First Light, by Geoffrey Wellum

A magnificent boy in his fighting machine
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The Independent Culture

There have been countless books about the Battle of Britain. But the combination of immediacy – Geoffrey Wellum had jotted down notes in an exercise book at the time – and distance – another 35 years would pass before he expanded his notes into a narrative – gives this account extraordinary depth and resonance.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell compares the triadic structure of the "paradigmatic war memoir"– training, combat, recovery – with the quest in medieval romance: innocence, death, rebirth. First Light exemplifies this form to perfection. One of many interesting things about it is that, unlike most of this genre, the first part – training – takes up more than a third. Yet this section is quite as riveting as anything that follows. Wellum's achievement is to make us experience with his younger self (a boy fresh from school) the sheer difficulty of learning to fly, with its attendant dangers. Deaths in training are most shocking, because there is no glory in accidental death, only waste. By the time Wellum goes into combat, death has become routine.

Wellum and his fellow pilots conform to type, bonding over pints in pubs and cups of tea in the mess, suppressing rather than sharing emotion, outwardly blasé and inwardly vulnerable as they wait for the call to "scramble". But his stream-of-consciousness account of take-offs and landings, dogfights, night flying and appalling weather, as well as of finding himself alone in a blue sky with puffy white clouds, involves us so intimately that it's as if we're hunkered down in the cockpit. Indeed, the book is a love letter to the Spitfire, which he likens to "a thoroughbred at the start of the Derby".

What of the man himself? So young throughout this time that his nickname, inevitably, was "Boy", he passes his "test" magnificently, growing in confidence and skill at killing and not being killed. He, or his older self, is aware of the ironies implicit in the fact that at 19 years of age he may be "at the pinnacle of my life" without having ever slept with a woman. He remedies that, but the progression from fear of failure to fearlessness – "I have overcome the fear of dying" – now comes up against the desire to live: "I don't want to die!"

The "test" is never over. Mental and physical exhaustion brings relief, but at the cost of separation from his beloved squadron and an element of survivor guilt: "All the best ones seem to go first." What is he? "A has-been... a worn-out bloody fighter pilot at 20 years of age". He soon returns to flying, but is he as good as he was? He must live with fear again, be "afraid of being frightened". His spirit holds, but his body rebels and the blinding headaches eventually ground him. Only then can he grieve for his lost friends and count the cost of this roller-coaster existence.

Appearing astonishingly more than 60 years after the event, First Light will rank among the finest of Second World War memoirs.