Friday, September 14, 2012

Review of Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson (Cassell, 1971)

At 23, Stanley Woolley is old beyond his years, a major in the Royal Flying Corps in charge of a squadron of SE5a biplanes.  Unlike the young pilots he commands, most of whom are from privileged backgrounds, he understands the air war to be as a brutal, squalid and wasteful as the trenches, not a chivalrous, dignified joust between gentlemen.  Through a tough regime of training he tries to equip the pilots with the skills and ruthlessness to survive and to shoot the enemy quite literally in the back.  In turn, they hate him for his seeming lack of ethics, general callousness, and absence of respect.  But Woolley doesn’t care.  He knows that they’ll all be dead within weeks despite his efforts and that their deeds will have had barely a negligible impact on the war.  The only thing they can do is to keep trying to shoot down the Germans before they themselves are killed.  Something that Woolley excels at.

Goshawk Squadron was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971.  It was criticised by some former RFC pilots who felt it denigrated the memories of those who fought the air war.  Others praised it for showing the true nature of a war that was brutal mass slaughter and it was no different in the air to other services.  Pilots were flying planes made of principally of wood, canvas and wire, and the engines were treated with castor oil to keep them lubricated, the fumes of which acted as a laxative that was countered by alcohol.  Pilots often flew several missions a day traversing two sets of trenches where they were liable to be shot at from both sides, plus sustained anti-air barrages, to face superior planes.  Tensions and fears were high amongst pilots, most of whom had only recently finished school, and they often let off steam in local villages.  Robinson captures the true dark nature of war; it’s brutal realities.  The tale is relatively straightforward, following the men’s exploits and relationships over a few months.  The action sequences are excellent and the opening couple of chapters are amongst the best I’ve read in a while; the writing really alive on the page, laced with dark humour.  It then settles down, becoming a little more mundane.  Whilst some of the men are well drawn and distinctive, others are pretty indistinguishable and under-realised.  And in Woolley he pushes the callous leader, who really believes he is doing the right thing by his men by trying to harden them to be ruthless, to its limits.  Overall, an engaging, well written novel that shows war for what it really is.


Gerard Saylor said...

Sounds like a good one. I read one Brit officer's diary that was published after his death. He had hidden it away from family for years.

The officer was not concerned about exposing the mud, blood and bodies to his family. He was concerned that he drank so much while in the service.

Stanley65 said...

I think the whole of the short novel is a brutal classic - I can't agree that any of the characters are either stylised or overdone. A look at the behaviour of aces such as McCudden, Mannock and Ball confirms that Woolleys existed. Otherwise, I agree with your praise of the novel.