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Up the Down Staircase: RUSSIA IN 1919

Splendid Little War a - Derek Robinson
Derek Robinson is one of those writers with an unerring knack for creating in his novels compelling and complex characters, whose black humor attests to the absurdities of war. Love or hate them, the characters of "A Splendid Little War" serve as a colorful backdrop to an incredible historical event that is little known today. The event of which I speak is the Allied Intervention in Russia, which began in the summer of 1918 --- when Britain, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, and America sent troops and other material support to force Lenin's Bolsheviks (i.e. the "Reds") out of power and assist the Russian counter-revolutionary forces (the "Whites") in re-establishing in Russia a government sympathetic to (and supportive of) Allied interests --- and ended in 1920. 

This novel is centered around a Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron made up of volunteers who left Britain in the Spring of 1919 in anticipation of an exciting and colorful time in Russia. Their commanding officer (C.O.), Wing Commander Griffin, is a rather no-nonsense type, not lacking in bravery, but set on doing things his way, even if this sometimes means offending his Russian compatriots. There is also a merry array of characters consisting of the adjutant, Brazier (often referred to affectionately as "Uncle" by his squadron mates), who helps keep the squadron running smoothly on a daily basis as it is moved by rail to various parts of Southern Russia, wherever the fighting is heaviest; Lacey, who is responsible for maintaining the squadron's radio contacts with the British Military Mission and keeping it fully supplied (through fair and 'slick' means); a young doctor, Susan Perry; James Hackett, a wise-ass Australian fighter pilot; Tiger Wragge, a fellow fighter pilot who is like a sidekick to Hackett; and Tusker Oliphant, the senior bomber pilot in the squadron. 

The situation the squadron is thrown into upon arrival in Russia is fraught with many dangers. The "Whites" for a time have the Reds on the run. But they are hardly a unified force in a country that is teetering on the edge. Corruption is everywhere. Yet through it all, the RAF squadron bravely carries out the missions it has been been given, from Tsaritsyn (later known as Stalingrad) to Kursk and Orel. There are the occasional dogfights with scattered elements of the Red Air Force, which Robinson describes with word-pictures that make combat so tellingly real to the reader. Indeed, Robinson knows how to convey the moves pilots make in managing and controlling aircraft as they are put through their paces. The squadron itself is hard-pressed as the tide of war changes and the "Reds" gain the upper hand. 

In rounding out this review, I'd like to cite the following comments Robinson put into the mouth of the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, in London whilst chatting with an aide who had been closely monitoring the British contribution to the Allied Intervention (which was the largest and most extensive of all the Allied powers in Russia, for the Army, Royal Navy, and RAF all played a part): "History teaches us that war does not travel in a straight line. Obstacles spring up that never before existed, and so armies ricochet,and leaders must duck and dodge or they suffer. Last year we nearly joined forces with the Bolsheviks. Even Winston was for it. He wanted to offer them a formula that would protect their revolution and consolidate their power, if only they would re-start their war against Germany. We desperately needed someone to fight for the Allies in the east, and the Bolsheviks seemed the most warlike. But, alas, not for long. Then the Huns collapsed, a very large surprise indeed, since most of us expected the war to go on for another five or ten years. Now we no longer needed an eastern front. But - a little ricochet - Bolshevik revolutions began breaking out in Europe like chicken pox, so we put our money on the anti-Red forces in Russia. Worth a gamble. Nearly paid off..."

Thrills, chills, and spills, this novel has it all and comes highly recommended.