Literary Gem tells tale of Spitfire Ace
Author: David Crook
Publisher: Greenhill Books, new edition 2021, paperback, RRP 9.99
Sometimes the reviewer finds the task largely done. In his contribution to this edition, Air Vice-Marshal A F C Hunter writes: "Spitfire Pilot is a volume that has long had a place of honour on my bookshelves, a treasure found like so many literary gems in a second-hand bookshop." I agree with the sentiment and acquired my first copy in a similar way.
David Crook was a Battle of Britain ace flying Spitfires with No 609 (West Riding) Squadron, part of the Auxiliary Air Force before the war. He was awarded the DFC on 1 November 1940. He wrote his book later and was killed flying a Spitfire on a photographic sortie in 1944, possibly as a result of oxygen failure.
Crook takes us into the world of preparation for war, the transition to RAF training and discipline (something of a shock) after the AAF was embodied and eventually the tumultuous fight against the Luftwaffe in the summer and autumn of 1940. We learn something of his home life in Yorkshire, where the family firm manufactured sports goods, as well as his marriage to Dorothy Middleton, a nurse and clergyman's daughter. They would have three children.
Here too are the important friendships and the associated loss. When Crook was on leave, Pilot Officer Geoff Gaunt of 609 was killed on 15 September 1940, soon to be Battle of Britain Day. The pair had known each other since childhood. Crook set out to attend Gaunt's funeral in Huddersfield but the Magister he was flying gave trouble and he arrived after the service had finished.
Crook recalled: "The grave was still open and I walked over to it and stood there for a moment, looking at the inscription on the coffin of this very gallant and delightful friend."
Later in the account he wrote " .... it was the biggest loss that I had ever experienced. I could not believe that such a vital spark was now extinguished for ever; and that I would not see him again. I still can't believe it now, sometimes."
In our fascination with the decision-making and combat of the Battle of Britain, perhaps there is the danger of forgetting that these were people with emotions such as ours.
Spitfire Pilot is not, of course, only a work of military history but of social history. It is untrue that the great majority of Battle of Britain aircrew were from pecunious upper middle class backgrounds but some were. Here we have preserved the attitudes and argot of a group of such young men living and dying eight decades ago. Not everything will be palatable to modern readers but that was the way it was.