Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1 (RCAF Journal - FALL 2014 - Volume 3, Issue 4 - Book Reviews)

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Cover of Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1 By Clive Semple

Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1

By Clive Semple

United Kingdom: The History Press, 2008
320 pages
ISBN 978-1-86227-425-5

Review by Major Chris Buckham, CD, MA

Memoirs are a two-edged sword for historians. While they provide a plethora of information relating to the “hows and whys” of decision making for the subject of a book, they also tend toward being selective in recollection and can be very self-serving as well as a source of justification by the author. A diary, on the other hand, is a source with great potential and use. Written in real time and with the prejudices, attitudes, frustrations, and honesty of the moment; it provides unprecedented insight into the mind of its author and is an invaluable tool to use in the development of a book.

Clive Semple’s father, Leslie, joined the Royal Navy Air Service (RNAS) in 1917 at the age of 18 and served as a night bomber pilot flying Handley Page bombers until he resigned his commission in 1919, after a period of occupation duty in Germany. He rarely spoke about his service following the war, and it was not until his death in 1971 that the author discovered a time capsule of photos, documents, and a diary in a box in Leslie’s attic. Drawing upon all of these resources—especially the diary—Clive Semple drafted an outstanding picture of life for a young man making his way through training and wartime operations.

Semple has done a great deal of research in order to provide the reader with context and explanation of his father’s diary entries. Thus, the diary serves as the thread that connects the narrative together. What makes this book unique is the fact that it serves not merely as a recollection of Leslie’s operational wartime service but also portrays the social environment within which he lived. It is fascinating to read about him dealing with the stresses and expectations of being an officer/trainee in wartime (and the responsibilities and expectations demanded of him) while concurrently being exposed, for the first time, to the challenges of the real world of women as well as combat as a naive young man.

Some of the more notable aspects of Leslie Semple’s narrative include: ongoing animosity and lack of cooperation between members of the Royal Navy and Army (reinforced by Leslie’s observations) that led ultimately to the formation of the Royal Air Force (combining the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Navy Air Service —vigorously contested by the Army and Navy) by government decree; the vision shown by the Admiralty in its support (as early as 1914) of the creation of a bomber force; the dysfunction/inefficiency in aircraft design, production, training, and allocation of resources as the Navy and Army sparred for aircraft and personnel; and the sangfroid with which Leslie relates the losses among his peers during training and operations. While they were undoubtedly painful, it is clear that these losses were also readily accepted as the price of war, and he does not spend a lot of time dwelling upon them; interesting, when one remembers that he is only 18 at this time. Also remarkable are the detailed accounts of the specific training associated with night operations and the rudimentary techniques used for bombing accuracy. Additionally, it is interesting to follow in the narrative the development of the use of bombing as a separate arm of air operations.

Leslie’s diary also provides very interesting insights into the immediate post-war environment that the servicemen were faced with. He notes, for example, the difference between occupation experiences/relations involving French and English with the Germans. He writes very favourably about the Germans and his interaction with them. Also, he is very moved and affected by what he sees as he visits the battlefields that, up to this point, he had only seen from above. Finally, his thoughts and observations regarding military life in the immediate aftermath of the war are fascinating, as they bring into focus issues of employment, discipline, and morale, as soldiers who had been involved in vicious fighting for upwards of four years suddenly find themselves with time on their hands.

Leslie left four volumes of photographs with his diary, and Clive has included hundreds of these to enhance to the narrative. His descriptions of and expansions on his father’s diary installments are well researched and complementary. They add depth without assuming control of the narrative. There a few comments that are off the mark, such as his ruminations about why parachutes were never adopted in the Royal Air Force, but—for the most part—he is accurate and succinct.

This book is a rare find, as it fills a gap that has not been written about in great detail: the Allied night-bombing efforts in World War I. The insights, photographs, and commentary by Leslie Semple provide the reader with a window into this world viewed through the lens of an 18-year-old pilot officer in wartime. His son, the author of Diary of a Night Bomber Pilot in World War 1, has provided noteworthy background and is to be commended for producing a book of such personal and educational value.

Major Chris Buckham is an air logistics officer presently employed in A5 Plans, 1 Canadian Air Division. He maintains a professional reading blog. www.themilitaryreviewer.blogspot.com (English only)

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