Black humor from 1918As the story is told, RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain paid up to £5 (more than a week's wages for most of them) for a copy of this novel. Perhaps one man was drunk enough to do so, but surely most of them simply borrowed it from a chum? Long as it is—the paperback runs to 456 pages—one copy per squadron ought to have done the trick.
Still, the story suggests the passion that Winged Victory might evoke from youngsters who were fighting much the same kind of war that "Tom Cundall" had fought 22 years earlier. It starts out chipper, in the World War One tradition, with chaps and kites and jobs and Huns and all that sort of thing, mixed however with a bitter humor that reminds many readers of Joseph Hellers's Catch 22 and like fiction from the 1960s.
But that's still only the novel's second stage, as Cundall evolves from post-Victorian bravo to cynical war veteran. The humor vanishes about halfway through the book, as he contracts tuberculosis (TB killed the author, six months after his novel was published) compounded by a really bad case of the war-wearies. There's a big "push" going on, and a lot of ground-strafing, and new pilots arrive in the squadron only to vanish within days, shot down by "Archie" or the dreaded Fokkers, or simply crashed to death as a result of their inexperience in the rotary-engined Sopwith Camel. Cundall is now drunk most of the time. The most experienced pilot in C Flight, he is at the end all but unable to fly, and he is invalided out. So he goes home:
"This was England. Wandering lanes, hedged and ditched; casual, opulent beauty; trees heavy with fulfillment. This was his native land. He did not care."
Altogether, one of the finest war novels I have ever read.