This was the first autobiography to be published by a fighter pilot in the Fleet Air Arm after the end of the Second World War, and tells the tale of the author's training and time at sea on four different aircraft carriers, including two fleet carriers and two auxiliaries. First published nine years after the end of the war, the book retains a strong flavour of the times, with a similar tone to autobiographies written during the war, while at the same time Popham had been able to begin to put his experiences into context. The delay also meant that Popham had a better idea of the wider events that surrounded his own activities that if he had been writing during or immediately after the war.
We start with a fascinating look at Popham's training, a fairly shambolic experience as the small number of Fleet Air Arm pilots were swamped by the much larger RAF contingents, finding their way to the right training base in Canada with some difficulty. After training Popham went to sea on HMS Indomitable, visiting the United States before the attack on Pearl Harbor. After that his travels took him into just about every ocean, and saw him take part in the war against Japan, the Malta and Russian convoys and one of Churchill's trans-Atlantic journeys.
It is interesting to see some familiar events from an unusual viewpoint, including the Japanese naval raid into the Indian Ocean, during which Popham was on HMS Indomitable, part of the British fleet under Somerville that was forced to keep out of the way of the much larger Japanese fleet to avoid probable destruction. Normally this is portrayed as a very sensible move, but here we sense Popham and his colleague's sense of frustration as ships were sunk and ports raided while they watched from a safe distance.
Popham is aware that the Fleet Air Arm was evolving around him, and identified four distinct groups of people - pre-war Royal Navy, early expansion with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, his own small wartime intake which joined a Fleet Air Arm that retained a small-scale feel, and finally those who took part in the massive wartime expansion in numbers. Likewise the scale of formations in which he was flying expanded, going from the limited number of squadrons on HMS Indomitable, operating alone for most of his time on her, to the multi-carrier battle groups of the fighting in Italy or Operation Pedestal, one of the biggest of the Malta convoys. Popham was also a witness to the dramatic change in Allied fortunes in 1943, sailing unopposed into Malta one year after Pedestal, and briefly visiting south coast ports that had been out of bounds since 1940.
Part One: The Making of a Pilot
Part Two: Sea-time - HMS Indomitable
Part Three: Sea-time - HMS Illustrious, Campania and Striker
Author: Hugh Popham
Year: 2010 edition of 1954 original