THE FIRST HELICOPTER BOYS

April 16, 2020
Posted by: Tim Hulme

One of my abiding memories, as an ab-initio Observer, was the vivid description of the helicopter given by the Chief Ground Instructor at RNAS Culdrose during a Principles of Flight lecture.  Somewhat exasperated, I think, by our collective lack of grasp of the fundamentals of flying he exhorted “what you lot need to realise is that all a fixed wing aircraft wants to do is fly, all a rotary wing aircraft wants to do is crash!”

I was reminded of this pithy, but not necessarily inaccurate aphorism on more than one occasion whilst reading The First Helicopter Boys by David Taylor.  It is perhaps all too easy today, given the almost universal utility and ubiquity of the helicopter in military operations, to forget that it has far from always been so; this book presents a, in places, stark reminder.  Drawn primarily from first-hand accounts of RAF and RN aircrew and engineers who served in the Malayan emergency, it is an absorbing and entertaining account of the perils and pitfalls of the earliest days of military helicopter operations.  It is nigh on impossible to understate the learning curve involved here, not just in terms of getting to grips with a relatively new form of flying but adding to that the challenges of operationalising it in possibly one of the most hostile environments imaginable to boot.

There are, unsurprisingly, plenty of tales of crashing, and the almost mundane manner in which they are recounted belies the skill and bravery of those involved, whether in the cockpit or those tasked with the recovery of the, jungle-ensconced and (frequently) entwined, downed airframe thereafter. What sings out throughout though, is the can-do spirit of all concerned and the desire to push the envelope at all levels to maximize the operational impact of this really quite remarkable invention.  There is also much that we would recognise today, there were never enough aircraft to meet the demand and many variants were woefully under-powered but the operational impact, especially in terms of the morale-boosting effect to troops on the ground was a significant force-multiplier and no small contributor to eventual success in the campaign.

The vignettes are presented in an informal, chatty style, very much from the horse’s mouth and it won’t surprise that many are drawn from reunion events or newsletters.  That does mean that there is often little in-depth analysis of the issue at hand, but the author clearly prefers to let the events speak for themselves, and I for one cannot quibble too greatly in that respect.

The Malayan Emergency is often presented as something of a master-class in counter-insurgency operations, most notably regarding General Sir Gerald Templar’s focus on winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Malayan people. But there is another side too, namely the innovative employment of new capabilities to maximize advantage. Templar gets no mention in this book but that is not to say that his approach does not resonate throughout and there are many examples, the chapter on jungle forts for example, where the impact of the helicopter in effecting Templar’s strategy shine out, you just have to look for them.