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Readers Write #67 November
riding a balloon,
and writing on trees
Kamikase has become a joke word in the West, the kind of thing that might
be said of a celebrity who makes a disastrous speech. It was no joke to the
U.S.Navy when, in May 1945, American forces attacked Okinawa, the last
island before Japan. The U.S. naval force was vast. It numbered 288
warships, from carriers and battleships to destroyers and
minesweepers, and hundreds of supply ships. Japan sent 1,465 kamikase
pilots to halt them. Almost all died, but their attacks hit many
ships. They sank 38 warships, including an escort carrier and 13
destroyers. One destroyer was broken in half by a radio-controlled
bomb. What’s more, the rest of the fleet suffered badly. Kamikase
planes damaged 16 fleet carriers, 17 escort carriers, 15 battleships, 15
cruisers, 87 destroyers and 24 destroyer escorts. In the brutal
arithmetic of war, kamikase paid off: for the loss of two
battalions of men (and mainly obsolescent aircraft), Japan had inflicted the
heaviest toll on the U.S.Navy in the entire war, including Pearl Harbor.
Here is the USS Bunker Hill - flagship of
Admiral Spruance, commanding the Fifth Fleet - after
two kamikase aircraft hit her within one minute. 396 of her crew
were killed and she was withdrawn from the battle.
After two months of a
largely suicidal defence, Okinawa fell. The mentality of kamikase
pilots was inspired by their total obedience to their Emperor; yet Allied
pilots were capable of death-or-glory impulses. Over Okinawa in May 1945,
a U.S. Navy Corsair intercepted a Japanese twin-engined fighter at 35,000 feet.
(The U.S. nicknamed it ‘Nick’; Japan called it ‘Toryu’, meaning ‘dragon
slayer’) The Corsair’s guns froze and the pilot deliberately rammed
the tail unit of the Nick, which had a rear gunner. It crashed, and he
made a forced-landing without a propeller. On the other side of the
world, at the tail-end of the Battle of Britain, the Italian Air
Force - keen to taste the fruits of victory
- made a daylight raid on Britain. 30 Hurricanes were
scrambled and knocked down half a dozen bombers. Flight Lieutenant
Blatchford, leading his squadron, found himself out of ammunition. (The
Hurricane’s guns lasted 13 seconds.) He flew into a CR-42 Fiat biplane
and used his propeller to carve a chunk out of its upper wing. The Fiat
crashed; Blatchford survived.
These were spontaneous
rammings, made in the heat of battle; probably there were others
that were never recorded, for obvious reasons. Ramming involved a lot of
luck, and nobody was luckier than the German pilot Hauptmann (Flight
Lieutenant) Hajo Herrmann on the night of 22 July 1940.
He led four JU88s from
Germany, down the Channel, to Plymouth Sound. The plan was to lay
magnetic mines in the Sound, approaching it at 300 feet and 180 mph. Moonlight
clearly showed the port buildings, and then showed Herrmann a barrage
balloon dead ahead. His low speed made the controls sluggish. The bomber
landed on top of the balloon and was stuck like a bird on its nest. For a
few seconds the aircraft came to a dead stop, although the engines still worked
and the balloon was intact. Then, “I noticed that the British
searchlights were shining from above - we had fallen
off the balloon and were upside-down...” Amazingly, he regained control,
saw the breakwater and, despite a firestorm from Plymouth’s anti-aircraft guns,
he dropped his mines and headed for home.
And that’s not all. Much
later in the war, Hajo Herrmann formed the German volunteer Rammkommando,
a fighter unit to ram American B-17 Fortress bombers. He led from the
front, survived two rammings, and ended the war alive. Which was
more than could be said for his volunteers. In April, about 200 of them went
into action, with patriotic music playing in their headsets. That
day, the U.S. 8th Air Force shot down 169 German fighters, for the loss of 22
B-17s, and the Luftwaffe abandoned ramming.
Which takes me to the
Desert Air Force in 1942 and A Good Clean Fight. Both sides
agreed on one thing: the flies were the worst enemy. A squadron
might take a couple of hours to relocate at a different airstrip, and
within minutes endless clouds of flies would surround them. One moment
there were none, the next they appeared ‘in plagues of biblical
proportions’, as one veteran wrote. People learned to eat with one hand while
the other fought off the flies. Men wondered: Where do they come
from? How do they live when we’re not here? And never found the
The same question
could be asked of mosquito populations, which have slaughtered more
humans with malaria than all the armies combined (and have decided a few
battles in the process). If mosquitoes need human blood, and they succeed
in killing the human race, what future has the mosquito? Nobody
knows, and maybe DDT was the unsung hero of WW2. When Mussolini
claimed that he had drained the Pontine Marshes in the 1930s, it was a
propaganda boast rather than a victory over the swamp: he reclaimed only
a part of the Marshes, and when his workforce left they were mostly infected
with malaria. Moreover, the Marshes and their mosquitoes had protected Rome for
centuries against invasion from the south. (When the Allies invaded Italy
and advanced on Rome, a German general flooded the Pontine Marshes and let the
mosquitoes breed: an early example of biological warfare.)
Mussolini created a massive monument to his dictatorship, 50 miles to the
south and on a clear day visible from Rome. He planted 20,000 fir trees
on a mountainside so that they spelled out D-U-X in huge letters:
Latin for Duce, the leader.
Alas, in 2017 a wildfire reduced DUX to ashes. 20,000 fir trees burned to the ground. Sic transit, as the locals say.
thanks to all who wrote. Derek
Previous Readers Write
1919. The Great War is over but a civil war is raging in Russia.
Bolshevik Reds are fighting White Russians, and a volunteer
R.A.F. squadron, flying clapped-out Sopwith Camels and DH9 bombers,
arrives to duff up the Reds. But the 'splendid little war' they
are promised turns out to be big and brutal, a world of armoured train,
anarchist guerillas, unreliable allies and pitiless enemies.
There is comedy, but it is the bleakest kind. A Splendid Little War shows war as it is: grim, funny, moving - but never splendid.Reviews of A Splendid Little War
someone at a party asks what I do, I say I write Ripping Yarns.
It's a quick answer but a very incomplete one. I'm best known for my
novels about the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force in the two
World Wars and some might say the books are highly readable adventure
stories. Nothing wrong with that, but there's more than combat in
the high blue yonder - there's also memorable
characters, there's unexpected twists and turns of warfare, and
there's aircrew humour. Especially the humour. I did
my National Service in the Royal Air Force. I was never airborne;
I was in a Ground Control Interception Unit, deep underground in a
concrete bunker. But I learned a lot about the special humour of
flying people, and it emerges naturally and unavoidably in my
novels. Humour is one of the essential colours in the spectrum of life.
You don't make a story more serious by removing the humour; you just
make it less true.
longer I do this job, the luckier I know I am. For a start, I'm
English and the English language is global. That's pure luck of birth.
I might have been born in Hungary. There are good Hungarian
writers, but it's a lot easier for me to find readers throughout
the English-speaking world. And I was lucky to have literate
parents. When I grew up there were always books and magazines
about the house, unlike some other kids' homes. There was a good public
library at the end of the street. And there was the 1944
Education Act which created State Scholarships for bright lads and
helped me get into Cambridge.
where I learned to write boringly. I was writing to impress, not to
inform. Twelve years in advertising agencies (London and New York)
kicked the crap out of my style. Every word had to work hard. I wrote
ad copy and commercials for everything from Esso petrol to The Wall Street Journal.
Always I knew I wanted to move on, to be a fulltime writer
- but I had nothing to say. Nothing worth reading, anyway.
(I was a late developer.) I wrote two bad and unpublishable novels and
finally got it right with a story called Goshawk Squadron.
Might have won the Booker Prize if Saul Bellow, one of the judges, had
had his way. Not important. "The most readable novel of the year," Nina
Bawden said of Goshawk in the Daily Telegraph.
"I laughed aloud several times, and was in the end reduced to tears."
That's worth more than any prize. The first novel bought me enough time
to write the second, and so it goes. Lucky me..
SALESMORE GOOD NEWSAll
four of the Luis Cabrillo novels (following the career of
probably the best WW2 double agent and later con-man) are now
available as eBooks from Amazon/Kindle. Here are the covers:
Click on a cover to go to the Amazon sales page.The R.F.C. trilogy and the R.A.F. Quartet are also available as e-books.
'Operation Bamboozle' is a fastmoving black comedy about
what happens when a high-stakes con artist takes on the Mob in Los
Angeles. The result is a heady brew of disorganised crime, hot
dollars, triple virgins and dead bodies in the begonias.
Luis Cabrillo is the con artist, Julie Conroy is his
squeeze, and here's the opening sentence:
For a man who had been hauled out of Lake Michigan in 1949, headless,
his legs and arms broken, and stabbed in the heart with a red ballpoint
pen, Frankie Blanco was in pretty good shape in 1953. |
Click to see the News of the World Review
RED RAG BLUES
He's a heel, bless him.
Luis Cabrillo rides again in this "dashing tale of Nazis and Mafiosi", as The Observer called it.
fact, Nazis and Mafiosi play second fiddle to the real dynamo in this
story. It's 1953, and Senator Joe McCarthy's witchhunt for Reds
under beds is scaring America witless.Alas, in 2017 a wildfire reduced DUX to ashes. 20,000 fir trees burned to the ground. Sic transit, as the locals say.
Cue Luis Cabrillo, ex-double
agent, now con artist supreme. Dollars flow, hotly pursued by bullets.
Luis doesn't know it, but FBI, MI5, KGB and CIA have him
firmly in their sights. Not to mention Stevie, the only
three-times married virgin in New York City. This is a rich, fast
and very black comedy.
Press (an imprint of Quercus Books) owns the book rights to all my RFC
and RAF novels. Sam Goldwyn Jr owns the screen rights
to Goshawk Squadron. In 1988, LWT made a six-part television series ofPiece of Cake and they own the rights to that production. I own the screen rights to any remake of Piece of Cake.
I own the screen rights to all my other novels. Quercus Books owns the
e-book rights to all my fiction backlist, available through
Amazon/Kindle. Derek Robinson
welcome comments and views about my books, though as a working writer I
can't guarantee to have sufficient time to answer everyone.
Click here to send me an email
Main publications Click any group heading to see details.
Availability of the books.
my fiction is available as e-books. Maclehose Press publish (in
print) all eight of my flying novels, available from any good book
seller (who may have to order a copy). Or you could try the
websites listed below, often useful for tracking down both new and used
The two Bristle books, and A Darker Side of Bristol
are published by Countryside Books
Other websites you may find of interest:
Major books and original publication dates:
|1971 Goshawk Squadron |
1973 Rotten with Honour
1977 Kramer's War
1979 The Eldorado Network
1983 Piece of Cake
1987 War Story
1991 Artillery of Lies
1993 A Good Clean Fight
1999 Hornet's Sting
|2002 Damned Good Show |
2002 Kentucky Blues
2005 Invasion 1940
2005 Red Rag Blues
2008 Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
2009 Operation Bamboozle
2013 A Splendid Little War
2014 Why 1914?
2017 Holy $moke