The best books about the British Royal Air Force

12 authors have picked their favorite books about the British Royal Air Force and why they recommend each book.

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Pathfinder

By Don Bennett,

Book cover of Pathfinder

My personal favourite is the book by the man himself – Pathfinder by Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett. No-one could be better placed to chart the history and success of PFF than the C-in-C 8 Group himself, and his brilliantly direct style and merciless assassination of some of his contemporaries makes me wince and smile every time I read it. His thinly veiled attacks on 5 Group, 617 Squadron and Sir Ralph Cochrane (whose name is misspelled throughout!) are well-worth reading, though he is rather economical with the truth on occasion to support his own arguments and prejudices. If you never knew about the conflict between Bennett and Cochrane, and how betrayed Bennett felt by Harris when the latter supported the 5 Group method of target marking later in the war, this will open your eyes. And see if you don’t laugh out loud as I did when Bennett says…


Who am I?

Sean Feast has been a journalist and PR professional for more than 35 years and is a Director of a global marketing consultancy, Gravity Global. He is the author and co-author of more than 20 books on Bomber Command (seven with Grub St) with a particular specialism in Pathfinder Force. He co-authored the books that went with the opening of the Bomber Command Memorial and the International Bomber Command Centre. He is a Trustee of the RAF Pathfinder Archive.


I wrote...

Halton Boys: True Tales from Pilots and Ground Crew Proud to be Called 'Trenchard Brats'

By Sean Feast,

Book cover of Halton Boys: True Tales from Pilots and Ground Crew Proud to be Called 'Trenchard Brats'

What is my book about?

The RAF Halton Apprenticeship Scheme has a deserved reputation for excellence. The brainchild of MRAF Hugh Trenchard, the founder of the Royal Air Force, it took the ‘traditional’ idea of an apprenticeship and interpreted it in a novel way. It allowed teenage boys from any social background or geography to learn a technical trade that would equip them for their future lives, within and beyond the RAF. It also gave the best an opportunity to become pilots and break into the once public-school-dominated officer class. This is the story of Halton told through and by the boys who were there and who are still proud to be called ‘Trenchard Brats’.

Eighth Passenger

By Miles Tripp,

Book cover of Eighth Passenger: A Flight of Recollection & Discovery

My favourite autobiography is The Eighth Passenger by Miles Tripp. First published in 1969, the book charts the author’s journey to re-discover his former crewmates 30-years after they had last met and flown operations. He seeks to discover how they felt both then and now, and whether his experiences were shared. What really comes across is how extraordinarily ‘ordinary’ they all were, and yet how they gelled into an expert crew. One of their numbers is black, a rarity at the time and adding a certain significance today, and another proves particularly elusive such that you wonder whether he will ever be found. The author very cleverly weaves in the past and the present, their experiences as a Lancaster crew, and what happened after demob and a return to civilian life. It’s a very intelligent book that will ultimately lead you to the identity of The Eighth Passenger.


Who am I?

Sean Feast has been a journalist and PR professional for more than 35 years and is a Director of a global marketing consultancy, Gravity Global. He is the author and co-author of more than 20 books on Bomber Command (seven with Grub St) with a particular specialism in Pathfinder Force. He co-authored the books that went with the opening of the Bomber Command Memorial and the International Bomber Command Centre. He is a Trustee of the RAF Pathfinder Archive.


I wrote...

Halton Boys: True Tales from Pilots and Ground Crew Proud to be Called 'Trenchard Brats'

By Sean Feast,

Book cover of Halton Boys: True Tales from Pilots and Ground Crew Proud to be Called 'Trenchard Brats'

What is my book about?

The RAF Halton Apprenticeship Scheme has a deserved reputation for excellence. The brainchild of MRAF Hugh Trenchard, the founder of the Royal Air Force, it took the ‘traditional’ idea of an apprenticeship and interpreted it in a novel way. It allowed teenage boys from any social background or geography to learn a technical trade that would equip them for their future lives, within and beyond the RAF. It also gave the best an opportunity to become pilots and break into the once public-school-dominated officer class. This is the story of Halton told through and by the boys who were there and who are still proud to be called ‘Trenchard Brats’.

Spitfire Women Of World War II

By Giles Whittell,

Book cover of Spitfire Women Of World War II

I have an obsession with WWII, submarines of the era, and especially the Battle of Britain. As women in dangerous and often traditionally masculine roles also appeal, it makes sense that true stories of these gallant pilots are right in my wheelhouse. Or cockpit…

During the war, female pilots were recruited to ferry planes for the Air Transport Auxiliary to RAF bases, freeing up male combat pilots.

Unarmed, without instruments or radios, the women often flew over the hostile skies of southern England in new or repaired aircraft, flight testing them on the way. Navigation was done by compass headings and visual references on the ground.

This book does a wonderful job of shining a light on the relatively small group of brave souls who did their part during dark times.


Who am I?

My wife is a beautiful, intelligent, and determined woman. She took up rock climbing in her forties. She rides a motorcycle on and off-road. She scuba dives with sharks, she’s jumped out of an airplane, and she strapped crampons on her feet when I said we’re climbing a snow-covered mountain. One of my best friends in the world is from Finland. Typical of Finns, and Scandinavians in general, he has a dry wit and keen observations and thoughts which he delivers matter-of-factly in few words. Combining these two with a sprinkling of my own imagination produced Nora Sommer.


I wrote...

Deadly Sommer: Nora Sommer Caribbean Suspense - Book One

By Nicholas Harvey,

Book cover of Deadly Sommer: Nora Sommer Caribbean Suspense - Book One

What is my book about?

One missing girl. Two lives on the line. Four treacherous challenges. Nora Sommer's first case for the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service is one she'll never forget - if she survives.

When I decided to create a second series, I recognized the logical and most commercial path which checked all the genre boxes, would be a male protagonist in the Florida Keys. But Nora Sommer, a nineteen-year-old Norwegian runaway who’d appeared in several of my AJ Bailey novels, wouldn’t leave me alone. Her personality had become so engaging, her struggle to leave her past behind so motivating; I couldn’t deny her. Nora doesn’t think, act, react, or interact like most people. I fell in love with her character and haven’t regretted the choice for a moment.

The Forgotten Air Force

By Henry Probert,

Book cover of The Forgotten Air Force: The Royal Air Force in the War Against Japan 1941-1945

Understanding the full scope of the air war in the CBI requires knowledge of Royal Air Force operations against the Japanese, and Probert’s book delivers. I regret that I am not aware of a similar book covering the CBI story from the point of view of the Japanese Army Air Force. Probert begins his book with the arrival of RAF flying boats at Singapore in 1928 and recounts in detail the events of World War II from the debacle in Burma and Malaya in 1941-42 to the hard-won victory in 1945. Substantial appendices, notes, photographs and maps complete the package.


Who am I?

Carl Molesworth’s interest in China and the Far East dates back to childhood memories of stories told by his mother and grandmother of their experiences living in China during the 1920s. He acquired his interest in aviation from his father. Carl began researching the air war in the China-Burma-India Theater while working as a newspaper editor in the late 1970s and published his first book on the subject, Wing To Wing – Air Combat in China 1943-45, in 1990. Of his 14 subsequent books, nine have covered various aspects of air combat in the CBI.


I wrote...

Flying Tiger Ace: The story of Bill Reed, China’s Shining Mark

By Carl Molesworth,

Book cover of Flying Tiger Ace: The story of Bill Reed, China’s Shining Mark

What is my book about?

Bill Reed had it all ­- brains, looks, athleticism, courage, and a talent for leadership. After a challenging childhood in Depression-era Iowa, Reed joined the US Army Air Corps, but the outbreak of World War II saw him give up his commission. Instead, he travelled to China to fly for the American Volunteer Group - the legendary Flying Tigers. 

This book is a biography of his extraordinary life, focusing on his time spent flying with some of the famous aerial groups of World War II. It draws heavily on Reed's own words, along with the author's deep knowledge of the China air war and years of research into Reed's life, to tell his compelling story.

First Light

By Geoffrey Wellum,

Book cover of First Light: The True Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War-Torn Skies above Britain

First Light is also a memoir by a Battle of Britain veteran, but Wellum was not an ace. Wellum was a very young and very junior pilot during the Battle, and this book, written with the wisdom of hindsight by a mature Wellum, is more reflective and analytical than Deere’s account. That is its value. Wellum is a masterful writer and possesses a marked ability to evoke a mood. It is precisely because Wellum writes with mature understanding that he captures so well the innocence and naivety of his past self. This book does not educate one about the Battle of Britain, but it pulls you into the cockpit and the heart of a young man caught up in it. A wonderful read.


Who am I?

I'm a retired diplomat and award-winning novelist with a PhD in history. I became fascinated by the Battle of Britain because of a visit to RAF Tangmere, a Battle of Britain airfield, when I was still a girl; that encounter captured my imagination for a lifetime. I read every book I could find, I spent hours in the Imperial War Museum gazing (and touching) the Spitfire. I purchased the memoirs of pilots, watched films, and interviews. I started writing a Battle of Britain novel while still at university, but it was 30 years before I released a book. Within weeks one of the few surviving aces, Wing Commander Bob Doe, wrote me that I had got it “smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.” There can be no higher compliment to an author of historical fiction.  


I wrote...

Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel

By Helena P. Schrader,

Book cover of Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel

What is my book about?

This superb novel about the Battle of Britain, based on actual events and eye-witness accounts, shows this pivotal battle from both sides of the channel through the eyes of pilots, ground crews, staff — and the women they loved.

Summer 1940: The Battle of France is over; the Battle of Britain is about to begin. If the swastika is not to fly over Buckingham Palace, the RAF must prevent the Luftwaffe from gaining air superiority over Great Britain. Standing on the front line is No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron. As the casualties mount, new pilots find a cold reception from the clique of experienced pilots, who resent them taking the place of their dead friends. Meanwhile, despite credible service in France, former RAF aerobatics pilot Robin Priestman finds himself stuck in Training Command -- and falling for a girl from the Salvation Army. On the other side of the Channel, the Luftwaffe is recruiting women as communications specialists -- and naïve Klaudia is about to grow up.

Where Eagles Never Flew won the Hemmingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction awarded by Chanticleer International Book Awards

RAF Evaders

By Oliver Clutton-Brock,

Book cover of RAF Evaders: The Complete Story of RAF Escapees and Their Escape Lines, Western Europe, 1940-1945

This book provides one of the most detailed accounts of the many escape routes (and their ‘passengers’) from France -- by land, sea or air. It is a mine of information, including biographies of the key people involved and invaluable listings of over 2000 of the more than 4000 evaders identified by Airey Neave of MI9. Of these, 3000 were airmen (including many Americans). But it is also eminently readable, combining historical background with stories of the individuals who made the perilous journey, some of the details being published here for the first time.


Who am I?

Anne-Marie Walters was born in 1923 in Geneva to a British father and French mother. At the outbreak of war in 1940, the family escaped to Britain, where Anne-Marie volunteered for the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Having been approached by SOE in 1943, she was accepted for training and in January the following year dropped into France by parachute to work as a courier with George Starr, head of the Wheelwright circuit of the SOE in SW France. This she did until August 1944, when Starr sent her back to Britain under somewhat controversial  circumstances. Anne-Marrie was awarded the OBE in 1945 in recognition of her “personal courage and willingness to undergo danger.” 


I wrote...

Moondrop to Gascony

By Anne-Marie Walters,

Book cover of Moondrop to Gascony

What is my book about?

In January 1944, Anne-Marie Walters, aged just 20 years old, parachuted into southwest France to work with the Resistance in preparation for the Allied invasion. With a British father and French mother, she was to act as a courier for the Wheelwright circuit of SOE (Special Operations Executive), carrying messages, delivering explosives, arranging the escape of downed airmen, and receiving parachute drops of arms and personnel at dead of night – living in constant fear of capture by the Gestapo. Then, on the very eve of liberation, she was sent off on foot over the Pyrenees to Spain, carrying urgent dispatches for London.

Originally published just after the war, this new edition includes meticulously researched background notes and identifies the real people behind the pseudonyms. M R D Foot (official historian of SOE) described Moondrop to Gascony as “one of the outstanding surveys of the real-life of a secret agent.”

Bomber

By Len Deighton,

Book cover of Bomber

It is June 1943 and the RAF are mounting another bombing raid on Fortress Europe, part of the whirlwind that Arthur Harris had promised Germans would reap following the night blitz they waged against Britain. Deighton’s fictional account follows a single crew on a mission that would go horribly wrong, mixing their narrative with the stories of their adversaries in the air and their victims on the ground. Deighton writes with forensic clarity and at key points delivers events in a kind of literary slow-motion that drills the harrowing details into his reader. Set over a single twenty-four-hour period, and played out mostly in darkness, the drama is tense and exhausting. This is indeed a modern classic that illuminates the biggest contradictory moral dilemma of the war.


Who am I?

I lived in London for eighteen years and acquired an abiding affection for my nation’s capital. I wanted to write a sequel to Bluebirds and jumped at the chance of giving Bryan Hale an adventure where he could walk the streets that I knew and loved. The scars caused on the fair face of London by sticks of Nazi bombs landing in ragged lines across the streets and terraces may still be discerned from the incongruity of the buildings that have since risen to fill the gaps. London heals and thrives. Ultimately, I believe every English writer harbours an ambition to write a London novel. I did, and I did.


I wrote...

Blackbirds: A London Blitz Novel

By Melvyn Fickling,

Book cover of Blackbirds: A London Blitz Novel

What is my book about?

It's October 1940, the Battle of Britain reaches a stalemate and the Luftwaffe begins the bombing of Britain’s cities. Bryan Hale’s chance encounter in a London pub with Jenny, an acquaintance from school, starts a relationship that neither wants nor can afford. But the daily dangers of London’s Blitz ignite a passion that neither can resist.

Bluebird Squadron rotates out of the front line and Bryan transfers to night-fighters, partly to sate his desire for combat, but also to stay close to Jenny. Struggling with fledgling radar technology, Bryan and his operator, Tommy Scott, eventually become calculating hunters of the night, stalking and slaying Nazi raiders in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse in England’s pitch-black winter skies. This is the second book of the Bluebird Series.

Malta 1940-42

By Ryan K. Noppen, Graham Turner (illustrator),

Book cover of Malta 1940-42: The Axis' Air Battle for Mediterranean Supremacy

This compact, but detailed, history has been painstakingly researched from original Italian and German sources. The author explains the technical and tactical capabilities of the Axis air forces involved in the attacks on Malta and how their campaigns related to the wider Mediterranean war. We are treated to three full colour battle scenes painted by the renowned aviation artist, Graham Turner, as well as 3D tactical diagrams that recreate the airspace during key moments of the battle. The concise text is peppered with contemporary photos of the aircraft used, the personalities involved, and scenes on the ground. An essential handbook to fully understand the siege of Malta.


Who am I?

I was seeking a direction for the third novel in the Bluebird series and my dates led me to Malta. Even as an avid reader of history, I knew shockingly little about the island’s tortuous punishment at the hands of Axis air forces. After much reading I was compelled to visit Malta myself, to tour the locations I would use, and ensure my fiction reflected the character of the landscape and the nature of the people that defended it so doggedly. Standing at Ta’Qali, where an airfield received in one single raid the same tonnage of bombs that crippled Coventry, I felt I’d been given permission.  


I wrote...

Falcons: A Siege of Malta Novel

By Melvyn Fickling,

Book cover of Falcons: A Siege of Malta Novel

What is my book about?

Bryan Hale is a man shredded and bruised by the stresses of combat flying in the Battle of Britain and night-fighting in the implacable, icy darkness over blitzed London. His breakdown, diagnosed as operational tiredness, forces a three-month hiatus under medical supervision. Eventually his doctor concludes that while a war is being fought, Hale’s psyche compels him to be at the sharp end. To at least remove him from the ghosts of his past, Bryan is volunteered for service in the Mediterranean. Barely a month later, he arrives on the island of Malta. The unrelenting Nazi siege that aims to grind away Malta’s resistance will be the furnace that forges him anew.

This is the third book of the Bluebird Series.

Bloody April

By Peter Hart,

Book cover of Bloody April: Slaughter in the Skies Over Arras

Bloody April was a month well-named. The Royal Flying Corp lost one in three of its pilots, with the average life expectancy of a newly arrived airman dropping to less than two weeks. Pushed by the commanders and planners at HQ, they continued to rise against these horrible odds in flimsy biplanes without parachutes. Their young lives were gambled away for the prize of the reconnaissance photographs that the survivors might bring back, grainy images upon which the planning for the ground battle so depended. Hart mixes the hard facts and figures with the personal recollections of those that fought this desperate battle and those that watched and waited on the ground. This book is a sharp and inciteful history that takes you on an emotional journey.


Who am I?

I had finished The Bluebird Trilogy, three novels that centred on the first half of the Second World War, and I heard echoes of the Great War ringing faintly in the egos of my older characters. I started to read more of the history and was drawn to the aerial maelstrom that befell the RFC over Arras in 1917. I was also interested in working with a larger cast of characters, many transients, and telling their stories over a short stretch of time. The result was Major Claypole and Jackdaw Squadron, Glory Boys every last one.


I wrote...

Farewell to the Glory Boys: A Battle of Arras Novel

By Melvyn Fickling,

Book cover of Farewell to the Glory Boys: A Battle of Arras Novel

What is my book about?

The spring of 1917 was a dark and dangerous time for the Royal Flying Corps as they were ordered to fly constant combat missions with no regard to the losses sustained. Major Claypole and the four flight leaders of Jackdaw Squadron shepherd a quickly diminishing flock of pilots into the skies to join battle with the enemy’s superior Albatros fighters. In the claustrophobic confines of the pilots’ mess, Second Lieutenant Morris clings to his faith while Lieutenant Benn grapples with his sanity.

On the ground, Charlie’s infantry platoon is diverted by an explosive twist of fate to join a battle in which they should have no part. Arrogance, despair, fear, and valiance all play their part in this story of the Battle of Arras.

No Parachute

By Arthur Gould Lee,

Book cover of No Parachute: A Classic Account of War in the Air in WWI

I grew up on Air Force bases, and like most kids, I wanted to fly planes. Arthur Lee gave me the chance to not just fly, but to experience the thrilling life of a pilot during the first world war. His description of life for a fighter pilot in those early days of military aviation captured my heart. The way they lived and the realities they faced revealed on those pages I devoured without sleep. I couldn’t put it down.


Who am I?

I’m a middle school science teacher, and many of my students are “readers,” the ones that constantly have their heads in books when they aren’t dragged away by classwork. I created this list because they remind me of what I enjoyed about reading when I was their age, the environment. Characters and plots were great, but I wanted a book to take me somewhere I’d never been. Whether it was the Klondike or soaring through clouds, I needed to believe it was real, someplace I might see for myself. Vivid descriptions that provide fuel for imagination make reading more dynamic.


I wrote...

Venomous

By Brian Clifford,

Book cover of Venomous

What is my book about?

Oliver Stanton has just been kicked out of school. His mouth just doesn’t know when to quit and it got him into one too many fights. His desperate parents have taken him to Arizona for a change in atmosphere and to meet an estranged uncle. Oliver is amazed at his luck when he sees the man’s house, practically a mansion. Then he meets Gabriella who doesn’t put up with his attitude. He discovers quickly that not everything is sunshine and happiness in the desert. His uncle may not be entirely sane and this new environment is full of dangers from both men and nature. Dangerous as it is, the wild of the desert has a strong pull and hides many secrets.

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