Wednesday, 29 July 2015

On Wings of War: My Life as a Pilot Adventurer (by Jean/Jan Zumbach)

The book was originally released in French (in 1973) and later it was translated to English (in 1977) and to Polish (in 2000). Each one had a different title. The original book (French) was titled „Mister Brown Adventures in the Sky” (Mister Brown was Zumbach's pseudonym in Africa). The English translation was titled „On Wings of War: My Life as a Pilot Adventurer”. The Polish translation was titled „The Last Fight” (at the bottom of the cover there is written „Leader of the 303 Squadron”). Both the French and the English versions were released under French name Jean Zumbach, but the Polish version uses Polish name Jan Zumbach.

My rating: 10/10

The book is an autobiography written by Jan Zumbach in 1972. During the Battle of Britain (in September and October 1940) Zumbach was one of the best pilots of the famous 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron. He was not the leader of the Squadron then, but was promoted later in the war.

The book is very long. In the Polish version there are 364 written pages (plus 17 additional pages of photos showing Zumbach at different moments of his life) with small font and small page margins. It means that every single page is filled with lots of text. These 364 pages would be like 500 in some other books.

The book is very long not because Zumbach took part in the Battle of Britain, but because ALL his life was filled with adventure. The Battle of Britain makes for only 6 % of the book – 22 pages, including those about his intimate adventures with British women.

Zumbach's life was a unique one and so is his autobiography. It's as honest as it gets, which makes it at some moments far from political correctness.

Reading the book I have learnt many interesting things, especially about post-war Europe and about Africa. For example I have never heard about Biafra or Katanga before.

To give you a better idea about the book I have translated titles of the main chapters and added some comments and trivia.

I. Saviour of Biafra
This chapter is a kind of introduction about events from 1967, explaining what made Zumbach write his autobiography.

Trivia from the sub-chapter titled “How I hijacked a plane”:
Before Zumbach joined Biafra's “Air Forces” he was hired only to transport an old B-26 bomber to Biafra (a part of Nigeria that wanted independence). Biafra was not recognised as a state and couldn't officially buy bombers in Europe, so the plane was flown under false papers that claimed it was Gabon's property. Zumbach had never flown a B-26 bomber before, but during the war he had tried to fly as many different kinds of planes (including some other bombers) as possible, just for fun. Before flying to Biafra Zumbach bought and read the book “How to be a pilot of B-26”. Of course he didn't even mention any of it to the second pilot of that flight.

II. Many souls in chest
This chapter covers the years 1915-1946 – from Zumbach's birth to his release from RAF after the end of World War II.

Trivia from the sub-chapter titled “Birth of a warrior”:
Even though Zumbach was born in Poland and his mother was a Pole he himself was officially a Swiss citizen (like his father) – Zumbach's birth was registered in a Swiss consulate. When Zumbach volunteered for the Polish Army (to become a pilot), he simply “forgot” to mention that officially he was not a Polish citizen. He also had to forge his mother's writing and her signature because he was too young to enter the army without her permission.

III. Diamonds for Antwerp
This chapter covers the years 1947-1954 and describes Zumbach's involvement in lots of illegal activities connected with transportation of goods and people between different countries. It seems that right after the war such illegal activities were to some extent ignored, mostly for economic reasons.

Trivia from the sub-chapter “People for Israel, gold for Palestine”:
When Zumbach was flying some people to Israel he was asked by a man from Tel Aviv to get some gold. The next time Zumbach smuggled 500 golden coins, but the next day the man told him that most of them were worth nothing. Zumbach was VERY surprised. The coins were truly gold, but they had a picture of the Queen Victoria and Arabs didn't want to buy them. They wanted gold for their pilgrimage to Mecca, but women were not allowed to enter the holy places of Islam, so Arabs didn't want coins with a picture of a woman.

IV. Disasters
This chapter covers the years 1955-1961 and is a very good example that illegal activities sooner or later come to a very unpleasant end.

V. Flying monster
This chapter covers the years 1962-1963 and it describes how Zumbach became a mercenary pilot and the leader of Air Forces of Katanga (a part of Congo that proclaimed independence). There are some interesting things about flying an aircraft above the African jungle, but the best part of the chapter is about the weapon market. Guns and other military items bought in Europe were sold to the final receiver in Africa for prices several times higher than the original ones. Sometimes the profit margins were even higher. It seemed insane, but Zumbach claimed that in case of Katanga it was used by its leader (Tshombe) to increase his private wealth. Zumbach was very careful not to attack UN forces involved in the conflict and UN jet-fighters spared him in the air (after they entered action in later stages of the conflict), but they destroyed most of Katanga's planes on the ground.

VI. The last adventure
This chapter covers the years 1967-1970 and is quite similar to the previous chapter. It's Africa again, Zumbach as a mercenary pilot again, flying over jungle again and the weapon market again. The main difference lies in Zumbach's view of the Biafra's leader (Ojukwu). Zumbach was privately much more respectful of him than of the leader of Katanga. In case of Biafra it was its representatives in Europe who concentrated on increasing their private wealth. Zumbach informed Ojukwu all about it, but it turned out that Ojukwu had to tolerate it for political reasons (some tribes were very important to Ojukwu because of food they produced).

On Wings of War: My Life as a Pilot Adventurer is an awesome book, mostly because it's so honest and so far from political correctness. Zumbach wrote about events the way he saw them. Perfect!

(Sunday, 26 October 2014)

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