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Pathfinders

PATHFINDERS . . . Between the covers

Wellington
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.

screen-shot-2021-05-10-at-10.46.53Cecil 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:

Screen Shot 2021-05-10 at 10.45.35Peter 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.

Pathfinders spine

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.

ON MY SHELF . . . April 2021

The book deliveries have been pretty healthy lately so, helped by a few successful fishing expeditions on Netgalley, my TBR pile is looking good.

DOWN IN THE COUNTRY by James Bowring
Book Guild Publishing 28th April

When a couple return to their home in rural England from their holiday in Italy (remember when we could do that?) their welcome home present is a dead body – a woman,strangled – in their garden. The local senior police officer has been badly injured in an accident, and Acting Inspector Beauregard is the man who has to step up and investigate the murder. Unfortunately, Beauregard is soon overwhelmed by the case. Help is at hand, however. A nearby luxury hotel is run by a former policeman, ex Detective Inspector Clive Walsingham. Walsingham is finding the relative sanity, safety and security of civilian life something of a bind, and he leaps at the chance to help Beauregard solve the  crime. The dead woman, however, had “something of a past”, and was connected to a notoriously crooked local businessman. When the case is further complicated by the disappearance of the daughter of a local aristocrat, Walsingham has to use every ounce of his experience to bring the case to a close.

PATHFINDERS by Cecil Lewis
Imperial War Museum 20th May

Lewis was one of the band of brothers who served with distinction in both world wars. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1915, after lying about his age and learned to fly at Brooklands. In 1916, he flew with No. 3 Squadron and was awarded the MC for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Flying over the battlefield on 1st July 1916 to report on British troop movements, he witnessed the blowing of the mines at La Boiselle. He later described the early morning scene in his book “Sagittarius Rising”. Pathfinders focuses on just one night in 1942, when each member of the crew of a Wellington bomber prepares for a raid in his own way, with his own hopes and fears.

SUMMON UP THE BLOOD by RN Morris
Severn House 22nd April

I have become a firm fan of RN Morris’s likeably eccentric London copper, Detective Silas Quinn. Click this link to read my reviews of a couple of earlier novels in the series. We are, as before, in that fateful year 1914, but it is March; the events  of June in far-off Serbia were still months away, and that last long Edwardian summer of innocence was yet to begin, but in London, however, there is a bizarre precursor of the ensuing bloodshed – except there is no blood. A killer is claiming victims in the dark alleys and byways of the city – and each corpse is found to have been completely exsanguinated. Quinn, considered something of an oddball by most of his colleagues, is in charge of Scotland Yard’s Special Crimes Department, and if ever there were a case that called for Quinn’s peculiar skill-set, it is this one.

BLACKSTOKE by Rob Parker
Red Dog Press out now

Parker is a gifted writer who injects energy and vitality into every paragraph he writes. He has an ongoing series of action thrillers (see below), but he obviously enjoys exploring the darker divisions between the world we inhabit and the nameless beings of the supernatural world. Blackstoke is a high-end housing development, but the land on which it has been built has a history all of its own, and is not a happy one. As the eager new owners move into their luxury homes, ancient and bloodstained memories, thought to be safely buried, begin to stir, and a nightmare becomes a reality for terrified families.

THE WATCHMAN by Rob Parker
Lume Books 24th June

Ben Bracken is an ex-special forces operative who has done jail time for a crime he didn’t commit, has escaped from prison, and has lived a precarious life of aliases, assumed identities – and forever looking over his shoulder. Like all the best action heroes who try to avoid trouble, it usually finds him. The previous Ben Bracken books (click here for reviews of a couple) have been firmly rooted on home soil, but now Ben – newly settled down to family life –  decides to do a favour for an old military chum, and this takes him across the Atlantic to New York, where all he has to do is to collect an envelope from someone in Central Park. Big mistake, Mr Bracken. Pursued by the FBI, the CIA – not to mention The Mob – Ben’s little overseas jolly turns into a fight for survival.

SWORD OF BONE by Anthony Rhodes
Imperial War Museum 20th May

The author served in the British Army during World War II and was involved with retreat of the British Army from Dunkirk. Sword of Bone is his account of the evacuation, in a style that reminded reviewers of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy in its account of the minutiae of military life. After being promoted to captain he lectured in Canada and the United States, where he met and married a niece of Gustav Mahler. The marriage was short-lived and led to a nervous breakdown. He was invalided out of the Army in 1945. Dunkirk is a potent word, and is often evoked to conjure up images of pluck, resolution and indomitable spirit, but it was also a significant military defeat, with the BEF out manoeuvred by the German army.

FALSE TRUTH by CD Steele
Book Guild Publishing 28th April

CD Steele’s debut thriller introduces us to former MI6 agent – and now private investigator – Joe Wilde. As he investigated the disappearance of a young and promising football star, his path crosses that of DI Carl Whatmore of the Met Police. As is ever the case when PIs and regular coppers meet, sparks fly, at least initially. The young footballer – Liam Devlin – seemed to have led a blameless life, but with the help of old MI6 buddy Mark Thompson, Wilde turns over a few stones, and what they see scuttling about spells problems for the investigators, the police – and Devlin’s worried mother Sally.

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