Aviation History Book Review: King of Airfighters

King of Airfighters: The Biography of Major ‘Mick’ Mannock, VC, DSO, MC  by Ira Jones

World War I produced a multitude of aviation heroes, many of whom stood out as much for their larger-than-life personalities as for their exploits. Amid that colorful cast of characters, Edward “Mick” Mannock may very well rate as the most fascinatingly unconventional.

A socialist who detested war, Mannock nevertheless volunteered for service, apparently due to his conviction that Britain had the most unjust political and social system—except for all the others, and Germany’s in particular. A physical coward who often fell into sobbing fits and claimed to have premonitions of dying in flames (destined to come true), he suppressed his fears by extraordinary force of will, becoming not only one of Britain’s highest-scoring fighter pilots but also a respected flight and squadron leader. Among the many aces who came into their own under Mannock’s tutelage, Ira Jones idolized Mannock. In 1934 he paid tribute to his mentor with King of Airfighters: The Biography of Major ‘Mick’ Mannock, VC, DSO, MC, recently reissued by Casemate.

King of Airfighters is as much a reflection of its author as it is of his squadron mate. In that respect, when Mannock’s combat career resumes in No. 74 Squadron, Royal Air Force, his exploits parallel memories of day-to-day combat by Jones himself—a new pilot evolving into the war’s leading Welsh ace, with 37 victories. Jones does touch on contradictions he noticed in Mannock’s character, but his reflections are tinted with a fundamental patina of admiration, as in this typical passage:

“Mick” Mannock, as I knew him, had indeed an intriguingly complex nature. It fluctuated so. When he thought of or met the enemy, he was cruel and ruthless; when he was out with a party, or on most occasions in the Mess, he was full of boyish pranks and fun; when he considered that a person should be reproved, he was harsh and cynical….though he never reproved anyone without cause; when a person deserved praise, he was generous to a degree; if sympathy was called for, he was gentle and kind; when he was worried, he was depressed and morbid; but at all times he was unreservedly unselfish. In fact—typically Irish!

A useful documentation of a complex individual, King of Airfighters nevertheless has its share of prejudicial remarks and outright inaccuracies. But in bringing its subject to the public eye, Jones’ hagiography served to spark further interest and research that has led to several more-balanced and accurate biographies of this fascinating ace. One recent example that’s also worth reading is Mannock: The Life and Death of Major Edward Mannock VC, DSO, MC, RAF, by Norman Franks and Andy Saunders, published in 2008.

Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.  

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