Kenneth B. Senar’s I’ll Call You Pod belongs to the same branch of military history as Spike Milligan’s “Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall”, albeit without Milligan’s quirky humour.
Although prompted by the author’s realisation that there was no official history of the part played by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the tense, early days of the Cold War, this volume does not have the overarching big-picture scope of a work by, say, Antony Beevor or James Holland. It is at the opposite end of the spectrum, being told entirely from Senar’s own personal memory and those log books he was able to keep from an era when enemies – real or imagined – lurked in every shadow and secrecy was paramount.
The danger posed by tensions between the Warsaw Pact countries on one side and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies on the other was especially high during 1956, with riots in Poznan, Soviet tanks crushing dissent in Hungary, and the Suez Crisis flaring up. These events are described in summary in a page or two, fairly late in the book, and provide only a distant background to the author’s own personal experiences.
Accordingly, anyone looking for a coherent, well-researched analysis of the geopolitical tensions of the time, or even the military strategies in play, will be disappointed. But that is not the value of this work. Its worth lies in the way the author brings the reader into the life of the young man drafted into military service in late 1951 and his career after he decided to stay on with the RAF.
The books takes us through his early pilot training in England in de Havilland Tiger Moths and Chipmunks, and twin-engined Airspeed Oxfords. It covers his first solo flight, three days after his 19th birthday, in a Chipmunk.
The richly detailed narrative in I’ll Call You Pod takes us on to his training on jet fighters – Gloster Meteors and de Havilland Vampires – then his deployment to Germany to patrol the sensitive border zone and his move onto the bigger, faster and more lethal North American F-86E Sabres.
VIDEO: A look the Gloster Meteor from the British Pathé YouTube channel.
As history shows, the cold war never became hot, at least not in Europe, but the flying done by Senar (nicknamed “Pod”, after the pod forming the fruit of the senna plant) was not without risks, and the book is dotted with casual mentions of tragedies and near misses.
In a mix-up with a recruit with a similar name, Senar was told he had failed his final flight exam. By the time the bungle was discovered, the pilot who had failed had already died in an accident. There are stories of a narrowly avoided accidental landing on the A41, runway overshoots, and aileron controls in a Vampire jammed by a misplaced hat.
Persistent migraine headaches put an end to his flying and led eventually to a role in fighter control, where he spent much of his time watching blips on a radar screen and coordinating practice interceptions of friendly aircraft, before he was invalided out in 1958.
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Senar’s account of the life of the fighter controller is fascinating. The humdrum routine of life on base is interspersed with moments of tension when the rarely-seen enemy tested NATO’s defences with diversions and feints, and the fighter controllers struggled as much with rudimentary and unreliable equipment as they did with the enemy’s guile. The fog of war is just as thick in a cold war as a hot one.
In his zeal to put everything on the record, the author leaves little out in I’ll Call You Pod. The reader may be bemused by the contrast between the author’s harrowing account of a flame-out in his Sabre during a practice dogfight at 40,000 feet and a successful re-light, after several attempts, at 9,000 feet and, on the following page without missing a beat, a description of the making of his costume for a Christmas fancy dress party where he dressed as one of an Eastern potentate’s harem.
But that was how it was. Anyone wanting to know what it was like to live through this fraught phase of the Cold War as a fighter pilot and fighter controller with the RAF will find a unique insight in this book.
I’ll Call You Pod is published by Austin Macauley Publishers.
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