Thursday, 20 January 2011
Set during the height of World War I in January 1918, Goshawk Squadron follows the misfortunes of the titular (fictional) British fighter squadron on the Western Front. For Stanley Woolley, commanding officer of Goshawk Squadron, the romance of chivalry in the clouds is just a myth. The code he drums into his men is simple and savage: shoot the enemy in the back before he knows you're there. Even so, he believes the whole squadron will be dead within three months.
Woolley has returned from medical leave and immediately sets about training his pilots in a demanding and realistic regimen, which the novices find objectionable and unreasonable. His lesson, to be drummed into his men over and over, is that they are there to kill, not to survive. This attitude manifests itself in many ways, for example, Woolley's refusal to request Sopwith Camels or Pups for his squadron. The men insist that these aircraft have better performance than their SE-5a's, but Woolley refuses on the grounds that the SE-5a is a solid and steadier gun platform than those faster and more maneuverable planes.
The chapters are appropriately numbered and named according to meteorological gale force measurements. The story, and intensity of combat, build gradually until the end of the book, when the Germans launch the Ludendorff Offensive. A sub-plot of the story is the British corps command's requirement that Woolley offer up one of his men for court-martial (and certain conviction) for the accidental death of a French restaurateur (the hapless fellow fell to his death when the gendarmes burst into his place to break up a squadron party). The role of sacrificial lamb keeps changing, as each man Woolley selects is killed in action before he can be arrested. Death is so arbitrary and frequent that Woolley can't even remember his pilot's names, though several times he asks after Mackenzie (from Hornet's Sting) before sheepishly recalling that the man is dead.
A monumental work at the time of its original release, Booker-shortlisted Goshawk Squadron is now viewed as a classic in the mode of Catch 22. Wry, brutal, cynical and hilarious, the men of Robinson's squadron are themselves an embodiment of the maddening contradictions of war: as much a refined troop of British gentleman as they are a vicious band of brothers hell-bent on staying alive and winning the war.
Goshawk Squadron is comparable to Robinson's later novel Piece of Cake (1983), which provided a similarly unglamourous account of the pilots of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.