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First Light (WWII Collection) Paperback – International Edition, September 22, 2009
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An extraordinarily deeply moving and astonishingly evocative story. Reading it, you feel you are in the Spitfire with him, at 20,000ft, chased by a German Heinkel, with your ammunition gone * Independent * A brilliantly fresh, achingly written memoir. Thrilling and frightening on virtually page . . . Wellum takes you into battle with him. A book for all ages and generations, a treasure * Daily Express * Vivid, wholly convincing, compelling. One of the best memoirs for years about the experience of flying in war -- Max Hastings * Sunday Telegraph * Amazing fresh and immediate . . . absolutely honest, it is an extraordinarily gripping and powerful story * Evening Standard *
From the Inside Flap
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Winston Churchill, 1940
Geoffrey Wellum was one of Churchills "few," the gallant pilots of the RAF who streaked through the skies to repel the massive, brutal Nazi bombing assaults that killed thousands and leveled entire cities throughout the endless months of the Battle of Britain. To a man, they were courageous, determined, and oh, so young. Geoffrey, known as Boy to his comrades, was a good deal younger than most.
In First Light, Geoffrey Wellum tells the inspiring, often terrifying true story of his coming of age amid the roaring, tumbling dogfights of the fiercest air war the world had ever seen. It is the story of an idealistic schoolboy who couldnt believe his luck when the RAF agreed to take him on as a "pupil pilot" at the minimum age of seventeen and a half in 1939. In his fervor to fly, he gave little thought to the coming war.
Writing with wit, compassion, and a great deal of technical expertise, Wellum relives his grueling months of flight training, during which two of his classmates crashed and died. He describes a hilarious scene during his first day in the prestigious 92nd Squadron when his commander discovered that Wellum had not only never flown a Spitfire, hed never even seen one.
Boy soon learned the golden rule of the dogfight: "Never fly straight and level for more than twenty seconds. If you do, youll die." Wellums vivid accounts of ferocious aerial combat contrast the mortal terror of an innocent teenager with the grim determination of a highly trained warrior intent on doing his jobblasting the enemy one moment, desperately trying to shake off a pursuer the next. Few writers have succeeded more completely in evoking the chaos and horror of war.
A battle-hardened ace by the winter of 1941, though still not out of his teens, Boy flew scores of missions as fighter escort on bombing missions over France. Yet the constant life-or-death stress of murderous combat and anguish over the loss of his closest friends sapped endurance. Tortured by fierce headaches, even in the midst of battle, he could not bear the thought of "not pulling your weight," of letting other pilots risk their lives in his place. Wellums frank account of his long, losing bout with battle fatigue is both moving and enlightening.
Filled with affectionate portraits of Boys fellow fliersmany of whom did not survive the warFirst Light tells an unforgettable true story of patriotism and fear, pride and humility, self-sacrifice and triumph. Already a bestseller in England, this powerful and compelling memoir is destined to become a classic, not only of military history, but also of literature.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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His story starts out when he was a teenager in the summery days of his last year of public school with his chums and cricket and then his enlistment as an 18-year old civilian pilot-trainee in the R.A.F. He takes you into the cockpit with him and you see what it was like to fly a Gypsy Moth biplane; you learn what it was like to fly a Harvard trainer; and you meet the older, sharp-as-a-razor flight instructors who taught and trained him. Before he finished the last phases of his training he was yanked out of flight school and sent to a Spitfire squadron because of the extreme need for pilots in the opening Battle of Britain . There is a hilarious moment when he first meets the commanding officer of the squadron and is asked if he's EVER flown a Spitfire and he replies that no, his instructors wouldn't even let him look at one.
He tells you about the patrols and dogfights and comrades lost; the escort missions with bombers over France. After the Battle of Britain wound down he was posted to besieged Malta where he ferried in a Spitfire squadron and continued air combat as Flight Commander.
At this point he was 20 years old, one of the most seasoned fighter pilots with hundreds of dogfights and patrols, had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by King George, and was on the verge of burning out. He was posted back to England where he was an R.A.F. test pilot.
Wellum's story is simply told and almost belies his heroic stature. He had done more in a few short years in his youth than most people do in a lifetime. The story is awe-inspiring.
Added note: In 2010, to commemorate the Battle of Britain the BBC broadcast a television drama called `First Light' based on the book. The DVD is available at Amazon:First Light DVD
Also, don't expect dates about events related in the book. There are none. The maximum you will get is "january 1941", "august 1942", "spring 1941".
But this is not relevant, since the writer is clearly trying to pass his feelings, emotions and impressions to the reader. And what impressions! I could never have imagined how hard it was to graduate to fighter pilots. Wellum was almost gone before completing the training, his superior had to shake him a lot. A slow learner, how he described himself.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, he was posted to 92 Squadron, at only 18 years of age. In 1941 he went on offensive operations on the French coast (the sweeps), for almost the whole year. Than, he took an obligatory rest from operation,s berfore returning to the fray again in 65 Squadron, this time as Flight Commander. He probably would get a Squadron, but was simply too young for the job.
In August 1942 he flew from Furious aircraft carrier to Malta, where he joined 1435 Squadron, before serious sinusitis and general extreme fadigue took him out of ops for good. (he does not mention George Beurling of 249 Squadron at all).
There are well known characters around, like Brian Kingcome, Johnnie Kent, Jamie Rankin, Walter Churchill.
Wellum was not a big scorer, and apparently considered himself not the best pilot and a little bit lucky for havin survived.
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The best book on this subject I have ever read.