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First Light: The True Story of the Boy who became a Man in the War-torn Skies above Britain Hardcover – 25 Apr 2002


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (25 April 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670912484
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670912483
  • Product Dimensions: 14.4 x 3.6 x 23.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (269 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 426,120 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

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 Crace

Review

This may turn out to be the last great undiscovered memoir of the Second World War. Ex-Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum wrote the book with no intention of ever seeing it published. Penguin picked it up, and since its appearance such luminaries as Max Hastings have been full of praise. First Light tells the story of Wellum's time as a pilot during the war. In the Battle of Britain, he and his comrades began to live each day with a fierce intensity. The thrill of flying a Spitfire was coupled with the sheer terror of combat, and when the day was over, the Squadron drank and played as hard as they could. One by one his friends stopped returning home. By the age of 21, Wellum was drained, mentally and physically. A harrowing book, but also a celebration of life.

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"There are some days in the early spring when the weather is such that, no matter where you are, either in town or countryside, England is at her best and it's good to be alive." Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

57 of 57 people found the following review helpful By M. B. on 8 Dec. 2006
Format: Paperback
I have read countless military history books by now and all the autobiographical ones follow a set pattern: young blood doesn't know he'll make the cut, eventually finds he's doing reasonably well, and reaches a certain proficiency, then becomes depressed with the hopelessness of war and loss. Wellum's book follows the same path but more than any other he puts the reader right there. It's hard for our generation to imagine being put in such a situation as a 17 year old school boy but Wellum makes you be that boy. What separates this from the others is the very human self-doubt that the author experiences along the way reminds us the fighter boys weren't just heroes, they were normal people with normal doubts and fears doing heroic things.

K Cowburn (above) feels the book has too much extraneous detail. Not so, the detail places the book firmly in reality and helps create pace. Take the eponymous chapter; it opens with banal descriptions of taking a cup of tea and builds and builds into a life or death crescendo. Better than a Mahler symphony.

This is one book I've turned to again and again. Buy it.
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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 5 May 2008
Format: Paperback
My lifelong dream of flying a Spitfire has been realized; if not in fact, then certainly by reading this wonderful book.

What more can one ask from a story? While reading I am humbled, proud, heartsick, joyous, angry, philosophical, ambivalent, bored, excited.

I realize that we owe the continuance of Western Civilization to the incredible effort made by people such as Mr. Wellum. I know that the United States might well have been conquered by the Nazis, if not for the supreme effort by the Few. The Holocaust would have been completed, the Nazis would have probably developed the atomic bomb first, Russia would have likely fallen, and the Japanese and Germans would have shaken hands in Asia.

I have always been impressed by the simple, unyielding character of the British. Even in fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien (who apparently fought in WWI), summed it up when he had Gandalf say to the Balrog, "You cannot pass." ("You shall not pass" in the movie version). In his book, Wellum says the same thing to his Nazi adversaries: you were not invited here, you are not welcome here, and you shall go no further. Not a mere threat, it was a promise.

I was totally immersed, more than ever before, in the fights that Wellum described. I have read quite a few accounts of dogfights, and this book outdoes them all. Even the innocuous, seemingly random thoughts while Geoff is flying rings true, especially when he describes his wonderment at having such thoughts at strange times. He even describes his curiousity at what his squadron-mates would think if they knew what he was thinking. Seldom do we get such a detailed glimpse into a figther pilot's stream of consciousness, from wide-angle to extreme pin-point thinking.

Thank you, Geoff, for what you did, what you gave, what you endured, and the price that you paid. There are those of us who will make sure that you and your lads will not be forgotten.
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95 of 96 people found the following review helpful By David Pulman on 4 Mar. 2007
Format: Paperback
I am a modern pilot (though only born 10 years after WW2) but like most pilots would give almost anything (within reason) to fly a Spitfire! Geoffrey has made me feel as though I have finally achieved that dream by 'taking me for a cockpit ride in his Spitfire!'

I read a review or two by other readers of 'First Light' and was surprised at the mention of 'class' or 'priviledge' in some reviews. Maybe as a fellow former 'public schoolboy' the language and style seemed quite normal, but from his writings, I think it highly unlikely that Geoffrey would have consciously written with the slightest thought of having been privileged, other than the most obvious one of being allowed to experience the ultimate flying experience.

I like most readers, I suspect, was humbled by reading such a modest account of bravery and incredible airmanship.

Despite the passage of time between Geoffrey's flying training and my own, there are so many similies to draw upon which hold true to the present day. All pilots (of all experience) will be immediately taken back to their own flying training days when reading the early accounts. The description of 'seat of the pants' flying is extremely modestly described in various accounts of flying at night, in very marginal weather conditions and in particular, of chasing a target over the North Sea in weather that under normal conditions, no pilot would normally consider even thinking about removing the chocks!

I loved the book, couldn't put it down, empathised completely with the author - a man whose hand I would very much like to shake!
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36 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Citizen Phil on 12 Mar. 2007
Format: Paperback
Simply written, totally compelling, utterly convincing. In fact, a book that terrifies in a way no fiction can. His description of training, of night-flying and of missions had me reading by the seat of my pants...

What I don't accept is K.Cowburn's review: "There's also masses of pointless religious and naive philosophising about the meaning of war which never comes to any conclusion." I don't know what kind of religion could prepare you for the transition from cricket pitch to Spitfire cockpit, but I doubt it was to be found in a 1930s English Public School. It felt completely natural, therefore, that such questions should arise alongside so many others in his young man's stream-of-consciousness writing style. In any case, it is surely better to let the reader come to his own conclusions once he has let the writer share his experiences.

A book in a million.
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