Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Paul Richey The History Press, May 2016 (PB) [first published 1941]
As the quote from the TLS says on the cover of this edition – “A neglected classic”. It was not neglected when it was first published in 1941 – I believe it caused a lot of interest since it was one of the first contemporary airman’s autobiographies to be released to the British public. I have always been aware of this title, but for the life of me cannot fathom why I have never managed to read it. Full marks to the History Press for returning it to our bookshops.
Richey, despite the very evident strains of his wartime life, assiduously kept a diary. And it is this which enabled him later to write such a vivid account of his early RAF career. There is no soft introduction with episodes of education and family life – the reader is spilled straight into the outbreak of war. For Richey had joined the RAF in 1937, and was therefore combat ready by the time Chamberlain had ceased waving a sheet of foolscap in optimistic fashion.
The author went to war with the illustrious 1 Sqn, armed (lightly) with the Hurricane Mk 1, complete with wooden prop. That he was sent to France was little hardship: Richey had enjoyed a cosmopolitan education and spoke a few European languages. As we discover, he also seemed to have an amazing social network across European armed forces and in the civilian world. As a pilot, he appears to be intelligent, capable and considerate.
His elegant prose brings to life the hardships of the expeditionary warfare of the RAF at this time. It was a very peripatetic existence, and very often the aircrew did not know at which field they would end the day. The RAF suffered attacks from more than Hun: Richey describes how airmen were quite often attacked on the ground by collaborators. Moreover the French failed to distinguish themselves in other ways: plenty of anti-aircraft fire directed at Richey and his colleagues; occasional fire from French fighters. Indeed the French Air Force does not come out of this book well: despite outnumbering the RAF in terms of airframes, their designs were very poor, and tactics timid.
The pace of life was tough indeed: up before dawn and sorties very often until last light. To the strain of constant sorties there was the strain of being attacked by the Luftwaffe’s light bombers when on the ground. It is little surprise that Richey’s revered (and well-known) CO, ‘Bull’ Hallahan eventually called time on Richey and fellow senior pilots and sent them home.
Although he does not draw this conclusion himself, I found it interesting that 1 Sqn and other fighter squadrons were clearly conserved by the RAF’s high command – they were expressly forbidden from chasing the enemy over the lines, and so on. This contrasts greatly with the same high command being very willing to squander the lives of the Fairey Battle squadrons, that comprised the RAF’s offensive capability in France at that time.
Altogether a poignant, elegiac book, a classic of its genre – thanks to the History Press for reviving it.
One small quibble: given Richey’s fascinating social network, an index would have been more than normally useful!