This is the memoir of a young man (17 years old when the story begins) who enlisted into the RAF weeks before the outbreak of World War II. We follow Geoffrey's progress through the demanding early stages of his training: he was distinctly below average and was reminded of this continually. He was obviously a sensitive young man and pressure on him tells. As the war raged in the air over the channel, Geoffrey, by then an 18-year-old spitfire fighter pilot with minimal experience, was posted to a squadron based on the south coast. He remained here for two years and despite the appalling casualty rate - friends disappearing almost after every sortie - he became a brave, decorated fighter pilot. Running through the book are his inner feelings - angst, bravado, comradeship - and it is this powerfully evoked sense of self that is one of the most moving aspects of the book. Geoffrey describes his first flights in a spitfire, as well as his first experience of aerial battle and one dreadful sortie over the English Channel where his radio broke and he was coping with thunderstorm, cloud and German planes. Finally in the writing one begins to see, through small references at first, the effect on Geoffrey of this endless stress and tiredness. He began to doubt himself, things went wrong and finally he snapped.
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Surviving Battle of Britain fighter aces were thin on the ground even in 1941, so any new book more than 60 years later from a previously unknown pilot is bound to get noticed. And First Light is not just any book. It might not turn out to be a lasting classic, like Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy or Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, but it is a cut well above the bog standard wartime reminiscences of many retired military bods. For a start Wellum can write, but more than this he has an instinctive feel for a good story. He begins First Light as a fresh-faced, rather obnoxious public schoolboy keen to blag his way into the RAF in March 1939; just three years, two full tours on Spitfires, the Battle of Britain, nearly 100 escorts and fighter sweeps over occupied France and a Malta convoy later, Wellum was physically and mentally burnt out before the age of 22. An old man in a boy's body. His descriptions of the excitement, freedom and, at times, sheer terror of operating in a three-dimensional airspace are vividly powerful, but perhaps his greatest gift is to get across the way the fatigue and the emotional shutting off creeps up unnoticed.
At the start, the death of a friend leaves Wellum devastated and wondering when his turn will come; within the space of a few hundred pages, the failure of a pilot to return is dropped in almost as an afterthought. This is not the response of a man who cares too little, but of one who cares too much. Without being aware of it, he has experienced and felt too much and his mind and body have involuntarily separated. This comes into even sharper relief at the end when Wellum is stood down from active service; he is the only one not to see--quite literally, as his vision has become impaired--that his ailments are rooted in his psyche rather than his body. The only one false note is his desire to see his role as part of a bigger picture; written many years after the events he describes, Wellum sometimes interjects thoughts and feelings about the war that simply do not ring true. That aside, one is left wondering what became of Wellum the man between the war ending and the book's publication. What sense did the prematurely aged fighter pilot make of the post-war age and did he learn to love again? But that, maybe, is the subject for another book. --John CraceReview:
"An extraordinary, deeply moving and astonishingly evocative story. Reading it, you feel you are in the Spitfire with him, at 20,000 feet, chased by a German Heinkel, with your ammunition gone." Independent
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