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The Flyer, By Martin Francis

Reviewed by Jonathan Sale

The young airmen of the Second World War habitually diced with death as they steered their powerful machines across tricky terrain. And that was only the drive home in their sports cars after hard nights in country pubs.

In the air, they risked being shot down and, if they parachuted to safety, of being arrested. In 1940, one British fighter pilot was upset to be apprehended and marched to the local police station. This was in Havering, his bloody-minded arrest being a revenge on Fighter Command by a population that thought that the RAF had let our boys down at Dunkirk.

Pretty soon, however, Spitfires and Hurricanes were all that stood between us and German bombers, so people decided they quite liked the RAF after all. “I’m a fighter pilot – take your knickers down” |became an effective chat-up line.

Today, as the Few become very much fewer, their stories still soar in the bookshops. And, two years ago, A Matter of Life and Death, the 1946 film in which a pilot flies into the next world, was reincarnated as a play at the National Theatre. Ironically, the film’s star, David Niven, had received the don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you brush-off when he tried to join up: they didn’t want those actor chappies in the RAF. The Flyer, subtitled British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945, is a wonderful survey of the time. Martin Francis navigates a vast landscape of rich material: memoirs, novels, films, plays, poems and broadcasts. Here are the women who saw lovers |taking off with what might be one-way tickets. Here are the teddy bears taken on missions for luck (and listed as missing in action if the luck ran out).

Francis can make points unwelcome in wartime – Guy Gibson, for example, of the Dambusters raid, was more worried about drowned animals than civilians. And the real cult heroes seem to have been the fighter pilots, the RAF’s anarchists. They left undone the top button of their tunics. Their hair was slightly too long. They were lax in the saluting department. They flew under bridges for a laugh.