Goshawk Squadron: 50th Anniversary Edition

Written by Derek Robinson
Review by Simon Rickman

France, March 1918.  Belying nearby latent carnage, an unexpectedly comical first chapter introduces the very entertaining Major Stanley Woolley, 23, backbone of the story. This cynical seasoned veteran observes his squadron landing at their latest airfield behind the Western Front, a dozen or so young pilots thus flying into a tale they will later fly out of, most becoming “another triumph for gravity.” Woolley, complex and brutal, hates sending them to die. He trains them, often with humiliation, not to fight but to kill. Chivalry, sense, and good luck are out, alcohol abuse and shooting enemy pilots from behind are in. Woolley’s woman, amiable nurse Margery, brings him love and the realisation that “men find causes to die for; women find one to live for.”

This Booker-nominated novel, first published in 1971, with elements of farce and satire is matter-of-factual yet moving as it demonstrates and emphasises time and again the pointlessness of (this) war. To read it is akin to studying an artist’s sketchbook, such is the visual competence of Robinson’s dispassionate prose and simple dialogue. Further, these mainly greyscale images occasionally display exquisite coloured detail; a stricken plane ignites like “a struck match” and in one of the many bird’s-eye-view battlefield descriptions a pilot sees “the unmistakable flare of a kilt as a man staggered and fell”. Chapter headings are consecutive numerical Beaufort Scale wind descriptions, so expect a Force Twelve finale! An excellent book, worthy of all plaudits.