27 August 2012

The magic that is the Spitfire

The Spitfire is, quite simply, the most beautiful aircraft ever built.  It's all in the eye of the beholder of course but her lines and flying charateristics just seem to combine into something beyond the superlative (we won't talk about sounds as this is a book review site but Alex Henshaw had it right when he called his book Sigh For A Merlin).  I'm not the first to attempt to put my love for this aircraft into words and I am certainly not the last.  At the base of it all though is that the Spitfire, no matter how many heartstrings it tugs or lumps in the throat it causes, will always be a machine and, without the people who flew and worked on her, just a series of components assembled into a rather sublime form.  Share the lives of those people and the Spitfire herself comes alive as companion, defender, saviour, inspiration and, sadly, due to the time she was born into, final resting place.

The romance of the Spitfire is most certainly equalled by the achievements of the men who flew her in the RAF and Commonwealth air forces.  As I said above, much has been written on this subject and will continue to be written in the years to come particularly as new stories and material come to light.  A perfect example of this is the three books, pictured below, that have appeared on the Aircrew Book Review radar in the past couple of months.  All three fall under the Spitfire 'umbrella' but all three couldn't be more different from each other if they tried.

Spitfires Over Malta is a familiar title in this genre but this is the original.  Written during the war by two Pilot Officers - Australian Paul Brennan DFC DFM and New Zealander Ray Hesselyn DFM - the slim volume was about their experiences flying in defence of the island of Malta, the key to Allied survival in the North African and Mediterranean theatres.  That they had any energy to do so is astounding as surely the fighter pilots who defended Malta were involved in the most frenetic flying of the war for days on end.

While long out of print, SOM has remained popular with collectors, Maltaphiles and the like. Admittedly hamstrung by the censors of the time Brennan and Hesselyn still managed to portray their hectic day-to-day existence effectively.  Roll forward 70 years and through a lovely case of serendipity, whereby Paul Lovell discovered an original edition in a box at a trade stall after an airshow in Kent, we have a new and updated edition that preserves the 'immediate' nature of the pilots' words and combines them with additional research and material. In a sense we have the best of both worlds - the events as recorded and written by those who were there and the benefit of 70 years research drawn together to provide context and additional detail ... and there's a lot of it as the original 96-page edition has become a well-illustrated and referenced 350-page paperback.  New life has been breathed into an old classic.

On top of that there is the cover of which you can only see half below!

Birth Of The Black Panthers is, like SOM, a self-published title and evidence of the author's commitment to share a unique account with the world.  While resembling a squadron history it is really the memoirs of two men (names to be added - one a fitter, one a pilot) who served with this much-travelled unit.  Really it is a squadron history wrapped up in two wartime biographies.

Considering No. 152 (Hyderabad) Squadron flew throughout the war, and fought in three theatres, it is surprising that they are perhaps best-known for their operations against the Japanese.  Well, considering the decoration on their Spitfires at the time, it might not be that suprising!  The nice surprise for this book, however, is the history of the squadron as related by a fitter.  We're all very used to reading books by the pilots, or those who have interviewed the pilots, so to get a massive part of the story from someone who the pilots depended on is almost unique in this genre.  Beyond the 'rarity' of the subject matter (any other books on 152 out there?), this is worth the 'cost of admission' alone.

From a unit that flew throughout the war to a pilot who did the same.  Viking Spitfire is the story of Finn Thorsager.  The first Norwegian to open fire on the Germans during the 1940 invasion, Thorsager, like many of the pilots from Occupied Europe, managed to escape his country's invaders to join the RAF and, consequently, contribute to the eventual liberation of his homeland.  There is a lot more to Finn's story than just flying Spitfires though.  You will simply be amazed - Gladiators, Hurricanes, Spits and Lodestars to Sweden in 1944.

Published by Fonthill Media, and written with Spitfire and Norwegian fighter pilot afficianado Tor Idar Larsen, VS is an attractive hardback that builds on the reputation the publisher is developing for books of this type (incidentally, Fonthill have also released a European edition of Hamish Brown's Wine, Women And Song).  It, like SOM and BOTBP, is proof that the story of the Spitfire, and, more importantly, the lives intertwined with this magnificent aircraft, continues to be built on.  Something tells me that, despite what we know and what has been written, we still have a lot to discover.