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Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Good Clean Fight by Derek Robinson

I’m in the middle of A Good Clean Fight, the second book of Derek Robinson’s RAF (Royal Air Force) quartet. Right after A Piece of Cake and before Damned Good Show and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.

Hornet Squadron is in the shifting sands of the Sahara and the shifting fortunes of war, as the armies of Germany and Britain push each other back and forth across North Africa. Yes, the Italians are there too, but no one seems to worry or care. Neither are the British all British. Pilots from the far-flung Commonwealth, as well as overrun European nations and America have put on the RAF uniform and joined the fray.

The British Special Air Service (SAS) races through the desert, blowing up German air bases and depending on only the vastness and harshness of the unforgiving landscape. Finding them is more difficult than locating a lost diamond ring. The Sahara’s spread across 3.5 million miles and has a landmass as large as the United States or China.

While the SAS attacks German forces on the ground, Hornet Squadron tries to rain havoc on a Luftwaffe that has pulled in its claws and is refitting for the next great push. But, this is not as benign a task for Hornet Squadron as it seems. As they expand their offensive actions, they take great losses in men and in the over matched Curtis P-40 Tomahawks they fly.

If you’re an aviator who has been to war, you know what it’s like to suddenly have comrades disappear, or even meet their fiery fates while you helplessly watch. Only whoring and vast quantities of drink provide mental and emotional relief and even then it’s only temporary. The squadron’s men are exhausted from heat and from gut wrenching three or four or five sorties a day. The stench of death unmasks their fear and the stifling and unrelenting desert adds layers to their fatigue.

Derek Robinson knows war and slaughter in the smoke and fury of World War II. He brings it to you in ways that make you smell the smoke, live the stark terror, and unblinkingly stare aghast at the bloody smear of dismembered bodies. And yes, there is dark humor that only the aviator knows. You laugh out loud because you’re one of them now. Your mouth is dry and you pour yourself a drink. A strong one. You know these men and women and their fate is your fate. Derek Robinson has made you a squadron member.

And what is a fighter pilot, or at least a World War II RAF fighter pilot? “They’re just decent, friendly, hardworking fighter pilots who want to be loved. Give ‘em a bucket of blood for breakfast and they’ll kick an orphan to death if you promise them a kiss afterwards.” Tongue in cheek, of course.

Sometimes they love each other. Sometimes they fight each other, throwing blows they later wish they hadn’t. Do they hate their foe? No. It’s not a hate or love situation. Usually no time for that in this scrappy, edgy fight to the finish. It’s always a guts and glory matter of survival, unless the foe makes it personal and kills one of your mates right in front of you. A Good Clean Fight is the last thing you want. When you press that trigger, you want people to topple like bowling pins. You want them to see them die wretchedly. The more the better. And all the while you’re asking yourself: Can this war go on forever? And, can I make it through another day?

This is the second time I’ve read this book. There will be a third. This is fiction that blinds you with desert dust and makes you cough and sputter as you climb into the cockpit of a P-40, slide the canopy closed and pray you’ll live long enough to savor the oblivion of hard whiskey and the enjoyment of just one more piece of ass. Even brilliant non-fiction can’t do that for me. 

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