Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Diana Athill: Self-scrutiny, and the writer’s world

Happy 101st birthday to Diana Athill. One of the most successful editors of her day, she is now one of Britain’s best-loved writers

Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit. Or is that unfair? I hope so, as I do both. In Diana Athill’s case, however, there’s no doubt; she writes with grace and concision.

Athill, who was 101 on December 21, helped found the firm of André Deutsch in the early 1950s and built up a formidable list, making it a leading English-language publisher for 40 years. Following her retirement in 1993, she has turned to writing, with astonishing success; her account of aging, Somewhere Towards the End, has been widely admired, and her most recent book of memoirs and reflections, Alive, Alive Oh!, was published as recently as 2016. In fact, to those in the know, she had long been a writer as well as an editor; she won the The Observer’s short-story prize in 1958 when she was in her early 40s, and published a short-story collection in 1962. This was followed soon afterwards by a remarkable memoir, Instead of a Letter – of which more below. But the most widespread acclaim has come for books she has written since her retirement.

I must admit I was late to the Athill party. I have an aversion to writers I have been told to like. Moreover I was nonplussed by the first of her books that I read, Stet: An Editor’s Life (2002), her account of her publishing career. I was irritated by Athill’s privileged background and was disappointed that she highlighted authors I had not read and, in several cases, had never heard of. But I sensed I was missing something. Rereading Stet after several years, I saw that I was.

Athill was born in Norfolk and brought up as part of the “county” set; she went to Oxford, and spent the war in the BBC – a job she got through a personal contact in its recruitment office; class was as powerful then as now. Disappointed in love, she fell into a series of relationships, one with a young refugee met at a party. (“He sat on the floor and sang ‘The Foggy Foggy Dew’, which was unexpected in a Hungarian.”) This was André Deutsch. The affair did not last long; the friendship, however, did, and at the end of the war he asked her to join him in the publishing company he was founding. She was to work as an editor for the next 50 years, all but the last few with Deutsch himself. She says little in this book of her personal life, but she has written of that elsewhere (again, more of that below). Stet the word is a proofreader’s instruction, used to cancel a correction – is about Athill’s life in publishing.

Stet is in two pretty much equal parts. The first is a narrative account of her career, mostly with Deutsch. The second recalls her work with a series of writers, the best-known of which are Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul; the others – Alfred Chester, Molly Keane, and one or two more – are no longer household names, if they ever were.

The first part of the book is a fascinating picture of postwar publishing in all its amateurish glory. When André Deutsch was founded in the 1950s, it worked out of a converted house; books were dispatched from a packing bench that was a plank over the bath. This doesn’t surprise me; my first job, in 1974, was in publishing, and I sometimes ran the packing bench. Things hadn’t changed much. But there is nothing amateur about Athill’s shrewd insight into book buyers: “There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading ...The second group has to be courted.” In Athill’s view, by the 1980s the second group had been seduced away by more visual media, leaving little space for literary publishing. She may have been right – then. But electronic publishing has now made books good value again, at least when sold by independents or small publishers whose overheads are low. So that second audience is being reclaimed (albeit mainly with genre books). Although Athill retired in the 1990s, she will clearly have been aware of these developments, and one wonders what she thinks of them. She says little in Stet about technological change in general, although photosetting and on-screen page design arrived in her time.

When it comes to editing, though, Athill clearly had rigorous judgement. If a book didn’t quite work, she didn’t want it, whoever had written it; and she rejected one of Philip Roth’s – a decision that caused her some pain later, but was surely right at the time. She had felt that he was writing about a different type of character than usual simply to prove that he could, and it did not ring true.

This is, in fact, the key to the second half of Stet itself; it does ring true. This is because Athill has chosen to recall not the writers who would be best-known today, but those about whom she feels she has something to say. The result is a series of character sketches that do have impact, and draw you in whether you are interested in the writer or not. V.S. Naipaul is the only modern “superstar” covered here. Of the others, I had heard of Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, but knew very little about them; I knew nothing of Alfred Chester at all. But I was fascinated. These three, and the other, sketches suggest that Athill was not just a good editor; she was a generous friend to her writers as well. (And to Deutsch himself, despite his apparent self-absorption.)

Of these sketches, it is that of Jean Rhys that stands out. “No-one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life,” writes Athill, “but no-one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.” The later stages of Rhys’s life and the mess she had made of it, and her struggle with alcohol, are there – but so is her gift as a writer, and the strange early life that Athill felt explained much about her. The thumbnail sketch of V.S. Naipaul, too, is vivid, with this shrewd insight: that those whose cultural or national background is unclear must define themselves, and the personal resources needed for this can be great. Not everyone has them, and one can become lost, and stumble. As someone who has spent much of their life in an international milieu (in my case international development), I understand this all too well.

I am glad I read this again. Athill is, to be sure, a member of a privileged group – she uses the word caste – with an iron grip on the publishing world; but she knows that. This caste was “the mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people [who] loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect... our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste.” She puts this in the past tense but one wonders if that caste and its prejudices have really quite gone yet. However, Athill’s judgment as an editor clearly transcended it. So does her empathetic and subtle understanding of those she met.

This is a charming book.


But what of Athill herself? From Stet, it is clear that she is someone of substance, but she says little of her own affairs. In her other books, however, she does. Her private life has been colourful and she has been frank about it. It has included the suicide of a lover and an affair with an American revolutionary, Hakim Jamal, a cousin of Malcolm X. Jamal and his associates inspired a later novel by V.S. Naipaul, Guerillas; Athill, then his editor, did not like it. She eventually wrote a memoir of her own about her friendship with Jamal, Make Believe: A True StoryHowever, her first volume of autobiography, Instead of a Letter (1962), contains nothing so lurid (though it is quite frank about sex). What it does contain, is acute self-analysis. I rarely admire introspection in autobiography; too often it comes over as solipsism, and in any case, it is a poor substitute for narrative. So I should not have liked this book. But I did.

It is, in sum, a meditation on why one should bother to live; and why, in effect, she decided that she could be bothered. She starts with her grandmother, not long before death:

...She turned her beautiful speckled eyes towards me one afternoon and said in so many words: ‘What have I lived for?’ It was she who should have been able to tell me that. All her life she had been a churchgoing Christian ...I said to her what I believed: that she had lived, at the very least, for what her life had been.

But she began to ask herself the same question. Her grandmother, she realised, had “created a world” for the family, in which they lived and functioned as human beings. But what of Athill herself?  That was a question to whistle up an icy wind ...Which is my reason for sitting down to write this.” She proceeds to take us through her early life at the Norfolk manor, including her realisation that her mother did not really love her father. Her grandmother has an absolute belief in a secure and transparent world, but Athill does not:

I shocked her once. I was about ten years old and had thought of an image for life. I thought that it was as though people were confined in a bowl which was floating on a sea. While snug at the bottom of the bowl they lived their lives complacently, but the bowl spun and tossed on the sea and its spinning sometimes sent one of them up its side until he could see over the rim. All round would be the endless chaos of dangerous, cold grey water ...and anyone who had seen it ...would not be able to bear it. That, I decided, was the origin of madness.

Her grandmother is appalled. But in her early 20s Athill does look over the rim of the bowl. Since her mid-teens she has been in love with a man who, as an undergraduate, was brought in to tutor her brother; she calls him Paul. She grows to adulthood in her love for him, and they become engaged. He joins the RAF and goes to Egypt and she intends to join him as soon as she finishes at Oxford, which she soon will. But then he is transferred to Transjordan and his warm, intimate letters cease, with no explanation; two years later a curt note arrives asking to be released from the engagement, as he wishes to marry someone else. It appears, she thinks, to be the sort of formal note one might send to a jilted fiance in order to avoid a breach-of-promise suit. It seems to have destroyed her. She spends the war working for the BBC, but feels little interest in the job, or in life; she does not say so, but her 20s sound as if they were overshadowed by what we would now call depression. “I was not even affected by whatever feverish gaiety there may have been about (people speak of it in memoirs); it did not come my way. Years of emptiness. Years leprous with boredom...”

And yet it is her, not Paul, who survives. He – his real name was Tony Irvine – did marry, but flew into a mountain in northern Greece soon afterwards and never met his unborn son. (Oddly, Athill herself eventually did, some 60 years later.) Athill, meanwhile, has been set adrift, and her capacity for close relationships will never recover. But she rebuilds herself as something else. First comes her successful collaboration with Deutsch, which will make her one of the most powerful and respected editors in Britain. And then, in 1958, a chance meeting in Regent’s Park causes her to write a short story that, to her surprise, wins the Observer prize. The happiness this brings her is unfeigned, and is wonderfully described in the book.

Instead of a Letter could have been very dull. After all, one’s life may be interesting; one’s soul is usually not, at least to those not close to us. What lifts the book is its descriptive power and delightful asides. At Oxford: “On the river at night, moving silently through the darkness under trees: suddenly the man punting whispers ‘Look!’ ...Three naked boys are dancing wildly but without a sound in the moonlight.” She writes, too, of sailing with Irvine in the years before the war, something he very much liked to do, and there is “the sound of a jetty underfoot”, seaweed and the iron rings to which boats are moored. There is a gift here for using few words to invoke a scene in the reader. Moreover her language has clean, spare lines, and yet it flows; always concise, but never abrupt. One feels that she could have drawn one in had she written of a blade of grass, or a crack in the pavement. Athill has since said that Instead of a Letter came to her quite naturally; there was no plan; she could not wait to return home in the evenings and write, and it simply came out the way it did. Perhaps the best books often do.

Instead of a Letter takes Athill’s life to 1962, when it was written. It seems to strip her bare, and later books have been even franker. Yet one wonders if something is hidden, deep down. She is English after all. John Preston, who interviewed her for The Telegraph in 2011, commented that “while she is very welcoming, there’s a natural reserve to her. Something both distant and scrutinising. ...Behind the affability, one suspects, she would be as unsparing in her judgments of other people as she is of herself.” There are hints of this in Instead of a Letter; now and then some prevailing hypocrisy, or the prejudices of her family, are coldly dissected. Portraits show a strong chin and steely blue-grey eyes. Athill has, it seemed, hidden nothing from her readers; yet I wonder if we really know who she is.

Or maybe we do. She told Preston that she had always been a watcher. “Even at times of acute unhappiness I’ve watched myself being unhappy. I also think I’m one of those people who has never been wholly involved in an emotion, but then I think a lot of writers are like that.”

And she, of all people, would know.

Diana Athill passed away on January 23 2019, 
less than a month after this piece was posted.

Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from 
most online retailers, including Amazon (UK and US).

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Flying, fighting, writing

There are thousands of memoirs of the Second World War, including the war in the air. But a few feel especially alive – because they were written while it was happening. Some are still read; others are not, but should be, for they bring the air war vividly to life

As Washington Post publisher Philip Graham said back in 1963, journalism is “the first rough draft of history”. That hasn’t changed; new books about Donald Trump and Brexit pour off the press or onto our Kindles almost weekly, and they’re often by journalists – Bob Woodward and CBS correspondent Major Garrett are the latest. In a year or two their books will be out of date and out of print. But in time, historians will go back to them as primary sources.

A Halifax Mk I (Imperial War Museum © IWM CH 3393)
The Second World War was no different. Publishers fell over themselves to commission the topical. Sometimes, these commissions went to the well-known – people such as war correspondent Ernie Pyle and journalist and socialite Ève Curie, who slugged it out for a Pulitzer in 1943; Pyle won, but Curie’s book is a tour de force; I wrote about it here a couple of years ago. In Britain, Richard Dimbleby published two books during the war – The Waiting Year (about the run-up to D-Day) and the splendid The Frontiers Are Green. Even John Steinbeck got books out on the war while it was on (Bombs Away, about an American bomber crew, and a rather good short novel, The Moon is Down).

But publishers know an expanding racket, and they didn’t just publish the great and the good. A number of serving RAF pilots wrote about their experiences during the war. The best-known were Enemy Coast Ahead and The Last Enemy, by Guy Gibson and Richard Hillary – both to be killed later in the war – and Leonard Cheshire’s Bomber Pilot. There was much they could not talk about while hostilities were still on. Airfield names are omitted, for instance, and sometimes the names of other pilots. And of course they could not talk about the extraordinary electronic war that the RAF was fighting in the skies over Germany; some of that remained secret for some time after 1945. But they could give civilians a taste of the war being fought above their heads.

Books like Hillary’s and Gibson’s are still in print, but most have vanished. The two writers reviewed here are less well-known. Their books are not notable as literature, but they do offer flashes of fine writing. And they give an acute flavour of the war and what it was like to fight it in the air.

First, R.C. Rivaz’s Tail Gunner.


Richard C. Rivaz was born in 1908 in India, where his father had been a civil servant. In the 1930s he tried to earn his living as an artist, but made little money, and turned to teaching. When the war began he volunteered for the RAF and was disappointed to be told that he was too old for pilot training, but was accepted as an air-gunner. In the summer of 1940 he was posted to an operational unit; as it was wartime he did not name the squadron or the airfield in the book, but it was 102 Squadron at Driffield, north of Hull.

Arriving late, he was put in a room with an officer who was already asleep but had left his possessions scattered all over the room.

I was awakened next morning by the buzzing sound of an electric razor, and saw a slight figure in brightly-coloured pyjamas walking up and down the room trailing a length of electric flex behind him and running the razor in a care-free manner up and down his face. After a few moments I said ‘Good morning’… and was favoured with some sort of grunt in reply. I saw this ...strange person several times during the day… but never once did he show that he recognized me. I noticed that he seemed to know everybody, and that most people called him Cheese. That night I changed my room.

Not long afterwards he is assigned to fly with this unfriendly character, who then makes himself quite charming. Rivaz gives his first name, Leonard, but not his second, which was Cheshire. At the time he wrote his book, Rivaz would have known that Cheshire was to be a successful pilot, but not just how famous he would become.

Before he can get off the ground, however, Rivaz experiences a fierce air attack on the airfield.

I saw a party of men digging furiously around a shelter that had received a direct hit: the ambulance was there… and the orderlies were lifting a man — with his tunic, face, and hair covered with earth — on to a stretcher. ...I noticed that his legs were in an unnatural twisted position. Someone was digging around another pair of legs: the body was still buried and the legs obviously broken. I saw two more men crushed — with faces nearly the same colour as their tunics — between sheets of corrugated iron: they were both dead.

It was August 15 1940 and Driffield had been attacked by a large force of German bombers; 14 RAF personnel were dead, including the first female RAF fatality, and 12 British aircraft were destroyed. These were details that Rivaz couldn’t give, but it doesn’t matter – his description of the raid is very vivid. So is much else in the book; Rivaz was to see a lot of action, and there are few dull moments. Flying over Cologne, his aircraft is hit and a flare explodes in the rear of the plane, temporarily blinding the crew, injuring one terribly and blowing an enormous hole in the fuselage; Rivaz, in the tail turret, must struggle past the damage and try to put out the flames. Cheshire eventually regained control of the aircraft and brought it home, a feat that won him the DSO. Later, Rivaz would twice fly on missions against the Scharnhorst at Brest, daylight attacks on a heavily defended target. He was not to know that in the first of these raids, in July 1941, armour-piercing bombs of the type he was carrying did damage the ship quite badly. They may have come from his aircraft. He also “ditched” twice and was rescued from the sea, both times in winter; on one of these occasions, he only barely survived.

Whitleys at Driffield (Imperial War Museum © IWM HU 104766)
Rivaz flew as rear-gunner in two types of aircraft. Again, he was writing in wartime so says little about them, but he does identify them. At Driffield it was the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, a twin-engined type that had been introduced in early 1937. In a time of rapid change, this meant it was already outdated. But it was not unsuccessful as a bomber, and later variants were also used for sub-hunting and for clandestine long-distance transport. What it wasn’t, was fast. Rivaz records that on one raid, to Leuna in Saxony, they were in the air for 11 hours. Life in the rear turret must have been extremely uncomfortable (and he does mention the extremes of heat and cold). Later he transferred, like Cheshire, to 35 Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse; this was the first squadron to fly the new four-engined Handley Page Halifax Mk I.

Rivaz’s writing is inconsistent. But at its best it is excellent. He was a thoughtful and observant man; at one point he describes, in detail, taking off on a mission to Cologne on a March night. The Whitley’s engines are being run up. “The ground crew were standing by, watching: one stood too near the slipstream and had his hat blown off… it was rolling over and over behind the aeroplane, and he was chasing it. ...A large pool of water by my turret was being thrown up into a fine spray, and some bits of oily rag were flying about in the air.” They move off; the tail lifts in the air; the plane sways from side to side as the pilot keeps it straight with the rudder; then they are crossing the airfield perimeter, the lights glowing yellow and red below. Rivaz, as a gunner, is alert, knowing that enemy intruders have sometimes attacked bombers as they take off. Yet he sees his surroundings. He was, after all, an artist:

Rivaz with Cheshire in 1940 or 1941
We were still circling the aerodrome and climbing… and it was getting lighter instead of darker the higher we climbed. The ground appeared as a sort of grey-green colour, and seemed very remote and unreal. The aerodrome beacon was flashing red. ...The sky above us was a green-blue… and the western sky was lit by a glorious red sunset. The red glow tinted the edge of my gun barrels and the perspex round my turret a bright red colour. I was thrilled with the beauty, and called through to A__, telling him about it and asking him if he could see it. He replied that he could just see the edge of it. They would have lost the sunset from the ground by now… but up here it was as vivid as the ground was obscure. On the ground one is not always conscious of the transition of light to darkness. But in the air one is in the change… it is all around one.

But this night would not end well. By early morning “A__” (the captain) would be dead. Rivaz does not identify him; in fact, his name was Clive Florigny and he was from Streatham, South London. Rivaz also does not say, and probably did not know, that Florigny’s brother, also a Whitley pilot, was to be killed later the same day. Their names are on the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede, along with other aircrew with no known grave.


At about the time Rivaz was arriving at Driffield, Arthur (Art) Donahue was arriving at his own first operational station; like Rivaz, he does not name it, but it was Kenley in Surrey, on the southern approach to London. It was a rapid transition. As he recalls in Tally-Ho! Yankee in a Spitfire, also published in the middle of the war, just six weeks earlier he had been at work on his father’s farm in St Charles, Minnesota. He had applied to join the US volunteer reserve very early in the war, but had heard nothing. Now, hearing that France had collapsed, he decided that, as an American, he could wait until his people were forced to fight, as they surely would be; or he could join the battle now. He travelled to Canada to join up and just 10 days later he was on a liner to Britain.

I didn’t have any of the qualifications of a soldier. I was neither big nor very strong; I was quite mild-tempered and absolutely afraid to fight, and I was more cautious in my flying than the average pilot then.

Art Donahue
This may be modest. Donahue, then 27, had been a Depression-era barnstormer but was also a serious pilot; when the war broke out, he was instructing. Even so, the speed with which the RAF got him off the boat and into combat is astonishing, given the very long training that most RAF pilots had to undergo. On arrival, he was sent straight to an Operational Training Unit (OTU) – again, he does not say which, but it was No. 7 OTU at Hawarden. OTUs were what their name indicates – advanced training units from which newly trained pilots would undertake their first missions. After a brief period flying trainers, he was unleashed on a Spitfire, a plane that cruised at twice the speed of anything he had ever flown before.

As in Tail Gunner, there is hardly a dull moment. Donahue began his combat career by chasing a Messerschmitt 109 across the Channel and engaging it, he says, at Cap Griz Nez – a hot pursuit that I’d always thought Battle of Britain pilots avoided, not wishing to be lured into combat over enemy territory. Which is what happened to Donahue, who caught the fighter but was then bounced by its friends. He escaped, and landed at Hawkinge on the Kent coast with serious damage to his aircraft. Then just a week later his aircraft caught fire after being hit in combat, forcing him to bail out with serious burns to one leg. By the time he returned to flying, the Battle of Britain was essentially over. Yet he had taken part in it – one of only about 10 American pilots to do so.

Tally-Ho! is not always as gripping as Tail Gunner, and Rivaz is the better of the two writers. But every now and then Donahue does capture the imagination. A flight from Kenley to their advanced base at Hawkinge:

We had to fly to our advance base at dawn, and it was an unforgettably beautiful flight for me. It was just getting light when we took off, and the countryside was dim below us. Wicked blue flames flared back from the exhausts of all the engines as I looked at the planes in formation about me. We seemed to hover motionless except for the slight upward or downward drift of one machine or another in relation to the rest, which seemed to lend a sort of pulsating life to the whole formation; and the dark carpet of the earth below steadily slid backward beneath us. The sun, just rising and very red and big and beautiful, made weird lights over the tops of our camouflaged wings. We were like a herd of giant beasts in some strange new kind of world.

There is also striking detail on the life of a fighter pilot. They were clearly very organised. Donahue describes how, preparing for a period on readiness, he puts his parachute on the aircraft’s tailplane, as that is where he can grab it quickest if he’s scrambled. He even arranges the straps so that they will fall easily to hand. In the cockpit he hangs his helmet over the control stick and plugs in the radio and oxygen leads, making sure that they are hanging in the right way so they won’t slow down the business of putting the helmet on. The seat and shoulder straps are similarly arranged. Then Donahue methodically sets various valves to the open position so that he will not have to waste time doing so when the call comes. There are many more checks, all of them – by his account – meticulously carried out.

Donahue was apparently a strict Catholic and teetotaller (he mentions neither in the book), and one wonders how he fared with the hard-drinking RAF pilots; well enough, it seems. Also, he recounts in the book that he went to Canada to join the RAF but does not say that he claimed to be Canadian, almost certainly because he faced losing his American citizenship for serving under a foreign flag. In fact, the US rescinded this threat only a few weeks later. But it may explain why there are different stories as to how many US nationals flew in the Battle of Britain (between seven and 11, depending on where you look; more joined the RCAF/RAF soon afterwards).


Rivaz’s Tail Gunner ends with the second daylight raid on the Scharnhorst at Brest (he gives no date, but it was in January 1942). At the end of the book, Rivaz staggers ashore after another ditching; the second attack, it seems, proved as hairy as the first one.

Rivaz still wanted to be a pilot, and finally persuaded the RAF to post him for training. The result was a second book, Tail Gunner Takes Over. It describes his training in Manitoba, and ends with his posting back to Britain. Tail Gunner Takes Over is not as good as Tail Gunner; there’s some padding, and the details of his training are now really only of interest to historians of wartime flying. Rivaz was a good rather than great writer. But the first book is gripping – not least because he was in the thick of the air war at the start of Bomber Command’s offensive against Germany. The casualty rate was high, and relatively few of the early pilots can have survived to write of those early raids in Hampdens and Whitleys. Later aircrew were more likely to, by virtue simply of having less time to get killed.

Moreover Rivaz could be quite thoughtful, and was fully aware of the destruction he was causing below:

Cheshire's Whitley after Cologne (Imperial War Musem © IWM CH 1764)
The fires would still be burning in Cologne, where there would be a lot of suffering and misery. That was what we had intended. Our target had been a large factory, and a lot of night-shift workers would have been working there: there would be people dead or dying… there would be people burned there. Some might be alive… living with broken bones, unable to move, and with crushed and mangled bodies pressed against them… with nothing but the stink of rubble and putrefying flesh for company. There would be people with arms and legs blown off… and people with their stomachs blown open… and people with half their faces blown away. They might have to wait hours or even days until they were found; unable to help themselves and wishing they could die… yet afraid to die. Some would be badly burnt and would die; [or] would not die, but would be crippled and scarred always… All these things I had seen when our own aerodrome was bombed.

Did Rivaz have doubts about what he was doing? He might have done; he was clearly aware of its consequences. Nearly 700,000 Germans would die in the air bombardment before the end of the war, and Rivaz was right – they would not always die mercifully. In practice, though, he probably felt, as others did, that the Germans had started the war, and besides had bombed us, and others; they could hardly complain that bombs were being thrown back. Most members of his generation still had no sympathy when I was growing up. But a few were not so sure.

Donahue’s book ends a year or so before Rivaz’s, early in 1941; the Battle of Britain had really ended by the time he recovered from his injuries, and he was reposted to another squadron in the south of England. Here there is much that Donahue does not say, hinting only that he was transferred more than once. In fact, it seems that he was posted to an embryonic squadron for American RAF volunteers. It is said that he disliked it; no planes had arrived, and the Americans were not to the taste of the strict Catholic from the farm. But he does not say this in the book, and it is hard to confirm. At any rate, he gets himself posted again and as the book finishes he is flying offensive fighter sweeps over Northern France. These became more common in 1941 as the RAF, stronger now, looked for ways to strike back. They were not without losses; Douglas Bader, flying a Spitfire V, was captured on a sweep of this sort after his plane collided with a German in combat. Still, the fierce fighting of the previous summer was over. Tally Ho ends there.

Donahue’s flying career, however, didn’t. Like Rivaz, he was to write a second book. Unlike Rivaz, he would have plenty of action to speak of therein. In the autumn of 1941 he was transferred to a squadron that was going overseas, apparently at his own wish; he wanted to fight. The squadron set off on a troopship, to be united with their new aircraft at their destination. They weren’t to be Spitfires but Hurricanes, which Donahue had not flown before.

The Hurricane had entered service a little earlier than the Spitfire. It too was a fast modern monoplane with retractable undercarriage and eight guns, but instead of being all-metal, it was – like older aircraft – partially fabric, with a linen skin stretched and shrunk over a skeletal framework. This had its advantages, as it could be repaired more quickly, but it was also more prone to fire, and most RAF fighter pilots who suffered terrible burns did so in the Hurricane rather than the Spitfire. It did not help that the fuel tank was sited right in front of the pilot. (Though Messerschmitt 109 pilots actually sat on theirs, which may have felt worse.)

Donahue never learns where the squadron was supposed to have gone. In fact, it seems to have been the Middle East. But in South Africa they learn of Pearl Harbour; also, that they have a new destination. Arriving in the Dutch East Indies, they collected their new planes, and at the end of January they arrived in Singapore.

In Last Flight from Singapore, Donahue recalled his first sight of the island.

We began passing under heavy, blue-black storm clouds that forced us to fly lower and lower, and looking ahead I could now make out a great harbor on the coast, with the dim shapes of several ships anchored in it. Singapore harbor! ...We made it just ahead of a heavy rainstorm that was bearing down from the north, and though the setting sun was still shining from the west, we had to fly through a curtain of rain on the north side when we were approaching to land. Even circling the drome we could easily see we were in a war zone, for it was spotted with filled-in bomb craters just like the ones in England, and there were quite a few unfilled ones, too, indicating that the airdrome had recently been bombed. There was a fresh hole in one end of the concrete runway that we had to dodge when landing.

The next two weeks are intense. There are only a few Hurricanes, and less capable Brewster Buffalo fighters, on the island. Although they fly daily, the Hurricanes are rarely able to get high enough in time to get above the Japanese bombers, as there were no observers in Malaya to warn of their approach; the peninsula is now occupied by the Japanese, and on his first night Donahue is woken by the sound of British engineers blowing up the Johore causeway onto the island. Singapore is now under siege.

It is a bizarre time for the pilots, fighting for their lives in the day and then returning to the luxurious Seaview Hotel, where they are served wonderfully cooked multi-course meals and lived in sumptuous suites. Meanwhile the pilots encounter snobbery from the colonials, with one elderly man who was waiting to be evacuated protesting that they should not use the swimming pool because they had not been “introduced”. “His dislike for us was made obvious quite often,” records Donahue, adding that besides “fighting to keep the Japs off his head now, we would quite likely have to patrol and perhaps fight over his ship later, to keep him from being sunk.”

Donahue becomes aware that terrible mistakes are being made in the defence of Singapore and that the decadence of the British in the East is not helping.

Australian nurses arrive at Singapore, October 1941 (© IWM FE 49)
There’s no need denying that I was terribly disillusioned by much of what I had seen and experienced out here — things that I have avoided or passed over in this story because it isn’t in my province as a member of the forces to speak of them, and because I could only do harm by telling about them now. The enemy don’t advertise their failings either, you know. Doubtless you have seen references to this in the press, so there’s no harm in admitting that I saw many things out here that were very bad.

Yet there is also a poignant unreality. One day, with the Japanese already on the island, he and another pilot watch an “exotic, dark-haired English girl” exercising two greyhounds on the hotel lawn, as if nothing has happened.

She was swinging a cloth about for them to leap at. Her movements and theirs were so graceful that I thought she must be a dancer, but someone said she was a nurse. It seemed that either she or the approaching enemy and the terrible fighting must be unreal. It just didn’t make sense — but neither did a lot of things, in the last days of Singapore.

Later Donahue would wonder what became of her, as well he might; the Japanese would kill a large number of staff and patients at the British military hospital on February 14. (Although it was the Chinese community in Singapore that would suffer most; tens of thousands would be killed during the occupation.)

Donahue's own picture of a crashed Hurricane in Singapore
The battle for Singapore was brief. A week after Donahue’s arrival, the Japanese landed on Singapore. Two days later, on February 9, orders came to evacuate the last fighters to Sumatra, and he took off with two other Hurricanes and a Buffalo from an airfield that was already under ground attack, the crack of rifle fire only a few hundred yards away. It appears that this was indeed the last flight from Singapore, and there were no further Allied air operations over the island. It fell five days later.

Donahue continued to operate for a few days from Sumatra, but before long this too was invaded. On February 16, with other pilots, Donahue attacked the invading troops as their boats came up the Musi River towards Palembang. Hit by ground fire and seriously wounded, he managed to land his aircraft, and was evacuated to hospital in Bandung and finally embarked on a hospital ship. Last Flight from Singapore ends there; he wrote it shortly afterwards in India and in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where he had rejoined his squadron.


What were these men like?

Rivaz, the artist, seems to have been the more worldly; Donahue was from rural Minnesota and proud to be, and his letters home talk of the pigs on the farm there, and of the eggs and potatoes that the airmen produce on the base. But both were men of substance. Neither had had to fight; Rivaz was too old, and Donahue was a national of a neutral state. They were also, in the manner of the time, quite modest. Rivaz does not mention his prewar career; though he’d made no money as an artist, he must have been a good one, as he had studied at the Royal College of Art and is known to have exhibited at the Royal Academy. Donahue nowhere says that he had qualified as a commercial pilot at just 19, at a time when flying in the States was dangerous. Moreover both write warmly of other men’s courage but speak little of their own. They do not reveal in their books that they had both had the Distinguished Flying Cross – Rivaz for his conduct on the first daylight raid on the Scharnhorst, when he destroyed an enemy fighter and saved his own plane, and Donahue for that last desperate low-level attack on the Japanese in Sumatra.

Spitfire Vs of 91 Squadron, Hawkinge, 1942 (© IWM (CH 5429)
One wants of course to know their eventual fates. On completion of his pilot’s training, Rivaz was posted back to Britain – not, to his disgust, as a combat pilot, but to the forerunner of Transport Command. He survived the war. In October 1945 he was a passenger on a Liberator that crashed on takeoff from Melsbroek, now part of Brussels Airport. All 31 passengers and crew died, including Rivaz; he is buried in Brussels Town Cemetery.

Donahue stayed for some months in Ceylon, but in August 1942 he returned to Britain and was posted to 91 Squadron at his old airfield of Hawkinge in Kent. On September 5 he wrote to his family in Minnesota:

Well, I think my plans are definite enough for the next few months so I can risk telling you this much, that the chances are four to one that I’ll be with you for Christmas this year! I have the furlough coming and could take it now if I wished to, but prefer to wait until then. I hope to have a month in the States, possibly more, so don’t go planning any celebration but keep it in your hope chest anyway.

Five days later, on September 11, Art Donahue took off in his Spitfire to chase a Ju 88, which he caught; it later crash-landed in Belgium. But his own aircraft must have been damaged in the encounter, and a brief message was received saying that he was ditching off Gravelines. His body was never found.

Tail Gunner, Tally-Ho!: A Spitfire Pilot's Personal Account of the Battle of Britain and Last Flight from Singapore: The Gibraltar of the East are all available in e-book form Amazon and other retailers. They can usually also be found in printed form. The e-books of all three can be bought in an omnibus edition together with D.M. Cook’s Spitfire Pilot.

Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from 
most online retailers, including Amazon (UK and US).