By Victor M. Yeates
First edition, Jonathan Cape,
First published Jonathan Cape, 24 June 1934, 10s 6d
Second impression. Although dated November 1934, it is likely that publication was actually early in 1935, for the memorial 'Tribute to V. M. Yeates’ by HW, written following Yeates’s death in December 1934, is dated January 1935.
Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, New York, 1 October 1934, $2.50
Jonathan Cape, reprint, 1961, with new additional ‘Preface to the New Edition’ by HW, 25/-
World Book Club, abridged edition, 1963, 18/-
Consul Books, paperback, 1964, 5/-
Sphere Books, paperback, 1969, 6/-
Rizzoli, Milan, 1969 (Italian edition, title Alta quota)
Mayflower, paperback, 1974, 60p
Buchan & Enright, ‘Echoes of War’ series, paperback, 1985, £5.95
Grub Street, paperback, 2004, £9.99
(This page is created with due acknowledgement to Gordon Atkins’ definitive biography Winged Victor: A Biography of Victor Yeates, Springwater Books, 2004; e-book 2014.)
at whose suggestion this book was begun, with whose
encouragement and help it was written and ended.
Victor Maslin Yeates (born on 30 September 1897), living in Blackheath, attended Colfe’s Grammar School, where he was in Buff House with HW. He is mentioned in HW’s 1913 diary, for instance where he notes that they went to the local ‘Hippo’ (Hippodrome) together two evenings running! They were both in their house team for football and cricket and, above all, the Harriers (the school’s cross-country running team). They were both also in what was known as the ‘Special Slackers Class’ – that is, not cramming for entrance to university but learning commercial skills, including bookkeeping and shorthand. (Many of HW’s entries in his 1913 diary are ‘coded’ in shorthand, although it isn’t Pitman’s.)
Yeates features in HW’s early novel Dandelion Days (1922 – part of The Flax of Dream tetralogy), which relates life at ‘Colham School’ (which equates to Colfe’s), where he is part of the final very moving ‘Bagman’s Outing’.
On leaving school in summer 1913 (Victor actually still only 15, HW was 17) they went their separate ways: HW to be a clerk in the Sun Fire Insurance Office in the City, while Victor became a bank clerk. There is little evidence of any continued contact, but it is known that they did meet occasionally.
Yeates aged 18
HW's own copy of a charcoal portrait that Yeates had
originally suggested be used as a frontispiece in 1934
Being two years younger, Yeates did not join up until late November 1915 (two months after his 18th birthday), when he was placed on the Reserve List, becoming actively enlisted on 24 February 1917 as a private in the OTC (Officers’ Training Corps) at Berkhamsted Training Camp. At the end of three months' training he was transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in May 1917.
Yeates’s training, which was not without its dramatic moments, continued until February 1918: by then he had logged about twelve hours of dual flying instruction and fifty-three hours of solo flying, of which the last thirteen hours were in a Sopwith Camel – a tricky plane to fly, particularly by a novice pilot.
|Victor Maslin Yeates – his passport photograph|
Yeates had married in July 1917, aged only 19 and while still training, to the total disapproval of his (admittedly very difficult) parents. In due course he and his wife Norah had four children: Mary, born September 1918; Joyce (Joy), born 1919; Guy, born 1922; and Rosalind, born 1927. The family lived in extremely difficult circumstances at 569 Sidcup Road, Mottingham, in south-east London, very near the childhood homes of both Yeates and HW. (Norah never remarried after Yeates's death in 1934; she died in 1982.)
Yeates, after completing his training, was sent to France in February 1918 and joined 46 Squadron, flying Sopwith Camels. The German Spring Offensive began just over a month after his arrival, and he flew intensively, many operational flights consisting of the unpopular (because highly dangerous) ground strafing of attacking enemy troops. There was no let up and the strain on pilots was tremendous. In August 1918 he was transferred to 80 Squadron, but the end of that month saw him hospitalised, and he was invalided back to England suffering from Flying Sickness D (for Debility), brought about by the strain and conditions of constant flying and sorties. He was given one month’s sick leave, which was further extended to 7 November 1918, when he was transferred to TDS Fairlop as an assistant flying instructor, being finally discharged on 23 May 1919. In Yeates's seven months in France he had flown 110 operational sorties, and had a total of 188 hours. Gordon Atkin states:
He had been shot down once (by machine-gun fire from the ground), had four forced landings and had crashed three times whilst attempting to land back at the aerodrome and all these events are faithfully described in [Winged Victory].
He had shot down two enemy aircraft himself, had a share in three other successes, and had, with Capt. MacLaren, brought down a balloon in flames. The term 'ace', a description Victor would have derided, is used to define a pilot who had shot down at least five enemy machines. As the British treated a shared victory as a whole victory for each of the indiviual pilots where more than one was involved, Victor is regarded as one of the aces of the war.
|Yeates in 1918|
Yeates’s experiences as a First World War pilot with the RFC (which became the RAF on 1 April 1918) became the basis of his book Winged Victory, where he gives his hero (based on himself) the name of Tom Cundall.
Entering into an aviation venture for which he had to borrow quite a lot of money, he was made bankrupt when his partner absconded with all the money. Devastated, he had to resort to a mundane job to keep his family. But his health gradually deteriorated, and in the late 1920s he was diagnosed with tuberculosis – the result of lung damage from his wartime flying.
Unable to cope with a normal job, he decided to try his hand at writing and so began the work entitled ‘Adjustment’. The first contact with HW about the book came on 21 March 1933 just as HW was about to set off on his visit to South Devon to gather material for On Foot in Devon. HW was in turmoil over the problems of this book and the fact that both his wife and his secretary (Ann Thomas, daughter of the poet Edward Thomas) were pregnant. In South Devon he was to meet the young Ann Edmonds, with whom he would fall precipitously in love, with all its attendant problems (see the entries for On Foot in Devon and The Linhay on the Downs).
HW’s short diary entry for 21 March includes:
Had letter from Yeates (old school fellow) about his novel.
He must have sent an immediate reply, for on 29 March (on return home from South Devon) he recorded:
Yesterday Yeates sent the TSS of his novel ‘Adjustment’ – I read as far as the waitress in heaven, and then stopped bleakly.
But again he wrote encouragingly to Yeates:
Your flying book is magnificent and will be a success. . . . Will send you detailed constructive criticism & suggestions on minor additions, amplifications, excisions, later on. Am certain I can get it published for you. Genuine congratulations. Yours, H. Williamson
Yeates had a relapse at this time and was back in hospital. He found HW’s further criticism hard to take, especially after the apparent initial enthusiasm (although some of this depression would no doubt be due to his illness). Basically HW pointed out the book was not really any good (it meandered about with no clear story line) and Yeates would be far better off writing a novel based on his actual RFC experiences. Despite a lot of grumbling, Yeates set about rewriting the book.
HW did send ‘Adjustment’ to Putnam’s (diary entry for 29 June 1933) but it was, as he had known it would be, rejected outright.
Yeates worked hard on the new version, calling it ‘This Tassel Gentle’ (a quotation from Romeo and Juliet, which has reference to a trained falcon). By 4 September 1933 he had finished it and sent it to HW, saying it was the first of a trilogy. HW pointed out it would be better as the first part on a single book. HW had now begun to call in to see Yeates occasionally at his home in Mottingham while on his frequent visits to visit the Edmonds family at nearby Bickley (a bit further south-east), and on Wednesday, 8 November recorded:
Went to see Yeates about This Tassel Gentle.
And on 10 November:
Part II of Tassel Gentle is magnificent.
The following day:
Took Yeates cheque for £50. He is very ill, poor fellow.
|Henry Williamson, c.1934|
He told Yeates this cheque was an advance on the book. HW was in contact with Jonathan Cape about the book, and saw to it that Yeates was given good terms in the contract. (Cape did reimburse HW.) Yeates signed the contract with Cape on 20 November.
HW had sent Yeates a copy of his book The Gold Falcon, inscribed ‘To the Tassel Gentle from the Gold Falcon’. His diary entry for 25 November states:
Yeates says the G.F. reveals me as a great poet . . . Also that Cape objects to title of This Tassel Gentle, & also length. Damn Jonathan! [Jonathan Cape] I specially warned him against interfering in an unborn work . . .
HW now suggested ‘A Test to Destruction’ (a title he eventually used for Volume 8 of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, depicting the end phase of the war and the first months of peace), but Yeates came up with first ‘Wings of Victory’ – still not acceptable – and then the final (inspired) ‘Winged Victory’.
It is difficult to tell exactly how much work HW actually put into the book – but he made a considerable number of suggestions. In the early stages Yeates seems to have accepted HW’s alterations and additions, but in February 1934 when HW altered Part 3, Yeates wrote to him (no doubt suffering from exhaustion with the effort of writing when so ill):
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO I can’t go on like this, I must write my own stuff.
He would accept HW’s comments and criticisms, but was adamant that he must write it himself. HW (quite patiently for him) explained why and what he had done, and eventually Yeates went over it again, though he altered some of HW’s insertions. However, Gordon Atkin, biographer of Yeates, has examined the exercise books in which the book was painstakingly written by hand, and has stated that there seems little evidence within them of any wholesale revision.
Apart from Tom Cundall, the other chief character in Winged Victory is his fellow pilot and friend ‘Bill Williamson’. Although just about all of the other characters in the book have been identified with their real-life pilot counterparts (Atkins relates these in his biography), there is no one to fit Bill. HW had suggested that Yeates use a fellow pilot as a confidant and steadying influence – an alter ego. (Surely HW as he would have liked to have been – he frequently stated he had wanted to be in the RFC and, of course, he had made himself, as ‘Manfred’, a pilot in The Gold Falcon.) This ‘Bill Williamson’ plays the same role for Tom Cundall in Winged Victory as ‘Spectre’ West does for Phillip Maddison in the Chronicle. At the end of Winged Victory, on Tom Cundall’s final operational flight, Bill Williamson is shot down and killed. Devastated, Tom Cundall is returned to England, physically and mentally a broken man. It is, in my opinion, quite evident that this last section of the book is HW’s writing.
In February 1934, just before leaving for his extended visit to Georgia in the United States, HW wrote to T. E. Lawrence enthusing about Yeates’s book:
. . . What I must tell you is that one of the characters in an early novel [of mine], named Yeates, has written a MARVELLOUS novel about a group of characters, RFC and later RAF, in the war. . . . I rearranged the last parts of the book etc, and rewrote the climax, merely suggesting and cutting and altering his stuff: it’s really his. It’s a great book I swear . . .
HW continues, giving a long résumé of the plot, and then asks if Lawrence will read the book in proof and send a few words to Cape that can be used for promotional publicity. He adds that he would never ask such a thing on his own behalf.
Just before HW sailed, Yeates wrote:
Farewell, farewell, farewell. Thou goest to the warm south. O fortunate tu! I sit here and cough and cough and cough. [He signed himself ‘Wingless Victor’.]
HW did try and suggest at some point that he could help Yeates to go to Africa, but such a trip was actually obviously beyond him.
On arrival in New York, HW spoke to his publisher Harrison Smith (of Smith and Haas) about Winged Victory, and he agreed to take the book in due course on his recommendation. HW had also taken a copy of his friend John Heygate’s new book, which they also accepted: ironically, his own new book was turned down, a huge blow.
After HW’s return at the end of May 1934, TEL wrote to say that he had read a proof copy of Winged Victory and found it ‘admirable, admirable, admirable’.
Winged Victory was published on 24 June 1934. It is thought that HW wrote the ‘blurb’ (Yeates declining to do so). Yeates sent HW a copy of the book, inscribing the dedication page as follows:
Gordon Atkins relates immediate and positive review coverage. But despite good sales Yeates grumbled (no doubt very worried about money for his family) that the actual income was small. He had perhaps not grasped that the author’s percentage from sales tends to be very small – despite the very good terms HW had made sure Cape gave him.
Pasted into HW’s copy are these two cuttings of reviews used as blurbs (perhaps from the dust wrapper of the second impression?):
HW also pasted in the following set of portraits:
Quite why he did so is not known, for they bear no relation to Yeates's fellow pilots! 'Wingless Victor' – how Yeates signed some of his letters to HW – is not a photograph of Yeates; 'Zulu' Lloyd (Southern Rhodesian-born Major George Lloyd) served with 60 and 40 Squadrons; Major (later Group Captain) L. W. B. Rees was with 11 and 32 Squadrons; 'Beale' bears no resemblance to the photograph of Captain S. P. Smith in Gordon Atkins' Winged Victor, on whom Beale is based; while 'Mac' is not a photograph of the redoubtable Canadian ace Captain D. R. MacLaren. The central figure captioned ’Bill’ is the same photograph that HW pasted into his own copy of The Gold Falcon, and is actually of Major Lanoe George Hawker, VC, DSO: the first ace of the Royal Flying Corps, whose exploits were exceptional and who was killed in a dogfight with Leutnant Manfred von Richthofen on 23 November 1916. There is quite a likeness to HW!
HW urged Yeates to start writing again immediately, which he did, despite all his problems: this was ‘Family Life’, which was never published.
HW requested that the Royal Literary Fund give help to Yeates, which they did with a grant of £50. In November HW also gave him £25, saying it was a return of a grant he himself had once received. He also thought Winged Victory would make a good play, and obtained Yeates’ permission to work on this.
On 23 November Norah Yeates informed him that Victor was ill again, and in the Fairlight Sanatorium near Hastings. This was seemingly to have a month’s bed rest to recuperate. In mid-December HW visited Ann Thomas at Tenterden for the weekend. On the Monday he went to see Yeates at the sanatorium – to learn that he had died the Saturday before, on 15 December 1934.
HW's copy of a studio portrait of Yeates, taken
in November 1934, the month before he died
HW then did what he could for the family, but Yeates’s wife had by that time taken against him, possibly as a target for her angry grief. (She had always particularly objected to his turning up with his secretary/mistress.)
HW wrote a short obituary for The Times, and pasted the cutting in his copy of the book:
HW also pasted in a cutting of a letter he had written to the Saturday Review of Literature in response to their review of the American edition:
But mainly he wrote a long ‘Tribute’ for John O’London’s Weekly, which was published in January 1935. He organised a second printing of Yeates’s book, which now included his ‘Tribute’, which appeared in early 1935.
(HW’s ‘Tribute’ together with the new 1961 Preface were reprinted in Threnos for T.E. Lawrence and other writings, compiled and edited by John Gregory and published by the HWS, 1994; e-book 2014 (pp. 93-100), which includes Yeates’s citation on Colfe’s Roll of Service.)
At the time of Yeates’s death HW also informed T. E. Lawrence, who wrote back kind and supportive words, again praising the book and wishing he had done more about it.
HW now, apart from his own complicated personal and writing life, engaged himself in turning
Winged Victory into a play, and in revising the ‘Family Life’ MS into publishable form (which it certainly needed): it portrays a most dreadful picture of Yeates’s own background.
Eventually he contacted T. E. Lawrence on 11 May 1935, asking if he could visit him to discuss these two projects as he drove past on his way to London. On Monday, 13 May TEL left Bovington Camp to send HW a telegram in reply, inviting him to come to lunch on Tuesday, 14 May (the following day). As he returned from sending that telegram he met with his motorcycle accident – dying a few days later.
Later that year HW made a joint dedication to these two friends, whose tragic deaths were entwined in his mind, in his book Salar the Salmon.
Yeates had already appeared as a school friend of Willie Maddison in the very early Dandelion Days (1922), and when HW began to write A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, Yeates becomes ‘Tom Cundall’, school friend of Phillip Maddison in Young Phillip Maddison (Vol. 3, 1953), so making a direct association to Yeates’s own fictional name in Winged Victory. ‘Tom Cundall’ also appears briefly in How Dear Is Life (Vol. 4, 1954), A Fox Under My Cloak (Vol. 5, 1955) and The Golden Virgin (Vol. 6, 1957), although the incident in the last, where Cundall shoots down a German airship, is purely fictional.
Whatever HW may or may not have contributed to Winged Victory (and there is no doubt in my mind that his input was considerable, although it is known that Norah Yeates was reluctant to admit it), the book is based on Yeates’s own experiences, and was achieved under the most appalling circumstances. It is also evident that HW did everything he possibly could to help his old school friend, both in practical matters to do with the writing and production of the book, and in promoting it after publication; but also in offering his encouraging support to the terminally ill Yeates.
HW continued to remind the public of the book, endeavouring to ensure that it was not forgotten, as this letter to The Sunday Times in 1958 illustrates:
Indeed, it may have been this letter that stimulated a further public demand, for the blurb in the new edition states that 'this classic of war in the air has become a connoisseur's item. The Library Association has evidence that demand for it continues and in deference to their suggestion this new edition has been prepared.' Jonathan Cape published the new hardback edition on 28 October 1961, with an attractive dust wrapper. Not only did this edition retain HW's original Tribute, it contained a new Preface by him. He took as much care over this as with any of his writing, as this draft shows:
As Atkin says in Winged Victor,
Williamson had not forgotten Victor after twenty-seven years and was still keen to do all he could to publicise the book. With this new edition available, he arranged for this friend, the well-known journalist and broadcaster Kenneth Allsop, to write an article on its rebirth in the Daily Mail which chose it as its 'Book of the Month' for October 1961 and included an interview with Williamson on the background to how the book came to be written. . .
At Williamson's suggestion, the newspaper article was followed up by an interview with Kenneth Allsop on the popular BBC television programme 'Tonight' which was broadcast on 27 October.
The new edition sold out in less than a month, and Cape rushed through a reprint, with a further printing in 1962. The Bookseller reported:
In the years that followed there have been various paperback editions, some regrettably (to the knowledgeable) showing an SE5a on the cover rather than the Sopwith Camel featured in the book. Winged Victory came out of copyright in 2004, seventy years after Yeates's death, and, while there are no print editions now current, there are two e-book editions available.
I won’t give a full synopsis here of Winged Victory, which is considered to be one of the few classics of the aerial combat of the First World War. I do strongly recommend that you read it for yourself. While the print edition is out of print, secondhand copies are fairly easily obtainable; it is also available as an e-book.
The novel is closely based on Yeates’s own flying experiences in 1918, and most of the characters had their counterpart in real life. An indispensable aid is Gordon Atkins’ biography Winged Victor: A Biography of Victor Yeates (Springwater Books, 2004; e-book 2014), in which these characters are identified. By comparing Yeates’s flying log book with the text, Atkins confirms that many of the flying scenes described in the book actually happened to Yeates.
The book covers the period of the 1918 German Spring Offensive and the Allied Forces’ rally in August that was the beginning of the end of the war: a very difficult time.
The flying scenes are authentic and magnificent. The feeling of comradeship among the men is inspiring, covering the whole range of emotion and thought that churns round men’s minds in those circumstances. But the mood gradually changes: the optimism of the opening passage when Tom Cundall first arrives at the Front becomes more sombre – and eventually disillusionment sets in.
There is a great deal of difference between the end of Phase Two of the book as Tom Cundall goes on leave:
He had forgotten how lovely England was . . . how real was his love of England.
and the end of Phase Three (the end of the book), when Cundall returns to Blighty, this time sent home with Flying Sickness D, and mourning the death of his friend:
This was England. Wandering lanes, hedged and ditched; casual opulent beauty; trees heavy with fulfilment. This was his native land. He did not care.
Jonathan Cape, 1934:
Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, New York, 1934:
The title page to the American edition, the only edition to bear this quotation from Romeo and Juliet. The phrase 'this tassel gentle' was Yeates's first preferred title for Winged Victory:
Jonathan Cape, new edition, 1961, with its evocative panoramic dust wrapper of a flight of Sopwith Camels:
Front and rear flaps to the 1961 edition:
World Book Club, abridged edition,
|Consul Books, paperback, 1964|
Consul Books, paperback,
|Sphere Books, paperback, 1969|
|Rizzoli, Milan, 1969||Mayflower, paperback, 1974|
|Buchan & Enright, paperback, 1985||Grub Street, paperback, 2004|
The cover for Gordon Atkins' biography Winged Victor (2004; e-book 2014) is included here as it bears a specially commissioned picture of Yeates's Sopwith Camel no. D6585: