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December's Title:Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop

by
02 November 2006

MUCH seems to have been written about one particular group of young men during the early years of the Second World War. They captured the imagination of British people then, and have continued to inspire them since. This book, named after the “Fighter Boys” who star in it, helps us to see why.

The narrative leads us through the events that foreshadow the Battle of Britain; the first half of the book takes us from the trenches of the First World War to the fall of France. Only with this background in place does the reader go on to see how the Battle of Britain unfolded. This battle was a completely new experience for the people of Britain. It was no surprise that it passed into legend.

One of the strands that strikes home is that of youth. We all think of the “Fighter Boys” as dashing young men. But what is so easy to forget is the youthfulness of the RAF itself. As the clouds of the Second World War were gathering, the structures and systems of the RAF were still being tested; the aircraft were still being designed.
It was a time when cutting-edge technology met new ideas and young people. It was a combination of events that meant that exciting things were bound to happen, whatever the cause. The boys were young, scared, and caught up in the pure excitement of doing new things and pushing against boundaries.

They took with them their dogs and touches of home such as photos of parents. On days off, they were just as likely to be visiting their old school or sleeping the whole day through as going into town to cause chaos as only drunk young men know how.

Another strand that comes through is the ordinariness of these men. The RAF had been founded on surprisingly meritocratic lines for that time. If you were able, committed and showed sufficient competence, you were given the opportunity to fly. Rank and class did not have to play a part. This was counter-cultural in the military world. But the RAF was a new creation, and was able to try new things.

The author, Patrick Bishop, concentrates his account around a group of people and their recollections, using diaries and correspondence to explore the battles in the boys’ own words. “It was a victory of spirit as much as of skill, and the spirit of the Fighter Boys was that of Britain. They came from every class and background and every area. Their values and attitudes were those of the people they were defending,” he says.

Emotionally, this battle was different from that which the Army and Navy were fighting. The RAF were living at home, and, when they flew, it was over their people and their towns. Patrick Bishop mentions several instances in which pilots saw the destruction of their family homes or familiar land-marks, as they chased the enemy through the sky. He charts, too, how women plotted the loss of their sweetheart on the map in the Ops room. This changed the perspective quickly. No longer was this a game of skill alone. The legendary bravery of the Battle of Britain is real, but the motivation for this fight over England was deeply personal.

In the air, there were many risks to the pilot. Until 1928, we read, parachutes were not allowed in the aircraft just in case the pilot lacked sufficient moral courage, and jumped when the going got tough. Once safely out of a doomed plane, individuals struggled with broken limbs, burned hands, landing in the sea, finding their Mae West was damaged, having to swim, and — perhaps most galling — being mistaken for the enemy and attacked by locals.

If the same challenge were to come today, to 21st-century men and women, would they rise to meet it? Would they succeed, or are they too soft and too comfortable now?

I believe these challenges could be met by a new generation. The boys and girls with whom I work are young, filled with enthusiasm and with desire to push boundaries. Those who fly have been known to talk in the bar of “The Fear” that grips when they are working at the limits of their capacity. They go into conflict zones and operate under fire. They put their lives on the line. I hope we would never have to test my theory to the degree of intensity and loss that was the Battle of Britain, but I have no doubt that our young men and women could continue to rise to such tasks.

Fighter Boys tells us of a threat that has passed, of the amazing — not to say foolhardy — feats that took place during that great battle for Britain. But it also reinforces a timeless truth: that ordinary people, young and untried people, when given good cause and emotional support, can do the most selfless and extraordinary things. 

The Revd (Squadron Leader) Eleanor Rance is station chaplain at RAF Benson

Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop is published by Perennial/HarperCollins at £7.99 ( CT Bookshop £7.20); 0-00-653204-7).

SOME QUESTIONS 

Chapter 3 talks of the wonder experienced by many of the Fighter Boys when they had their first trip in an aeroplane. What engenders such wonder among young people today?

How important is a sense of mystery in life? 

What do we learn about the character of the Fighter Boys?

 Is there a quality that marked them out from others? 

What motivated the Fighter Boys and made them willing to fight? 

 The author quotes from an eye-witness account of people returning to their bombed-out homes: “Quite a number of people explained to me how they had swept up rooms that they agreed no one could possibly live in again” (page 282-3). What seemingly pointless actions do we perform in the face of tragedy in order to normalise life? 

How did the Battle of Britain shape this country’s fortunes in the War and its final outcome? 

How did the Fighter Boys’ part in the War affect their families and friends who were not combatants? 

How important was the social class of the men in the squadrons and on the ground?

To what extent did the War change attitudes towards class? 

The author believes that it was loyalty that sustained the morale of the pilots. Do you agree?

Spirit of the RAF: (upper, below) Jon "Killy" Kilmartin; and (lower, below), in front of his aeroplane, Michael Crossley. The photos, from the Imperial War Museum, are used to illustrate Fighter Boys.

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Next Month's Title Companions of Christ by Margaret Silf. Canterbury Press at £7.99 ( CT Bookshop  £7.20); 1-85311-598-3. 

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Author notes Margaret Silf was born and brought up in post-war Sheffield. She was an only child and spent many hours roaming moorlands. She believed that God lived in the woods at the back of her house, and would leave notes for him there about the events in her life. She read English at the University of London, before working abroad as an interpreter for a number of years, later becoming a technical writer for the computer industry. Her previous books include Landmarks (1998), Wayfaring (2001), and At Sea with God (2003). 

Book notes The subtitle of Companions of Christ, “ Ignatian spirituality for everyday living”, neatly sums up the contents. It is a straightforward guide to the wisdom of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, with a practical bent. Exercises and questions help readers to put what they have learned into practice in their own prayer life, but without making this an onerous task. It is a short book of just over 100 pages, written in the accessible style that has made Margaret Silf one of the most popular authors of recent years on the spiritual life. 

Books for the next two months: February: Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers March: The Bridge of San Luis Ray by Thornton Wilder

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