It’s not often I read two books in a row that, at least on the surface, cover the same subject. Besides keeping the reviews on ABR fresh, there’s so many fascinating stories from every day of the war that ... well, what I’m saying is I flit around a great many subjects. Jack of all trades, master of none to some extent. So it was with a little reluctance (definitely not the right word) that I got stuck into From Dogfight To Diplomacy. It was my own fault for getting into this situation (and I’m making it sound so much worse than it really was) as, after putting Chris Ward’s 6 Group Bomber Command to rest, I felt I needed to read something I knew to be brilliant and, if anything, uplifting. That’s how I ended up reading First Light which, of course, concentrates on the author’s experiences during the Battle of Britain. With Donald MacDonnell becoming an ace during Fighter Command’s defence of Great Britain, I knew I was in for more of the same. However, it is the title of his book that suggests the reader will discover more about the author than his involvement in the Battle ... so much more. Fighter ace, commanding officer, lover, husband, father, POW, RAF Cranwell staff and air attaché to the British Embassy in Moscow during the Cold War. So much more.
While the author alludes to his childhood at various stages throughout the book, we first meet him leaving for RAF Cranwell in 1932 – budding pilot and destined to eventually become the 22nd Chief of Glengarry (a Scottish clan). His writing is comfortable, relaxed and expressive from the start and combines with the interesting anecdotes to make the first sitting with this book an enjoyable and enlightening session. This relaxed approach is deceptive though as within barely 35 pages, DM has graduated from RAF Cranwell as a Pilot Officer with an above-average rating, joined 54 Squadron and flown its Bristol Bulldog fighters and been seconded to the Fleet Air Arm in the Mediterranean (via an amusing episode of cross-dressing to fool an Italian destroyer!). While the seven years before the war are covered in roughly 10 per cent of the book’s pages, do not for one moment think there is little detail. If anything it is a detailed snapshot of the pre-war, biplane-flying RAF – an RAF whose leaders thought they should corner the market in this flying and fighting lark even if it meant sending some of its pilots to sea (sound familiar with today’s RAF and FAA?).
MacDonnell’s stay in the Mediterranean eventually leads to flying Hawker Nimrods from HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious – the latter being based in Malta which the author fell in love with. Returning home, he ends up at Gosport in charge of the navy’s land-based ‘training’ catapult and reflects that for a 24-year-old Flight Lieutenant it was his “pride and joy”. Late 1938 and early 1939 sees DM complete a ‘sobering’ flying instructor’s course and further flying appointments before promotion to Squadron Leader and a desk job in London which he begins in August 1939.
London was evidently an interesting place during those first uncertain months of the war. While the author doesn’t directly talk about this aspect of his life in the city, his experiences with Diana, soon to be his first wife, convey the feeling of incredulity that the country was again on the brink. The desk job ends early in the second half of 1940 after much lobbying by our hero to ensure his posting to a fighter squadron. A posting to No. 64 Squadron and its Spitfires is interrupted before it begins as DM is selected to be CO of a new squadron of twin-engined fighters – Whirlwinds – so converts to the Blenheim. This, in turn, falls through due to a lack of night-flying experience (it is the first I have heard of the Whirlwind being employed as a night fighter and I still find it odd) and leads to the eventual posting to 64 Squadron.
While not immediately CO of the squadron, DM soon took over from his predecessor who, apparently, was finding the job too much for him. He inherited a disjointed squadron and had very little time to pull it together into a cohesive fighting team. He does, of course, and the following four chapters are as much a discussion about how to run a squadron of varying personalities as it is a diary of the author’s victories and close-shaves during the Battle – both of which he had plenty. Damaged on several occasions and shot down once, the author eventually leads the squadron to 12 Group for a ‘rest’ and it is during this time he marries Diana, continues their happy life together and, on a sweep into France, is shot down into the Channel. His description of the flight and subsequent rescue by German sailors is told with a generous dose of disbelief at actually surviving the ordeal.
I am in no way an expert on the POW experience in Europe despite having read numerous accounts from a variety of servicemen. MacDonnell’s tenure as a prisoner is perhaps the longest – in terms of years – I can remember reading and it is also one of the more detailed and moving. It is a brilliant insight into the life of a POW as told by a studious observer who benefits from having a few years on many of his fellow prisoners. Moving from Dulag Luft I to Stalag Luft III, the author, as a member of the Escape Committee, ‘oversaw’ the organisation and ultimate success of the famous Wooden Horse escape. Now a father, his responsibilities towards his family take a disturbing turn in 1943 when Diana, who had moved to Ireland with their son, suffered a “slight nervous breakdown”. The photos included in her letters, and the letters themselves, revealed a woman who was far from well. Hundreds of miles away there was little the author could do. Upon his return to the UK after war’s end, and reunited with Diana, he realises his world had come to an end.
Before this return, though, he endures another two winters as a POW (one of which was spent marching west away from the advancing Russians) before being liberated by the Red Army (who replace the Germans in the guard-towers) and repatriated by the Americans. So it was in very poor condition and a fear of the unknown that he returned to the UK to finally meet his son and discover what was left of his Diana. Now a Wing Commander and “back in the RAF proper”, MacDonnell never forgets his responsibilities to his family and works himself hard. During Diana’s lucid times, they managed to have two more children but the writing was clearly on the wall. Diana was admitted into a nursing home and the author settled his young family in a variety of cottages whose location was dependant on his postings.
While not immediately comfortable in post-war Britain, the author gets on with what he knows best (and, therefore, the best way to support his family) and becomes the Chief Flying Instructor at RAF Cranwell in 1949. His skill in command is not diminished and his ability to bring out the best in his colleagues and pupils alike is remarkable. In late 1950, though, after a bout of ill health he is selected to join a Russian-speaking course and sets off on a path that takes him away from his family, his country and any semblance of normality that had developed post-war.
A crash-course at Cambridge is followed by a six-month, eye-opening stay with a Russian family in Paris. With the whole point of this study being an appointment to the British Embassy in Russia in 1956, the following three and half years are filled with a variety of staff appointments. During this time, one his main priorities was to settle his family with a permanent carer. This was done successfully and his family blossoms under the stern and somewhat eccentric eye of one of the most intriguing characters in the book.
I really can’t provide a synopsis of the author’s stay in Russia other than to say it contains the detail, candour and humour maintained throughout the book. So much happens in his two year appointment, some of it quite harrowing, but the underlying theme is one of discovery and frustration. The author was actually born in Russia – his father was a diplomat – so he generally relates well to the people he encounters and earns respect in return. As ever, he paints colourful and seemingly accurate pictures of his colleagues and ‘adversaries’ (again, something that is maintained from page one). His job as air attaché – effectively the RAF’s official spy in Russia – is frustrated by a reluctance to forcefully gather intelligence but his diplomacy and quasi-statesmanship is where his real value and skill shine through.
The book ends with a personal footnote from the author regarding his long but “relatively undistinguished career” (!) and bowing to requests from Clan members and family to write his memoirs. The final word, however, is left to his second wife who gives a brief summary of DM’s life prior to his death in 1999 at the age of 85. Elected Chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association in 1960 – a post he would hold for 18 years - MacDonnell retired from the RAF in 1964 but continued to devote his life to the service of others.
I’ve struggled in this review to not get bogged down in the detail of this book and, to some extent, can’t quite decide what this book is. It is not a fighter pilot’s book nor is it a wartime memoir but, in the same breath, it is both. It’s a study of the pre-war RAF, the life of a POW, a man struggling to be a single parent in post-war Britain and a very personal look at the Cold War from behind the Iron Curtain. This is a book that treats the personal life of the author with as much importance as his wartime service. Indeed, there are few books that give as much space to the post-war period as they do to the war years.
With this much in a book of roughly 350 pages you’d expect a few things to be glossed over and, writing many years after the events, this is inevitable but there is no indication of backing away from or hiding the more uncomfortable or upsetting aspects of the author’s life. At times he becomes almost cold (and definitely a little cynical) towards his various liaisons but, as he openly admits, he yearned for a return to the married life he once had. The passage of time is also occasionally hard to follow especially at the beginning – where you’re scrambling to keep up – and from the start of the Russian ‘training’ when there is little to suggest the time spent at each staff posting. Perhaps this is an indication that the author was ‘marking time’ prior to his posting to Moscow?
I’ll freely admit this is not a book I would have jumped on upon its release – it would have been added to the list to keep an eye out for – but I am certainly glad to have had the opportunity to read it. The writing settles around you from the start like a warm coat on a cold day and the chapters can be read as stand-alone short stories if you don’t have the time for a long read. Coupled with more than 45 photos produced in a separate, ‘glossy’ section (about the only error I made note of in the book is the identification of a Swordfish taking off from HMS Glorious as a Nimrod), the result is perhaps the most personal look at an RAF officer’s life that has been published to date. “Surprising” is the best word for it.
The copy reviewed is a large paperback published by Pen & Sword. Upon removing it from the envelope, my first reaction was one that fellow book-lovers know all too well – wow – as this is a great-looking book and the weight feels ‘right’ in the hand.
The text layout is the same format I did not like in 6 Group Bomber Command but with FDTD it works very well and this is because of the chapter layout and different style of writing – proof that it is applicable under the right circumstances!
Review copy published in 2009 by Pen & Sword Aviation. ISBN 978-184884-198-7