Derek Robinson wrote Goshawk Squadron in 1971 and began his depiction of squadron life in the Royal Flying Corps (later Royal Air Force). Unlike his later novels that focused on the fictional "Hornet" squadron, this first effort focused on the "Goshawk" squadron, but the method and characters are essentially similar. The main protagonist in Goshawk Squadron is the unit commander, Major Stanley Woolley. This character is clearly defined as an anti-hero, indeed his behavior and methods may appear repugnant or even borderline insane. However, Robinson succeeds in developing an odd pathos behind Woolley and over the course of the novel the reader should gain understanding of the forces that drive this odd character, if not empathy for him. Modern-day military officers might benefit from studying the command methods of Woolley, particularly in preparing units for combat. Overall, Goshawk Squadron is a true classic that delivers vivid characters and action that draws the reader further and further into the realities of air combat in the First World War.
Goshawk Squadron is set in the period January-March 1918, just before the German spring offensives. The squadron is equipped with the SE-5a fighter and begins the novel resting and re-building behind the lines. Woolley has been commander of the squadron for one year and although fanatical in his training methods, he is approaching combat burnout. Indeed, Woolley is so cynical (but realistic, as it turns out) that he believes all his pilots will be dead within three months. In a seemingly futile but rabid effort, Woolley spends the brief period behind the lines to train his squadron to be the most cold-blooded and efficient killers possible. Woolley's combat ethics clearly clash with the English public school morals of his young pilots; Woolley bans words like "sporting," or "fair fight" from his squadron. In these pages, Robinson depicts how four years of harsh, non-stop combat have produced a killer elite in men like Woolley, whose only philosophy is "kill or be killed." To modern eyes, Woolley's training methods will seem callous and cruel, resulting in needless pain and suffering on his pilots. Indeed, Woolley terrorizes his pilots, to include throwing beer bottles and shooting at slow learners. The pilots in Goshawk Squadron hate their commander, but they are also better prepared to survive when they return to operational service. When the great German offensive begins in March 1918, Goshawk Squadron is committed to try and stem the German onslaught as the British front line crumbles. Robinson provides excellent detail both on balloon-busting and close air support attacks, circa 1918.
Woolley does begin to evolve over the course of the novel, as do his pilots. Yet Goshawk Squadron is never a happy unit and modern military readers might question whether the increase in unit efficiency is worth the drop in morale. Woolley makes better killers, but the squadron is visibly falling apart by the end of the novel. Can a combat unit really function for long based merely on fear of the commander? And what is the result when that long-punishing tyrant suddenly decides to ease up on his troops? These questions are never fully addressed by Robinson, but remain lurking in the corners. On the other hand, one of the great scenes in the novel is a confrontation between Woolley and a REMF colonel from headquarters. Unlike other military novels that attempt to portray the clash between the war fighter and rear echelon types, there is no effort toward subterfuge by Woolley. Instead, Woolley starts blasting away at the colonel with his pistol until he wins the argument ("You can't kill me," says the colonel. "I will kill you, take your body up in my plane, and dump it behind German lines," says Woolley. In a war where thousands disappeared without a trace, this is a convincing threat.). Robinson's point here is that it is difficult to threaten a man with theoretical punitive actions when he is facing the very real threat of death in combat on a daily basis. Advice to REMFs: don't go to the front line in a war and threaten combat soldiers with administrative actions, if you do, wear a flak jacket.