Sunday, 15 June 2014
No Parachute - Arthur Gould Lee
Author: Arthur Gould Lee
Publisher: Grub Street Publishing
Arthur Gould Lee retired as an Air Vice-Marshall after seeing service in both World Wars (1915-1946). He experienced the First World War as a fighter pilot operating on the Western Front. In this capacity, he identifies himself as one of the ‘fighters of no fame’; one of the many who fought, survived and lived to an old age, a privilege denied to so many of his compatriots, but who have not been counted amongst the ‘elite’ of Richthofen, Bishop, Ball or McCudden. Humility is a hallmark of this work; after all, from the vantage of the modern day reader, five confirmed kills and eleven shared would not be considered to be an achievement of minimal renown. In this regard he has set his tone to reflect the period within which he lived and served; a period within which thousands of nameless young men fought thousands of feet above the ground against equally determined adversaries.
Unlike today with our preponderance of technical gadgets that allow for instant communication across unprecedented distances, the period covered by AVM Lee’s book is the time of the hand-written note. One of the defining and unique aspects of the book is the fact that the narrative is derived directly from letters that he wrote to his wife daily during his operational time on the front. Lee was a prodigious writer and so his letters are not superficial but are insightful and expansive discussions of his experiences, comrades and thoughts as his war experience progressed.
I found this book to be very beneficial in gaining an appreciation of the variety of challenges and mission types undertaken by the pilots of this period. There is an absence of higher strategy providing context but this is not the point of the book, it is focused exclusively on the tactical experiences of the individual pilots. One of the main strengths of the book is the ability of the author to provide the reader an outstanding sense of the atmosphere of air operations.
Given the fact that modern pilots are on oxygen above ten thousand feet, it becomes all the more impressive that, not only did Lee and his compatriots fly at altitudes in excess of twenty thousand feet in open cockpits but did so while regularly engaging in aerial combat. His discussions of low level trench strafing and the early days of low level bombing are hair-raising and shocking as he describes passing within feet of enemy infantry (and having to repeat the feat despite having lost the element of surprise).
His descriptions of dog-fighting are also both exciting and harrowing. He comments that he could not understand how those pilots who had achieved high numbers of victories had done it as his experience with air-to-air combat was one of snap shots, frantic twisting and turning and desperate scanning as he sought not only to avoid being shot down but also mid-air collisions with friend or foe. His admiration for their accomplishments is obvious.
A subject that Lee is particularly critical of and that is a regular topic of bitter discussion is the fact that the Royal Flying Corps (and subsequently the Royal Air Force) refused to allow for the use of parachutes by their pilots. Lee relates story after story of watching friend and foe make decisions to jump or remain with their aircraft and burn to death. It is obvious that he and his colleagues were particularly terrified of this scenario. In fact, he goes on to relate the understanding amongst pilots that the pistol that they carried was not for self-defence in the event of a crash but for ensuring that they were able to avoid the horror of burning or falling to their deaths.
The author makes a point of returning to this topic in greater detail in an annex at the end of his book. Following the end of the war and his advancement through the ranks, he undertook an investigation in order to determine why and who was responsible for such a murderous policy. His conclusion was that no one person in particular was responsible for the policy but that it was a culmination of a number of different factors including a lack of appreciation by higher headquarters of the environment in which pilots were operating, a concern surrounding excess weight (and by extension performance issues with the aircraft) and a misguided belief by HQ personnel that the pilots themselves had no interest in parachutes. His ultimate conclusion conveys frustration and a deep sadness for the tragic loss of young friends as a result of this avoidable travesty.
Additionally, Lee is equally critical of the failure of the British Government’s policy regarding aircraft development and manufacture. For a good proportion of the war, the RFC was forced to fly aircraft clearly obsolete when compared with those of the Germans. He provides a very enlightening and disturbing analysis of how and why this policy developed and ultimately failed the flyers at the front.
Finally, he takes aim at Trenchard’s forward operating policy and the British strategy of trying to maintain a physical air presence at every point along the front line. His umbrage with this policy centre’s upon the fact that the Germans practiced a policy of transferring Wings where needed, thereby ensuring local air superiority. The Allied strategy served to dilute Allied air resources, already in many cases substandard to their German adversaries, resulting, in Lee’s opinion, in unnecessary losses.
Arthur Gould Lee's book is a window into an age long past and one that relates the beginning of man's conquest of the air. Like all pioneers, his was an age replete with danger, romance and unknown in a way that few of us can comprehend today. That he shares the intimacy of his thoughts, fears, triumphs and losses with the reader in a way that only a conversation between a married couple can convey is incredibly enlightening and humbling. The war in the air during WW1 was both exhilarating and terrifying and, thanks to Lee's work, the reader is given a fleeting glimpse of life as a fighter pilot on the Western Front. This book is not to be missed.