04 June 2019

Spitfire - John Nichol

It's time for another guest review as I tidy up a few things in preparation for gearing up to writing long reviews for this website again. This is the first time Adrian Roberts' writing has been featured on ABR, but, a Great War aviation specialist, he has been writing reviews for Flightpath for several years now (some of you may have seen his writing in Cross & Cockade too). A glider pilot of many years' experience, Adrian has flown over the same green fields so commonly associated with the nostalgic view of Spitfire flying and brings an aviator's eyes to bear on one of the recent best-sellers of the ever-growing Spitfire bibliography. Andy Wright

John Nichol, the Tornado navigator and Iraq POW turned writer, has produced an account of the Spitfire based around the people associated with it at various periods of its service. The book can scarcely be called a history; the chapters relate to the chronological periods of the war, but, as the title suggests, it focuses on the feelings and the memories of those most closely associated with the Spitfire. 

It is essentially an anthology. Many of the first-hand accounts come from previously published sources and, therefore, may not be new to serious Second World War aviation enthusiasts. Other accounts are from letters to the author or private memoirs intended for relatives. As it covers the entire war in a broad sweep, it may not please those who look for the details of a particular squadron or theatre of operations, but it is an entertaining read for those with a general interest in the subject. 

Probably a mainstream publisher would only have been interested because the word ‘Spitfire’ has broad recognition. Clearly the subtitle, appealing to nostalgia and perhaps nationalism, is an attempt to capture the general market. Surely, however, there must be similar accounts of less easily romanticised aspects of the air war going unpublished because they do not have the same mass appeal. Nichol certainly shows passion for the subject and empathy with the combat experiences. His lack of specialism occasionally lets errors creep in though. For instance, he states the Spitfire Mk.XVI was characterised by its cut-down rear fuselage when, in fact, this feature did not relate to a particular mark, but was applied to different production batches of all the later versions (about half of the Mk.XVIs constructed were built with this modification).  

Possibly the most unique feature of the book is Nichol’s relationship with many of the last surviving men and women of the ‘Greatest Generation’ who flew or serviced the Spitfire. He has photographed and interviewed many of them, and been present when some of these nonagenarians had rides in two-seat Spitfires. Sadly, this was the last opportunity to write such a book. Many of the veterans featured, such as ATA pilot Joy Lofthouse (her comrade Mary Ellis passed away subsequently), died while he was writing it. For their memory alone the book needed to have been written and deserves to be read. 

ISBN 978-1-47115-923-7