Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Done: "Goshawk Squadron" by Derek Robinson

Done: Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson, 1971, 670-34672-1.

This novel was reviewed a few years ago on Forgotten Books. I posted a reply to the reviewer's post saying the book sounded pretty good. I then promptly forgot all about the novel. But, when I posted my response I signed up for updates and was notified when someone else posted a comment this October. I placed the book on order and got a copy from New Berlin.

Set in January, 1918 and the British Royal Flying Corps's Goshawk Squadron is flying SE5a biplanes. They are commanded by Stanley Woolley. Woolley is a 23-year-old Major and a major asshole. Woolley is an experienced combat pilot with a cynical eye on war and combat. He cares little to nothing for the pilots under his command. His job is to make sure the pilots learn flying skills and employ efficient tactics when battling thhe enemy.

For Woolley combat is ruthless murder. This attitude clashes with the freshly minted pilots (some with only 10 hours behind the stick) who - even into 1918 - expect a chivalrous and gallant warfare. Woolley tells them to get close and kill the pilot. Woolley tells them to have no mercy. Some of the pilots are aghast. Others quickly die in crashes or combat.

The casualty rate is high on both machines and pilots. Landings are frequently turned into crashes. Inexperienced pilots are caught by surprise and shot down. Engine trouble puts planes into the mud. The pilots grow to despise Woolley and desire his death. He puts them through a physically demanding training schedule and demeans them every day in front of the rest of the unit.

Things happen. The squadron changes airfields. The squadron is tasked with foolishly planned missions. The squadron gets roaring drunk and in trouble with French police. Woolley has a sort-of girlfriend. The comings and goings are thick with dark humor and the shenanigans or young men under high pressure.

1.A neat novel because it's a fun read and also gives an accurate - from what I've learned elsewhere - look at how the air war was fought and how the service operated. When reading a WWI pilot's memoir - maybe that was Rickenbacker's book - I learned how difficult it was to shoot down balloons. The tethered balloons were vital for observing enemy lines and calling artillery strikes. Therefore, the balloons were well protected by enemy fighters, and ground machine guns and ack-ack. Attacking pilots would have to run the gauntlet of exploding air shells to attack the surprisingly resilient balloons.
2. The observation balloons held a couple observers. When one pilot proudly returns to the airfield after downing a balloon Woolley asks him if the observers survived. 'Well, I saw two parachutes," says the pilot. Woolley responds with a burst of anger that the observers must be killed. The balloons can be replaced, the observers are skilled labor and will go right back up in a second balloon.

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