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Winged Victory
A novel by V.M. Yeates
Paperback: 456 pages
Publisher: Grub Street (April, 2004)
Language: English
ISBN: 1904010652

"Heralded as "The greatest novel of the war in the air," Winged Victory was published in 1934, shortly before the author died at age 37. The current edition is from Grub Street, so Yeates' novel well complements the publisher's extensive series of WW I histories. And small wonder: Victor Yeates was a 21-year-old Camel ace in No. 46 Squadron during 1918. Therefore, the text contains the unmistakable ring of authenticity. In fact, Yeates casts many of his squadronmates as "fictional" characters including top guns Donald MacLaren and G.E. Thomson while using other genuine names.

While generally accurate, the book's strength is its psychological profile of Lt. Tom Cundall, Yeates' alter ego. His greatest goal is to survive without disgracing himself, though Cundall considers landing in neutral Holland. When the book opens just before the German offensive of March 1918, Cundall is still learning the ropes. Five months later, he is a tired old man. He drinks too much, sleeps too little, wrecks three Camels, contributes to the occasional shootdown, and dreads another "job" bombing and strafing. Meanwhile, friends and "new boys" continually have gone West: the text specifies at least 30 including an unlamented CO.

Cundall ponders the relative benefits of being shot down in flames or dying of cancer. With a few intimates, he concedes his growing contempt for Duty and Patriotism; his loathing for indifferent generals, fat industrialists, and soulless profiteers. But he continues flying and fighting lest he "let down the side."

Yeates was an accomplished writer, ably supported by his friend Henry Williamson (another name in the novel.) The descriptions of cloud canyons, the Camel's "splitarse" personality, and the muddy squalor of the front are first-rate writing: "There had been a glory in the bare or cloudy skies; there had been joy in the lifting wings of flight; those things were gone; he had grown suddenly older, and beauty was dumb."

For all its strengths, Winged Victory contains unnecessary flaws. There are curious errors including Fokker D-VIIs before von Richthofen's death, and "canvas covered wings." Throughout his time in France Cundall eagerly anticipates home leave but he returns with barely a hint of what happened, while nearly 20 pages are devoted to a bout with influenza. There is also some sloppy writing that should not have survived editing, especially lack of clarity with indefinite articles and pronouns.

Still, the overall strength of Winged Victory far outweighs its faults. There is no greater measure than the fact that no better Great War aviation novel has appeared in the last 70 years."

Reviewed by Barrett Tillman

Buy it now!

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