On and off the Flight Deck: Reflections of a Naval Fighter Pilot in World War II – Book Review

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Product summary Title On and Off the Flight Deck: Reflections of a Naval Fighter Pilot in World War II Author Henry ‘Hank’ Adlam Published ...

Product summary

Title On and Off the Flight Deck: Reflections of a Naval Fighter Pilot in World War II
Author Henry ‘Hank’ Adlam
Published by Pen & Sword
ISBN 9781848841956
Format Paperback
Price Recommended Retail Price £12.99.
Available directly from the publisher at www.pen-and-sword.co.uk

Through my aviation interest, I have read quite a lot of biographies of World War II combatants, some very good but frankly, many quite mediocre. Henry “Hank” Adlams On and Off the Flight Deck doesn’t stand out as one of the best and most exciting but it is special in a different way; it was written by a very ordinary pilot who does not make auspices for being credited for his courage or exploits, who considered his career rather ordinary and who didn’t shoot down any enemy aircraft (not for lack of trying though!). This means that it is written by a pilot who probably is representative of more than 90% of all Allied fighter pilots and that is what makes this book so interesting!

Meet “Hank” Adlam

Henry “Hank” Adlam was born in 1922 and got a good education, leaving Harrow to enlist with the RAF in 1940. Turned down due to medical reasons, he opted to seek service with the Royal Navy as a sailor. In 1941, there he got the opportunity of flight training with the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. This is where the book starts, and through consecutive chapters we get to follow “Hank” throughout the war, from convoy duty in the North Atlantic to offensive operations against the Japanese in 1945.

During his wartime career, Hank flies the Wildcat from escort carriers, serves onboard one of the major fleet carriers, converts to Hellcat and Corsair. After the end of hostilities he is posted as a flying instructor at Yeovilton. There he finally gets to fly a British onboard fighter – the Seafire, the aircraft that fails to impress him! Not that there was any fault with it flying-wise but as a carrier aircraft it was probably a even more dangerous to the pilot than to the enemy.

Apart from the flying, we also get an insight in what pilots did when not at sea; there is even the odd bit of romance here and there!

One of the points that struck me in Adlam’s story is his description of the life onboard Royal Navy carriers. For example, it would seem as if the Senior Service saw aircrew as a lower standing species, they lived under cramped and quite unpleasant conditions onboard. In contrast, carriers built in the United States were designed around the aircrew and that meant pilots that were in better physical condition and a lot more alert after a good night’s sleep; probably with a corresponding higher probability of survival!

Another aspect of life at sea which I hadn’t realised was the amount of drinking that went on in the RN. According to Adlam, alcohol (pink gin!) was the preferred method to calm the nerves both day and night. In contrast, US Navy was dry! Hank was also none too impressed by the higher ranks of the Navy, having built their careers around obsolete battleship fighting doctrines, with very little knowledge of air operations and flying while their US counterparts were always experienced naval aviators.


I liked this book a lot since it does give a very different perspective on the war. In many ways it is more insightful and interesting to read than the many biographies of aces and acknowledged heroes that can be found. And finally, when it comes to the size of achievement: a person who is scared of flying in bad weather and still climbs aboard his Wildcat, starts the engine and takes off for another patrol over a storm-ridden North Atlantic certainly doesn’t lack courage!

This is highly recommended reading for anyone wishing to understand more of what life was really like for an “average” Naval fighter pilot!

Review sample kindly provided by the publisher

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