Pilot readers will find this a stimulating and exciting book. They will also, I am sure, feel compassion and admiration for pilots of an earlier era whose planes carried guns. I warmly recommend it.
THIS IS THE third novel by Derek Robinson to be set in the Great War. The book is a prequel to Goshawk Squadron, which was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1971 not bad for a ‘mere’ flying novel. We learn about the earlier RFC career of Major Woolley (the hero of Goshawk Squadron) when he flew Sopwith Pups and Bristol Fighters before moving on to the S.E.5a. The book also covers the later career of Captain Paxton, a splendid bounder who first appeared in War Story, the second book in the series, getting lost ferrying a B.E.2c to France. (Becoming bored, Paxton looped, losing the sandbag carried as ballast in the front seat and putting the C of G aft of limits.)
The author is probably best known for his book set in the Battle of Britain, Piece of Cake, which became a successful and controversial TV series. He was a fighter plotter in the RAF, surely an excellent basis for recreating the ways and speech of fighter pilots and the less than glamorous realities of war.
Superficially, Derek Robinson has taken the black humour of Catch 22, added some skilful ensemble playing, a pinch of George MacDonald Fraser’s wonderful creation Flashman, and updated the package with some Black Adder type nineties cynicism. But his writing is more than just a clever re mix of trusted elements, and Hornet’s Sting (the name refers to the lethal cocktail that lubricates Hornet Squadron’s parties) is far from being a pot boiler, even though it does resemble the author’s earlier works.
Included in the story is a gloriously cynical recreation of the career of Albert Ball, and an account of the disastrous introduction of the ‘Brisfit’, when armchair strategists insisted on the aeroplanes flying and fighting in close formation. (When the aeroplane was later flown more robustly as an independent dog fighter, it became much more successful.) There is a pair of comic Russians, and a femme fatale with a wooden leg, but these creations are not just there to add colour they are ways of making a serious point about human nature in wartime.
The author strives to recreate what it must have been like for the public schoolboys of 1917 who, barely able to fly, suddenly found themselves freezing and struggling to breathe at 18,000 feet on offensive patrols behind the Lines. No one can recreate reality in a book, only aspects of it, and Derek Robinson succeeds in conveying a strong flavour of the 1914 to 1918 period.
Pilot readers will find this a stimulating and exciting book. They will also, I am sure, feel compassion and admiration for pilots of an earlier era whose planes carried guns. I warmly recommend it. Nick Bloom.