LEARNING TO FLY, by V. M. Taylor. Ebook available through Amazon, price £2.49.

Fiction

THIS debut novel is very much fact-based. Its main character is Frederick George ‘Dusty’ Dunn, the son of Wylam miner Thomas Dunn, whose previously unsung exploits as a young pilot in the First World War were unearthed by research carried out by Roy Koerner and Aubrey Smith, members of Wylam Local History Group.

Their work and the untold story of Captain Frederick Dunn was recounted in Issue 140 of The Northumbrian magazine and led to his descendants, including the author’s parents, visiting the village’s war memorial project. It inspired journalist Vera Wood to undertake further research into his wartime experiences. On writing this book, she says: “I have tried to keep as historically accurate as possible, although the affair Fred has with a young wartime widow is my invention.”

Fred’s parents moved to London in 1908 to work for a wealthy family as domestic servants and through this connection Fred studied engineering. In early 1914, when he was only 19, he became one of the youngest Royal Aero Club qualified pilots. Then, when war broke out that August, although he had only 40 hours’ solo flying experience he volunteered for immediate active service with the Royal Flying Corps.

In France he flew countless photo reconnaissance missions, was invalided home after surviving a crash, then worked as a test pilot, trained new pilot recruits and ferried replacement aircraft to squadrons near the front line. As the death rate among the men who flew these unsophisticated aircraft soared, Fred returned to France, flew many more missions, survived another crash caused by engine failure, and completed his war service as flight commander of a training squadron.

His first peacetime job was as a test pilot for the new Tarrant Triplane, the biggest plane ever built, and that was when his luck ran out. He flew the prototype on its maiden flight in May 1919, but it crashed and he died from his injuries.

Many tributes were paid to the pivotal role this ‘brave and brilliant airman’ played in aviation development. In a letter to Fred’s father, director of research General Robert Brooke-Popham said: “He was undoubtedly the best all-round pilot I have ever seen. His death is a distinct loss to British aviation.”


LETTERS OF A TEMPORARY GENTLEMAN, edited by Jean R. Hedley and Hugh Hedley. Published by J.R. Hedley (0191- 4877684, email shyngus@talktalk.net) £10. Softback.

THIS collection of letters Captain George Roberston, 21st (Service) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, sent to his family from his training days in England to his time on the Front at the Battle of the Somme give a clear and moving insight into life in the army between 1915 and 1916. He volunteered at a time when the majority of men who became officers were from the gentry but due to the high demand for more men, many men like George from more lowly backgrounds were given temporary commissions and became known as ‘temporary gentlemen’.

A clerical worker who lived with his wife and two children in Gateshead, George was 22 years old when he joined the Fusiliers, and from January 1916 he led his men through months of bitter trench warfare for several months until he was fatally wounded by an enemy sniper on July 1 that year. In his last letter, written on June 27, he wrote: “I go into the fight on Thursday. Death for me has no terror. I like the words of Ogden, who said ‘Better a dead hero than a living coward’.


TYNEDALE AT WAR, 1939-45, by Brian Tilley. Published by Pen and Sword Books (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk). £12.99. Softback.

BRAWLING Australians, Polish pilots burning to seek revenge for the German invasion of their country, the German officer who drowned while trying to escape from a South Tyne prisoner of war camp, and the pub landlady who watered down her gin in order, she claimed, to prevent naïve Land Army girls getting drunk – it was all part of life in Tynedale as the district went to war.

Many men from Tynedale lost their lives on active service and there were tragedies on the Home Front too. At remote Coanwood 24 men were left dead or seriously injured when a training exercise went badly wrong, and an exploding ammunition train at Hexham railway station left three men dead.

This book deals with the everyday impact of six years of war on the district, from the arrival of gravely wounded soldiers from Dunkirk at Hexham Emergency Hospital through to dealing with thousands of often louse-ridden evacuees from industrial Tyneside, the heroics of local servicemen and the antics of the Home Guard.