Authors: Derek Robinson
“A bleak and savage book, full of the terror of warfare and shot through with grim humor; a sort of First-World-War
“One of the most powerful indictments of war I have ever read â¦ quietly savage, funny and heart-breaking â¦ A book which must once and for all explode the myth of honorable warfare.”
“An uproarious, fast-moving and relentless cynical tale of the war in the air over France in 1918.”
“A terrific impact â¦
has the authoritative ring of a little classic on the subject of war.”
“Shocking, but by no means insensitive, this novel of Derek Robinson's is a remarkable story of war in the air.”
Praise for Derek Robinson
“Robinson â¦ should be mentioned in the same breath as Mailer, Ballard or Heller.”
“Bleak, black humor, intelligence, moral depth and high adventure.”
“Robinson writes with tireless enthusiasm which never sacrifices detail to pace, or vice versa â¦ terrific.”
is a policeman's son from a council estate who crossed the class barrier by going to Cambridge, where he got a degree in history and learned to write badly. A stint in advertising in London and New York changed that; thenâafter producing a couple of unpublishable storiesâhe finally got it right when, in 1971,
was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Two further novels of the Royal Flying Corps followed:
His equally acclaimed trilogy of World War Two novels are
Piece of Cake, A Good Clean Fight
Damned Good Show.
His other novels include
The Eldorado Network
Artillery of Lies.
Derek Robinson has also published nonfiction on a variety of themes, from the laws of rugby to the nuclear tests on Christmas Island in the 1950s. His most recent book is
a revisionist history of the Battle of Britain, also published by Constable & Robinson. He lives in Bristol.
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Â© 2011 by Derek Robinson
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual personsâliving or deadâevents, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Smoke drifts, but vane and sock unmoved
January 15th, 1918, was a cold, sparkling, sunny day. Not much happened in the Great War that day. As usual, about two thousand men (of the millions along the Western Front) died; some because they stuck their heads up too high and got shot; some because they got their feet wet too often and caught pneumonia; many by accident; and a steady few by their own hand. It was one thousand two hundred and sixty days since Britain and Germany had declared war. Not that anyone was counting.
Pont St. Martin was an isolated airfield, far behind the front lines. At 11:45
Goshawk Squadron, RFC, was preparing to land there for the first time. Twelve SE5a biplanesâsquared-off machines with wings like box kites and tails like weathervanesâwere spaced out in line-astern, easing down in a wide sweep toward the field, which was still white with frost under the baby-blue sky.
In the middle of the field, Stanley Woolley sat in a deckchair and watched them. At twenty-three he was young for a major and old for a pilot. His face looked wrong for either; bad-tempered and stony, heavy-lidded, with a miserable complexion. The newspapers had tried retouching his photograph but it wasn't any better, and in any case they couldn't retouch Woolley himself. The last journalist to try to get an interview had started by asking if his men had a pet nickname
for him; Woolley had kicked him painfully up the ass. There was no story for the newspapers in Woolley. He was a veteran, he was successful, he had led Goshawk Squadron for over a year, and still they could do nothing with him. They felt badly let down by Woolley.
Coffee was stewing on a coke brazier beside the deckchair, and Woolley refilled his mug, using his cap as a potholder. The adjutant, Woodruffe, stood on the other side of the brazier. Captain Woodruffe had the face of a man who pays his bills on time and believes what his country's leaders say in the newspapers. He had paid one bill in person: there were no fingers on his left hand. He gripped his clip-board between the scarred thumb and the neatly carpentered palm.
“Nearly forgot to ask, sir,” he said. “Did you have a good leave?”
The planes tightened their sinking circle and Woolley looked through his binoculars at the number on the fuselage of the first machine. “Seven,” he said.
Woodruffe consulted his list. “Rogers.”
“Ah. Bloody Rogers, I hate the bastard.” Woolley fiddled with the focus. “Is that the same plane he broke a month ago?”
Woodruffe thought. “Yes.”
“Well, it's still broken. I can see loose wires flapping behind his undercarriage. Who's his mechanic?”
“I don't know.”
“Hemsley. I'll kick his ass. Couldn't mend an empty birdcage.”
They watched Rogers approach, his engine cackling softly as he floated in.
“If one wire's bust, he's bound to bust another,” Woolley said.
Rogers came over the hedge at about fifty feet. He stretched his neck and searched the ground in front, trying to select a flat piece. The frost had sprayed everything a uniform silver, and the cold, bright sunshine washed away all shadow. Rogers pulled his head back in.
They watched him sail down, and heard the tiny bursts of
power he used to keep the heavy nose up and let the tail sink. The wheels touched and spun and gradually accepted the weight. They raced hard for about thirty feet and hit a ridge of frozen earth. Woolley and the adjutant clearly heard the
of snapping piano-wire, then the wheel-legs hastily folded up. The plane stumbled and sprawled like a tripped runner. Its wooden propeller battered at the iron turf and splintered to a stub. Rogers grabbed the cockpit rim. The adjutant took a pace forward.
Woolley said, “I told you so.”
The plane racketed along on its belly. The bottom wing scraped and ripped its fabric on the stiff weeds and chunks of grass, making the plane zig and zag. Eventually it skidded into a wide, slow curve and stopped.
Men began running. Woolley raised his binoculars and watched Rogers unstrap himself and climb out. “Stop them, Woody,” he said.
Woodruffe swung a handbell vigorously. The men stopped and looked. “
the adjutant bawled. “
Woolley rested his neck on the top of the deckchair. “It's better where it is. Now the others know where not to come in. Besides, I don't want a lot of people running across the field, it distracts me. Who's next?” He looked in the sky. “Three.”
“Three â¦ Finlayson.”
“Ah. Bloody Finlayson. I hate that bastard.” He studied Finlayson's approach. “How long has he been out of hospital?”
“About a week.”
“Hurt his neck, didn't he?”
“Well, he hurt almost everythingâleft foot, hip, ribs, tail, right arm, scalp. And his neck, yes. He burned himself, too.”
“Huh.” Woolley prodded the red-hot coke with his swagger-stick. “If his neck won't work I don't want him.” Finlayson drifted down and landed impeccably. “Any fool can fly forward,” Woolley said. “Question is, can he look backward?” Finlayson taxied off to the far end of the field. Woolley raised his binoculars. “Ten.”
“Ten â¦ O'Shea.”
“Ah. Bloody O'Shea. I hate that bastard.”
The adjutant looked at his list. “You've never even met him.”
“What's his name?”
“O'Shea. He only joined us yesterday. Came straight from that new flying school on Salisbury Plain.”
“Ah. Right. A replacement. A bloody Irish replacement. My God, is he going to land in the next field or the next bloody
O'Shea made a violent correction to bring himself back on the approach.