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First Light by Geoffrey Wellum
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First Light (original 2002; edition 2003)

by Geoffrey Wellum

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239548,266 (4.08)6
Member:kiwidoc
Title:First Light
Authors:Geoffrey Wellum
Info:Penguin Books Ltd (2003), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:Biography. WW 2.

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First Light by Geoffrey Wellum (2002)

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This a truly remarkable book. Wellum kept notes during his time training to fly Spitfires in the period before and during the Battle of Britain. In the 1990's he took those notes and wrote this book. He is very open about the stress of day after day of facing death and how it changed him and other pilots from optimistic young men to men who feared each day was their last. He eventually was relieved of combat flying because of stress.
This is also a very different view of the Battle of Britain when compared to those written by other famous pilots such as Bader, Johnson and Lucas. This is possibly because Wellum was so young when he started flying combat missions. For that reason alone, it is well worth reading. ( )
  lamour | Nov 20, 2011 |
Geoffrey Wellum's stories of his days as a very young fighter pilot sat percolating somewhere on a back burner of his mind for over fifty years before the publication of this book, FIRST LIGHT. And yet somehow he managed to make these memories as real and immediate as if they were only yesterday. Wellum was not quite eighteen when he matriculated directly from his prep school into the RAF. In less than two years he was a Spitfire fighter pilot engaged in some of the most intense aerial combat and dogfights of the war, dodging German fighters over London in the Battle of Britain. At age 20, the victim of stress and fatigue of nearly constant sorties, bomber escorts and other combat flights, he was removed from operational duties, much to his chagrin and distress. After a stint as a flight instructor, however, he was detailed to the secret Operation Pedestal which was instrumental in lifting the Axis siege of Malta.

There is something about the stream-of-consciousness narrative that Wellum employs here that just grabs you and makes you feel like you're right there in the cockpit with him as he dodges, feints, and rolls through the skies over England in some of the most furious dogfighting scenes every told from the WWII European theater. Here's a sample -

"All over the sky 110s are being chased by Spitfires. My particular Hun takes violent evasive action and I follow. I fling the Spit all over the sky in order to stay with him. This chap is no fool. I'm on to a good one here, he's like an eel, blast him. I manage one quick burst and I'm sure I see strikes on the fuselage ... Think I've got this one. His dive steepens and he starts to turn on his back. I take a quick look round before finishing him off in a nice tidy manner and am just in time to see a 110 diving down on me, opening fire as he does so. Jesus, I've seen him just in time, another fraction of a second ..."

This goes on and on, as Wellum recalls how he attacked and dodged, in perhaps some of the most intense scenes of air combat ever written. As I read some of these passages I was reminded of James Salter's riveting novel of the air war in Korea, THE HUNTERS. But it's not all smoke and explosions in Wellum's story. You also feel his fear and see him questioning the powers that be, and wondering how does God decide which side is 'right'.

"In any case, why does He allow this sort of thing to happen? Whatever He decides, many thousands of people, 'His children' we are all taught to believe, are going to be slaughtered before it is all over."

Wellum was near 80 years old when his story was finally published, but it leapt to the top of the bestseller lists in Britain immediately. This is not surprising, since his storytelling skills are as superb as his piloting was back in 1940. The perspective of the intervening decades has lent a kind of precious wisdom to this story though. And Wellum's humility and plain-spokenness about those days brought to mind another young pilot's story, that of Samuel Hynes, a US pilot from Minnesota who flew scores of combat missions in the Pacific, all before he turned 21 too. Hynes's book was called Flights of Passage. It would make an interesting companion piece fo Wellum's book for any WWII air war buffs. I've already praised and touted the Hynes book. Now I'm doing the same for Wellum's. This is one hell of a good story, filled with action, but also with the kind of introspection that makes it a great memoir. I will recommend it highly. ( )
  TimBazzett | Nov 14, 2010 |
Of all the Battle of Britain books I have read this is by far the most personal. Mr. Wellum's flying descriptions are the best I've ever read and made me get that old familiar knot in my stomach that I got as a combat pilot in Vietnam. Most pilots are in love with the Spitfire, even in this century. I will most likely never fly a Spitfire but in reading this book, I almost feel as if I've been up for a few sorties. This book is a must for Battle of Britain enthusiasts, pilots and Spitfire lovers. ( )
2 vote wadezoe | Jan 10, 2010 |
While reading this book all i could think about weas Spitfire's. i woke up thinking about them and and flying them, his descriptions did not seem overly laborious or complex but i was sitting inside a Spitfire when reading that book. and the amount that he went through and then suddenly that was it - he was 'done' done his tours of duty and was finished - at which point i realised he was younger then i was.
  ogopogo | Apr 7, 2007 |
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Epigraph
The time will come, when thou shalt lift thine eyes
To watch a long-drawn battle in the skies.
While aged peasants, too amazed for words,
Stare at the flying fleets of wondrous birds.
England, so long mistress of the sea,
Where winds and waves confess her sovereignty,
Her ancient triumphs yet on high shall bear
And reign the sovereign of the conquered air.
Stanzas composed in the style of Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Dedication
This book is dedicated to all fighter pilots
First words
The co-pilot of the Catalina flying boat came aft to the crew's rest room where I, a worn-out Spitfire pilot, reclined on one of the let-down bunks, feeling cold and miserable.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0141008148, Paperback)

'An extraordinary, deeply moving and astonishingly evocative story. Reading it, you feel you are in the Spitfire with him, at 20,000 feet, chased by a German Heinkel, with your ammunition gone' - "Independent". Two months before the outbreak of WWII, seventeen year old Geoffrey Wellum left school to become a fighter pilot with the RAF. He made it through basic training to become the youngest Spitfire pilot in the prestigious 92 Squadron. Thrust into combat almost immediately, Wellum found himself flying several sorties a day, caught up in terrifying dogfights with German Me 109s. Published more than fifty years afterwards, "First Light" is Geoffrey Wellum's gripping memoir of his experiences as a fighter pilot during WWII.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:01 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Two months before the outbreak of WWII, seventeen-year-old Geoffrey Wellum becomes a fighter pilot with the RAF. Desperate to get in the air, he makes it through basic training to become the youngest Spitfire pilot in the prestigious 92 Squadron. Thrust into combat almost immediately, Wellum finds himself flying several sorties a day, caught up in terrifying dogfights with German Me 109s. Over the coming months he and his fellow pilots play a crucial role in the Battle of Britain. But of the friends that take to the air alongside Wellum many never return. 'One of the best memoirs for years about the experience of flying in war' Max Hastings, Sunday Telegraph… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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