Friday, 3 October 2014

Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1 - Clive Semple

Title: Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1
Author: Clive Semple
ISBN: 978-1-86227-425-5
Publisher: Spellmount Publishers
Pages: 320
Photos/Maps: 100+b/w//9 colour

Memoirs are a two-edged source for historians; while they provide a plethora of information relating to the ‘how’s and why’s’ of decision making for the subject of the book, they also tend toward being selective in recollection and can also be very self- serving and a source of justification by the author. A diary, on the other hand, is a source with great potential and use. Written in real time and with the prejudices, attitudes, frustrations and honesty of the moment; it provides unprecedented insight into the mind of the author and an invaluable tool from which to develop a book.

Clive Semple’s father, Leslie, joined the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) in 1917 (at the age of 18) and served as a night bomber pilot flying Handley Page bombers until he resigned his commission in 1919 (after a period of occupation duty in Germany). He spoke rarely about his service during the war and it was not until his death in 1971 that the author discovered a time capsule of photo’s, documents and his diary in a box in Leslie’s attic. Drawing upon all of these resources and specifically the diary, Semple drafted an outstanding picture of life for a young man as he makes his way through training and wartime operations.

Semple has done a great deal of research in order to provide the reader with context and explanation of his father’s diary entries. Thus the diary serves as the thread that connects the narrative together. What makes this book unique is the fact that it does not merely serve as a recollection of the author’s operational wartime service but also the social environment within which he lived. It is fascinating to read about him dealing with the stresses and expectations of being an officer/trainee in wartime (and the responsibilities and expectations demanded of him) while concurrently being exposed, for the first time, to the challenges of the real world of women and combat as a na├»ve young man.

Some of the more notable aspects of Semple’s narrative include:

  1. Ongoing animosity and lack of cooperation between members of the Royal Navy and Army (reinforced by Leslie’s observations) that led ultimately to the formation of the Royal Air Force (combining the RFC and RNAS – vigorously contested by the Army and Navy) by government decree;

  1. The vision shown by the Admiralty in its support (as early as 1914) of the creation of a bomber force;

  1. The dysfunction/inefficiency in aircraft design, production, training and allocation of resources as the Navy and Army sparred for aircraft and personnel;

  1.  The sang froid with which Leslie relates the losses amongst his peers during training and operations. While they are undoubtedly painful, it is clear that they are also readily accepted as the price of war and not a lot of time is spent on dwelling upon them. Interesting when one remembers that he is only 18 at this time; and

  1. The detailed accounts of the specific training associated with night operations and the rudimentary techniques used for bombing accuracy. Additionally, it is interesting to follow in the narrative the development of the use of bombing as a separate arm of air operations.

Leslie’s diary also provides very interesting insights into the immediate postwar environment that the servicemen were faced with. He notes, example, the difference between occupation experiences/relations involving French and English with the Germans; he writes very favourably about the Germans and his interactions with them. Also, he is very moved and affected by what he sees as he visits the battlefields that, up to this point, he had only seen from above. Finally, his thoughts and observations regarding military life in the immediate aftermath of the war is fascinating as it brings into focus issues of employment, discipline and morale as soldiers who had been involved in vicious fighting for upwards of four years suddenly found themselves with time on their hands.

Leslie left four volumes of photographs with his diary and Semple has included hundreds of these as a compliment to the narrative. His descriptions and expansion on his father’s diary installments are well researched and complimentary. They add depth without assuming control of the narrative. There a few comments that are off the mark such as his ruminations about why parachutes were never adopted in the RAF but, for the most part, he is accurate and succinct.

This book is a rare find as it fills a gap that has not be written about in great detail; that of Allied night bombing efforts in WW1. The insights, photographs and commentary by Leslie Semple provide the reader with a window into this world viewed through the lens of an 18 year old pilot officer in wartime. His son, the author, has provided noteworthy background and is to be commended for producing a book of such personal and educational value.

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