Last Wednesday, 18th July, the death was announced of Geoffrey Harris Augustus Wellum. He was 96 years old. A long life, a good innings, a man with an imperial name. Anything else of significance? Well, yes.

Wellum joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in August 1939, aged 17, and, within a year, with fewer than 100 hours of solo flying to his name, he was part of 92 Squadron, based initially at Northolt and later at Biggin Hill. He became the youngest Spitfire pilot to fight in the Battle of Britain and he survived World War Two. Wellum also made it to the 100th birthday of the RAF itself, in April 2018. Geoffrey was special.

Fortunately for subsequent generations, Wellum wrote a gripping account of his time flying perhaps the most iconic fighter aircraft of all time. This memoir, First Light, was published in 2002. Actually, Wellum started writing it in the 1970s but the text remained hidden away in a drawer at his home in Cornwall until he casually showed it to military historian and author James Holland.

Impressed with the quality of the writing, Holland took the manuscript to Penguin and they snapped it up. Never intended for publication, the book seems to have been written to support Wellum’s self-esteem at a time when business and marital troubles were causing him to question the merits of his life. This seems odd, given his contribution to the nation, but, as he once put it: ‘I had reached the pinnacle of my life before the age of 22.’ That left a whole new lifetime to navigate.

Some narratives manage to transport the reader to the time and place of the story. In a wartime context, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann are excellent examples of this rare skill in an author. With First Light, while the writing may not reach the lofty heights of the most gifted practitioners, this outcome is achieved too and there is the added intoxication of hearing from a young man who was there, living it.

I won’t spoil the read but the book manages to convey a vivid impression of fighter combat, as both predator and prey, an insight into the confusing realities of war, losing comrades while killing fellow pilots and, as if to illuminate what kept him going, Wellum’s profound love for his country and equal hatred for the prospect of Nazi occupation.

Unsurprisingly, later in the war, after three years of intense flying, Wellum, by now a flight commander, did hit the wall and required sick leave. In his words: “I’d shot my bolt…I had no reserves left…I felt destroyed by the war”.

The lasting image from First Light, however, is of Geoffrey Wellum, nicknamed ‘Boy’ in the RAF due to his youth, as a brave, patriotic and effective pilot who contributed heroically to victory against the Luftwaffe during those momentous months of 1940.

In reading Wellum’s chronicle, I do wonder if, in my first job, I had been asked to risk my life several times a day and presented with an average life-expectancy in the role of just four weeks, I would have been so resolute. I can relate to Wellum’s bond with the Spitfire (I would probably include the sound of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in my imaginary Desert Island Discs compilation) but could I have stepped up and matched Geoffrey for relentless courage, skill and determination?   

With this question in mind, as the anniversaries of the last major conflict to threaten this island reach the edges of living memory, it is unsettling to concede how poorly we absorb the wisdom, born of personal experiences, from such catastrophic events. To quote German philosopher Friedrich Hegel: ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

But if we can’t learn from the triumphs and follies of the past, let’s always remember them.

At the very least, the next time we complain about a hard day at work, an arduous commute, a disagreement with a colleague or client, let’s just look up at the sky and think about what a day at the office was like for Geoffrey and his mates 78 years ago. Most of us will never set off in the morning wondering if this is the day that we don’t come home.

Rest in peace, Geoffrey Wellum DFC. We owe you.