Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: The Big Show

The full title here is actually The Big Show: The Greatest Pilot's Story of World War II by Pierre Clostermann.

I still haven't figured out whether this title means the "greatest PILOT'S story" or the "greatest pilot's STORY" though I'm hoping its supposed to be the latter and not the former as it would be incredibly presumptuous of Clostermann to call himself the greatest pilot ever...

Still, the novel itself is a solid read and a good recap of the airwar in Europe.  Clostermann was certainly worthy of admiration as he volunteered for the free French Air Force and served in the RAF and the FFAF from '42 through the end of the war.  The book itself is drawn from the daily diary Clostermann kept throughout that time.

The book keeps some of the repetitive nature of a day to day diary but recounts enough of the major events from a fresh perspective to keep things quite interesting.  Clostermann pilots a Spitfire in Southern England, is shipped off to the near arctic North, conducts operations prepping for the Normandy invasion, becomes one of the first Frenchmen to land back in France and helps hasten the Nazi downfall through his destruction of numerous trainyards, airfields and supply transports.

While not the biggest ace of the war, Clostermann was no slouch shooting down an estimated 18 air to air victories (though this most recent, more precise estimate is a substantial decline from the 33 in the official record and cited by the author and amusing given the author's frequent issue with American aviators' overestimate of their tallies).  Included under his claimed victories are those over numerous FW-190s, ME-109s as well as some early jets such as the ME-262s and Arado 234s.

The anecdotes contained in this work are what makes it most worth reading.  Clostermann doesn't pull any punches in describing both his adversaries and allies and carries a particular distaste for Americans it seems going well beyond the "overpaid, oversexed and over-here" cliche that was common at that time.

His descriptions of air to air combat are the highlight.  This is true "knights of the air" stuff with Clostermann strapping himself in to a machine always seemingly on the edge of control, heading into a joust with an equally aristocratic knight.  As his friends fall one by one you can hear the stress tearing him to pieces and feel the associated affects on his health.

DeGaulle, Spitfires, Tempests, Churchill, Americans, Germans, English, free French, V1s, wartime atrocities, suicidal missions, drunken escapades, carousing for women, near death landings, bailouts, happanstance encounters, courage, failure, cowardice, stupidity--all the things that make war...war, are here.

Clostermann would go on in later life to fly ground attack missions the Algerian War, be a major critic of the Falkland War in the early 80's and later the first Gulf War but whatever his later views his work here was regarded by William Faulkner as the finest book of aviation to come out of WWII.  I haven't read enough to know whether this is true or not, but I'm betting The Big Show isn't a bad place to start either.

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