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 In a year or two their books will be out of date and out of print.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.
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