Piece of Cake is a novel by Derek Robinson published in 1983. Robinson spent some time as a pilot in the RAF in the 1950s. He is famous for his aviation combat novels set in WWI or WWII. Piece of Cake follows the exploits of Hornet Squadron in the early part of WWII. The squadron of Hawker Hurricanes is sent to France during the Phony War. They get their asses kicked back to England where they participate in the Battle of Britain. This is not your standard hero-worshipping adventure story. Robinson intentionally steps on British toes and snidely pops some historical bubbles. His “heroes” are flawed, but human. Very human – as in not immortal. The squadron dynamics reflect the class structure of British society with the upper class pilots and the lower class ground crews. Another theme is the vaunted RAF made plenty of strategic and tactical mistakes early in the war. And its spectacular success in the Battle of Britain was exaggerated. Hell, Robinson even questions whether victory in the Battle of Britain was necessary to prevent a German invasion. The book was not popular until the mini-series came out.
The book opens with Hornet Squadron naively unconcerned with the approaching war clouds. The books black humor kicks in early as the squadron commander breaks his neck in a farcical accident. The unit ends up with an upper class rich guy named Rex. Rex is a charismatic leader and not only behaves like one of the boys on the ground, but uses his fortune to make sure that life on the ground is the opposite to that of the mud-crunching infantry. The squadron is billeted in a French chateau and eats gourmet meals that are the envy of Fighter Command. In spite of his twittishness, Rex seems a good commander, if a bit obsessed with flight discipline. He insists on very tight formation flying to the point that the pilots spend all their time watching each other’s wingtips instead of the sky. This is RAF doctrine and no one questions it until a Yank named Hart joins the squadron.
Hart (CH3) is a brash veteran of the Spanish Civil War who takes an immediate dislike to Rex’s methods. He is outspoken in criticizing the close formations and insists on flying loose so he can constantly scan for the enemy. Rex and the others think Hart is an asshole troublemaker (e.g., a typical American). However, when the Sitzkrieg ends and several tail end Charlies get shot down, confidence in Rex wanes. Some of the pilots conspire to end Rex’s reign and the squadron ends up back in England under the command of the redeemed Fanny Barton (who had earlier been suspended for an unfortunate friendly fire incident).
The Battle of Britain continues the whittling down of the mates. Some replacements barely register before they are gone. The stress and exhaustion are sapping. The combat is far from glamorous. Several deaths are fiery. There is an incident where they shoot down a German rescue plane and another where one of the pilots bails out and his plane crashes into a house. War is bloody hell. Bloody hell, will anyone survive this novel? Yes.
The novel is full of black humor. For example, one of their commanding officers offers this unfortunately true analysis of war: “Didn't somebody say that war is a nasty business? Quite good for promotion, though.” The dialogue by the pilots during down times is brilliantly witty. The way they rag each other is genuine and could only come from an ex-pilot like Robinson. Their antics like tray racing down the twin staircases may seem juvenile, but accurately reflect the fighter pilot mentality. “Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we may be dead.” That’s not to say that all the pilots go to their deaths singing a drinking song. Each reacts to the stress differently. Some are cowards, some crack up. There are as many paths as there are journeyers.
The book is populated by memorable characters. Three standouts are Hart, Skelton, and Cattermole. It’s noteworthy that Robinson chooses to make his alter ego an American. He has Hart represent his own cynical view of the air war. Hart questions strategy and tactics just as the historian in Robinson has questioned the official take on the Battle of Britain. As an American, I gravitated towards this character and enjoyed his “I told you so” attitude. I wonder if British readers felt the same. Skelton is the Intelligence Officer who is basically the squadron nerd. He’s never flown a plane and he wears glasses. He is constantly questioning the pilots’ reports as to accuracy (which fits Robinsons’ theme that the RAF greatly “enhanced” the kill ratios). He even questions strategy when higher-ups visit. Everyone hates him, of course. He is not a villain. The novel reserves that position for one of the most loathsome characters in war novels – Moggy Cattermole. Jerk, thief, bully, murderer, cheater, and ace pilot. Robinson proposes you need people like this to win wars, but that’s hard to swallow. As much as I looked forward to his death, he is unforgettable.
A good war novel teaches as well as entertains. This is a good war novel. You will learn what the air war situation was from a British point of view. The naivete and overconfidence before the Luftwaffe was finally encountered is apparent. The book clearly discusses the faulty tactics and their evolution. More importantly, Robinson puts us in the boots of the pilots and takes us into their world. The book was criticized for its harsh portrayal of “the few”, but surely you have to admire their performance and sacrifices under extremely harsh circumstances. They weren’t superhuman, but the obstacles were.
As I mentioned, the miniseries resurrected the book. The 6-part BBC series ran in 1988. It is very faithful to the book with some understandable adjustments. For instance, the squadron is equipped with Spitfires (most likely because of availability). Some of the deaths are different and at least one major character dies in the series, but not in the book. Most of the significant incidents are recreated. All of the themes are explored, but with less emphasis on the tactics and the inaccuracies of British gunfire and claims. The series does not clearly depict why Rex’s close formation style of three plane “vics” was disastrous and certainly does a poor job with the subsequent development of the “finger four” formation where the planes were paired with a wingman to watch its back. The series has some fairly good aerial footage, but little effort was made to be realistic.
Where the miniseries stands out is in the acting. All of the cast fit their book character. Tim Woodard is stuffy as Rex, David Horovitch is calming as the WWI vet adjutant “Uncle” Kellaway, Boyd Gaines plays Hart as not a cowboy, but as a weary mercenary for liberty. Acting honors go to Neil Dudgeon as Moggy. He is spot on. The cast is not all-starish although Jeremy Northam (Fitzgerald) went on to “Emma”. Surprisingly, the teleplay decided to chop the female American reporter Jacky Bellamy who goes from swallowing the party line to cynic over the course of the book. In the book, her relationship with Hart is fascinating and unexpected.
The series cuts down on the quantity and quality of insults the pilots hurl at each other. The book is much funnier than the series. The series also can not match the book for the dogfights. The budget did not allow for realistic aerial scenes. They used actual footage and some footage from the movie “Battle of Britain”, but it becomes repetitive. We see the same plane blowing up numerous times (sometimes with the negative reversed). It is also difficult to determine who is being shot down or killed. They all look the same in the cockpits. Another problem is the series does not finish strongly. The last hour feels like a rush to get everyone killed before the final credits. With that said, it is certainly the best TV series about fighter combat and well worth the watch. If you don’t want to read the book, it will suffice.
BOOK = A+
SERIES = A