A Sketch of My Brother

A Sketch of My Brother

It deserves to be recorded, for the abilities and attitudes of his age group had an effect which reached far indeed.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 he was seventeen and beginning to be eligible for war service. He had no hesitation in volunteering for the RAF.

The family had no tradition of service in the army or navy. In fact it had no tradition at all except that of keeping its head down in time of trouble. In the 1914 war my father had done his four years on the Somme, but refused ever to say one word about it. He never, so far as I recall, used the word ‘patriotism’. It was a family which kept away from large words such as that.

So what motivated my brother? It was, I guess, mostly an intuitive, physical confidence. At school, which he had left a year earlier, his academic performance had been poor, but he’d been a star at sport. With a pen he could do nothing, but with a bat or a racquet he could shine. In choosing the RAF he had one ambition in mind: fighter-pilot. He knew that his curriculum vitae scored high on insubordination, but it also scored high on physical co-ordination and nerve. He applied for the elite category of Pilot/Navigator/ Bomb-Aimer (PNB) and passed its tests. At the time, he simply said that in a fighter aircraft you were on your own against another bastard who was also on his own. He could live (dying never occurred to him) with that. In his own bloody-minded way, I think he knew he would never thrive in the more structured hierarchies of army or navy.

He nearly (so we learned from others later) got thrown off the training course for insubordination. What saved him was the day when, after he had ‘gone solo’ the engine of his plane failed. He circled the airfield, wrote a brief note, put it in his helmet and threw the helmet on to the runway. He then landed the plane without damage to it or to himself. His Commanding Officer changed the instructions from ‘chuck him out’ to ‘keep him’.

It’s important to remember that all this was before the ‘Battle of Britain’ and the prestige that fighter pilots, rightly, came to have. He was, I suppose, one of the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ who saw a chance to prove themselves outside the normal system of military command. In terms of rank, he became a ‘Sergeant Pilot’ who was obliged to salute a newly-fledged 1st Lieutenant on the ground. But, once airborne, he was largely his own master and wholly in charge of his machine. After the war, RAF friends of his told me that he was a ‘natural’. He never thought about controls or stalling. His hands and feet knew what to do. The same friends told me that when, later, he piloted aircraft with a rear-gunner, there was a queue to be on his plane. “He was a bastard”, said one of them, “but he always got you back on the ground”.

His training was complete by early 1940 and he could well, technically, have been involved in the Great Battle. Instead, probably at a desk in Whitehall, possibly even Churchill’s (and to his own bitter and enduring disappointment) a decision was made to ship his squadron off to Burma in order to guard against a possible Japanese invasion of India.

He thus became involved in ‘the forgotten war’ which, on land, was lost at Singapore and its consequences. In his squadron combat casualties were light, but morale was low. In terms of aircraft, spare-parts, guns and fuel, they – probably accurately – saw themselves as poor sisters to other theatres of war. They did not even have the satisfaction of thinking that they had warded off the Japanese from India. From Pearl Harbour onwards the Japanese faced the Americans rather than the British.

Instead my brother had three other enemies: disease, engine-failure over jungle and how to cope with boredom. As to the first, subject to recurrent attacks of malaria, he coped well. As to the second, and unlike many others, he never crashed. The third, coupled with disappointment, was more difficult.

He came back in 1945 as a cynical and self-contained man. He had won the personal battle for survival, but had been given no opportunity to distinguish himself. He had medals for having been there, but no others. He was at his worst when confronted with ex Squadron Leaders and Wing Commanders who, younger than himself, had achieved glory in Europe. There had been, as he well knew, another path which Whitehall had decided he would not take.

The rest of his life was governed by strengths and weaknesses which are too individual to be of wide significance. Others underwent similar disappointing wars and coped with them better or worse than he did. What should interest social historians is his part in the generation which was in its late teens at the end of the Thirties. It had nothing of the patriotic fervour of its equivalent in 1914. Only a small minority of it had family traditions or links with the army or the navy. Quicker than either of these Commands, I think that my brother’s age-group intuited that the future lay with power in the air. This, certainly in my brother’s case, was coupled with the notion that, in the air, it was single combat. The sports master could take you so far. But once on the court or at the wicket, you were on your own.      

He was never offered a move to Bomber Command. I did once ask him how he would have coped with a Lancaster. It was – almost of course, in a bar – and his new girlfriend was there. He was a good-looking chap who knew how to use his face. He mused a bit and then, with half an eye on the girlfriend said: “Stage-coach with all those Indians, or shoot-out at noon? Gimme the shoot out.” I forget whether he married that particular girlfriend or what became of his outgoing wife. Later, when alcohol had really taken over, he probably also forgot. He was a right bastard, my brother.

Categorized as Memos