I can’t think of a publishing event over the last few years which has been more impressive than the republishing of WW2 novels by the Imperial War Museum. It has become an axiom that The Great War was identified with the poets, but what was the literary legacy of the war against Hitler? This series has confirmed that the dreadful six years of global conflict inspired some superb novels. I was born just after the war ended. My father served in the British Army throughout, and had many a tale to tell but, until recently, I had no idea of the breadth of novels written by men and women who took part in the conflict. Yes, I had read Waugh’s superb Sword of Honour trilogy and Len Deighton’s magisterial Bomber, but beyond those, very little. I have reviewed all the previous books in this series, and you can find my thoughts by clicking this link. The latest in the series is Pathfinders, first published in 1944.
Cecil Lewis (left) was a combat pilot in the Great War, but returned to the colours as both an instructor and an active flier in WW2. Pathfinders tells the tale of the crew of a Wellington aircraft. Perhaps unjustly, the Wellington has not captured the public imagination as much as its big sister, the Lancaster, but the Wellington was a durable workhorse that played a vital role in the work of Bomber Command. The six men who flew the aircraft in this novel each have a specific job as the aircraft goes in ahead of a bombing raid to drop incendiary flares on the ground targets so that the following planes can see when and where to unload their bombs.
A Pathfinder crew comprised pilot, co-pilot, navigator, wireless operator, front gunner and rear-gunner. Lewis structures his book around a detailed examination of each of these men, and tells us what kind of people they are. He shows us their backgrounds, their history, their loves, their losses – and their relationship to one another. Relatively little of the text deals with the actual raid the men are involved in. Instead, we have six chapters which deal with, in turn:
Peter Morelli, co-pilot. The American-Italian is suave, debonnaire, but is aware of the struggles and prejudice faced by immigrants in a new country.
Sam Dollar, front gunner. Raised in the brutish and fundamental wilderness of the Canadian forests, Dollar has little to say, but is determined and resolute.
Benjy Lukin, wireless operator. From a Jewish family, Lukin is well-read and erudite, In a former life he was a well-respected theatre critic.
Tom Cookson, navigator. Born into a disfunctional English family, he was sent to live with relatives in New Zealand. In his late teens he built a sea-going yacht with his best friend, and survived hurricanes while sailing Dolphin from New Zealand to Suva.
‘Nobby’ Bligh, tail gunner. A London lad, he resolve to fight back against the Nazis after a Luftwaffe bomb demolished his father’s bakery, trapping and killing the older man beneath tons of collapsed masonry. At home, his wife is dying of leukemia.
Hugh Thornly, pilot. An Oxbridge man of genteel birth, he was determined to become either a philosopher or a politician, but then the war intervened. His wife Helen – the daughter of a distinguished General, is expecting their second child.
After the biographies, though, Lewis returns – with devastating effect – to the matter in hand. The night raid on Kiel starts well, but then the German defences on the ground and in the air take their toll, and the final stages of the Wellington’s mission are as terrifying a description of the price of war as you will ever read.
Many will have read Lewis’s Sagittarius Rising, his classic account of the war in the air between 1914 and 1918. This wasn’t published until 1936, so there had been a considerable time lapse between his experiences and the book’s publication. Pathfinders is, by contrast, nearly contemporary. How do the two books compare? Does the unusual narrative structure of the later book work? I have to say that for the sheer white knuckle terror of flying flimsy and totally vulnerable aircraft, nothing could beat Sagittarius Rising for its sense of immediacy. As for the structure of Pathfinders, military history buffs may find the central section a rather long diversion from the matter in hand. Personally, I stuck with it, and felt that knowing the six men in person, as it were, made the eventual outcome even more poignant.
In the bitterest of ironies, the military part of Pathfinders begins and ends not in the air or on the runway from which P for Pathfinder took off and landed, but in the sea. To say more would be a spoiler, but I can say that this is a deeply moving and memorable account of brave men having to find a resolution between the horrific carnage their weapons were creating – and the greater long-term good. The only consolation, in human terms, that one can draw from this book, is that in the last few pages, we have a reversal of the solemn words of the Anglican burial sentences:
“In the midst of death we are in life”
Pathfinders is published by the Imperial War Museum and is out now.