£20. Amberley Publishing, hardback, 270 pages, mixed contemporary colour and historical B&W illustration
I did not start reading this book with a review in mind, as it was originally published in 1987 and the Amberley edition came in 2010. Yet Gun Button to Fire is one of the most compelling and honest Battle of Britain memoirs of the lot. As we near the 100th anniversary of the RAF, it should be essential reading to anybody who wants to fully understand the blood, sweat and tears expended by ‘The Few’ in defending Britain in the summer of 1940.
What distinguishes Tom Neil’s account from the others is that it was written in maturity, yet based on a huge cache of letters sent to his parents, written week-in, week-out as the battle and the war continued. The author does a masterly job in telling the story in a nineteen-year-old pilot officer’s voice while weaving just enough of a latter-day overview to give vital insight without detracting from the narrative.
Thus the initial frustration of chasing an unseen enemy – often under poor direction from fighter controllers, it must be said – gives way to final success amid a mounting toll of casualties and growing fatigue amongst the surviving squadron members. We like to think we have an idea of what it was like, but through counting every sortie Neil reveals how hugely demanding was the 11 Group fighter pilot’s role, and how flawed were Fighter Command’s squadron attack and flying in vic-formation tactics, early in the battle.
He provides detail, new to this reviewer at least, on why the Hurricane was such a fire trap (vulnerable wing tanks and a draw that pulled air entering the wheel wheels up through the cockpit from the unsealed wing roots) and explains how, following losses and grievous injury, pilots were instructed to keep their canopies closed and wear flying jackets and gloves.
Beyond the technical stuff, there is a lot about wartime attitudes, some of it very revealing. For example, the fact that the bricklayers assigned to build a blast wall around a station building were paid, with ‘danger money’, more than a fighter pilot.
To be ranked with Geoffrey Wellum’s First Light, Gun Button to Fire is one of those books every pilot should read.
Review by Philip Whiteman