You can hear the scream of the Spitfire’s single Merlin engine, smell the aviation fuel and feel the shudder of the plane’s tight turns in the Battle of Britain in this stirring novel about a young fighter pilot and his friends, set during the first years of World War II. There can seldom have been a better, nor more detailed, evocation of exactly what it was like to fly – and die – in the clear blue skies above the English Channel in those heady days in the summer and autumn of 1940.
This beautifully written book is a work of exceptional authenticity. The descriptions of life in the late 1930s and the intensity of the air battles revive many recollections and make for compelling reading.
Holland skilfully turns the screw of tension as the last months of peace slip away. When war comes the book roars into life, demonstrating the author’s love of and knowledge in the flying sequences. He has joined the few who can bring history to life.
The ear-popping action sequences are tremendously excitingthe pastoral scene reveal a deep and genuine love of the countryside and its age-old traditions. Holland leaves us in no doubt what ordinary British folk were fighting for.
This was pure indulgence. A book about friendship, love, tragedy, and war, that gave me an opportunity to write about some of my greatest passions: Spitfires and the English countryside, and set in the pre-war and early war days that has always fascinated me. It was also fun partly setting the book in Cairo and North Africa. There are a number of wonderful books written about that period in the Middle East, but I relied heavily on Artemis Cooper’s Cairo in the War, as well as Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy, and photographer Cecil Beaton’s diaries.
The part of England I particularly chose to focus was south-west Wiltshire, where I was born and brought up and where I live again now. During the writing of the book, I would take myself and my dog off on walks around the chalk downs that I was writing about, picturing scenes at places I would walk past. The main farmhouse in the book is based in the three along the valley: Norrington Manor between Alvediston and Berwick St John provided the setting; the outbuildings and the clock-tower are based on Samways at Alvediston, while the house itself is loosely based on Anthony Eden’s former house in Alvediston.
For the flying training sequences, I relied heavily on the memories of several former Battle of Britain fighter pilots, but particularly Maurice Mounsden, Geoffrey Wellum and Joe Leigh (see Oral History Archive). In writing about the Battle of Britain, I tried as far as possible to follow actual events, purely in the interest of accuracy: the fictional 629 Squadron is based heavily on the very real 609 (West Riding) Squadron, a pre-war auxiliary squadron that was decimated over Dunkirk. MacIntyre is unmistakably the former 609 CO, Squadron Leader George Darley, while most of Joss’s experiences are based on those of David Crook (see Talking Point). From his logbook and from the Squadron’s Operational Record Book, both at The National Archives in Kew, I was able to draw a detailed picture of how the squadron operated throughout that summer of 1940, and also to include details such as weather conditions and the size and timings of enemy raids with a certain degree of accuracy.
Researching the changes to farming during this period 1938-1942 was also fascinating. The intensification of farming as depicted in the book is thus also base don fact. Flocks and herds were cut drastically and many thousands of acres of â€˜ripe but rugged’ land turned over to the plough. It was also a time of rapidly increased mechanisation, that hurried the end of mass-labour and the horse. The effects of the war changed British farming forever.
I would not say The Burning Blue is necessarily my best book, but it is undoubtedly my favourite. I wrote, very selfishly, entirely for myself, but if other people enjoy it too, then that’s all well and good.