Monday, 2 August 2010
During the second world war, the concept of war artist included writers and poets. I have written elsewhere in this blog about the war poet John Pudney, whom "Flying Officer X" credits as his mentor "whose friendly watchfulness and greater experience in practical Air Force matters saved both them and myself from various pitfalls" (Author's Note, 1952 Evensford Edition). The anonymous "Flying Officer X" stories were morale boosters for both air force personnel and the public, dedicated to Hilary St. George Saunders the RAF historian. Flying Officer X was in real life HE Bates (1905-1974), the novelist, with an RAF commission. Stationed with Bomber Command, flying Stirlings, he refined, by talking to crews and groundstaff, their particular experiences into short stories published weekly in News Chronicle in 1942, bringing out the real story of battle. The first volume of collected stories was called The Greatest People in the World after a story of the same name. The pilot is from a poor agricultural family, who paid his way through Grammar School to become a Pilot Officer. [He would actually have been a Sergeant Pilot, not coming from Public School]. He hears that pilots are the greatest people in the world, but after his parents are bombed and killed, comes to realise that it is the common working people who farm the land who best deserve this description. The second volume had the title How Sleep the Brave: the story of that name follows a Stirling crew after ditching in the North Sea, surviving snow, ice and burns in the attempt to reach England again. The last sentence hints at bravery: "and they will go out again". The Beginning of Things describes bow amputation (of an arm) can mark the beginning of a new life, not the end. The main character flies again with prosthetic arm full of clever gadgets. A edition of both collections was called Something in the Air (Cape, Knopf). Over 100,000 copies in all were sold, though HE Bates did not earn royalties for them. In other RAF postings he wrote There's Freedom in the Air for HMSO, The Night Battle of Britain (never published) and The Battle of the Flying Bomb (published only after rediscovery in the Public Records Office in 1994). The Flying Officer X stories were reissued in paperback by Vintage Classics (Random House) in 2002.