Book review: Spitfire Spies

Spitfire Spies --- by John Hughes (Austin Macauley, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Spitfire Spies — by John Hughes (Austin Macauley, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

There are two intertwining stories within the Second-World-War novel Spitfire Spies by John Hughes (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2016). One story could naively be labeled male, the other, female. The first concerns the men who are sent to England to spy for Germany. Not all of them are German. One, in fact, is English. The other story is about a pair of women pilots who ferry planes for Britain’s Air Transport Auxiliary. Each storyline coils about the other, not quite touching until the novel’s final and dramatic end.

The spies include Otto von Osten (cover name Ulrich) and Erich Schneider (cover name Ernst). The latter is English and was born Eric Tomlin. His mother was German and he speaks both languages. He plays the trumpet and has moved to Germany to be with his fiercely National-Socialist musician wife, Renate. Eric has changed his first name to Erich and has switched ‘Tomlin’ for his wife’s last name, Schneider, as a gesture of solidarity with the German cause. The mission is to go to England and, by getting hired as factory workers or by other means, to discover the rate of production of Spitfire fighter planes and to pursue any opportunities for sabotage. An air battle between the Luftwaffe and the RAF is looming and both sides believe the Spitfire could affect the final outcome.

Having Germans (or those loyal to Germany) as main protagonists, even heroes, is a central element in Ken Follett’s spy novel, The Eye of the Needle and in Jack Higgins’s The Eagle Has Landed. Readers who have enjoyed those books will very likely enjoy John Hughes’s Spitfire Spies.

The principal women characters of Spitfire Spies are Alison Webb and Heather Norbury, both in the ATA. Both are experienced pilots. Alison was a stunt pilot before the war. Their job in the ATA is to fly aircraft—often biplanes like the Tiger Moth—between RAF storage depots and airfields. Alison dreams of flying a Spitfire but that, of course, is a job for men, for the ‘Brylcreem boys’ of the Royal Air Force. [The women pilots of the ATA have been celebrated in a series of recent books: Carol Gould’s Spitfire Girls, Giles Whittell’s Spitfire Women of World War II, Jackie Moggridge’s Spitfire Girl: My Life in the Sky, and Jacky Hyams’s The Female Few: Spitfire Heroines.]

Readers familiar with the period will appreciate the author John Hughes’s attention to detail such as the reference to British comedian Arthur Askey, to the long-vanished Wolseley cars, and to the well-known British traitor whose radio broadcasts became a feature of daily life and whose accent earned him the nickname Lord Haw-Haw. Hughes makes reference to Britain’s LDV (Local Defense Volunteers) being renamed the Home Guard, and to Field Marshal Goering being promoted to Reichsmarshall Goering (by Hitler on 19 July 1940). One of the novel’s earlier scenes deals with the Wormhout massacre when, during the British retreat towards Dunkirk, SS troops murdered some eighty British and French soldiers who had been taken prisoner.

Thus the novel traces the adventures of Eric and (the somewhat evil) von Osten from Germany to England. Eric gets there via France and the Dunkirk evacuation. The exploits of Alison and Heather are equally engaging. There is no shortage of tension and drama in the ups and down of Spitfire Spies. The love lives of the four protagonists are a source of fascination. Eric, who is having second thoughts about where his loyalties should lie, renounces the voluptuous Renate in favour of Marion Wakeley, a young woman living in the Midlands. She has two small children and no husband. He was one of the unlucky ones. He went to France but never made it home.

Of all the characters in Spitfire Spies, Marion is my favorite. She steals the show, like a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ who truly shines. “A young woman’s voice; a naïve sounding voice, like an adult imitating a girl,” is how Eric first experiences her and Hughes first describes her. And then later: “wild for a few boundless moments” during a tender love scene.

Spitfire Spies has a lot to offer. Readers, regardless of whether or not they are fans of the World War II genre, will find the book enjoyable.


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