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piece of tail

Piece of Cake (book)

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.

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.

Plot summary

Piece of Cake’s story revolves around the fortunes of the fictional Hornet Squadron from the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 through the Battle of Britain in 1940. At first the squadron doesn’t take the threat of war very seriously, and behaves as the young and inexperienced men they are.

When a new commanding officer arrives they are posted in France during the Phoney War. The few skirmishes they see are minor and the squadron takes the war ever more lightly. They use their free time to practice close-formation flying under Squadron Leader Rex, who trains them to use RAF approved numbered attacks against enemy bomber formations.

Several new members are posted to the squadron as the war begins to heat up, including an American pilot who had previously fought in the Spanish Civil War. Pilot Officer Hart quickly comes into conflict with Rex because he feels the RAF’s tactics will not be useful against the Germans. He is eventually proven right when Hornet Squadron’s “Tail-End Charlies” become easy prey for the Messerschmitt Bf 109’s they face in the air.

After the Dunkirk evacuation the squadron is re-formed in England for the Battle of Britain, using new tactics. They stop flying in close formation, use the advantages of height and sun, and begin flying with wingmen for cover.

At the height of the Battle of Britain the squadron is flying many missions each day, with the pilots near exhaustion. Many characters come and go throughout the book, some only for a day before they are killed in air combat.

Quotes

  • "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."

Trivia

  • 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 come to the conclusion that it is unlikely. However, they recognize that the Battle of Britain is crucial all the same because a stand must be taken against the Germans.
  • 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.

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