I have only just discovered First Light by Geoffrey Wellum. Published in 2002, it is an account of the author’s experiences as an RAF fighter pilot in 1940-43. It is based on notes he kept at the time, but which lay dormant for nearly forty years before he was able to confront and write about his memories of that time.
It is one of the most authentic books I have read about the Battle of Britain and the early war years as seen through the eyes of a young Spitfire pilot. It is not a gung-ho “Biggles” adventure, quite the reverse. Rather it provides an unfolding tragedy as a young man with a passion for aircraft and flying is caught up in the horrors of war. Pain and sadness soon replace excitement and exhilaration.
Wellum left school aged 17 in 1938 and in early 1939 was accepted as a trainee pilot by the RAF. After a brief period of instruction, first flying a Tiger Moth biplane and then graduating to the lumbering American-built Harvard, his training was suddenly cut short and he found himself posted to an operational fighter squadron. It was the time of the Dunkirk evacuation. As Churchill put it, the Battle of France was over and the Battle of Britain was about to begin. The RAF’s fighter squadrons had been losing pilots all through the Battle of France (especially those flying early model Hurricanes against the latest Messchersmitt 109s), and Wellum and his colleagues at the training schools were drafted into the real world up to a year before they would normally have been considered ready.
Arriving at 92 Fighter Squadron, armed with Spitfires and stationed at Duxford on the south coast, Wellum is interviewed by his CO. He is a brusque old-style RAF man, Cranwell-trained and already battle-hardened. The CO is shocked and angry to find that Wellum is only 18, has but a few hours of solo flying behind him, and has never even seen a Spitfire, let alone sat in or flown one. On the very day of his arrival, the squadron flew three missions over Dunkirk, and on the following day the CO himself did not return.
One of the most interesting parts of the book then follows: This is Wellum’s account of his first flight in a Spitfire. His boyish enthusiasm and the sheer thrill of it all stand out:
……….K for King stands waiting. The narrow legs of its undercarriage give it an almost delicate appearance. It has the air of a thoroughbred horse watching the approach of a new and unknown rider and wondering just how far to try it on and generally be bloody minded.
I sense this as I walk steadily towards her and whilst doing so I am quite quite unable to analyse my feelings. How strange; after-all, this should be the biggest day so far in my short flying career. It is the day I’ve been waiting for, the day I have worked the day for which [my instructors] exercised so much patience and understanding when transforming me from a schoolboy into an RAF pilot and, possibly, a man; will have to wait and see on that score.
To fly a Spitfire, the latest step to becoming a fighter pilot. Think of the hundreds of pilots all over the service who would give their right arms to have this opportunity; to be a Spitfire pilot.
There it stands, getting nearer the whole time. Only 170 hours, or just less, and here I am confronted by this lithe creature. No mistakes in this aircraft. There is only one seat for a kick-off and no room for your Eddy Lewises [Wellum’s instructor]. Just got to get it right first time, Geoff old boy, and that’s all there is to it.
My parachute feels heavy slung over my shoulder and my helmet is tight across my forehead. The as yet unsecured oxygen mask flaps annoyingly in rhythm with my steps. Standing beside their Spitfire, the two ground crew watch my approach. I imagine their conversation with each other: ‘Another bleedin’ sprog. We always seem to get them on our kite just because she’s a bit old; wonder if we’ll get her back in one piece? ‘Bout time some other crew ‘ad a basinful. Ah well, two six.’
I arrive on the scene and put on my parachute. Without a word the two airmen help to strap me into the cockpit. The small door is shut and I am left to my own devices, no getting away from it, totally on my own.
Take my time doing the cockpit checks and try to remember what I’ve been told. This aircraft has an undercarriage that has to be pumped up and down manually. Carrying on through the engine-starting procedures, I find myself not a little surprised for some odd reason when the Merlin roars into life at the first touch of the button, sending back clouds of smoke and a stab of flame from the exhausts as it does so. The whole cockpit area is enveloped but, as the engine settles down to run evenly, it clears quickly. All a bit intimidating.
The aircraft has become alive with feeling. It is transformed and seems to have a certain impatience to get on with the job and get into the air, its natural element.
As I start to taxi, I remember snippets of advice: view is bad on the ground so when taxiing swing the nose from side to see what’s ahead; don’t take too long taxiing as these things overheat if you run them too long on the ground; use the brakes very carefully, if you don’t they’ll tip up on to their nose as soon as look at you; they are bloody nose-heavy ground.
Then of course, there was the warning, the CO’s parting shot, the one and only time I spoke to him: ‘If you break one of these there will be merry hell to pay’.
We reach the far end of the aerodrome and stop crosswind. For the third time I do my checks. My God, this is an incredible piece of machinery to be in charge of. The glycol temperature is up to 105 degrees and that is just a shade on the high side. I’d better get cracking. There’s no excuse for waiting here any longer.
With the narrow undercarriage in mind, I make sure I am exactly into the wind and, almost with a feeling of resignation, I let off the brakes and slowly open the throttle. The power comes on in a huge surge, deep and smooth. There is a rich throaty growl from the Merlin as I open up still further, purely out of habit. The acceleration is something I have never experienced before and the port wing has dipped down with the terrific torque. Direction is held quite easily on the rudder and with a touch of aileron. We seem to be charging over the ground and I am still opening the throttle when the Spitfire hurls itself into the air, dragging me along with it. I feel I am hanging onto the stick and throttle in order not to be left behind. In truth, I don’t know where the hell I am and there is no doubt whatsoever that the aircraft is flying me and not the other way round.
It seems to be behaving pretty well though, all things considered. Height is gained very rapidly and gathering my wits I decide it would be a splendid thing if I could do something about raising the undercarriage. Change hands on the stick. As soon as I take my hand off the throttle it starts to close all by itself. I make a frantic grab back again. I haven’t tightened the friction nut enough, sod it! It was OK for a Harvard but not one of these things.
Bloody hell, this is becoming ridiculous. This wretched aircraft seems to be laughing at me as if it’s having me on a right old goose chase. Can’t have that, it’s about time I took charge! For a start, continue to climb and don’t be in too much of a hurry to raise the wheels. These elevators are light, very light in fact. We are racing up into the sky. Now, Geoff, throttle back a bit and coarsen the pitch, no constant speed as in the Harvard, which is a bit backward. Things quieten down. That’s better. I begin to feel I’m just beginning to catch up with this aeroplane. I change hands on the stick again and start to pump the wheels up. Another snag! As my right hand pumps, so does my left, which is on the stick, in sympathy. The outcome of all this is that we end up careering into the wide blue yonder giving a splendid imitation of a kangaroo. This damn aeroplane is still laughing at me. Well, mate, it will be my turn soon. Levelling off, we settle down and things begin to sort themselves out. Possibly I’m just beginning to get the feel of this beast. It’s about time we turned back towards the vicinity of the airfield and almost before I realize it my thoughts have been transmitted to my hands and feet and we are turning, a slow easy turn, the long nose appearing to sweep round the horizon in front of me.
The Spit is beginning to feel a friendly aeroplane. The cockpit is snug and has a homely feeling. There is a sensation of being part and parcel of the aircraft, as one. This is turning out to be a magnificent machine.
Elation! We sweep effortlessly about the sky, upwards between two towering masses of cumulus cloud and through a hole like the mouth of a cave beyond which lies a valley leading into clear sky. We climb up to the very tops of the clouds which stretch away on all sides and I revel in the sheer beauty of the scene around me. Indeed, the very shape of the Spitfire wing is a thing of grace and form. I marvel at its ability to keep the machine in the air. Curved leading and trailing edges, not a straight line anywhere, it’s beautiful.
Looking out of the tiny cockpit as we flow about the cloud-dappled sky I experience an exhilaration that I cannot recall ever having felt before. It’s like one of those wonderful dreams, a Peter Pan sort of dream. The whole thing feels unreal and I can’t believe this is really happening. I must be getting light-headed. What a pity, in a way, that an aeroplane that can impart such a feeling of sheer joy and beauty has got to be used to fight somebody. Maybe that somebody even now is doing some practice flying in his Junkers or whatever, over on the far side of the Channel.
I am brought to my senses by spotting Cambridge some considerable distance away. Must think about getting back. You go a long way in a short time in this aeroplane. Have to think about getting this thing back on the ground, Geoff my lad. As I turn in the direction of base I let the nose drop to get less height. The speed builds up so quickly it is unbelievable. A glance at the airspeed indicator shows the needle at almost 400 mph and I wasn’t even aware of trying. This is an incredible aircraft and a terrific experience, now to think question of landing. A very important part of the sortie, this bit.
To begin with, things go fairly well. After the Harvard, the Spit seems to take a long time to lose speed. I find myself tense with concentration and I try to relax a little; after all, what is so special about landing a single-seater fighter? Make believe [my old instructor] is there in the back somewhere or other.
Throttle back a fair chunk and fine pitch. Speed reduces to just below 180 mph, select wheels down and pump. A bright shows up clearly on the instrument panel with the word ‘Down’. Wheels down and locked. Checking on my position I notice that I am possibly rather a long way downwind. Never mind, don’t suppose that will matter too much, anyway. Turn in now on to the final approach: 140 mph and flaps down. Yes, I’m undershooting, a bit more power needed. The nose comes up as I apply throttle. We are moving very fast, or what seems to be very fast, in a tail-down attitude. Can’t see ahead, this bloody great nose is in the way. That’s the hedge underneath, at least I think and hope it is, speed just over 80 mph, shade fast, maybe?
‘If you break one of these there will be merry hell to pay’
Lots of grass flashing by underneath and getting closer every-second. The aircraft sinking steadily towards the ground that I sincerely hope is the airfield. If only I could see ahead. Aircraft still sinking but absolutely stable. Christ, stick back a bit, cut the throttle for Pete’s sake! It’s all happening very quickly indeed. The nose seems awfully high. I suppose I’m in charge of this bloody thing. Hold it and we arrive firmly on the ground, firm but not the sign of a bounce. Throttle right off, keep her straight, now easy on the brakes, remember what you were told. We bump across the uneven turf and finally roll to a stop. I find myself looking out of the cockpit down past the trailing edge at the ground. Yes, I’ve arrived, no doubt about it, a Spitfire has landed at Duxford with me inside it.
Didn’t know an awful lot about that one and I feel that perhaps the aeroplane had the last laugh. She was flying me during that landing almost as much as during the take-off. However, I mastered her in the air so perhaps honours are about even and, in any case, I shall win in the end.
Looking at my watch I am astonished to find that I have been out for over an hour, longer in fact than the period for which I was authorized. I’d better taxi in and pack up. Take stock of the lessons learned. One or two things need ironing out, but not too bad for a start. At least I didn’t break the thing.
Flaps up, radiator shutter open and I taxi slowly in to the waiting ground crew. Don’t know their names yet but they are smiling. I’ve brought their precious aeroplane back in one piece.
‘All OK, sir?’
‘Thanks, absolutely wonderful.’
This is probably the high point of Wellum’s war. Within days, he is flying with the squadron and soon finds himself in combat as the Luftwaffe intensifies its raids on southern England. He vividly describes the chaotic nature of the air battles, in which chance plays such a major part, and in which the RAF was so heavily out-numbered, and not just by the bombing fleet, but by the swarms of German fighters. He also learns some serious lessons. For example, he follows a stricken German plane (his first victim) down to watch it crash, and is pounced by an Me 109 from behind, escaping only when his opponent withdraws, presumably out of ammunition or running low on fuel. Quickly he realises and thereafter religiously follows the first law of fighter pilot survival: he must never, ever, never, under any circumstances, fly straight or level for more than a few seconds while in the presence of enemy aircraft.
Disaster is only a hair-breadth away, hour by hour, day after day. The squadron flies three and sometimes four missions a day all through September 1940. At one point, required to enter the great unknown of night fighting, Wellum misses death by inches as he attempts a landing in almost complete darkness and clips a wing-tip against a fixed light staunchion he had not seen.
As 1940 rolls into 1941 and then 1942 the story becomes increasingly tragic. Wellum’s boyish enthusiasm is long forgotten. He hangs on, but suffers a constant, almost daily loss of friends and comrades – he sees his fellow pilots spearing into the ocean and going down in flames … or they simply disappear, seemingly wiped off the face of the earth. There is gnawing stress, constant tension, incredible physical demands on body, while anxiety and screwed-down concentration take their mental toll. On top of all this is the awareness of the proximity of death and of the consequences of the merest mistake … all accompanied by poor diet and nutrition, lack of sleep and too much alcohol. Somehow he carries on, becomes an ace, is decorated by the King and promoted to Flight Commander. He is prevented from becoming a Squadron Leader only by the fact that in 1943 when he was qualified in all respects, he was still only 21 and considered too young.
The Battle of Britain won, the RAF’s war shifts to the Mediterranean. Wellum is transferred with his flight to Malta, flying there off an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic (special propellers had to be fitted to the Spitfires), and arriving in time to participate in the crucial defence of the island. Here his physical and mental health steadily deteriorate under the relentless stress and physical demands, and eventually he has a health and nervous breakdown.
The book closes with a poignant scene, summarising for me both the man and his memories. Wellum has been invalided out of operations and is flying home to Britain from Malta in a Catalina flying boat:
The co-pilot of the Catalina came aft to the crew’s rest room where I, a worn-out Spitfire pilot, reclined in one of the let-down bunks, feeling cold and miserable. Smiling, he hands me a steaming mug of hot sweet cocoa and the thickest and largest corned beef sandwich I have ever seen.
It is at this point that he finally realises that his war is over.
Back in England, Wellum undergoes a lengthy period of recuperation, spending it back in his own bedroom at his parents’ home, unchanged since he left it just three years previously, still a boy, to commence flying training. Eventually he is declared fit to fly again, but not to fight. He is appointed a test pilot for the newly developing Typhoon fighter. Here he can recapture his love of flying. But it was another thirty-five years before, one day, sitting at his dining room table, he suddenly found his memories welling up within him, and he was able to his story and, in particular, to pay a belated tribute to lost friends and comrades.
First Light does not glorify war. On the contrary it demonstrates its folly, cruelty and tragedy. But you cannot help but identify with Wellum’s love of flying, the exhilaration of his first flight in a Spitfire, or deny the inspiration wrought by his quiet courage and persistence, the sheer effort of will that enables him to carry on with something he hated for what he believed to be a noble purpose.