Over the years I have been reading aircrew books and writing reviews I’ve encountered titles that range from the superb to the just okay. Unless I have had a lot to do with a book beforehand, be it talking to the author or publisher or actually seeing the manuscript in the early stages, I rarely know what a book will be like until it’s in my hands and I open it for the first time. Imagine, then, receiving a book that I already knew I would not be able to read. That’s not exactly correct, but it might as well be. How on earth do you review something like that? Well, from the years of reading and reviewing, like many people, I have picked up the ability to recognise quality, in-depth research and, most importantly, passion. Most, if not all, of the books that cross (and inhabit) my desk are written with passion. Very occasionally, they are written with little else although, admittedly, a book written to a formula and, therefore, lacking passion, is probably worse. It is most certainly drier. Greeks In Foreign Cockpits is at the highest echelon in terms of research and passion. I can’t read 95% of it but I can see what is clearly there. This is one of the most important aircrew books to have been published in recent years.
Greece had a rough trot of it during the war with initial successes against the invading Italians bringing the Germans in to the picture resulting in a rout of the Greeks and the British and Commonwealth forces urgently sent to help largely at the expense of the North African campaign. With a common enemy, the Greek Resistance was a powerful force by the end of the war. However, with various partisan factions vying for control, the country had to suffer through a three-year civil war from 1946.
The wartime Allied forces were peppered with units consisting of exiled Greek personnel with the majority, understandably, operating in the Mediterranean theatre. However, the war had been preceded by years of rebuilding and then global economic strife and, although greatly afflicted itself, the United States was always seen as the “golden door” for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Consequently, many men who volunteered to fight for the U.S., or travelled to Canada to join up earlier in the war, were first generation Americans. You just have to look at the surnames of the men in any U.S. unit to recognise those with Polish, Greek, Irish, Dutch, Italian, even German, heritage (not all were first generation of course). I’ve always seen the RAF as a great melting pot of nationalities. The U.S. forces were the pin-up for economic immigration.
This, then, is the thrust of GIFC. The authors have recognised the lack, for the most part, of detailed research in to the men of Greek parentage who flew during the war. This first volume looks at ten pilots who flew with the RAF and USAAF between 1940 and 1945. Several flew with the RAF before joining either the ‘Eagle’ squadrons or transferring directly from the RAF in to the USAAF. Eight of them flew over Europe and two in the South Pacific. Three did not survive the war and one was later killed in the Greek Civil War.
Each pilot’s biography effectively represents a chapter within the book and these range from eleven pages for Frank ‘Free Greek’ Zavakos to 63 for the well-known, and recently passed, Spiros ‘Steve’ Pisanos (author of the popular ‘The Flying Greek’). Photos abound and it is clear the authors strived to include as much pre-war life as they could for each man. The captions for the photos are written in Greek and English and, besides the thoughtful inclusion of letters of thanks from family members to the authors at the end of each biography, this, and some of the introduction and official documentation, is the only English text to be found. Therefore, I can only surmise, from the photos, as to the extent of each man’s pre-service life that has been included. What is abundantly clear, however, is the exhaustive research carried out for the war years. Again, using the photos and captions as an indication, there is detail here that would put many, many English language books to shame. The technical details are accurate and the authors have gone to great pains to examine the images and point out items of interest that spurred further research or answered outstanding questions.
If you were to buy this book on the images alone, assuming you can’t read Greek either, then you would get your value for money. If you can read Greek, well, I am incredibly envious! Spitfires, Mustangs, Lightnings and Thunderbolts abound but are matched by an extraordinary number of personal photos of young men at work and at play (mostly at work). All photos are nicely reproduced. This is undoubtedly assisted by the glossy paper stock contained within the jacket-less hardcovers. The book averages at least two images per two page spread, taking in to account some tables within the biographies and appendices and the unit history appendix. Indeed, the average is probably three. That is impressive for a 330-page book.
The appendices are something else. Aside from the unit histories alluded to above, there’s 23 pages of colour profiles of the aircraft flown by the men featured. There’s even several profiles of the aircraft of their adversaries. One of the introductions, written by the artist, mentions the exacting task of researching the schemes worn by the aircraft with the authors. This discussion concludes by saying that the profiles, at worst, are representative. In some cases, not everything could be confirmed but it is clear these clean but detailed profiles are the product of some of the most extensive research conducted for the book. After soaking in the profiles, you are confronted by eleven full page colour plates depicting notable events in the lives of the pilots. This is digital art and, while I’m not a massive fan of a lot of that genre, it is very well done and, again, a product of in-depth research and coordination with the authors.
It really doesn’t matter what language this book is written in. The important thing is that it has been written. The work has been done and presented to the world. The authors have expressed an interest in publishing an English edition in the future but, for the time being, all of their efforts are concentrated on the second volume. That is an exciting prospect as it is already looking like it will be a bigger book than the first volume. Save for a couple of the pilots featured in Volume One (I only immediately recognised Pisanos’ name), none of these men have been written about in such detail. The letters from family members mentioned earlier are testament to that. Many of them are amazed at just what has been dug up. There is great research being done in the area of Second World War aircrew and it is certainly not limited to the English-speaking world or, to be more accurate, the results are not just seen in English language publications of course. The mind boggles at just what else is out there and even though the men included in this first volume were of Greek parentage, they were American and, for the most part, were probably barely footnotes in the annals of Greek military history. This is no longer the case and indicates how important this book, and the overall project, is as the research is of value to anyone who takes the time to absorb the quality and evident passion that went in to Greeks In Foreign Cockpits.