Nimrods, Swordfish and Beaufighters. Sold? Thought so. However, what is a little odd is that this delightful book is available via Lulu so is, effectively self-published. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that as it is a beautiful piece of work that would put many publishers to shame. It is comparable to Owen Zupp’s Without Precedent which is currently my benchmark when it comes to self-published titles. I do despair, however, as sometimes books such as this don’t receive the exposure they deserve. That can be said for a lot of things, hence the cult followings various forms of entertainment receive, but the breadth of appeal within the pages of One Life Left suggests it could be sold to almost any aviation enthusiast. I am not aware of its sale figures, and it is available in quality digital formats too, but I have certainly not seen it at every turn as I do with some titles. Fleet Air Arm, Gibraltar, Scotland, Malta: the ingredients for what should be a best seller that will have you fascinated and rolling in the aisles.
Hugh Garlick joined the RAF in 1935 and completed his flying training with a rating of ‘Exceptional’. This garnered him a coveted position with No. 56 Squadron, then flying Gloster Gauntlets. A minor error in judgment, unfortunately performed at the 1936 Hendon Air Display, led to him being posted to the Fleet Air Arm. At the time, with the Royal Navy still heavily populated with Admirals and other old salts who clung to the notion of the battleship and regarded naval aviation as mere support for the big guns, and an RAF insisting that it was the sole provider of military aviation strength, there were many RAF aircrew flying from the decks of carriers. Ground crew were RAF and non-pilot aircrew such as observers were invariably naval types. This confusion of responsibilities and experience, coupled with some very entrenched and backward views from higher up, did little to prepare the Fleet Air Arm for what was coming.
The author soon finds himself on board HMS Glorious and heading to the Mediterranean and, specifically, Malta. The cruises appear quite idyllic with much drinking and merriment during port visits and a bit of flying here and there. That latter point is important as the lack of flying hours allocated to the Hawker Nimrods and Ospreys of Garlick’s squadron indicates the navy’s opinion of an embarked fighter force at the time. In the eighteen months spent in the Med, the fighters were used for defensive purposes during only a handful of combined fleet ops. The captain of the Glorious at the time was a strong supporter of naval aviation and the ship, as per Graham Drucker’s Wings over the Waves, was a happy ship although, admittedly, Drucker was writing from the point of view of his uncle, Swordfish legend Roy Baker-Falkner, who flew an aircraft that was always gainfully employed when embarked.
With war approaching, there is much dashing about, urgent recalls and, after a series of 31 loops without losing height, a bout of appendicitis that, due to complications, saw Garlick languish in hospital for what was a frustrating end to his time with the Fleet Air Arm.
What followed, however, was the result of having to be sent somewhere, anywhere. With hundreds of hours on single seat fighters, one would assume Garlick would be an ideal fit for Fighter Command. Not so as he was posted to Gibraltar, arriving shortly after the war began, to command a flight of three target drogue towing Swordfish floatplanes on anti-submarine duty.
If anything, this period only serves to make this book even more fascinating. This is quite likely the only personal account of flying Swordfish from The Rock and it is as entertaining as it is insightful. While the ‘Stringbag’ excelled at almost everything thrown at it, it did so without dash and excitement. A fine aeroplane, it was quite literally a plodder. Still, it was the start of the war and whatever was on hand had to fill the breech until they could be replaced. Garlick took to his command with determination tinged slightly by incredulity. The Swordfish had their towing winches removed, racks hung under the wings for 250lb bombs, winch operators trained as WOp/AGs and the forward firing Vickers gun harmonised. They saw no action against submarines, but the author felt they at least contributed to protecting the ships passing through the Straits. While this part of the book is a good look at day-to-day life on Gib, it is also a wonderful illustration of the make-do/can-do attitude and there are some superb passages of the challenges of operating floatplanes for extended periods of time. It was certainly no picnic.
Such was the leadership and initiative shown by Garlick that he was awarded the DFC although it completely mystified him as to how he had earned it. It was still 1940 and he was volunteering for all manner of jobs in an attempt to get into the war proper. In the end, he was due for a rest and after a stint in ops rooms, returned to the UK, converted to Beaufighters and took command of No. 235 Squadron in late 1941. Based in Scotland, the squadron converted to Beaufighters from the end of the year and began operations over the North Sea to Norway and the fjords. It was a hard existence as the sandy airfield was not conducive to high performance aero engines and when it snowed, it really snowed. Still, as ever, Garlick simply got on with the job with what he had and even, so the story goes, oversaw the fitting of Lewis guns in the observer’s cupola for rear defence.
In the middle of 1942, the squadron was sent to Malta to provide fighter cover for two convoys attempting to resupply the besieged island. Returning to his old stomping grounds, the author expected a short stay but, as with any aircraft and crew arriving on the island, AVM Hugh Lloyd got his hooks into the Beaufighters and Garlick’s stay extended to six weeks of escort work for convoys and Beauforts alike. When he returned to the UK, he finally went through modern single engine fighter training and became a chief instructor at an OTU. He ended the war as the Fleet Aviation Officer on HMS Rodney out of Scapa Flow.
If you like adventure, a delightful take on the work hard/play harder mentality and just good, entertaining writing, then this is the book for you. While Garlick flew a lot of ops and was a supremely skilled pilot, there’s not much detail on them. If anything, especially the time on Beaus, they’re mentioned in passing, as anecdotes, as he paints a broader picture of being in command of a squadron and the challenges that entails. The narrative puts the reader at ease with its eloquence, humour, honesty and self-deprecation. It is classic RAF. That’s probably the best way to put it.
There is a very good photo section containing more than fifty images from throughout the timeline covered by the book. They are printed on the same paperstock as the text so the reproduction is not right up there, but it is sufficient and there are some superb photos specific to Garlick’s career so have in all likelihood not been seen before. The reproduction is probably a product of publishing through Lulu, but, that said, the entire package is impressive. I bought the hardback and it a lovely looking book. All of the design work, including the superbly laid out electronic editions, was done by the author’s nephew, John Hooton, who is the driving force behind this book. While the manuscript existed and the photos remained with the family, it was John who pulled it all together to produce one of the best reading experiences I have had since starting ABR.
As this is a print on demand title, it has the benefit of never being out of print. It certainly doesn’t deserve to be, such is its quality, uniqueness and pure entertainment value. Garlick’s turn of phrase will often crack a smile, if not an audible response and there were several occasions, particularly during Christmas 1938, that I was in stitches. Before writing this review, and after referring to my notes, I went back to Christmas 1938 and was similarly entertained. The sequence of parties, quasi-recoveries, and more parties is something almost unique to aircrew types, particularly the ability to recount the misadventures in such a way that you didn’t have to be there to get it. It is typical aircrew hi-jinks, to use an oft-repeated term, that is always told best by those who were a part of it.
An endless stream of superlatives could be rattled off to try to describe the wonderful reading experience this book provides. Not much else can be said other than this is a book not to be missed.