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Flying Officer 'X' Stories
Story Collection
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Flying Officer X Stories
Pilots, War

Bates's service as an officer and story-writer for the Royal Air Force is described at length by Bates in The Blossoming World (176-182) and The World in Ripeness (5-41), and by Baldwin (145-171). Bates wrote to his long-time friend David Garnett, who was already working at the Air Ministry, about possible military service; after a preliminary meeting with Ministry Librarian John Nerney, Bates applied for a commission in the reserves and then, at a meeting with Nerney, Harald Peake (Director of R.A.F. Public Relations), and Hilary St. George Saunders (deputy librarian at the House of Commons), was presented with "not only a truly remarkable proposition but one utterly unprecedented in any of the armed services at any time." Asked to "illuminate the troubled business of war in a way that will bring war and its participants vividly, excitedly, even painfully alive," Bates in turn requested and received "utter freedom in time and movement." Accordingly, under the wing of a new unit of R.A.F. Public Relations, Bates received officers' training at Uxbridge in October 1941, and then was posted to Oakington air base for almost three months; following the success of his initial stories, he was reassigned to Tangmere, in Sussex, where he was stationed from February to July of 1942. In both stations, he perfected a method of gathering story ideas from comments overheard or received buying drinks for the pilots. Many of the stories appeared first in the Royal Air Force Journal with one of the following bylines: H.E.B., H.E. Bates, Flying Officer X, Flight Lieutenant H.E. Bates, or Squadron Leader H.E. Bates. More than half of the twenty-four stories that appeared under the pseudonym" Flying Officer X" are portraits of individual pilots narrated by an observer who, like Bates, is on the inside of the air force without himself being a pilot. These portraits tend to recount the personal history of a pilot and to convey the very individual qualities and forces that motivate him. The other stories might be characterized as vignettes involving one or another aspect of air force life, again usually narrated by an admiring but uninvolved observer; two of these stories, including the novella-length "How Sleep the Brave," contain significant action and suspense. Bates's response, on learning that the first book of stories would be printed in 100,000 copies was "never having heard of a book, except the Bible and Gone with the Wind, selling such figures, I nearly fainted" (The World in Ripeness, 30); such exposure immediately brought Bates a significantly expanded audience and elevated status as an author.

The reception of these stories is presented under the individual titles. Novelist Anthony Burgess, in his introduction (attached) to the posthumous collection A Month by the Lake & Other Stories, noted that "It was not patriotic writing of the kind that the Great Patriotic War produced in Soviet Russia; it was low-keyed as to sentiment, far from flag-waving, essentially human and quietly compassionate."

The stories appeared in five collections: the initial English collection of nine stories in 1942 (The Greatest People in the World and Other Stories), a second English collection of six stories in 1943 (How Sleep the Brave and Other Stories), an American edition of 1943 containing most of the contents of the two English collections plus nine other pieces (There's Something in the Air), a 1944 one-volume edition duplicating the contents of the two English editions (Something in the Air), and finally a 1952 edition duplicating the contents of the 1944 one-volume publication with the addition of three pieces (The Stories of Flying Officer 'X'). The author is given as "Flying Officer 'X'" in all but the last; however, the 1943 American edition includes "H.E. Bates" in parentheses after the pseudonym. Three stories in the style of these works, but not included in the collections or with the pseudonym, are "Happy Christmas Nastashya," "The Three Thousand and One Hours of Sergeant Kostek," and "From this Time Forward." Lastly, one non-fiction essay appeared with the pseudonym ("On Equipment")