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Piece of Cake (novel)

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Piece of Cake (Novel)
Pan-28404 Robinson Piece of Cake

Front Cover of the novel, printed to tie in with the TV adaptation, showing Tim Woodward as Squadron Leader Rex

Author Derek Robinson
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Information
Subject
Genre War Novel
Publisher Pan Books
Publication date (Hardback) 1983
(Paperback) 1984
Media Type Print
Pages 672
Classification
ISBN 0-330-28404-5
OCLC
Dewey
Congress
Previous None
Next A Good Clean Fight

Piece of Cake is a 1983 novel by Derek Robinson, which follows a fictional Royal Air Force fighter squadron through the first year of World War II, and the Battle of Britain. It was later made into a television series.

DescriptionEdit

Although a work of fiction, the novel attempts to be as historically accurate as possible. Notable themes are the development of aerial warfare, tactics, the Hawker Hurricane fighter, the British class system within its military, and the difficulty of training and integrating new pilots during wartime. The novel was controversial because it challenged the greatly inflated number of British claims of Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed during the Battle of Britain, and theorized that the air battle was "irrelevant" to the possibility of a Nazi invasion of Britain following the fall of France. Robinson defends his work by stating that the truth of "faults and deficiencies" only enhances admiration for the courage and resilience of RAF pilots.

Plot summaryEdit

Piece of Cake begins in Sept 1939 when WW2 is about to begin. The young, brash and in-experienced pilots of Hornet Squadron, a fighter unit of the British Royal Air Force's Fighter Command and equipped with Hawker Hurricane Mk-1s, are not inclined to take the impending war very seriously. Squadron-Leader Ramsey, who has been drilling his men hard, is eager to get into action. Returning from a practise flight, he in-advertently taxis his Hurricane into a slit-trench, up-ending the aircraft and, too impatient to wait for a ladder, falls from the cockpit and fatally breaks his neck.

His temporary replacement is New-Zealander 'Fanny' Barton. whose authority is rejected by most of the pilots. Ordered to intercept an in-coming group of aircraft, Barton attacks what he believes is a German bomber and shoots it down, only to later realise it was a British Blenheim. He is sent away to face a court of enquiry whilst Squadron-Leader Rex, an upper-crust and calmly confident pilot, arrives to take command.

The squadron is despatched to a new airfield in France to await the expected German attack. Billeted in a luxury chateau, the pilots enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. In return, Rex expects strict discipline amongst his pilots and adherence to the text-book tactics of the RAF including close-formation flying and the cumbersome 'fighting-area' attacks. The Phoney-War begins as winter sets in. Pilot-officer 'Moggy' Cattermole bullies several of the other pilots, in particularly young 'Dicky' Starr and mentally-fragile 'Sticky' Stickwell. Cattermole flies his Hurricane under a low bridge, goading Starr and 'Pip' Patterson to do the same. Starr attempts the stunt and is killed. Cattermole shows no remorse.

A new replacement arrives- an American named Christopher Hart the Third, soon nick-named 'CH3'. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, he is un-impressed with the rigid, by-the-book tactics of the RAF and this leads to disagreements and hostility with some of the other pilots. Barton also returns to the squadron. Hornet achieves it's first aerial victory when they destroy a German Dornier 17 bomber. Hart is un-impressed that it takes six pilots to down a single, already crippled bomber, partly due to the poor gunnery skills of many of the pilots. Journalist Jacky Bellamy is keen to portray the war as a glorious adventure against an evil foe and cannot understand Hart's cynicism. Two of the pilots 'Flash' Gordon and 'Fitz' Fitzgerald begin respective romances with two local schoolteachers- French woman Nicole and expat Englishwoman Mary and both pairs eventually marry although Fitzgerald experiences problems with sexual impotency.

Fed up with Cattermole's bullying, Stickwell flies an un-authorised sortie, strafing a Luftwaffe airfield but his aircraft is damaged and he crash-lands in Belgium. The squadron rescue him but Rex cannot forgive the incident and Stickwell is transferred to another unit. Hart is increasingly at odds with the other pilots over his refusal to adhere to RAF tactics.

The German Invasion of France & Belgium (Blitzkrieg) begins on May 10th 1940. Hornet Squadron's tactics are soon proved dangerously inadequate, especially to the pilots flying at the rear. In the first days, three in-experienced pilots are killed without the rest of the squadron even seeing the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters that shoot them down. Whilst escorting a bomber attack against German ground forces, 'Moke' Miller is badly wounded and later dies in hospital. The remaining pilots at first doubt and then despise the out-moded tactics but Rex refuses to alter them. A bombing raid leaves Rex badly injured by shrapnel but he conceals his wounds from the other pilots and strong pain-killers leave him euphoric and over-confident. Recklessly ordering Hornet Squadron to attack a much larger German formation, Rex dives down to his death but another pilot orders the others not to follow, several of the pilots deliberately crowding Barton's plane, preventing him from following Rex.

Now acting Squadron Leader, Barton tries to rally his demoralised men, including a terrified Patterson and a cynical Hart. But the German advance is sweeping across France and Hornet Squadron has been reduced to a mere handful of Hurricanes still intact. Fleeing as a refugee, Nicole gets a lift with a motorcyclist but is killed in an accidental crash. Mary manages to reach England as do the survivors of Hornet Squadron.

In August, Hornet Squadron is re-formed and made operational again just as the Battle of Britain enters its most intense phase. Of the original pilots, only eight remain- Barton, Hart, Cattermole, Patterson, Fitzgerald, Gordon, 'Mother' Cox and Irishman 'Flip' Moran. Amongst the replacements are Czech pilot 'Haddy' Haducek, Pole 'Zab' Zabarnowski, nervous Englishman Steele-Stebbing, cocky 'Bing' MacFarlane and young 'Nim' Renouf. They are soon seeing heavy action as the German Luftwaffe switches from attacking Channel convoys and begins an offensive against RAF airfields in SE England. Hornet Squadron is using better tactics- shooting at closer range, flying in pairs, constantly checking the sky above and behind whilst in the air. Gordon has become eccentric and reckless. Cattermole finds a new victim for his bullying in Steele-Stebbing. Cattermole orders a reluctant Renouf to destroy an un-armed German Heinkel-59 rescue plane over the Channel. Moran, now a Flight-Commander, is reluctant to accept Barton's authority.

Intelligence Officer 'Skull' Skelton is sceptical about the numbers of German aircraft that Fighter Command is claiming to shoot down, as is Jackie Bellamy who has become cynical about the conduct of the war. The in-adequate training of new pilots and the poor gunnery skills are soon painfully obvious. Skelton becomes very unpopular when he refuses to confirm all of the pilot's victory claims.

The battle continues to intensify and all of the pilots begin to suffer exhaustion and nervous strain. Moran is horribly burnt to death when he is shot down. 'Bing' MacFarlane destroys two German planes and performs a forbidden 'Victory Roll' which causes him to fatally crash. Cattermole meets up with Stickwell, finding out the latter is now a pilot in a two-seater Boulton Paul Defiant squadron. Stickwell flies into action as a gunner and is killed. On the same day, Fitzgerald, his aircraft damaged, gets lost in dense fog and vanishes at sea. His wife Mary, now pregnant, refuses to accept that her husband is dead and is soon seen hanging around the aerodrome perimeter, which the other pilots find disturbing. Gordon's eccentricity grows more acute and infuriates the more seriously-minded Hart. Zabarnowski is killed in action and several new pilots are also lost, sometimes not even lasting a single day. Cattermole bales out from a defective Hurricane and his un-manned aircraft crashes into a village and kills 4 civilians. Skelton is appalled at Cattermole's refusal to show any remorse. Steele-Stebbing retaliates against Cattermole with a practical joke and the two appear to declare an un-official truce. Cattermole angrily forces Mary to cease her vigil and leave the aerodrome.

It is now September 1940 and the Battle of Britain is reaching its height. The survivors of Hornet squadron are exhausted and at breaking point. Haducek is killed and Renouf is badly burned. Gordon is badly wounded and later dies, news of his death hitting a battle-fatigued Hart particularly hard. Jacki Bellamy discusses with the pilots the possibility of a German Invasion of Britain and she concludes that the Germans lack the naval capacity to do so. On 7th Sept, the Luftwaffe launches a massed attack against London and every available RAF fighter unit is flung into action, including Hornet Squadron. Steele-Stebbing and Cattermole are both killed, the latter's plane mistakenly attacked by a Spitfire. Cox bales out and Patterson force-lands but both remain alive. The story ends with Barton and Hart diving yet again to attack the massed ranks of German bombers.

QuotesEdit

  • "The whole purpose of the armed forces can be summed up in one word – killing. Now, I don’t find that goal – in your words – marvelous, or magnificent, and try as I might I cannot bring myself to feel proud of it. Grateful, perhaps, as one is selfishly grateful for the existence of men who keep the sewage system working. But proud? No.”
  • "One tries to be open minded. If anyone can show me the glamour in a man’s head getting blown off, I shall do my best to see it."
  • "You know… leadership is a confidence trick. You have to persuade men that you can do absolutely anything, otherwise they lose confidence in you and instead of following eagerly into the jaws of death they begin wondering whether perhaps they should go to the lavatory instead."
  • "My idea of an honourable solution is winning. I want every possible advantage I can get – fair, unfair or downright deplorable. I’ve never yet met an enemy pilot who was willing to compromise, and neither am I."
  • "Five minutes was enough to tell Moran that Haducek was an excellent fighter pilot… He could do all the usual things with a Hurricane and several very unusual things, plus a couple of things that Moran had no wish to copy in case the wings came off."
  • "It was perfectly obvious that if I sat in that kite it was bound to crash and I would probably get killed. Anyone with an ounce of gallantry would have stayed at the controls and tried to miss the innocent bystanders. I haven’t got an ounce of gallantry. I don’t intend to kill myself to save three and a half civilians. It’s their war as well as mine, so they can jolly well take some of the risk. "
  • "You make it sound as if all we have to do to win is not lose. It’s not that easy! You don’t win wars just by not losing. People need a victory, they need to prove themselves… We’ve got to beat the Luftwaffe just to show it can be done."

TriviaEdit

  • The character of Pilot Officer Hart appears to have been based upon Billy Fiske, a real-life American pilot who flew with the RAF in WWII.
  • In the final pages of the book there is a group discussion about Hitler’s prospects for a successful invasion of Great Britain. After examining the problems of attempting a covert crossing of the English Channel they are led to the conclusion that it is impossible because of the Royal Navy. However, CH3 insists that the Battle of Britain is crucial all the same because to win the war the RAF must not just avoid losing, it must show that the Luftwaffe can be beaten.
  • The book was followed by a sequel (A Good Clean Fight) following the exploits of a number of the surviving characters of Piece of Cake in North Africa.

Info taken from Wikipedia

Differences between the Novel and the MiniseriesEdit

 
! Subject Novel Miniseries
Aircraft used by Hornet SquadronHawker Hurricane Mk-1sVarious Marks of Supermarine Spitfire, intended to represent MK-1s.[N 1]
'Skull' SkeltonAssigned to Hornet Squadron after war is declared, arriving during 'Fanny' Barton's brief stint as CO following the death of The 'Ram'.Already assigned to Hornet Squadron before war was declared, and witnessed Ramsey's accident from the Ops building at RAF Kingsmere.
US newspaper reporter Jackie BellamyMakes frequent visits to Hornet SquadronNot featured
Barton's nationalityNew ZealandAustralia
Marriage of 'Flash' Gordon to Nicole and 'Fitz' Fitzgerald to MaryThese weddings occurred separately - Flash and Nicole in late January 1940, Fitz and Mary at the end of April.Double wedding with joint reception. Celebration cut short by Luftwaffe fighter attack.
Method of return to EnglandBoat train due to loss of all aircraftSurviving aircraft flown back, with remaining personnel and equipment brought back in lorries
Type of German Air Sea Rescue AircraftHeinkel He 59 floatplaneJunkers Ju-52 landplane
Announcement of cause and timing of Flash's death [N 2]Barton tells CH3 it was delayed shock', occurring 'half an hour ago.''Uncle' Kellaway tells Barton and CH3 that it was 'Post operational shock', and that the death was 'a couple of hours ago.'
Discussion of possible German invasion of United Kingdom (Operation Sea-Lion)Concentrates on methods and timings of bring German troops across the ChannelConcentrates on Landing points and German movements after coming ashore
Status of 'CH3' Hart at the end of Piece of CakeStill alive, assisting Barton with attack of incoming bombers.Dead. Forced to bail out due to damage to aircraft, and last seen falling to earth with his parachute in flames.
EndingBarton and CH3 resuming their attack on the bombersKellaway and the surviving pilots discuss recent events after the raid, followed by a slow pull back with narration by Kellaway.

ReferencesEdit

NotesEdit

  1. Spitfires were used due to the lack of sufficient airworthy Hurricanes - a plan to use scaled down replicas was abandoned due to the unrealistic nose shape, caused by the use of flat four engines.
  2. Kellaway removes Flash's name from the blackboard in both versions

SourcesEdit

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