There comes a time when a book hits you fair between the eyes. Every book I read for ABR is a privilege, but some, obviously, do stand out among the others. I’m not talking about that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you know you’re onto something good. I’m talking about the giddiness, the euphoria, when you discover something extraordinary. As long-time ABR readers will know, this first happened with Norman Hanson’s Carrier Pilot when I got my hands on the 1979 first edition several years ago. At the time, it was the only edition available and it was really hard to understand why it had not been reprinted. What is remarkable is that there is now a new paperback edition (2016) that has been published by an independent publisher, Silvertail Books. I don’t know the specifics of the genesis of this new edition, but it is quite possible that Hanson’s family wanted to see it brought back to life. While not as pretty as the original edition, this new printing does the job and is no different to its predecessor. It is an incredible read.
Hanson was 26 years of age in 1940 and married! He joined up hoping to be a pilot or observer, much to his wife’s amusement, and was eventually selected for pilot training in Pensacola, Florida. Realising the great opportunity before him, he took to his training with gusto and, with his mates, thoroughly enjoyed a very different world. His time at Pensacola was coming to an end when the Americans entered the war and the observations of the wave of ‘war hysteria’ that swept the country are as amusing as they are patriotic, such was the change of gears to apparently get everyone pulling in the same direction.
Having flown American types (N3N, SNJ, Buffalo), and different ones to the norm as well, Hanson’s return to the UK required a readjustment to British aircraft and, namely, the Fairey Fulmar. Carrier qualified and raring to go, he was sent to Egypt and a communications unit where he flew mail runs and the like into the Middle East. After a year of that, he returns to the UK and is appointed senior pilot of 1833 Squadron. This new squadron was about to begin working up on Corsairs, one of the first two FAA units to do so, so it was back to the US.
It is quite likely Hanson’s account of getting to grips with the big new American navy fighter was the first written by a member of the Fleet Air Arm to appear in widespread publication. It was certainly not easy as the Corsair was a challenging aircraft to fly and, unlike Hanson, many of the pilots were considerably younger and far less experienced. When they arrived back in the UK in October 1943, they had still not operated from a carrier. The new Corsairs were shipped over on board an escort carrier.
The squadron joins HMS Illustrious after completing their period of dummy deck landings. The ship and the air wing work up for a coming deployment that soon finds them in Trincomalee, Ceylon, in the Indian Ocean. It is here the squadron really begins to gel as a fighting unit. This is made so much easier by excellent leadership, Hanson included, particularly from the very senior commanders, many of whom had been in action from the start of the war. ‘Dickie’ Cork features heavily during this period and his involvement, so crucial to any of the FAA fighter units passing through Ceylon, is phenomenally beneficial. He is just one of a myriad of remarkable characters Hanson encounters in his travels and all are passionately described.
Having flown several strikes in company with the USS Saratoga, and ranging as far east as the north-west coast of Australia and up to Sumatra, the Illustrious requires extensive repairs in South Africa so Hanson and his mates end up with a sojourn there.
They return to Ceylon and then begin the first operations of the British Pacific Fleet with the raids on the Palembang oil complexes. Moving into the Pacific proper, the FAA hits the Sakishima islands over and over again to prevent their use as Kamikaze staging bases. Life becomes a routine of airfield strikes, withdrawing to the fleet train to replenish, and Kamikaze attacks. It is during this time that the Illustrious is hit by shells from an escorting cruiser and it is the account of this event that opens the book in a style that is powerful, moving, amusing and heart-breaking all at once, and truly sets a tone that is maintained throughout.
Before he realises it, Hanson and his squadron, and the Illustrious, have done their bit in the Pacific and head for Australia in April 1945. The Canadians and the New Zealanders were sent home while those left sailed for the UK aboard their proud ship.
Carrier Pilot can only be mentioned in the same breath as First Light, the eternal The Last Enemy, A Thousand Shall Fall and No Moon Tonight. It is a classic of the genre, yet it has not had its time in the sun. Naturally there would have been some fanfare upon its release, but it then seemed to slip beneath the waves. Of course, it was first published in 1979 so it had a few things going against it. At the time, the war was relatively fresh in the memories of millions, the people who fought it were still very active in the workforce and, frankly, the general public abhorrence for war had never been higher. The following year, too, 1980, was the fortieth anniversary of that most popular of wartime aviation achievements, the Battle of Britain. What chance did a memoir about a group of naval aviators who fought on the other side of the world have against ‘The Few’? It seems the further east, from the UK, British forces fought during the war, the more they were forgotten. Burma, of course, is the ‘forgotten war’ and the British Pacific Fleet is still regarded as the ‘forgotten fleet’ despite the efforts of the likes of John Winton and, more recently, David Hobbs and Will Iredale.
Hanson certainly left nothing wanting in the manuscript, but he passed away not long after publication. Carrier Pilot remains his literary legacy and, quite simply, he went out on top. The reader is able to inhabit his mind for he wears his heart on his sleeve and the dialogue, ignoring the passing of almost forty years, is vibrant, amusing and on point. To that extent, he employs dialogue sparingly, perhaps realising he wouldn’t be recounting it verbatim, and really only uses it to illustrate a character, or convey the weight, or comedy, of a particular moment. At times, despite being a prominent part of the scene, he is able to step back to observe and comment on the absurdity and devastation around him. Absurdity and devastation, sadly, regularly go hand in hand.
Part of this has to do with his age. By the time he was steaming about in the eastern Indian Ocean, and then in the Pacific, he is already into his thirties. Compared to his charges, he is quite literally an old soul. His age makes him a bit more empathetic and able to understand another’s position. He perhaps borders on being sympathetic as he feels the gut-wrenching loss of friends and colleagues deeply. He never seems to develop any armour to deal with the pall of ever-present death and loss. Perhaps that is the forty years of life and reflection coming in to play.
The time in Egypt building up flying hours in Fulmars, and navigating vast expanses of hostile terrain in sometimes trying conditions, built the foundation that the rest of his war would rely upon. Had he been sent to an active carrier unit, there was every chance he would have been thrown into the deep end from the start, be it in the Med or escorting convoys in the Arctic, and his chances of survival would have been far less. It doesn’t seem fair, but it was the luck of the draw and the FAA gained a fine leader because of it.
From a technical point of view, there is not much conveyed, but in no way does this take away from the book. If anything, its relative absence enhances the read. A novice reader will not notice it and an experienced one won’t be left wanting. There is, however, a superb few pages about learning to fly the Corsair and mastering its various foibles. Hanson adroitly conveys the trepidation of learning to fly a tricky aircraft. His turn of phrase is typically clever and entertaining for this genre and little snippets of brilliance in describing something, often with just a few words, regularly generate a knowing grin or a chuckle. Referring to the weather at sea as something a householder would think twice about putting the cat out in is the perfect example. The reader immediately understands and is entertained at the same time and, if you are familiar with the FAA or wartime flying in general, you will find several more layers to absorb. It really is a masterpiece.
Drop everything you are doing and read this book. This new edition is not perfect. Some of the page layout is odd and the maps and diagrams seem to throw things out a bit and are not as finely printed as they were in the first edition. However, it is a good quality paperback that does its job in presenting everything Hanson wrote to a new audience. That's the most important bit. Carrier Pilot is the finest Fleet Air Arm memoir ever written. It is the forgotten book about the forgotten fleet and the forgotten men, many just names on memorials if they’re lucky, who gave their all. I want to read it again and I think I just might.