continual journey east to Cairo where 680 Squadron is finally found. The entire flight from the UK was performed without maps but the author, despite asking for the precious commodity at each stop, began to learn to study what was available and memorise it for the next leg (a vital skill for the budding reconnaissance pilot).

Imagine the disappointment, again, when, upon arriving at the squadron, the CO says he does not want NCO pilots. The author spends six weeks in a transit camp, battling flies and other unpleasant aspects of life in and around Cairo at the time, before he is sent to Palestine and No. 74 OTU where he is, finally, to be trained as a PRU pilot. He enjoys his time flying there, despite a horrific crash on approach that puts him in hospital for two weeks, but has to wait around yet again upon completion of the course. Finally, in August 1943, Geoffrey is posted to No. 681 Squadron in India.

It is all frustrating and time-consuming but the writing is so succinct, so pragmatic, yet beautifully toned, that the waiting, the climate and other inconveniences are actually enjoyable to read. Although welcomed into the fold in India, and flying his first op towards the end of September, there is never an easy camaraderie in the squadron as a whole. Strong relationships are made, of course, and several of the chaps who were with Geoffrey from his time in the UK are still present, but it is not ideal.

Geoffrey’s first operational flights were in the squadron’s ageing Hurricanes. The long flights from Dum Dum, refuelling in Chittagong, were gruelling and energy-sapping with not a moment for relaxation as the impetus was on a speedy return home so the film could be developed and examined. Finally let loose on the scarce Spitfires, the ops become longer and more tiring.

Life on the squadron was not terribly pleasant so when the chance to transfer to No. 28 Squadron, a Tactical Reconnaissance unit, based on the Imphal plain in Burma, came up, Geoffrey and his mates jumped at it. Compared to PR, Tac/R was down in the weeds. He joined the squadron in late 1943 and stayed with it until early 1945. During that time, after several idyllic months, the war heats up as the Japanese advance and the squadron is in the thick of it. The author has his fair share of shaky dos but his luck holds while that of his colleagues does not. He is isolated as the only sergeant in his flight, partly by choice and an intense sense of duty at times, but this leads to him getting to know the other enlisted men of the squadron and developing the ability to build a rapport with all comers. His life in the diplomatic service post-war would benefit greatly from this most important of skills.

Geoffrey was mentally and physically worn out when he left the squadron in March 1945. He did not make it home until January of the next year but, happily, it was to a young lady who had patiently waited for him. They were married in 1946 and the author returned to university and, several years, later joined the Colonial Service and served with distinction for thirty years.

This is such a well-written book that I don’t think it could have been any longer than its 160 pages (and eight of those are photo pages). The author has honed his story-telling ability and uses words so efficiently that little needs to be said to get the point across. It’s an indication of the man and his approach to life – I am not going to beat around the bush here, I am going to get it done but, by golly, I am going to do it well. Several times throughout the book you can see him gritting his teeth, setting his jaw and pushing on through and that’s not just to do with his flying.

He was there to do a job and he was resigned to an expected fate or, at the very least, a long war. To that end, he told his family and loved ones, in the very few letters he did write, that they were to “write him off”, to forget him. He regretted doing this, particularly with his father whom he regarded as one of the great men of his generation, but hardened his heart and stuck with this seemingly callous attitude. He simply did not want anyone to hold out hope for him and then, should the worst occur, weep over his loss. They were to move on. To some extent, if you were to regard the aircrew of the war as some of the doomed youth of their time, it is a perfectly acceptable, albeit rarely seen and pessimistic, approach to take. I am already lost, do not grieve me, move on, live your life, do not let my passing hold you back. It is perhaps one of the greatest acts of love.

As much as Geoffrey Guy’s War is a masterpiece of the art of efficient writing (unlike this review), the reader will be left wishing for more. The manuscript was superbly edited by family members and I doubt much, if anything, was removed beyond the initial family history passages. A summary of Geoffrey’s life is included in an appendix but really only serves to tease the reader as the author’s post-war life was quite fascinating. However, what we have, really, is more than enough. A paperback with decent card covers, don’t let the small stature of this book put you off when it comes to spending money on it. It is worth every cent and then some. You will struggle to find a more finely crafted narrative in an aircrew book.

ISBN 978-1-4456-0022-2

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