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
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.