The Big Show by Pierre Clostermann
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 (Original English ed. Chatto & Windus, 1951)
Like most boys my age growing up in the 1970s, I was fascinated by both aeroplanes and war, and thus spent many not-so-profitable hours building and painting Airfix kits, one of which depicted a Hawker Tempest. This particular kit had decals depicting "Le Grand Charles", the personal plane of Pierre Clostermann. My father, when he saw the completed kit, steered me to his copy of The Big Show, which I read again and again during my adolescence.
Well I'm grown up now, and interestingly so has this book, with the publication of an expanded edition, that not only includes sections left out of the edition published in 1951 (owing to sensitivities and paper shortages of the time), but also adds information newly discovered to fill out the narrative.
This book has become a classic of it's type, and deservedly so. Based on Clostermann's diary entries from the time, the reader follows his career through advanced training on Spitfires, through to his first posting to the "Alsace" squadron of Free French within the RAF, flying from the famed Biggin Hill airfield. He then moves to 602 City of Glasgow Squadron, defending Scapa Flow before moving south to fly sweeps over the Channel until the emotional moment when Clostermann lands again in France just after D-Day. After a period of rest out of the air, he gets back in a 'plane - a Tempest this time - and survives to the end.
There is plenty of fine description of dog-fights and other flying adventures, and of all sorts of other japery that comes from blowing off steam when under threat of death every day. The strength of The Big Show however is not in these descriptions, but in the way Clostermann communicates how it felt to be in these situations. From the fear that took over his body when a Focke Wulf was on his tail or he blundered over an enemy airfield that was "lousy with flak", to the elation of surviving, the despair at the death of comrades, and the unspoken bonds of loyalty to your friends, Clostermann takes the reader into the heart of the experience.
What has in the past and still today remains interesting for me as reader is how, as victory for the Allies looms closer, the more depressing the "story" becomes. In the early pages, where Clostermann and his good friend Jacques Remlinger fly their first Spitfires, through to their first active missions, there is a joi de vivre that shines through: young men fighting for their country, determined to do their best and enjoying flying the latest technology that Britain could provide.
This contrasts with the last section of the book, where at the front Clostermann and his pilots suffer poor morale as they lose more and more men, and as they struggle with their aircraft against ever-increasing flak and the excellent German pilots. The never-ending round of missions - often four to five a day - wear the pilots out. When the end comes, there is relief rather than joy: in fact Clostermann and his pilots resent the revellers enjoying the victory.
I must have read this book about twenty times over the years; this new expanded edition adds usefully to the first, and ensures that this classic will remain so for some considerable time to come. If you are at all interested in this subject, this is a must-read.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell