on 4 March 2007
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!
on 5 May 2008
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.
on 8 December 2006
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.
on 12 March 2007
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.
on 5 September 2002
Having read countless personal accounts in all WW2 fighting arenas, I was resigned to the fact that I had read the best there was to offer and that further reading would only offer diminishing returns. And then out of nowhere comes the relatively unknown Geoffrey Wellum with a total classic.
First Light is crafted around notes that Wellum made during his basic training and two tours of duty flying Spitfires from 1939 to 1942. The book shines during Wellum's training and first tour of duty, coinciding with the Battle of Britain, but is slightly less rewarding when the battle weary pilot starts to neglect his diary.
The book has a very modern feel to it and I put this down to the fact that Wellum was a teenager when he compiled his notebook and the stiff upper lip is totally absent and a much more vulnerable figure is portrayed. Even his colleagues called him 'Boy'.
This book deserves to become a best seller, I just hope a few more people discover it.
on 13 July 2004
I have been a pilot for almost 40 years, much of it in the Royal Air Force; flying aircraft ranging from Chipmunks off grass strips to Harriers from aircraft carriers. I have never before read a book which so beautifully encapsulates the essence of military flying from the pilot's viewpoint. On every second page I found something which struck a deep chord - something which made me think: "I know just what he means". If you want to know what it feels like to be a fighter pilot, this is the book to read.
on 4 November 2004
This book has to be summed up in just one word: excellent.I had always regarded Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy and Paul Ritchie's Fighter Pilot - followed closely by Guy Gibson's Enemy Coast Ahead - as the classic books about the RAF during World War 2, but Geoffrey Wellum's First Light surpasses even these. It was difficult to put the book down. His descriptive powers are wonderful, so that you feel at times you are in the cockpit of his Spitfire with him,sharing all the emotions he felt at the time. It will be a book I will surely re read on may occasions in the future.
Geoffrey Wellum makes the comment somewhere in the book about young pilots like him soon being forgotten. I was born in July 1940, just a couple of days before the Battle of Britain got under way, and have often wondered how my life would have turned out had the young pilots of the RAF not won through in those dark days. The likes of Geoffrey Wellums will NEVER be forgotten by my generation - and I am sure that through this book those born after the war will also come to appreciate and cherish the debt we owe to those young pilots.
on 9 June 2002
This is a truly awesome account of a man's courage, duty and effort to get the job done, written in such an effective style that one can visualise every line - although, in the 21st century, civilians can surely never even imagine what men such Mr Wellum went through, all in the spirit and honour of service to one's country. The author was a Battle of Britain pilot at the age of 18 - imagine it, 18, amazing, flying Spitfires, sometimes facing overwhelming odds, against the Luftwaffe. This book should be read by every person in the UK, it describes with great honesty and directness all the emotions experienced during this historic time...an amazing period when this country was well served by people such as Mr Wellum. I could go on, but I won't...I'll just quote from one passage. The author has just come back from a particularly hair-raising mission over France, in combat against Me109s (German fighter aircraft), outnumbered at least 4 to 1. It's all he can do, fighting and flying to the edge of his and his Spitfire's abilities, to escape and return to England with less than five gallons of fuel remaining. He climbs out of the 'plane and sits down under the wing. A voice asks him if he is okay. The reply: "Yes, just a bit tired." Classic British understatement, marvellous, awe-inspiring, inspirational. To use today's typically overblown language: massive. This is a book written by a true, authentic hero. Respect.
When I picked this up in the bookshop it didn't strike me as the kind of thing I normally read -- more for flying enthusiasts and Battle of Britain buffs, I thought. Less than 24 hours later, I had finished it. This is a gripping book, no doubt about it. I don't remember ever before experiencing the same kind of white-knuckle, real-time excitement and fear when reading a book, at least since I was a kid. When Geoffrey Wellum describes flying -- especially combat, but also his clenched-buttock attempts to master the basics and flying at night and in bad weather -- he takes you there with him.
It is trite, I know, but in my mind's eye, his struggle to master the controls reminded me of learning to play a demanding computer game. Except that he was fighting for real: what would be game over for me would be fiery death for him. Makes you think.
on 2 December 2004
This autobiography is simply absorbing. The life of a committed RAF pilot is funny, passionate, sad and motivating in equal measures. I am part of a generation who's grandparents lived through the war, the story is powerful and reminds me of the gratitude I owe to these people.
The book becomes a little repetitive three quarters of the way through, when similar sorties are described in identical ways, but it is not sufficient criticism to detract from a five star rating.
When my children are old enough, I'd like them to read this and understand what EXTRAORDINARY people these 'ordinary' people were.