Thursday, 10 August 2017

Wind in the Wires - Duncan Grinnell-Milne

This review has been submitted to Airforce Magazine.

Title: Wind in the Wires
Author: Duncan Grinnell-Milne
ISBN: 978-1-90980-801-0
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2014
Pages: 238
Photos/ Maps: 4/0

Autobiographies of the early days of the Royal Flying Corps (later to be known as the Royal Air Force) never cease to impress. Perhaps it is the sense of wonder and √©lan with which these early pilots and observers recount their adventures; and that was what it was for many of these young gentlemen, an adventure. Wind in the Wire is the author’s story of his time in the RFC and his experiences as one of the early, and late, pilots of the First World War.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the prose with which the author writes. Despite not being a professional writer, he is able to turn a phrase in such a way as to convey to the reader a clear sense of the image and the humanity behind the description. His humility, joy, fears, frustrations and doubts are expressed simply and honestly, without pretense or embellishment. He is as forthright about his insecurities at learning to fly and joining an operational squadron as he is about his growing confidence and aggression in the air.

This is a book solely about his flying period; from when he reports for pilot training from his Regiment in July, 1915 to his last flight of the war in 1919. The narrative may be divided into three distinct parts: his training, his first operational squadron and being captured and finally his escape and rejoining 56 Squadron for the last months of the war. Each section alone stands as a fascinating tale of growth and adventure; taken together they represent a life’s worth of experiences compacted into three and a half short years.

The first section relates the author’s experiences in learning to fly as well as his first Squadron in France. What stands out is the quality of leadership and, during this time of the war, the lack of knowledge relating to even basic flying. Skills such as spinning, formation, bombing and gunnery were all being learned ‘on the fly’ and even the more senior pilots did not know much more than the most junior. 

The author does not dwell on the details of his incarceration period in any detail save that made numerous attempts at escape and that he turned down multiple offers by the Germans to have him transferred to neutral Holland where he would be precluded from further participation in the war but would not be held to the same degree of restriction as he was in Germany. It is very interesting to learn of the different approaches that many of the internee’s adopted as a result of their newfound circumstances and the options available such as transfer to a neutral country.

The period transitioning his escape and return to flying duty is of particular interest because it represents in fact a time capsule. During the two and a half years of his time as a POW, the entire spectrum of air combat had utterly changed. The doctrine, airframes, weapons and organizational structure of the RFC (and the Germans) was nothing like it was when he was captured. His description of endeavouring to get back into operational flying on the Western Front, his retraining and the “Rip van Winkle” effect of coming to grips with his new surroundings is gripping and absorbing. His treatment at 56 Squadron as somewhat of a carnival freak due to the fact that he was returning aircrew from a bygone era (escapees were never returned to combat roles at this time so he was doubly unique) is very interesting to follow. Even his description of the advent of bureaucracy within the RFC when compared to his first arrival in France in 1915 is both insightful, telling and humorous.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the book however, is the concluding pages as the war comes to an unexpected end. The author, being only 23 at this time, relates the deep sense of loss and dislocation as the Squadron and the War, representing familiarity, structure as well as profound comradeship, is systematically, and without fanfare, stripped down and disbanded. Although it is impossible to fully render the sense of isolation felt by the author and his peers (indeed if one has not experienced the intensity of war and its effect upon its combatants, mere words have difficulty translating it), G-M’s writing does convey to the reader the emotional turmoil as few books have.

Although this book relates the experiences of a war that was fought one hundred years ago, its significance reverberates even today. This book is a classic of airmanship and courage and should be read in conjunction with the likes of Cecil Lewis’ Sagittarius Rising, Arthur Gould Lee’s Open Cockpit and No Parachute as well as VM Yate’s Winged Victory. An outstanding work of literature and a must for any historian of the military arts.   

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