Friday, September 14, 2012
Review of Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson (Cassell, 1971)
Goshawk Squadron was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971. It was criticised by some former RFC pilots who felt it denigrated the memories of those who fought the air war. Others praised it for showing the true nature of a war that was brutal mass slaughter and it was no different in the air to other services. Pilots were flying planes made of principally of wood, canvas and wire, and the engines were treated with castor oil to keep them lubricated, the fumes of which acted as a laxative that was countered by alcohol. Pilots often flew several missions a day traversing two sets of trenches where they were liable to be shot at from both sides, plus sustained anti-air barrages, to face superior planes. Tensions and fears were high amongst pilots, most of whom had only recently finished school, and they often let off steam in local villages. Robinson captures the true dark nature of war; it’s brutal realities. The tale is relatively straightforward, following the men’s exploits and relationships over a few months. The action sequences are excellent and the opening couple of chapters are amongst the best I’ve read in a while; the writing really alive on the page, laced with dark humour. It then settles down, becoming a little more mundane. Whilst some of the men are well drawn and distinctive, others are pretty indistinguishable and under-realised. And in Woolley he pushes the callous leader, who really believes he is doing the right thing by his men by trying to harden them to be ruthless, to its limits. Overall, an engaging, well written novel that shows war for what it really is.