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                                                                                      Readers Write #45 September 2016

Luck, good and bad,

                Eye-opener in Fiji,

           And another blunder for the hit list.


I’ve sometimes thought of writing a book about the influence of luck on war.  Paddy Ashdown (who was in the SAS) once said:  “The first casualty of war is not the truth. It’s the plan.”   Given the violence of combat and the way it can make nonsense of detailed plans, it’s likely that some of these unforeseen casualties will be labelled as good luck by one side and bad luck by their enemy.  Sometimes what looks like luck turns out to change the course of war. Norway was an example. 

 Hitler invaded  Norway on 15 April 1940. Admiral Donitz, commanding German submarines, sent 31 U-boats to protect the invasion against British warships.  On 17 April he ordered them to return home. His U-boats had made 43 attacks on British warships and transports.  All failed.  German torpedoes were to blame:  they were useless.  Meanwhile, the Royal Navy sank half of Germany’s destroyers in the fjords. 

 Norway fell, but the naval events  (or non-events)  made a huge difference. Five months later, Hitler cancelled Operation Sealion, his plan to invade England by sea.  It was a wise move:  the Norwegian campaign had disarmed his submarines and sunk so many of his destroyers that the Royal Navy  (ten times stronger than the German navy) would have battered an invasion fleet (mainly river barges) to death.  (All this is in my non-fiction book  Invasion 1940.)

Then there was the Falklands war of 1982. The British fleet had a screen of RN frigates and destroyers to guard the big warships.  Much has been written about Exocet missiles, but Argentine Skyhawk A4Bs carried bombs.  They flew very low, arrived at high speed and bombed many ships in the screen. The bombs failed to explode.  Their fuses had been wrongly set. Later, Argentine pilots reckoned that, with the right bombs, they would have sunk 8 or 10 British ships.  Without that stroke of luck, the Falklands war might have had a different ending.  

Lastly, a little-known fact about the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers.  The worst statistic from that day was that more than three thousand people were killed.  Their loss had a huge impact on many lives. Much later, it was realised that one third of the Frequent Flyers on Concorde had died  in the attack    -    many bankers and financial leaders had offices in the Twin Towers.  By then, Concorde was running out of time and there were good arguments for retiring the airliner.  The 9/11 statistic didn’t help. Luck had thrown a spanner in the works. 

There’s a lot of luck in publishing too,  and Shannon (now living in Chicago)  is a case in point. He writes: “I first read  Piece of Cake in 1984. I was 13 years old and living in Fiji as a child of Australian teachers... The book made a deep, lasting impression, and for years I’ve been trying to find  ‘that fantastic WW2 RAF book’ because, of course, I didn’t remember the name or the author’s name!”  Thirty-one years passed, and then:  “I stumbled across Goshawk Squadron.  About halfway through I thought: this has to be the guy who wrote that other book, and of course I started digging and it was/is.” 

 Shannon joined the Australian Army in 1994. “My service taught me that the ‘world in arms’ you painted so vividly   -   the cynicism, the black humor, the ever-so-slightly-dysfunctional camaraderie    -   was in every way real and true.  Not sure I would have coped quite so well without your help. So let me simply say thank you. I strongly feel that Piece of Cake, while possibly too ‘old’ for a boy of 13, prepared me in very important ways for adult life. Fiction is often more ‘true’ than facts.”  

  One of the surprises of writing is the discovery that a book has travelled far and influenced lives.  Another reader in America, J.P.M. in Connecticut  (“Have been a fan for decades”)  ordered copies of  A Good Clean Fight, Operation Bamboozle and  Why 1914?  “Keep on writing,” he urged.   And Kieran in Buckinghamshire emailed me:  “I have just read  Goshawk Squadron after more than 20 years and enjoyed it even more this time around... your books recreate the merciless, raw and terrifying experience those young men went through better than anyone else, in my opinion.  And they are hugely entertaining!”  And he too ordered a copy of  Why 1914?.  Which made me wonder why there is ongoing interest in this short (200 pages)  book.  Maybe it’s because the torrent of thick volumes on the Great War have stimulated a question that they failed to answer.  Why did the catastrophe happen? 

At the start of  Why 1914? I quoted what Liddell Hart, a respected military historian, wrote in 1930.  His History of the World War said:  “Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive.  Five days were enough to detonate it.”  That’s a slick, memorable opinion,  and I don’t think it gets anywhere near the truth. What do Hart’s words mean?  Exactly who made Europe explosive?  Why?  Who detonated Europe in five days?  How?  (Why not a month?)   Liddell Hart’s statement suggests a purpose that did not exist.  Only a maniac would plan a suicidal disaster;  only a lunatic would make it happen.  So what caused the Great War?   Some say Europe sleep-walked into it,  but in every capital there were cheering crowds who welcomed its announcement.  Each of the combatant nations confidently expected the impossible:  a short war, a quick victory and buckets of honour and glory.  What everyone knows    -    that Gavrilo Princip triggered the slaughter when he assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand  in Sarajevo   -   is total fallacy.  (Political murder in the Balkans was commonplace; Princip had not the slightest intention of starting a war.)  And if you want to know more.... read the book.  Eight quid including postage in the UK. Email me on:  

Finally, more on my hit list of blunders by TV and movie directors.  In the last RW,  I  condemned the practice of filming corpses with their mouths firmly shut,  and of cops who get into a house with a single painless  kick.  (In one of Raymond Chandler’s books, his private eye Philip Marlowe tries to kick a locked door in, and fails.  “I should have known better,”  Marlowe said. “The front door is about the only part of a Los Angeles house that you can’t put your foot through.”)    What now irritates me is the routine scene that’s shot from in front of a car’s windscreen so that the driver and his passenger can exchange dialogue.  The car, of course, is being towed. It’s hooked onto a camera truck, its front wheels are off the ground, and the driver is pretending to steer    -    and he usually oversteers,  just to show us dummies that he’s in charge.  It looks ridiculous.  Unless he’s cornering, a real driver just nudges the wheel from time to time.  Actors don’t nudge, they manhandle the wheel as if they’re slaloming through a chicane.  I’ve seen movies where they guy swings the wheels so dramatically that, in real life, that car would have been ricocheting off both kerbs.  All that carefully written  and rehearsed dialogue is lost on me.  I’m waiting for the inevitable collision.  Moral:  It’s time directors grew up and realised that less is more.  

 Last word:  I’ve finished another novel.  It’s called Holy Smoke  and it’s a heartwarming comedy of deceit, deception, power-seeking and revenge set in the liberated Rome of 1944.  Should be out next year.  Watch this space. 

My thanks to all who wrote.
Derek Robinson                                                                        

Previous Readers Write

Why 1914

Why 1914?

Why 1914? is "the best short introduction to the causes of the first world war I have come across.  Derek Robinson is as vivid and trustworthy a historian as he is a novelist.”
                                Nicholas Lezard - The Guardian

Here's a taste of what you get:

“The Black Hand recruited Gavrilo Princip and two others to murder the Archduke.  All three young men had incurable tuberculosis. They were ordered to kill themselves when the Archduke was dead. Phials of cyanide were handed out. What could possibly go wrong? In the event, everything.  Especially the cyanide.”

"To find war news in July 1914 you have to look at Ireland.  Home Rule had been passed.  Ulster, largely Protestant, detested the Catholic south.  Gun-running was on an industrial scale.  The government was trapped in an Irish bog.”

"In 1914, Kaiser William II, commanding the most powerful army in Europe, was not so much a loose cannon as a whole battery of loose cannons.”

"Admiral Tirpitz, Navy Minister, held the job for 19 years and followed one plan throughout his career:  more battleships, and then more battleships.  The Kaiser said that ‘with every new German battleship there was laid a fresh pledge for peace’.  Yet Tirpitz was using his battleships to frighten Britain into silence.”

"On 15 August 1914, Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery wrote in his diary: ‘At least the thing will be over in three weeks."

”If Germany seized the Channel ports, this would be hugely damaging to Britain’s strategic position. Britain went to war for Belgium’s sake, and for her own.”

"In 1914 the German army did not talk to the German navy.  For eight days in August an armada of ships transported the British army to France without disturbance.”

"The British infantry’s  name for its rapid rifle-fire was ‘mad minute’: a trained rifleman could fire fifteen rounds a minute.  This was often mistaken for machine-gun fire.”

"Confidence of success fuelled German troops’ drive for victory.  All Germany shared this confidence:  friends and family wrote letters to German soldiers with the address ‘in or near Paris’. (The postal service being neutral, sacks of this mail reached Paris.)”

"Winning the Battle of Ypres gave the Allies no strategic advantage but it became a heroic trophy simply  because Germany wanted it so badly.”

    The Paperback is available only directly from the author

In UK                                              8
In Europe                                         10
Rest  of World                                 12.50

Preferred payment method  -  PayPal
Email your order to me at and you will receive a Payment Request.  Then all you need is a credit card to pay into my PayPal account.

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Click here to read
Elizabeth Ballmer's review
Why 1914?
   is now also available as an Amazon E-book.

Click here for details

Mentioned in Despatches

Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian chooses Why 1914 as one of his Paperbacks of the Year, writing: "The novelist Derek Robinson, 82 this year, just keeps going, and his prose is as sharp and sprightly as ever (there is something of Evelyn Waugh about its economy and grip)...   This year he has written and self-published the best introduction to the causes of the  first world war, Why 1914?, I have come across.  He is as vivid and trustworthy a historian as he is a novelist."

Robert Allison  puts A Good Clean Fight in his top 10 of desert warfare novels, saying, “Well above genre standards,  thanks to its energetic storytelling, its wealth of factual detail , and the author’s trademark gallows humour."                                                                                           Click to read the full article.

Reviewing A Splendid Little War, Nick Lezard writes: "Robinson has pulled off a remarkable coup. It's as bleakly intelligent as anything he has done but he has
also increased our historical understanding."
Click to read the full review.

Describing Derek Robinson's war novels, Antonia Senior said: "No one writes about war quite like Robinson, despite attempts to shroud him in echoes of other writers, such as Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer. He writes with a bleak savagery, in controlled, precise prose. There is humour – and it is dark and painful. There is love – and it is inadequate and messy. Most of all there is death. It comes from clear blue skies and grey clouds, from enemy fire and friendly mistakes. It
hovers, unseen, at  15,000 feet."
                                                                           Click to read the full article.

                                A Splendid Little War is now available in paperback. 

It's 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
      The Daily Express
                                     American edition of GQ Magazine
                                                                                            The Independent                                                                    


DR_Who He?   When 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.

The 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.
That's 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.


MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus Books) has published all of my flying novels  -  four Royal Flying Corps books and four Royal Air Force books.  Here are the new covers: 
      pce cake       hullo russia        A Good Clean Fight       Damned Good Show_new

                war story_new              hornets sting_new            goshawk squadron_new              

Click here to go to the MacLeHose website. where you can click on their individual covers for  purchase options, including e-books.
This will be the first time that all my flying titles are in print from the same publisher:  something that gives me great satisfaction. Equally satisfying is the work of Tony Cowland, who has painted the cover illustrations for all the books. Each cover looks dramatically different, yet together they have a family likeness. They form a splendid collection, and they appeared at The Mall Galleries (near Admiralty Arch)  in the Aviation Paintings of the Year Exhibition by the Guild of Aviation Artists. The standard was high. My congratulations to Tony on a memorable achievement.
Artist and Author  
Photograph: Chris French

All 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:

                              Artillery                  RedRag                 OpBam 
                            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. 
In 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.

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.

(To read the full Observer review, click here.) 

MacLehose 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 of Piece 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

Contact       I 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.

The RFC Quartet (WW1)
         pce cake          A Good Clean Fight          Damned Good Show_new           hullo russia          
                             The RAF Quartet (WW2)
The Double Agent Quartet
Other Novels/History
Rugby Books

Bristol Books

Availability of the books.   

All 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 books. 

 The two Bristle books, and A Darker Side of Bristol are published by Countryside Books .

Finally, I have a few copies of Pure Bristle, available at 2 each. 

Quercus Books  Amazon UK      Amazon USA      Fantastic Fiction   

Other websites you may find of interest:    Wikipedia     IMDB     Jeremy Northam Blog   

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?