Air war fiction

I’ve been tweeted with a question about ‘#WWI aviation novels published 1918-1940?’

I can’t suggest very much, but here are some random thoughts:

During the war, flyers were presented as heroes, but most home-based writers had little idea of the technicalities of flying. Actual airmen wrote quite a bit of poetry, but little prose that I know of (except for George R. Samways, who provided stories for the Magnet comic, at least one of which is about airmen).

Arnold Bennett’s 1918 play The Title shows us how the RFC was perceived as dangerous. Eighteen-year-old John Culver blackmails his mother by saying he’ll join the Royal Flying Corps unless his she does what he wants – she wants him to join the Siege Artillery because she has been told it is safest:

MRS. CULVER. Your father won’t allow you to join the Flying Corps.

JOHN. My father can’t stop me. I know the mess is expensive, but the pay’s good, and I’ve got £150 of my own. Not a fortune! Not a fortune! But enough, quite enough. _A short life and a merry one_. I went to see Captain Skewes at the Automobile this morning. One of our old boys. He’s delighted. He gave me Lanchester’s ‘Aircraft in Warfare’ to read. Here it is. (Picking up the book) Here it _is_! I shall be sitting up all night to-night reading it. A short life and a merry one.

After 1918, war fiction generally became less common – especially in popular writing. There was still a huge interest in aircraft, but it is expressed more in stories of travel and adventure, looking forward to the peace rather than back to the war.
Come the war books boom after 1928, most books were about soldiers on the Western Front. Exceptions were Saggitarius Rising by Lewis and Winged Victory by V.M. Yeates. You might also find Waac: The Woman’s Story of the War, by Anonymous, quite interesting.
Many of the war books of the late twenties and early thirties were written with the express intention of telling the younger generation what war was like. W.E. Johns says this was his purpose in the stories he wrote for Popular Flying, later collected as The Camels are Coming (1932), the first of the long-running Biggles series.
Air power also featured strongly in the ‘Future War’ fiction of the twenties and thirties, many of which imagined air raids devastating cities. An example that fascinates me is Theodore Savage (1922) by Cicely Hamilton.

I’m sure that there are other worthwhile books that either I don’t know or I’ve forgotten. Maybe some readers can suggest other titles?


  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 18, 2016 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    You mention Yeates’s “Winged Victory.” This is not just a fine air-war novel, it is one of the major English-language combat novels of both world wars.

    Like Lewis, First War aviators preferred to write memoirs, however, and most of these, perhaps understandably, emphasized battle and excitement over introspective seriousness. Lewis’s book is a splendid exception. American Bert Hall’s lively “One Man’s War” may be as much fiction as fact, even though the author flew with the Lafayette Escadrille during the war.

    Sea novels of the war are equally uncommon, are they not? What may turn out to be the best reportedly rests somewhere unpublished. This would be “Delilah at War,” by the American Marcus Goodrich. Goodrich’s published novel, “Delilah” (1941), about the crew of a U.S. destroyer in the Philippines in 1916, was immediately swamped by the Second World War. The sequel is said to take up in April, 1917, when the ship Delilah and her crew are ordered to the North Atlantic. I wish I could recall just where I read of the sequel’s existence.

    Goodrich wrote from personal experience and with the sort of naturalistic and psychological detail we associate with novels of comparable length like James Jones’s From here to Eternity.” “Delilah” is well worth the attention of anyone interested in the sea or in the United States Navy.

    • Bill
      Posted June 18, 2016 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

      I believe Goodrich spent much of his last 50 years talking about (and possibly even working on) the sequel to Delilah (which itself took him some 14 years to write). And I read somewhere that he left instructions for all his manuscripts to be destroyed after his death. Perhaps – unlike Kafka – his wishes were followed.

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 19, 2016 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Bill.

    Very disappointing!

  3. Steve Paradis
    Posted June 19, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    The following review appeared in FLIGHT, September 4, 1931
    The recipe for a best seller seems, at the present time, to be a mixture of a well-psychoanalysed hero, the inner history of his amours, his reactions to the opposite sex and a lavish flavouring of a neurotic outlook on life in general. In the “Portrait of an Airman,” by Phillip Arnall, you have this mixture spread thickly on a slab of heavy pastry called “flying.” Taken as a psychological study the book is interesting, but if read from this point of view I cannot help likening the reader to the small boys who wallow in the harbour mud at low tide to get pennies thrown from the pier.

    The interest of the psychological side is at no time made so deep or so vital as to override the unnecessary sordidness of the context, and it leaves me with a sense of wonder as to why it was written at all. Had it been a paper covered novel of the cheap class I could have understood it, but in its published form I can see no justification for it whatever.

    From another point of view, I suppose that we who have aviation thoroughly at heart might be glad of this book, for its very sordidness has stamped flying as an everyday and commonplace thing, and on this score I suppose we must tolerate it. From all other angles, however, it cannot be justified; there is not enough in it to satisfy the really prurient minded, and yet too much to call it a decent novel. It is simply sordid.

    I admit that the author knows what he is talking about when he comes to the flying parts, which is more than most such authors do ; the pity of it is that he did not use his knowledge and talents to better purpose.”

    “I admit that the author knows what he is talking about when he comes to the flying parts” Indeed. On the page before this, a review of the “Air Annual of the British Empire” appears. That volume includes an essay on the performance of service aircraft by the noted aviation writer Maj. Oliver Stewart, M.C., A.F.C., who is almost transparently the author writing as Phillip Arnall.

    “Portrait of an Airman” is the story of a young officer who drifts into the R.F.C. in 1916. He flies combat all through 1917, including the notorious period known as Bloody April, earns a decoration for service, and survives to given a home posting to an experimental unit where he earns another decoration–a close description of Stewart’s own wartime career.

    Even the critical reviewer notes the authenticity of the novel’s flying scenes. In one instance, the hero is assigned a very dangerous mission with little chance of return. Things like “Dawn Patrol” made that situation into a cliche. Here the protagonist protests quietly to the C.O. that he may not get back. True, says the C.O., but you’re my best man and you have the best and only chance of getting back compared to the rest of the squadron. No rages or histrionics, just a cold statement of fact and its acceptance. He flies the mission and makes it back.

    The “sordidness” is the unexplicit description of the several affairs with women the hero experiences. They are all quick wartime affairs–he uses, or is used by, women. For one needy girl he feels sorry for ignoring her letters after the affair, for another a vague resentment at being used and a third amazes him by her blithe, man-like acceptance of fleeting pleasure.

    In the end he judges the whole war for him to have been a period of unsubstantial heroics, compared to his brother’s ordeal in the trenches, and realizes that now in peace he has to start living like an adult.

    It’s an interesting and unusual novel, particularly for this genre, and better written than most–as you’d expect from a journalist.

  4. Posted June 19, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    The Manchester Guardian shared the same distaste for the novel’s ‘nastiness’ – which makes me rather want to read it…

  5. Posted June 19, 2016 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    The Bookman is more positive but once again doesn’t like the sex:
    arnall bookman
    Well, I’ve found a copy online, and have ordered it. Will report back when I’ve read it.

  6. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 19, 2016 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention, Steve.

    I’m having our library order it.

    An American flier who later wrote fiction was South Carolinian Elliott White Springs. His stories of airmen in France include such as “Above the Bright Blue Sky” and “Nocturne Militaire.”

    He anonymously refashioned the letters of his friend Lieut. J. H. McGavock Grider into “War Birds: The Diary of an Unknown Aviator.”

    Springs flew in combat with the RAF and later the USAAS and was credited with shooting down 16 German aircraft. He was awarded both the DFC and the DSC.

    His biography appeared in 1988 and a collection of his letters in 2012.

    A second American who turned his RAF experience into fiction was the prolific Arch Whitehouse, whose most serious novel, “Hero Without Honor,” appeared as lately as 1972. He wrote many stories for magazines like “Flying Aces,” plus several adventure novels and popular books on aviation.

  7. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted June 19, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps we can compare notes on it, George!

  8. Posted June 19, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve now found the Saturday Review notice of the book:
    arnall sat review

    • Posted June 19, 2016 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      And I’ve now found that Philip Arnall was the pseudonym of Major Oliver Stewart (1896-1976), details of whose RFC career can be found here:
      It seems that he wrote a book of memoirs in 1976.

      • Steve Paradis
        Posted June 21, 2016 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        Evelyn Waugh once wrote that most of the war novels appearing after World War 2 were written by people who had spent their time “in military slums”, and reflected that experience.
        Whereas Stewart had had what used to be called a good war: hard service, decorations and rank. He’d also had a good post-war, with a successful career as an aviation journalist.
        The novel reflects it; the hero starts out as callow and immature, and that finally dawns on him at the end, but the fashionable disillusionment of the late 20’s isn’t in it.
        Whatever its literary value, that insight stands out and is more common than now thought; that most of the men who came back whole believed in what they’d done.

  9. Jane Wickenden
    Posted October 7, 2019 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    “Waac: The Woman’s Story of the War, by Anonymous, quite interesting.” – it is interesting, but it’s about the Woman’s Auxiliary Army Corps, not Air?

    To be honest I found it downright peculiar, as much as interesting. How anyone mistook it for a genuine memoir I’m quite intrigued to know.

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