Hell of a Time: The Aviation Novels of Derek Robinson



It started when I was ten years old. In the summer of 1992 my family and I were in New Delhi, visiting family for the first time since moving to the U.S. in 1985. I switched on the television and saw a World War II British fighter aircraft flying low over the countryside. Then, much to my amazement, it flew under a stone bridge. But then the pilot, momentarily distracted, flew his aircraft straight into a tree and was killed in the ensuing fiery crash.

When the opening credits of the next episode came on, I saw the series was called Piece of Cake. What a strange name, I thought, especially for a show about World War II pilots. The series drifted out of my memory until many years later, when I was browsing the fiction shelves at my local library and happened to notice the image of some Hawker Hurricanes on a hardcover spine. Then I saw the title and connected the dots.

PoC spine

I admit I wasn’t sure what to make of the grinning pilots on the cover, so I opened the book to a random page—

For Hornet Squadron the war really began on the tenth of May 1940 at two minutes past noon. At the time, however, none of them realized this. Eleven of the twelve Hornet pilots knew nothing about it because they were all looking the wrong way. The twelfth, Hugo Trevelyan, was dead.

He neither saw nor heard the Messerschmitt 109 that dropped out of the sky behind him. It opened fire at two hundred yards. The cannon shells went wide but the bullets ripped through the cockpit floor, through the seat, and through Trevelyan.

His left thigh was hit first. The blow was so immense, shattering his thigh-bone, that he threw up his arms and arched his back. The bullets hacked and slashed his lower spine, chopping the great veins and arteries it guarded, perforating the flesh, battering the pelvis, almost breaking the body in half. The last few rounds flicked up through his abdomen, missing his kidneys, hitting the stomach, breaking a few ribs. But by then he was dead.

The 109 flipped and climbed and lost itself in the dazzling sky. Trevelyan hung in his straps, his right foot nudging the rudder-pedal. Nobody noticed his Hurricane drift away and tip sideways.”

I was stunned, intrigued, hooked—this wasn’t what I expected from an aviation novel. I checked out the book and zoomed through it in a couple of days. I’m glad I did.

Derek Robinson has written over a dozen novels and several nonfiction titles. After studying modern history at Cambridge, he worked in advertising in London and New York.

Piece of Cake is perhaps his most well-known novel and certainly one of my favorites. It follows the young men of Hornet Squadron (a fictional unit) from the start of the Phoney War in September 1939 to the height of the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Upon its release many objected to the book, complaining that its portrayal of the young pilots as less-than-perfect people tarnished the memory of The Few. Many of the actual pilots, however, said that Robinson got it right.

Whenever I participate in discussions on similar topics (fairly often, given Afghanistan and Iraq), I’m often reminded of a quote from Paul Haggis’ 2006 screenplay adaptation of Flags of Our Fathers, which captures my thoughts exactly—

“We like things nice and simple. Good and evil. Heroes and villains. There are always plenty of both. Most of the time, they are not who we think they are….”

Human beings are complicated creatures, and war is an extreme experience. Although the creation of idolized, cookie-cutter heroes is common throughout history, I have always argued that portraying such figures as complex, flawed people—as Robinson does—is far closer to the truth and ultimately more respectful to their memories. Even in everyday life the correct course of action isn’t always clear to us. And even if it is, we don’t always do the right thing.

The brutal truth is a thread common to Robinson’s other work as well, regardless of the time period or subject matter. Of course, another noteworthy element of the novels is humor. Seriously— the books are hilarious. Ask anyone who has served in a tense, conflict-ridden environment, regardless of whether it was in a combat zone with the military, in an emergency room with trauma staff, or on the streets with law enforcement. Along with extreme anxiety, terror, or immense loss, one often encounters moments of humor. Biting, often dark humor, sometimes enough to make one laugh aloud. Laughter is, of course, a coping mechanism, and generally we tend to focus on the brighter side of things. But humor is an undeniable aspect of our lives, regardless of the severity of a particular situation. Even in everyday life, haven’t we all stifled laughter that kept bubbling up at inopportune times/moments? Ask a veteran about a random memory of his/her service. Chances are you’ll get a story that puts a smile on their face. (Ask a fighter pilot and you’ll probably get a crazy story that makes everyone laugh.) Too many war fiction titles focus solely on the barbarity of war. Of course it is barbaric, but if one conveys only those moments, they are painting an incomplete picture.

Robinson set

Although I will not cover each of his books, I have included below a quick snapshot about some of his aviation-related work.

A Good Clean Fight is a sequel (of sorts) to Piece of Cake and takes place in North Africa in 1942. In addition to including some familiar veterans in Hornet Squadron, the story follows a SAS patrol in its attempts to destroy German aircraft on their desert airstrips. On reading this book I was reminded of just how expansive the desert really is. I mean, everyone knows it is, but the story really illustrated what that actually meant for those fighting in that environment— one could drive all day and the scenery wouldn’t change a bit, giving the impression of not having moved at all. The conditions were unforgiving. And driving hundreds of miles behind the lines to attack German airfields meant driving hundreds of miles to escape, too, and often while pursued by an enemy seeking revenge. One finds himself terribly exposed in the open desert, often with nowhere to hide.

Goshawk Squadron was written in 1971 and was Robinson’s first major success. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and is notable for many reasons, including its aim to punch a great big hole in the pervasive myths about early fighter pilots being akin to chivalrous knights. It takes place during the First World War in 1918. The squadron is led by Major Woolley, an experienced 23-year-old “old man.” A true antihero, Woolley batters and abuses his pilots with ferocity. They loathe and fear him. But like it or not, Woolley’s harsh, unforgiving treatment forces them to learn. (My previous post about the myth of aerial chivalry referenced and quoted Goshawk Squadron.)

In 1987 Robinson wrote War Story, which follows Hornet Squadron two years earlier, during the Battle of the Somme of 1916. Its characters do not overlap with Goshawk Squadron, but in 1999 Robinson wrote Hornet’s Sting, which covers the bloody springtime of 1917. So some characters who survive War Story appear in Hornet’s Sting… and Hornet’s Sting in turn introduces names that feature prominently in Goshawk Squadron. Fantastic.

So if you’re looking to read an engaging novel with complex, believable characters, Robinson’s author page on Amazon lists his currently available titles. His personal website also has more information about his background and work.

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On a personal note—

It would be remiss not to mention the encouragement that I have received from Derek Robinson about my own writing. Back in 2008, I had corresponded with a major independent film studio about adapting Goshawk Squadron into a feature screenplay, but unfortunately the project never got off the ground (pun intended). I am currently working on my own novel about a squadron in 1917, and Derek generously shared his experiences, his thoughts on writing, and his best wishes. So clearly, in addition to being my favorite author, Derek Robinson is one hell of a guy.

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