Winged Victory Hardcover – 1963
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Winged Victory was written in 1933. The author walked out of Colindale Hospital because he couldn't write there. One presumes that he was already afflicted by tuberculosis; a disease he inflicts on one of his characters; the tuberculosis that would sadly kill him before the end of the following year. The novel is semi-autobiographical; indeed a number of the pilots' name are those of real people, his comrades. Yeates finished the war an accredited fighter ace.
Where the book shines is in his depiction of squadron life, of flying and "jobs" i.e. combat missions, and of the war-weariness & frayed nerves that are part & parcel of extended tours of duty, particularly in that age when psychology was in its infancy & such phenomena were little understood. Where it dulls is in the over-extended philosophising that happens repeatedly, sometimes extendedly, and occasionally rather convolutedly. The books that can be put under the "Disenchatment" heading were largely ignored when they were originally published. To what extent that cynicism & strained nerves of the time might have become disillusionment over the intervening years is impossible to know now. Certainly, though, an awful lot of that shows through in the novel of 15 years later.
There is too much of that in the novel, which is the sole reason I don't give this 5*. The style is a peculiar mix of florid description and unliterary matter-of-factness; none the worse for that. If you want the shortest possible summing up, "Winged Victory" was the title the publisher insisted on. The author's choice was "Wingless Victor" - suitably bleak. It enjoyed a new popularity, unsurprisingly, in WWII. One of the blurb quotes on the 2004 paperback (the edition I own) from an unknown fighter pilot reads "The only book about flying that isn't flannel."
It is not an autobiography, never mind a history. But if you have more than a passing interest in WWI, and want to get the sense of how the war appeared to at least some of those serving, then this is well worth reading.
It's a huge, detailed book, but it's not boring at all. The dialogues jump out of the pages with credibility, fun, drama and intensity, the combat scenes are great and detailed (and, again, credible).
Victor Maslin Yeates was there. He was credited with five enemy aircraft shot down in World War I (2 plus three shared), while serving in 46 Squadron, first of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force. He arrived at the Squadron in February 1918, and only flew the tricky (but deadly to the enemy) Sopwith Camel in combat.
Yeates merges real people who served in 46 Squadron (like Thomson, Robinson and Sawyer) with fictional characters clearly based in some real people of the Squadron (like "Mac" - Canadian Donald MacLaren). Himself is "replaced" by Tom Cundall, a reluctant warrior, with a lot of fear inside, but not a coward.
Funny is the contempt that he talks about the German fighter pilots of the time (1918), always avoiding combat and flying over their lines, even letting two-seaters being shot down without doing anything to help. Also, French fighter pilots and squadrons are not mentioned.
Of course, this a descriptive book. Events occurs in succession, there is no plot twist or suspense that are resolved or connected some chapters ahead.
Victor died from tuberculosis at 37 years of age.
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