Grub Street , 17 October 2022
Many years ago I spent quite a lot of time flying with a chap who was fortunate, or unfortunate, to be one of the last National Servicemen who was commissioned as aircrew. He flew Meteors (I think), and Vampires (for sure). The loss of many of his colleagues undoubtedly left a lasting, and not good, impression on his mind. This was an era of aircrew losses that seem ridiculous in a 21stC context. We are told that “in 1952 the RAF reported a total loss of 505 aircraft (including 150 Meteors and 82 Vampires) killing 315 pilots.” That this was tolerated stems at least in part from all of the senior officers and most of the instructors being WW2 vets who were used to high levels of attrition amongst their comrades. So Charlotte Bailey has done a good job in finding a reasonable number of Vampire Vets still on the planet – they must be mid eighties at a minimum. Some went through RAFC Cranwell in 1951!
The most famous Vampire Boy to the general public is the novelist Frederick Forsyth, whose acclaimed The Shepherd featured a Vampire, as I recall. Forsyth contributes a brief introduction, and, as you might expect, the most polished prose in his own (too brief) tale of Vampire days
The prototype first flew in 1943, and must have seemed even more other-worldly than its slightly earlier sister the Meteor, to anyone lucky enough to see it whistling past the Hatfield fence. Like many Boys titles there is a too much repetition: by books’ end the reader can be in no doubt that the balsa wood cockpit (with little in front of his legs) left the pilot feeling rather vulnerable, even if it did give a great impression of speed on the runway and at low level. Only some marks had ejection seats (which were unusable by taller pilots), all had limited endurance, and the trainer version, the T11, we are told repeatedly, was rather cosy. The Meteor Boys disparagingly referred to their smaller brethren as ‘Dinky Jets’! Many of the writers make the transition from the Piston Provost to the T11, and thence the FB5. Derek Jones gives a good description of this latter marque - “rather like a jet-propelled Chipmunk”!
Many of the contributors express their frustration at the edicts of Duncan Sandys whose cuts to manned flying meant that they were suddenly streamed to transports against their will. The better contributions have a dry wit, which perhaps comes from the fatalism of the era. There are several stories from ground crew, which are less than enthralling, but, perhaps tinged with nostalgia, these writers invariably regarded their RAF years as the best years of their life. Whilst as for aircrew, as John Richardson says (apropos of the Vampire) “Flying is brilliant fun.”
Younger readers will be unaware of the very harsh winter of 1962/3. A few writers record how the Vampire’s trait of chewing up tarmac because its jet pipe was angled too much downwards, was used then as a glorified, if dangerous, snow melter. With variable results, it must be said.
Rod Dean, well known these days as a display pilot, gives a very useful chapter on the Vampire after its RAF days. Mark Hooton finishes the book with the importance of keeping the type in the skies through the Vampire Preservation Group (with which the author is associated).
Vampire Boys compares poorly with some of the earlier titles in the Boys series if only because it is essentially about a trainer aircraft, and the stories about training incidents are inevitably less exciting than those which involve combat or combat training. It could usefully have been abbreviated by twenty pages. Nonetheless Charlotte Bailey has produced a useful historical record of an important type in the RAF’s timeline.