This novel vividly describes the multitude of characters and exploits of Hornet Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps and opens with them aiding the offensive strategies of the British infantry at the Western Front in 1917. It is a bad year, full of mud and blood, bombardments, and appalling losses through both sides trying to break the deadlock near Ypres (“Wipers”). The flight commander, Major Cleve-Cutler, Captains Gerrish, Lynch and Ogilvy are responsible for A, B, and C Squadrons, with an adjutant who liaises with Wing Headquarters, and orderly Sergeant Lacey, who wheels and deals money, supplies and foodstuffs for the Squadron’s benefit.
Life expectancy was short; new recruits lasted weeks, sometimes hours, and each of them had a tale to tell or became the subject of tales through their exploits. Camp life was likened to a multinational railway station, with lots of bustle, arrivals, replacements and departures, but no one to talk to. Flyers who died were never openly discussed; instead a party was thrown where gallons of the commander’s potent alcoholic blend, Hornet’s Sting, was served. It helped the airmen let off steam and purge resentments and problems. Some had no love lives; others had complicated affairs. To a man they believed that they were fighting for purity, decency and all that was best in the world.
Arras and Vimy Ridge are successfully taken, and the squad relocates and begins Deep Offensive Patrols. Fatigue, bitter-cold, and ceaseless sky-watching before sudden fraught combat take their toll. Cleve-Cutler shoots rats to vent frustration, which increases when Lacey’s misdemeanours are investigated and he is punished. Then a vengeful C.O. issues new orders for Hornet Squadron. The taut narrative and intricately plotted account detail the excitement, horror, humour and waste of war. Highly recommended.