Previously in Readers Write...

Readers Write #1  March 09  

 News from the author, now and then.

       One of the rewards of self-publishing is the number of messages I get from people who read my books.  Here are some of their comments.  First names only, for obvious reasons.  
Edward, in London, was one of the first to get hold of the latest novel, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, and said:  “I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought the denouement  -  Silk’s final flight in the Vulcan  -   was particularly good.  You fooled this reader nicely.”   Sean in Lancashire simply said:  “Damn splendid book.”   Steve, in Nottingham, welcomed “the long-awaited reappearance of my favourite cussed intelligence officer.”  That must be Skull.  Chris, in Victoria, Australia, was still reading HRGE when he said he was “enjoying my copy immensely. It’s always nice to spend time with old friends like Skull (possibly my favourite character in any of your books) and Silk… the appearance of Baggy Bletchley was a treat too.” And John, in New York State, said:  “I loved every page of it.” 
Every new novel is a gamble - for you as well as for me.  No book pleases everyone, and any author who expects it to happen is doomed to disappointment.  So I was neither surprised nor dismayed when Graham in Essex sent me a thoughtful review which mentions “two minor disappointments.  First, I wished the book were longer - it all seemed over very quickly.  Secondly, there were no new major characters to engage us,  which reinforces the feeling that this is something of a tailpiece to earlier books.”   Which raises the question: how long should a novel be?  Answer:  the story itself makes that decision.  When it reaches its end, the book is complete.  Piece of Cake made 569 pages in hardback, while Goshawk Squadron made only 218.  Hullo Russia runs to 264 pages.  Different stories, different lengths. 
I’m happy to say that Graham enjoyed Hullo Russia.  He says:  “the meeting of Robinson’s cool approach and sardonic humour with the lunacy of nuclear deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction proves to be a marriage made in heaven.”   I like his thumbnail profiles.  Of Silk: “the man you meet in a bar, a charmer and funny too… Silk is running out of places to do the only thing he knows and enjoys.  For me, he resembles one of Sam Peckinpah’s heroes, increasingly lost as the West is pacified and tidied up.”  About Skull:  “the good man in a bad trade. The man you love to have on your team, clever and thoughtful - but he never knows when to shut up.  Because there is no combat in this novel and the enemy is totally unseen, Skull fulfills that role and acts as the grit in the plot which gives us the pearls.”   Nicely put.  

Other books are others’ favourites. Mark, in Liverpool, reckons Piece of Cake is my best WW2/RAF book - he’s re-read it so often, he’s on his third paperback copy.  (His brother’s vote goes to Damned Good Show.) Likewise C.M.G., in the Borders,  who tells me he’s been known to finish reading the ending and immediately start again at the beginning  -  and finding something new every time.  Gordon, in Lanarkshire, got so much out of Hornet’s Sting that he’s “experiencing symptoms of bereavement and wondering if there’s any chance you’ll write another RFC novel?”  Well, nothing’s impossible;  but my  new novel,  out later this year, is Operation Bamboozle,  yet another in the Luis Cabrillo series which began with The Eldorado Network  -  of which Steve in Florida writes: “It caused me physical pain from laughing.”  But his favourite remains Goshawk Squadron

Readers Write #2  May 09

Robbery in the Library, Gender Confusion, and a Dog Named 'Moggy'.    

   Listen, I just write the books.  Who knows where they end up? I've had mail from Norwegians on oil platforms,  and from a pilot who flies jumbos for a South Pacific airline,  and from Jim in Alberta where it's often 30 or 40 below.  I'm told the U.S. Marines in Iraq enjoy my WW2 desert story,  A Good Clean Fight.   Nothing surprises me, not even the email from Tim in Australia that began:  "The first book I stole was Piece of Cake."  He nicked it from the school library when he was 16.  "I probably read it another six or seven times before it fell apart."  By then he was old enough to pay for books, so he bought another copy.  Should have bought two, and given the other to the library. 

So I don't know where my books end up, and I don't know how the reader feels at the time.  For instance, Tony in Ireland has read the RFC and the RAF trilogies.  "I was working in Eastern Europe," he says, "and they saw me through some hairy times"  -  which sets the imagination working.  And Peter in Somerset recalls a very rough patch when he was ill.  "I want to thank you for helping me recover,"  he says,  and he names in particular Hornet's Sting, Piece of Cake and Damned Good Show  -   "so good, so entertaining and so well written that I forgot how ill I was and simply enjoyed the pleasure of the stories."   I had never thought of the novel as therapy;  but when the book takes you out of yourself and lifts you to somewhere you would otherwise never go,  that journey might well do you a power of good. 

   These thoughts are prompted by the steady stream of letters (and cheques or PayPal requests) that followed Nicholas  Lezard's corker of a review of Hullo Russia, Goodbye England in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago. David in Maryland ordered a copy and wrote that he came across Goshawk Squadron over 35 years ago and still re-reads it, along with other yarns of mine.  Helen in Dublin said she 'enjoyed' my writing, then thought that 'appreciated' was a better word, and finally upgraded that to 'enthralled'. W.B.T. in Southampton has read and re-read all my books, and (he says) so has his wife, which is pleasing.  Paul in Dublin ranks me as "one of 3 or 4 authors all of whose work I own";  and Matt in London "recently read Goshawk Squadron on my honeymoon and absolutely loved it."  (Let's hope that marks the start of a long relationship.)   And many more letters, saying more of the same, including the nice lady in Wales who addressed me as 'Dear Sir or Madam'. 

That's got the Gender Confusion out of the way.  Now for the dog named Moggy.  Jack in Alabama liked Kentucky Blues, so he moved on to Piece of Cake  and writes that he thought the characters "were very well-drawn, with CH3,  Fanny, Flash, Skull and Moggy being stand-outs... In fact, I'd place Moggy as one of the best-drawn characters in war literature ever."  So when Jack's girlfriend gave him a cocker spaniel for Christmas, he named the dog 'Moggy'.  Didn't go down well.  "God, how people bitched and complained!" he  tells me. The nickname  means nothing in the States.  Jack travels a lot.  His girlfriend took  care of  Moggy in his absence and rapidly renamed him 'Tucker'.   "But," Jack adds, "for a few short days, Pilot Officer Cattermole lived on in the form of a rambunctious little black dog."  Nice tribute, Jack. Can't think of anything better. 

   Some ex-Vulcan pilots and groundcrew also bought copies of Hullo Russia. Next time I'll write about that.  They all say they finished the book,  sometimes reading it non-stop,  which can't be bad.


Readers Write #3  June 09

Vulcan feedback,   the deaded P tube,  and the Snow White trick.   

Thomas Keneally is a very good researcher, By chance, he met the owner of a Californian leather-goods shop who was one of the Polish Jews rescued from the German death camps by Oskar Schindler. After that, Keneally worked hard to find the facts that became Schindler's Ark, which became the film Schindler's List. He could have written another Holocaust history. Instead, he wrote his book as fiction - not because he wasn't sure of the truth, but because he didn't want it to end up on the packed shelves of Holocaust volumes. Keneally wanted his story to be read by people who never look at World War Two histories. And he succeeded.

I think I know how he feels. I parted company with one publisher because my fiction always ended up in the Military History section of the shop. That wasn't why I wrote it. I wrote it for the Keneally reason, so that people might get an idea of what war is like at the sharp end. Not the daily scores in, say, air combat in the desert war (which is how military historians tend to see the battle) but how a fighter squadron lives, kills and dies in the sand, flies and blood of the Western Desert. A Good Clean Fight is good history; I researched it thoroughly. But it takes you where the military histories never go. I hope that's true of all my flying stuff.

Including the latest, Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. I've had some feedback from former Vulcan pilots and groundcrew. Chris in London flew Vulcans and said: "It was a good read, and took me back." Brad in Lincoln said, "Have just finished it. Grand read!" Having been front-line ground crew for 15 years, he noticed a couple of places where I slightly bent the truth - for instance, each Vulcan airbase was either a Blue Steel or a bomb station, but not both. My mistake.

And here's another detail I might have included: "There is no mention of the dreaded P Tube, a rubber bladder with a fitted chrome receptacle into which you could pee, if you really had to. After a sortie, each crew member emptied their own, normally at the side of the Crew Chief's hut on the pan." I suspect that's the kind of info my readers like to know. Some people thought Baggy Bletchley bought it in a portable loo at the end of Piece of Cake, and were pleasantly surprised to meet him again in Hullo Russia. He survived Cake, and A Good Clean Fight; he may surface again.

I was happy that Brad confirmed the problems of arming a Vulcan with the Blue Steel missile. The fuel (HTP) was so toxic that any groundcrew splashed with it had to dive into a nearby plunge bath instantly, or his clothing caught fire. And loading the missile meant 230 gold studs (the Butt Connector) made perfect contact; if not, download and start again. An exercise involving Blue Steel began hours before take-off. A far cry from the famous 'four-minute warning' of an attack.

 Peter, a former Vulcan captain now in France, got the book and wrote: "I sat in a deckchair at the week-end and I pretty much read it straight through. I think that says a great deal, and I found it a good read. The story perhaps stretched the imagination a little in some areas. Certainly our hero Silk could not have been disposed of quite so quickly." Well, endings are often the most difficult part. Peter adds that he joined the Vulcan OCU eight years after Silk. By then, the aircraft was a truly low-level machine, Blue Steel had long gone, and so had the WW2 veterans in the aircrew. (Maybe some of the mindset of those who had bombed German cities went with them.) But Peter also read Piece of Cake. "I think you have caught the repartee and banter of aircrew magnificently," he says. "My first Vulcan squadron used the Snow White party trick." (That's the one with everyone in line astern, marching on their knees, arms folded, singing 'Hey Ho!' - it's in Cake, page 75.) "With 55 aircrew on the squadron, there were sometimes more than seven dwarfs!"

Thanks to all who wrote.  And welcome to several public libraries who have bought copies, including Enfield (in London), Hartlepool, North Yorkshire, Dorset and Wrexham.  Glad to have you on board.    

Readers Write #4  July 09

No Guinness in Mongolia,  a shrink's view of Silko,  and "Jag tycker om det," in spades 

       For over 25 years, nobody has asked me to explain in detail the episode at the start of Piece of Cake where the pilots are ordered to study, as a matter of urgency,  a Classified Secret document called 'Useful Polish Terms and Phrases for British Aircrew'.   (The order gets scrubbed, like so many in wartime.)  Now Nick in New South Wales  ("I just finished re-reading  Piece of Cake, and I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time. Your books come alive for me because they make me care about your characters")  asks the meaning of 'Jag tycker om det'.  Was it just a nonsense phrase?  Far from it:  it's Swedish for "I like it." Someone at Air Ministry got Swedish and Polish confused,  and in 1939 most pilots couldn't tell the difference. Typical wartime cock-up. 
   We'll skip lightly over the many gung-ho letters, such as Louis in London: "Thanks for all the hours of marvellous entertainment you've provided over the years"... Stephen in Surrey: "I couldn't believe it when a friend told me you'd written another book" (he bought two copies, fast)....Neal in Texas:  "I've enjoyed your writing immensely. I loaned  A Good Clean Fight to my father and he loved it  -  we spent a solid hour discussing it"   -   and we'll move on to the former Vulcan aircrew who are reading Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, often as a gift from the family. Steve in East Sussex ordered a copy for his father-in-law, for whom HRGE might have been written:  he flew Lancaster bombers in WW2, survived intact, moved on to fly Vulcans  "for God knows what eventuality"  and "has never ceased to both inspire and amaze with his many recollections."  In Doncaster, Ray got a copy for his brother-in-law, a retired squadron leader navigator on Vulcans.  (Navs really flew the bomber;  the pilot just sat in front and drove it.  Or so the navs say.)  Simon in Lancashire got the book as a surprise gift for his dad, an ex-Vulcan pilot at RAF Scampton and Waddington.  And then there was the splendid letter from Peter, living not a million miles from me. Here's where we get to the Mongolian Guinness famine.
     Peter was an RAF Canberra pilot in Germany in the early 1960s. The bomber  - faster than many RAF fighters  -  was part of Britain's nuclear force.  His task was photo-reconnaissance;  but since his Canberra looked like a bomber,  the Soviet defences would probably have treated it like one.  He was 21 years old.
     "At the Ops bunker we were shown our recce targets  -  a couple of airfields and a railway line in Poland  -  and the previous crew's plan.  I never discovered who it was, but he had drawn a straight line over the middle of Berlin, which struck us as a bad idea."   (Berlin's Russian sector was heavily defended.)  Peter and his nav plotted a more realistic route and calculated that, at very low level (50 feet) and a reasonable survival speed  (350 knots), they wouldn't have enough fuel to get back.  His flight commander's advice was to shut down one engine for the journey home.  "We thought about this, and realised we weren't meant to get home.  We assumed that we would all be launched eastwards and, with us unarmed as decoys,  the bombers would have a better chance of getting through." 
    Vulcan aircrew faced a similar prospect (which is partly why I wrote HRGE).  One Vulcan pilot raised the question of the one-way journey with a senior officer, who advised him to "keep on flying east, land somewhere deep in the country, and settle down with a nice, warm Mongolian woman." 
   Peter's nav told him  he knew "a long beach in West Donegal where one might get a Canberra down in one piece.  So we planned that"   -   crossing the North Sea at zero feet, avoiding the UK defences  -  "and then sit out the war in Donegal.  Would we have done it?  Almost certainly not.   Did we care about the war plan?  Not much.  I was very young,  life was brilliant, and no-one else seemed to care much either   -  'Have another beer, old boy'."  Or another Guinness.  No Guinness in Mongolia. Unlike West Donegal. 
     Peter "enjoyed HRGE  immensely.  Your V-force plot prompted many memories of my time as a Canberra PR7 pilot."  However, as Nick in NSW remarked, it's the characters in my books that matter, and a different Peter in Ipswich,  having been a psychiatric nurse for many years, also enjoyed the book and found in Silk, the Vulcan pilot,  "an amalgam of several characters.... Although he does his duty, his amorality and emotional detachment mark him down as having considerable sociopathic tendencies, although his ability to learn from experience goes against his being an out-and-out psychopath.  Douglas Bader comes to mind." 
   Maybe that also explains  why it is that Silko can't play the cello  (another crucial bit of plot).   Readers in Rutland and in Buckinghamshire can now find out for themselves   -   their public libraries have bought copies. Welcome aboard.
Readers Write #5  August 09 
Grand Theft Library,  murder in the imagination,
  and more kudos

            Amazing how many people steal books, especially books by me. I've heard from honest, upright citizens who wouldn't think of cheating on the golf course, but who admit that they stole a copy of 'Piece of Cake' or 'Damned Good Show'.   Often it was the school or college library that was plundered.  That's how Jan in South Africa got started with my stuff.  Then he bought the rest, has read and re-read them until they fell to bits, and now he's replaced them, with kind remarks about their "superb characterization, off-beat humour and unquestionable knowledge of the subject",  all making for "unforgettable reading".  And he added something that made me stop and think:  "I suspect that you are actually writing non-fiction clothed as fiction..."  

Am I?  Aren't most authors?  Before I wrote 'Goshawk Squadron', for instance, I worked hard on the research, and learned all I could about what the R.F.C. was doing in France in 1918  -  and also what the British, French and German armies were doing to each other. The book came out in 1971, when a lot of men were alive who had fought in that war, and I didn't want them rubbishing my story.  So 'Goshawk' is built around a strong framework of fact,  and the war itself is the terrible engine that drives it forward.  Some of my pilots, fresh from school, die without becoming heroes, without making any real difference  -  well, that's the way it was. A few veterans hated the book (sometimes without reading it).  But Bill Asburey, a pilot in the First War and a good friend, recognised  a  streak of truth in 'Goshawk',  and he invited me to be his guest at the R.F.C. Association annual dinner.  The organisers refused to have me. Bill resigned his membership. "They can't face reality," he told me. "They want to believe that nobody died in vain.  But a lot of war is waste." 

 Okay. Now for something brighter, as they don't say on TV news.  Imagination.  I use it all the time.  How it works, beats me. I'm just grateful. Take a story of mine called 'Kentucky Blues'. It's about a small, not-too-bright town called Rock Springs around the time of the Civil War, deep in Kentucky. There's a murder trial,  some jurors drop out, and  the remaining jury can't decide whether or not to count the absentees' proxy votes when it comes to deciding their verdict. So the judge rules that they must vote on it  -  should proxies count or not?  But before the vote can be taken, a few awkward jurors raise an objection. Will the proxy votes count in the vote on whether or not proxies should count? The judge is baffled.  Confusion reigns. 

 That episode  came partly from my imagination and largely from my experience when I was playing for the Manhattan Rugby Club in New York.  We had an A.G.M. where the same proxy argument descended into chaos.  I just stole the idea and moved it to 1860s Kentucky.  There's a lot of stealing in fiction. 

 Quick round-up of some readers' messages. Ron in Walthomstow found 'Hullo Russia, Goodbye England' a "cracking good story", and adds: "I'm glad Skull got the promotion he so richly deserved."  (Skull, the squadron Intelligence Officer, keeps getting fired for his honesty,  and gets promoted whenever he moves on.)  Wesley in Southend says 'Piece of Cake' is "my favourite book by any author in any genre...It altered my opinion of any other book, about war in general and the RAF in particular."   Steven in Queensland seems to have collected everything I've written: "You have a whole section in my bookcase," he says, while James in South Carolina read 'Hullo Russia' without pause and liked it  -  "an excellent piece of writing".  Andy in Hong Kong , having just re-read  "and, of course, thoroughly enjoyed 'War Story'" is  seeking 'Damned Good Show',  and the good news is I expect to get reprint copies any day now.  Finally, a note from ex-Vulcan pilot Peter in France simply confirms what I suggest in HRGE  -  that if they were scrambled to attack the Soviet Union, it would be a one-way mission.  Nobody expected to return. "There was always  much banter  about heading west rather than east if we were scrambled," Peter recalls, "but it was just that  -  I am quite certain the vast majority would have headed off to do what had to be done." 


Readers Write #6  October 09

 Heroics,   Tin Pan Alley,  and a First from Finland.  

   Someone remarked that there are no heroes in my books.  Plenty of courage, no lack of sacrifice, a lot of death.  But heroes?  The word itself has been done to death.  I was in New York when US soldiers, marines and airmen returned from the First Gulf  War, nearly twenty years ago, and they got a tickertape reception.  New Yorkers called them all 'heroes', and many servicemen looked uncomfortable with the label.  In any army, for every frontline fighting man there are six or seven or even ten men behind  him, providing support.  Cooks, medics, dentists, truck drivers, guys organising supplies, keeping records, sending signals.  All doing essential jobs, but are they all heroes?  When everyone is heroic, the word has lost all meaning.  Let's save it for those who truly deserve it.  

   Moving on:  I've always believed that a good writer can write convincingly in any style that's needed  -  tabloid journalism, song lyrics,  boring bureaucratic jargon, whatever.  I'm sometimes disappointed by crime novelists who include chunks of newspaper  reporting for the sake of  plot.  They've obviously never worked on a paper. When I wrote 'The Eldorado Network'   -   which is  about a double agent reporting allegedly secret info   -    his style often had to be boring in order to be convincing.  The facts seemed more exciting because the writing was so dull.  I worked hard on that,  just as I did in 'A Good Clean Fight' where I wanted to quote the lyrics of a certain popular song.  (Good contrast with the bleak Libyan desert.)  Surprise, surprise:  UK copyright  lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator,  and those lyrics were still in copyright.  Rather than pay a fee (hey, writing is a business, remember), I wrote my own lyrics, of which I'm quietly proud.  You can sing them in the bath, if you wish:  

                              When you don't care... 

                              I'm bound in iron bands. 

                              When you don't care... 

                              I'm lost in desert sands. 

                              In this wilderness, with none but you to guide me, 

                              I'm in heaven with your tenderness beside me...  

And if you think any fool could have written that,  just try writing the next verse.  But don't steal my words.  They're my copyright now.   

   Fresh insights from readers' messages.  Anthony in London bought 'Hullo Russia...' and mentions what a pleasure it is "to find a novelist who is able to produce books that you can't put down  -  I finished 'Piece of Cake' in a few days and felt totally wrung out  by the sense of tension and fatigue you managed to sustain..."  By contrast, a different reaction from John,  somewhere in UK,  who  "read it again and again over a period of three years...I never, ever laughed out loud so many times. My wife thinks I'm mad, The humour is fantastic, and the deaths of the characters very emotional..."  Matthew in Ontario discovered 'Cake' when he was   14:  "I have read it dozens of times since then and still enjoy it immensely."  Indeed,  it has inspired him to write a Bomber Command novel.  And why not?  Kim, now a librarian, confesses to having borrowed a copy of 'Hornet's Sting' from a public library, told them it was lost (not true) but paid for it, and says: "I always enjoy recommending your work to fans of Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester,  etc. Absolute fantastic reads on all levels."  

   And Richard in North Yorkshire  -  another big fan  -  reckons that " 'Goshawk Squadron' should have won the Booker Prize." (I'll settle for the fact that it's still in print nearly 40 years later.)  Also from far-flung readers:  Neal in Houston, Texas says of 'Hullo Russia...':  "Well done, sir! You still have the gift for character and banter."  Mark in Adelaide, while ordering an armful of books, says:  "Thanks for years of entertainment!"   While Jarmo in Oulo, on the strength of reading the first 80 pages of War Story', wants a similar armful of what he calls my "delightful prose".   And Oulo, in case you're wondering, is in delightful Finland.  



Readers Write #7 November 09


 Viewers are smart, readers are far-flung, translations are rare


   The television adaptation of  Piece of Cake still attracts questions.  (It was first shown in 1988,  so if you're under 25, ask your parents.)  All five hour-long episodes are now available on DVD, at what strikes me (and I can be impartial because I sold the rights and so I don't make a penny from the DVD) as a very low price. If you can't find it locally, try Ian Allan Publishing  -  that's where I bought mine.  For a drama, the TV showing pulled in a big audience. I think the final episode attracted 13 million viewers in the UK,  and LWT sold the series around the world.  In the US it went out on Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, a much respected viewing slot.  And don't tell me they spell it 'Theater' over there.  Mobil called it 'Theatre', and I have the poster to prove it.  

Tim in Victoria, Australia was 12 at the time, watched Cake with his Mum, bet her that Moggy would survive, "which of course ultimately resulted in my having to make both our beds for a week."  This throws an interesting light on the novel and one reason why I think it keeps on getting re-read (and re-shown): it's the unpredictable nature of events.  A good story should surprise. I set out to tell the events of the Phoney War, the Battle for France and the Battle of Britain, just as they might have happened to one RAF fighter squadron.  All the research I did (and that was a lot) confirmed one thing: many pilots got killed, some in battle, some not, some by inexperience, some by sheer bad luck.  Flying was risky in those days.  On a typical fighter squadron, of those pilots who had begun the war, most would not be flying a year later. Sometimes none.  

This is the unpredictable element that keeps Piece of Cake on edge.  When the television series was being cast, I was pleased to see that I recognised hardly any names.  Viewers are smart.  They know that the star they meet in episode one is not going to be killed in episode two or three, and probably not at all  -  television has paid that actor a ton of money and it's not going to be wasted.  Nearly all the pilots in Piece of Cake were played by young unknown actors.  Some became better known later (Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker) and Tom Burlinson had already made a name in Australia but not in Britain.  So viewers could never guess who would live and who would die.  Tim, aged 12, guessed wrongly,  and that both reflected the truth of the war and upheld the dramatic tension of the story.  Incidentally, I thought Neil Dudgeon, who played Moggy Cattermole, was excellent.  An RAF fighter pilot who actually led a squadron in the Battle of Britain read the book, saw the series, and wrote to me.  He had known men like Moggy,  and he summed him up very neatly:  "Bad for discipline, good for morale  -  every squadron should have one.  Just one." 

Other questions I get asked: (1) Did I write the screenplay? No, I didn't.  I'd put four hard years into the novel, and I was very happy when Leon Griffiths (who created Minder) wrote the screenplay. (2) The novel says Hurricanes, so why use Spitfires?  Very few Hurricanes survived, and none were aerobatic, so it was Spits or nothing.  (3) Did I like the TV version?  Well, naturally I pefer the book,  but it's a long story and if they'd shot the whole of the printed word, the series would never have ended. It's pretty good. The music is haunting.  I wish it were on CD. 

Back to readers write.  Among the more exotic  messages have been those from Bernice, who runs Crooked Timber Books in what sounds like a very rugged corner of Nova Scotia; Jarmo in Finland (ordering the RFC trilogy);  Anette in Sweden (ditto); plus Karen in Switzerland (Hornet's Sting), Jules in Holland, Charles in Prague and Werner in Vienna  (all for Hullo Russia, Goodbye England).  

Which prompts two thoughts.  First:  that I'm lucky to write in English, a global language. When an Egyptian airliner talks to Bulgarian air traffic control, they talk in English.   I'm sure Finland is a delightful country, but if I'd been born there, writing in Finnish would not have made my career any easier.  And my second thought is that there are translations of my work sitting on my shelves that might make an unusual gift if you have a friend in another country.   I have copies of Goshawk Squadron in French (Les Abattoirs du Ciel), in Spanish (Escadrilla Azur), and in Dutch (Het Havik Squadron).  There's The Eldorado Network in Spanish (El Spia Dorado) and in Dutch (Het Eldorado Netwerk);  and Kramer's War in Finnish (Luutnantti Kramerin Sota) and in what may be Belgian but is probably Dutch (Kramer's Oorlog).   I've even got  Polish versions of A Good Clean Fight (Pustynny Ogien), and of The Eldorado Network (Siatka Eldorado) and of Artillery of Lies (Artyleria Klamstw).  If you're interested, email me and we'll take it from there.



Readers Write #8 December 09


Rumblings in Cornwall, the Forgotten War, and three helpings of 'Cake'


I sense a smouldering impatience in Cornwall.  K.M.D. of St Ives writes to say how much he's enjoyed my previous books, especially the RFC/RAF trilogies.  'Damned Good Show' meant much to him because his father-in-law was in Bomber Command in WW2, got shot down in a Wellington, spent four years in Stalag Luft III, and then in the 1950s  instructed at RAF Finningley, a V-Bomber base.  Which is why K.M.D. particularly wanted to read 'Hullo Russia, Goodbye England'  -  it echoes much of his father-in-law's experience.   

But then he adds:  "I've been disappointed that there aren't more of your RAF books. After all, there's still a lot of WW2 left for Hornet Squadron after 'A Good Clean Fight', and there's also Korea, Suez etc."  

Well, I wish I could oblige. The money would be nice. I see other writers who, year after year, produce a succession of novels that play variations on the same tune, and a small voice inside me says: Why don't you do that?  Dick Francis writes a horse-racing novel a year. His fans love him.  Write an RAF novel a year and your fans will love you.  Why not? And a loud voice inside me says: Because you'll be bored rigid. Even the great Conan Doyle grew to loath Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill him off.  His fans wouldn't wear it and Doyle went back to grinding out more variations on a tune that must have made him want to throttle someone. If not Holmes, then Watson.  Or Inspector Lestrade. Or Mrs Hudson..  Or, ideally, the whole gang.  

I'm not in the grinding-out business. I write novels because I find an idea that strikes me as different, even surprising. I try to write a story that I enjoy  -  something fresh and unusual, maybe something that upsets what most people think they already know. Every novel is a gamble. I like risk.  So I can't do what K.M.D. of St Ives suggests,  which is to put Hornet Squadron into Suez or Korea simply because those wars happened.  I need an idea as well, a hook to hang the story on.  

One of the hooks I found, and used in 'Damned Good Show', is the forgotten war waged by Bomber Command from  the outbreak of war to 1941/2.  Say 'Bomber Command' to most people and they think of Lancasters flattening German cities.  But the Lancs weren't much seen on ops until mid-1942,  and not in large numbers until 1943.  Take the Thousand-Bomber Raid on Cologne on 30th May 1942;  only 73 Lancs took part in that, as compared with 79 Hampdens,  131 Halifaxes and 602 Wellingtons  (plus others). In fact, Bomber Command's first operation was on the very day that war was declared, 3rd September 1939.  During the next couple of years, the Command learned how (and how not) to take the battle to the enemy homeland. 

So I was very pleased to hear from someone who was there at the start. Lawrence Wheatley in Bude, Cornwall. He qualified as an Air Observer (soon to be renamed Navigator) in summer 1939,  and joined 'B' Flight of 144 Squadron. The squadron  flew Hampdens, a compact twin-engine bomber that plays a big part in 'Damned Good Show'.  Lawrence suffered from chronic air-sickness and was grounded by the medics, which almost certainly saved his life, because on 29 September 1939 'B' Flight was searching for targets north of Heligoland and ran into German fighters. All five Hampdens were shot down. Soon people were calling it the 'Phoney War'.  It was real enough for the RAF.  Throughout WW2, Bomber Command losses were heavy. Of the 48 men who completed Lawrence's Air Observer course, 28 died in action or in flying accidents.

Lawrence said he's enjoying D.G.S., "though slightly disappointed" that it's centred on the officers "and little is said about the Sergeants' Mess where the majority of the crew would live."  It's a fair point.  My problem was numbers.  I told the story through the pilots, who were usually officers.  That involved a dozen (or more) characters. If I had included the Sergeants' Mess too, it would have doubled the cast. That would be more than I, or most readers, could handle.

Meanwhile, my other flying stories have been prompting some mail. Bob in Ottery St. Mary flew Canberras and Buccaneers (both types were capable of carrying nuclear weapons) and he writes: "I don't know how you do it, but the atmosphere and the characters on the squadrons I've served on are often reflected in your books."  Steve in Nottingham, having just read 'Hullo Russia, Goodbye England', says: "The flying descriptions  -  absolutely brilliant. I presume you leaned on some former pilots to get that right."  Well, I certainly had my stuff doublechecked for accuracy, but in essence it all came out of what's left of my mind.  Chris in the Borders "liked HRGE immensely. You have a way with character dialogue that, in my opinion, is second to none....Also the story had me from the start; these are characters that I may not necessarily care about, but I revel in their ups and downs, and ultimately they mostly win me over by the end;  including Luis Cabrillo from 'The Eldorado Network' trilogy..."  (It's actually a quartet, with the new book 'Operation Bamboozle', which Chris bought.) Jonathan in Basingstoke is now on his third copy of 'Piece of Cake', having worn out the other two: "Still an old favourite that I revisit every few years....and it has the rare gift of giving something different every time." While Susan of Colchester bought HRGE and 'Hornet's Sting' as a Christmas gift for her husband, "a devotee of your writing"; and when Richard in Kent got his copy of 'Operation Bamboozle', he was "really chuffed to have a shelf full of your produce."   And I'm chuffed too. 


Readers Write #9 February 2010


Barrel-rolling a Boeing, our forgetful MPs,  and a nice line in scams.


For the filming of  Piece of Cake, the Spitfires were flown by professionals, and they took it seriously,  which is understandable when (a) the aeroplane was worth half a million pounds (more now), and (b) it was irreplaceable, and (c) your life depended on it. 

Nevertheless, I remember a day when the weather was too gloomy for filming, and one pilot got very bored with hanging around.  When the cloud-level lifted the light was still poor, but he was itching to fly, and so he took off and threw his Spit around for ten minutes. Just for fun. No charge on the producers. But the pilot got a big charge out of it.  

I mention this because I imagine that inside every commercial pilot is the ghost of a fighter pilot who sometimes looks at his Airbus or his Boeing and wonders what it would be be like to perform a sweet barrel roll, or play leapfrog with the clouds.  Just for fun.  Then the fighter pilot gets firmly put back in his box and the pro pilot returns to another day in the cockpit.  Or, as many call it, the office.  

Maybe that explains why quite a few working pilots like to read my stuff.  Rowland in New South Wales spent eight years flying in police helicopters, and he read his paperback Piece of Cake so often that it fell apart. He says: "Many of my vintage aircrew read it in our many and lengthy downtimes. We read parts of it to each other across the crewroom, office and hangar floor...Good memories."  (He's now bought a hardback copy from me.) "A sincere thank you for the many hours of enjoyment Piece of Cake brought to very bored aircrew waiting for the telephone to ring."  Robert in Cologne is another pilot (he's with Lufthansa) who keeps returning to Cake (now on his sixth reading).  "For me, it is maybe the best book about flying fighters I have ever read," he writes, "apart from being a very good book."  And he adds something it's always good to hear from a pro pilot: "You got the flying scenes right -  and I'm very sensitive when it comes to that."  But it's the humour and the characters that keep drawing him back: "I just read the part where Squadron Leader Rex elaborates on fighter tactics in October '39  -  with Reilly (his dog) yawning and wandering away. That is so good."  Dogs often make useful contributions in my books. My wife reckons that Othello, the elderly basset hound in Operation Bamboozle, has the best lines. Nobody hears him, of course, but he knows what he thinks.

Moving on:  Gordon in Suffolk worked for Rolls-Royce engines until recently.  He enjoyed Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, and he's not the first to tell me he's "absolutely appalled that you could not find a publisher. If you can't get this type of book published, who can?"  It's a mystery to me too, but commercial publishers go their own sweet way, which is why I self-publish my stuff.  Gordon, having found my website, says: "It was like discovering a treasure trove of undiscovered goodies."  (He meant the books, not my author's photograph, which a friend said looks like a benevolent Balkans dictator.  That's what friends are for.) Gordon passes on a story he was told by a veteran aerospace journalist who went to a reception given by a defence manufacturer. Many youngish MPs were there. The journo remarked to them that it was marvellous to see the Vulcan, greatest of all V-bombers, flying again. Blank looks. 'V-bombers....Vulcan, Victor, Valiant...Cold War... nuclear deterrent in the 1960s...' More blank looks. Gordon quotes Alan Bennett: "There is nowhere more distant than the recent past."  Too true. It's one reason why I wrote HRGE. People forget. Even things like the motto of the nuclear powers  -  Mutual Assured Destruction  -  can slip their mind.  

Readers continue to intrigue me by their sheer stamina. David in Barnes SW13 reckons he's read "just about every one of your books at least 5 times (beginning with Goshawk Squadron) and I have now recruited my present wife, my ex-wife, my two brothers, my daughter, her husband and soon, I hope, their two boys."  To which, with the Cake DVD, he's just hooked his son-in-law.  Truly amazing. John, somewhere in Oz, is reading Damned Good Show for the fourth time, and  -  because his dad flew in them  -  would like me to write about the dangerous, low-level work of four-engine Halifaxes dropping supplies to partisans in Italy, Jugoslavia, even Poland. Very hairy ops.  And Peter in Ontario got a kick out of reading A Good Clean Fight, since his dad flew Kittyhawks with the Desert Air Force, went on to fly Spits in Johnson's Canadian wing at D-Day, and survived the war.  Peter ("I'm a big fan") bought Hornet's Sting, Op Bam and Hullo Russia. Then Karen in Switzerland, having just read War Story and Hornet's Sting, says: "I loved both and 'missed' reading them when finished." She's always been interested in vintage aeroplanes and in photography (she sent me some fine airborne** shots taken at Old Warden, especially one of the Bristol Fighter), and her partner is a retired pilot.  Add her interest in the history of both World Wars and (she says) "You managed to tick all the boxes that make the perfect book for me. I adored all the characters and found myself completely absorbed by the pilot psyche of the day."  Lastly, Stephen in Nottingham "enjoyed Bamboozle, which managed to combine a page-turning plot with some lovely period detail (as ever), and a nice line in scams." He then raises an unusual point.  In Cake, he says, I supply the background to every main character  -  except Moggy Cattermole. Stephen wants to know more about him.  I'll give it some serious thought. 

** If you would like to see Karen's pictures, Click Here

Readers Write #10 March 2010

 Humour can be more dangerous than gunpowder. With gunpowder,  you get a choice of two:  either it explodes or it fails. With humour, the choice may be three.  Ideally, people laugh.  But some people may not see the point.  When that happens, the silence is deafening.  And yet others may find the alleged humour so unfunny that, for them, it backfires.  It offends them.  This is the risk you take, because there is no such thing as a joke that cannot upset somebody, somewhere.  So humour is a gamble.  Ask any stand-up comic.  He'll tell you of nights when he had to fight the audience to make them laugh.  Other nights, they would laugh no matter what he said, even if it was "Corrugated iron".   Humour is a battlefield. 

    Maybe that's why it's such a big ingredient in my books. I write about battlefields (some of them in the sky) and humour keeps cropping up, even in the most desperate situations. It might be gallows humour.  In my first novel, Goshawk Squadron, a very young fighter pilot is so twitchy about going on patrol that he can't face his porridge at breakfast.  Woolley, the CO, comes in. "Are you going to eat that, Dudley?" Woolley asks.  "Or have you already?"   Nobody in the Mess laughs.  But I hoped the reader would at least smile, partly because the joke helps to tell the story and partly because it helps me  make a living. Richard Briers says much the same thing, and he should know.  

   Richard Briers ('The Good Life')  is one of the best comic actors in Britain. He's been called an icon.  (Live long enough and, as Alan Bennett put it, if you can still eat a boiled egg, you're an icon. I'm the third biggest icon in Bristol. The other two are Wallace and Gromit.) Briers says his talent for comedy has kept his family in comfort for more than 50 years.  Here's his advice to young actors:  "If you want to starve, go for Shakespeare.  But if you can be funny, lucky bugger, look at the bank balance..." Briers is no ham:  he's played King Lear on tour to 30 countries.  But being funny is what he's good at, and he's grateful for the talent.  I'm grateful for mine. Subtract the humour from my books and I don't think Darren (in Western Australia) would have read and re-read all my RFC and RAF stories. 

    "My fave is A Good Clean Fight," he writes. "Such vivid imagery!" He's a Flight Lieutenant, RAAF,  an Air Traffic Controller and amateur pilot, and his Aussie grandfather fought tank battles in the Desert War (where AGCF takes place),  so it's no surprise that the book rang bells for him.  But what strikes him especially is the humour.  "Your wicked satire style is contagious, and I must control myself when dealing with difficult people for weeks after reading one of your books, lest I drop slightly too barbed comments in response to their 'unhelpfulness'." 

    Cut to Luxembourg.  Captain Jean-Marie, a retired pilot, tells me he reads and enjoys all my stuff.  Nowadays, the aircrew in all airlines must have a grasp of English,  which is good for me.  Martin in London SW6 (not a pilot) rates himself as "simply one of your greatest fans" and to prove it he's read Hornet's Sting five times, Goshawk Squadron even more, and he's just finished Damned Good Show for the third time.  Now he's delving into Red Rag Blues and Operation Bamboozle, plus Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. ("Did Silk make it to the church with Zoe?" he asks.)

    Last month I promised Stephen in Nottingham that I would reveal Moggy Cattermole's background, since nothing is said about it in Piece of Cake. I've given it some thought, and young Moggy  -  always too tall for his age, and never a pretty boy  -  turned out to be the only son of a minor Anglican bishop.  He had three elder sisters who spoiled him something rotten.  He soon rebelled against discipline and good manners (this often happened to sons of ultra-respectable families).  He found that he had a talent for getting his own way, sometimes by flattery, sometimes by bribery, sometimes by blackmail.  He was morally neutral but fairly brave. Liked flying  because civilians, especially women, treated him like a god.  Otherwise  -  no ambitions and no principles except having a good time at others' expense. If it hadn't been for the war he would probably have ended up in jail.


Readers Write #11 May 2010

Risky Hits, Inedible Cakes, and the shock of Woolley's Twin Brother 

         When he was being interviewed on television, Stephen Sondheim remarked that, at the opening of  West Side Story on Broadway, many of the audience walked out. The show wasn't what they expected. Their idea of a good musical was lots of easy laughs, gorgeous girls, and songs you could whistle on the way home. West Side Story, by contrast, was about love and hate between street gangs, and it changed for ever the way musicals were written. Sondheim (lyrics) and Leonard Bernstein (music)  -  with some help from Shakespeare  -  wanted to stretch their talents and challenge the audience's expectations.  They wanted to move on, to create something fresh and new and surprising

 This is satisfying but dangerous.  Bizet's Carmen was fresh and new and it got panned by the critics. When Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris, the audience rioted.  TIME magazine gave Bonnie and Clyde zero stars. When Dave Brubeck wrote his jazz hit, Take Five, his record company turned it down because, they said, people can't dance to five-in-a-bar music. Van Gogh was broke for most of his short life, Catch-22 was rejected by 17 publishers, and my novel Piece of Cake was such a spectacular flop when first published that the hardback edition got remaindered within six months. Cake is not in the same creative league as Stravinsky or Van Gogh (although some have said it's up there with Heller's Catch-22), but I was trying to make something fresh and original when I wrote it:  a novel about the Battle of Britain which showed that RAF fighter pilots were not all heroic, handsome and always victorious.  They were human. The strain on them was huge. Some behaved admirably. Some did not. Inevitably, the book was condemned by those who preferred to believe the myth. They said that Cake was wrong, bad, disgraceful.  I wasn't surprised, or even disappointed.  If you stick your neck out, chances are that someone will try to chop it off. One good friend urged me to rewrite Goshawk Squadron without Woolley who, he felt, was totally unacceptable. Another friend abandoned  The Eldorado Network after two chapters.  "What on earth is it all about?" he asked.  That's life. Fiction, like fruit, is a matter of personal taste. No book is for everybody, which is why I never say to anyone, "You must read this novel  -  you'll love it."  They may hate it, and despise my terrible taste

This knowledge only goes to boost my respect for those big-hearted readers who strongly recommend my stuff to their children, wives, ex-wives, working colleagues, neighbours, librarians, and someone they met in a bar. Peter, in Wellington, New Zealand, falls into a slightly different category  -  his (adult) daughter takes his books and fails to return them, which explains why he ordered another Cake from me. "This will be the fifth copy I will have (temporarily) owned," he says, and he also owns "three copies each of Goshawk Squadron and  Hornet's Sting, bought at various times against depredations by my daughter."  

Some of the emails I get rank me so highly amongst the Great Writers of the World that I haven't the nerve to repeat them here. But Alan of W5 simply says, "Big fan  -  keep doing it!" while D.E.W.  in Luton says, "I enjoy your books immensely." Another great fan, Jim in Frome, ordered Hornet's Sting and looks forward to "reading the one book I've so far been unable to find."   And Ronald, now living in Normandy and "an avid reader since Kramer's War in 1978", wanted Hullo Russia, Goodbye England and Operation Bamboozle, and tells why  -  "thoroughly entertaining, amusing, informative and thought-provoking." Finally, Nathaniel, here in Bristol, has read everything of mine he could find, then bought Hullo Russia and finished it "at a sitting".   He also uncovered a rarity  -  a figure who was famous enough to get a big obituary which (surprise, surprise) likened him to Major Woolley.

The obit ran in The Guardian on 22 March 1995 and it was written by Christopher MacLehose  (by far the best editor I ever had). It was for Edmund Fisher, a brilliant figure in the publishing world, described as "fabulously intolerant of dead wood" and "militantly unpompous" and "a severe trial to his corporate masters".  MacLehose also detected "an inadvertent likeness in him to Major Woolley, the RFC commander in Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson whom Edmund later published (and what a terrifying airman he would have made):  a brave, passionate, rebarbative officer, always seeking out the best in his men, a tireless inspiration to them, always minding about winning, having a huge appetite for combat, insufferable to his superiors, a rattler of cages, a hater of pretentiousness and snobbery, cutter of swathes, not going to be forgotten."  

Certainly not by me. Although he published Goshawk Squadron when he was at Sphere, I never met Edmund. My loss.


  Readers Write #12 June 2010

Who killed Fido Doggart? 
                     Across Africa with malaria in a Tomahawk,
                                   and  a Gong for Liam in Darwin, North Australia. 
My apologies to Wisconsin. Usually I associate that state with its blacklisting, Red-hunting, late Senator Joe McCarthy of the 1950s,   who enjoys a romp in my novel Red Rag Blues.  But now Robbie writes to tell me that in his corner of Wisconsin the man whose memory they respect is Progressive Senator Bob La Follette.  Clearly there's a lot going for Wisconsin.  For instance, Robbie's college library "has an excellent selection of your books"  -  he's just enjoyed  Kramer's War, and Rotten With Honour is next, with Kentucky Blues to follow and Invasion, 1940 yet to come.  I doubt if that could be said of any British college library.  Robbie is an archaeology student and he has the forensic skills.  Of  A Good Clean Fight,  he asks:  What became of Fido Doggart?  Alive and well on page 211, he just vanishes.  I too am baffled. It's almost 20 years since I wrote the novel. Perhaps Fido simply walked into the desert one starless, moonless night in search of the latrines, and got lost. It happened. 
The S.A.S. features big in that story, so it's not surprising that Gordon  -  a self-confessed former 'brown job' who served in Bosnia  -  enjoyed it, especially the character of Paul Schramm, who's a German intelligence officer.  "Another example,"  Gordon says, "of your refusal to stereotype."  That's very much to the point.  For the novelist, the enemy is always more interesting when he's given a human face, and I got very tired of postwar British films that painted all German officers as either fanatical or stupid, or both.  I've always liked Schramm and his chum, the exiled Dr Maria Grandinetti,  probably the most human people in the book. 
In fact I like characters who don't fit the heroic mould,  and here we come to Moggy Cattermole from Piece of Cake.  Gordon comments on my "sense of authenticity, which few authors achieve",  which means that "we care about the cast of Cake without loving any of them  -  although two RAF officers I knew absolutely adored Moggy, which speaks volumes."  I doubt if Moggy would have returned their affection.  Moggy never gave anything back, including money. 
Which leads naturally to Major Woolley. Andrew in Leytonstone "first read Goshawk Squadron when I was about 13" and has "re-read it half a dozen times over the years"  as he came to realise "how young those boys were at the time."  (Straight from school, in many cases.) When a friend of his got married and had enough toasters and salad bowls, he asked to be given a favourite book. Andrew bought them Goshawk Squadron.  A nice touch. 
I've said it before: I just write the books;  I have no idea who will read them, or where, or under what circumstances.  Michael Kavanagh writes:  "I read (or re-read) Piece of Cake 3-4 times a year.  I have to. It's a drug but it's harmless..."  I chalk that up as a good thing. His father, a WW2 fighter pilot at the ripe old age of 33, read Cake, found it "as accurate as he could remember" and, Mike adds, "was at pains to point out that the gung-ho stupidity of such as Rex never truly left the service, and he confirmed that his squadron had a 'Moggy'."   His father later flew Tomahawks in stages  (total trip was 3,967 miles)  from Takoradi in Ghana to Egypt  (another echo of A Good Clean Fight), an experience he described as  " a fighter he loathed and malaria to add to rheumatic fever."  As for the plague of flies in the desert war,  "you should double it for Takoradi and add the mosquitoes for good measure."  Fight could never tell the full truth,  but it seems I got somewhere near it. 
A random dip into other messages.  Nick in Lincolnshire, ordering Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, has been "a massive fan  for 40 years". Martin in London read the recent books (Hullo Russia, Red Rag Blues, Operation Bamboozle) and welcomes my "dark cynicism...quite brilliant". Another Martin, in Cheshire, finds Cake to be "one of those rare books that stay with you all your life", and after 30 years as a cop, including "one or two sticky moments", he can relate to fighter pilots with "hands shaking, and falling about laughing after an op, especially when you thought your time had come!"  
Finally, news from a really far-flung fan.  Liam Phillips lives in Darwin, North Australia, which, he says, has only two seasons  -  "wet and dry. The wet is a steaming madhouse of humidity that sends the population insane, punctuated by relief-inducing tropical storms. During the wet my reading increases ten-fold on weekends  -  too hot to do anything but stay indoors with the air-conditioner cranked."  That's how Liam found himself, in February 2000, inside his favourite secondhand bookshop, "desperately trying to find something to sate my WW2-flying-appetite...." Then he remembered an image.  Spitfire pilot, face covered in oil, thinks he's gone blind, another pilot tells him to remove his goggles.  Another image  -  Spitfire pilot flying under a bridge. "They were from a TV show a long way back." 
Liam began searching the bookshop, starting at 'Fiction, A', and an hour later had "a nice busted-up copy of  Piece of Cake to take home." It revived his feeling on watching the TV series,  "which, even for a boy of 8 or 9, was very emotional".  Now, ten years later, "my level of anticipation in starting a novel had never been higher".  And rarely had he been "so sad to finish a bok. Almost stunned with the emotional impact." 
Thus began "my love-affair with all things Robinson...I got hold of Kramer's War, The Eldorado Network and Artillery of Lies which I read and loved...When I discovered Goshawk Squadron, I had the same feeling I had had with Cake...Like Nina Bawden, it really did reduce me to tears..."  Then came War Story and Rotten With Honour, and "in July 2001 I walked into the bookshop and lying on the counter was A Good Clean Fight."  Joy was unconfined.  Liam was about to leave on a European backpacking jaunt, so "a few pairs of underwear and socks were jettisoned in favour of Hornet Squadron."  He rationed his reading to two pages at a time "which kept my sanity"  while he crossed Russia and half a dozen other countries.  Now he got into his stride and actually bought a new Kentucky Blues. In 2007 he went to New York to get married and his brother gave him Red Rag Blues,  which is largely set in that city, so the gift was "much fun".  And he's happy to share the fun.  When a friend took paternity leave, Liam handed him a shopping bag containing all my books. "He read them, one after the other, and was pretty annoyed when I told him that's all there was." 
Ah, well.  No good deed goes unpunished.  But if anyone deserves a gong, it's Liam. 
Readers Write #13 July 2010

Shot down by Rex, Lambs into Tigers in Arizona

and 'A man has to do what a man has to do' when he's Luis Cabrillo.

Some actors say they get inside the skin of the characters they're playing by first mastering the way that character walks. I knew an actor like that,  normally a charming chap but he couldn't get out of character during the run of the play; and sometimes that was rough on the family, especially when he was cast as a crude and selfish oaf. Every morning he would lurch downstairs, slump into a chair, curse the cat and demand a mug of tea in a voice made of gravel. Not easy to live with. 

   Actors live the part. When the TV series of Piece of Cake was being filmed on location,  Tim Woodward  -  a pacifist in his younger years  -  played Rex, the squadron CO, a hard, ambitious and arrogant man.  During a break in the filming I unexpectedly met Rex, in uniform, still looking hard, ambitious and arrogant.  For a second, my right arm wanted to salute him. (I'd done my National Service, and you can take the boy out of the RAF but you can never take the RAF out of the boy.) Woodward, as Rex, looked right through me. Quite right. He was a squadron leader. I was an erk.  

    With authors, it's often names that help to create the character.  Rex was perfect for the CO (we never know his first name).  Before I could begin Goshawk Squadron I thought a lot about that CO's name,  and until I settled on Stanley Woolley, I couldn't make him talk.  I didn't want to give him a heroic name like Beauchamp or Dalrymple or Carruthers (or Bigglesworth).  I wanted something that would cut against the grain of the usual romantic image of the RFC. Stanley Woolley.  

And then there's Moggy Cattermole.  I named him because he's lanky, and it helps if tall characters have long names.  I knew someone at school called Cattermole, always nicknamed Moggy, and the combination seemed right for someone who is  -  as a Battle of Britain squadron commander once told me  -  "Bad for discipline, good for morale. Every squadron should have one.  Just one." The link between  'cat' and 'moggy'  doesn't exist in the US, but he seems to endure in Americans' affections.  No such problem with Paxton. (I borrowed it from the name of a village in Scotland where I went to school.) David in Oro Valley, Arizona, wrote: "I've re-read War Story several times, and particularly enjoyed the very accurate evolution that you skilfully wove for Paxton. Does he survive?"  He does indeed, and matures nicely in Hornet's Sting (which David now has).  As a pilot, and formerly a young U.S. Marine officer in Vietnam, David says he "can identify with the seemingly innocent lamb-into-tiger transition." 

    Which leads me to the Luis Cabrillo books, not so much lamb-into-tiger as the saga of Tell 'Em What They Want To Hear. It began with The Eldorado Network, inspired by the feats of a real double agent in WW2, codenamed Garbo. He was born in Spain, so I gave my character a Spanish name.  I kept it short and simple and easy to pronounce, partly because I was going to have to write it ten thousand times and partly because I can't read novels with long, complex, unpronounceable names (often Russian).  Luis is easy, and if you dissect Cabrillo, you'll find a popular kitchen soap-pad buried in there.  I once had a New York literary agent who said that US publishers disliked novels with Spanish heroes, so I rewrote the whole of Red Rag Blues with Luis Cabrillo from Spain changed to Guy Montgomery from England.  Turned out they didn't like Guy either.  Neither did I. Exit New York agent. 

    Enter a man who sees the true worth of Luis.  Graham Thorne, of Malden in Essex, sent me a sparkling little review of Operation Bamboozle, and here it is.  

"I loved the classic Robinson opening paragraph, which brought me straight into the plot and made me want to know immediately what was going on. I also loved the headlong twists and turns of the plot and the fact that, for ages, I could not figure out what on earth the map on the cover had to do with the book I was reading.


The rapid-fire and amoral style in which the book is written seems to me to capture perfectly what it would be like to know, and live with, Luis Cabrillo. He has immense charm and wit but also that whiff of danger  -  and borderline lunacy  -  that makes us ordinary readers secretly glad to know him from a distance.


It was a joy to meet the gorgeous Stevie Fantoni again and a privilege to be introduced to the Princess Chuckling Stream. Among the superb supporting cast of hoods and enforcers, I particularly liked the psychotic Vito DiLazzari.  He is the classic, indulged son of the tyrant, over-educated, so that he knows too much for his hereditary role  -  Fox instead of Hedgehog.


So where now for Conroy and Cabrillo? I hope we hear more of them. For, as Luis gets older and that little bit slower, and as the world gets more conformist with less room for the maverick, then life for Luis will get steadily tougher.  Like a late Western, there is a great book to be written about a man running out of room, and Derek Robinson is the man to do it."

    Well, time will tell.  Are con artists an endangered species?  Recently, an unemployed lorry-driver conned a property developer out of £1 million by persuading him that the Savoy Hotel in London was for sale, cheap, at £250 million. (Real price: £500 million.)  The guy's in jail, but the con suggests that charm still parts many folk from their money. And Luis has truckloads of charm. 

    So:  thanks to Graham,  and to far-flung readers who recently asked for books  -  Anders in Sweden, David in Malaysia, Matt in Wisconsin, Fred in Virginia, Christopher in Spain, Lars in Denmark, Blair in Minneapolis, and many more.   


 Readers Write #14 September  2010

The black widow rides again, 
          The price of a nuclear crisis (4 pence),
                And a Mile-High Club for Dedicated Readers?

Journalists very rarely include bits of fiction in their reports, but halfway through a column about the Battle of Britain in The Independent, written by Robert Fisk (who is a very good journalist), he quoted a short episode from Piece of Cake. It concerned an RAF airfield during the Battle, where a fighter pilot had been killed in action. Every day his widow stood beyond the end of the runway, waiting for him to return. The pilots got sick of the sight of the 'black widow', as they called her, and eventually Moggy Cattermole went out and told her, very firmly, to buzz off. 
I was surprised (and rather flattered) that Cake was worth quoting, so I wrote to Bob Fisk and told him that the episode was based on fact.  In 1940 there really was an RAF field with a black widow who had to be discouraged.  Bob phoned me (from Beirut; he gets around), was glad to know that the fiction he'd quoted was not invented,  and we had a cheerful chat. 
Next I got a message from Graham Thorne in Essex.  He had read Hullo Russia, Goodbye England and now he recommended the new edition of Peter Hennessy's The Secret State, subtitled Preparing for the Worst, 1945-2010,  which he says "makes a superb and chilling backdrop to HRGE."  I got a copy. Graham was right. I paid especial attention to the chapters on the Cold War, RAF V-bombers, the threat of Soviet nuclear attack, and how Britain would respond. Hennessy describes something that I mentioned in my Author's Note to HRGE  -  how, in a crisis, the State planned to make urgent contact with Prime Minister Macmillan when he had left London in his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.  The solution was to use the Automobile Association's nationwide radio network to call the car's radio telephone. 
But Hennessy has dug deeper than I could, and found what the PM was supposed to do next.  No point in talking to the AA. So his chauffeur was told to find the nearest telephone box.  Then someone realised that you needed small change to make a call  -  4 pence (in old money).  Solution:  everyone who might drive the PM's car was told to carry four pence with them at all times. Strange but true. 
Meanwhile, Soviet missiles would be on their way.  Hennessy takes a long look (as did I) at the famous four-minute warning during which nuclear-armed Vulcans would be scrambled.  But I think he overlooked one factor which I included in HRGE; and that is the time it took the ground crew to prepare the Vulcan for flight. When the Vulcan carried a Blue Steel stand-off nuclear missile, its ground crew had to fuel the missile with hydrogen peroxide (a highly volatile and toxic liquid, to be handled with extreme care) and then had to 'marry' the missile to the bomber by connecting 230 gold studs.  If one connection failed, then start all over again. (Nor could a Blue Steel-armed Vulcan stand for hours, waiting for a possible scramble. Hydrogen peroxide leaked;  it had to be topped up from time to time.  Ultimately, the Vulcan must be disarmed and the Blue Steel emptied.)  So here's the question. Who was going to scramble the ground crew some hours before the aircrew got their four-minute scramble order?  That is one of the things that HRGE is all about. 
On to comedy.  John Douglas, now living in France,  had a brief RAF career in flying training back in the early 1970s, and he rates Piece of Cake highly: when he saw it again on DVD, "...I had forgotten how good it was. The flying in it was exceptionally good..." 
During his basic flying training, his course visited 617 Squadron  -  famous for the Dambusters Raid, when it was led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO, DFC. John recalls: "We were given the 'insider's tour' of the Squadron Museum. 'Guy Gibson's Hat' in a glass case turned out to be changed every time the CO decided the aircrews' hats were getting just that bit too tatty...and the worst was then selected to be 'Guy Gibson's Hat' in the glass case!  We were also shown 'Nigger's Grave'." (Nigger was Gibson's dog.  PC hadn't been invented in WW2.) "We saw the place where the dog had been ostensibly interred on the night of the Dams raid, and were told: 'Nobody knows where the damn dog is, but everyone expects to see the grave, so we put up a stone!' " 
617 Squadron carried nuclear-armed missiles, and the visitors were told that aircrew had to learn detailed routes to and from their assigned Soviet targets.  But, their guide told the trainees: "In the event of the 'real thing', they were actually going en masse to Bermuda!"  And John still has a fantasy of "missiles flying, civilisation ending...and Bermuda being swamped by phalanxes of Vulcans, B-52s, Bears and Badgers, all queueing to get into the circuit..."  
Well, the RAF has a well-deserved reputation for poker-faced humour.  The Guy Gibson stories are plausible enough;  after all, bomber stations in WW2 had better things to do then collect mementoes. But I can just see that guide revealing the Great Bermuda Exodus, in order to find out how hard he could pull his visitors' legs before they broke off. 
Onwards.  One of the pleasures of my job is knowing that the work I did 30 or 40 years ago is still being discovered by new readers.  Oliver in Dusseldorf recently found Goshawk Squadron ("deeply impressed") and now he's reading the rest of the RFC trilogy. Simon in East Sussex bought a copy of  Hornet's Sting , and says it almost hurts to finish the last page of my novels,  "which probably accounts for the number of times I've re-read them!"  James, somewhere in the UK, saw Piece of Cake in a secondhand bookshop while on holiday in Wales  ("So many utterly distinctive, subtle, exquisitely drawn characters....quite one of the most magnificent pieces of war fiction I have ever read.")  Ian, in Basingstoke, rates the WW2/RAF novels as "the best books I have ever read  - Piece of Cake specifically"  and he's lost count of how often he's read them.  Werner in Vienna had to replace his War Story because the old copy "hasn't survived the borrowing and lending of several friends."  Mark, also somewhere in the UK, says "I still read Piece of Cake once a year or so."  So does Abi, who found the book 23 years ago when she was 14 and saw the TV version. She says: "It has got me through some pretty desperate times and has also been a favourite treat to dip into  -  I've had four paperbacks and now two hardback copies.  One extra just in case."  John Welsh in Irvington, New York, reckons he's read Cake "maybe thirty times."  And so on.  Maybe someone (not me) should form a club for  Big Repeat Readers. Just a thought.

Readers Write #15 October 2010      

Snoopy dies again,  A quartet of HurricanesAnd never enough Cake.   

Why all the fame?  Was it the all-red triplane?  Was it the barony? Was it the Snoopy comic strip?  It couldn't have been simply the high score, because WW1 produced other highscoring fighter pilots who fought and won despite difficulties which von Richthofen never faced   -   especially the prevailing west wind that slowed  down their return to base while it blew the German aircraft home. The Englishman Albert Ball, the Frenchman Guynemer, the American Rickenbacker, and others, richly deserve to be remembered. 
Perhaps the most memorable of all was Mick Mannock, the mirror-image of the aristocratic Richthofen.  Mannock was Irish, the son of an Army corporal who abandoned his wife and five kids when Mick was twelve, so the boy left school and got work. He became a linesman for the phone company, travelled for years in the Middle East doing odd jobs, and was in Turkey when war broke out.  The Turks (Germany's allies) roughed him up, but he got home and the Army put him in the Medical Corps.  He repeatedly applied for the RFC, and finally made it.  In 1917 he arrived in France. At 30 he was thought to be dangerously old for a pilot.  And he had a wonky left eye. A little over a year later he had at least 61 victories, some said 73;  three DSOs, an MC, and  -  posthumously   -   a VC. His father, the ex-corporal who'd been absent for 20 years,  presented himself at Buckingham Palace to accept the medal from His Majesty.  You couldn't make it up. 
But Richthofen gets all the attention,  and now I've had a message from John Clark in Australia, a great fan of my stuff who wanted a copy of Hornet's Sting because he reckons that the relationship I built up between Paxton and O'Neill in War Story "was one of the funniest and most poignant in war fiction."  John adds that on ANZAC Day,  his grandfather always used to tell him how he saw Richthofen shot down   -   and not, as many believe, by a Canadian pilot, Roy Brown, but by grandfather's pal, an Aussie rifleman called Cedric Popkin.  "He always said he could virtually follow the fatal bullet's path,"  John recalls. 
I think Grandfather was wise to include that word 'virtually'.
Then, in total contrast, came a note from an old friend, Garth Ennis, Belfast-born but now in New York and big in graphic publications, or war comics, as he calls them. On a trip to the Duxford airshow for the Battle of Britain 70th anniversary he snapped this fine shot of four Hurricanes in formation,  and he even found a quote from Piece of Cake to match it:
The controller sent them up to eighteen thousand, then to twenty-two thousand. Cox calculated when they were above Dover, and turned north. The cloud was now more than two miles below. It looked as flat and smooth as a bedsheet.  It covered the Channel and London and reached far into the North Sea. Blue and Green sections cruised at a couple of hundred miles an hour and made no visible progress at all. The world was vast and lovely and, apart from four Hurricanes, utterly empty. 
Evidently, Cake still grips a lot of readers.  Fred in Fairfax, Virginia, says: "Great! I snagged Piece of Cake at the local library. The dogfight in the final chapter is some of the most gripping prose I've ever read."  Chris in British Columbia has read Cake and several other novels of mine and now "recommends them to anyone who will listen"   -   including the Junior Air Force Officers under his command. Thomas in Denmark tells me,  "I read Piece of Cake every two years or so   -   a very fine story." And my guess is that Kurt in America has had a big slice of Cake because he says:  "Love your books! I started out as a military pilot at 18. Spent 5 years in the US Army flying helicopters and oh the stories I could tell..." He gives a hint: "A helicopter with its landing light on, ten feet above a railroad track, looks remarkably like a train coming at you at night..."  Moggy Cattermole would have liked that. 
And there is further news of lifelong quests to collect every word of fiction I ever wrote.  Alex, in Kaiapoi, New Zealand, needed just two, Operation Bamboozle and  Hullo Russia, Goodbye England to complete his set.  Barry, in Somerset, bought Goshawk Squadron when he was 14 for 35p  (about 50 cents American), then kept looking for more by me, with no joy until the Cake TV series appeared and he continued a hunt that has now lasted 35 years, often in dusty backstreet bookshops, until he finally tracked down the lot.  He sends thanks for much enjoyment;  I send warm congratulations to all you hunters. 
Stephen Travis in Nottingham (another steady companion) re-read the RFC trilogy and "it got me thinking about Major Woolley"   -  about how different he is from his brother officers, having bridged the class divide and all.  The novel says nothing about his early life. Have I any notions? 
Not many.  Everything I know for sure about Woolley is on page 1, para 3 of Goshawk.  Later, Woolley says things about himself (usually to Margery) but was he speaking the truth? It's for the reader to decide. One thing's certain.  I didn't base him on any actual pilot;  but recently I came across a description of Mick Mannock by someone who knew him that's not a million miles away from Woolley:  "Mannock was a tall man with blue-grey eyes, a thin face, and he seemed to wear an expression of perpetual disapproval." 
Finally, a quick round-up. Hullo Russia seems to have gone down well.  Peter in London E17  "greatly enjoyed it". So did Stevan in W3  (he bought four more titles of mine on the strength of it). Nicholas in Hong Kong "enjoyed  War Story so much I couldn't wait to read the final part of the trilogy".  Oliver in Dusseldorf, having bought books in August, found Hornet's Sting "just a hell of a good read" and came back for other titles. David in Eastbourne, while asking for Hornet's Sting,  said how much he'd enjoyed my other novels and added:  "Why they're out of print beats me. Others of the ilk ain't the proverbial patch."  Well, I hope to have good news about that situation, probably in my next column.

Readers Write #16 December 2010      

Caesar's slave rides again, Exploring the Canadian military, and a double whammy from the US.

Hanging on the wall of my bathroom is a message I got in the mail when the series based on Piece of Cake was on television.  I got quite a bit of hate mail then, but this one was a classic, being not only anonymous but also written in crayon and all in capitals. It said: 





 Not too subtle, perhaps, but I couldn't fault the writer for spelling or grammar, although a good editor might have queried the triple exclamation marks.  I keep it on the wall for much the same reason that Roman emperors who were making a triumphal procession used to keep a slave standing behind them whose job was to whisper: 'Remember, Caesar, you are mortal.' In my case, the warning is:  'Remember, Robinson, some of the punters out there think your stuff is crap.'

 And that's their privilege. In the long run it's readers, not authors, who decide whether or not a book makes the grade. I mention this because I get some very generous emails which may not be statistically representative.  Kieran in Buckinghamshire reckons that the RFC trilogy is 'without doubt the best aerial combat books I have ever read'. From Chris in Scotland: 'Thanks for a cracking read.' Dave in Northumberland writes: 'Friends and I have spent years enjoying your books'  -  he bought some as gifts, always a clincher  -  'and I re-read them on occasions.'  Richard in Manchester has no doubts:  'They really are wonderful.'  And Marc in Essex says, 'Your books are brilliant,' especially the RFC and RAF series 'which I have re-read many times (as has my father, an ex-national serviceman who served in Malaya).  There's not many novelists, apart from George McDonald Fraser, that get it as right as you do  -  the laughter, the excitement, the selfishness and naivety of young men, the incredible physical and mental demands, the terror and the tragedy.' And Stafford in South Africa simply says, 'I devour your books,' and he bought three of the latest titles to feed his appetite. 

 All that is on the plus side.  I don't hear from readers who throw my book at the cat, say it's unreadable, and go down the pub instead.  I don't hear from them because they're not going to waste a stamp on me, but I'm sure they exist. They probably won't read this, which is a pity because Chris Buckham, who is a major in the Canadian Armed Forces, found depths in the novels that surprised even me. He recommends that Junior Air Force Officers under his command should read them, and  his analysis of Piece of Cake tells why: 

                   'Dark humour underscores a theme throughout that speaks to the individual character's means of dealing with the   realities of war. The strength of the book lies in its development of its characters and its insights into the human psyche.  The Commanding Officers and Flight Commanders struggle with the changes that war brings in their relationships within the Squadron between themselves and the young line pilots. Conversely, the line pilots struggle themselves as they grapple with the deadliness of their chosen profession.  Leadership strengths and weaknesses make themselves felt more keenly and shortfalls are quickly tolerated  less or are forgiven. This novel captures the essence of the effects of combat on unit cohesion and command.  It is stark and uncomfortable but it highlights lessons that are best learned and understood before the guns start firing.' 

 Which - as Chris points out - unfortunately doesn't always happen. 

 Finally, a double whammy of praise in another unsuspected place.  John Sandford is an American novelist, much read on both sides of the Atlantic.  He wrote a story called Dead Watch. The whammy is double because the central character is also an author.  Here he's in a college town, with some time to kill: 

 'The day was a nice one, the beginning of warmer weather, and the college girls were coming out of their winter cocoons, walking along with their form-fitting jeans and soft breast-clinging tops. 


 Maybe get a novel, Jake thought: he'd just read the first of a series of novels about British fliers during World War 1, by Derek Robinson, and was anxious to get another. And, of course, university bookstores were the most likely place to find his own books; like most authors, he always checked.' 

 (True.  Jake finds a couple of his own books 'in what he thought was an obscure location', so he quietly reshelves them in a better spot.  He also buys a copy of  Goshawk Squadron.) 

 'With a sense of satisfaction, he walked across the street, got a bagel with cream cheese and sat on a bench in the sun and started reading about the Goshawks.' 

 Thanks, John.  Always nice to get an unsolicited testimonial from someone in the same line of work.  


Readers Write #17 January 2011  

Bristle with pride, The wide blue yonder in deepest Texas, and hilarity from Surrey to Florida.             

Back in the days when I was fairly broke,  I came up with a spoof glossary of the dialect in my home town, Bristol,  and I called this language 'Bristle'.   The title on the cover was Krek Waiter's Peak Bristle.  It had three things going for it.  My pal Vic, a professional cartoonist, illustrated it brilliantly. It was small and cheap (a lot of people sent it instead of Christmas cards). And many of the Bristle entries were about areas of Bristol.  People laugh more readily at jokes set in places they know.  (New Yorkers laugh at Yonkers, unless they live there, in which case they laugh at Staten Island.) 

Krek Waiter's spawned half a dozen sequels.  Today, forty years on, it's still in print; and if I'm known for anything in Bristol, it's as the creator of Bristle.  When Mick in Wiltshire bought a copy of Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,  it was for his father, Ted, who was the Chief Systems Engineer on Concorde at Filton (which is in Bristol).  That was a very big job indeed,  and I hope he is enjoying  reading about Vulcans with Bristol Olympus jet turbines that gave it a kick like an earthquake,  because the Olympus went on to power Concorde.  Mick added this note about his dad:  "Over the years, whenever he entertained overseas visitors, he always dropped a copy of Krek Waiter's in their laps before taking them around the old place." 

Which reminded me of what happened ten years ago, when the British Society of Paediatric Gastroenterologists, Hepatologists and Nutritionists met in Bristol.  (I'm not making this up.)  The chairman, Dr Martin Brueton, waved  Krek Waiter's  at them and urged them to get a copy if they hoped to understand what the natives were saying.  

Life is full of surprises. I had heard that copies of  A Good Clean Fight, my SAS and RAF novel set in North Africa, found their way to US Marines serving in Iraq.  Now I got a message from Charles Howard in Kansas City.  As an infantry officer,  he was in the thick of some heavy fighting both in Afganistan and Iraq, including the Battle of Fallujah,  where he had Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom with him. In Iraq he also read Larteguy's Centurions and his Praetorians.  (These novels written by Jean Larteguy in 1960 centred on France's Algerian War. Huge bestsellers in France.  The English translations were much read, and quoted,  by US officers in Vietnam and Iraq. Centurions  was adapted for a film called Lost Command, with Anthony Quinn.  English copies of the book  are very scarce; I don't know why.)  Charles Howard writes:  "I have always believed that literature tells us a fictional, but more true, version of what happened before.  A lot of us, when we're doing difficult things, like to see how others handled similar situations. As you say, sand looks the same in any country!" His last job was at the US embassy in Cairo,  and now he's bought a copy of  A Good Clean Fight. "Maybe they and I marched over some of the same ground." 

A different  kind of surprise came from Joe in Austin, Texas, who  -  having read most of my books  -  was "excited to find your website" and decided to download  Hullo Russia from Audible,  who supply Books On Tape. ("West Texas is quite desolate, so listening to audio tape on a long drive is nice.") Audio tapes of my novels have been made by Soundings in the UK, so I checked with Soundings and they have a deal with the Amazon company, with the result that some of my books will be appearing on Amazon sites in the UK, the US and Australia and New Zealand, and probably in other areas. You will find the audiobooks listed in both CD and Cassette formats, and also as downloads under the name Audible. Which is good news. Here are pictures of the audio covers.  I like them.   

AudBk_GCF     AudBk_DGS     AudBk_GodhkSqdrn     AudBk_HRGE
Joe has a yen to hear his favourite books read by the authors, and he'd welcome Piece of Cake read by me.  But I know my limits. Soundings use actors, and very good they are.  What's more, Soundings doesn't edit or adapt;  they record every word in the book. Cake is a longish novel (670 pages in paperback)  -  quite a challenge, even for an actor.  I try, when I'm writing, not to waste a word; every word must count.  So I'm pleased when they use them all. 

Candidates for my Mile High Club keep appearing. Steve in Surrey, buying Red Rag Blues, says: "I've never read a book that even comes close to captivating me like yours do... I make a point of reading Piece of Cake at least once a year."   And to prove it, he did something calculated to turn heads:  "I laughed out loud on the train to work when I got to the point where Sticky reads out the cricket scores from the French radio truck."  And there is similar laugh-aloud evidence from Edgewater, Florida, where Loraine writes that I'm her husband's favourite author, and she says, "I can always tell by the way he laughs that it is one of your books he's reading." (She bought Operation Bamboozle for him.) Alan in Wellington, New Zealand, bought Hullo Russia, having "recently done a mammoth re-read of all the RFC/RAF books and I loved them all over again."  Penny,in Hertfordshire, a "big fan", wanted Hornet's Sting to complete her collection.  And John in Portland, Oregon ("enjoyed many of your books very much") did the same. 


Readers Write #18 March 2011  

Hornets in Yonkers, Hilarity and brutality in New Zealand, and Robinson-mania in the Netherlands.             

You may remember the report from a fan, deep in the American West, who bought a springer spaniel pup, or it might have been a fox terrier, and christened it 'Moggy', as a way of preserving the memory of that other maverick creature, Flying Officer Moggy Cattermole in Piece of Cake. (His girlfriend renamed the pooch to something she could shout in the park without  feeling embarrassed.  Trapper, I think. Or maybe Fang. 
Now I hear from Jane,  on America's East Coast.  She may qualify for my Double-Digit Club, having read Goshawk Squadron many times, and she adapts Woolley's line:  "Ah, bloody (insert name). I hate the bastard"  when she encounters bad drivers in up-State New York  -  and she immediately feels better. Which just goes to show that fiction can be powerful therapy.  
More evidence of this from an old friend, John Walsh (who actually lives in up-State New York). He's teaching inner-city kids the basics of aviation by helping them build model airplanes. As a way of developing a group allegiance, he suggested they adopt a name, and so a dozen kids in Yonkers "call themselves (very loud and very proud, by the way) Hornet Squadron!".  John is currently deep into my yarn of Hornet Squadron, A Good Clean Fight, for the third time. The book went with him all through the second Iraq war and back, so it's no surprise that the cover has fallen off.
Meanwhile, Tony in Nuneaton put another of mine through its paces. He writes: "My copy of Kentucky Blues has now been read by the whole family, including my 84-year-old mother-in-law, who loved it as much as I did!"  He bought copies of Damned Good Show and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. He builds and flies radio-controlled models and  -  perhaps inspired by Goshawk Squadron  -  decided to build an SE5a. Hendon air museum let him take a close look at their RFC replicas.  His reaction:  "Apart from the craftsmanship of it and all the other aircraft,  my overriding impression was of their frailty. Little wonder the numbers shot down were far outweighed by accidents, equipment failure and training." Too true. An excellent book on the RFC, The First of the Few by Denis Winter (Allen Lane 1982) quotes the official total of casualties at the end of the war: of 14,166 dead pilots, 8,000 had died while training in the UK.  No dual control in those days.  You were on your own, the first time you took off.  All too often it was your last.

They were young (18 or 19 was not uncommon) and the young laugh easily.  So there was humour to be found in every squadron  -  or, as Alan in New Zealand sums up my war novels, "hilarious and brutal". Alan writes for the Journal of the Wellington Science Fiction Society, but he casts his net widely and it takes in non-sci-fi books as well. He's read everything I've published and his review in the Journal of Hullo Russia, Goodbye England  -  too long to print here in full  -  is on (go to 'wot i red' and then go to February 2011).  It's the first novel of mine to be set in a time that he remembers. He was only a boy, but "I was nevertheless strongly affected by the almost palpable sense of fear engendered by the Cuban Missile Crisis. It seemed likely that the world I knew would not be there when I woke up in the morning. If I woke up in the morning."
And adds: "The thing that makes a Derek Robinson novel stand out from all the others that surround it is his impeccable understanding of history, his extraordinary ability to re-live it in context through the eyes and minds of the people to whom it is a contemporary happening, and the sharp, crackling and sometimes breathtakingly cynical wit of his dialogue and of his observations; a wit that is often laugh-out-loud funny but which makes you weep inside even while you are laughing so very hard at the piercing truth of it.  Hullo Russia, Goodbye England is a genuine tour de force."
Mail arrives from elsewhere. Martin in SW6 has gone through all my books. He read Hornet's Sting in the office, "surreptitiously, almost under the table"  -  even the most tolerant of offices might have raised an eyebrow if he'd read it while completely under the table.  The image of the two Russian flyers in France, "playing both the piano and poker fast and loose, demanding duels,  has remained with me for 10+ years."  Now he's suffering what another reader called 'withdrawal pains' and he asks urgently for "more needed for the summer please!!"  Well, I'm working on it, and I hope something will appear in the summer, but   -  just as Woolley predicted the war would be over by Christmas but which Christmas he didn't know  -  I don't know which summer the new book will be ready.  I had a financial adviser called Lewis, very good at his job, who used to ask me what I would earn next year.  I always said I hadn't the faintest idea, which caused his brow to furrow.  There are writerly types who crank out a novel a year, fair weather or foul. If only.  Goshawk Squadron took me about nine months to write. (I was young and didn't know any better.) Piece of Cake took four years,  and got derailed twice on the way. Kentucky Blues was an idea that refused to go away, but it took 25 years to germinate.  How long will the new yarn take?  As long as it likes.
Paul in Deal discovered Piece of Cake "when the children were young and to read half a chapter a night was an achievement".  Now they're off to University and he ordered Hornet's Sting. Erwin in Holland is one of my repeat offenders, having read Cake for the 6th time. He found a secondhand copy in the UK with his girlfriend  -  now his wife  -  20 years ago.  He's read all the rest  ("wonderful books") and now asked for Hullo Russia.   
So did Joe, three thousand miles to the west in Ramsey, New Jersey.  He sends thanks for my writing: "It puts me directly in a place in history I never knew (I'm 30 years old), and is so rich and alive that I can practically smell aircraft exhaust and fresh cut grass." Go back nearly four thousand miles to the east, where Stian in Rogoland, Norway. wrote his master's thesis on WW1  aviation and got "much enjoyment" from Goshawk Squadron, so he asked for the prequels, War Story and Hornet's Sting. He served with the Norwegian Army, and says: "You describe service culture quite well."  Well, the military is the military wherever you go.  Streaking south by ten thousand miles takes me to Steve in Te Anau, New Zealand. He found the same satisfaction as Stian: "I'm ex-RAAF, so I could relate to the military BS between squadron and upper echelon  -  it still goes on." Of Goshawk Squadron he says: "I couldn't put it down, really enjoyed the banter between pilots and the black humour, interlaced with vivid dogfight scenes."  Zooming up to the USA and Michael in central Indiana ("currently reading  A Good Clean Fight  for the 10th time") works in community theatre and would like to adapt my RFC trilogy for the stage.  I'm happy to give the project my blessing. 
Finally, how about this...   

I'm the guy in the glasses and the slightly worried smile on the right. The guy with the cheery grin is Bill Hitchings, confident that his camera is doing its stuff. Bill flew from Melbourne (reading Damned Good Show on the flight  -  "just as enthralling"  as my other books)    and he dropped in for a cup of tea. Good to meet him.


Readers Write #19 May 2011  

Going where no university dared, Matching Woolley Guinness for Guinness, and the Agony Aunt Flies Again.             

What sort of book is Goshawk Squadron?  One family read it and the husband thought it was a great adventure, his wife found it a moving love story, and their teenage son laughed his socks off. I think each was right  -  it's a story of young men who fall in love when they're not fighting for their lives, and make the blackest of jokes if they survive.  
As it was my first novel, people sometimes ask me why I wrote it.  Was it for the combat, or the romance, or the humour? The answer is all of those and more. I wrote it for the history. Nobody had written a brutally honest book about the Royal Flying Corps and I wanted to fill the vacuum.  I wrote it for me,  and if anyone else liked it, well, that would be a bonus.  Luckily for me, the bonus happened and Goshawk still gets readers all over the world.  
I realised the wider truth about that vacuum when I saw a review by David Aaronovitch of a book called 'Civilisation' by Niall Ferguson.   One cause of the recent economic disaster, so Ferguson claimed, was that few bankers knew anything about the 1929 Crash, and he blamed that failure on the last 30 years of education.  Aaronovitch shot that  notion down in flames. When he studied modern history at Oxford 35 years ago, he said, nothing after 1914 was taught. He got Gladstone but not the Depression. Same happened to me when I was studying history at Cambridge in the Fifties. The biggest events of the century, the two World Wars, were out of bounds.  But they had influenced everyone's lives, including mine, and they were exactly what I wanted to understand. Later, when I could, I researched them. And wrote some books. My fiction is based solidly on fact. The stories may be ripping yarns, but they're also reliable history.

And if a reader prefers the yarn to history,  that's fine by me. Darren in New Zealand writes that he gets unusual satisfaction from Goshawk. He "acquired a copy 25-odd years ago in a pub in South Wales after a bollox-freezing game against some feral team from the valleys. I've carted that book around ever since. To add a bit of realism to the story, every time Woolley reaches for a Guinness, I do the same."   The first chapter is a bit of a challenge  -  Woolley sinks a few  -  but "after that it's downhill all the way."  Amazing.  
Equally impressive are the model-makers.  Keith in Leeds bought a copy of A Good Clean Fight.  This is a sequel to Cake,  and it follows Fanny Barton and his Hornet Squadron in the Desert War, where they fly the P40 Tomahawk.  Keith plans to build scale models, and asked my permission to use my initials as squadron recognition letters on the planes.  I'm flattered.  And Peter in Nottingham bought Cake and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (he describes himself as "a complete Vulcan nerd  -  I've been in the cockpits of six of the survivors").  He's a semi-pro in the model business  -  he's sold a few of his WW2 tanks to film companies  -  and, inspired by A Good Clean Fight, he's not only built models of the Tomahawk but also photographed them flying low over the desert.  Look closely and you might see the shark's teeth on the nose.  Very convincing. 
                                     desert1 with backdrop
What next?  I'm Stone Age Man when it comes to the more exotic workings of the Internet,  so the doings of Steve in Victoria, Oz, leave me gasping.  He bought Hornet's Sting (thus completing his trilogy)  and told me that he and a group of like-minded enthusiasts are "flying Rise of Flight (a WW1 flight sim) over the Internet".  Actually flying?  "Check us out on Oceanic Wing ," Steve suggested, so I did. These guys recreate WW1 aircraft (and others) that are so realistic that they can fly  (and fight) them.  Astonishing. Their website also has a books page with some enthusiastic remarks about my stuff, so they're obviously well-read too.  

A quick whizz through other mail. Christine in Southampton was stumped for something to give her ex-RAF dad on his 89th birthday, and then found that he'd read my Damned Good Show and was "completely blown away by how authentic and realistic your book is".  So she bought him a copy of Cake and one of Hullo Russia.  Problem solved.  Leon in Woking also bought  Hullo Russia, and added that Cake "remains for me the perfect novel in terms of content, pace, characters, dialogue, depth, everything!" and urges me to keep writing.  Well, I do my best.  John in Japan bought an armful of books and asked:  "Why on earth hasn't War Story been either made into a movie or televised?"  Good question.  The movie/TV business is a total mystery to me too.  Howard in Santa Cruz, California, had the initiative to email my new publisher and tell him that printed editions of some of my books "are available only in the range of $100"  and he urged him to issue all my stuff as eBooks  -   which, in fact, my publisher  is now in the middle of setting up.  (100 bucks is a crazy price, brought about simply by the fact that some books are scarce. At one stage, specialist book dealers were asking over £200 for a used copy of Hornet's Sting  -  which is why I decided to self-publish it for a fraction of that price.) And finally Steven, I don't know where, tells me that years ago he bought A Good Clean Fight, couldn't get into it, threw it down in disgust (too young to appreciate it, he thinks), picked it up later and loved it   -   especially the relationship between Schramm and Maria Grandinetti.  As a result, he says: "I've always promised myself, in the event of a lady deciding to 'love me for five minutes', to take the bull by the horns."  Go for it, Steve.  You never know.  Five minutes could last a lifetime. 


Readers Write #20 August 2011  

The roller-coaster of books, Shock-horror at MGM, and mobilising the mental juices.             

Computers get a bit of stick nowadays for what they do to reading and writing   -  everyone is stuck to the screen, so it's said, and nobody writes a real letter any more. But there's another angle.  The Internet has been good for books (if not for bookshops). Peter in Toronto tells me that, 19 years ago, "My father introduced me to Goshawk Squadron when I was 13" (a round of applause for fathers like that) "but I only just started reading your other novels, obtained secondhand or over the 'Net, as most seem to be out of print."  Too true, but I'm leaning on my publisher to revive them. Peter ordered copies of Hornet's Sting and Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. (Another round of applause for the man who invented websites.)  

Meanwhile, a longtime fan, David in Malaysia, tipped me off to something my publisher had failed to tell me, which is that their reissue of Piece of Cake and  Hullo Russia, Goodbye England has been postponed from this October to next February.  There's a reason:  the designer we had lined up to create the new covers dropped out and so we're starting from scratch. Book covers are what the Promotion Department needs in order to do their job. One bit of good news: you can now get (if that's your taste) my RFC trilogy (War Story, Hornet's Sting, Goshawk Squadron) as e-books on Amazon/Kindle. Swings and roundabouts. Or snakes and ladders. Maybe ham and eggs. Take your pick.  

The moral of the story, I suppose, is to soldier on and hope the good and the bad luck even out.  Take the case of the American Hugh Martin, a nice guy and a talented lyricist and composer. He died a few months ago, aged 96. During the Second World War he co-wrote several hits, including a number called The Trolley Song ('Clang, clang, clang went the trolley, Ding, ding, ding went the bell, Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings.  From the moment I saw you,  I fell...')  which, if you're one of the younger fellahs, you may never have heard.  But in 1944 Judy Garland belted it out in the movie Meet Me in St Louis, and it helped make her a star.  

Hugh Martin kept working and in 1957 he had another hit.  Bear in mind that by 1957 the world looked a grim and gloomy place. The Korean War had ended in stalemate. Nuclear tests were exploding in all parts. The Soviet Union had the first satellites circling the globe, including the USA.  So, no great surprise when Martin wrote these lyrics for MGM: 

                               Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
                               It may be your last,
                               Next year we may all be living in the past. 

 The studio turned it down flat. Bittersweet and nostalgic they might accept, they said, but not a dirge.  Martin got to work and rewrote the last two lines:  

                               Let your heart be light; 
                               Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.  

 And of course Martin lived to see his song become as immortal as anything can be in showbiz.  Was he sorry to lose the lines which he felt had expressed the world in 1957?  Probably.  But he was a professional. He was in the entertainment business.  So am I. First and foremost, I write novels that entertain.  If they also take the reader somewhere he might never otherwise have gone,  and make him think a little   -   what the film director Sidnet Lumet called "stimulating thought and setting the mental juices flowing  "   -  well, that's a bonus. Lumet managed it in such fine movies as Twelve Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon.  Whether I manage it is entirely up to the reader, but I'm encouraged when I hear from Peter in Portishead (the town, not the band) who first read  Goshawk Squadron as a boy, "while hunkered under the bedclothes with a torch."  Since then it's been with him in the first Gulf War, Northern Ireland twice, Kenya and the United States. No wonder his copy is looking rather fragile.  "I thoroughly enjoyed Hullo Russia, Goodbye England," he says. "What a fantastic slice of Cold War madness, articulated through perfect characters. I've read your books since I was a schoolboy and they never fail to entertain me."  (He also bought copies of Operation Bamboozle and my Summer Special.)    

When I finishd writing Hullo Russia I wondered if it would work.  Nuclear annihilation is not, after all, a barrel of laughs.  But it seems I needn't have worried.  Now I've finished a new flying story.  It has its share of triumph and disaster.  Will it work?  Will it entertain and make the mental juices flow? We'll see.


Readers Write #21 October 2011  

Literary lions stumble, Confessions of an invisible man, And explosions of brilliance in Dublin

Why do writers write?  I ask because Bud, in California, rounds off his request for a copy of Hornet's Sting ("A friend said it was the best book he had ever read, and I have to concur") with a simple plea.  More of the same, he says.  The good news, Bud, is that I've finished a new novel.  Maybe the less-than-good news is that, although it's a flying yarn, it's not like any of the others.  Some authors can please their readers by performing the same trick again and again - sequel after sequel.  I can't.  I write because I want to go somewhere fresh, find different characters and report something surprising.  Often this involves aeroplanes; but there's a big leap from A Good Clean Fight (Libyan desert, 1942) to Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (Vulcan nuclear squadron. 1962). Different tasks, different mentalities, different outcomes.

And a different author.  I'm not the same scribbler I was twenty, thirty years ago, and what may seem worth exploring now was unknown territory then.  As someone once said: How do I know what I think until I see what I've said?   Except that, in my case, I often don't know what I've said until you, the reader, points it out to me.  Every novel is a gamble, and even the best writers stumble, once in a while. Robert Louis Stevenson and P.G.Wodehouse  -  two names you rarely see in the same sentence  -  each wrote a stinker or two.  They must have thought the yarns were a good idea at the time.  (Nobody sits down and thinks: I'll waste a year or two on a real turkey.)  But the end product was a big mistake.  OK, if you insist, I'll tell you the titles: Stevenson's Catriona (poor sequel to Kidnapped; David Balfour falls in love with the childish Catriona who, as Stevenson admitted, is "as virginal as billy-ho!") and Plum's Psmith, Journalist  (English toff flattens the New York Mafia with a straight left). Both books, for me, never got off the ground. 

 Back to the beginning.  Why do writers write? Bill, somewhere in the US, came across Piece of Cake in the library of the US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, enjoyed it immensely, cruised through my RFC and RAF series and, he says, "to some modest degree, they shaped the man I am today."  He's seen life:  after the Navy he became a paramedic and a firefighter. He adds that "Frankly, after my father, you and Bernard Cornwell have been my biggest and most positive role models."  I was startled.  I take what you said as a compliment, Bill, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable being a role model.  After all, I'm the invisible man in the room.  I just tell the story and let the reader make what he likes of it.  Two characters I've invented   -   Stanley Woolley in Goshawk Squadron and Moggy Cattermole in Cake -  are not the sort of men you'd want your daughter to marry.  Yet they score strongly with readers.  I don't know where I found them.  Sometimes I think the door was left open and they wandered in.  That's how Skull arrived in Cake (and other books). They're all lucky accidents.  But role models?

It's easy to say why writers don't write.  Not for the money. Writing novels is a precarious business.  The Inland Revenue taxes me by estimating what it reckons I'll earn next year,  which is total guesswork based on what I made last year.  Like most freelance writers, my income goes up and down like a roller-coaster, so the Revenue get it wrong as often as right.  If you want steady money, I'd recommend a career as a chartered accountant.

 What about fame?  It's not much of a reward. It certainly won't pay for the groceries. A good review in the newspapers is very welcome, as long as you remember that it'll wrap tomorrow's fish and chips.  Fame is fleeting, and so are novels.  Nearly all the heavyweight bestselling authors who dominated the fiction lists when I was a boy are out of print now and largely forgotten. Will my stuff be around fifty years from now?  Do I care?  Not much. I'm not writing for posterity (it never did me anything for me). And look at what happened to J.M.Synge, who wrote The Playboy of the Western World. The play's opening night, in Dublin in 1907, caused a riot.  The audience stormed the stage, and not to congratulate the actors.

 Synge's crime was to write a play without Irish heroes.  Ireland in 1907 was still, in effect, a British colony, and nationalism, independence, freedom were in the air.  Dubliners wanted a play they could cheer about.  Instead, Synge's Playboy gave them a man built like Woody Allen who killed his dad with a spade and was idolised by the feckless peasantry. The country was outraged.  Two years later, Synge was dead.  Quite soon after that, Playboy was acclaimed as a masterpiece, performed worldwide. It's still being revived, currently by the London Old Vic   -   a century too late to do Synge any good.  So why did he write it?  Why stick his neck out?  All we can say, with any confidence, is that he couldn't resist it.  The story was too good to miss.  He'd left the door open and it had walked in.  He was a writer.  Writers write.

 Quick round-up of my mail.  Jim in Dunfermline bought Hornet's Sting  "as I thought Goshawk Squadron was right up there with Winged Victory by V.M.Yeates."  David in Barnes, having accidentally drowned his copy of Sting, now reports that his new copy is "banned from the bathroom".   Sam in Brisbane "first read  Piece of Cake at 15 years of age, been reading it yearly since. A huge fan of Moggy" and now ordered the RFC trilogy and my last copy of Hullo Russia.  (Sold out -  fresh edition is planned for February 2012 by my publishers, MacLehosePress/Quercus Books.)   Jimmy on Facebook sent more details of the amazing Rise of Flight, which creates Internet flight sims of WW1 combat over the Western Front, and he said, "I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy reading your books."(You can see a selection of clips of the program at:  )

  And Ben, now in his final year at school, having not only read my RFC trilogy but also got his mother and mother to read it   -    "an achievement of sorts"   -   is writing a 5,000-word project as an A-Level extension.  His subject: Hitler's Operation Sealion and the truth about the role of Fighter Command in the non-invasion of 1940.....a topic I've looked at in my Invasion 1940.  Meaty stuff.


Readers Write #22 January 2012

Ice cold in Kandahar, a Goshawk with clipped wings, and no good deed goes unpunished

The Royal Flying Corps is almost a hundred years old. A reader of my RFC trilogy today is in a comparable position to someone in 1912 who was reading about the Battle of Waterloo. And yet today's reader seems able to put himself in the cockpit of an FE2b or an SE5a with a great understanding of of the excitement and horror of flying over the Western Front. That understanding is sharpened when the reader has himself tasted a similar excitement or horror in combat. That's my theory, anyway. Patrick, an old friend and a U.S. infantry veteran of Iraq, is now on his second tour of duty in Aghanistan, where, he says, "Your books were a welcome diversion from the day-to-day work" - which is with an Airborne Division. Recently he bought A Good Clean Fight, a novel set in North Africa in 1942. It follows Hornet Squadron and, separately, an S.A.S. patrol which raids behind enemy lines. The patrol is led by Captain Lampard with a reckless determination that some might call foolhardy. "I served with Lampard in 2005," Patrick writes. "He is an ass, and currently works at a base in the U.S. Some of my current teammates show up in your books as well, but without the Wodehouseian banter of their WW2 British counterparts. I am looking forward to seeing whom I'll meet in the RFC series." He meant Hornet's Sting, which may take his mind off the cold "as I start to read, shivering in my billets near Kandahar."

Somewhat north of Afghanistan, in Bavaria, reading Goshawk Squadron caused Erben to start thinking hard about another war. His father, a WW2 veteran, told him: "In peacetime, all is well rehearsed, and when war begins, chaos rules" - or, in its English version, "The first casualty of war is the plan." (Not, as many think, the truth.) Erben has just read my Invasion,1940, which coincides with his own ideas. Hitler, he says, "decided to fight a strategic war without having strategic weapons. I cannot understand how he or his generals intended to do long-range airstrikes with a Me109" - whose limited range (no drop-tanks) meant it could fly no further than London. "That was not cunning planning," Erben says, and he singles out Operation Sealion (the planned seaborne invasion, largely in towed river barges) as an example of the improvisation that dogged the German war effort. "You wouldn't have needed the Royal Navy to 'boldly wipe out' the invasion," he says. "Perhaps bad weather would have done damage enough."

Perhaps. But if Sealion had sailed in a flat calm, the Royal Navy was ready and waiting.

Europeans are often so fluent in English that they put us Brits to shame, and Boris in Frankenburg, Germany is a good example. He's read (and "enjoyed enormously") almost all my RFC and RAF series and he has no trouble with the pilots' dialogue, which (like pilots themselves) cannnot always be taken seriously. Now he's bought enough books to fill the gaps, and he seeks The Eldorado Network too - which, unfortunately, I can't supply. Maybe my publisher will reissue it. Rob, near Rotterdam, a "great fan" of Piece of Cake, bought my other WW2 books. And Cees, not far away in Amsterdam ("In 1983 I bought The Eldorado Network and I read it at least once a year") discovered that there is a sequel. In fact there are three. I have no spare copies of the first, Artillery of Lies, but I was able to supply Cees with Red Rag Blues and Operation Bamboozle.

Leap ten thousand miles to the south-east (which of course is no barrier to the Internet) and Liz in Melbourne, having searched in vain for my titles in Australia, then found my website and ordered the RAF/WW2 trilogy as a birthday gift for her husband, an "avid reader" of my novels. Still in Australia, George in Goolwa Beach writes that he "particularly enjoyed the RFC series. I have great respect for those airmen. I used the Vickers MMG when a member of my school Cadet Unit (late 1950s). Clearing a stoppage on those guns was hard enough on the ground!" He bought more copies of War Story and Damned Good Show.

Now jump another few thousand miles to Canada and to Peter in Nova Scotia. His father read Goshawk Squadron to him when he was a kid, "strategically omitting some parts, as I later discovered when reading it for myself as a teenager." (I can't imagine what those parts were, unless his dad took exception to the solitary section where Woolley forces a new fighter pilot to utter a string of profanity, in an effort to shatter the schoolboy decency that obstructs his hunger for the kill. In later years I was able to compare that section with translations of the book and learn how to swear in French, Spanish and Dutch.) Peter went on to read more of my stuff, ordered Hullo Russia and Hornet's Sting, enjoyed the first "immensely" and saved the second "for the Christmas holidays" - and then bought extra copies of both for his father, a late thank-you for starting the ball rolling all those years ago.

From Canada to England and Portsmouth, where Didier ("a huge fan") ordered Hornet's Sting and A Good Clean Fight. Robert in Tyne and Wear bought Invasion,1940 and Operation Bamboozle, and emailed me later to say, "I am sorry that I have read them because I have not got them to look forward to. Invasion,1940 should be put forward as to how history should be written. And as funny as your other war books. Is 'funny' the right word? 'Entertaining'? Bamboozle equally as good." Meanwhile, Nick in Norfolk tells of an experience familiar to many of us. "Over the years I've bought all of your WW1 and WW2 books and been so enthralled and impressed that I couldn't wait to lend them to like-minded mates." We all know what's coming, Nick. The books "became public property so I never saw most of them again..." Now he has refreshed his shelves with copies of Hornet's Sting and A Good Clean Fight, and he waits patiently for MacLehose Press to reissue Cake and Hullo Russia (scheduled for March 2012). Elsewhere, David in Rochester, Kent, having enjoyed Operation Bamboozle, adds: "I hope you write many more." At least one more - called A Splendid Little War - will appear from MacLehose Press, probably in autumn 2012. After that, who knows?

One thing is definite. I shan't be doing any business in all of February 2012. The shop will be shut while the computer gets thoroughly overhauled, oiled and polished. So - please save your emails for March.

Readers Write #23 April 2012  

A curtain-call for extras, gunplay in the bathroom, and laughing fit to bust

The folk-singer Fred Wedlock, now alas no longer with us, once told me the secret of how to create a statue of a horse.   "Get a big block of stone," he said, "and hack off everything that doesn't look like horse."  There are days when writing feels like making that statue, except that the chisel is blunt and the mallet has a handle made of rubber.

 That's when I reach for my omnibus edition of Raymond Chandler's novels, partly for the pleasure of seeing a champion in action, partly to remind myself that he had his bad days too, and partly to remember that what matters (especially in a crime story) are the extras, the minor characters whom Chandler crafted so beautifully.  In The Lady in the Lake, he has a scene where his private eye Philip Marlowe visits the Graysons, a retired couple who can probably provide some information.  Chandler wrote:

      'Grayson was a long stooped yellow-faced man with high shoulders, bristly eyebrows and almost no chin. The upper part of his face meant business. The lower part was just saying goodbye. He wore bifocals and had been gnawing fretfully at the evening paper.'

Chandler could have cut all that, and more like it, and got on with the plot, but the book would have been all the poorer.  There's a good reason why Chandler is still in print, 53 years after his death. It's not for his plots. It's for his extras, his telling details about people and places in Los Angeles in the 1940s. When Marlowe leaves the Graysons, he takes the elevator, 'carpeted in red plush. It had an elderly perfume in it, like three widows drinking tea.'  Those last five words alone are worth the price of the book, and many other books. 

There is another link. It goes back to long ago, when Hamish Hamilton was publishing The Eldorado Network. By good fortune, Roger Machell was my editor   -   and Roger had also been Raymond Chandler's editor for his British editions. He told me that one day his phone rang and it was Chandler, calling from his home in La Jolla, California, and obviously very drunk. "I'm going to shoot myself," he said. Roger, thinking fast, said, "Don't do that, Raymond. Let's talk about it..." He heard two loud bangs. Then silence. Roger phoned the La Jolla police, they hurried over and found Chandler sound asleep in the bathtub, with two bullet-holes in the ceiling.

End of anecdote. But what interested me was that when Chandler wrote The Long Goodbye (and at last won huge critical acclaim), that story included a scene where a successful author, in a fit of boredom and depression, tries and fails to kill himself. Or maybe he doesn't really try, maybe he's just acting.  What's interesting is that Chandler wasted nothing.  Anything and everything he saw and heard got noticed and remembered, including his own misadventure with a gun in a bathroom. One day he might be able to use it. Every writer should have two mottoes.  One is: Trust nobody, check everything. The other is: Look and listen.  The book isn't about the author.  It's about the world he sees, even when (in my case) that's a world of 50 or 100 years ago.

Thanks to the Internet, I get echoes of what I write in emails from readers all over the globe.  Of course praise is encouraging. (There is no limit to the flattery an author can absorb.)  Bill, somewhere in the U.S., himself a novelist, spent 25-plus years in the American Air Force, mostly flying Phantoms, so his opinion carries weight when he says of my flying books: 'I can tell you that the fighter-pilot humor is right on target.'  He re-reads Goshawk Squadron and is now 'in the midst of Piece of Cake and laugh until I have tears rolling down my cheeks'. 

John in Japan, an old friend, writes: 'I have just come to the end of A Good Clean Fight in audiobook format. Bravo, is all I can say. I also listened to Hullo Russia, Goodbye England last year and thoroughly enjoyed that as well!'  (Much of the credit must go to the actors who made the readings, Michael Tudor Barnes and Nick McCardle, for their talented voices.)  And Derrick (I don't know where) 'just wanted to drop you a line to thank you for the pleasure your books have given me. I first read Goshawk Squadron as a boy nearly 40 years ago and have re-read it three more times since.'  Liam via Facebook 'cannot wait for the new book, A Splendid Little War, apparently due later this year.' (Publication is now planned for January 2013.)  He urges 'those of you not in the know' to 'get Piece of Cake, the greatest novel ever written'.  Another Facebook friend, John, 'just finished  Hornet's Sting. What a cracker!  I always had a soft spot for Paxton  - poor bugger. The development of his character from the first book  (War Story), and his relationship with O'Neill, was beautifully done. The end of Pax's story certainly shocked me.'

Then  -  surprise, surprise   -   a letter from Guy, a very old pal (we were at college together, back in the Middle Ages). Recovering from a rather nasty illness, he had time to re-read my flying stories   -   'Once again I was totally engrossed among the vivid characters. Their persuasive arguments and caustic banter make them so alive and such good company.'  Enter his wife, to give him a copy of my non-fiction book, Invasion. 1940, and he says 'to my astonishment I was so hooked by the reasoning that I finished the whole of it before returning to the interrupted novel.'  Well, I worked hard to make that slice of history as readable as any work of fiction, and I'm glad it paid off.  Guy spent his National Service on a Motor Torpedo Boat, dashing up and down the Channel, so he has personal knowledge of those hazardous waters.

I'm delighted to hear that Guy's gremlins have been zapped.  On the other hand, maybe the Luis Cabrillo quartet should have a health warning on the cover.  L.L in New York 'picked up Red Rag Blues, ran across Cabrillo, the Fantonis and Chick Scatola  (Mafiosi of varying competence) and began laughing so hard' that he ended up in hospital   -   although it's only fair to add that he was already suffering from a deep chest cold, so maybe Luis Cabrillo's con-artist doings simply hastened the doctor's decision. Anyway, I sent L.L. a copy of the sequel, Operation Bamboozle and he replied with thanks, saying: 'I look forward to reading BAMBOOZLE with a pacemaker handy.'    Both books were fun to write, and I'm glad they're fun to read. 

My thanks to all who wrote, and to the many who sent me birthday greetings on Facebook  -   too many for me to answer.

Readers Write #24 June 2012  

        Plugs, Black Eyes, And Other Occupational Hazards

Critics are readers, too.  At least, some are.  I've known book reviewers who, pressed for time, just read the publisher's blurb on the back cover. Othere, with a little more time,  glanced at every third page of the book,  which they reckoned was enough to give them a feeling of whether or not it was any good.  They have my sympathy.  I've done their job myself, and it's a daunting prospect when you get given four or five thick books, all to be reviewed by next Tuesday.

That's why I value the advice of the best literary agent I ever had, the late George Greenfield. "Don't read your reviews," George said. "Measure them."  Size equals impact.

Nevertheless, I did read them, if only to spot the mistakes.  I remember a rather sniffy (but quite large) review of  A Good Clean Fight  by a man whom I knew to be an academic.  He ended his piece by saying that I was shaky on jargon in the Desert Air Force,  and that "the knowing reader" (meaning himself) "waits in vain for the squadron's Kittyhawks to be identified as 'Tommy Dodds'." Well, I research my books pretty thoroughly.  I wrote and told him I'd never come across this nickname,  so what was his source?

He apologised. He'd got it wrong. He had looked in The Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional Usage and he'd misread the entry.  It happens. I chalked it up to experience.

Authors who get steamed-up by bad reviews are like actors who storm about bad notices  -  too sensitive.  After all, it's only one man's or woman's opinion, and (as I've often said) no book is for everybody.  My first novel,  Goshawk Squadron, got some good reviews and some very bad ones. A respected writer in an eminent magazine read Goshawk and his review advised me to quit now and find a better job, such as digging ditches. My local radio station asked Alan Gibson to review the book. He'd won a Double First at Oxford, he was a well-known broadcaster, and he was a frequent contributor to The Times.  His views seemed worth hearing. On air, he summed up my central character, a man named Woolley, with a four-letter word that had never before been broadcast on the BBC. No doubt that was Alan's honest opinion,  but he was wrong. History has confirmed that.

Take away Woolley and the book vanishes. If Woolley had been simply a four-letter word, he would be shallow and tedious,  and the book wouldn't be worth  reading, then or now.  Yet, in the years since Alan's review, there have been at least six editions  of  Goshawk Squadron and several translations. MacLehose Press will bring out a new edition later this year.

Moving on from Goshawk Squadron to Piece of Cake. It was widely reviewed in America, and by far the longest treatment was in New Republic, a well-respected magazine, where Paul Fussell's comments covered more than two pages. (George Greenfield cheered.)  Fussell liked some things. 'Sheer narrative', he said, was my strong suit: "I defy a reader to put the book down once Robinson has got him into the air..."   He approved of my realistic description of  "the details of human destruction, so important to understand if the reader is to participate in the fear felt by the pilots."  What he didn't like were two things:  my handling of history (nothing new, he complained)  and the characters (ditto).

"Robinson's characters are not much more than his historical revelations," he wrote. "The cast consists of cliches."  And he spelled out what he most disliked:  the pilots are "virtual subversives and delinquents, sarcastic wits skilled at insubordination, drunken, sadistic, nutty, scared to death, welcoming as an inestimable benefaction every day clouded over and unfit for flying."  Not the book I remembered writing.  And  his account was odd, because later Fussell found fault with the way I 'romanticized' the squadron: "No group of pilots could be so charmingly intelligent and verbal, so gifted at Noel Coward repartee..."

It puzzled me that Fussell could wish to have it both ways, finding the pilots so repellent yet so charming.And my guess is that one reason why Piece of Cake has been reprinted so often,  and is now reissued by MacLehose Press, is that Fussell totally misunderstood the book.  Readers like the characters he hated;  they even like dodgy types like Moggy Cattermole.  They enjoy the humour. Former RAF aircrew tell me that the dialogue is convincing,  that aircrew  banter was very like mine (and still is).  As a history of the first year of WW2 in the air, the book is accurate and authentic, but what brings readers to return to it again and again is their recognition of the characters, of their enjoyment of life and the abrupt fact of their death.

Well, Fussell's review was a long time ago, and now he too has died, on 23 May 2012, aged 88, an acclaimed literary scholar. In 1944 he fought with the U.S. infantry in France, was wounded and decorated.  His horror at the  killing never left him;  in 2004 he said that only those who had experienced battle were fit to write military history.  Maybe that conviction explains his response to Piece of Cake. I leave it to you to decide.

By coincidence,  as I was writing this column, an email arrived from an old fan, Martin in the Kings Road, London   -   one of those members of my mile-high club who can't get enough of my stuff and who re-read the books until the spines disintegrate and they have to restock their shelves.  Two years ago, Martin had read  Damned Good Show three times, Hornet's Sting five times, and Goshawk Squadron  more than five.  For me,  statistics like that are good enough to answer Alan Gibson's **** and Paul Fussell's cast of cliches.  Martin, speaking on behalf of other Robinson addicts, wonders if another  book is in the pipeline.  It's done and dusted, Martin. Right now I'm looking at roughs for the cover design from Tony Cowland, the talented aviation artist who has created all the covers for the RFC and RAF reissues.  The book is A Splendid Little War, and it's due from MacLehose Press in January 2013.

Thanks also to Robert in Texas, Max in East Sussex, John in Edinburgh, Chris in West Australia, Jonathan in Surrey, and Sam in Devon  -   and to  everyone who wrote. 


Readers Write #25 July 2012  

      Stooging down The Mall, Strafing the literary festivals, 

              and Moggy on the analyst's couch. 

To London for a day, a trip that turned into something of a challenge.  I was aiming for The Mall Galleries in (obviously) The Mall. The challenge was because (1) it was raining, (2) it was humid and (3) every time I tried to get into The Mall my way was blocked by large scaffolding barriers guarded by men in hard hats and high-visibility jackets. Signs of pre-Olympics security mania, I suppose. Eventually I got in, found the gallery and its Exhibition of Paintings by the Guild of Aviation Artists, which included a series of paintings  done by Tony Cowland especially for all eight of my R.F.C. and R.A.F.novels, now being reissued by MacLehose Press. Arrived in time to hear the prizes being announced.  Must have been a hundred artists present, so competition was strong.  Tony won the Winsor & Newton Award for a Group of Paintings  -  i.e., our covers  -   and quite right too.  Here's his original, before the title and stuff gets laid on, for Damned Good Show. The episode he illustrated shows R.A.F. Hampdens on a low-level raid on German warships in the North Sea, winter of 1939-40.  This book, along with A Good Clean Fight,comes out in August 2012.  The R.F.C. trilogy follows.
                                                             Free For All_16Kb                                                      
    While Tony and I were looking at his award-winning group on the wall of the gallery and talking about odd things like contrast and perspective , a man in a well-cut dark suit and an R.A.F. tie  paused to admire the pictures.  We introduced ourselves, and he said he'd read and enjoyed all the novels, given them to friends and now planned to buy them all over again;  which was good to hear (especially when Tony told me later that the man was a very senior serving officer).  What he particularly liked, he said, was the way I wrote about the imperfections, as well as the heroics, of the Royal Air Force. From his own experience, he said, he knew that the Service does many things well and a few things badly, and to ignore the second does nobody any favours.  It was refreshing to hear this.  A novel is not a recruiting poster. 
    I was on the train, still enjoying the after-glow of his remarks, when reality caught up with me.  Praise is nice, but it doesn't help anyone write the next book. By chance, I'd just heard from Graeme, a fellow-novelist in Western Australia.  My stuff seems to have been a helpful influence on his work.   Generous of him to say so.  But  -  again  -  it doesn't help me write the next book.  And then there's Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times, who knocks out a column every Saturday, and who recently wrote that nowadays it's hard for an author to find time to write books at all.
  It's these damn literary festivals, you see.  Well, Erica didn't damn them;  she quite likes them, goes to them year-round, can't get enough of them. She recommends one in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, where "Lady Antonia Fraser, John Banville, Edna O'Brien and others will be discussing their writing relationships with Beckett." Good luck to them.  But will it help them write their next books? Or will it be a total (if pleasant) distraction from the day job? Which is to come up with something fresh and original, isn't it? I just ask the questions.  Never mind: on to the next festival! Descartes said: I think, therefore I am.   Some authors have updated that:  I go to literary festivals, therefore I am a writer.  It ain't necessarily so. I believe literary festivals should be rationed.  One per book.  Write a book, you can appear at a festival.  Have fun. Okay, now go home, write another book.
Meanwhile, readers keep taking a second (or fifth, or tenth, even twentieth) look at Piece of Cake and tripping over things they'd never noticed before.  Joe (don't know where)  first saw "the TV series when I was an aviation-obsessed lad barely ten years old", and much later he decided to read the book. "Impressed with the level of detail, as well as the page-turning aspect of the story," he says. He has one small question "about everyone's favourite sociopathic bastard, 'Moggy' Cattermole. His apocalyptic rant to Mary stuck in my mind from the very first time I saw it..."  (Mary's pilot husband had been killed and she depressed the whole squadron by standing at the end of the runway for days on end, waiting for his return.)   Years later, Joe realised Moggy knew that Mary might well be pregnant by him  -  "which would open up a whole can of worms in that messed-up psyche of his."  And Joe asked: was this ambiguity intentional, or was he reading too much into the episode? 
   The answer is: the ambiguity was intentional. I wanted each reader to decided how far Moggy's feelings for Mary went, and why he was so furious with her.  Everyone thought she was a jinx. But was this an excuse for his rage? Moggy was nobody's idea of a good father. Perhaps the thought of paternity frightened him. He is one of the most interesting characters in the book (some say the most memorable), and it's hard to find a simple answer to the question: what makes him tick? The key passage between Moggy and Mary is on pages 253-239 of Cake, hardback edition, and pages 313-318 of the paperback edition. You decide.

Quick round-up. Rick in Seattle bought Operation Bamboozle to complete his collection - quite a tally.  John Walsh, an old pal in New York, writes that he almost shouted 'Hallejujah' at news that my new novel (out in January 2013) features a Sopwith camel, an aircraft he especially admires because he  helped restore one to airworthy status. I hope he'll like the way I've handled the little fighter.


Readers Write #26 September 2012  

      No Bananas, radiant seagulls, and stoked in the USA. 

In my last RW, I took a poke at literary festivals and how they distract writers from the business of writing, so this time I'll have a go at mega-hyper-super-bestsellers.  Friends  -  intrigued by the soaring runaway sales of the Grey trilogy  -  have asked me how I feel about it. Depressed?  (Why not my book?) Elated? (Bookshops full of punters.) Astonished? (Nobody saw it coming.)  None of the above.

   Freaks happen. Back in the 1930s, someone wrote a song called Yes, We Have No Bananas.  It swept the country. People were singing it everywhere  Music publishers must have looked at each other and said 'No Bananas is a hit? World's gone crazy.'  Well, every now and then it does go crazy, and publishing is no exception, especially when word-of-mouth gets into the act. Many years ago, a New York publisher put out a novel called Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.  Without enthusiasm,  and with no hopes of making a dollar from it, because the story was about a bored seagull who seeks perfection in flight and finds wisdom, together with two other radiant and loving seagulls.  Well, somebody liked it, told his friends, and the rest is history. Also economics, because Seagull not only topped the New York Times Best Seller List, for two years it was the best-selling book in the USA. It became a movie.  (Neil Diamond sang the songs.) Critics panned the book  -  one said that, by comparison,  The Little Engine That Could was 'a work of some depth and ambition'  -  but who cared?  It was everywhere. It was a freak.  These things happen.

   In fact they've been happening ever since the 1890s, when publishing stopped grinding out three-volume sagas to amuse the rich and idle and began offering cheap fiction to the masses.  The sales of Mrs James's Grey trilogy aren't particularly huge, compared with the scores racked up by the literary giants of Edwardian times and the years between the wars.  When Edgar Wallace was going strong, it was reckoned that, apart from the Bible, one in four books bought in England was an Edgar Wallace thriller.  Ethel M.Dell, the Mills & Boon of her day, almost matched him.  But for really big money and colossal ego, nobody got near Marie Corelli. In the 1900s, her novels earned her (in modern money) a million pounds a year, and she had the longest entry in Who's Who. She lived at Stratford-on-Avon in a style that makes our own dear Barbara Cartland seem like a shrinking violet.  Marie had a coach pulled by two Shetland Ponies, in which she progressed around Stratford every day, with the coachman perched above and behind .  Her Venetian gondola took her on the Avon, with a genuine Italian steering it.  Why not?  The eggheads said her books were sentimental junk, but she claimed to be the most widely read writer, in English and in translation, in the world.  And she probably was. 

   But not forever. In 1908, Hall Caine's novel was (he said) the first to sell a million copies in Britain;  and then came Nat Gould's prodigious output  -  130 novels, all about horse-racing. By 1927 he'd sold 24 million copies and was still going strong. Corelli had fame, but Nat had more readers. So where does the Grey trilogy slot into this pantheon?  Modestly, when you look at (for example) Terry Pratchett's 45 million sales  -  and he's just one of many in the record books.  Thomas the Tank Engine has sold 200 million copies. So has Enid Blyton's Noddy.  Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason books have reached 300 million. J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter series tips the scale at 450 million. Vast forests have been felled to make the paper for these blockbusters.  So why don't I feel jealous? Two reasons.

One reason is that those authors did things their way, and I do mine my way. I can't crank out a book a year. It takes me two or three, sometimes four or five years to write a book.  The other reason is that I have different expectations.  I don't aim for the bestseller market (although I'd be happy if it happened). I aim to put all that blood, sweat and ink into writing a book that will stick around for ten or twenty years.  The readers who are willing to pay good money for my stuff are probably a minority   -   a discerning and demanding minority, but too few to generate sales in the millions.  Part of my reward is knowing that Goshawk Squadron, for example, is still in print, forty years on. (MacLehose Press's reissue will appear in January 2013.)  I hold nothing against Mrs James and the ballistic sales of her Grey books.  Good luck to her,  especially as a big chunk of the income will go to H.M. Treasury.  Meanwhile, I take pleasure in the kind of email that money can't buy, from a fan in Fairfax, Virginia. 

     Fred, who is one of the discerning and demanding minority, "drifted back" to my website "after a long absence" and, he says, "I'm glad I did. I am stoked, stoked about  A Splendid Little War.  I am assuming that some of our friends from the RFC trilogy will appear."  Not many, Fred.  The year is 1919, and very few of my RFC characters survived what was known as the Great War. But 'the whiff of battiness and brimstone'  (in the words of one reviewer) is still there.

   Fred being in the U.S., I regret to say that the American edition of  Splendid will not appear when the book is published here and in the rest of the English-speaking world, in January 2013. MacLehose Press/Quercus are still sorting out their relationship with North America.  You'll know the outcome when I do. Incidentally, Fred's refreshingly new adjective, stoked, is surely one to note. My guess is that it means 'over the moon'.  I look forward to its appearance on this side of the Atlantic.

From the opposite side of the globe, Liam in Darwin, Australia sends a short but bracing note. He teaches history. One of his 10th grade students was reluctant to read books of any kind, so Liam gave him War Story,  my yarn of the RFC in 1916. "He is powering through it and enjoying it immensely," Liam says.  Liam and other teachers "plan to use some historical fiction as sources when we teach WW2."  And already, Piece of Cake is going down well at the school.  Brilliant idea.


Readers Write #27 October 2012  

      Peregrine Delancey gets his comeuppance,

          boos and cheers for HRGE, and barnstorming over Winsconsin.

I live close by a large university, and if I'm driving past it when the lectures end and the streets are suddenly flooded with students,  I have learned to avoid the deaf and the blind.  These are students wandering across the road, with an i-pod in an ear, a bottle of water in one hand and a mobile phone in the other.  They are texting the entire world, oblivious to traffic and obsessed with junk. That's just my opinion, of course; but I wonder whether any text message is worth the risk of getting turned into strawberry jam. Especially when you consider the damage already being done to the English language by the galloping impatience of text talk.  If enough people go on texting 'u', will the day come when they don't know whether it's spelt 'you' or 'yew'?  Good English matters. It can make a big difference to anyone writing to impress as well as to inform. If you don't know the difference between 'discreet' and 'discrete', or  between  'affect' and 'effect', or between 'exercise' and 'exorcise', you run the danger of looking like a total moppet instead of the hot stuff you're trying to be.

 I mention this because I've just had a letter from a firm of private bankers.  I'll call them Peregrine Delancey because that's not their real name    -    which sounds as if they're waiting to be knighted, and so does Peregrine Delancey.  (If there really is a Peregrine Delancey out there, I apologise in advance.)

 P.D. made me an interesting offer.  They would manage my wealth and take a minimum fee of only £1,250 a year.  Now, the writing game is precarious (today, steak and chips; tomorrow, bread and cheese), and by sheer bad luck I not only have no loose wealth but also no spare £1,250.  Still, it was nice of P.D. to offer.  Then I reached para 3 of their letter, where they talk about 'principle partners', and suddenly their letter turned to ashes in my hands.

 'Principle partners' is gibberish.  All partners in any bank have principles; it's what keeps them out of jail.  What Peregrine Delancey meant was 'principal partners'.  Simple mistake   -   but a bank that plays fast and loose with the English language is never going to gets its hands on my wealth, if I ever have any.  That letter was worse than a waste; it was a reason not to trust them. It was an unbusiness letter.  Good English matters.

 OK. End of pontification. On to readers write. Bad English is about the only thing that Paul (somewhere in UK) didn't find wrong with Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.  He felt that I skimmed the surface of the Cold War, produced characters who are two-dimensional and glib, and treated the real issues in a way that was almost meaningless. Also, I made a poor job of explaining the workings of the Vulcan bomber, the book is too short, and in general it descended to the level of juvenile fiction such a Biggles. He's an 'avid lover' of my other stuff, but he rates HRGE as a dud, and hopes I'll do better next time.

 This was a comprehensive demolition, and it proves a point I've often made, which is that no book is for everybody.  That (and a lot more) is what I said in my reply to him. I mentioned that some readers, including ex-Vulcan aircrew, enjoyed HRGE very much;  but I can't, and don't, hope to please everyone.  I talked about an old friend who told me that Goshawk Squadron would be a much better story if only I would get rid of that bloody awful Major Woolley.  And Paul replied to say that Woolley is 'probably my favourite character',  and maybe if he (Paul) had read the prequel to HRGE, Damned Good Show  -   which introduces Silko   -  then he might have felt differently about the book.  Turns out that Paul is a playwright.  (We wordsmiths have strong feelings about stuff.)  We parted company amiably. He looks forward to A Splendid Little War, out soon.  Will he like it or loathe it?  Every book is a gamble. 

 Then I got a 'quick note of appreciation for HRGE' from Gareth, here in the UK, who 'just finished the ebook and enjoyed it immensely'.  He declares an interest: his father, a Vulcan pilot, was actually sitting in one of the QRA Vulcans, ready for action, during the Cuban missile crisis.  His dad  -  who, at 85, plays three rounds of golf a week  -   has no doubt that he would have 'actually pressed the button over Moscow',  because he would have known that all his family, in married quarters near the runway, would be dead from a Soviet first strike. Makes you think.

 The madness of Mutual Assured Destruction is at the heart of HRGE, and yet there is comedy too. Gareth writes: 'I am pleased that you managed to reflect some of the humour of the pilots. My recollection (as a small boy) was that they were always laughing.' The novel mentions the black eye patches issued to pilots, to protect one eye if the other was blinded by a nuclear flash. 'Very glad you got the eye patches into the narrative,' Gareth adds. 'I can recall finding one of these and my father telling me that it was for a Captain Hook fancy dress costume he was going to wear to the mess!'

 Martin in London has already pre-booked a copy of A Splendid Little War  -  and 'pre-booked a day off in early January to read it from cover to cover'. And says 'I love the front cover', which is on view on the Quercus website. And an old pal, John in New York State, tells me that he was in Iowa recently, flying a 1934  Aeronca C-3.  'Cows disturbed, probably made butter, and horses none too happy with the thought of a plane that's about 80 years old buzzing just overhead at 500 ft.'  Here's what the Aeronca looks like on the ground.  Sporty little model. 


John can fly almost anything. In the summer he joined  'a barnstorming tour of the MidWest along with 14 other guys in planes from 1928-1933 (I got to fly a 1932 Fairchild 22)'  which they flew 'in our own little dawn patrol over the trenches of Wisconsin'. When he's not flying, John is expert at carving propellers for RFC replicas;  right now he's working on four props (birch) for Sopwith Snipes and two (mahogany) for Sopwith Pups.  During the barnstorming, someone stole his copy of Piece of Cake (I don't think he travels anywhere without it).  'So please tell the powers that be to get off their asses (or fingers out) and make it available in the U.S. sooner rather than later.'  I keep poking Quercus in the ribs, John.

 Cue Garth in Manhattan, who keeps re-reading Cake and A Good Clean Fight,  and has a couple of questions.  (1) 'How did Baggy Bletchley survive being strafed on the bog (while trapped by his knackers) in Piece of Cake?  Re-reading the sequence I can see it's just barely possible, but the mobile lavatory is described as being bowled over and over by German fire. (2) There's a scene in AGCF where Pip Patterson breaks down while remembering an old pal, a guy who saved his life and was such a good pilot Pip was certain the Germans would never get him.  Then, of course, they did. Fanny Barton listens quietly, he's seen this again and again.....Once, the narrative tells us, it had even happened to him.  So what I'm wondering is, is Fanny thinking about the ultimate fate of CH3?'

 My answer to question one is simple. Baggy Bletchley's predicament is based on a true story, involving the master of a freighter, caught with his pants down in a rolling sea;  and Baggy survives the attack because, after a quick strafe, any lowflying Me109 would seek out more rewarding targets on an airfield. And air commodores are tougher than they look.  Question two sent me to page 264 of AGCF, where Pip's sad memories and Fanny Barton's thought occur.  Bear in mind that all this takes place in the spring of 1942. Who knows what has happened to Fanny in the 18 months since the Battle of Britain?  Almost certainly, he has known good pilots who got the chop. Maybe he was thinking of CH3. Seven American pilots flew in the Battle and six were killed in action afterwards.  The final lines of  Cake describe Barton and CH3 emptying their guns on  German bombers.  After that, anything was possible.

To close, a word about stoked, which cropped up in my last RW when an American reader used it to express his large enthusiasm for the coming publication of ASLW.  I wondered at the strangeness of this adjective.  Now, a kind and anonymous pal tells me that 'stoked' began life in Southern California, where surfers and skateboarders use it as shorthand for saying they're completely and intensely enthusiastic, exhilarated or excited about something.  For example:  "I'm stoked about going to California!"  The word has reached the East Coast, so it should appear in the UK soon.  Tell me if you hear it.


Readers Write #28        January 2013

Halley's Comet strikes again, the high price of Norwegian literacy, and 'stoked' spans the globe.

A Splendid Little War is out, and the Daily Express gives it 5 stars (for full review, click here). The launch took me to a gathering of booksellers the other night. (What is the collective noun? A volume of booksellers? A sequence? A binding?) I made a very brief speech, just four minutes - there was food and drink waiting - about how and why I wrote ASLW. The novel tells the story of an R.A.F. squadron during the Intervention in Russia of 1919. Before I discovered it, I'd never heard of the Intervention. I did some pseudo-scientific research in my local pub, and none of the usual suspects had heard of it, so I reckoned that nobody else had, either.

It seems I was slightly wrong. This happens as rarely as a visit by Halley's Comet, but when it does I'm willing to admit it.

Mike, having been 'thoroughly entertained by ASLW, writes that it reminded him that 'I studied the conflict between the White and the Red Russians when at school'. (Sounds like a better school than mine, where the history syllabus said nothing much happened after the Boer War.) Mike goes on: 'I found it fascinating then, but was not old enough to understand the wider implications which come to life so well in ASLW.'

Steve also enjoyed ASLW, in his case all the more so because back in the 1980s he'd read a John Harris novel, aimed at teenagers, all about the Intervention. It was called The Interceptors, and its cover showed a Camel flying low over a line of cavalry. (The book must be pretty rare today - a used copy costs £45 on the Internet.) Steve especially enjoyed ASLW for 'the way you've blended real and imagined events', and he got 'a real sense of what life was like for those men (and one woman!)'. Which is what a novel should do: take the reader somewhere he would otherwise never go.

Speaking of money, my eyebrows jumped an inch when Jon Gunnar in Norway told me that, 8 years ago, the only way he could find his missing middle volume of my R.F.C. trilogy was by coughing up £74 for a used copy of Hornet's Sting. I'm happy to say he liked the book a lot, along with War Story. He writes: 'What must be the most memorable passage ever written, is when Paxton loops his plane and the sandbags fall out.' And now ASLW gives him the same pleasure on Kindle: 'I particularly love the superb mix of new and familiar characters, such as Brazier.' He also explains why books cost a lot in Norway - 'Here, all publishers own the book-store chains.' He asks me to tell MacLehose Press that 'it is a pleasure buying quality books for the Kindle at such fair prices'. I'll pass the word.

Just across the Baltic, Erwin in the Netherlands placed his order for ASLW and expects 'it will be as much fun to read as your other RFC/RAF novels' - all of which are on his bookshelves. Further across the water, in what was once New Amsterdam and is now New York, lives Garth, an old pal who got quite a kick out of ASLW: 'A real cracker, easily my favourite since the Hornet's Sting/A Good Clean Fight era. Sometimes grim, sometimes very funny, occasionally extremely moving.'

Down in Fairfax, Virginia, Fred came back from New Year's holiday to find ASLW waiting. 'I didn't exactly attack the book,' he writes, 'more like went at it in a series of forays, rationing the pages. I had the same tug/push emotions as I did when reading War Story and Piece of Cake. Couldn't wait to see what happened next... As you may guess, I thought it was your usual great job: funny, riveting, sad, thoughtful.'

Graham in the UK had similar thoughts. He wants some 'quality reading for an April holiday and part of me says, "save it for then" while another part says, "you know you won't be able to wait". What you might call a happy dilemma. Paul, on the other hand, has had his cake and wants more: he 'thoroughly enjoyed' ASLW and says, 'I hope the next one will be along shortly.' (You and me both.) Paul is an example of what browsing in a hotel book-swap will do to you. He picked up a 'dog-eared secondhand copy of Piece of Cake', and now he says 'you remain my favourite author'. His good luck, and mine too.

Something that several people mention is their pleasure at coming across familar faces in ASLW, meaning Lacey (the former Orderly Room corporal) and Brazier (the adjutant). They first appeared in War Story and then played a larger part in Hornet's Sting. Lacey, the least warlike man in the books, believes that war may be hell but that's no reason why the squadron shouldn't live in black-market luxury. Brazier is the opposite: a warhorse who breathes fire and reads King's Regulations for pleasure. I've enjoyed their contribution to three novels. Who knows? They may live again in a fourth.

A last word about 'stoking'. We traced the origin of this cheerful adjective to the beach boys of California. Then it travelled to the East Coast. Now Jon Gunnar reports that he first heard it three years ago when a colleague went snowboarding in New Zealand and came back very stoked - excited - about his experiences. So the word is out and about.


    Readers Write #29        March 2013
Forgotten epics: boosting the Spits,
             welcome back the irrepressible Lacey,
                      and lost and found: a broken Tomahawk.
Doing the research for Piece of Cake took me four years, so I thought I had mastered the story of the Phoney War and the Battle of Britain;  but I was wrong. I've just come across the remarkable account of de Havilland's constant-speed propellers and their nick-of-time contribution.
In the 1930s the company made two-pitch propellers (coarse and fine)* and constant-speed propellers.*  The R.A.F. believed that two-pitch suited fighters while bombers flew better on constant-speed props.  Came World War Two, and fighter pilots soon learned that their Spitfires and Hurricanes were being out-performed by the Luftwaffe's Me-109s with their multi-pitch propellers. The enemy could out-climb and out-dive them (helped by their direct-injection engines). On June 9 1940, a month after Dunkirk, an engineer officer at an R.A.F. fighter base phoned his contact at de Havilland with a simple question. Could a Spitfire prop be converted to constant-speed  "without a lot of paperwork and fuss"? The answer was yes. Four days later, D.H. engineers  arrived and made the conversion overnight. In test flights, that Spitfire climbed faster, manoeuvred better, and had a an increase in ceiling of 7,000 feet.  Suddenly, every pilot wanted a constant-speed prop. 
The quick story is that on June 22, D.H. got verbal orders (no time to draw up a contract) to convert all R.A.F. fighters at their airfields. On June 25, twelve D.H. men drove to twelve Spitfire stations.  Each man met a picked crew of fitters. He instructed them as he converted the first aircraft, helped them convert the second, supervised their conversion of the third, and if all went well, drove to the next station and did it all again. Those engineers worked 15 hours a day, often more.  By August 16, over a thousand Spitfires and Hurricanes had been converted, just as the German air assault was beginning.  During the August raids, German losses averaged four times R.A.F. losses.  An officer at the top of Fighter Command told a de Havilland engineer that, but for the conversion job, those figures might have been reversed. A tribute to initiative, resilience, and sheer determination.

Okay.  Onwards.  A Splendid Little War continues to ring global bells, and it made the day for Paul in the UK. He writes: 'You've got a new book out...Obviously I'm going to buy the thing. I have a smile on my face I didn't have half an hour ago.' Eric, in New Zealand, is also chuffed:  'I am SO glad you've continued with the WW1 series  -  especially with one of my favourite characters, Lacey.'   Tony, via Facebook, comments:  'Yet another great read!'   Martin, in the Kings Road, London, writes:   'Completed at 1 a.m.! A superb novel and what was so interesting was that it is an arena of history for which there is almost no other information. Amazing stuff.' He welcomed the return of 'the irrepressible Lacey' and his 'leitmotif of sarcasm and the banality of war', and found that 'Borodin obviously brings back memories of the (Russian) Duke and Count in Hornet's Sting, but with a slightly softer side!' And Graham Thorne in Essex ('I am a Robinson fan of long standing  -  I bought Goshawk Squadron circa 1972') enjoyed ASLW and offered my publishers a reader's review that just about says it all:
                 'A Splendid Little War' finds us in a new location but back in recognisably Robinson country with our man on top form. A splendidly varied cast, one or two of whom we have met before, fizzing dialogue and great action writing make this a superb read. Derek Robinson is not a war writer but a novelist who just happens to write about conflict as well as anyone I know. Food for thought too about the morality of intervention generally and on what basis it can ever be justified or successful.' 
A couple of surprises. Steve, who 'read and enjoyed ASLW', tells me that Marion Aten's 'Last Train Over Rostov Bridge', a pilot's memoir which I mentioned in my Author's Note, has been reissued  -  about 70 years after he wrote it. And even more amazingly,  Mike writes to say that 43 years ago, in his first year of secondary school (so he would have been 12 years old), 'We studied the Intervention.Why on earth, I cannot say. It never appeared in any syllabus again as far as I know.  I haven't really thought about it since   -   until ASLW came along.'  And as a bonus, Mike mentions a pal of his, a former Vulcan pilot and not in the best of health. Mike recommended 'downloading HRGE to his Kindle. He gave it a resounding thumbs-up.'  He told Mike that there were two basic types of Vulcan pilot:  'those who had fought in WW2 and those who came afterwards... The older types regarded the newer types as mere technocratic button-pushers; the newer types regarded the older types as reactionary war-horses...'
Moving on: Jim in Alberta, an old pal and loyal supporter, writes that  'Hornet's Sting is one of my favourite novels of all time  -  along with Piece of Cake. Classics!'  And he send this memorable shot of a long-lost Tomahawk, just found in the Western Desert and looking like a cover design for A Good Clean Fight:
                                               Tomahawk in Sands   
On the subject of cover design, the artist Tony Cowland (his excellent aviation paintings decorate all the new editions of my flying stories) tells me that 'the original for Damned Good Show (Hampdens) now hangs in a public area of the R.A.F. Club in Piccadilly'. And so it should. It's a wonderful painting.

*For the technically-minded, there are two Wikipedia articles you might find interesting:


    Readers Write #30       May 2013

Lucky, lucky Charles Dash, rolling a Tiger, and the truth about Deflection Shooting.

 April was a good month. Maybe newspaper editors have a soft spot for authors who hit eighty with the pen still in their hands.  Anyway. The Times book section gave Goshawk Squadron (plus all my flying novels) a half-page review, with a photograph that also shows, hanging on the wall, a soft-focus picture of one of the Spitfires used in filming Piece of Cake.  (To read the review, click on the link in the panel above.)  

Meanwhile, a message arrived by cleft stick from Matthew, who lives not a thousand miles from me.  Having read Goshawk Squadron years ago, he took the plunge and read War Story and Hornet's Sting.  (All my RFC/RAF books are now available as MacLehose Press paperbacks.) 'Great stuff,' Matthew writes. 'Best novels I've read for years. I gave a copy of Hornet's Sting

to a chum who used to command 2/2 squadron of the SAS and he called me to say he'd finished it quicker than he had a book for years, and praised in particular the pre/post fighting atmosphere.'

 Then Matthew raised a question that gets to the very heart of Hornet's Sting.  'Who shagged Dash?' he asked.  Most queries from readers are about the horsepower of the Sopwith Pup, or the whereabouts of St Oscar's, an alleged public school where Woolley claimed to have been educated.  (He lied. Saint Oscar never existed.) Now Matthew went straight to the nub of chapter 3. Charles Dash was a young RFC pilot who, on horseback, got lost in a snowstorm as night fell.  He found himself at a nunnery, empty of nuns but occuped by six stunningly beautiful members of F.A.N.Y., the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.  They gave him a hot bath and a delicious supper and a bed for the night, during which some kind lady entered his room and relieved him of his virginity. Perhaps two kind ladies, hard to tell when everything was totally black. All he knew for certain was that she was, or they were, either Chloe Legge-Barrington, Edith Reynolds, Laura da Silva, Nancy Hicks-Potter, Jane Brackenden, or Lucy Knight. Later, he returned to the nunnery and was similarly rewarded;  but by whom?  And when he planned a third visit, they'd all gone. Moved on. War is hell. 

 Now you know as much as I do. Chloe, Edith, Laura, Nancy, Jane, or Lucy?   You decide.  I just tell the story. Nobody said the author had to know everything.

 From Washington DC, Paraag wrote to wish me a happy birthday.  He's read most of my stuff, reckons that 'a teenager reading 
one of your RFC or RAF novels would learn as much (if not more!) about the experience of the past than from reading just a dry history textbook'   -   a point that some teenagers (and even their teachers) have made in the past.  Paraag is working on an RFC novel, avoiding my style and seeking his own: a wise choice.  I wish him well.  Another longtime fan, Jan in Johannesburg, writes: 'You are one of the few novelists one tends to read over and over again   -   and that is no mean compliment. I thoroughly enjoyed your latest in the RFC trilogy' (that must be A Splendid Little War, strictly speaking part of a quartet) 'and I dare say that I am looking for more to come...'    All my titles are available as ebooks,  and Jan has bought some   -   'Convenient,'  he reports, 'but I have a recurring nightmare of my dream library with bay window, full-height bookshelves and rail ladder all-round, empty but for  one IPad lying on its side on a dusty shelf.'  On weekends, he 'potters about the sky in my favourite transport',  which is a Tiger Moth in excellent condition, as you can see.  


I'd heard that the Tiger is a delight to fly but somewhat lethal if you try to roll it, and Jan confirmed this.  He gave step-by-step instructions for attempting to roll the aircraft, including the possible disastrous conclusion, but added: 'Having said that, I have been in a Tiger with a guy that did everything. Slow rolls, barrel rolls, loops, Immelmann's and even a slight tail slide and stall turn. But then there are pilots and weekend warriors.  You need to know which tribe you belong to and stick with it.' Good advice. 

 Finally:  I came across an old letter from Ernest (I know not where) who said good things about my books and urged me to keep going,  which was rewarding since it came from a man who had flown Hurricanes, Spitfires and even the Me-109 ('an uncomfortable gadget, designed for nasty midgets,' he said, 'which changed its response from agile to impossible to handle, depending on the flight envelope. I loathed it.') He wrote that he didn't understand 'why people describe deflection shooting as aiming in front. If you do that, you miss behind; you have to swing the gun/aircraft/tennis racket/golfclub through from behind, fire when you pass the target and keep swinging, on pheasant, grouse, ME's and golfballs. You brush the target out of the air. Aiming with the gunsight means you lose the enemy.'  There you have it, from one who has been at the sharp end.

 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Readers Write #31 July 2013

Call me Lance, dear, you can trust me,

           News from Nowhere: a Blast from the Past,

                     and a poke in the chops in total silence.  

Moggy Cattermole continues to intrigue readers. A squadron leader who actually did lead a squadron in the Battle of Britain summed him up very well:  "Bad for discipline but good for morale.  Every squadron should have one  -   but only one."  Now Hugh, who says he's enjoyed all my books and was happy to find A Splendid Little War in e-book form (he was in Mexico at the time) raises a question. What is Moggy's first name? The only help that Hugh can find is in a scene in Cake where Moggy tells a French girl to call him Lance. Hugh suspects Moggy gave himself something dashing and exciting, to impress the girl;  and isn't Lance a very American name?  The answer to the second question is no, unless you're thinking of dodgy pro cyclists. Lance is short for Lancelot, Knight of the Round Table, and exactly the sort of camouflage that Moggy would wear when he wanted to have his wicked way with a wench.

David, an old pal (India, Malaysia, now in Tennessee), is re-reading all my RFC and RAF novels in chronological order, which is the best way, and he has a query. War Story  (set in 1916) ends with Paxton upset because Frank O'Neill has gone west   -   but in Hornet's Sting (set in 1917) O'Neill is writing postcards from London. What's happening? It's rather like Baggy Bletchley's non-death in Cake.  People jump to conclusions. O'Neill crashed and was carted off,  unconscious, to hospital. The squadron assumed he was a goner. Nobody said in so many words that he was dead, but he wasn't around, he'd been replaced. Exit O'Neill. It happened a lot. There were many  examples of missing pilots returning days later to find that their kit had been auctioned off. 

A word about readers' emails. Writing novels is an odd job. For two years, maybe more,  nobody sees the story but me. Then it's published and vanishes. Who's reading it? Where? Is anybody reading it? What do they think?   Often, the Internet answers. The other day I got this brief email from Rob, a Scottish librarian: 'I am delighted you have finally a deal which enabled your novels to be restocked by our libraries. At the moment I have 5 out on loan which makes me happy as a pig in shit'   -   news that I found both encouraging and refreshing:  three cheers for Scottish librarians!  Phil in Bath wrote simply to say: 'Thank you. You have entertained me for many, many hours. I love your characters (and the way they die so matter-of-factly)...'  Steven, ex-Rhodesian Army and RAF Regiment, writes:  'I think you capture the absolute essence of British-style military banter. Your plotting is also spot-on, in terms of sheer unpredictability of who lives and who dies...' Twenty years ago, Michael in Michigan borrowed a copy of Cake, and clearly recalls 'the gloomy October day when I first began to read it (most October days in Michigan fit that description), thinking how much it brought to life your portrait of northern France'.  He re-read it, and during his military service 'I encountered Moggys, CH3s, Bartons and, sadly, even Rexs...I turned out to be Skull.'  Now he teaches military history at high school level, and says: 'I like to use examples from your yarns when illustrating the point that where war is concerned, there is little glamour and rarely a happy ending.'  Too true, Mike.

That same week came an e-mail from Joseph in Kansas. Forty years ago, as a young US Army 2nd lieutenant, he read Goshawk Squadron. He still has the copy and to prove it he sent this picture of the cover:  

                                          GoshawkCvr_Am_ Edn_1972

(Pity about the cigarette. I'm a non-smoker, and so is everyone in my novels.)   Today, Joe is re-reading the trilogy, discovering things he'd forgotten or never realised. What struck him was that Mackenzie and Woolley first appear in Hornet's Sting; Mackenzie is killed.and Woolley mentions his loss at the start of Goshawk Squadron   -   which I wrote umpteen years before Hornet's Sting. And that leads Joe to suggest that 'you must have had the entire RFC Trilogy sketched out in your mind before you wrote the first line of Goshawk Squadron.'  It's a nice thought, Joe, but the truth is I wrote Goshawk with no idea of sequels or prequels.  All that came much later, out of the blue. A quick note from Chris: having just read Goshawk and Sting,  'I am trying not to start reading War Story immediately. I suspect I won't succeed.'  Go ahead, Chris.  Give in.

Then came an e-mail from Jim and his wife in Kansas, who lived in Oxford back in the 1970s. My books are on their shelves,but what sticks in their memories is a series of talks which I wrote and presented for BBC Radio, called (I think) 'News from Nowhere'. The BBC let me go wherever I liked, so I picked places with familiar names that most people never visited:   the Wash, Swindon,Wigan, Totnes, Tonypandy, Glencoe... 'Those travel monologues were amongst the most entertaining things I have ever listened to,' Jim says.  He'd happily buy an audio set, but I can't help him there. The tapes have been long since wiped. 
I know the wiped feeling, because Gerry has sent me this uppercut of an e-mail:  'Hullo, Mr Robinson. I have just read your excellent book,  Invasion 1940. One error in it. You stated that Bomber Command wireless operators tested their equipment  before take-off. Not true. Radio silence was strictly maintained. How do I know? I was one.'   Wham! 

Now, I always pay careful attention to anything said by anyone who was at the sharp end of ops. He was there; I wasn't.  So I looked up my research notes for Invasion 1940. John Terraine, a very good historian of the RAF, wrote about its 'Y Service'. which listened in to Luftwaffe transmissions and thus gave warning of an approaching raid;  and he added that the Luftwaffe had their own 'Y Service', called Horchdienst, said to be more efficient than ours. But that was in 1940. Things change fast in war.

Gerry and I exchanged notes, and I found that he served on 75NZ Squadron, largely manned by Kiwis (although Gerry is English), and highly respected for its 'press on regardless' attitude.  Not surprisingly, it was also known as 'the chop squadron'   -    in all of Bomber Command, it suffered the second-highest casualties.  Bomber Command was a huge organisation and the question of radio silence is equally big. R.V.Jones, one of the most brilliant boffins in WW2, wrote that, in his experience, Bomber Command (and indeed USAAF) was 'appallingly indiscreet in its use of radio transmissions'.  A lot of bombers, he says, flew with their I.F.F. (Identification Friend or Foe) transmitting, and German fighters detected this signal. And Max Hastings, in his book Bomber Command, wrote about the Luftwaffe's 'Tame Boar' operations in 1943, and said: 'The British discovered that the Germans could often predict a raid by monitoring wireless operators' signals from all over eastern England during the morning air test, and 100 Group began to broadcast fake test signals on days when Bomber Command was not operating, to confuse the issue.' 

In the end, Gerry and I agreed that we were both right:  on 75NZ Squadron, radio silence was total, but on other squadrons it was a different story. War is never a simple business.  And finally some good news:  hardbacks of my latest yarn,  A Splendid Little War   -  published in January   -   have all sold out. To celebrate this success, publication of the paperback edition has been brought forward from January 2014 to November 2013. Whoopee! 


    Readers Write #32   November 2013

Never quit: portrait of a wartime pilot,
         Flying in a Lancaster (earplugs needed),
                   And Baggy Bletchley versus the mobile loo.

The makers of the film A Bridge Too Far, based on Cornelius Ryan's book about the paratroop assault on Arnhem, held a preview before general release.  As they left, the audience were asked to write their opinions.  Many said it was a good film but the story was farfetched.  They simply didn't believe that the force sent to relieve the paras would have to cross so many bridges.  Yet the story was true. Arnhem was a bridge too far for the Allied relief columns, and so the operation ended in failure. 

 Things happen in war that any writer would hesitate to invent. Take the career of Lewis Hodges.  He was 21 in 1940 when his Hampden bomber raided Stettin, was damaged, and he made a forced-landing in Brittany.  He and his gunner then walked across France to Marseilles, got arrested and jailed. Hodges escaped, stowed away on a cargo boat to Oran in West Africa, got arrested and was returned to Marseilles, where he escaped yet again, having used a potato to create official-looking stamps on a pass. He travelled by train and taxi to the Pyrenees and into Spain.  This time customs officers arrested him.  He spent five weeks in a prison camp before the British Embassy secured his release and he went via Gibraltar to Britain and rejoined his squadron.  He'd been on the run for eight months. Asked what he'd missed most, he said: 'My pyjamas.'  Thereafter, when flying on ops he always wore them under his uniform. He flew many ops.


A long spell of night raids on Germany earned him a place in a squadron supporting SOE operations in Europe flying Halifax bombers that dropped supplies and agents to resistance groups.  It was a lonely and dangerous task, calling for a calm temperament and superb navigational skills.  By 1943 (when he was 24) he commanded the squadron, now flying Lysanders and Hudsons, small enough to land in fields.  He flew SOE ops until 1944 and then  went to the Far East, where he commanded a special duties squadron, using Lysanders, Dakotas and long-range Liberators to support resistance groups inBurma, Thailand and Malaya.  These sorties lasted up to 20 hours, often in monsoon conditions. He ended the war with a double DSO and a double DFC . 

 That's a brief account of the extraordinary wartime career of the man who eventually became Air Chief Marshal Sir LewisHodges, CBE, CB, KCB.  His portrait hangs in the RAF Club, in Piccadilly,  and next to it is a picture of the first bombers he flew, Hampdens, in a low-level raid over the North Sea.  It's the original that Tony Cowland painted for the new cover of the MacLehose Press edition of  Damned Good Show. Those three words are a fitting description of both Lewis Hodges and the painting.

 Onwards.  I hear from John W., an old pal in  New York State, who has a rare (probably unique) angle on my latest effort,  A Splendid Little War. He enjoyed it immensely  ("I am becoming a fan of Lacey," he says), especially as he (John) has driven a World War One Renault Whippet tank and also restored a Sopwith Camel,  "so the last chapter where one consumed the other and then committed suicide was of particular interest."   Not many people can claim such inside knowledge.

 More transatlantic info comes from another good guy, Tibor, who is currently mentoring students of English at the University of Tampa in Florida.  One of his class wrote a thoughtful critique on my output. "Robinson," he says, "calmly narrates the Goshawk attack on the Zeppelin and subsequent firefight without getting too popcorn and relentless.  It all goes back to straight reportage",  which he believes I do as well as Hemingway and maybe even slightly better. Well, I just tell the story and hope for the best.  

 Meanwhile, Garth in NYC,  who is also in the military fiction business, has achieved the ultimate in research by actually flying in a Lancaster bomber. The Canadian Warplane Heritage in Hamilton, Ontario has a Lanc,  one of only two still airworthy, and it's possible to take a trip on a 45-minute flight.  "Not cheap," Garth says, "but worth every penny."  The rear gun turret being out of bounds, he spent most of the flight in the mid-upper gun turret "from where I reckon the best all-round views were available "  -   and to prove it, he sent me some shots.  


 Lanc 001THUMB    Lanc 002THUMB    Lanc 003THUMB    Lanc 004THUMB    Lanc 005THUMB

   Click on a  thumbnail to  see a larger version.

Very impressive.  You can see what a beautiful beast the Lanc was (and is).  Garth reports that  he could move around reasonably freely, "although clambering over the main spar that holds the wings on is a bit of a sod, so what it would have been like in full flying gear doesn't bear thinking about"   -   especially in pitch darkness.  "The airframe creaks and groans and screams and shudders, and the noise produced by the four engines is simply unbearable",  so passengers wore ear-protectors.  In WW2, aircrew endured the deafening noise, breathed oxygen, flew at 20,000 feet in temperatures down to minus 60, and faced flak and nightfighters. Garth concludes: "My respect for the men of Bomber Command, already high, has now doubled."  

 Jumping from the Lanc to the electronic age,  Bob  ("a devoted reader since Piece of Cake in 1991")  writes from somewhere in America to ask when ASLW will be available as an ebook to my U.S. fans.  All I can say is the NY office of Quercus Inc is now up and running with plans to publish all my flying titles,  plus the Cabrillo quartet, as ebooks.  When exactly?  Don't know,  but I suspect the ASLW ebook will follow the print paperback next spring.  Meanwhile, friends in America tell me they have bought print copies of  Splendid via Amazon, although delivery can take as long as a month.

 Lastly, a couple of messages from the UK.  Rob has read and re-read all my stuff again,  "thanks to your latest publisher who has seen the light in the quality and stark depth in your writing. Like so many, I read and read again, and each time reveals another layer in your characters.  Some live, many die, but the reader truly cares about each."  Which leads him to wonder:  what happened next to CH3 after Cake and to Barton after A Good Clean Fight?  Fanny Barton's future is spelled out very briefly in the novel   -   he goes to Rhodesia and commands a pilot training base (which, personally, I don't think would satisfy him for long).   I can only guess at CH3's future,  but the hard fact is that six American pilots flew in the Battle of Britain and five were killed later in the war; so CH3's chances of survival were not good.  

And Phil joins the club of those who re-read Cake every two or three years, and says:  "Liking Skull and Kellaway more with each reading.... I receive a sort of holistic notice as I approach Baggy Bletchley's testicular battle on the portable toilet.  I know what's happening, more or less what he's going through, and I still laugh out loud at each reading."   I have a soft spot for old Baggy.  He survived tha Battle to fight again in AGCF and in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. Air commodores were made of tough stuff


                                                                                                     Readers Write #33   January 2014

13 boots on the ceiling, love conquers all, and pooch scoffs predator.

It's been said (probably by me) that fighter pilots take nothing seriously except flying.  An email from Richard gives an example of this truth which made even my old eyebrows twitch.  Back in 1985, when he was a schoolboy, Richard got invited to visit RAF Binbrook.  5 and 11 Squadrons flew Lightnings from Binbrook, and the Lightning was the supreme British postwar fighter. Its twin Avon engines packed three hundred tons of thrust.  It could climb to 50,000 feet  in a minute and its acceleration was startling. Richard's visit certainly startled him. 

 He met a Group Captain  -   presumably the station commander  -  in the Mess bar. "On the ceiling," Richard says, "were nailed 13 flying boots.  Next to the fireplace was a gang of pilots. They were severely pissed.  One of their number had died after his plane had tangled with high voltage cables."  (Always a hazard of low-level flying.) The wake was in progress and strange things were happening.  Richard recalls that all the pilots' epaulettes, normally on their shoulders, had been sewn to the cuffs of their shirt sleeves and were hanging around their wrists.  Perhaps this was a trademark, just as fighter pilots in WW2 left the top button of their tunics undone.  I'm guessing. The wake, now very severely pissed, began involving the non-flying colleagues in the bar, until one pilot, who must have been utterly totally severely pissed, approached the group captain and "grasping his epaulettes and with one swift tug, ripped them off his sleeves. Completely unfazed, the Groupie handed me his pipe and pint and laid out the pilot with a single punch!"

 The havoc of the wake doesn't surprise me as much as those thirteen flying boots nailed to the ceiling.  The custom of decorating a ceiling dates back to the RFC;  but it was usually done with boots whose soles had been blackened with soot.  So   -   why flying boots? Mementoes of thirteen fatal crashes? But that would assume that the pilot's boots survived his crash, which seems unlikely.  Spare boots?  But normally pilots owned only one pair. So it's a mystery.

 No mystery about Steve's grandfather.  Steve (like Richard) "enjoyed all your books so far  -  got a few to do yet."  One that especially grabbed him was A Splendid Little War.  His grandfather served in the Hampshire Regiment and was with them in Siberia during the 1919 Intervention.  "Lost more men to flu than in action," Steve says.  The Hampshires had been abroad for some years, which explains why his grandfather's story "is more dramatic in so much as when he returned home to Bournemouth and went in the back door as normal, he was confronted by strangers. His mother had taken in lodgers and died suddenly."  News of her death had never reached him.  The strangers were a mother and two young daughters, and so "he felt it was wrong for him to be living there as well.  A very neat solution was to propose to the more eye-worthy girl. They got married and moved in."  The Hampshires  were good at making the best of a bad situation, whether it was in Siberia or Bournemouth.

 Here's another long-distance event.  Ray sent me thanks for "the wonderful reads   -   I have just finished reading  Goshawk Squadron.  What a smashing book."  He read Hullo Russia, Goodbye England with especial interest because his brother flew Vulcans on 617 Squadron   -   but "didn't tell me much about it."   (No surprise:  security was very tight.)  His brother moved to Canada and flew 747s for Air Canada. "After reading your novel I rang him in Canada and he was amazed at how much I got to understand what his task was. He's going to read HRGE for himself."  Another Steve, watching the recent BBC-tv Cold War series, found it "dovetailed with all the themes you covered in HRGE."  Well, nearly all, Steve.  The series failed to question the idea that rapid response by Vulcans would always be a deterrent to a Soviet attack.  Arming and fueling a Vulcan took a lot longer than the two or three minutes achieved by rapid-response take-off, and Vulcans could not remain permanently armed and fuelled...  Never mind, it's old history;  and what intrigues me now is that Steve has got more out of Piece of Cake than I realised I had put in.  He says: "I told the story of Steele-Stebbing, Cattermole and the portable loo to my son to illustrate the principle of 'Don't get mad, get even'."   His son is ten and is playing rugby.  Amazing.

 Which reminds me of the famous schoolboy excuse:  'A dog ate my homework.'  Stephen writes that he was reading Goshawk, in front of a log fire, until the early hours.  "I nodded off, and when I awoke, a puppy had eaten the last pages."  Either a hungry pup or very tasty pages.  Takes me back to the reader who wrote that he'd dropped his copy of Cake in the bath...  Stephen rates Cake highly, but "it's the RFC trilogy which creates such powerful images for me... Your skill as 'a painter of pictures on the inside of eyelids'  (as Pratchett says) is superb."  He has special knowledge of the period:  he builds sets and props for film and TV. Right now he's building a full-size SE5a. Photographs are promised. They'll brighten up this column. 

 Quick round-up, starting in New Jersey, where Ralph much enjoyed reading  Kramer's War,  which is set in the other (old) Jersey.  Rob, who is "currently reading/re-reading all your air war stories in chronological order"  found A Splendid Little War   "a tremendous read:  Daddy Maynard's fate was utterly stark in its pointlessness  -  but that was the point, wasn't it?"  It was indeed, Rob.   A different Rob calls Cake  "the most I've enjoyed a novel in years."  Meanwhile, Scott praises the actor who read AGCF for Audible's Books On Tape:  "Michael Tudor Barnes has done such a good job that I'm really enjoying it for a second time."  And Quinton, hoping for more Cake sequels, wonders about a novel set in 1941, when the RAF sent fighters on offensive patrols over France   -   and suffered for it, much as the Luftwaffe had over England in 1940.  "A last hurrah for CH3 (my favourite character) perhaps?"    Maybe. Anything's  possible.

 Finally, here   -   from Chris in the Royal Canadian Air Force   -   is a review of ASLW that he wrote for Soldier, a magazine of the British Army: 

  Mr Robinson has once again exceeded (already high) expectations and has produced another novel replete with tragi-comedy, education, cynical humour and action.  Set in the midst of the Russian civil war, the book follows the experiences of Merlin Squadron, the RAF fighters sent to support the White Russian army in the southern steppe. Robinson is master of character development and he is able to capture the essence of the post-war British Officer sent on yet another international escapade.  A tight storyline woven in a historically accurate rendition of the conditions and folly under which the British airmen operated; this book cannot be recommended highly enough. 

As it happens, The Times  also recommended it highly   -   they included   A Splendid Little War  in their 'Books of the Year' for 2013.  Which was nice.


Readers Write #34   March 2014

Knuckle-duster knife, throttling a Camel, and bouncing-bomb Mosquitoes.

Here’s a remarkable coincidence.  Just when Mark  (“always been a fan of your WW1 and WW2 books”) learned about my latest,  A Splendid Little War, he was clearing out the family house, his mother having passed away. He knew that his great-uncle and godfather John had flown with the RFC/RAF in WW1 because he’d bequeathed Mark his medals   -   the DFC, the Western Front and Great War campaign awards, plus “a curious thing: the Order of St. Stanislav with Swords”.  Mark had been told that John had flown a Bristol Fighter “in the Middle East, fighting against the Bolsheviks, hence the medal”.  But on clearing out the house “I found a raft of John’s stuff. His presentation sword; a hideous knuckle-duster knife, a personal survival weapon; a plywood good-luck mascot  -  a black cat with a bomb in its paws  -  which I assume was screwed to the fuselage;  but most importantly his diary...”  It starts in early summer 1918 when John was in action against the Turks;  then, after the Armistice, “off they went to fight in the Russian Civil War.”  There are photos; one shows John in front of a Sopwith Camel, which chimes in with ASLW. Mark is reading the novel and the diary together. He’s promised excerpts. Sounds like fascinating stuff.

Then another regular fan, Steve, emailed me to say that in the early 1980s, “as an impressionable teenager”, he’d read John Harris’s story The Interceptors, also based on the Intervention of 1919.  Fast-forward thirty years and he saw a copy in anOxford bookshop. It was from the original print run of 1977, so he snapped it up “for a mere 99p.  There are occasional underlinings and question marks, and this rather priceless comment written in a shaky but clear hand in capitals:  "NONSENSE. YOU CAN’T THROTTLE BACK A CAMEL AND OPEN UP AGAIN.”  Steve adds: “It seems to have the authority of One Who Knows  -  1977 being 60 years after 1917 (when Camels went into service)  -   so eminently feasible.”  The correction certainly has the ring of truth. The fact is that the Camel had a button on the joystick, and to get the speed right on landing, the pilot ‘blipped’ the engine by using the button to switch it on and off. Get it wrong and make a crash landing (as described in ASLW), and you bash your nose against the gun-butts and spend the rest of your life with what was known as ‘Camel Face’.  Not an improvement.

From Oxford to Kentucky. Simon, living today not a thousand miles from here, has been reading my stuff since the 1970s. His late father-in-law held the splendid title of Charles E. Tripp Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Berea College, Kentucky.  They shared a taste in books, so “I was unsurprised to find Goshawk Squadron on his shelves, but I then found Kentucky Blues   -   what a small world.”   I had to do a lot of writing and rewriting with KB   -   about 25 years, off and on  -  and at the end I was disappointed that it didn’t find an American publisher.  So it’s good to know that at least one prof in Kentucky liked it. 

 Next, to Oz.  Peter in Sydney spent several years doing what he describes as “chasing WW2 plane wrecks in Australia with HARS”,  which turns out to mean Historic Aircraft Restoration Society.  “We have 28 buried Corsairs,” he says.  (If that seems a lot, bear in mind that over 10,000 Corsairs were delivered to the US Navy Corps in WW2;  it was a very tough single-seat fighter, easily recognisable with its inverted ‘gull-type’ wing roots.)  What’s more, Peter “located several bouncing-bomb Mosquitoes”,  which sounds like the art of flying low and skidding a bomb into a tunnel. He “managed to get one to Glynne Powell in New Zealand, who now rebuilds Mosquitoes.”  Who knows?  Maybe a Mozzie will fly again.  “Just finished A Good Clean Fight for the second time,” Peter says, “and enjoyed it just as much.”  

More from Oz.  I heard from Shannon, now in Chicago but as a 13-year-old Aussie he was living in Fiji. A friend let him borrowPiece of Cake. “It made a deep, lasting impression,” he says;  but being 13 he forgot the author’s name,   until “recently I stumbled across Goshawk Squadron and thought: this has to be the guy who wrote that other book!”  He  served in the Australian Army, and found 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.” 

 Which is good to hear, and another example of the unexpected rewards of my job   -   once I’ve published a book I’ve no idea where it might end up, who’s reading it, and how it affects them. Will, almost certainly in the U.S., tells me he got clobbered by the fickle finger of fate and ended up feeling pretty low.  A friend gave him Piece of Cake as a sort of therapy.  “I don’t know if healing is the right word,” Will says, “but it was certainly distracting.  I have to thank you for Piece of Cake... it is such a book, and how.

Back to the UK, where Steve, an old pal, dropped a note “to let you know I’ve re-read and enjoyed tremendously (more even than the first time) A Splendid Little War. The Russian Intervention was absolutely of its time   -    almost Steampunk in its fusion of trains, planes and cavalry. Lacey steals the show, in my opinion.”  Eagle-eyed as ever, Steve noticed that Lacey shares a knowledge of Tudor Protestant Sects (especially in Northern England) with Skull in Cake.  I suspect that one of them was bluffing, and it wasn’t Skull. 

Quick roundup.  Nev has just discovered me and “absolutely loves”  Cake. David in South Tennessee enjoyed Kentucky Blues,  looks forward to getting the paperback ASLW  (it’s due out on April 1st)  and asks for any news about a non-fiction job that I’ve been writing, on the causes of WW1..   Well, the book’s finished. It’s titled Why 1914? and I hope to self-publish it very soon. Watch the website for info. Finally, a plea from J.L. in Canada, who has an elderly friend (with no Kindle, no computer) who’s enjoyed the first three books of my Cabrillo quartet and would dearly love to read the final story, Operation Bamboozle.  Problem is it’s out of print.  Even Amazon can’t help.  So...if anyone out there is willing to donate a spare copy and make the elderly friend happy,  then email me ( and I’ll arrange the deal. 


                                                                                      Readers Write #35   June 2014

The low-flying submarine, hairy bridges, and ... forget soccer. Brazil reads, too. 

The Vulcan attack on the airfield at Port Stanley during the Falklands War was a brilliant operation.  It deserved an impeccable book, and it almost got one.  Rowland White’s  Vulcan 607 is a gripping story.  Pity about the submarine on page 77.  According to White, on 1 April 1982, HMS Splendid left Faslane, on the Clyde, at 9 a.m.  ‘By lunchtime,’ White says, ‘they were at periscope depth between Fastnet and the Welsh coast.’  Two problems: (1) Fastnet is a rock on the extreme south-west of Ireland and so a long way from Wales; and (2) even if we forget Fastnet and assume that Splendid was off the north coast of Wales, she had travelled 200 miles in 4 hours, or 50 miles an hour. Supposing she was off south-west Wales, make that 300 miles in 4 hours, or 75 miles an hour. Either way, it was a hell of a lick for a submarine, especially one at periscope depth. 

 How far and how fast Splendid sailed on that day didn’t alter the Vulcan achievement,  but it made a difference to me. An author needs to make only one big factual mistake and he’s lost the reader’s confidence. I research  my stuff very thoroughly, and it’s good to hear from Steve in Cambridge (‘just finished reading Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, which I could not put down’)  that ‘there is nothing worse than factual error in a story and I found not one.’ Nobody’s perfect, and sometimes I get an email pointing out that I’ve made a mistake.  If  that’s right, I’ll willingly correct it in the next edition. Occasionally the reader’s wrong. An R.A.F. veteran wrote to me and said I’d got it wrong   -   there were no Waafs serving on airfields in 1940.  The fact is there were none on his station, so he believed there were none anywhere.  That’s what’s known as assuming the general from the particular,  a risky business. 

Then came a message from Mark in Surrey about Robert Loraine, the sort of man that nobody could improve on. Loraine was a 23-year-old actor in 1899 when he volunteered for the Boer War, survived that, went back to the stage, then in 1909 he learned how to fly. He was 33.  Next year he was the first to fly across the Irish Sea, or most of it  -  he ditched and swam the last 200 feet.  He was the first to fly to the Isle of Wight, no great challenge except for the rainstorm that killed another pilot.  Loraine also flew Bristol Boxkites over army manoeuvres, pioneered the sending of radio messages from the air, and invented the word ‘joystick’.  He had a good war. Joined the R.F.C. in 1914 (bear in mind he was 38, married, with three children). Got the M.C. in 1915 for shooting down an Albatros;  ran a drama society on his squadron;  was shot in the back  (bullet exited his neck) and won the D.S.O. in 1917.  By then he was 41, probably the oldest pilot in the war.  Still full of life, he went on to star in Broadway shows and in films.  Finally kicked the bucket in 1935.  Extraordinary man.

Next comes news from Steve, a regular correspondent,  about the Spitfire Bridge in Hampshire. It was built in the 1930s to carry the A31 over the Winchester Bypass,  and like all bridges it was catmint to fighter pilots. Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy describes how he (and others) flew under the old Severn Railway Bridge   -   always tricky because of the great rise and fall of tide;  one pilot misjudged the level, pancaked onto the mud banks, broke both legs and had to crawl to safety before the tide came in. In 1941, George Rogers flew a Curtiss Tomahawk under the A31 and found himself competing for space with a large truck that was travelling in the opposite direction on the Bypass. He took evasive action, clipped the bridge, lost three feet of wing, got back to base and crash-landed. As the saying goes, a good landing is one you can walk away from, which George did, with minor injuries. 

                                           Spitfire Bridge

The locals called it Spitfire Bridge, Spits being the fashionable machine at the time. It’s been rebuilt since then but the name survives.

Which takes me inevitably to Piece of Cake. In the novel, the bridge is in France, the pilots are bored with the Phoney War, and I never dreamed that it might be done for real. The producers of the television series thought the same, until their chief pilot, Ray Hanna, said that, given a flyable bridge, he would do it. (Well, he was a former R.A.F. Red Arrows leader.)  Months of searching found Winston Bridge in County Durham:  the largest single-span bridge in Britain, with a long, straight run for the Spitfire. The span makes a 100 ft semi-circle.  Ray’s approach was at 200 m.p.h. Even today, when I see that shot, I flinch a little.



From one war to another.  Mike, somewhere in the U.S., served a couple of spells in Afghanistan, where he read (and re-read) Goshawk Squadron and Piece of Cake, especially enjoying ‘the black humor and the dialogue...During my time as a tank company commander, I often thought that anyone who had read GS might compare me rather closely to Stanley Woolley.’ Well, there have been worse role models, Mike, otherwise the book wouldn’t still be in print after 40-plus years,  and now being read, to my great surprise, in Brazil.  Giuilia writes that she found it when she was in England and ‘it caught me right there and I’ve been a big fan of yours ever since (I’ve just finished AGCF  -  what a splendid story).  Funny thing is, when I brought it home to Brazil, my friends became your fans as well.’   War Story in particular scored with Giuilia:  ‘I loathed Paxton in his beginnings (pompous prick, as Piggott put it)...but Paxton and O’Neill’s quarrels are very popular around here. Of all the elements in your stories they’re the ones that hit me the hardest...Paxton’s epic quest through enemy soil is one of my favourite moments  -  except the ending. I mourned him. Truly did. Wept all over the book and nearly ruined the paper. Paxton’s final chapters were like World War One itself  -  the effort, the struggle, nearly reaching the end and then dying another meaningless death despite everything.’ 

A round-up of readers who are also authors. Tor Idar in Norway (‘Quick note to say how much I enjoy your novels...I use your books any time I need a good kick up the buttocks to get back to writing.’)....John in the U.S.  (‘Stumbled upon your books recently and kicked myself for never having heard of your work before...’)....Jack, now at Oxford  (‘My supervisor was slightly surprised when I borrowed/stole a copy of  AGCF before any of of his slightly more academic recommendations...’). And finally, messages from Nev in the U.K. (‘Looking forward to devouring the lot’),  Josh in Texas  (‘Huge fan of your work’),  and Bob in the U.S., who got the Kindle version of  A Splendid Little War and asked about doing the same with my older fiction.  Everything is now available as ebooks, I’m happy to say.  


Readers Write #36     September 2014

Not all over by Christmas,   simplicate,  and a hop in a Camel 

Here’s a thought.  Suppose MI6 had killed Adolf in the middle of World War Two.  Would that have improved the Allies’ chances? Probably not.  It would have made him a German martyr and removed the war’s worst decision-maker, the man who invaded Russia and, seven months later, declared war on America.  Two colossal mistakes.  There were other blunders.  The best way to defeat Germany was by leaving Hitler in charge.   The same might be said of Kaiser Wilhelm II, supreme commander of all German forces in WW1.  Kaiser Bill was tenpence in the shilling  (if you don’t understand that, ask your dad).  He believed he was appointed by God and therefore saying something made it happen. In August 1914,  just after war was declared, he told his troops: ‘You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees.’  When the leaves fell, his troops already knew that they faced a long, hard fight. Confidence in the Kaiser took a knock.

 Sometimes  -  not often  -  war can be very simple. When I was writing my latest effort, Why 1914?,  I used my secret weapon: simple English.  Everyday words, short sentences, brief chapters.  Too many histories are written to impress other historians,  and they make hard reading.  I wrote  Why 1914? for people who never read history but who want to know what caused the Great War.  Like all my stuff, I tried to make it irresistibly readable.  (Some critics despise that word.  What do they want? Unreadability?)  So an email from Gritings in Sweden pleased me.  He told me that writing in English is difficult for him. ‘It’s more easy to read,’ he says, ‘and you are the reason for that.’    Of my novels, only Goshawk Squadron has been translated into Swedish, ‘so I have with help from my son’s dictionary struggled through all your other books.’  That probably means the other seven flying novels, so it was quite a journey. ‘I like your writing very much,’  Gritings says, and he’s looking forward to reading the new book.

 Many thousand miles westward, Maggie  -  a Brit now living in Connecticut  -  is introducing her 16-year-old grandson to my work.  ‘To say I’m a fan of your books would be putting it mildly,’ she says. ‘I’ve read Piece of Cake 6 or 7 times, and I’ve watched the mini-series many, many times’, most recently with her grandson.  What she hasn’t  read is on order.  ‘Goshawk Squadron is one of the finest pieces of writing it has ever been my privilege to read,’ she says. ‘Major Woolley is brilliant.’   Meanwhile Jeff in Tel Aviv ‘stumbled across Kramer’s War in a bookshop in Johannesburg, way back in 1979’,  and now he says ‘I’m quite probably the only person in Israel who owns your novels   -   some of them repeatedly, since I keep thrusting them on people who I think will enjoy them...’  When he reads my stuff, he pictures specific actors for the characters  (Malcolm McDowell as Woolley, for example) and wonders whether I write with actors in mind.  No, I don’t.  By the time they get to be famous, actors are all too old to resemble aircrew who had an average age of  21. The  Cake TV series scored by casting young unknowns as pilots.  And in any case, every reader has a different mental image of a character.  That’s fine by me.

An example of this comes from Jim in Lichfield. He was persuaded by his brother-in-law to try War Story,  says ‘I could not put it down’,  went on to read the rest of the R.F.C. trilogy and ‘currently I’m on the Russian Steppe with Merlin Squadron, it’s a great read...I liked Griffin, albeit his time was short-lived.’  Which I didn’t expect, since Griffin, the C.O., is permanently angry.  But then Woolley is no rosebud. Nor is Moggy Cattermole, in POC, or O’Neill in WS, or Skull in DGS,  and they all have their admirers.  None of my business.  I just write the books.  Jim adds: ‘So enthralled am I by your description of these early flying exploits, I have asked my wife for a Sopwith Camel flying experience for my 50th birthday.’  Good for you, Jim, and a good excuse for a picture. 

Sopwith Pup

OK, so it’s a Sopwith Pup.  We couldn’t find a Camel in flight.  (This excellent shot is courtesy of Darren Harbar/Focal Plane Images.)  Jim’s account of the trip: ‘Over  and done in 30 minutes, but hopefully more successful than some R.F.C. aviators!’   Too true.  More than half of all R.F.C. losses were in training,  before the trainee had a chance to fly a Pup or a Camel.

Richard in Kent (‘Now back to having a full house of your output’)  lives near Biggin Hill airport, where several Spitfires are kept.  ‘They fly with delightful regularity... On 11th November last year, four flew above us in formation.’  He tells the story behind one of his prized possessions. In 1978 he went to the unveiling of a painting by the aviation artist Frank Wotton, bought a paperback of his prints, and persuaded Douglas Bader to sign it.  He had the same success with Bob Stanford-Tuck  ‘who carefully inscribed his signature above that of Bader, along with the message: “It’s altitude that counts.”   Adolf Galland also signed the page.  Richard’s conclusion:  ‘So you’re in good company on my book shelves.’

Finally, a round-up of messages. Edward, in London, writes:  ‘My late father is responsible for my discovery of your writing! Urged me to read Goshawk Squadron  -  haven’t looked back since.’  Bill in Ontario, a longtime fan, says he believes that ‘good black humour is one of the most difficult forms of literature to write and you are a master of it.’  Chris in London is thoroughly enjoying  A Splendid Little War (‘Bennett’s is a cracking intro’). Graham in Essex  (‘constant reader since I bought the Pan edition of Goshawk Squadron in 1971’)  has now bought ‘the full set of the RFC/RAF books in their splendid uniform covers... begging me to read them through’.  And when Nick in Kent ordered a copy of  Why 1914? he added: ‘Can’t wait  -  you’re a bloody brilliant and exceptionally gifted writer.’  I must try to remember that the next time I get writer’s block.


Readers Write #37    November 2014

Missed opportunities,

                   death in the desert,

                                 and the Tsar rides again. 

Here’s a surprise.  Product placement has infiltrated the writing game.  It’s been part of the Hollywood economy for many years   -  if your hero drinks beer, make sure he always has a bottle of Old Frothenslosh and the brewery will write you a fat cheque.  Even fatter, if you you can get him to say he likes it because it’s old, stale, and has the head at the bottom, that being their slogan. Absurd?  Look at what Popeye did for the sale of spinach. And now Land Rover has handed six figures to someone so that he’ll write a new Bond yarn about which I know nothing except it’s a safe bet that a Land Rover has a supporting role,  and you can be sure it starts when Bond turns turns the key.

Which makes me look back at my career of missed opportunities.  In Goshawk Squadron, Woolley drinks nothing but Guinness,  and what did I get?  Not even a free crate of the stuff.   Lacey, in A Splendid Little War, keeps Merlin Squadron well stocked with Gentleman’s Relish, Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade, and Earl Grey tea.  I’m still waiting for a complimentary hamper from the makers.  That’s my failing: too generous to the food and drink industry.

Meanwhile, my non-fiction Why 1914?  attracts readers from all over.  Bill, from a military postcode in the US, ordered a copy and said he’s ‘very much enjoyed everything from Kentucky Blues to Kramer’s War’  and especially ‘your dark, fighter pilot humor’,  which is good to hear from a man who flew F4  Phantoms and F-111s. He adds: ‘Nothing you write is forced or false. If you wrote a procedure manual on how to teach dogs to bark, I’d read that too.’  As it happens, Bill, I once wrote a book explaining the laws of Rugby Union.  Believe me, what goes on in the front row of the scrum is enough to make a dog howl at the moon.   Kathryn, in Harrogate,  is a big fan of my stuff;  so is her sister and father, both of whom got a copy of Splendid for Christmas last year.   Having ordered a copy of  1914, she’s eyeing up the MacLehose Press reissued favourites: ‘The new covers are superb!’

Copies of  1914 also made their way to John in Iowa, an old pal currently rebuilding an even older (1929) DH Gypsy Moth;  to Meryl in Bunderim, Queensland;  to Alex in Kaiapoi, New Zealand;  and to readers scattered over the UK, including Geoffrey in Pembrokeshire, who borrowed a copy and then had to buy one (‘Masterly stuff and a compelling read’). Finally, I had a postcard from France, where Grant (another old friend) read 1914 on holiday and summed it up in one word: ‘Terrific’.  The postcard has a splendid picture of a French WW2 pilot in full gear   -   mae west, oxygen mask, goggles, radio link, white-spotted blue scarf, sheepskin jacket, chiselled features and a steady, confident gaze.

                                                                                 French WW

Another copy of 1914 went to Paul in Oxfordshire, who describes himself as ‘a regular re-reader of your excellent books’.  For several years in the 1980s he worked in north-east Libya  (I’m guessing he was with an oil survey team)   and ‘I came across a lot of WW2 debris in the desert: unexploded mines and bombs, bullets, helmets, and a couple of aircraft including the Lady Be Good.’ This was a USAAF B-24D Liberator that disappeared after a bombing raid on Naples on 4 April 1943, assumed lost in the Med.  In fact the crew overflew their air base in a sandstorm,  couldn’t make radio contact, and finally ran out of fuel when they were 440 miles inland. The survivors of the crash-landing died trying to to walk to safety,  and the wreck of the Liberator wasn’t found until 1958.  There are echoes of my Desert Air Force story, A Good Clean Fight, which  -   unsurprisingly   -   Paul finds worth re-reading.

More surprises.  ASLW, set in the Russian Civil War of 1919, mentions the last of the Tsars, Nicholas II, who was killed with his Romanov family at Yekaterinburg. I’d always assumed that their bodies  were lost, but then a couple of good friends, Stephen and Jean, read the book and brought me up to date.  They were in St Petersburg in 1998 to see The Hermitage, a great Russian art gallery,  when they came across the climax to the huge, three-day ceremony for the reburial of the Tsar and his family in the cathedral.  There  were military cadets lining the streets,  officers carrying the coffins, a requiem service, church bells tolled, guns fired a 19-volley salute, Boris Yeltsin paid his respects. Even more surprising was the presence of three members of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards: a Lieutenant-Colonel, the Adjutant, and the Pipe-Sergeant-Major in full Highland dress, playing a lament.  Later, Stephen and Jean met them and asked why they were there. It was because the late Tsar had been Honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment.  You can just make out the piper.  What the Russians made of his piping, history does not record.


Lastly, a quick round-up.  Fred, in Fairfax, Virginia,  found a review in a U.S. thriller writer’s blog that puts my ‘sharp, cynical dialogue by today’s premiere war novelist’  on a par with Philip MacDonald’s writing,  and he is no slouch with the pen.  And Ian, somewhere in the UK, having finished both of the aviation series and The Eldorado Network, reached this conclusion:  ‘I don’t care what anyone says, you’re the best thing since they started slicing bread.’  I think that was 1928.
My thanks to all who wrote.

Readers Write #38 March 2015

Much angst in Op Bam,

             Texas air force sale,

                          and what makes Skull tick.
The motto of all authors should be: Check Everything, Trust Nobody.  Especially Yourself.   I remember a book by a well-known author that mentioned a scientist,  eminent enough to be knighted, now dead.   It exposed him as a Soviet spy.  Two things wrong with that: he wasn’t dead, and he wasn’t a spy.  The book got pulped, and the knight got large damages.  It pays to look in Who’s Who before you rush into print.  When Philip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint (not the kind of thing you discuss at dinner parties), he first looked in the Greater New York phone books and found nobody of that name.   Later, a man named Portnoy, living in France, sued  Roth for defamation, and lost.

So when Robin, an old pal, read my Cabrillo  novel Operation Bamboozle a couple of weeks ago, he was curious about the medical condition around which the con trick revolved. ‘Neurostatic hypostasia.’ he said.  ‘Is there a lot of it about?’  I assured him that the B strain, which causes such angst in Op Bam, is almost entirely non-existent.  I’d like to say entirely,  but you never know what Big Pharma is capable of discovering in its labs.  However, I feel pretty confident that you can’t go down with neurostatic hypostasia, because I invented it.  The ‘B strain’ tag got added to give Luis Cabrillo something to say in the stunned silence that followed his announcement of the malady.  (I’m not going to explain the con.  Read the novel.  It’s available as an e-book.)  Sometimes Luis juggled the syllables and it came out as hypostatic neurostasia.  Nobody noticed. Still, Robin’s question made me wonder.  Novelists sometimes  think they’ve invented something when the truth is they’ve remembered it. So I searched the medical dictionaries for neurostatic hypostasia (or its twin brother) and  came away with a clean bill of health.  Apparently there is a condition called hyperplasia.  Nothing to do with me. Luis Cabrillo rides again.

But mistakes can creep in,  and I’m very willing to hold my hands up when I make them. Andrew in Cheshire read   Why 1914? and ‘as usual when reading your books I’ve been entertained and learned some new things’. One key point he underlines is that the Great War  began with the willing support of most people, convinced it would be a great adventure, all over not by Christmas but (as Lieutenant Bernard Montgomery predicted) in a matter of weeks.  Andrew knows the family trees of the various royal families better than I do.  I said a granddaughter of Queen Victoria ‘married Tsar Nicholas II, which eventually made him and King George V cousins’.    Andrew points out that ‘they were born cousins. as their mothers were sisters  -  the common ancestor being King Christian IX of Denmark.’   In those days it was hard for monarchs  not to be cousins.  It was a royal network that proved to be as fragile as cobwebs in 1914.

Not like some World War Two planes.  A friend  pointed me towards an amazing collection in a Texas barn  (which, like everything in Texas, is big).  Connie Edwards owns them  and wants to sell them. He’s a former movie pilot; he flew many aerial scenes in The Battle of Britain; often the producers paid him with aircraft,  and now he has a Spitfire that flew in the real Battle, plus half a dozen Buchons (Spanish-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s), a P51 Mustang and two PBY Catalinas, and truckloads of spare parts   -   all for sale.  ‘People can either pay my price or go to hell,’ Connie says.  ‘I don’t really care which.’  To inspect the goods,  go to     Includes clips from Connie Edwards’ career  with his comments on the performance of fighters.

Messerschmitts in their heyday...     Messerschs_then.jpg

                                          ...and now in Connie Edwards' barn  Messrschs_now.jpg

David in Cheshire got introduced to Piece of Cake (‘thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable’)  by a former RAF pilot who has flown WW2 planes and reckons my stuff  to be ‘the most accurate representation of the reality experienced by RAF pilots of the period’.  It’s always good to get endorsed by the professionals. Neil in Nottingham, a lo-cost airline captain with a whole career in aviation behind him, found five of my novels ‘extremely enjoyable’. He says Skull Skelton ‘often pops into my thoughts...when someone on the flight-deck makes a Daily Mail-type proclamation, all I do is calmly offer an alternative view...even if it’s in conflict with the consensus.’  Just as Skull would.   Also good to hear from Andrew in Norfolk, a librarian enthusiastic about the  MacLehose reissues of my stuff   -   ‘I’ve been a pusher for your novels and created a number of other addicts amongst our customers.’  My warm thanks.

Readers often mention with pleasure the streak of irony in my books;  which makes me wonder.  What is irony?  Certainly, Skull would not regard his words as ironic.  He simply  points out the facts.  Irony has nothing to do with coincidence.  If Bloggs, a soccer player, gets transferred from club A to club B, and then  he scores a goal in a match against club A,  the kneejerk reaction is for commentators to say:  ‘and ironically the scorer is Bloggs.’  There’s nothing ironic about it.  Bloggs did what he’s there to do.  True irony involves a double layer of meaning. Here’s an example from the time of the Troubles in Ireland.  A helicopter pilot told me he served in South Armagh, bandit country.  The IRA tried hard to destroy the power lines between Eire and Ulster.  Finally they did it.  Blew up the pylons.  That was when they discovered the electricity didn’t go from Eire to Ulster.  It went from Ulster to Eire.  Or rather, it didn’t. And there’s the double layer of meaning. The IRA succeeded in making an impressive explosion, but their own lights went out. Irony.


   Readers Write #39 May 2015

The crashes that never were,

             the Fortress that tried to fly backwards,

                          and Kaiser Bill's painful pranks.
In the filming of  Piece of Cake, the man in charge of the Spitfires and their pilots (the real pilots, not the actors) was Robert Eagle, a most appropriate name. Many years later, Robert has switched careers and now runs an art gallery.  We met up and he gave me a couple of items for this column.  The first involved two flying helmets.  He’d had them made for Cake; they were replicas of the original R.A.F. issue, complete with radio headset components.  They were worn during the filming,  more by actors than by pilots,  so they are genuine parts of the history of the production.  When Robert offered them on eBay,  they attracted  not only offers but also warm memories,  which is impressive when you consider that it’s 26 years since the TV series was shown.  Brian, an ex-R.A.F. Aircraft Technician, emailed that ‘it’s a fantastic production and has not aged...the acting and the sets’ attention to detail are superb.  I particularly liked the inter-relationships between the characters   -   it was so well written and cast.’  eBay customers felt likewise.  After some brisk bidding,  one helmet went to a buyer in Britain and the other to a Norwegian enthusiast.   Here’s a shot of Moggy Cattermole (Neil Dudgeon)  wearing the gear. 

 Then Robert told me how, in February, he was reading the Daily Telegraph when he saw an obituary for Air Commodore Cooper, its aviation correspondent for many years.  Robert read on.  At the end, the obit said that, even in retirement, Cooper had supplied the paper with aviation items, including (so the obit said) ‘the revelation that several aircraft had crashed during the making of the television series Piece of Cake.’  This surprised Robert. As flying producer, he, of all people, should have known about crashes,  and he knew there had been none.  Quick  phone call to the obit editor at the Telegraph.  The man was extremely apologetic.  The reference was immediately  deleted from the online edition. Well, every newspaper makes mistakes.  The trouble is that some readers remember the blunder as if it were true.  Not you and me. We know better.  

Onwards.  A year ago, Garth in New York  had a flight in a Canadian Lancaster over Niagara,  and wrote to tell me how memorable it was.  Also deafening   -   ear-muffs were essential.  Now, thanks to the VE Day flypast over Washington DC, he tracked down an airfield where flights were available on a B-17 Flying Fortress,  which he calls ‘the backbone of the US 8th Air Force’s campaign against Nazi Germany.  Four engines, twelve machine guns, three tons of bombs and ten men a long way from home.’  Garth enjoyed  ‘30 minutes of roaring, shaking fury’  with freedom to wander anywhere except the tail gunner’s position. He adds: ‘The famous Norden bombsight hangs in space just inside the perspex nose, giving the bomb-aimer an extremely precarious view of the world (probably terrifying if you imagine flying into a flak barrage or onrushing enemy fighters).’  By comparison, he found ‘the Lanc seemed more stable in the air but much noisier   -   you can shout at each other in a Fort and still be heard.’  Here’s his shot of the sharp end of the B-17, with a good view of the perspex nose.  

The artwork came about when a fighter pilot sideslipped under the bomber from wingtip to wingtip and announced:   “It’s like a goddam aluminum overcast!”  So that’s what they called it.

 By coincidence, I came across a remarkable story in the journal of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust.  When WW2 ended,  a lot of B-17s were available, and the Allison Division of General Motors experimented by adding a turboprop engine and propeller to the nose of  a B-17.  They hoped to boost the airspeed by an extra 100 mph.  Bob Hoover, a test pilot, took the modified Fortress on a test flight. An operator, sitting behind him, controlled the  turboprop console. At 5,000 feet, Bob told him: ‘Crank it up.’ He did, and the B-17 slowed down.  Bob gave more power to the four wing engines, but  the aircraft  lost height.  He shouted at the operator to turn off the turboprop.  By now the wing engines  were going flat out and still the B-17 was going downhill. At 1500 feet, the operator managed to shut down the turboprop.  The B-17 recovered. Bob landed,  the experts got to work and soon discovered that the prop on the nose had been installed in reverse. It had been dragging the B-17 back while its wing engines tried (and failed) to pull it forward.  The moral of the story is   -   that’s why test pilots get the big bucks. 

Here's a shot of the modified B-17.

Fast-backwards 101 years.  My non-fiction  book on the causes of the Complicated Heroic Catastrophe otherwise known as World War One,  which I titled Why 1914?, is still pulling in fans.  Gunnar in Norway wrote:  ‘Hey, I wish we had had a book like this when I was in school.’ Norway, having just gained independence in 1905,  sat out the war as a neutral.  That meant Germans were free to travel through Norway to Finland,  while Finland  -  which had been a colony of Russia  -  was fighting the Tsar for its freedom, when Russia was, of course, an ally of France and Britain against Germany.  Hey, I told you it was complicated.  Gunnar lent Why 1914? to a girlfriend from Finland.  It would be interesting to know what she made of it all. 

John in Colorado reckons that  ‘Why 1914?  was the most informative book I’ve read on the cause of any war’,  which is not bad going for a slim volume of 200 pages.   What surprised and amused him was the Kaiser’s cockeyed meddling in affairs of state. The man’s incurable taste for mild sadism didn’t help.  He liked smacking men on the bottom, quite hard.  Show him a plump rump and he smacked it, no matter who was watching.  This was bad enough when the victim was a Prussian  Minister of State or an admiral, but the Kaiser couldn’t resist spanking a visiting monarch, which was not good for Germany’s foreign policy.  I’m not complaining.  There’s a lot of Kaiser Bill’s funny ways in Why 1914? It’s hard to imagine WW1 without him.

Flying was hazardous in WW2, with or without flak and fighters, and Ron in Essex wrote to thank me for Damned Good Show, which does for Bomber Command what Cake did for the fighters.  His father, a rear-gunner in a Wellington, was killed in 1944 when the aircraft was returning from a photo-reconnaissance mission, lost an engine and crashed.  ‘Your novel has put flesh on the bare bones of the Air Ministry report,’ he wrote.  He’s now reading  A Good Clean Fight. ‘I’m impressed with the research you must have done to get the small details right.  For example, Malplacket seeing Evelyn Waugh at a party in Cairo and wanting him for a cricket team;  according to Waugh’s diaries, he was in Egypt at that time.  Next on my list is Piece of Cake.’

Which I hope he likes, but every novel is a gamble.  Simon, somewhere in the UK, first read  Cake when he was 21: ‘It blew me away, the humour had me in fits regularly, and I’ve read it 5 times since then.’  He moved on toAGCF  and was disappointed  -  ‘I expected a sequel to POC  (I really miss CH3).  A sequel it is not.’ But later he went back and re-read AGCF and found ‘some fantastic observations of human behaviour in war and times of great stress and pressure.  Some of the aerial combat scenes are as vivid as ever... I enjoyed it immensely, was very sad when it was finished.’ Next he’ll read Kentucky Blues  -  another standalone novel.     Michael in Alexandria, Virginia (he’s read all my flying stuff) asked about goshawks and Woolley. He’d come across descriptions of the bird  -  ‘visceral, feral and very well phrased  -  amazingly evocative of Stanley Woolley.’  Why did I choose the bird and name the character? Simple.  Goshawk, small but fast, seemed appropriate and was available (no other squadron had adopted it), and I chose the name Woolley because it sounds unheroic and unromantic, just like the man himself.  Finally, an email from Gerald, who served in the R.A.F. as a wireless operator in HQ Bomber Command at the time when the Vulcan nuclear attack bombers were operating.  ‘I greatly enjoyed Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,’ he said.  It took him back to ‘regular exercises where we prepared to rain nuclear death on millions of Russians  -  and all facilitated by Samuel Morse’s 19th-century signal code.’  If the exercises had become reality, he believes ‘the planes would have got there’ and attacked Russia.   I’m not so sure.  With no England to return to, would the Vulcan crews have flown a suicide mission?  That question, of course, is whatHRGE is all about. 

Readers Write #40 July 2015

A shabby Cardigan, 

             Why Moggy buzzed Protheroe,

                          and tiny gems in the Cake

We Brits are notorious for celebrating our defeats.  Boadicea, famous for losing to the Romans.  Harold, second-best to William the Conqueror.  Dunkirk springs to mind.  But top of the list is the Charge of the Light Brigade, the most idiotic act in the Crimean War, itself a total waste of men and money but immortalised in a piece of Victorian poetry of which everyone remembers a line or two, even if it’s only that bit about the valley of death.  Why on earth did we (and the French) send an army and a navy to attack the Russian Empire?  It’s a question worth looking at,  what with the British Government thinking aloud about making war on parts of Syria,  which is not all that far from the Crimea.

 As usual in the Middle East, religion is somewhere in the mix.  The Crimean affair began with a quarrel between Greek and Roman monks about which of them had custody of some Christian shrines in Jerusalem, at that time part of the Turkish Empire.  It led to a long, bad-tempered dispute between Turkey and Russia.  Britain andFrance took the side of Turkey, mainly in order to teach the Czar a lesson.  Russia   -   then as now   -   was regarded as a threat to its near neighbours. The Crimean campaign was planned to be a short, sharp bash but it got bogged down and the plans went horribly wrong. The biggest blunder was to send the 7th Earl of Cardigan at the head of his Light Cavalry Brigade on a charge into a dead-end valley.  Inevitably, they got battered by Russian guns on three sides.  Cardigan didn’t stay for the fight; he rode back to his living quarters, which were a luxury steam yacht on the Black Sea. For the rest of the war he lived aboard, in comfort.  He did little or nothing to help his men ashore who were suffering from bad food, and not enough of it, and  poor shelter from the bleak weather. As many died from sickness as from enemy action. After the war, Cardigan came home to a hero’s welcome from the people of London.  He lied about his part in the Charge, was made Inspector-General of Cavalry, was awarded the Order of the Bath, and often advised the House of Lords on military matters. Why not?  He had bought his commission in the Army, as had every other officer.  To command the 15th The King’s Hussars, Cardigan had paid half a million pounds in modern money.  But the Crimea changed all that. It spelled the end for all ‘bought commissions’.

 This is summed up pretty briskly in my book  Why 1914?:  “ invigorating  hurricane named Edward Cardwell, former soldier, Secretary of State for War, one of the forgotten heroes of British history, turned the Army upside-down, which was the only way to set it on its feet.”   Every officer, all seven thousand of them, opposed change, any change. Cardwell defeated them. He bought them off.  He stuffed their mouths with gold. His reforms made possible the professional British Army of 1914.

 That’s one reason why I wrote the book.  The Great War   -   as a flood of centenary histories tells us again and again   -   was a massive disaster.  Each nation that was involved expected to win a brief and glorious  encounter. Instead they got stuck in a war that was just one damn thing after another.  The big question is: why did it happen?   What caused the catastrophe? That’s what Why 1914? is all about.  It brings alive a world that is hard to believe in:   the world of batty Kaiser Wilhelm II, a cousin of the hopeless Czar Nicholas II; of huge navies that rarely fought;  of infantry attacking with bright uniforms and brave flags and regimental bands;  of cavalry against machine guns; of a world that had not seen a major European war since Napoleon and marched into a total deadlock because it had no method (and no interest) in avoiding it.  Why 1914? reveals a world which was both ignorant and arrogant and which suffered from that explosive mixture.  The book is meant to be a quick read for people who usually never look at military histories,  and the feedback (often along the lines of  ‘I wish I’d known all this when I was at school’) suggests that  Why 1914? hits the mark.

 Moving on. An interesting email from Jeff, somewhere in the UK, who ‘belatedly found your books on the library shelves, very enjoyable’  and asks who exactly was Protheroe? He’s a character who comes and goes in Piece of Cake until Moggy Cattermole buzzes his car and he crashes.  I should know all about him, I wrote the novel,  but 30-plus years have gone by and I’m as baffled as Jeff. Rex’s raid to rescue Sticky’s Hurricane from neutralBelgium seems to have got up Protheroe’s nose,  which explains Moggy’s reaction.  But Protheroe’s brief life deserves a bit more description, and I’m sorry he got short-changed.

 Then I got a message from Jon, a Norwegian fan, who was holidaying in Alsace and noticed the Vosgesmountains, which he first encountered in Cake.  So he bought the Kindle edition, scanned it for references toAlsace but failed  ‘because I got sucked in big time and ended up reading it all over again from the first page’. He’s still reading, and was especially struck when the adjutant, Kellaway (‘one of my all-time favourites’) recalled a pilot in his old RFC squadron who was memorable  for ‘calling the war a swindle, and that he wanted his money back’.  Immediately,  Jon says, he recognised ‘it was obviously something Woolley had said’, and he flattered me for ‘leaving tiny gems like that for readers to find...’  Alas, I don’t deserve the praise, because in fact I didn’t put those words in Woolley’s mouth, either in  Hornet’s Sting or in Goshawk Squadron.  No doubt somebody said it, and I’m sure tens of thousand of men thought it.  If anybody knows the origin, tell me and I’ll put Jon’s mind at rest.

 Finally, a few words about that bruised old medium, the English language, which has kept me from the poorhouse all these years.  For me, the golden age of lyrics for popular music was the Thirties, when words made sense and rhymed and told a story.  Current lyrics strike me as so much noise, repeated and often meaningless. Well, I’m one of the old guys. For years, I’ve been telling my friends whenever they would listen that Bob Dylan’s words in American Pie are junk.  He tells us:

                                               Drove my Chevy to the levee
                                                      but the levee was dry,
                                               Them good ole boys were drinking
                                                      whisky and rye.

Now, I have seen a levee. Big American rivers have them. A levee is an embankment, built to keep the water out. The word is French; levee means ‘raised’. That’s why it’s dry.   Go to a wet levee and the river will wash you away. The reason Don Maclean (who wrote the song) went to the levee was it rhymed with Chevy. If he meant it was dry in the non-alcoholic sense, how could them good ole boys be drinking whisky and rye?  Nice melody, but the lyrics go nowhere. American Pie sold three million copies in a single year. When Maclean was asked its meaning, he said: ‘It means I never have to work again.’

 Now his notes and manuscript for the song have come up for auction in New York.  They fetched $1.2 million. His publisher says he knows what the words mean.  He believes that Maclean drove his Chevy to a bar called The Levee in upstate New York,  found it dry and moved on to the nearby town of Rye  where the boys were drinking whisky. Hurrah! All is explained!  Except none of it stands up.  Nobody remembers a bar called The Levee in that area, and Maclean never wrote ‘drinking whisky in Rye’.  His handwriting is very clear.  He wrote  ‘drinking whisky and rye’. Why? Because ‘rye’ rhymes with ‘dry’.  What does it all mean?  Nothing. 

You may be thinking that I pay too much attention to what words mean.  Well, it’s my job.  And I believe that sloppy writing means lazy thinking.  Here’s an example.  Recently a double-decker bus hit a bridge in London, and a spokesman from Transport for London said:  “A route 197 double-decker bus...was involved in a collision with a bridge.”  Really?  A mobile bridge?  I suspect that the spokesman was over-influenced by the way the police report road accidents.  They always say  that road-users were ‘in collision’, because nobody yet knows which was responsible.  But to say that a bus was involved in a collision with a bridge is to turn an accident into a bad joke.  Unless, of course, the bridge collapsed first.  In the photograph,  I have to say that it looks very intact.

                                                                                                           Readers Write #41 November 2015

The galloping submarine, 

             Skull's desert wear,

                          and a left-handed Cake    

As the lawyers like to say, the devil is in the detail.  My advice to any new author is to read your contract very carefully and with a blue pencil in your hand.   Publishers like to insert a clause that gives them a fat share of any sales of screen rights, meaning film or TV money.  I always cross out that clause.  Publishers are in the book business,  not the movie business, and who knows?  Screen rights could earn the author more than royalties.  Writing is a job,  and it’s up to the author to stay in business.

And the devil-in-the-detail warning applies to writing the book in the first place.  Get one small detail wrong, and the reader is liable to shout ‘Idiot!’ and fling your book in the fire.  For instance, in a crime novel by a well-known author, a character walks through an English wood at night and is startled by the sudden noise of an owl’s wings.  Not true.  Owls’ wings are virtually silent; that’s what helps them catch their prey.  It was just a detail, but my belief in the whole story took a nasty knock.  Another example:  a book about the Falklands Campaign made such a cock-up of a British submarine’s journey that I calculated the sub must have been doing 125 m.p.h.  That sort of thing shakes your faith.  Well, I’m human too,  and errors can creep in,  so if possible I ask a former pilot to read my new aviation story while it’s still in typescript.  Avoids a lot of blunders.  Even so,  I sometimes stumbled.  Many years ago, a veteran pilot pointed out that a book of mine referred to an R.F.C. pilot returning from a patrol at low level and hedge-hopping over the trenches.  ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘There weren’t any hedges left to hop over.’  I hadn’t thought of that. 

 One thing I never had to worry about was what my aircrews wore on duty,  since it had to be uniform. Now Steve in Oxford, a longtime supporter, re-read A Good Clean Fight ‘and thoroughly enjoyed it’  all over again. The air war in the Western Desert was one place where nobody bothered about uniforms and everyone wore what they pleased  -  including Skull, the Intelligence Officer,  whose very old rowing blazer interested  Steve, himself a former college oarsman.  ‘Do you recall where he rowed?’ he asks. ‘It’s a shame it wasn’t Lady Margaret Boat Club as their scarlet blazers would have faded to a fetching pale brick red!’ LMBC, the boat club of St John’s College, Cambridge, is known to the inmates as Maggie because it’s named after Lady Margaret Beaufort, who founded the college in 1511.  But you knew that.  Steve is right about the colour (blazers are called blazers because LMBC first wore scarlet) but he’s wrong about Skull’s background in boats,  which was nil.  Skull was a junior don at Cambridge and he had a scholarly stoop that went with the job.  In the R.A.F. his insistence on the truth made him a bit of a loose cannon. Rowing had never had any appeal for Skull.  He saw it as seven men in their underclothes,  facing the wrong way and making a huge effort to keep up with their coach who was riding a bicycle on the towpath  and bawling at them through a megaphone.  The oarsman in his family was his Uncle Stanley. 

 When he heard that Skull was posted to Egypt,  he gave him his old rowing blazer.  ‘Just the thing for the desert,’ he said ‘Don’t suppose I shall need it again. Holidays thing of the past for us. Lucky you.’  The old buffer was right. As AGCF says:

‘His blazer was a size too large for Skull, and its stripes of dove grey, pillar-box red and royal blue, with gold piping, had faded to soft pastel shades, but its cool looseness was just the thing for the desert. Skull wore it with a pair of corduroy bags bought in Cairo, and he carried an old golf umbrella that doubled as a shooting-stick, which he’d found in a flea market,’

 The desert war gave birth to its own cartoonist in Jon, and his creation of the ‘Two Types’ shows that Skull wouldn’t have looked out of place. 


I never thought my ripping yarns would be linked with Philip Larkin. Oliver in Tamworth discovered AGCF  (‘utterly brilliant’), moved on to Goshawk Squadron and wondered if Woolley’s remembering of the whole Aston Villa team in 1913 (when the club won the Football Association’s Cup)  might have prompted Larkin to mention Aston Villa in his poem MCMXIV.  Well, stranger things have happened, although personally I can’t imagine Larkin enjoying my stuff.  Even his friends said he was glum (he turned down the offer of becoming Poet Laureate) and his output revealed a dour pessimism.  Not much room for humour in Larkin’s spectrum of talent. Anyway, Oliver now has a chance to compare and contrast my style with Larkin’s  -  he has Piece of Cakeand Damned Good Show to occupy him in the long winter nights. 

Across the pond, Paraag in Washington DC has been  revisiting Cake, and he has a question.  Somewhere in that book I wrote a bit of advice by one fighter pilot to another:  ‘The fact is, most people, if they want to look behind them, turn to the left...When the average fighter pilot suddenly has to look behind him, it’s ten to one he’ll turn his head to the left.’  Was that,  he asks, my creation? No, it wasn’t.  I came across the left-looking preference in my research  - which means it was often a piece of tactical advice in R.A.F. Fighter Command in 1940, but that didn’t make it universally true. Nine men out of ten found it easier to look left rather than right.  Maybe the tenth man is left-handed.  Maybe the pilots who looked left when they should have looked right ended up getting shot down,  and so the evidence against the theory died with them.  All I can add is that nobody has ever challenged that bit of the book in the 30-odd years since it came out. 

Lastly, a word of advice to anyone who wants to be an author.  (Listen, I’m one of the older guys.  When you get to my age you’re allowed to pontificate a bit.) There are two sorts of writing.  One is for fun, in which case enjoy yourself, and the other is for money,  which can be hard work (and usually is).   The late Doris Lessing’s letters reveal a woman whose failure to get her first novel published led her to threaten to ‘cast the thing into the wastepaper basket in sheer frustration and despair’  and quit novel-writing.  Which made me think  of something Rudolf Nureyev  -  best male dancer in the world, in his prime  -  said.  ‘My advice for young dancers is to give up,’ he said.  ‘If they can, then they will not be missed.’   And if they can’t?  ‘Then there is something inside them, driving them, forcing them to dance.’ And Nureyev added: ‘That doesn’t mean they will succeed, but without it they’ll certainly fail.’  His advice is what you might call ‘tough love’.  What’s true for dancers is true for authors.  Lessing went on to write many books,  so presumably her despair was temporary and something inside her forced her to write.  The hard truth is that very few of us are born with the gift to write good novels.  The rest of us have to start at the bottom of the trade and learn our craft.  But if there’s something else that a writer would rather do, then take Nureyev’s advice and give up.  The world will be a happier place.


                                                                                                                                                            Readers Write #42 Jamuary 2016

Trust nobody, that's my motto,

   with a gong for Gunnar

       and rocket-firing long before the Typhoons.


People sometimes ask me why I don’t write plays or movie scripts, seeing as I have something of a gift for dialogue. (It wasn’t a total gift.  I worked on it for many years, writing everything from radio commercials to magazine articles.  I churned out two disastrous and unpublishable novels, which at least showed me how not to write. Goshawk Squadron was one of those overnight successes that had twenty years’ apprenticeship behind it.) 

 The trouble with scripts for plays and films is they’re not stories, they’re blueprints. They need producers, directors, actors to bring them to life,  and often  that life turns out to be not what the writer intended.  That’s too bad,  and also too late.  Once you’ve signed on the dotted line, the production takes over and its momentum is unstoppable.  That’s not for me.  I was born suspicious.  I don’t trust anyone.  No, that’s not entirely true   -  I have to trust the reader,  because I rely on readers to do half the work, they picture the characters, they identify with the conflict, they laugh (or maybe don’t) at the jokes.  That leaves me free to tell the story.  As someone said, there are no heroes in my novels and rarely any happy endings.  Which may explain why Piece of Cake is my only novel to get on the screen.

 I didn’t write the screenplay.  Leon Griffiths, a very talented writer for television, did that.  He reckoned that, even with six episodes, each of 50 minutes,  the Cake series used only a fraction of the book.  He concentrated on the spine,  the essential elements in the novel.  But none of that spine could have existed unless I had been free to relate all the wealth of detail as the squadron operated in the first twelve months of the war.    Which brings us full circle.  I write novels because nobody interferes.  If the book succeeds, good for me; if it flops, I’m the only one to blame. Has it been worth it?  Well, I’ve made a living.  Read on,  and you’ll see there are other rewards.

 Gunnar Erickson lives in Sweden,  and he’s probably my biggest fan in all of Scandinavia.  He wrote to me:  “I have read all your books about the RFC quartet and the RAF quartet.” That’s eight novels,  some of them pretty hefty.   He’s also read Kramer’s War, Kentucky Blues, and three non-fiction books:  Invasion 1940 (the truth about the Battle of Britain), Why 1914? (how Europe stumbled into disaster), and Just Testing, a book I wrote long ago about the British nuclear tests in the Pacific.  Now he’s heard about the Luis Cabrillo series.  Cabrillo was inspired by the true story of a man codenamed Garbo, arguably the biggest and best double-agent in WW2.  I introduced Cabrillo in The Eldorado Network, which went down well, so over the years I wrote three sequels.  (Postwar, Cabrillo applies his double-agent skills to the gentle art of con artistry across the US.)

 Back to Gunnar.   “If you would send me all four books, I would be most happy. I have more time now as I no longer drive a logtruck. Doctor said shift-work is not good for me. And I would be most grateful if you would sign the books.”

 Of course I’ll send the Cabrillo quartet. How many logtruck drivers in England can write emails in Swedish?  And read novels in another language?  I’m impressed. Authors like me need readers like Gunnar. 

 Ten thousand miles away (or more) is Eric Driver, in New Zealand,  which is home to Sir Peter Jackson, the man who has produced a whole slew of Hollywood blockbusters and who has a collection of WW1 aircraft at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre.  This may explain why someone has written on a website (‘the’) to say what a great 10-part miniseries Hornet’s Sting would make. Well, I own the screen rights, so all that’s needed is several truckloads of money.  When he’s not reading the Luis Cabrillo books, Eric is “in the process of building (with the help of others) a Nieuport 16 replica in the colours of the Imperial Russian Air Force, enhanced with some delightful pictures of ‘nose art’ used at the time, and fitted with dummy Le Prieur rockets...”  And here it is. 


 The artwork on the side is taken from an Italian painting entitled ‘The Sleeping Venus’.  (The Russians liked to show off their artistic skills.) Those rockets are an authentic detail. Nieuport 16s had them as early as 1916,  and when Zeppelins began raiding England, Home Defence Squadrons of BE2c and BE12 aircraft were armed with up to ten rockets.  No record of a Zeppelin being attacked with rockets, let alone destroyed, which is not surprising:  the BE12 took half an hour to climb to 10,000 feet, and by then the enemy would have moved on. As you can see, the Nieuport 16 is a tiny machine, with a 110 hp Le Rhone engine, and the extra weight of rockets can’t have helped.  It was Lt Albert Ball’s favourite aeroplane,  and he made many kills with it - but not by firing rockets. 

 When it comes to aircraft design, everything depends on the powerplant.  Most WW1 designs were biplanes because the output of the engine was such that one wing couldn’t generate enough lift.  (You could always lengthen the wing and mount two engines on it,  but that created new problems, mainly weight.)  By the 1930s, engines had a lot more poke but fighter aircraft were still biplanes,  and if you were to peel off the fabric you’d see that the framework was very reminiscent of WW1 machines.  Ed Storo (somewhere in the US, I suspect) is building a replica Bristol Bulldog, backbone of Britain’s fighter defence from 1929 to 1936. (“Soooo many parts,” he writes. “Nobody told me there would be this many!”)  See for yourself. 


 More news from Oliver in Tamworth: “I’m really enjoying Piece of Cake  -  very good indeed.”  He wears a 1943 RAF Omega (6B/159) wristwatch, so accurate that aircrew used it for dead-reckoning purposes. His collection of aircrew watches includes a 1953 Omega “Fat Arrow”, as used in the V bombers of the 50s and 60s.  “These were made to such demanding spec that the cost was a bit more than the R.A.F. were prepared for. The government asked for a better price, Omega refused to compromise, so the MoD had all the WW2 1940s 6B watches (Omegas and Longines) recalled or brought out of stores and re-cased by Dennison in Birmingham   -   the so-called ‘56 Re-cases’.”  Oliver reckons “they’re nice, too, but primitive compared with this” - by which he means his 1943 model:  “Blued steel hands that catch the light like a kingfisher.”  That’s the historical background.  His 1943 watch is for sale.  Very rare item, and the price reflects this. If you’re interested, email me on and I’ll put you in touch with him. (Note:  I have no part in any transaction.  I’m just the go-between.)   Here’s the watch:

Omega frontEM

     Omega-BackEM.jpg                 Omega-WorksEM.jpg

Finally, a literary ricochet.  Mike, who is in the US military, tells me: “Your technique of starting each chapter of  Goshawk Squadron with a level of the Beaufort Scale really stuck with me...In the early 90s, I wrote a high-level US Army doctrinal publication, FM 100-8, The Army in Multinational Operations.  I began each chapter with quotations. I caught a lot of flak from Colonels and, so far as I knew then, it was the only FM written that way...So, you can say that you’ve influenced US Army doctrine...”  More strength to your elbow, Mike. My distant memory of military protocol is that when I began my National Service with the R.A.F., the first order I got amounted to ‘Go forth and multiply’.  That’s certainly what it implied.  They speak a different language in the military


 Readers Write #43 May 2016

The hazards of fiction,

                Why 1914?’ rides again,

                          and a big polar bear in Detroit.   

Years ago I was the defendant in a case of breach of copyright    -    what’s usually called plagiarism   -   after I published my novel, Piece of Cake.  It’s an occupational hazard.  As someone said to me during the filming,  ‘After the hit, comes the writ.’ In my case, it came after a national paper announced that Cake would be adapted for television and the budget was £6 million.  Some people thought that I would get it all.  If only. One person decided I didn’t deserve any of it because, he claimed, I’d copied his book. (Later I discovered that he had written two screenplays about an RAF fighter squadron in WW2 and he’d failed to sell them, which may explain his resentment.)   Thanks to the support of my publishers and  some top lawyers,  I won the case,  but it took seven years. 

One thing I remember is that in the seventh year, the plaintiff commissioned a barrister to write a Counsel’s Opinion.   Mysteriously,  I got to see it.  Their barrister advised them not to take the case to court,  and wrote:  ‘Mr Robinson appears to be a tenacious opponent.’    Too right I was.  One of the accusations made against me was that I pinched the use of the pilots’ nicknames,  in particular Moggy Cattermole, from the plaintiff’s book.  In fact I knew the original Moggy when I was at school. That, of course, was 40 years ago, but I tracked him down.  He lived in Dorset, so I visited him and he was happy to write a letter saying that, at school, he was nicknamed Moggy.  (What’s more,  he was a lawyer and an MBE.)  That evidence would have sounded good in court,  and I suspect their barrister recognised that.

 So what?  It was a long time ago,  and Cake is still in print.  (In fact, Quercus will reprint all my RFC/RAF novels next month.) But tenacity is, I think, an underrated quality in writers.  Talent is not enough. The UK must have fifty thousand talented writers who have completed the first half of a good novel which then gathered dust on a shelf.  When the story got difficult, they quit. I know the feeling; it has happened to me; there is such a thing as author’s block. The solution is not to quit but to try harder. Tenacity counts.  I hit the buffers twice while writing  Cake (which took four years).  Both times I saw the problem    -   I had been trying to force the story in the wrong direction.  So my advice to writers is:  Don’t expect it to be easy.  Writing for publication is not fun, although sometimes it’s enjoyable.  It’s work. Fun comes later, when you hold the printed book in your hands.  Remember Jane Austen.  

Today there are Jane Austen Festivals.  TV and the cinema can’t get enough of her;  the latest Hollywood version is a vampire movie.  If anyone can find an unpublished manuscript of hers,  publishers will throw money at it.  That was not the case when she was writing. Pride and Prejudice was returned without even a rejection slip. Years later a different publisher bought Northanger Abbey for £10 but didn’t publish it.  A third publisher took Sense and Sensibility only when she agreed to pay for the printing and the advertising.  Miss Austen didn’t quit.  She appeared to be a tenacious writer,  for which her many fans should be grateful. 

 Emails regularly remind me that I should be grateful for the English language, which is both marvellously flexible and gratifyingly universal,  and not just in the English-speaking world.  In a recent RW,  I celebrated Gunnar, a retired log-truck driver in Sweden who has read everything I’ve written;  and now I’ve heard from Lars in Denmark who, when serving with UN forces in Cyprus, ‘stumbled upon Piece of Cake and have been a huge fan of yours ever since.  Your books (of which I have every one) give me great joy and laughs and thrills.  Besides,  the books keep me in touch with the English language. I have just re-read the two books with pilot Silk for the third time,  and will certainly read them again.  You are the best.’  And Lars ends with a request:  ‘Please tell me that more books are under way!’  

 As it happens, I’ve just finished another novel.  Not a flying story;  more like The Eldorado Network.  Every novel is a gamble,  and I’m too close to this one to know whether it’s any good.  Watch this space. 

 Lars bought a copy of  Why 1914?   Other requests for copies keep arriving,  which suggests to me that the tsunami of books, TV programmes, articles and memoirs has prompted people to wonder what caused the whole catastrophe.  That’s the question my book tries to answer, and I packed it with things that most people (including me) never learned at school.  Here’s an example.  Nearly everyone has heard about the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, but why was he there? Stand by for a taste of the book:        

                  ‘Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo to show off his wife. The correct form for an heir was unquestionable: he must marry someone whose family was listed in the royal family’s book of rules, the Hapsburg House Law.  The archduke broke the rules. He fell in love with a countess, Sophie von Chotkovato, far below him in the pecking order, and they married. The Austrian court was appalled....It treated her  like a commoner. On ceremonial occasions she must not appear at her husband’s side. She could not be deleted, so she was made semi-invisible. For Franz Ferdinand, this was a permanent insult. Sophie was beautiful and he wanted the world to applaud his choice. There was one loophole. His many titles included that of Inspector-General of the Austrian army,  and when he reviewed his troops, Sophie could be beside him. In 1914 the army’s summer manoeuvres would be in Bosnia.  That was what took the couple to Sarajevo: not politics but love.’ 

 Rhys, in Shropshire, came across me 30 years ago when he got Goshawk Squadron as a Christmas present    -  ‘To this day it remains one of my favourite books!’  He asked for a copy of Why 1914?, saying: ‘If this is half as good as Invasion 1940 then it’ll be a wonderful read.’  Kevin in Michigan asked for a (signed) copy of A Splendid Little War, which has a special interest for him because his wife’s grandfather was one of the American contingent to Murmansk, in the far north of Russia.  (My book has a brief, chilling description  of that campaign.)  The troops were nicknamed Polar Bears.  Many men came from Detroit,  and its cemetery  has ‘a beautiful monument of a three-times-lifesize polar bear, with many veterans buried around it.’   Despite being shot in the leg, granddad had a long life.  Anyone who served in Murmansk had to be tough.  

 Now to New Zealand.  My last RW showed Eric Driver’s replica of a WW1 French Nieuport 16 fighter,  complete with 8 dummy Le Prieur rockets.  Since then,  the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset  has displayed its replica Sopwith Baby, a single-seat seaplane fitted with rockets,  as flown by the Royal Naval Air Service.  It had no success against Zeppelins but it shot down more than 50 German observation balloons.  Here it is. 


 Dave Morris, curator of the museum, says of the rockets: ‘They would be launched just like fireworks. There was a button in the cockpit that would fire them all at once and they would hope that at least one would hit the balloon.’  Le Prieur rockets were cardboard tubes filled with 200g of black powder, with a wooden conical head and a tail.  Pilots got as close as possible to the target to make up for the rockets’ extreme inaccuracy.  Eric tells me the rockets were set off by a 2-volt battery    -    ‘presumably that was the norm in those days’. He’s trying to work out how he can fire his Nieuport 16’s rockets without upsetting the Civil Aviation people at the next Classic Fighters Airshow at Easter 1917. ‘If it comes off, I’ll let you know; if it doesn’t then I won’t...’  

A last word about names.  American authors go in for three names   -   think of Edgar Allan Poe.  Maybe I’ve been shortchanging myself.  Is it too late to adopt a longer name?  I’m thinking of Miles Farragut Ravensworth.  The legal process is surprisingly simple. The UK Deed Poll Service will rename you, in only four working days, for a mere £33.  One man changed his name to Bacon Double Cheeseburger.  A father and son took the name of their favourite football club, Queens Park Rangers. Someone decided to be called Happy Birthday.  Another went for Sarge Metal-fatigue.  No.  On reflection, I’ll stick to what I’ve got.  It’s easier for autographs. 

Readers Write #44 June 2016 

Play dead and don't smile,

                Operation Jostle was no picnic,

           and the work ethic of Dylan Thomas.

    Cops-and-robbers dramas on television often claim to reflect real life.  Sometimes the phrase ‘police procedurals’ suggests serious authenticity.  Yet the programme makers can be surprisingly squeamish.  When murder is committed,  the corpse is not dead, of course.  It is an actor trying not to breathe.  What is odd is that the actor’s mouth is always shut.  On television, everyone dies with the lips firmly sealed.

This is such an unbreakable rule that I asked a friendly medic about it,  a man who has seen plenty of sudden death.  ‘Not true,’ he told me.  ‘Most people die with their mouths open.’  Murder on TV or in the cinema is lavish with blood spatter but the victim always dies with a presentable expression.  This is one of the many curiosities of cop shows.  Mobile phones are useful in keeping the plot moving, but they rarely ring when anyone’s talking.  Come to that, nobody enters a room in the middle of dialogue;  they always arrive when someone’s finished speaking.  Cops never fail to kick down doors with ease;  building codes on film sets are pathetic.  How often have I seen a cop go into a men’s room and express his frustration by ripping  down a hand-dryer?   I hope one day to see him dislocate his wrist because the device is securely bolted to the wall.  And one day a police car will race to the scene of the crime and find nowhere to park.  It happens to the rest of us.  Why not them?

The answer, of course, is entertainment.  In the world of televised drama there is always a parking space; otherwise the show would never end.  I too am in the entertainment business.  Readers spend good money to buy a novel because they expect it to entertain them;  if it’s not readable it’s unreadable.  But it has to be believable too,  and that can be tricky.  I understand why murder victims in TV dramas keep their mouths shut;  the director doesn’t want them to look unacceptably dead.  But whenever I see the alleged body, mouth firmly shut, my reaction is to say: ‘It’s an actor!’ And realism goes out of the window.

 So it’s a balancing act.  Film and TV directors want to be convincing but not so convincing that the viewer turns pale and heads for the exit.  Years ago,  I had a letter from a very senior RAF officer, written more in sadness than in anger, who deplored the savagery with which pilots are killed in Piece of Cake.  He accepted that aircrew died, but why did I have to spell out the brutal horror of their deaths?  (Perhaps he feared the novel would harm recruiting.)  Well, I wrote Cake because I felt that a lot of fiction about air combat had pulled its punches.  It made too much of the chivalry of the skies (which I doubted) and not enough of the reality of death.  A pilot who is cut in half by a burst of cannon shells at twenty thousand feet  is no more romantic than an infantryman shot through the head.  Courage in air warfare is a matter of recognising the price of failure.  Pilots know this,  and many of them have told me that Cake (and my other RFC/RAF novels) rings true. 

And sometimes my stuff prompts a reader to write a book. Margaret, somewhere in the UK, was researching the Desert Air Force of 1941-42 when she found A Good Clean Fight;  it helped her tell the story of her father.  He flew Wellingtons in Operation Jostle with 109 Squadron.  This was a little-known effort to baffle Rommel’s tanks in the North African campaign.  The Wellingtons were fitted with special Marconi equipment.  Tanks in battle communicate by radio.  The Wellingtons flew overhead and transmitted non-stop to jam the tanks’ frequencies.  Flying a predictable pattern invited interception, and the Jostle Wimpeys were attacked by Italian Macchi fighters.  Margaret’s father survived, only to contract polio and be invalided home in an iron lung.  The enemy wasn’t the only threat in the desert war. 

David in Lincoln much enjoyed Cake, especially episode 3 of the TV series where Ray Hanna flies his Mk9 Spitfire under a country bridge ‘as if he’s on a Sunday afternoon drive! Brilliant interpretation of a brilliant book’.   David’s novel, which involves various aircraft from several wars, has interested a publisher, so that’s half the battle.  And Gavin, another UK fan, writes: ‘I felt I should send you a message of praise because your books made me want to became a writer again.... your sense of humour, and the just deserts that you give to characters like Mackenzie and Cattermole, are the best aspect of all.’  More strength to your collective elbows, Margaret, David and Gavin.  My first book was published in 1969, and simple arithmetic tells you that I no longer run for a bus;  so I’m happy to see new writers picking up their pens.

Mail arrives from all over.  In New York City, Richard Snow has enjoyed my stuff since Goshawk Squadron in 1971  (‘The opening of  Hornet’s Sting is as fine as any I know in any novel’), and he was baffled when he was in London and Hatchard’s couldn’t supply a copy of my Why 1914? Then he discovered it’s self-published and bought a copy from me.  (Richard is himself a very good military historian;  his book A Measureless Peril, on the American part in the Battle of the Atlantic, is a revelation.)  Dave, also in the US, writes:  ‘Just finished  The Eldorado Network  quartet.  What a hoot! Your metaphors are a delight to read   -   like, “a tank-top that was as busy as a freshly caught trout”.  And many, many other gut-busters...’   Jon, a Brit living in Austria, has ‘been an admirer of your work for many years’, so much so that his copies of my RAF books got re-read until they were battered and tattered to death.  I was able to get him some replacements.  Paul  (who could be anywhere) first read Cake on a kibbutz in 1986, has now read ‘everything you have written before and afterwards’ , and is suffering what he calls withdrawal symptoms’,  so he hopes ‘something is in the pipeline’. Something is, Paul.   ETA: next spring.

Since my last RW, a few literary oddities have cropped up.  For instance:  Dylan Thomas was not a no-good boyo who wrote best when tanked-up.  His village GP from 1949 to 1953, Dr Hughes, wrote a memoir of this much-loved British poet,  and in it several myths go up in flames.  Thomas wrote best, his doctor says, in conditions of ‘quiet, routine and relative sobriety’.  The routine  never varied:  he worked in a shed, undisturbed, from 2.30 pm until 6.30 pm.  His wife, Caitlin, was ‘a nymphomaniac and first-class bitch’.  Their rows were vicious:  ‘She would physically attack Thomas, sometimes knocking him unconscious by banging his head on the floor.’ He died, not from drinking 18 straight whiskeys in a New York bar as the legend says, but from pneumonia. (With a wife like that, I can see how 18 straight whiskeys might have been attractive.)  I have always doubted the notion that anyone writes better when drunk.  At the time, the words may seem magic, but next morning they will be garbage.

However, a comfortable chair always helps,  and someone recently paid $394,000 for the chair that J.K.Rowling sat in while writing Harry Potter. Whether the bestselling  skills go with the furniture is open to question.  Saul Bellow’s desk failed to get a bidder when it came up for auction.  Nobody wanted to own the woodwork on which he won a Nobel.  I’d have offered a fiver.  Saul was a Booker Prize judge in 1971.  He wanted Goshawk Squadron  to win but he got voted down by the others,  one of whom later admitted he was drunk.  Life is full of oddities.  

 Finally, something to revel in:  a Spitfire in flight, so close and so clear you feel you can reach out and touch it.  

                                             Spitfire 1 EM 

John Dibbs is an aviation photographer.  Working with ex-RAF pilot Tim Ellison, he got within 15 feet of a Spitfire in flight.  By shooting through an open canopy with a hand-held camera, he captured these remarkable images. Usually, close-ups of the fighter in the air meant using zoom lenses, followed by much cropping and magnification.  John  Dibbs got closer than any photographer I’ve ever known.  

             Spitfire 2 EM

 Dibbs has tracked down every Spitfire in the world that’s flying and photographed them all, brilliantly.  They total fifty    -    far more than I thought possible; but, amazingly, several of them were total wrecks that have been restored and made flyable    -   a tribute to the Spitfire’s design.

     Spitfire 3 EM  

 All the pix shown here are in a book,  Spitfire  -  The Legend Lives On    -   published by Osprey.



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. 


Readers Write #46 November  2016

Bats in the bomb bay,

                crashed in the bush,

               and Garbo in jail (maybe).

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but writers like me learn to handle it carefully.  Something can be totally true and yet unbelievable to the punter. Bizarre things happened in WW2, for instance.  One night in England, an RAF pilot named Warren took off in a Whitley bomber to raid a German airfield in Holland. Foul weather rubbished their navigation, they mistook the Thames for the Rhine, and bombed  the runway of an RAF fighter field in Cambridgeshire.  Nobody hurt, not much damage.  Thereafter the pilot was known in the mess as Baron von Warren.  Supposing I’d used that incident in a novel, would it be acceptable?  Probably not.  Yet worse things happened. In July 1943, a U.S. Army Air Force plane, sent to drop practice bombs on a training range, bombed Boise City, Oklahoma instead.  Hit a church and a garage; no casualties.  In the Blitz of 1940-41, Luftwaffe bombers twice bombed Dublin, mistaking it for Belfast, even though Dublin, being neutral, was lit up. In November 1943, in the Atlantic, a U.S. destroyer accidentally fired a torpedo at the U.S. battleship Iowa, which was carrying President Roosevelt and several high-ranking generals to the Terheran Conference.  The torpedo exploded with an enormous bang, well astern of the Iowa.  But if it had hit... No, not acceptable. True, but not credible. How about the secret leaflets,  a contradiction in terms?  RAF Bomber Command dropped millions of them over Germany, yet the aircrews were strictly forbidden to read them.  Even their boss, ‘Bomber’ Harris, wasn’t allowed to know what millions of Germans were reading.  Idiotic but true. Credible?  Just about.  I took a chance and included it in  Damned Good Show.  Then there were the incendiary bats.  

I came across them when I was researching my new novel,  Holy Smoke (out next year).  It involves the wartime American intelligence  service, the OSS,  and its curious idea of recruiting bats to burn down Tokyo.  Much later I heard from Richard Snow, a talented military historian in New York.  He told me the remarkable background to the project: 

                          ‘Someone discovered that you could freeze a bat and then thaw it again with no evident harm to the bat.  Leaping from this to the fact that many Japanese buildings were made of paper, some scientist came up with a foolproof idea.  Freeze a bunch of bats, wire tiny incendiary devices to their feet, and drop them from a high-altitude plane. “Bats away!”  As they fell through the warming atmosphere they would revive and, with the gimcrack buildings of Tokyo rushing up beneath, fly into them for shelter and there ignite a firestorm. 

                          This loony project was put to the test at an Arizona Air Force base, and it worked.  That is, the bats did revive, but their subsequent actions were less satisfactory. One flew into the Packard belonging to the general  observing the exercise, burst into flames right on schedule, and destroyed the car.  That brought an end to the experiment.'

 It seems there is no limit to what some people will believe. In WW1, large numbers of sober, intelligent English folk believed that a Russian army had been rushed across England by train, the proof being that someone had identified them by ‘the snow on their boots’.  People today still believe in ‘the Angel of Mons’, a supposedly divine apparition that allegedly saved the British army during its retreat in 1914.  If you want the truth about these (and other) myths, read  my narrative history,  Why 1914?  Only £8 post-paid in the UK. Email me at:     The really big question, of course, is what caused the catastrophe?  I offer some answers. Steve in Middlesex, Philip in London, Wayne in New Zealand, and Leigh in Ohio,  each recently bought copies.  

 So did Liam in Darwin, Northern Australia (who has used the book when teaching senior high school history).  He tells me the story of a rescued Spitfire pilot in a corner of the world usually overlooked by military historians:  the Japanese attack in 1942 when 242 bombers raided Darwin.  The city was lightly defended;  the attack sank 3 warships and 6 merchant vessels in the harbour.  This was the first of 97 air raids on Australia.   

 Soon afterward, Flight Sergeant Colin Duncan arrived from England to join an RAAF Spitfire squadron in Northern Australia.  They saw a lot of combat. They were intercepting a Japanese raid when his Spitfire’s engine caught fire.  He baled out of the burning cockpit and landed in what is now Litchfield National Park.  The escape might have killed him.  Litchfield is vast: it covers about 1500 square kilometres.  The temperature gets up to 50 degrees.  Liam knows it well:  “It’s stunningly beautiful but hot, harsh and unrelenting. Surviving a crash here would be only the start of one’s survival ordeal.”   

Duncan was lucky:  other Spitfire pilots had seen him fall and they dropped some supplies.  Even so, rescuers took five days to reach him,  and the wreckage of his Spitfire wasn’t found until 2016.  Here’s what it looked like:  


 Liam has read my Desert Air Force story A Good Clean Fight, and he writes:  “Your description of the heat, the isolation and the stench of the pilots in North Africa translates to these poor guys as well....Imagine if no-one had spotted his chute... He’d have died within days, and he’d  be another pilot whose fate we could only guess at.”  

From Oz to Holland, where Robert   -   once the intelligence officer on a U.S. Orion squadron  -  writes to say my RAF quartet (he’s just read  Piece of Cake for the fourth time) rings true for him.  “The combination of historical accuracy, humor and just plain good writing reminds me of Evelyn Waugh.” (For my money, Waugh was the master of English fiction.)   My experience is that fighter pilots everywhere take nothing seriously except flying.  Cake is a serious novel about the first twelve months of WW2,  but humour is an essential colour in the spectrum.  Robert writes of the “many moments that my wife looked quizzically at me when I laughed out loud, which happened a lot in the messroom backchat scenes.”  But his favourite moment is when, at the height of the Battle for France, the pilots  get a meal at a French cafe and the owner refuses money, saying the bill is far less than the debt he owes the squadron. “Moves me deeply,” Bob says.  

 Not all my stuff is about aircraft, and Steve in Oxford liked my “highly entertaining four-volume romp through the life of Luis Cabrillo”.  I based Luis on the double-agent codenamed Garbo, arguably the best con artist of WW2; he certainly fooled German intelligence superbly.  Recently, BBC News splashed what they said was a scoop about finding secret MI5 files that revealed how Garbo’s wife threatened to expose him, and his handlers had to scare her into silence by pretending to jail him. But it wasn’t a scoop. The story was sixteen years old.  The whole incident was told in a book about Garbo, published by the Public Record Office at Kew, in the year 2000. I know, because it’s on my bookshelf.  Well, maybe it was a slow news day.  Or maybe nobody at BBC News reads books. 

 Last word:  I urge movie directors to stop making an actor take his hat off at a moment of high drama.  If it’s meant to indicate how surprised the guy is, it fails.  I saw a film about Krakatoa.  Local fisherman were on the island when the volcano exploded, and one immediately took his hat off.  Not a wise move when lumps of hot lava were falling all around him.


 Readers Write #47 January 2017

Inscrutably yours, Tokyo

                books as big as bricks.                      

                                      and Casablanca, Bertie Wooster  and Spike Milligan. 

             Let’s start with a test. Here’s your question:   Which nation was Japan’s major opponent in World War Two?   United States, obviously.  A year ago, that’s what I would have said.  Recently, I discovered that, for most of that war,  the Japanese military treated China as their major battlefield.  They had been trying to conquer China since 1932;  more Japanese divisions were fighting there than anywhere else.  It was only when American troops captured theisland of Saipan, which had an airfield from which B-29 Fortresses could bomb the mainland,  that the raids on Tokyomade the Japanese generals reluctantly recognise that America was a superpower which, with Britain in Burma andAustralia in Papua-New Guinea, was turning the tables.    

        But from 1941 to 1944, Japan thought she had more to lose in China Russia had a neutrality pact with Japan,  and in 1944 there was even talk of a Japanese invasion of Soviet Manchuria, while Russia was still pre-occupied with fighting Germany. It came to nothing, but   -   as Wellington said   -   in war it pays to know what is on the other side of the hill;  that is, what the enemy is thinking. If the Allies had realised that Japan could easily pull its armies out ofChina for the defence of the mainland, the prospect of an invasion of Japan would have been fearsome.  As it happened, of course, things turned out differently.

      It might be said that Japanese leaders were suffering from wishful thinking.  There is a lot of that stuff in war.  In 1941, when Air Ministry planners assumed that RAF Bomber Command’s raids would panic the German public;  in 1941, when Hitler ordered the invasion of Russia without winter clothing;  in 1942, when Mussolini shipped his white horse to North Africa in readiness for a victory parade in Cairo;  in late 1944, when U.S. generals assumed that the German army was no longer capable of an offensive, only to be hit by the Battle of the Bulge   -   all were guilty of wishful thinking.    

    Enough of that.  From the sublime to the gorblimey... The new novel, Holy Smoke, is now being prepared for the printer. With luck, copies will be available in a couple of months   -   watch this space. (If you wish to book a copy,  email me on   Meanwhile, encouraging messages arrive from readers.  It’s always good to hear from a fellow-author,  and Tony Park writes from Australia. He’s just re-read  Goshawk Squadron:  “I loved the mix of fact, humour and history in your books, and I look forward to tracking down those I haven’t read.”  He adds:  “It was writers such as yourself who inspired me to give it a go.”   His 14th novel comes out  this year,  so he made the right decision,  Hamilton, in Texas, having watched the DVD of the Piece of Cake series,  bought the book and found  “that it’s even more engrossing than the DVD...I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the RAF Quartet, and then it’s the RFC trilogy.  And, with luck, Why 1914?”  Benjamin, in Victoria, Australia, also got a kick out of Cake,  especially as his grandfather flew Spitfires in France and Kittyhawks in Papua New Guinea in WW2. Ben bought the entire RAF Quartet, signed by me, as a birthday gift for his father  (and a salute to his grandfather).

    Moving on:  here’s a caveat.  Novels are a matter of taste, like fruit:  I like apples,  you like pears.  It’s always dangerous to recommend a novel;  the other person may find it unreadable.  No book is for everybody.  OK,  now that we’ve cleared the decks,  here comes a broadside.  I find that many of the current batch of novels are unreadable. Often I go back to  re-reading novelists who may be dead but  were fine craftsmen when they lived.  Many contemporary authors haven’t taken time to learn their craft,  and too many of them seem to feel that a novel that’s 600 pages long must be twice as good as one that calls a halt at 300 pages;  what’s more, it’s even better if it hits 700 or 800.  Drop a book like that and you could break a toe.  It’s especially dangerous with thrillers, action stories, detective fiction, where what is essential is pace. I’ve just dumped a 623-page whodunnit   -   highly praised by the quality press on three continents   -   because its pace was so sluggish that by page 119 I was struck down with narcolepsy and the tome slid from my nerveless fingers. Also the plot had more holes than Swiss cheese.  It was written by one of those authors who can’t pick up a phone without telling us that he put it down again.  Don’t publishers have editors any more?  That novel cried out for a bucket of red ink.    

       By contrast, here’s some good news. Dogs are smarter than we are. Tony, an old friend of mine, told me about his boyhood days in London, in 1944, when V1 doodlebugs were  blowing up houses. (If  you don’t know what a doodlebug was, ask your Dad.)  Tony’s family had a dog.  After a doodlebug exploded nearby,  the dog became restless and whimpered,  often 20 minutes before any V1 could be heard. That dog was so accurate that the family believed his warnings and took shelter.  Amazing.  But there’s more.  A week later, I read about Gunner, a dog that was rescued from a bombed building in Darwin, North Australia, after a Japanese air raid.  (Darwin got raided a lot;  you may remember Liam’s story, in the last RW, of a rescued Spitfire pilot.)   Gunner was another canine early warning system.  He became agitated, whining and jumping at his master, long before anyone detected approaching Japanese bombers.  Gunner knew they were coming twenty minutes before they arrived. He was so reliable that the commander of Darwin air force base gave his owner a portable air-raid siren. There were 60-plus raids in 1942-43, and Gunner did his stuff almost every time.  He saved a lot of lives.  Man’s best friend.

       Lastly, here’s a couple of oddities I found in my research.  (1)  When the German army planned the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, one of their tricks was to infiltrate soldiers in American uniform, driving captured jeeps, whose task was to spread panic and confusion behind the Allied lines.  Americans and Germans had different ways of holding a cigarette, so the men were coached in the right manner by watching the movie Casablanca.   Strange but true.  (2)  Malcolm Muggeridge (who served with British Intelligence)  wrote of one example of an authentic contribution by P.G.Wodehouse to the war effort. It involved the Abwehr’s efforts to get spies into Britain:  “The Germans, in their literal way, took his works as a guide to English manners, and actually dropped an agent in the Fen country wearing spats.” 

   Spike Milligan would have enjoyed that.  I miss him, if only because, in his last years, he said:  “I want to go to heaven, but if Geoffrey Archer is there,  I want to go to Lewisham.”

Readers Write #48 April 2017

Unreliable journos,

       Swindling Spies,

              and the Mystery of the Bone-dry Brolly  

 Journalism, so it’s said, is the first rough draft of history.  But it was a journalist who said that, and sometimes what is printed in those first rough drafts develops a life of its own, even when it’s untrue.  The Times is one of the few newspapers that   -   to its credit  -  publishes corrections of its misreportings,  and occasionally the Old Thunderer gets caught out by somebody else’s blunders. Recently it wrote about an American financier who (it said) had, in 2014, bought a house in Los Angeles for $102 million; and it then had to apologise because, back in 2014, someone had invented the purchase. The American never bought the house. Every news medium should be so honest, starting with the BBC.  Nothing makes a journo check his facts more carefully than being exposed on his own front door. Yet the question remains  -  how many people read the correction?  How many still believe the first story?  There is something to be said for printing the correction in the same type-size and in the same place on the page as the original misinformation. 

    War, of course, is a great creator of fake news.  A reporter on a quality newspaper once asked my opinion on a story he’d come across, about an RAF pilot in WW2 who allegedly stole a Hurricane fighter and flew it to a Luftwaffe airfield in Belgium.  I gave him four reasons why it was full of holes, starting with the claim that he flew it right across Belgium instead of putting it down on the first airfield he saw. The reporter spiked the story. If I’d told him it was a hell of a scoop, would he have printed it? I wonder. 

    Often time is a factor;  for newspapers, tomorrow is too late. But journalists can be sloppy.  I was the defendant in a longrunning lawsuit when the Sunday Times ran a big piece, with colour photographs, about the plaintiff’s having to sell her late husband’s medals in order to finance the action.  No mention of the fact that she had the benefit of Legal Aid, so there were no legal bills for her to pay. The reporter missed a trick there.  (Eventually, I won the case;  no mention of that in the Sunday Times, either.)   So much for junk.  But, once in a while, the truth comes out, and newspapers get it right. Take the story of the umbrella man in Dallas,  caught on film when Kennedy was assassinated.   

 The man put up his umbrella as the motorcade was passing. Why?  It was a clear, dry day.  Was it a signal to the gunman?  The umbrella man must be a suspect. Nobody could trace him.  That looked bad, too.  Then, 15 years later, somebody did. The truth came out. The umbrella was a political gesture, meant to remind Jack Kennedy that his father, when he was ambassador to Britain, supported the Munich agreement with Hitler. Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella symbolised appeasement. It was a joke, not a conspiracy. 

Another joke was the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) at the outbreak of WW2.  SIS operated agents in Holland,  which was neutral.  One of them was, in fact a double agent, working for the Gestapo.  Two SIS officers  in the Hague, Captain Sigismund Best and Major Richard Stevens, ran the agents. One day, they drove to the border, expecting to meet a German general who was opposed to Hitler,  and were kidnapped at gunpoint by German agents.  They spilled the beans about their operations and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. Not surprisingly, the reputation of SIS plummeted, especially when it emerged that Sigismund Best, who wore spats and a monocle, had invented thirteen of the sub-agents which he had claimed to be running.  They were fictitious.  Their expenses ended up in Best’s pocket.  (Later, when Rudolf Hess parachuted  into Scotland, SIS was in such bad odour that the government refused to let it question the prisoner.)   When I wrote The Eldorado Network, which was based on the activities of Garbo, probably the Allies’ best double agent in WW2,  I created a whole raft of  non-existent sub-agents, all paid by German Intelligence.   Now I can see that Garbo was merely carrying on a fine old tradition in the espionage game.  

Onwards.  It’s always a pleasure to hear from a feminine fan, and Meredith in South Australia writes that she has “greatly enjoyed all your novels since I first discovered War Story some years ago.. .  Thank you for many, many hours of enjoyable reading and re-reading...”  A small thing that has puzzled her is the reference to Mackenzie’s cane chair in Hornet’s Sting.

Aircraft cockpits in WW1 had no purpose-built  furniture;  cane chairs for the pilot were lightweight, simple and cheap. Also handy in a two-seater for swapping cockpits in mid-air, one of the batty ways aircrews amused themselves. 

Another longtime fan is Adam in Wisconsin. “You are a damn good writer and write damn  good books.”    No ifs or buts there. “Please keep them coming.”  Well,  Holy Smoke is now blowing in the wind.   Wayne, in Bethlehem, New Zealand, enjoyed  Why 1914? (“What a fantastic narrative”) and is deep into a new Cake, his first copy having been half-inched by a pal.   Michael, an old friend in Virginia who used to read my stuff when he was off-duty in Afghanistan, has begun a memoir of his experiences there.  He also researched the aircraft used by US Navy carriers,  and found a sporty little scout plane called  -  surprise, surprise  -  Goshawk.   It’s in an air museum in Pensacola, Florida.  Here  is a small picture of it:


A larger photo and more details at:    


 Readers Write #49 May 2017

Hello Hitler, goodbye Britain?

       the SE5a flies again,

              and the glider-bomb is late again.  

Sloppy thinking leads to bad writing, just as lazy writing points to a bungalow mentality: nothing upstairs. There are world leaders who sometimes rush into print and reveal that their ability to handle words is that of a not-too-bright ten-year-old.  Churchill had greater respect for the English language.  After the British army’s escape from Dunkirk, he told the House of Commons: “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned upon us. Hitler knows he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.”

No weasel-words there.  No spin-doctoring.  Churchill did not say   -   as so many politicians instinctively do  -  “We must address the issue.”  (Which means nothing at all.)   He told the truth.  We could do with politicians today who tell us, not what they think we want to hear, but the hard truth, no matter how unpleasant. Back in 1940, the grim prospect was Hitler’s plan to destroy a free and independent Britain.  Was he serious?   In 1945, the contents of the German embassy in London were auctioned.  They included four large swastika flags,  each embroidered with the name of a part of London: north, south, east, west. The embassy had been holding them in readiness for the German HQs which would govern those areas   -  preparations that had been made long before war broke out.   

      Anyone who still thinks invasion was just one of Hitler’s daydreams should read SS General Schellenberg’s Invasion Plan.  Recently, the BBC showed a television drama called  SS-GB (about a German-occupied Britain). Compared with General Schellenberg’s plan it looked like candyfloss.  The drama got a lot of flak because the actors mumbled. Schellenberg never mumbled.  His plan was a detailed and thorough blueprint for the total occupation and exploitation of Britain.  All opposition would be suppressed,  which meant killed. Everything useful would be seized, men of working age deported as slave labour, and six death squads (Einsatzgruppen, soon to be notorious in Russia) would liquidate unwanted elements, such as the 300,000 Jews. Then there was the Special Wanted List of Names. Schellenberg identified 2,820 prominent men and women to be eliminated. Politicians and journalists, obviously, but also actors, film directors, singers, musicians, authors.  Peter Ustinov’s father was on the list; also Paul Robeson, Paderevski, the cartoonist David Low, Bertrand Russell, Robert Baden-Powell, Sigmund Freud, Jacob Epstein.  Noel Coward and Rebecca West were there too;  after the war she wrote to him:  “My dear, the people we should have been seen dead with.”

 It is a relief to turn to Operation Sealion, codename for Hitler’s planned invasion, and read that it was to be ‘a surprise crossing’ of the Channel. The reality was that, by the time his invasion fleet was ready to sail, there was no possible surprise. The Royal Navy was ready to smash and sink the slow armada of river barges.  (My Invasion 1940 gives full details.)   To pretend that it could be a surprise crossing was lazy thinking.  Hitler had a fatal habit of believing that by saying something, he made it happen. He sent his troops to conquer Russia without winter clothing.  Sloppy. 

    Which brings me to Nick Garton’s new book on the WW1 fighter, the SE5 and its many variants.  This book is the reverse of sloppy.  It’s a hardback, 160 pages, superbly illustrated (many in colour), brilliantly researched and written with the utmost clarity. Here’s a taste of the pix:


   Nick tells us everything about the design, building and combat flying of the SE5, including many things you would never imagine. Its airframe was wood  -  Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, well seasoned.  He demolishes the notion that RFC aircraft were just string and canvas;  the SE5’s fabric was Irish linen, and Henry Folland used a windtunnel to help his design.  Nick profiles Frank Goodden, the test pilot who made an immense contribution to the machine, until in January 1917 he put an SE5 through its paces, the port wing collapsed, and Goodden was killed   -   which led to a redesign of the wing and the survival of many future RFC pilots.  Nick’s book is called an ‘Owner’s Workshop Manual’,  but don’t be fooled:  it’s full of gems, from a photograph of Albert Ball’s SE5 windscreen with a bullethole in the middle, to an appendix that gives the recipe for the plum cake that Ball’s mother used to send to France.  

     And  -  surprise, surprise  -  there’s an interview with me, all about Goshawk Squadron, which Nick says inspired his book and ‘was a novel that changed popular perceptions about World War One for good’.  He quotes my reason for equipping the squadron with the SE5a rather than the Sopwith Camel.  It was ‘the same reason that Woolley gives in the book: it was a compromise that was most effective in accomplishing the purpose of the pilots being up there, namely to kill the enemy’. As for the man himself, Nick writes:  ‘Then there is the magnetic appeal of Woolley, Robinson’s uncompromising, Guinness-swilling anti-hero, drawn with significant influence from two former ‘camp rats’ who rose to lead SE5a squadrons: Mannock and McCudden.’

      Nick’s book is priced at £25. It’s published in England by Haynes Publishing, Sparkford, Somerset BA22 7JJ, and in the USA by Haynes North America Inc., 859 Lawrence Drive, Newbury Park, California 91320. The ISBN is 978-0-85733-846-4. Believe me, it’s a classic. 

       Meanwhile, emails keep arriving from all over.  Lars in Denmark was with UN forces in Cyprus and ‘stumbled upon Piece of Cake and have  been a huge fan of yours ever since...Just read the two books with pilot Silk for the third time and will certainly read them again...’  Alan in Maryland, USA, writes:  ‘I have no doubt whatsoever your existing books are going to delight readers for decades, and perhaps even centuries, to come.’  It’s an encouraging thought.  Most art is of its time.  Things date quickly. If any of my books is still in print 50 years from now, I’ll look down (or up) and hope they’ve spelt my name correctly.  Alan adds: ‘Books like yours are not just adventure stories and not just interesting historical records;  they are appreciations of people who risked and often sacrificed their lives for the good of humanity.’  I can’t argue with that.   

     David in Glasgow has, in the past two years, read all of my RFC and RAF quartets, including  Goshawk Squadron:  ‘Read it half a dozen times...I still remember the horrible sinking feeling in my chest when I first read the ending. It’s an impressive skill to make an ending so painful even when it’s obviously inevitable.’ He adds:  ‘Hornet’s Sting is the one screaming out for an adaptation to television.’  If only, Dave, if only.    There are more entries for my Mile-High Club, awarded to members who re-read Piece of Cake and then read it again (and again).  Robin, a New Zealander in the Netherlands, bought a copy in 1984 and has read it so often that he’s listed the qualities he admires:   acute observation of men at war; action, grippingly presented; a lot of humour; plenty of quirks that may change the outcome of a man’s life in seconds;  wonderful description of clouds and weather.  ‘I cannot remember having read a war novel that is so three-dimensional and insightful as Piece of Cake,’ he says.  Well, a lot of ink and sweat went into writing Cake.  It’s good to know it paid off    -   although not, at first, financially.

      Timing is everything in life. Take Herman Melville’s  Moby Dick. It came out in 1851, got badmouthed by the critics, sold a yearly average of 27 copies which earned him an average of $37,  and was already out of print when he died.  It was forgotten until the 1920s, when a different generation discovered its epic qualities.  Too late for Melville, of course.  I know a little of how he felt. Piece of Cake was first published a couple of weeks before the Booker Prize for fiction was announced.  All the London literary critics had their eye on that ball,  Cake got lost in the shuffle, sales were feeble,  and the book was rapidly remaindered.  For me, four years’ work down the drain.   Then, by sheer luck, it found a backer and today the old warhorse is still selling. 
     From Moby Dick to Adolf Hitler is a big jump, but I keep finding examples of  how the Nazi leader missed a trick. In 1942, the prototype Messerschitt 262, the world’s first operational jet fighter, had its test flight.  Soon, with the Allied strategic bombing campaign hammering Germany, the Me 262 was exactly what the Luftwaffe needed:  a rocket-armed interceptor that even the Mustang couldn’t catch.  Instead, Hitler tried (and failed) to develop it as a bomber.  Result:  Me 262s  arrived too few and too late.  Hitler often backed the wrong horse.  He demanded  enormous weapons  (giant tanks, colossal artillery, massive six-engined transport planes)  which didn’t work and wasted valuable resources.  His interference may explain another flop:  the German glider-bomb.   
     This weapon has a walk-on rôle in my new novel,  Holy Smoke.  (The book has other deadly weapons:  exploding mule droppings, lethal bicycle pumps,  incendiary flying bats.)   In 1940, the German propaganda radio station NBBS  (Lord Haw-Haw’s outfit)  broadcast a warning that London would be destroyed by ‘aerial torpedoes carrying many tons of High Explosive and guided by radio’.  That sounds very much like a glider-bomb   -   yet three years passed   before the first models appeared. Same old story:  too few, too late.

Lastly, an email from Wayne in New Zealand. He enjoyed  Holy Smoke (‘Once again you have presented a tale reflecting the times in a truly entertaining and informative manner’) and comments that, at a time when  ‘false news’ is bandied about, ‘it is remarkable to be reminded that, in living memory, one man’s entrepreneurship’  (meaning Virgilio, the anti-hero of the story) ‘could give so many authorities the run-around.’   Virgilio was a remarkable man.  You have to read him to believe it.
Readers Write #50 July 2017

Minimising Musso,

                  the secret chequebook,

                                          and three forgotten heroes.  

        Mussolini was a bad joke, especially for the Italians.  He has a walk-on part in my new novel,  Holy Smoke, along with the Mafia, exploding mule droppings,  and the vanishing act of Italian fighters in the Battle of Britain.   
     His Fascism was rule by terrorism:  he suppressed opposition with the castor-oil bottle and, if that failed, murder.   He made speeches from a balcony,  promising his nation triumphs,  but he left nothing except fresh ruins in Rome.  He aimed to make a new Roman empire by attacking his weak neighbours   -   Libya, Albania, Abyssinia.  He lied by instinct.  When WW2 began, he boasted that his army had 150 divisions when in fact it had ten.    He banned divorce in Italy to strengthen the family, yet he fathered fourteen children, nine of them illegitimate.  (Rough sex was his pastime.)  Failure increased his vanity:  when he sang the Fascist marching song in the Chamber of Deputies, they all rose, saluted him, and cried ‘Hail the Duce!’.  The alternative was castor oil.  
    When the Allies invaded Italy, Mussolini was deposed and he ended up in the north, failing to raise an army.  Partisans found him in bed with his long-term mistress, Clara Petacci.  She fumbled under the bedclothes and they stopped her, thinking she was reaching for a gun;  instead she was looking for her knickers. Later, they shot them both.  In A.J.P. Taylor’s words,  ‘There has never been a dictator who threatened more and achieved less.’  Yet Italy was a major power in the inter-war years.  This is hard to understand. 
   Partly it was because Italy had fought alongside the Allies  in WW1, taking heavy casualties,  and everyone hoped for a good recovery in peacetime.  Mussolini seized power in 1922, claiming he had 300,000 blackshirts  supporting him;  the truth was he had less than a tenth.  But his propaganda was good and many European leaders were bluffed.  At first, Churchill admired him,  and George Bernard Shaw was a permanent fan.  In 1938, when Hitler threatened war with Czechoslovakia,  it was Mussolini who stage-managed a summit conference in Munich,  for which Europe was grateful.   In those days, Italy sat at the top table.  This may help to understand the strange case of  massive bribery which an old pal, Graham Thorne, has unearthed in the diary of Sir Henry Channon,  known as ‘Chips’. 
    Chips was an MP from 1938 to 1953  and was keen on gossip.   In January 1939, he dined with Sam Hoare, then Home Secretary,   who reminisced about his time in Italy in 1917. Italy had just suffered a massive defeat at Caporetto and its people were demanding a ceasefire    -   not what the Allies wanted to hear.  At that time, Mussolini owned a newspaper in  Milan.  He offered a guarantee that Milan and the north would keep fighting   -   “if sufficiently bribed”.  Sam Hoare bought the newspaper “for a very considerable sum indeed”.  Mussolini kept his bargain,  thanks to his “gangsters and thugs”  on the streets of Milan. The deal was a big boost for Mussolini, and Chips claimed that “English Government funds did much to create the Fascist revolution.”  
     That, of course, was Chips’ speculation.  Hindsight is a great advantage for a diarist.  Whatever the bribe, it was money well spent: Italy fought on, the Allies survived the crisis, Germany was defeated. Money has always been a weapon of war.  Britain bribed Spanish generals to keep their country out of WW2,  which worked.  Hitler paid huge sums to his generals to buy their loyalty, which was less successful.
   So much for Mussolini,  who believed he was superior to Napoleon but showed himself to be worthless.  Holy Smoke is about a very different man, an anti-hero who made the most of his talents.  Readers agree.  Jon   -   a Norwegian on vacation   -   reports that the novel is “excellent reading on the beach in Santa Monica”  and adds:  “Nothing is discovered by staying indoors!”,  which is a quote from the story.  Graham, whose review is above, said: “I loved the book”, and points to the fact that my chosen subject is  the military and their intelligence, which “is full of examples of the ridiculous which one couldn’t make up”.  The Author’s Note    -   “punctilious in making clear what is truth and what is false,”  he says    -   also helps. 
    Dictators rarely see combat, so it’s refreshing to remember the quiet courage of  men who simply did their job. Three stand out.  
   The first was Ian Neilson.  He was 26 in 1944 when, on the evening of D-Day, he rode a motorbike across the battlefront in  order to find a site for the first  British air observation post.  Then he led a working party to blow up obstacles and make a landing ground for Auster aircraft.  He flew 55 sorties in Austers, directing the fire of the warships offshore to targets inland. The biggest shells weighed almost a ton, the Auster was in the firing line, and there was always a risk of being hit.  “I only saw German tanks on two occasions,”  Neilson said.  “I think we had quite an effect.”  He finished the war as a lieutenant-colonel, DFC.
   The second was Eric Worsley, RN.  In 1940 he was 26, stationed at Portsmouth as a bomb disposal officer. During a raid, a 250 kg unexploded bomb was buried in the middle of a naval station where 4,000 trainees were in the shelters.  The tail fin was visible but not the fuses.  Worsley wrote:   “I knew that German clockwork fuses had a time delay of between an hour and up to 96 hours.” The bomb could not be hauled out in case anti-disturbance devices exploded it. “I decided to dig...In less than half an hour a circular moat was excavated...I could now work away with the spade.”  Soon he could read the fuse number.  He ripped off one of the bomb’s tubular struts, placed one end on the fuse and the other end to his ear. “Was that a sound of ticking, or was it my imagination?”  He went in search of a stethoscope. “I was lucky, the stethoscope made the tick sound like an alarm clock.”    Much work still remained to be done. Four hours after the bomb fell, Worsley had extracted two fuses, unscrewed the primer and disarmed the bomb. “The clock setting was for seven hours.  Hallelujah.”    It was the beginning of eight months of bomb disposal, in which he was twice decorated.  
   The third was a civilian, Bill  Penley, 22 years old in 1940, with a PhD in electrical engineering. His job was to climb the lattice towers of the Chain Home early-warning radar system.  They were 360 feet high.  “Each ladder was 50 feet, with thick ice on the rungs, it was really a foolhardy activity...The platforms had protective rails around them but as those in front of  the receiving aerial would interfere with reception, they had to be removed.”  Then, hundreds of feet above ground, he adjusted the electrical connections and worked out how to avoid power loss in the cable to the top of the tower.  His success meant that when the Luftwaffe attacked, Chain Home enabled the RAF to scramble its fighters in time to intercept the bombers.   Penley retired with the CB and CBE.    
    To sign off, here’s Bob Hoover, an American aviator described by Jimmy Doolittle   -    who led the first raid on Tokyo   -  as “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”   
                                                  Bob Hoover  (PIC) 
Forget all the ballyhoo about test pilots and ‘The Right  Stuff’.  Bob Hoover was polite, calm and the opposite of gung-ho. He knew precisely what he was doing and what his machine was capable of, and at air shows he was a master of that understanding.  He demonstrated it by performing so-called ‘dead stick’ landings with engines shut off.  He could land with one wheel on the runway, then the other, making the aircraft dance from side to side.  One of his best-known tricks was to pour iced tea from a jug into a glass as he executed a roll with his left hand.  He also had a remarkable war career, but that’s another story.


 Readers Write #51 August 2017

Bang! You're dead.

Sometimes the job of the novelist is to think the unthinkable.  Years ago, I wrote Hullo Russia, Goodbye England,  about the men in a Vulcan squadron.  Vulcans were a large part of Britain’s policy of nuclear deterrence.  They aimed at neutralising the Cold War by warning a possible aggressor, Russia, that any attack would trigger retaliation and therefore would be suicidal.

 In those days, atom bombs would be delivered by aircraft,  and the Vulcan was the ultimate bomber   -   a four-engined, delta-shape masterpiece that flew fast and high and handled like a fighter.  But there were three problems.  One was the obvious (but unspoken) fact that any Vulcan crew sent to retaliate would never return, because the Britain they left would soon be a smoking desert.  The second was the certainty that some, perhaps most, Vulcans might be intercepted by Russian defences.  The third problem was the sanity, or otherwise, of the world leaders whose fingers would be on the red button.  It all came down to human judgement.  What if the person making the decision was demented?  World leaders have been known to be unbalanced.  When, in 1956, Anthony Eden led Britain into the Suez fiasco,  he was a sick man. Pol Pot, Colonel Gaddafi and Adolf Hitler all behaved in ways that were lunatic. The constant stress that any world leader feels might be enough to cause him suddenly to lose his marbles, think it’s all impossible,  and blow the world to hell.    

 The official answer to that scenario was that an impetuous action could not happen because any nuclear strike would be preceded by a State of Mounting International Tension  (S.M.I.T.).   This would make world leaders realise the hard truth that Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) means what it says.  In HRGE, Silk (a Vulcan pilot) discusses this point with Skull (an Intelligence Officer) and Freddy (an old pal from Air Ministry). Silk suggests that a Soviet leader would have to be a maniac to order a first strike during a S.M.I.T.  They agree.  Then he says:   


       “Therefore it follows than an intelligent maniac would strike when there is no diplomatic crisis?  No S.M.I.T.? A bolt from the blue?” 

       “Why would he do that?” Freddy asked.

      “Silly question,” Silk said.  “He’s a maniac. He can do what he likes.” 

      “World leaders aren’t maniacs,” Skull said.  “Nuclear war kills everyone.”

       “Maniacs don’t think they’re maniacs,” Silk said. “Maniacs believe they’re doing God’s work.” 

      Of course, times have changed since the days of Vulcans. The great advantage of manned bombers was that they could be recalled.  Now we have missiles.  In all the bluster of Trump and Kim Jong-un, it is worth remembering the only other occasion when the superpowers verged on full-scale nuclear war: the week beginning 22 October 1962.  Nikita Kruschkev had loaded Cuba with nuclear missiles,  and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously urged President Kennedy to order an immediate air strike against all military targets in Cuba.  The most belligerent advice came from General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force. 

   LeMay had often talked of annihilating the Soviet Union,  and he believed that Cuba offered an irrresistible chance, because  he was sure that the U.S. had overwhelming nuclear capacity and that Russia could be quickly obliterated.  Kennedy thought otherwise.  In World War Two, he had served in the Pacific and seen at first hand the decisions of American admirals,  and he was not over-impressed.  He knew that top officers could be wrong.  We should be grateful that Kennedy ignored LeMay and that diplomacy worked. The Cuban crisis was resolved, and the world was spared.  From what?   

    It’s worth spelling out what nuclear oblivion meant in 1962. The American arsenal that made LeMay confident of victory contained almost three thousand strategic nuclear weapons, targeted on Soviet cities,  with yields totalling more than seven thousand megatons. (A megaton is fifty times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb.)   Seven thousand megatons would have burnt Russia to a crisp and killed a hundred million civilians.  It would also cause a lethal nuclear winter over the Northern Hemisphere, freezing and starving countless more millions in Europe, Asia and North America.  If LeMayknew this, he never spoke of it.  When he retired in 1965 he ran for Vice-President of the United States.  He might have been elected, in which case he would be a heartbeat away from the Presidency.  Stranger things have happened.   

     A nuclear crisis is not a poker game.  Curtis LeMay planned to play poker with Russia, trusting his belief that Russia was not ready to retaliate .  What LeMay, and indeed any American, did not know (until a Soviet-U.S. conference revealed it in 1989)  was that in 1962  -  contrary to CIA estimates   -   the Soviet forces in Cuba had some twenty medium-range ballistic missiles armed with one-  to three-megaton warheads.  They could be targeted on cities as far north as Washington.  Also, Cuba had short-range tactical artillery rockets with nuclear warheads.  If the U.S. had invaded Cuba   -   which an air strike would indicate  -   the Soviet field commanders were authorised to use the rockets immediately.  The missiles would have been launched as well.  Nor was that all.  

    A Soviet submarine flotilla was in the area.  The U.S.Navy was aware of their presence and had been troubling them with small depth charges.  What the Navy did not know was that the submarines were armed with nuclear torpedoes.  The Navy’s harassment persuaded some of the Soviet officers to believe that war had started,  and they voted to launch their torpedoes.  Fortunately, their commander, Captain Arkhipov, an experienced man, decided to wait and see.  Arkhipov was the Soviet equivalent of President Kennedy. If the nuclear weapons in Cuba and those at sea had been launched, many millions of Americans would have died. 

   In the Napoleonic Wars,  General Wellington urged his officers always to try to know what was on the other side of the hill   -   in other words, what the enemy was thinking and planning.  General LeMay had no time for that, and many other American generals and admirals agreed with him.  He knew only one action. When the Cuban missile crisis was over, he was furious. “We lost!” he said. “We ought to just go in there today and knock 'em off.” 

     I have a lot of friends in America.  In many ways, it is an admirable nation.  What worries me is the American appetite for violence.  There is a belief among Americans that a good sock on the jaw solves most problems.  Better yet, a gun in every household.  This is not a formula for preventing World War Three.  Robert Oppenheimer, one of the creators of the atom bomb, summed up the confrontation of two powers,  each in a position to make nuclear war on the other.  He likened it to “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life”.  Total war means we all lose.  I wonder whether Mr Trump realised this when he threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.  


       Finally, it is a relief to turn to the relative sanity of Readers Write.  David, in Halifax, Canada, first read Piece of Cakewhen he was 14, and since then has worked his way through all my flying stuff.  He says:  “It takes quite a bit to make me laugh, and laugh aloud, when I’m reading a book, but you’ve done it quite a few times... The ease of transition between the funny and the grim is perhaps what impresses me the most;  I’m sure it can’t be an easy thing to do, but you certainly make it looks like it is.”  Then an old pal, John in Colorado, emailed me that he felt the need for a Robinson fix and “resurrected  Rotten with Honour.  I surprised myself by laughing out loud, something I’ve almost never done while reading.”  (RWH , written nearly 40 years ago, was a Cold War spy story;  all I can remember of it was that the Russian agents, usually depicted in fiction as stolid types, had a fine sense of humour.)     Laughter seems to be in the air,  because Robin (in, I think, Holland)  bought Cake in 1984 and has just read it for the fourth time.  “Besides the great characters and the action, there’s a lot of humour.  Some of it had me laughing out loud...I have read quite a few war novels but I cannot remember one that is so three-dimensional and insightful as Piece of Cake.” Lastly,  there has been a small rush of interest in Holy Smoke, with orders from old friends in Dallas, Kansas City, New Jersey, South Carolina  and Florida    -    plus several in the UK. 

Readers Write #52  Sept 2017

Beefeaters and ballyhoo,

                 my life as a travelling blacksmith,

                                             and me and Bill Gates.  

                Here’s a question.  How would you like to have the International Socrates Award?  You don’t speak Greek?  Okay, you want to have the Manager of the Year Award?  Or get the Queen Victoria Commemorative Award? Or the Best Cities Award?  Or join the International Club of Leaders?  Listen, you deserve it. A man of your skills and achievements needs an Oxford certificate on the wall. No hassle, no sweat, just sign the cheque. £3000 for the award, or if you want to push the boat out, there’s a VIP package with lots of exciting add-ons for only £9,300.   

    Look, don’t thank me, and certainly don’t try to thank the University of Oxford, which has absolutely nothing to do with this circus. Thank Anton Savvov and his son Ivan, who run the Europe Business Assembly from an office in Kharkov, Ukraine,  which is a long way from Oxford.  That didn’t stop them hiring Oxford Town Hall for a black-tie  gathering where contributing guests from far corners of the globe flew in to enjoy the Socrates Award Ceremony.  The decor was reassuringly British.  There was champagne, a red carpet, a Scots bagpiper, and a man in a Beefeater costume.  You get a lot of ballyhoo for £9,300.  And, of course, a certificate on the wall.  What you don’t get is any recognition from the University of Oxford.  It doesn’t sell awards. 

     Many of the recipients came from developing countries, places where you can often buy credentials for cash.  If they think the awards are from Oxford and that means the University, don’t blame Anton Savvov.  He’s running a legitimate business. That Beefeater’s costume was 100% genuine.  Take it from me.  I’ve been swatting away big-money certificates all my working life.  Some of the awards I turned down make Kharkov’s finest look like chickenfeed. And at a fraction of the price.  

    It all began in 1971.  In that year’s Booker Prize I came second, or so Saul Bellow, one of the judges, said.  No money for me, of course, but I was briefly a minor celeb, and suddenly the International Biographical Centre (IBC), based in Cambridge,  wanted to include me in their International Who’s Who in Poetry.  Two problems:  the book cost £18, which I didn’t have, and I hadn’t written a line of poetry.  

     Their entry form was a bit of a challenge, too.  My education lacked the sparkle that you expect  a top international poet to have, so I spiced it up with a spell at the Spanish Academy in Vienna.  That’s where they train those Lipizzaner horses to prance on their hind legs. Next came Positions Held.  The truth was none, so I wrote: ‘Self-employed travelling blacksmith’.  Let’s face it, not enough poets are out in the countryside, practising the noble art of the farrier and dreaming up rhymes for ‘horseshoe’.  I added a few more inventions and mailed the form.

    IBC printed the lot. Now I was a registered poet. I scraped together a fiver and bought their Certificate of Merit (‘For Distinguished Contributions to Poetry’)  and hung it in the loo where it covered the damp patch and impressed the hell out of visitors.  And it spawned a steady supply of letters from other publishers,  all keen to celebrate my expanding celebrity.  (Maybe they swap mailing lists.)    

    IBC wanted me for their book Men of Achievement.  Debrett’s urged me to be included in People of Today, Burke’s Peerage liked me for World Book of Robinsons, and the American Biographical Institute  reckoned I was ripe for their Personality of the Year, and  -  flatteringly  -   Great Minds of the 21st Century.  

    All those wonderful people had one thing in common.  They wanted money, usually at a special saving. I could get into Debrett’s  People of Today for a very reasonable £99. A place in Men of Achievement would set me back £75 or, with my name on the de luxe cover, £295.  Rubbing shoulders with Great Minds of the 21st Century meant coughing up $395 for the book, which would give details of ‘how your great mind has worked to influence and pave the way for many individuals’. Or I could order the Great Minds Medal, ‘finished in a radiant golden tone’, at only $595.  

     The mail kept coming, year after year.  Some I binned.  Some got the Walter Mitty treatment. My employment record flowered:  I had been a roustabout, crop-duster, bit-part actor, plumber’s mate, football referee, bartender and demolition worker.  Under ‘Creative Works’ I listed five novels, one each in French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and Greek.  For ‘Honours’, I created the eminent Theta Phi Omega award.  If it doesn’t exist, then it ought to, and I deserved it as much as the next poet.  Or non-poet.

    No publisher ever questioned my claims. Several reference books listed them.  Nobody quizzed me about my career as a private secretary to Lord Lucan.  I even told them I was an expert in literary fraud, and no eyebrows were raised.  Finally, I almost bought a book from Baron’s, a highpowered American business publisher.  They offered me a full page in The Baron’s 500: Leaders for the New Century,  with a portrait photograph;  and to make me salivate they sent a sample page. It showed a smiling Bill Gates.  Hey!  Bill and I were two of 500 leaders taking the world into the 21st century!  

    Me and BIll: a dream team.  Just one hitch.  Baron’s wanted $895 in advance.  No cash, no book.  Another great idea got the chop, and world leaders were the poorer by one.  They’ll be sorry. 


  Meanwhile, in the real world, copies of Holy Smoke have been flying to all corners.  (A few are left.  When they’re gone, they’re gone.) Books have gone to readers in Canada, Australia, Norway, Holland, Connecticut, Michigan, Texas.  Joe in Texas sent an order and added:  “Just to say again I have enjoyed many of your books.  I am glad you continue to share your talent with us.”  Well, writers are nothing without readers, Joe, so you have my thanks.  

   Not surprisingly, most orders are from within the UK.  James in London read Holy Smoke and emailed me:  “Thoroughly enjoyed your book. I suspect it was quite entertaining researching it.”  (True:  life in 1944 Rome was highly improbable.)  He wrote:  “I like the comment at the very end regarding Rome traffic lights.  I remember my mother returning from a trip to Rome when I was about 18  -  “You should go to Rome, they drive like you.”  Neil in Nottingham not only bought two Holy Smokes,  he also told his friends and colleagues about it. Steve in Middlesex sent an order and added: “My favourite author by a long chalk.”  Julia in Hertfordshire asked for a signed copy to go with her complete collection of my novels.  Which is nice to know.  And   -   surprise, surprise   -   Tilman, a 16-year-old student in Regensburg, Germany, is reading my War Story. He’s writing a paper on it for a seminar.  He asked, in excellent English, some questions about the story.  I was glad to help, and I look forward to his thoughts. 


Readers Write #53          

  Bluff, Rockets, and Runaway Balloons 

         This isn’t so much about Readers Write as about Author’s Slant on war and its peculiarities.  If that doesn’t interest you, move on. 

     Hitler spoofs are a brilliant idea.   Someone took a scene from  The Last Days of Hitler  and changed the subtitles.  Instead of raging at his generals, Hitler savages a local problem  -  the latest spoof has him blasting the bus service in my home town. Very funny, very professionally made, and it cost peanuts.  Hitler becomes the voice of democracy.  Nice twist

    Surprise is the key to this spoof. Suddenly a horror story is inverted and it becomes a joke.  Which is fine as long as we don’t forget the horror.  Hitler was a monster who brought death to millions.  He gambled with the future of Europe, and often he bluffed.  In 1939, after telling his admirals that there would be no war before 1943, he invaded Poland, knowing that his fleet was outnumbered ten to one by the Royal Navy.  An even bigger bluff happened in September 1938.  

    That was the time of the Munich crisis. Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia, or he would invade.  Claud Cockburn, one of the great journalists of his century, was in Prague at the time, and he saw what happened.  His memoirs, Cockburn Sums Up,describes that last act of appeasement. There was still a chance that the League of Nations or Britain, France and Russia would support the Czechs against Germany. The Czech army was ready to fight, and Cockburn, who was on good terms with the Russian Legation, knew that the Soviet Union had sent a force of fighters and bombers to an airfield near Prague.  This was an advance force to be massively reinforced if Germany invaded.  

    That snippet of information has never, to my knowledge, appeared in the histories of the period.  Nor has the opinion of Ulrich Steinhilper, one of the few Luftwaffe pilots who were sent to the Czech border at that time and who survived the war. He has rejected the historians who claim the German threat was real and Czech resistance was pointless.  “We were just a hotch-potch of personnel of very varied experience and training,” he wrote in his memoirs, Spitfire On My Tail, “in aircraft which either belonged in a museum or weren’t armed anyway.”   He made no mention of the Soviet aircraft in Prague. Was France or Britain aware of them?  Cockburn doesn’t say.  In the event, nobody backed the Czechs, so the Soviet planes left and Germany marched in.  Chamberlain flew home to wave his sheet of paper as proof of peace.  As Steinhilper wrote:  “Another gigantic bluff had come off.” 

 There is a lot of bluffing in world politics,  and in some cases men are bluffing themselves.  The  Vietnam war would never have begun if President Eisenhower hadn’t made a speech about the ‘domino theory’.  This was the belief that if Vietnam went communist, then all of south-east Asia would be lost, even the Philippines and maybe Australia or India.  Kennedy inherited the domino theory.  (American government knew almost nothing about that part of the world because all its experts were fired during the McCarthy witch-hunt.) 

Vietnam posed no threat to America, but with the arrival of Communist China, the U.S. feared that China would expand to the south, via Vietnam. And so the war began. It lasted sixteen years, cost untold billions, wrecked Vietnam, Laos and part of Cambodia, left South Vietnam poisoned with Agent Orange and left North Vietnam pitted with bomb craters after the U.S. Air Force dropped a greater weight of bombs than fell on Germany in all of WW2 (and killed two million Vietnamese civilians),  and  -  after the White House had repeatedly bluffed the American public with predictions of victory   -   America lost. As LBJ’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara discovered, far too late, the domino theory was rubbish.  Even worse, it was the opposite of truth.  

    Vietnam was never in danger of becoming a Chinese province.  For  centuries, Vietnam and China had been enemies, often at war.  If China had tried to acquire its neighbour, the Vietnamese people would have fought them as hard and as long as they fought the Americans.  Their leaders were, above all, nationalist. They saw the Americans as occupiers.  McNamara admitted: “We were wrong.” 

    The Cold War had persuaded America to believe the Communist boast that they would conquer the world. It was just words, a bluff,  a dream, usually meant for home consumption.  When the history of the last century comes to be written,  the Vietnam war may well be seen as a Communist triumph, not because Vietnam won but because it led the U.S. to waste its blood and dollars and self-belief in a colossal blunder.  McNamara lists eleven major causes for the disaster. They should be essential reading for every world leader.  

  Hitler’s bluff was based on force, of which he had enough to frighten people. One of the great what-ifs of history revolves around the timing of his V1 and V2 assault on England in 1944.  What if he had launched it a year earlier? What if it had been twice the size?  Would it have forced the evacuation of London, perhaps postponed D-Day?  We shall never know.  But we know that the V1 attacks (the Doodlebugs) were meant to hit cities other than London.  Here is a German map that was captured during the Normany invasion. 

                     doodlebg map jpg  

 It shows the firing lines planned by the Germans from launch sites across the north of France.  Those in Normandy  -  captured before they could fire  -   were aimed at Plymouth and Bristol,  which was exactly where I went to school in 1944. Who knows? If Hitler had had his way, my home town would have suffered a second blitz.   

     A gloomy thought.  To end with I’ve found a couple of WW2 believe-it-or nots that I came across recently

    The Fairey Swordfish was a slow but tough biplane that the Fleet Air Arm inherited at the start of WW2. It cruised at 80 knots, so it was useful as a carrier plane, and also as a torpedo bomber.  A Swordfish attack sank a large part of the Italian fleet in Taranto harbour, reportedly because the Italian gunners overshot because they couldn’t believe that any warplane could fly so slowly.  


Swordfish carried torpedoes or bombs, and towards the end of the war they were fitted with rocket projectiles.  One even sank a U-boat with them.  The plane’s nickname was ‘Stringbag’, after the housewives’ shopping bag,  because so many armaments could be stowed aboard it. The Swordfish was the only biplane to fly on ops throughout the war. American flyers couldn’t take it seriously.  One asked: “Where did that come from?”  A British officer said, “Fairey’s.”  The American said: “That figures.”   

    Finally the humble barrage balloon, fleets of which flew above British cities like silvery whales.  They frightened German bombers into flying higher, where their bomb-aiming was less accurate.  There was a problem.  Strong winds might snap their cables which, dragged across country, could do damage.  Somebody had a bright idea.  When the wind was right, barrage balloons with long cables  were released.  They drifted across Germany and caused all kinds of havoc.  One balloon tangled with a power station and knocked it out.  Not many people know that.  


 Readers Write #54 December 2017

Occupatioal hazards,

                  Slow Burners,

                                                                  and 21 million jerrycans.

     Stick your neck out and people will try to chop it off. It happened to me.  I knew when I wrote  Goshawk Squadron that the book would draw blood, and when the Society of RFC Veterans denounced it, I wasn’t surprised.  Then Alan Gibson reviewed it on BBC Radio and he summed up its central character, Stanley Woolley, in a four-letter word that is one of the few curse words which, even today, is never heard on the air.  Well, Gibson won a first in history at Oxford and he’d been President of the Oxford Union. so he was no mug.  Skewering a first novel by saying it was about a **** might have deflated the author.  I survived. 

   No book is for everybody.  The reader has bought it; he’s entitled to hate it. But Gibson blundered when he called Woolley a ****.  Goshawk Squadron is still in print, almost 50 years later. Half a dozen different publishers have taken it on, and it’s been translated a few times.  That doesn’t happen to a story about a ****, a character who by definition is stupid, selfish and unsuccessful.  Woolley is none of those.  He rubs people up the wrong way in order to teach them a lesson that might, just might, save their lives. He knows what works.  

   That first novel taught me to expect attacks, and they came.  Kramer’s War was about the German Occupation of the Channel Islands, and Jersey’s booksellers immediately boycotted it without bothering to read it.  (Today it’s in their public library.)  Piece of Cake annoyed one former pilot so much that he sued me.  (He lost.)  I got an item of hate mail about Cake which was such a gem that I framed it; it hangs in my loo.  It’s unsigned, of course, and written in sprawling capital letters.  It began:

     brothel doorman

 Do brothels have doormen?  He sounded very confident.  Maybe he knew more about the subject than I did. 

    His message hangs on the wall as a reminder that, whilst some readers can’t wait for my next book, others chuck it at the cat.  A reader wrote to say that, after a chapter or two,  A Good Clean Fight bored him rigid.  Maybe he expected aircraft and what he got was soldiers.  (The airmen arrived later.)   After a couple of years, he wrote again to say he’d given it a second chance and was gripped. Same story, different frame of mind.  I just write the book. Sometimes it’s a square peg that gets read by a round hole.  Life is a gamble. 

   Now David, an old pal living in Tennessee who has read most of my stuff, writes to say that Holy Smoke got two cheers  -  at first.  “I both liked it and didn’t like it   -   perhaps because it seemed so different from your previous work.”  (Right. It isn’t a Ripping Yarn.) “I thought it started slow, but when it did get going, then I immediately enjoyed it and thought it worthy of your canon. No one writes ‘dark comedy’ as you do...”  

   Which takes us to the heart of the story. Holy Smoke doesn’t start with a bang because it’s about a shadow of a man, a nobody,  a jobless yesterday. But he never gives up and life has dealt him a hand with one ace.  It turns out to be a joker.  He plays his ace, and by great good luck it makes a little money. Then  -  unknown to him  -  it grows into a huge swindle that leaves an American intelligence agency with egg on its face..  The novel is based on fact.  (I have the paperwork.)   It’s a slow burner,  which explains the opening.  Sometimes I think it would do no harm if everyone in the CIA, MI6 and whatever the KGB is now called were to read Holy Ghost. Even a nobody can make them look foolish.   

   Time for a picture.  Here’s a rare photograph of the German retreat after D-Day.  

 retreat 1

      The vehicle is a military wagon, towed by horses and camouflaged with foliage against rocket attacks by Typhoon fighter-bombers.  In Normandy, the Wehrmacht had 70,000 horses in 1944.  Even their artillery was sometimes horse-drawn.  Few survived the Typhoons. This is where war reporting tells only half the story. Cameramen like action shots.  They don’t waste film on horses or footslogging infantry when they can get shots of dynamic tanks and aircraft.  But the German shortage of trucks was a big reason for their defeat  -  Army Group B, occupying Normandy, had fewer than 15,000 trucks and their fuel was rationed. Here is a picture of one the many Allied  fuel depots in Normandy.  Those are 5-gallon jerrycans, part of the 21 million that went to France


   For the invasion of Normandy, the Allies sent more than 300,000 vehicles.  When the advance began, their armies were using  a million gallons of fuel a day.  These pictures illustrate a fundamental truth of war:  courage without supplies spells defeat.  

   Lastly, an email from Dave in Melbourne Australia is big, and bookshops are not on every corner.  Dave rates my stuff highly but, he says, “very hard to find in Aus”, which was why he ordered Why 1914?  and  Holy Smoke, and was surprised when  I replied in person.  This happens:  a lot of people don’t realise that I’m not a corporation.  (I once  received an order that began Dear Sir or Madam...)  With me, what you see is what you get: a one-man band.  Sometimes publishers want a new book, sometimes they don’t and I bring it out myself.  The reward is when a novel give pleasure to a fan like Dave.   He’s just re-read Piece of Cake, one of my longer books that follows a fighter squadron through the first twelve months of war, and he says: 

    “ It strikes me that most writers would have been bogged down by the narrative...Instead, you’ve kept the events as obscured as they would have been for the participants...You’ve woven the characters beautifully.  They face each day, each event as it comes...Events such as Eagle Day  (when the Luftwaffe launched its assault on England) aren’t signposted as such;  they’re just especially hard days at the office... It would have been so easy to get bogged down with hindsight and the big-picture view. I’m very glad you didn’t.” 

 Me, too, Dave.  One of the great strengths of the novel is that it can take the reader to places he would otherwise never go. Cake puts him in the cockpit and let's him see what happens.  Often it's not what he   -  or the reader  -    expected.


Readers Write #55 January 2018

Woolley rings bells,

        there’s nowt so queer as folk,

                 and Hornet’s Sting rides again.

     My first novel featured the SE5a biplane, After that, I worked my way through the Sopwith Camel, the Bristol Fighter, the Hurricane, the Tomahawk, the Hampden, the Wellington, and eventually the Avro Vulcan   -   all of which are now museum pieces, if they survive at all. So it’s good to hear from a pilot who has read my stuff and has known the trials of military flying at first hand. Since he’s a serving officer, I’ll call him Peter (not his real name).  Operational security, he tells me, is the flavour of the month. 

 Peter tells me he “first encountered Piece of Cake via the TV series when he was still at primary school.”  He next came across the book at the age of 18, when he joined the University Air Squadron.  He recalls: “Reading  Piece of Cake for the first time as an adult was a game-changer for me, and immediately I bought the sequel (A Good Clean Fight) and your RFC trilogy, which I also loved.”  He flew with the Fleet Air Arm.  Fast-forward a few years.  Now he’s still flying but he has a son and they’re both deep in aviation history. He says: “A large part of that is due to the influence of your writing... Please accept my sincere gratitude for your thorough historical research combined with your incredible flair for storytelling, and for writing things the way they were rather than the way many people think they were.” 

 Peter has sometimes been at the sharp end of military aviation and he knows the symptoms.  He writes:  “I was intrigued by Woolley in the RFC trilogy   -   the fact that he ends one book (Hornet’s Sting) as a level-headed, approachable good egg, and then begins the next book (Goshawk Squadron) as a complete bastard.  I liked this transition   -   particularly that there isn’t any obvious and telegraphed reason why   -   because it is a fascinating and realistic depiction of a man suffering from the effects of real fatigue and stress, and the reader needs to work that out for himself. Whilst the reasons why have changed over the years, the symptoms are exactly the same and we occasionally still see those transitions in aviation today   -   although thankfully for us the understanding and care provided in the industry in this day and age have come on leaps and bounds.” 

 Moving on.  One of the problems of writing fiction is that some readers think  a character is unbelievable while, in real life, people are even weirder.  I’ve been looking back at previous editions of Readers Write, and examples sprang out.  There was Stephen, reading Goshawk Squadron in front of a log fire until the early hours, when he nodded off,  “When I awoke, a puppy had eaten the last pages.”  People have been known to steal my books.  One man read Hornet’s Sting  in the bath, dropped it and all the pages stuck together.  Jim was so obsessed with my RFC quartet that his wife gave him a flight in a Sopwith Camel for his 50th birthday. A chap in New York read Red Rag Blues and laughed so much that he ended up in hospital.  (Mind you, he already had a bad chest cold.)  I sent him a copy of the sequel, Operation Bamboozle, and he said he would read it “with a pacemaker handy”.   

 And various people have told me that my stuff helped them survive being in the army, or fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even recovering from a nervous breakdown. One fan wrote to tell me that I was his role model;  but I knew he was a former rugby player and so I assumed that he’d taken too many knocks on the head.  But sometimes I wonder whether my books might have damaged a promising career. Martin told me he couldn’t put down Hornet’s Sting and ended up reading it in the office, “surreptitiously, almost under the table.”  And Pete, in the Isle of Wight, remembered that he bought Cake after work, took it home, went to bed and reached the last page by 2 a.m.,  so he began it again and was still re-reading at 8 in the morning. “Phoned in work to call in sick so I could finish it,” he said. A real test of stamina.  Or chutzpah.  Maybe I should put a health warning on the cover.  “I’ve bought 4 or 5 copies over the years,” Pete says, “and given them away to friends, in the firm belief that they will find them as fantastically entertaining as I did.”  All is forgiven, Pete.  

 Time for a picture. Here’s a clue:  it’s 100 octane,  and don’t light a match near it. 


 I used to get a bit of flak, mainly from the top brass, about the amount of alcohol drunk by pilots in the RFC quartet.  Especially in Hornet’s Sting.   When you look at the cover illustration   -   Bristol Fighters battling with a thunderstorm,  painted by the brilliant Anthony Cowland   -   you get a taste of the everyday dangers that those aircrew faced.  Patrols were hazardous, with or without the enemy, and a pilot’s life might be short.  While it lasted, it was celebrated for all it was worth.  In the book  (it’s on page 136 of the paperback), Cleve-Cutler, the CO, knows how to revive the squadron on special occasions, whether good or bad: 

       “He let whim and inspiration guide him as he emptied bottles

      into a galvanised hipbath. Brandy and champagne were a good

 base, followed by port, gin, apple juice, fresh ground pepper,

 more champagne, a couple of bottles of Guinness, some rum,

              a blast of soda water for fizz, a splash of Benedictine for good luck.”   

That was just the beginning.  If you want to know what the results might look like, see above.    

 Garth, an old pal in Manhattan, mixed up a batch of Hornet’s Sting for his New Year’s Eve party, using the recipe in the book. Personally, I think it looks like oxtail soup, but Garth says it turned purple when he stirred it.  What matters is his guests liked it,  which may be because the temperature in New York on that day was 12 below zero and forecast to be 29 below at night. 

 Just time for another picture.  


 Curtiss built fifteen thousand of these Warhawks in World War Two,  and supplied them to 28 nations.  In Britain, the fighter was known as the Kittyhawk or the Tomahawk.  It was often used for low-level ground-attack, one of the themes in A Good Clean Fight. Pilots liked it because it was rugged.  Built like a brick, they said.  Some said it flew like a brick, too.  But America made a lot of them and in war you fight with what you’ve got.  The Desert Air Force was glad to have them.

 Readers Write #56March 2018

 Niagara, Viagra, let’s call the whole thing off, 

                       A footnote from Finland,

                                  and Charles Dash’s magic moment   

In the United States, it was usual for newly-wed couples to spend their honeymoon at Niagara,  and it was often said that the sight of the Falls was the second biggest disappointment for the bride.  And perhaps for the bridegroom too.  This is not to diminish sex,  which is essential;  without it, none of us would be here. It’s a question of balance. How much is enough?   For instance, is there a need for any sex in novels?   A British magazine runs an annual Bad Sex Competition based on extracts from recent fiction,  and it seems that a lot of successful, prizewinning authors  like to play whoopee with their fiction in order to stimulate sales.  The results can be unintentionally comic. In one fertile year, the entries included this description of sexual intercourse:

                               “And then my body, like a cathedral, broke out into ringing. The hunchback in the belfry 

                               had jumped and was swinging madly on the rope.”  

 If you find that hard to imagine, try this: 

                                 “Her hands were all over me, four hands it seemed, or more than four, and as she touched

                                me she made me weightless, lifting me off the table in a prolonged rite of levitation.”  

 Later, when things got steamy, she urged him:  “Pray, pray at my portal.”   As euphemisms go, portal wins the wooden spoon. Perhaps the wooden ladle.  (And it wasn’t the worst entry.)   I keep a file of advertisements that amused the reader for all the wrong reasons. In one ad, the makers of a vacuum cleaner claimed:  Nothing sucks like an Electrolux.  And a magazine for church furniture ran this ad:     


    Well, anyone can stumble, even me. Ian in Helsinki (an Aussie who moved to Finland, married,  and speaks Finnish, one of the most difficult languages to learn)  has a question about a rare episode of sex in Hornet’s Sting, my RFC novel set in 1917.  He finds it difficult to understand “the significance of Dash’s affair with the nurses he cannot identify and what they represent or symbolise in the story.”  

 Let’s start with Lieutenant Charles Dash.  He arrives at Hornet Squadron in France, 19 or 20 years old, fresh from training, no combat experience but very keen.  Everyone ignores him.  This often happened.  New pilots came and went    -   why waste time with a recruit who’ll probably get the chop on his first patrol?   Dash is typical of his class.  He knows little about girls, never kissed one,  and now he’s living in a very masculine environment.  He’s in prime physical condition and, inevitably, sex is on his mind.  He’d like to lose his virginity before he loses his life but he has no idea how to do this.   

 One day the mobile cinema truck fails to arrive.  Probably stuck in heavy snow.  Dash sets off on horseback to find it, gets lost and ends up at a house where half a dozen English nurses live.  They are enormously pleased to welcome a handsome young RFC pilot, give him supper and a bed where   -  in pitch-black darkness   -   one of them introduces him to the excitement of sex.  No words are exchanged. For months afterwards he searches for the girl.  In vain.  

 The significance of Dash’s affair (a small detail in the novel) is that it illustrates the innocence and ignorance of most men who joined the Royal Flying Corps, as well as providing an example of the haphazard nature of their life in a time of war.  Many pilots were very young, sometimes only months away from school,  and sex was a mystery.  At the same time, they were flying high in a machine designed to kill, eager to destroy a Hun aeroplane yet well aware that they risked being shot down. Dash’s affair took this contrast to extremes.  By day in the sky or by night with a nurse, chance was everything.  War is luck.     

 Ian’s email reminded me that I had an unpublished memoir by Dr Martin Herford,  who was Medical Officer for the British Volunteers who went to Finland in March 1940 to provide aid for the Finns.  This was one of the Forgotten Wars of WW2.  In 1939, Soviet Russia had invaded Finland (which had once been a Russian colony)  and the invaders got a bloody nose.   Russia made the classic mistake of underestimating the enemy,  and sent in tanks and artillery which the Finns    -  at home in a land of deep snow, thick forests and few roads    -  promptly destroyed.  Churchill, who had encouraged British Intervention in Russia’s Civil War in 1919 (see my novel  A Splendid Little War), was delighted:  “Finland, superb   -   nay sublime   -   in the jaws of peril, Finland shows what free men can do...They have exposed, for all to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army...”   Then Russia sent in a bigger, more competent army and the Finns were forced to sign an armistice.  Russia seized a small corner of Finland (to protect Leningrad)  and peace broke out. Herford’s Volunteers were not needed.    

 Herford was sightseeing in Helsinki when he saw an exhibition of military trophies taken from the Russians. The most prized exhibit was the standard of the 18th Tank Division of the Russian Guards.  The flag was red with a black map of Europe outlined in silver.  It showed a red bayonet that went through Narvik in Norway, and a huge red sickle whose point cut through Paris,  and a red hammer whose head rested on London.  Between the wars,  Russia created the Comintern    -    the Communist International which would conquer the world. Clearly, the 18th Tank Division took it seriously, until the Finns wiped it out.  Dr Heyford went on to serve in the British Army in North Africa and was awarded a DSO and an MC    -   clearly a man of determination, initiative and courage.  

 Fast-forward from then to now.  Email arrives from all corners as well as Helsinki.  Mark, who could be anywhere,  has read all my flying stuff with pleasure, and is about to tackle Hullo Russia, Goodbye England.  “Too many authors portray rose-tinted versions of ‘heroes’,” he says. “Reality and honest assessment is the best appraisal one can have.”   Eric in Blenheim, New Zealand, writes: “My only problem is: do I finish re-re-reading Hornet’s Sting or do I delve straight into Holy Smoke?  Decisions, decisions!”  Steve in Saddleworth says he’s been a fan since he picked up a dog-eared copy of Piece of Cake,  “at which point I was hooked on your writing style”. And David in Ottawa, Canada, ordered three copies of  Holy Smoke (two for friends) and writes: “It has been a pleasure for me to introduce friends and acquaintances to your books.  I’m a big fan.  I colleague introduced me to Piece of Cake and since then  I have burned through what I have been able to find...”   His father and his colleague’s father flew in WW2,  one in Burma, the other in Europe.  So my RAF quartet has an extra meaning.

Readers Write #57 May 2018

 Bertha aims high

                        Hitler stumbles, 

                                          and seeing nothing in the dark. 

 There is a lot of World War One in World War Two.  Nothing new in that idea,  but it helps to explain a few hoary myths,  such as the belief that machine guns were the most lethal weapon in the Great War.  The late John Terraine was a tireless myth-buster  (he did a good hatchet-job on the Angels of Mons) and he took a hard look  at the casualty figures.  What he found was that bullets caused less then 40 per cent of British casualties in WW1.  What did most of the damage?  Artillery. Shells and bombs accounted for nearly 60 per cent. Machine guns could kill men in the open, but for most of the time the infantry was in the trenches, safe from bullets.  But not from artillery.  A soldier who survived it said:  “Sustained shell-fire was the most trying and terrifying thing to be feared by all.” 

 It was an artillery war.  In the third German offensive of 1918, 6,000 guns fired two million shells in a little over four hours    -   and that was only part of the attack.   The tragedy of that war was that all sides delivered ever-larger bombardments that caused massive carnage, and yet for most of the war it made little difference;  until the last year, the Trenches survived.  The generals, of course, were far beyond the gunners’ range,  which meant that, once the battle began, they were out of control.  

 Adolf Hitler knew this, better than most.  For almost the entire war he was a messenger, what the British army calls a runner, in an infantry battalion.  He ran messages from the staff to the trenches and vice versa:  dangerous work.  He took part in the Ypres campaign of 1914,  and many of his comrades ended up in Kindermord, the massacre of the innocents, when 25,000 German student soldiers were buried in a mass grave.  (Everyone in Hitler’s regiment was a volunteer, with only a few months training.)   He was wounded three times, always from shellfire, and awarded the Iron Cross First Class for ‘untiring and fearless activity’  under ‘conditions of the greatest peril’.  He always claimed that he knew more about war than his generals did,  and in front-line experience, that was true.  But one reason why Germany lost the Second World War was because Hitler believed his own boast, yet he was as remote from his fighting lines as the generals in the first war,  and since he alone was the supreme commander, he made even more wrong decisions than they did. 

 The second war began with quick success in Poland and Norway and the triumph of the Blitzkrieg:  runaway victories that may have confirmed   his belief that he was infallible.  They had been the opposite of trench warfare, with tanks in the spearhead and Stuka divebombers as mobile artillery.  Hitler liked artillery, the bigger the better.  He probably remembered Big Bertha, Germany’s supercannon of 1918.  

 Bertha weighed so much that it could be moved only by rail.  It had a barrel of enormous length that could hurl a shell 26 miles high, which put it in the stratosphere.  Three minutes later it fell on Paris, 75 miles away.  Nobody heard it coming.  Everyone heard the explosions,  which were huge.  The Germans began bombarding Paris with Bertha in March 1918, to coincide with their offensive,  and they kept shelling the city for five months, killing 256 people.  The plan was to panic Parisinto surrendering,  and it failed.  One reason for this was the Coriolis Effect.

 It is well known to meteorologists and aerospace experts.  If you fling something high enough and far enough, it will eventually come down    -   but meanwhile the planet keeps rotating,  and the missile will not land where you aimed it.  Bertha’s three minutes in the air meant that the shelling was never accurate.  The supergun was a terror weapon.  Nevertheless, after 1940 Hitler put a lot of time and effort into trying to shell London from France.  His supergun never worked;  if it had, the results would have been just as random.  

 Hitler never learned the lessons of history.   He invaded Russia on 22 June 1941,  which was the exact anniversary of Napoleon’s invasion.  If that wasn’t a coincidence, it suggests that Hitler wanted to show Napoleon where he went wrong.  Hitler sent German troops into Russia without winter clothing,  which was a wild gamble on  a quick victory against a nation that is five thousand miles from end to end.  Six months later he showed his support for Japan by declaring war on the USA. Many Americans were isolationist;  now they had no choice.  Hitler had given Churchill a reason to cheer. With America as an ally, he knew that Britain could not lose.  

 Hitler believed that Russians, being Slavs, were inferior beings;  they would collapse in the face of his  armies.  (After only four months he declared the war won:  ‘The foe was broken and would never rise again.’)  He knew little about America but he was convinced that its people were racially decadent and would not fight.   If his beliefs were proved wrong, he denied the truth.   When his armies were outside Moscow, paralysed first by deep mud and then by deeper snow, his generals asked permission to retreat.   Hitler retorted: “Is it any less cold fifty miles back?”    Sarcasm from the comfort and safety of a command post a thousand miles away was no way to fight a war.  In the words of John Keegan: “The physical isolation of his headquarters ensured that he confronted reality only in self-administered doses.”   As the war went on, Allied intelligence units argued about  plans to assassinate Hitler. The right decision, surely, was to leave him to blunder on as commander of the Wehrmacht.  His mistakes were an asset to the Allies.  

 This is not to diminish the stunning success of his  Blitzkrieg.  In 1940, Britain suffered the biggest defeat since the war over American independence.  It is sobering to realise how unready Britain was. Much has been said about the  fine performance of Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons in the Battle of Britain.  They, of course, were day fighters:  their operations stopped when the sun went down. Much less has been said about British night fighters during the Battle and the Blitz.

 It was a story of the wrong aircraft, poor equipment,  and frustrated  aircrews.  The first night fighters were Blenheims, already obsolescent.   There were a lot of accidents    -  airfields had no homing beacons,  aircraft radios were feeble,  blind-flying instruments were unreliable.  Night after night, the Blenheims found no enemy bombers.  “Our failure was due simply to our inability to see another aircraft in the dark,” said an air gunner.   Eventually airborne radar sets appeared,  and they baffled everybody.   They were subject to an infuriating number of faults.  When the Blitz began, the night skies were full of enemy bombers;  the Blenheims searched and always landed empty-handed. Morale suffered. The hard fact was that London and other cities were taking a pounding and Fighter Command could do nothing about it.   

 Desperate times call for desperate remedies, and some strange solutions were considered, including airborne searchlights, showers of magnesium flares,  minefields dangling on parachutes.  Some wanted anti-aircraft guns mounted on balloons.  Others wanted aircraft to fly above raiders and drop sand in their engines.  At one stage, Blenheim aircrew believed that they were losing radar contacts because enemy bombers escaped with incredible speed.  Then it was found that their radar sets could show an enemy aircraft that was  behind it as well as in front. If the pilot believed the bomber was in front, and he increased speed to catch it, the result was that he ran away from the target behind him.  With that discovery, the mythical superfast bombers vanished,  

 Better radar sets appeared,  and the  excellent Beaufighter replaced the Blenheim.  On 20 November 1940,  John Cunningham made a radar contact and shot down a Junkers 88.  This good news was flashed to Group HQ, to Fighter Command HQ, and to Air Ministry. It was very encouraging    -    but it was just one bomber at a time when hundreds were raiding Britain. When the Blitz ended, it was not  because night fighters had triumphed over German bombers.  Such successes were rare in the Blitz.    Cunningham flew throughout the war and ended up with eighteen night fighter victories.   Victory came in 1945,  and it was well deserved;  but we should not forget the grim struggle at the start of the war,  when it wasn’t a matter of winning the contest, but of not losing it.


Readers Write #58 July 2018

 You live where? 

                        the B-25 with nine guns, 

                                          and more cunning ack-ack schemes.. 

  One of the pleasures of having readers in distant corners of the globe is the unusual addresses they live in.   For example:  Hamilton, in Texas, lives in Coachwhip Hollow, and in Tennessee, David’s town is named Timber Trail.  There is a town in Australia called ‘The Gap’ (Keith lives there) and in Finland, Ian’s home town is Espoo, which probably makes greater sense in Finnish;  while a different Keith, in Michigan, lives in the town of East China.  (I wonder:  is there a West China?)  But for sheer improbability, the prize goes to Peter in Norwich who lives on Unthank Road.  
This has nothing to do with ingratitude.  Peter explained the origin.  Go back to Saxon times and the word meant ‘rough or unclaimed common land, often settled illegally by squatters’.  It happened elsewhere;  villages named ‘Unthank’ crop up in the North of England.  Then, in Victorian times, the estates running south-west from Norwich were owned by the local Unthank family, and that is where today’s road exists.  Can it be that the family traced their ancestry to Saxon squatters?  Nobody knows.  
Peter is one of many readers who discovered my books a generation ago (sometimes two generations),  and he values them because they provided ‘enormous pleasure’ but also for ‘greater insight into the early years of the RAF’   -   where his grandfather served in World War One, and after that in the Indian Air Force.  Werner, in Vienna, writing in impeccable English, also mentions ‘the pleasure of reading’ my books. ‘I don’t know what to praise more, the characters you invented, the description of air warfare, or the accuracy of detail.’  After the third reading, he rates A Good Clean Fight as the best.  What makes it outstanding is ‘the description of the German enemy just  as normal soldiers, not bloodthirsty, stupid sadists, a trait you find in other war literature’.  AGCF seems to win more readers as the years go by.  I always felt that the portrayal of the enemy as dim squareheads did neither side any favours.  In that book, Major Schramm and  Maria Grandinetti    -    a German Intelligence officer and an Italian doctor exiled to Libya   -   are the most human characters in the novel. 

When I first published Piece of Cake, my American publishers thoughtfully sent me a first sketch of their proposed cover design.  It showed RAF fighter pilots in England wearing khaki.  I soon got them dressed in RAF blue,  but it was an understandable mistake.  The artist had assumed that, if US pilots wore khaki, everyone did.  Here is a group picture of US aircrew to prove it: 

The picture is from John Dill in Florida, a 30-plus year career naval officer and sometime pilot,  and it shows his father, standing on the right (his head is next to the artwork teeth).  The aircraft is a B-25, often known as the Mitchell because Billy Mitchell led 16 B-25s in the first raid on Japan in April 1942.  John’s dad’s crew flew on operations in the Pacific in 1944, and got shot down, ‘mostly by friendly fire’, while supporting the invasion of Leyte Gulf.  His  dad must have been a good pilot:  everyone survived.  His ops included low-level attacks, and here is an extraordinary shot taken by his tail gunner (in the crew picture, kneeling centre) while strafing an enemy ship:   

                                                  RW58 strafing 

The detail is astonishing.  B-25s skip-bombed Japanese ships;  with no fins on the bombs and minimal fusing, this gave the aircraft just time to escape the blast. Enemy ack-ack guns tried to track the bombers;  enlargements of the photograph show an individual Japanese gunner on the bow, pointing at the plane.  A bomb from a second B-25 has hit the deck cargo and flung debris over the port side.  In 1944 the B-25 was, for a twin-engined bomber, very heavily armed: this particular aircraft had no less than nine 50-calibre machine guns. As John says, ‘They often sank thin-skinned ships such as naval vessels by strafing alone.’  

 John collects military history and fiction;  he’s read my books several times. ‘My favourites are the ‘Hornet Squadron’ series, which I’ve read to the point that they’ve fallen to pieces and I’ve had to replace them... With authors like you, I get the benefit of very hard work without doing the research myself.’  He ends with an invitation: ‘If you’re ever in the Florida Panhandle, there’s a draft Guinness waiting for you.’  He suspects that Stanley Woolley was a distant uncle.    

 In my last RW, I looked at Fighter Command’s failure to make a dent in German nightly raids on Britain during the Blitz.  The RAF’s early night fighters had a lot to learn.  I also looked at the bizarre anti-aircraft ideas that the public suggested in 1940-41, things like guns mounted on balloons and minefields dangling from parachutes.  

 Since then I’ve learned that, in World War One, far more wild and wonderful solutions reached the Inventions Department of the Ministry of Munitions.  Suggestions for dealing with hostile aircraft included:  freezing the clouds and mounting guns on them;  covering the moon with a big black balloon;  arming aeroplanes with scythes, like Boadicea’s chariots;  and attaching a searchlight to an anti-aircraft gun and firing along the beam. Other proposals were dismissed as absurd,  but in essence they looked forward to a different war  The WW1 suggestion of getting cormorants to fly to Essen and pick out the mortar from Krupp’s chimneys was not so far from the O.S.S. plan in WW2 to send incendiary bats which would set fire to Japanese houses.  (Full details are in Holy Smoke.)  And the idea of hurling live-wire cables among enemy infantry is not so different from flamethrowers.    

Orders for Holy Smoke and Why 1914?  arrive from all over,  the furthest coming from Shane in Australia.  Jeff, in Minnesota, has ‘been a fan for a long time’ but can’t locate Operation Bamboozle;  I’ll try to do something about that.  Simon in Hampshire volunteers at the local steam railway;  they needed a copy of  Why 1914?  as a prize for a quiz linked to their WW1 display in the waiting room.  Richard, in Essex, read Invasion 1940 and learned, to his surprise, that in WW2 that  ‘the German army relied so much on horses. I realised I was a victim of German propaganda:  I had thought their invasion force as being highly mechanised and unstoppable.’  (The reality was, of course, that the Royal Navy would have drowned not only the German infantry but also the many thousand of horses in the invasion barges.)    Last but not least:  Sue and her husband bought  Holy Smoke and Why 1914?  Modesty forbids me to repeat their praise,  but she added that if I published my shopping list her husband would read it avidly.   Which made me think of the strange subjects I’ve included in my novels.  A Splendid Little War has (because the plot required it)  a detailed account of embalming as it was done in 1919. Not easy, but necessary.

My thanks to all who wrote.


Readers Write #59 September 2018

 Odds and evens, 

                        what really happened at Pearl Horbor,  

                                          and hello cock-up, goodbye conspiracy. 

Statesmen are human.  In photographs, they look infallible:   calm, confident and wise.  Yet they have failings, just like the rest of us, and war sometimes brings out the best and the worst in them.  Stalin was vain. He was short and squat, only five feet three, and when he stood on a reviewing stand at parades, he made sure that his colleagues stood well behind him.  If he had not been so self-centred, would he have refused to believe that German armies invaded Russia in 1941?  It was a week before he admitted the truth.  Churchill never liked the microphone and he made very few broadcasts.  (Some were made by actors who mastered his style.)  Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’ made the most of  radio;  to the American people he was a neighbourhood friend.  Perhaps he was too friendly.  At times a leader has to knock heads together, and a recent book gives hard evidence of Roosevelt’s reluctance to do so. 

 The book is The Secret World by a Cambridge historian, Professor Christopher Andrew.  It’s a chunky volume of 948 pages, but very readable:  Andrew explains the tangled world of military intelligence with remarkable clarity. It’s a big world   -   his index runs to 69 pages and his bibliography  of the sources he’s used amounts to 57 pages.  I zeroed in on his chapter about World War Two, and especially Pearl Harbor and the President. 

On Sunday, 7th December 1941,the Japanese bombing of the U.S. Pacific fleet in harbour at  Hawaii left America stunned, then infuriated, and finally puzzled. It was an even greater shock than 24/11.  The attack on the Twin Towers happened at a time of terrorist atrocities, whereas Pearl Harbor was bombed after twenty-two years of peace.  Americans asked themselves:  How can this happen? Why was there no warning? Japan is 3,000 miles from Hawaii.  Surely somebody must have known?  The conspiracy theorists looked hard at Roosevelt.  Did he allow Pearl Harbor to happen because he knew that war was inevitable and this was his way to bounce America into the fight? 

                                                   Pearl Harbodr  

There are two sides to SIGINT (Signals Intelligence).  One is the ability to decode the enemy’s message; another is the ability of a nation’s leader to comprehend what is in the decrypt  (the decoded message).  Professor Andrew makes it clear that, in 1941, both were lacking in America.  In September 1940, America broke the Japanese diplomatic code, known as PURPLE. A year later, on 26 and 28 November 1941, Tokyo sent coded signals to its foreign embassies that it intended to break diplomatic relations with the U.S., Britain and the Soviet Union, and on 1 and 2 December certain embassies were told to destroy all codebooks and secret papers.   The decrypts, known as MAGIC, provided clear evidence that war was on its way.  Hindsight says that the U.S.Navy should have been on the alert. It didn’t happen.  The Japanese diplomatic code made no mention of naval action, and in 1941 the U.S.Navy’s codebreakers could not break the Japanese naval code.  In the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, the U.S.Navy intercepted thousands of Japanese naval signals but they were all meaningless.  The Navy gave a low priority to breaking that code. Usually only two cryptanalysts worked on it.  

 The President himself is ultimately responsible for the importance of military intelligence, and in 1941 the handling of SIGINT in the White House was in a state of confusion.  The code and cipher sections of the Army and the Navy were bitter rivals, and in an attempt to keep the peace, someone came up with what Professor Andrew calls ‘an absurdly bureaucratic formula’. Both sections would work on intercepting PURPLE, but ‘the Army would receive all traffic on days with an even date and the Navy all traffic on days with an odd date’.   What’s more, MAGIC was to be supplied to the President by his naval aide in even-numbered months and by his Army aide in odd months.   Their rivalry damaged efficiency:  in at least one month the Army refused to supply any decrypts to the President.  Intelligence, it seems was not high on Roosevelt’s list of priorities.  The evidence shows that there was no conspiracy about the ‘infamy’ of Pearl Harbor.  What emerges is explained by the ‘cock-up theory’.  It applies to a lot of military history.  


Back to the present day.  Years ago I knocked out a piece about how I write my kind of stuff.  Since then, a few people have asked for advice, so here’s the nub of the piece:   

 Writing is hard work.  Easy writing is hard reading. Never say a person is brave.  Show him acting bravely.  Let the reader do half the work.  A lot of writing is thinking.  Before I start, I re-read a few pages.  This is the flywheel principle  -  it keeps the momentum going. Everything is in longhand,  double-spaced  to leave room for change.  It’s easier to cut in longhand. When you re-read a page or two that you sweated over and you realise it’s junk, one slash of a pen deletes it. That’s satisfying. Get the details right or you will lose your reader’s confidence.  In a book by Eric Ambler, someone with flu takes antibiotics.  Since antibiotics do nothing for flu, the detail did nothing for the reader’s faith.  Moral:  check everything, trust nobody.  Especially yourself.    


 Readers write, and they are not all male.  Emma, somewhere in the UK, began with Goshawk Squadron and is steadily working her way through my stuff. ‘Military fiction isn’t normally my bag,’ she says, ‘but your style is black and funny.’ Her pick of the bunch is Damned Good Show, ‘mainly because of Silk, closely followed Kate as a favourite character’.  Silk has no first name, and she wonders about that. It just happened, Emma.  Silko was enough.  He never seemed to  need anything else.  Simon in Surrey discovered  Hullo Russia, Goodbye England:  ‘Vintage Robinson,’ he says.  Then he read Kramer’s War and enjoyed ‘the unexpected encounter with Rommel. Never thought I’d get to meet him.’ But ‘ultimately Piece of Cake can never be bettered’.  Colin in Oxfordshire is ‘slowly, but very enjoyably, re-reading all your books   -   and keeping my wife awake as I am accused of shaking the bed with laughter every few minutes’.  (Reminds me of  the American fan who laughed so hard that he was at risk of cracking a rib.)

 And requests for Holy Smoke arrive from far afield    -   from Jan in South Africa, David in Helsinki, and Marcel in The Netherlands,  who has ‘spent many hours reading through the RFC and RAF novels and enjoyed everyone of them’.   Emails are always  welcome but Barry in Bath brightened up my breakfast with a picture postcard from Italy.  He writes:  ‘Decided to save Holy Smoke from last year to this   -   so that the Italian ambience would flavour the sauce.  It worked a treat and the book was really enjoyable. As always with yours.’  The novel’s anti-hero is a con artist with a talent like Luis Cabrillo, and Barry reckons he ‘deserves to join the ranks of van Meegeren and Tom Keating et al, as one who fooled the experts, albeit but a brief flame’.  The story is based on fact.  Maybe Scattolini/del Pronto (every con artist has an alias) has a new lease of life. 


                                                                                 Readers Write #60 November 2018

 The Flying Suitcase, 

                        the Bloody Paralyser,  

                                          and two right hands. 

Britain was lucky to have squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires when World War Two broke out.  We were also lucky to have Roy Fedden, a brilliant engineer whose team at Bristol Aircraft Factory  had designed Pegasus aircooled radial engines, smaller, lighter and more powerful than online aero engines. A Pegasus delivered over 900 horsepower    -   high performance in those days   -   and the Pegasus proved its reliability in the 1930s when it powered a single-engined Vickers Wellesley non-stop from Egypt to Australia, a world record of 7,162 miles.  (Still a record for a single-engined aircraft.)   

 Fedden’s team had another triumph: mass production. By 1939 the Pegasus had a supercharger, automatic boost control, and provision for variable-pitch propeller,  and well over half the RAF’s bombers had Pegasus engines.  Roy Fedden may be a forgotten hero to many people, but not in Bristol.  For the first two years of the war. most Bomber Command aircraft flew on Pegasus engines,  and that included the first raid on Berlin.  Flight Lieutenant Frank Lowe, DFM, flew a Hampden bomber to Berlin in 1940.  I was lucky enough to meet him. 

                                              Handley-Page Hampden

The Hampden was nicknamed the Flying Suitcase because it had a short, deep fuselage connected to the tail by a narrow boom. The crew of four had little room to move.  It was a round trip of 1,150 miles to Berlin,  which might take five hours, often more if they faced a head wind.  They flew at night,  which had its hazards apart from enemy flak and unpredictable weather;  it was bitterly cold at 15,000 feet. Frank Lowe bombed Berlin (which came as a shock to Hermann Goering, who had promised the German people that their country was impregnable) and his two Pegasus engines brought him back. He liked the Hampden and admired the Pegasus.  There is no substitute for meeting a man who has been at the sharp end of war, and my novel Damned Good Show was all the better for my having met Frank.  I wrote the book because I felt Bomber Command had been shortchanged:  few people realised that RAF bomber crews were in action from the very start:  the first Hampden operation was on 3rd September 1939.  Later I learned about the Bloody Paralyser. 

 Berlin had been the target a generation earlier. Before Bomber Command, there was the Independent Force of World War One.  Hugh Trenchard, looking for ways of using the RFC to shorten the war, urged a bombing campaign that would damage Germany’s war production and weaken morale.  Then twenty Gotha bombers raided London in July 1917,  and that prompted a demand for reprisal.  The result was the Independent Force, separate from the RFC,  mainly  equipped with the DH9 and the Vickers Vimy.  Handley Page saw the need for a bigger aircraft, able to carry a heavier bombload further;  and it designed a monster. 

                                          andley Page V 1500

 Their V/1500 bomber had a wingspan of 126 feet  (the Lancaster’s was 102) and four Rolls-Royce Eagle VIII engines,  each with 12 cylinders;  they produced an astonishing 1500 horsepower;  hence the name.  The engines were mounted in tandem with propellers that were 12 feet long.  The ‘pusher’ had a four-bladed prop, the ‘puller’ was two-bladed.  The short-range bombload was 7,500 lbs, and the bomber had enough range to reach Berlin with 1,200 lbs of bombs. There was a crew of five and anything from 4 to 8 machine guns,  including an innovation: a tail gunner.  The RAF  (as the RFC became in April 1918) liked the monster. They called it the ‘Bloody Paralyser’. 

It came within a whisker of bombing Berlin. A V/1500 was  about to take off when news of the Armistice grounded it.   Nevertheless it saw action.  A year later it took a week to fly to India,  just in time for the 3rd Afghan War.  The Amir, annoyed because he had not been invited to the Peace Conference at Versailles,  was about to invade India.  Nobody was looking forward  to yet another bruising campaign in the mountains of the North-West Frontier, and somebody had the bright idea of  using the V/1500. It worked. The sight of the Bloody Paralyser above Kabul   -   probably the first aircraft ever seen in Afghanistan  -  panicked the harem, who rushed into the street. The bomber made a few leisurely circuits and dropped some small bombs on the palace.  It was enough. The Amir gave in. Peace rapidly followed,  but India had the last word.  Termites found the V/1500 and reduced it to scrap.

Back to the present.  Authors would be nothing without readers,  and I get messages  ( from all over. Bill in Chesapeake, Virginia, asked for  Holy Smoke, Why 1914?  and Operation Bamboozle, which should complete  his collection,  and said: “I can’t wait to read them, and anything else you write in the future.”  Mike Ripley in Essex publishes a column on crime fiction called  Getting Away With Murder.  He enjoyed Holy Smoke and identified the picture on the back cover as Constantine’s Finger.

                                                   Constantine finger 

And I thought it was  just a bit of ancient Roman rockery.  Mike knew better:  “The finger was part of the Colossus of Emperor Constantine the Great,  thought to have been 40 feet high. Probably two right hands were made”   -   the one with the finger, and one holding a staff  inscribed with a Christian symbol to indicate his conversion to the new religion.  A Colossus doesn’t come cheap,  and  when they had to update it they did the Roman equivalent of photoshopping and chucked the old finger aside,  which is where it is today. Statesmen like big statues.  Somewhere in India they have a statue of  an Independence leader, S.V.Patel, which is the tallest in the world at 600 feet high.  Low-flying aircraft beware.                                                                 

Readers Write #61 January 2019

 The Big 'What If?',   an inscrutable cocktail,  and 'Didn't you used to be Somebody?'

The short story of the German air raids on Britain in WW2 is they didn’t succeed.  As Alfred Price, a fine historian who has studied the raids, wrote:  ‘The home front had stood firm; the Blitz on Britain had failed.’  That survival  was won at some cost    -   from start to finish, the chances of a British citizen being killed in these raids was 1 in 800. In all, 52,000 people were killed and 63,000 seriously injured, plus another 8,500 killed and 23,000 injured in the V1 flying bomb and V2 rocket attacks.   

 What is easily forgotten is how close the German bombers came to threatening Britain’s ability to wage war.  The Blitz of 1940-41   -   not only on London;  every big city took a pounding   -   was virtually a free-for-all for the Luftwaffe. When it sent its bombers by night, the air defence of Britain was negligible.  Night fighters, guns and balloons destroyed only a tiny proportion of the bombers.  Often, the bombers made two trips on the same night, navigating by the fires they had started in the first raid. 

 One of the great ‘What Ifs?’ of WW2 must be the question:  if Germany had not attacked Russia, and if the Blitz had continued throughout 1941 (in those days, Britain had little to stop it), would Britain have been able to continue the war?  Bear in mind that in 1941 many Americans were reluctant to get involved in Europe. So there were two great strokes of luck for the Allies.  First, Hitler attacked Russia and gave Britain a breathing-space. Second, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and a few days later Hitler declared war on the USA. At the time, these were regarded by the West as disasters.  In hindsight, we can see that they were blessings  The carnage at Pearl Harbor and the huge sufferings of the Soviet Union were the price the Allies paid for what proved to be massive blunders by Japan and Germany.  When Pearl Harbor and Hitler gave the US no choice but to fight, Churchill noted with relief that we could not lose the war.  And it’s worth remembering that, until the end, no less than two-thirds of all German troops were fighting on the eastern front, a fact that puts the European victory in some perspective.   

 Here, just to illustrate the difficulties of defending Britain against the Blitz, is an obsolete Harrow bomber.   


                   harrow rw 61


It released the Long Aerial Mine,  part of a  desperate attempt to stop the raiders.  The aim was for the Harrow to release 140 parachute mines in a curtain that it was hoped the bombers would fly into.  The Harrow’s top speed was 170 mph;  it took 40 minutes to reach 20,000 feet;  so it was asking a lot of it to arrive in advance of a raid. The aerial minefield was soon scrapped.   

 From ‘What If?’ to the Ultimate Cocktail.  Hornet’s Sting, my 1917 RFC story, is named after Hornet squadron’s ability to shoot down the enemy plus the CO’s formula for a celebratory drink.  This was calculated to make the eyeballs rotate and lightning to streak between the ears.  He called the mixture ‘Hornet’s Sting’ and it called for a tin bath and every bottle within reach.  (The recipe is on page 136 of the paperback.)  Garth in New York, an old pal and a great fan of my stuff, throws a New Year’s Eve party each year and welcomes his guests with his own brew of Hornet’s Sting.  So here it is. 

                                                hornets sting rw61 

  Garth says it looks black but in the glass it’s more dark green,  which is because he added green chartreuse or possibly creme de menthe. Not that it matters.  He re-read the novel and says:  ‘It was great seeing the characters from War Story again, particularly Paxton, whose long, grim odyssey behind enemy lines was one for the ages.’  (Hornet’s Sting also launched the careers of Lacey and Brazier, who went on to greater things in other books.)    

From New York to Victoria, Australia, where Tim first discovered my yarns by stealing a copy of  Piece of Cake from the school library and who now has kids of his own,  nearing reading age.  For them, he’s building a library, including much of my stuff. (His favourite is still Cake.)

Another enthusiast is Alan in London:  a massive fan who ‘can wax lyrical about Piece of Cake forever’.  Nick, who could be anywhere, sends me Christmas greetings and says: ‘I can find no better antidote to the trials of life than immersing myself in one of your books.’   Guy, probably in the UK, has read all my aviation titles, ‘culminating in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England’ and  he ‘enjoyed the historical accuracy and superb characters...a true pleasure to read.’  Ken, who ordered Holy Smoke, has harvested copies of just about everything I wrote by tracking down old library copies from as far afield as America.  That’s real determination.  Andy, in the UK, put down his copy of A Good Clean Fight  (already re-read several times) to thank me for hours of pleasure over the years.  Lastly, Jerry (perhaps in Texas) finished Damned Good Show and wrote:  ‘Superb book.  I enjoyed it cover to cover.’ 

 Endpiece.  When I was a boy, novelists were always photographed sitting in an armchair with a pipe and a spaniel at their feet.  They were the guardians of literature.  Nearly all are now out of print.  Most novels are of their time;  times change, and bestsellers fall by  the wayside. Will my stuff still be read fifty years from now?  Nobody knows.  (Maybe nobody will be reading novels in 2069.)    So I’d like to recommend a book titled The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler,  featuring the many writers who were big in their day and are now hard to obtain.  

Fowler, himself a prolific author, has tracked down 99 Forgotten Authors,  from Margery Allingham to Edgar Wallace, and has written brief and breezy accounts of their lives.  I especially enjoyed his piece on Kathleen Winsor, an American who at the age of 24 wrote Forever Amber, a bodice-ripping romp through Restoration London that weighed in at 1,000 pages and was the best-selling novel of the 1940s, despite (or perhaps because of)  being banned by several US states.  She was the sixth wife of bandleader Artie Shaw, after Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. It didn’t last, so she married her own divorce attorney,  wrote other books that made no mark, and lived to be 84.  Just one of the gems from Fowler’s very readable book.  If he ever compiles a sequel, maybe I’ll be in it.


 Readers Write #62 March 2019

 Small earthquake. Nobody hurt. 

                        Hot Spit! in Delaware,  

                                            and the birth of XX

     After fifty years at the coalface, I have a fan club in England.  The combined membership doesn’t reach three figures, so they aren’t likely to storm the BBC, Amazon and Netflix and demand that A Good Clean Fight, for example, be televised.  This is reassuring, not because AGCF would not make a very watchable 10-episode drama but because my fans are a discerning and astute bunch who know what they like.  Rob Hughes, who manages the club, tells me it is ‘running along quite nicely with 79 members who regularly convey their love of your books. They come from all over the world and from all walks of life, from a Canadian film scriptwriter and an American film producer to a humble gardener and car valeter,’  the last being Rob himself.  He welcomes ‘anyone who likes to read about the unheroic and darkly absurd nature of air fighting in WW1 and WW2’,  for which he recommends my stuff.  The club is on Facebook at:

Here is the proof:  

                                      Paxton and ONeill

 The aircraft is an FE2b, a pusher-prop machine of 1916 which gave the gunner (Paxton),  a clear view ahead, although he had to stand in order to fire over the tail, which required the pilot (O’Neill) to fly straight or level, not something he enjoyed,  thus leading to arguments. The novel is called War Story.  

     Back to the fan club and to anyone who is on Facebook.  I am not, and I have no    wish to be on Facebook.  Please stop sending me your photographs and gossip.   They  are beyond my reach and they get promptly deleted. I suspect that this   Facebook  plague is a side-effect of the fan club.  Members see my email address on   my website  and they add me to their Friends list.  This is a large mistake.  Please   UnFriend me  now.  Leave me in peace and I will have no reason to track you down   with a blunt  putty-knife.

To happier news. Aimee, in the State of Delaware, finished reading my flipside ofGone With The Wind which was published as Kentucky Blues.  ‘I had a ball!’ she writes. ‘I kept reading passages out loud to my brother, who has a similarly warped sense of humor as me. Great story, lots of plot twists, colorful characters, and plenty of nasty-funny dialogue and actions.’  She adds:  ‘Of course, if you didn’t intend for the book to be so funny so often, then I guess I’m in pretty deep trouble about now. Or, as they said in Rock Springs, “Hot Spit.”   

 Hot Spit! was the fashionable exclamation in backwoods Kentucky in 1856.  The novel is longish (630 pages in paperback), so I lubricated it with plenty of laughs. There is a murder trial in KB that is deadly serious to the folks of Rock Springs, a remote township where they had to make their own entertainment.  Everything goes wrong,  which is always a formula for black humour. 

 There’s a happy ending to Aimee’s message. She told me about an American outfit,  which converts books into accessible, downloadable formats including Braille,  for blind or print-disabled people.  Bookshare has a library of 600,000 titles, free of royalty, including all my books.  (‘You never know what you’ll turn up when you browse Bookshare, to a big reader it’s like a kid in a candy story,’ Aimee says.)  The cost is nominal.  So:  good for Aimee    -   but, strangely, my publishers have not made my books available to a similar facility in the UK.  If my books are available to sight-disabled people in the US, why not in the UK?  I jogged my publishers’ elbows, and heard that they are in discussion with the Royal National Institute for Blind People.  I hope they can see their way clear. 

 My luck, of course, is to write in English,  which helps my stuff find its way around the world.  English is an amazingly flexible, meaningful language, and I came across a couple of examples of its history.  Today we use the phrase ‘by hook and by crook’ to mean ‘any old how’.  Seven centuries ago it meant the right to pull branches from standing trees for fuel  -  an important privilege when fire meant warmth. The other phrase is ‘double cross’,  which turns out to have its origin 200 years ago in the world of prize-fighting in England.  Pugilism was illegal,  and prize-fights happened in remote places where huge crowds gathered to watch.  It was bare-knuckle stuff, and much betting took place, so inevitably some matches were fixed. If one of the fighters had agreed to lose, this was called a ‘cross fight’ and the records carried an X. If a fighter agreed to lose but didn’t, this was a ‘double cross’ and the records showed XX. Thus it entered the language.  

The Double Cross System in World War Two was a counter-espionage agency.  It controlled the ranks of double agents in Britain, believed by Germany to be sending valuable intelligence but in fact they transmitted a stream of deception to fool the enemy.  I told the story in The Eldorado Network and its sequel Artillery of Lies,  and now John in Colorado finds them helpful. ‘In addition to lines that cause me to laugh out loud, you have a way of giving me useful lines. In Artillery of Lies, when  Julie, miffed at Luis, is asked by Freddy, ‘Is there anything I can do?’, her reply is to the point.’  I looked it up.  Here’s it is.  ‘Sure,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Kick the living shit out of him.  Should keep you busy for the rest of the week.’   Which puts John in mind of his response to leading politicians.  He also hopes I have more books in the pipeline.  A new novel is in the expert hands of the typist. Watch this space.


Readers Write #63 May 2019

 Whodunnit?  Nobody special,

                        shark-infested airways, 

                                            and picking plums in Norway


We live in an age of conspiracy theories.  Much of it is a knock-on effect of social media.  Anyone, anywhere in the world, can shoot his (or her) mouth off, accuse anybody of anything,  and there are enough lame brains around to agree.  (A recent mini-conspiracy in the U.S. accused a restaurant of keeping children in tunnels under its basement.  The restaurant has no basement,  and  the armed conspirator who attempted to release the non-existent children in now in jail;  but that hasn’t stopped the restaurant owner getting death threats.  And I recall the passion that raged for two years in an English village over an alleged plan to turn a meadow into a school playing field,  until someone phoned the county council who told him that there was no such plan.  Much indignation had been wasted. 

Some people like a fight.  And there is the human reaction to a major disaster:  there must be a major reason.  Nothing has provoked more conspiracy theories than the assassination of President Kennedy.  More than two thousand books have been written about it, and nearly 30 gunmen have been named as the second (or third, fourth or fifth) shooter at the site in Dallas.  Most books have attacked the Warren Commission’s conclusion that a lone assassin killed JFK, and was then killed by another lone gunman.  No doubt the conspiracy theorists will persist,  if only because  -  as Bill Alexander, the assistant D.A. who drew up the indictment against Lee Harvey Oswald, has said  - 

You have to understand, what you are dealing with is a thriving industry. People are making lucrative livings off of selling conspiracy theories to the public. What happens to the truth?  Hell, it got lost under a lot of dollar signs. 

Well, not entirely lost.  I recommend  Case Closed, a book by a former Wall Street lawyer, Gerald Posner.  It’s not a light read. In paperback it runs to 608 pages, including the Notes, Acknowledgments and Bibliography,  but his investigation is gripping because he analyses every conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination, exposes their fallacies, and demonstrates, calmly and clearly, why they are wrong.  He gives a detailed account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s  confused life and why he was the sole gunman. (Oswald served in the Marine Corps and qualified as a ‘sharpshooter’, using a standard M-1 rifle;  in Dallas he owned a rifle with a 4-power telescopic sight;  later the FBI tested it and rated it ‘a very accurate weapon’.)  Posner describes Jack Ruby’s  seedy lifestyle and proves beyond doubt that Ruby chanced to be nearby when Oswald was being transferred from jail,  which gave Ruby the opportunity to shoot him. The truth about the Kennedy assassination is that Oswald and Ruby were vain, stupid and lucky.  A major disaster was caused by two small-minded men. That will not satisfy conspiracy theorists  because they cannot read a 608-page book;  but it convinced me.  Try it. And now for something completely different.


These three Curtiss Kittyhawks, lined up in Tunisia in WW2, display their shark’s teeth;  you can even see the red tongues inside them.  In  A Good Clean Fight,  Kittyhawks  (or Tomahawks:  much the same) are useful ground-attack aircraft,  rugged enough to take punishment.  At height,  not so hot.  Built like a brick and flew like one.  Fighter pilots often marvelled at bomber pilots who spent long hours in the cockpit;  which may have prompted an email from John, somewhere in the UK, who is writing a book based on 50 letters  from his father in Stalag Luft 3.   Before that,  he flew Hampdens on 83 Squadron in 1940-41,  and ‘had a very close shave with stabilised yaw... while turning at low level, he lost control and crashed, hitting a tree. The crew got out relatively unscathed. I knew nothing about stabilised yaw before reading your book.’  That’s Damned Good Show. Flying Hampdens  -  a twin-engined bomber  -  had its hazards apart from flak and fighters, and one was yaw.  It was a design fault: if you banked the aircraft too much, the wing and fuselage might block the airflow to the tail unit. Lacking air to bite on, the twin rudder and elevators would be useless and the Hampden might well topple sideways, sometimes with fatal results.  John’s father was lucky: a week after he hit a tree, he crashed on take-off and hit a Nissen hut, again without injuries.  He completed a tour of operations, won the DFM, and began a second tour, flying Lancasters. He ran out of luck over Augsburg in 1942, got hit, caught fire, crash-landed and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 3  -  which, John reckons, ‘almost saved his life’.  The odds were against finishing a first tour, let alone a second. He was awarded a well-deserved DFC.

 Messages arrive from all over.  Mike in Indianapolis has read ‘about everything you’ve penned, including Kentucky Blues’, which he found   ‘enjoyable and enlightening’. That story never found an American publisher (it’s available on Amazon). Mike thought it was a good ‘American History’ novel but he suggests that ‘Americans aren’t fond of stories that reveal the messiness of their past.’  The life of everyone in KB is certainly untidy;  but then, American history is untidy.  Lee Hutch grew up on the Texas/Louisiana border, and discovered  Piece of Cake in high school.  He says: ‘Your book made me want to be a writer’,  and now, in retirement, he’s found a publisher for So Others May Live.  I never thought I’d be a role model.  And Jon, in Norway, sends me birthday greetings in Norwegian. (I think it’s birthday greetings;  it could be a recipe for reindeer stew.)  Then  -  in fluent English  -  he lists his favourite quotes from eight of my novels.  I’d forgotten all about the one he chose from The Eldorado Network:  “Chaps like us have to be damned careful.  You get invited round for sherry and the next thing the bank manager’s wife whips your bags off and seizes you warmly by the origin of species. Terrifying.”    Did I write that?  Goodness gracious.

Lastly, for anyone who wonders what I do all day long, here’s a cartoon from The New Yorker:



Readers Write #64 June 2019

                                                        The See-saw War

        Here is a test.  Below is part of the reports made by two radar stations concerning a raid by bombers on 7th October 1943. The test is:  What town was being attacked?  And what made radar control of night fighters ‘practically impossible’?   The reports said:

              (1) “...the number of echoes increased rapidly and by    2025   hours a considerable area of tube blanked out. Accurate control of fighter aircraft became practically impossible, IFF (indications) could not be seen, and the height/range tubes were swamped. It was not   observed for some time that the mass of echoes was stationary...” 

              (2)  “At approximately 2043 hours the raid had increased to about 200 echoes  (i.e. indications of aircraft) and split into two main parts, a northerly and a southerly mass with a gap of six miles between them.  Fighter aircraft were difficult to control because their IFF was not visible through the interference on the cathode-ray tube.”

    Anyone who knows anything about European bombing offensives in WW2 will have said:  ‘Window.’   By 1943, German ground-controlled night fighters were shooting down so many R.A.F. bombers that an antidote was urgently sought   -    some means of neutralising the enemy radar system.  The answer was strips of aluminium foil, measuring 12 inches by 1½ inches, packed in bundles of 2,000 and dropped by each aircraft at the rate of one bundle a minute. By doing this, a bomber stream could saturate radar antennas with blips, stifle their controlling function, and leave the night fighters without direction. The British codename for the foils was Window;  Americans called it Chaff. Normally, the echoes of aircraft moved on the radar tubes.  Window appeared as a cloud of interference, which is why one radar station was puzzled when ‘the mass of echoes was stationary’.  

      Another clue is IFF,  which stood for ‘Identification  -  Friend or Foe’  (codenamed ‘Pipsqueak’). It was a device transmitted by Allied aircraft so that radar stations could identify them.  If Window made fighters’ IFF unreadable, then the bombers must be German.  That leaves the target, and the answer is Norwich, in the east of England.  Window was not exclusive to R.A.F. Bomber Command. The Luftwaffe used it too.  They called it ‘Dueppel’, and on the 7th October 1943 it was very effective.  R.AF. night-fighter crews found themselves chasing shadows.  Of 35 German bombers attacking Norwich, only one was destroyed   -   when it had left the Dueppel cloud and was on its way home, over the North Sea.   

 Germany woke up late to the potential of radar. The Battle of Britain was a shock.  (Ulrich Steinhilper, a fighter pilot. complained that ‘just like passengers waiting for a scheduled service, the Spitfires would be on station waiting for the next wave’. Radar was a mystery to him.)  In 1942, German scientists found the same solution as British scientists:  metal strips.  Both sides now had a secret that could disarm radar stations and liberate the bombers from night fighters.  Both sides were reluctant to use it, for fear of giving away the secret and then being made to suffer from it

     By 24th July 1943, Bomber Command first used Window in its highly successful raid on Hamburg.  Inevitably, the Luftwaffe would respond, and three months later it used Dueppel when it bombed Norwich.  (Window/Dueppel were part of bombing strategy for the rest of the war, although advances in radar technology made it less effective.)  The difference was that the Luftwaffe sent 35 bombers to Norwich, while Bomber Command sent 791 bombers to Hamburg.  Perhaps the cloud of foil strips confused the German aircrews:  none of their bombs hit the city.  Their inexperience was a more likely cause;  by 1943, Luftwaffe training was rushed.  In the blitzkrieg years, Hitler had praised the Luftwaffe as the spearhead of his conquests.  By 1943 it was understrength, struggling, and out of favour.  

    The Germans hoped for ‘secret weapons’ that would transform the war.  They developed the JU86R, a bomber that could cruise at well above 40,000 feet, higher than any fighter could fly.  At that height, and armed with only one bomb, it was incapable of hitting any target smaller than a town.  Its campaign was brief. They developed a radio-controlled gliding bomb , which sank an Italian battleship in the Mediterranean;  the Allies quickly learned to jam its radio beams. The plans for a German four-engined bomber, the HE177,  looked good, but it had endless technical problems. (The engines tended to catch fire.)  It never became operational.  

    Such research was not helped by Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies.  Before 1939, many Jewish scientists escaped to Britain and contributed to the war effort.  Hitler made light of their exodus;  he remarked, ‘If science cannot do without Jews, then we will have to do without science.’  This was his attempt at wit, but his formula was not a winner.  

   As it was, Germany startled the Allies when  it launched the V1 and V2 weapons against England,  and when the world’s first jet fighter, the ME262, outflew the escorts for Allied bomber fleets over Germany.   If those new weapons had appeared a year or two earlier, the war might have taken a different course.  They were all too little and too late.  And, whatever the innovations,  any man is gambling recklessly when he declares war on Britain (and its Commonwealth), on Soviet Russia, and on the United States of America.  Hitler attempted to win a short war. When that failed, he had no Plan B except the destruction of Germany.  He said his people deserved it. They had let him down


  I have been reading Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that was  -  in the author’s words   -  ‘an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war   -  even those of it who survived the shelling’. When the Nazis came to power they cancelled his citizenship and burned his book, saying it betrayed the German soldier in the Trenches.  Remarque was lucky  (conscripted in 1916 and having served in the Battle of Passchendaele, he deserved some luck) and Marlene Dietrich got him a visa to the United States.  In 1939 he sailed on the last transatlantic voyage of the Queen Mary, went to Hollywood, kept writing, married the film actress Paulette Goddard, and lived to the age of 72. A remarkable life.  Not many 1929 novels survive in print.    

   But is it a novel?  Some have said it’s more of a historical document, since Remarque certainly used his own experiences in the German trenches;  indeed, it’s impossible to write a book like his without having been there and seen the effect of shellfire, gas and dum-dum bullets.  But every author draws on what he knows.  Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen includes a convincing account  of the British retreat from Crete in the summer of 1941    -    convincing because Waugh was there.  If Paul Scott had not been in India, he couldn’t have written the Raj Quartet and Staying On.   

    Recently I heard an interview with Thomas Keneally,  who won the Booker Prize for  his novel Schindler’s Ark  (filmed as Schindler’s List).  At the time, questions were asked about whether or not the book was truly a novel. Keneally has said that he made a decision to write it as fiction  (the story is factually true) simply because he wanted a large audience to know about Schindler,  and a novel would get far more readers than, say, a non-fiction Holocaust book.  He was right.  I have been described as writing documentary history disguised  as fiction,  and I can see the reason for this   -   my stuff is well researched and it’s reliable history. I’ve told the story; now it’s up to the reader. Either the novel works or it doesn’t. ‘Writers should write,’ Andrew O’Hagan has said, ‘and let other people argue about whether they like what they’ve written or not.’ 

  Finally, as reward for getting this far, here is another New Yorker literary cartoon.  Bestsellers get publicity;  nobody mentions the books that fail.  Yet every author has one.  This is by Roz Chast, a cartoonist who regularly finds humour in failure.     

                cartoon RW64 


 Readers Write #65 August 2019

           The news as chewing gum,

                    the secret of Pegasus,

                           and the curse of the mumbling actor.

Here is a solution to the tsunami of news about Brexit that has been offered by newspaper, radio and television commentators over the past three years.  The solution consists of two words: 

                                NOBODY KNOWS.

This is what the more honest reporters have added to their lengthy analyses of Brexit;  they have ended by admitting that

                                NOBODY KNOWS

I offer this on behalf of all those who have wasted valuable years of their lives in reading or hearing the guesswork about Brexit that adds up to:   

                                NOBODY KNOWS. 

 Perhaps the best comment was by The New Yorker writer A.J.Liebling.  In 1953 he wrote about what Americans call flapdoodle over reports that Stalin had suffered a stroke and might be dead

              “I had an ungenerous feeling, while paddling through all this virtually identical speculation, that I was watching a small boy pull a cud of chewing gum out to the longest possible string until it broke."

The fact was that, instead of saying  that nobody knows, the new media produced flapdoodle. Not much has changed since 1953


 Down through the years, the Parachute Regiment has had a good Press.  I wonder why it still exists.  Today the Paras are regarded as an elite force in the British Army,  yet it is hard to think of a modern military situation where paratroops would be used

In the Second World War, they raised as many questions as answers.  At first they were seen as an irresistible weapon of war:  in 1940, Churchill warned his military adviser that ‘parachutists may sweep over and take Liverpool or Ireland...’  Much was claimed for the success of of German airborne forces in their 1940 capture of the Belgian fortress of Eban Emael.  It is true that German gliders landed on the roof,  but in fact the Belgian garrison fought hard for a day and a night,  and the fort did not fall until paratroops were relieved by infantry

In 1941,  the capture of the island of Crete was regarded as an airborne success; simple arithmetic proved otherwise.  22,000 airborne troops attacked Crete and 6,650 were killed, wounded or missing.  The Luftwaffe lost 220 aircraft;  half of those were troop-carrying Ju52s. Hitler never again risked a major airborne operation.  The hard fact was that paratroops were vulnerable and lightly armed. Lowflying gliders might be shot down; parachutists were a simple target as they floated down.  As with Eban Emael, it was German infantry who secured Crete. 

Crete was attacked by day.  In 1943, the Allies decided to invade Sicily by night   -   darkness would assist the invader.  It also cost a large part of the British and American airborne force that was meant to be the spearhead of the invasion.  Glider pilots were inexperienced and under-trained.  It was 270 miles from Tunisia to Sicily.  A dying gale made navigation difficult. Glider-and-tug combinations lost formation. Too often, the intercom link between plane and glider failed. Many tow planes released their gliders too far from the shore. Of 137 gliders, only 54 landed in Sicily;  the rest were in the sea. 605 officers and men were casualties, of which 326 were missing, probably drowned.  Their target had been the Ponte Grand bridge;  only five per cent of airborne troops reached the bridge and saw action.  In the end, seaborne infantry captured Sicily.   

Lessons were learned.  In 1944, the airborne force in the D-Day landings suffered heavy losses but they achieved most of their aims, the most famous of which was the capture of two  strategic bridges known as the Pegasus Bridges,  said to be a Paras’ triumph.  In fact, those bridges were captured by glider-borne men of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry;  7th Para, who were dropped nearby, relieved them after two hours.  Landing the Ox and Bucks gliders within a stone’s throw of the bridges has been called the ‘airmanship feat of the war’.  What most accounts overlook is the contribution of Thomas Somerville.  

He was 28, a science graduate working at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment in Farnborough,  and he was on his honeymoon in Wales when he was urgently recalled.  Sicily had been a grim shock to airborne forces.  One answer was to give glider pilots far more training, especially at night. Another was an improvement that Somerville devised, tested and proved.   

Landing Allied gliders at night, especially when loaded with troops plus jeeps or heavy arms, was hazardous.  They needed plenty of open space, as much as 150 yards before they came to a halt.  Before that happened, they might hit trees, walls, barns, streams, perhaps other crashed gliders.  The fields near the Pegasus bridges were small and cramped.  Somerville designed two 14-feet parachutes that fitted under the glider’s tail;  just before touchdown the parachutes were released and cut short its landing run.  He tested the equipment, flying as an observer in a Horsa glider; the idea worked.  On D-Day, six Horsas, carrying the Ox and Bucks infantry, landed at night, and thanks to the skill of the glider pilots and Somerville’s arrester parachutes, their touchdown was close to the bridges and very short.  The capture of the bridges was vital;  it prevented German armoured units from threatening the D-Day landings

Today, arrester parachutes (now known as Brake Shutes) are standard equipment for many high-speed fighters.  Here’s the RAF Eurofighter Typhoon showing how it’s done.   

                 RW65 Typhoon arrester parachuteTyphoon

Somerville didn’t get a medal   -  he was a civilian    -  but he had a distinguished career and was appointed CBE.  He, as much as anyone, made possible the success at the Pegasus Bridges      


  Readers Write #66 September 2019

   Zero feet for 300 miles,

                      Heller on toggling,

                                    and fresh Cake for 28 years.   


Much discussion lately about the Dambusters’ Raid by 617 Squadron and how    -    despite the courage and skill of the aircrews   -   the damage to German economy was less than expected.  The operation was a great boost to British morale and it made Wing Commander Guy Gibson a household name.  I believe that another raid by 617 Squadron, nine months later, was more significant.  It involved flying 300 miles at low level into central France, at night, and destroying the Gnome & Rhone aero-engine works at Limoges, one of a half-dozen French aviation companies taken over by Germany.  617 Squadron was led by its new CO, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire,  who believed that low flying was the key.   

 This takes us to the heart of the debate between the British and the American air forces about area bombing and precision bombing. The RAF had begun the war with daylight raids against Germany, lost too many aircraft,  and rapidly switched to night operations.  The US Army Air Corps (later the USAAF) believed that daylight raids would be more accurate and that their heavily armed bombers, flying in close formation and providing crossfire, would protect them.  When analysis of aerial reconnaissance photographs became available in 1941, the Butt Report found that only one in five RAF bombers got within five miles of their target. Better aircraft and equipment helped, but both air forces suffered from bad weather, unpredictable winds. smoke, flak and fighters.  There were triumphs and disasters. So many American crews were lost in attempts to hit Schweinfurt, a precision target thought to be essential for the German war machine, that the American bombing campaign was briefly halted.  At one stage in WW2, the US 8th Air Force calculated that it took two full combat wings, totalling 108 B-17 bombers and dropping 648 1,000-lb bombs, to guarantee a 96% chance that two bombs would hit and disable one generating plant covering the size of a couple of football pitches.  If you think that was pessimistic, take a look at these reconnaissance photographs.


 The one on the left shows the result of an RAF attack on the Mitelland Canal in 1945; bomb craters were spread far and wide.  The one on the right shows cloud and smoke concealing Caen in 1944.  In the end, the USAAF used area bombing to hit precision targets because it was better than nothing.  Leonard Cheshire had a better idea.

 The aero-engine works at Limoges was a small factory with civilian housing around it.  In bright moonlight,  Cheshire led eleven Lancasters at low level across France, found the target and buzzed it three times to warn the French workers to get out. He returned and, from 200 feet, dropped incendiaries to identify the building.  Ten of his Lancasters then scored hits with 12,000-lb bombs.  (The bomb that missed fell in a river.) Result: total success.  Gnome & Rhone was a mess, no civilians were hurt, and Cheshire’s Lancasters flew home.  Afterwards, his method of low-level marking was often used    -   but not by 8 Group, who were the regular Pathfinders for Bomber Command. His technique was dangerous and called for superb flying skills    -    but it worked. 

 Many years later, I met Leonard Cheshire. He was a remarkable man. Having flown on ops as a pilot throughout the war, he was chosen to be the UK witness on the Superfortress that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  When he left the RAF, he lived a very solitary life for two years. By chance, he met a man who was homeless and in poor health, and that gave rise to Cheshire Homes, a network of places for the helpless. I remember him as a big and cheerful personality, neither a warrior nor a crusader, and happy to talk about the success of the British and Irish Lions against the All Blacks.


I might have met Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22. In 1962 we were both on Fire Island, a summer vacation place on a strip of sand off the coast of Long Island.  I was there to escape the baking heat of New York and, to my great good luck, to meet my future wife. Heller was there because his novel had just been published and he was relatively happy    -    only relatively because Catch-22 was not an immediate success;  some reviews were downright hostile.  I know all this because I’m reading his memoirs, Now and Then, which told me something new about area bombing.

 In 1944, Joseph Heller was 21, a second lieutenant and a bombardier in a squadron of B-25s (called Mitchells in Britain), based in Corsica and bombing Italy and France.  He was a wing bombardier in a formation of six aircraft; up ahead was the lead bombardier who made the decision to bomb.  Heller writes:   

 ‘When I observed the bomb-bay doors of the lead bombardier opening, I opened mine;  when I saw his bombs begin to go, I toggled mine; when the indicator on my dial registered that all our bombs were away, I announced on the intercom that our bombs were away. When a gunner in the rear looking down into the bomb-bay announced that  the bomb-bay was clear, I flipped the switch that closed the doors. And then our whole formation of six planes wrenched away upward at full throttle.’  

So when the lead bombardier bombed, all six B-25s bombed,  and inevitably the spread of the explosions would be,  at the very least, the spread of the bombers.  This  is not what the recent television series of Catch-22 showed.  On  television the bombardier was staring through his bomb-aiming equipment at his target.  In fact, Heller was always watching the leading bomber’s bomb-bay doors. 

Heller based Catch-22 on his war experiences, sometimes comic, sometimes terrifying.  His central character, Yossarian, was suggested by a fellow airman called Yohannon.  Heller did not, like Yossarian, sit naked in a tree and he was not given a medal while naked. Otherwise, most of the novel is true to events.  Heller was halfway through his course when the tour of duty was raised from fifty missions to fifty-five, and then  to sixty, which he achieved.  After he left it was raised to seventy.  I recommend Now and Then. It’s honest.   

My stuff has been described as ‘documentaries disguised as fiction’.  The characters are my invention but the stories are pretty good history.  An email from Edwin in the Netherlands tells how, when he was 15, he came across Piece of Cake. He writes: “I have read it multiple times, I could start any chapter and read it.  Loved every page and realized this was the best book I had ever seen.”  He is now 43,  and wishes to compliment me for creating such a good novel   -  and in addition he’s read just about everything else I’ve written.  So has Alex in Kent,  who saw a recommendation by James Delingpole in The Spectator and, on the strength of it, bought all eight of my MacLehose RFC and RAF paperbacks.  Now he gives copies to friends and relatives on special occasions.  Good to know. Authors without readers are nothing. 

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference five hundred miles away.  I flew there (they were paying) and spoke to an audience of two,  one of whom was the previous speaker.  The organisers had forgotten to advertise the event. Then I flew home. In honour of that anti-climax,  here is a short (but perfect) poem by the best and most readable poet in America, Billy Collins, called Feedback:  

              "The woman who wrote from Phoenix after my reading there to tell me they

                   were still tallking about it just wrote again to tell me that they had stopped." 

Finally, another literary cartoon from  The New Yorker, drawn by the masterly pen of Robert Weber:  


The BBC has announced that it plans to introduce a device that helps TV viewers who can’t make sense of their dramas because the actors mumble, whisper, or get swamped by background music.  This gives me an excuse to offer one of the best putdowns in showbiz by Ethel Merman, a lady whose words were always clearly heard.  She was briefly married to  Ernest Borgnine, although they disliked each other. When she was in her fifties, Merman went for an audition. She came back and remarked that she had been told she had the voice and face of a woman in her thirties.  “What about your 60-year-old ass?” Borgnine growled. “Oh, you weren’t mentioned, darling,” she said.

Finally, yet another literary cartoon from the great years of  The New Yorker, with thanks to Mike in Indianopolis who emailed me to say that he ‘gets more out of your web page than a month of the New York Times Review of Books’,  which is encouraging.  This cartoon is for all fans of Stephen King who have strong wrists.  It came from the talented pen of Tom Hachtman

                RW65 Hernia


Readers Write #67 November 2019

   Ramming unlimited,

                      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 answer.

     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.


Readers Write #68 Jamuary 2020

     Stretching the Rock,

          the cherry on the Cake,

              and Bang! you’re not dead.

   An American commander once said the way to win was ‘Get there fastest with the mostest.’  Guy Bolland, a wartime pilot, had a hand in two operations which proved the truth of that saying. He joined an RAF flyingboat squadron in 1937 and took part in the early radar trials. He repeatedly flew towards Holland at various heights so that radar operators on the mainland could practise the detection and tracking of aircraft.  This proved to be vital in the Battle of Britain:  German pilots, who had been told that the RAF was on its last legs, were surprised to find British fighters in the sky, waiting for them.    Later, Germany developed its own radar network, but Britain got there first.  

Then, in 1942, Bolland was the commanding officer of RAF Gibraltar.  The Rock would be a crucial supply point for Operation Torch, the Anglo-American landings in North Africa. However, the runway on Gibraltar was a simple landing strip on the racecourse  -  far too small for the great concentration of aircraft that Torch required.  Bolland was in charge of a huge (and fast)  extension of the runway.  Tunnels had already been dug in the Rock;  he used the spoil for foundations.  His pressure kept up the momentum of construction;  nothing was allowed to interfere. If an aircraft crashed (and many did), he ordered  it to be dumped in the sea. General Montgomery complained: “There’s a madman at Gibraltar who’s destroying my aircraft.”  Eisenhower, his boss, knew better.  Within months, Bolland had created a broad new runway, nearly a mile long, reaching out into Gibraltar Bay, suitable for the biggest aircraft and ready for Torch. Bolland’s drive and determination helped that operation get there fastest with the mostest.  

Here’s a fine painting of a Hawker Tempest, sent by Garth, an old pal in New York:   

                            Hawker Tempest                           

The Tempest (24 cylinders, 2,400 h.p. Napier Sabre engine, maximum speed 435 mph)  was one of the fastest piston-engined fighters of WW2.

 It’s been 32 years, but I’ve just realised what a great honour it was for Mobil’s Masterpiece Theatre to show all six episodes of Piece of Cake on American television in 1988.  This was especially rewarding because the sponsor, Mobil, agreed to do without commercial breaks, so the station (WGBH Boston)  had an unbroken hour for each episode  -  and that meant the American audience saw a continuity which the British audience hadn’t known. (Cake was shown in the UK by London Weekend Television.)   Without commercial breaks,  each episode lasted 50 minutes. On Masterpiece Theatre, the remaining ten  minutes had the benefit  of an American who had been born in England and who was one of the most respected commentators in the U.S.   Alistair Cooke was a household name in  Britain for his   radio series  Letter From America  and in the U.S. for a 13-part television epic, called

Masterpiece Theatre  (not Theater)  was the idea of another expatriate, Christopher Sarson at WGBH, and Frank Gillard, a BBC veteran.  In 1970, WGBH had great success with all 26 episodes of the BBC’s  Forsyte Saga.  In those days, American television had nothing like it.  The official history of Masterpiece Theatre was candid: 

                   ‘Viewers who weren’t interested in bimbos in peril, or teenagers in heat, were forced to join the lost audience, doomed to wander the television wasteland looking in vain for entertainment that didn’t upset their intelligence,  their tastes, or their stomach.’ 

BBC-TV had stacks of drama serials filed away in London. Mobil agreed to sponsor the best. Cooke agreed to top-and-tail each episode,  which he did for 21 years. Masterpiece Theatre eventually took the pick of British commercial television’s productions. Piece of Cake was one. I framed a Mobil poster.  It showed the American actor, Boyd Gaines, who played Pilot Officer Chris Hart III, better known as CH3. The caption was:  War was just a game  -  until it began. 

Those were the days.  If you sell the screen rights of a novel, you sell all control.  (When Woody Allen made All You Want To Know About Sex Without Worrying, the studio bought the rights to a serious medical book, threw away the text and kept the title.) In filming a story, many things can go wrong:  the screenplay, the casting, the direction, the music.  I was lucky that Cake went right in every respect. I took a small piece of credit;  after all, if I hadn’t written the story, the series would never have happened. Masterpiece Theatre put the cherry on the Cake.   

Ben Cowburn was one of the most succesful SOE agents in WW2.  He made four missions to France  and survived because he knew what worked and what didn’t.  Cowburn told recruits that any hand gun, ‘fired by the average person...would merely be a useless noise at a range of more than a dozen yards...’   Yet Hollywood and TV still make cops-and-robbers films and Westerns where hand guns hit the target fifty yards away.  Sometimes more.  Cowburn was right.  Movie makers are wrong.  They crank out films where the gunman fires from the hip,  which multiplies inaccuracy,  and hits a running man several cricket pitches away. Cowboys (the real cowboys) rarely got into gunfights.  They carried a revolver because the noise of a shot in the air might stop a herd of cattle stampeding.  Or at least divert it. That final scene, beloved of Westerns,  where two rivals end up on Main Street,  and go for their guns, is garbage unless they were so close they could smell each other.  If you can’t tell whether the other guy is using deodorant, don’t fire a handgun. You’ll miss.  

It’s satisfying to know that my books get around.  Sometimes around the world.  Marc, in Dinan, France, was part of a Flight Deck Crew on board the aircraft carrier  Clemenceau  in 1996, working 12 hours a day bombing-up Super Etandards.  He’d found  Goshawk Squadron in a bookshop, and he read it during the crew’s 6-hour rest time.  In fact, he had  ‘to leave our rest room as as not to wake my friends with my loud laughs’.  (Later, most of them read it too.)  He kept the copy and re-read it.  Gagan,  in the USA, got hold of  GS  in 2013 when he was 13 and found it ‘unlike anything I had read until that point...I must have read it over a dozen times in the next two years’. Then he found my other RFC trilogy, ‘Hornet’s Sting  being my favourite by far’.  He’s now about 19. He had a rough time in his teenage years,  and reading my RAF quartet  (plenty of rough times there) helped him grow up and get on with his life.  For which he thanks me.     

Lastly, I was flattered to find that an academic in the University of Warsaw reckons my stuff is worth a nine-page article on my ‘Post-Memory Fiction’.  She is Marzena Sokolowska-Paryz,  and she examines the subject from all sides,  including  some that don’t exist.  She writes about the way I read two books,  Aces High and All Quiet On The Western Front, that influenced my writing Goshawk Squadron.

Two mistakes there.  (1)  I’ve never read the first book, and (2)  I didn’t read the second until last year.  My novel was    -  as the pavement artists used to say    -    All My Own Work.

Readers Write #69 April 2020

     Random thoughts.  

  There has been talk of reviving the Blitz Spirit, but not many remember the Blitz itself.  In comparison with other modern disasters (including the present virus), it was a lot more lethal. In the five years of WW2, a total of about 60,500 were killed by bombing, by V1s and V2s, and by long-range shelling across the Channel.  86,000 were seriously injured. Britain was a dangerous place. The chances of anyone being killed in an air attack on Britain   -  anywhere in Britain   -   were just under 1 in 800. Those living in cities (including me) faced shorter odds.  In London there was a 1-in-200 chance of being killed; the chance of being seriously injured was 1 in 160.  The big difference, of course, is that Covid-19 is an invisible threat  -   yet it’s worth remembering that nobody in Britain could see the German V2 rocket. It travelled in the stratosphere and it arrived at a speed of 3,500 feet per second.  Its victims never knew what hit them. The V2 was beyond sight and sound, until it exploded.  Hitler hoped that these offensives would bring Britain to its knees, and he failed.  Today we face a very different offensive, but we survived before and we’ll survive again. 

 Black humour is the natural reaction to a threat, and the virus has generated a few already. The first was a video clip of what looked like a dodgy drug dealer on a street corner, until the customer hands over a wad of currency  in exchange for... a toilet roll. (This form of panic buying reflects the public’s obsession with hygiene.)  We have been there before. In the 1950s, the great fear was of nuclear destruction,  accentuated by the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Tom Lehrer had a big hit with his cheerful ditty, ‘We’ll All Go Together When We Go’.  It didn’t amuse General Curtis LeMay, Chief of the US Air Force. He was convinced that the best thing was to A-bomb Soviet Russia while (he thought) America has a head start.   


 All jokes  -  especially black ones  -  are capable of angering someone.  My favourite cartoon, from an old New Yorker, showed two old ladies looking at a tombstone. One says to the other, “I told him it wouldn’t kill him to try and be nice once in a while, but I was wrong.” It has a place on the wall of my workroom, but it might not work for everyone. One of my top ten jokes carries the risk of offending anyone self-isolating. It’s about a man who goes hiking in the mountains. He meets nobody. After three days, he sees a  hut on top of a mountain. He reaches it and knocks on the door, which is opened by a naked man wearing a bowler hat. The walker asks: “Why are you naked?”  The man says, “Nobody comes here.”  The walker asks: “Then why the bowler hat?” The man says, “You never know. Somebody might.”    

(I think that’s one of Spike Milligan’s stories. He scored top marks for me with his proposed epitaph. “I want to go to Heaven,” he said. “But if Geoffrey Archer’s there, I want to go to Lewisham.”)

A third story is the shortest. It’s about an amateur bank robber who buys a toy pistol, goes up to a bank teller, and says: “Okay, you stickers  -  this is a fuck-up.”   I suppose a banker who had just been robbed might not enjoy that.   


 A writer’s life has a few advantages  -  you work when you like, eat what you like, wear what you like   -   but one of its demands is resilience, even determination.  A writer has to plug away or he gets nowhere.  Long ago, David Lassman was director of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath. He wrote the opening chapters and plot synopses of Austen’s novels, changing only the titles and the characters’ names, and he sent them to 18 British publishers and agents.  He was ‘staggered’ when they all rejected them.  He deplored ‘major publishers who can’t recognise great literature’.  Lassman should have looked at Jane Austen’s track record.  She needed all the resilience she could summon up.  

Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, sent it to a publisher and it was, she said, ‘declined by return of post’.  So she wrote Northanger Abbey,  sent it to a different publisher who bought it for £10 and never published it. She plugged away and wrote Sense and Sensibility. This time it got into print  -  but Jane had to pay for the printing and the advertising. She paid. And she had resilience. Eventually her books sold;  but it took a large amount of bloody-mindedness to get her talent recognised.     


 A word about the comma.  Some want it abolished, others scatter it like confetti.  Yet the comma can make a difference. Properly placed, it can reverse the meaning of a sentence.  Take this, for example:

                        Truck drivers said police were driving like maniacs  

 With two commas, it means the opposite: 

                       Truck drivers, said police, were driving like maniacs.

 Punctuation is like knitting patterns.  They both have rules.  Otherwise you end up not with a scarf but one odd sock.  


 Readers Write #70 June 2020

                                Flim Flam.  

 There’s a bit in my new book, Odds & Sods, (see above) about conspiracy theories.  Some people will believe anything,  and the more you go over the top, the more they follow your lead.   Back in the days when Punch  was big, its editors ran a two-page spread that spoofed the small newspaper ads that sold mail-order odds and ends. One of their bogus ads offered Do-It-Yourself Brain Surgery Kits,  and for the next several months, Punch had to return the money that gullible readers  sent to the magazine.  Evidently there were many Punch  readers who felt they deserved a better brain

  Spoofing is not as easy as it seems.  Yesterday my computer printed a lengthy email, allegedly from a bank in Nigeria which urgently wanted me to have three-quarters of a million pounds  sterling. Obviously it was a scam  and just to rub it in the message was littered with spelling mistakes.  By contrast, I remember, back in the 1960s, a New Yorker (with immaculate spelling)  grew tired of fatuous campaigns and decided to test the city’s credibility.  He invented a preposterous ginger-group called SINA. He wanted to see how long he could con the public before the spoof collapsed. Instead,  it flourished and he found he was on a non-stop treadmill.  

  SINA stood for the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals   -  a deliberately contrary name, but nobody noticed.  Its announced aim was the censorship of animals’ sexual organs, and it campaigned all over town with placards and processions, urging (amongst others) that all police horses should wear a sort of jockstrap to conceal their modesty.  (The organiser hired Rent-A-Mob to make the demonstrations.) 

 SINA got huge publicity and won public support, and it expanded its campaign. I worked for an ad agency, and one day there was a SINA demo against Pepsi, one of our clients.  Demonstrators with signs blocked the sidewalks, claiming that Pepsi caused women’s tights to ladder.  The agency took it seriously. Sales of Pepsi might suffer.   

  One reason why SINA got public support was because there already was a form of censorship of animals’ private parts. Borden’s Milk and Ice Cream  -  a  big company  -  used a family of cows called Borden in its ads. Beulah Borden was the happy mother and she was always shown, in artwork, wearing a little pinafore to conceal her udder.  Borden knew that most Americans didn’t want to know where milk came from.  Ad agencies routinely airbrushed the navels out of photographs.  Some people didn’t want to be reminded where they came from.   Qantas Airline once went so far as to neuter a picture of a kangaroo.  In the end, the man who created SINA called a halt to the spoof. It cost him money and accomplished little. 


  If you’re desperate for self-improvement exercises during the lockdown, here are three tests to improve your pronunciation.  The first is elocution practice:


Too easy?  The second is often used by actors;  


 The third is used by a witness coach in the U.S. legal system. If a witness speaks these words clearly, he or she is more likely to be credible. I kid you not.   

                  I  SLIT  A  SHEET,  A  SHEET  I  SLIT,  I  SIT  UPON  A  SLITTED  SHEET


 Readers Write, and I’m happy to hear from them.   Ian, in Down Under,  told me:  ‘I started with Goshawk Squadron many years ago and have worked my way back and forth through your novels, with great delight.’    Padraig, in the UK, said:  ‘I think I’ll approach every day with the maxim ‘What would Woolley do?’    And Nick in Kent  believes:  ‘No favourites, but Cake,  A Good Clean Fight, and  Kentucky Blues  are absolute masterpieces.’  While Per in Sweden sent me: 'Tak sa mychot!’, which I think means ‘Thanks a lot,’  while John in Florida reported:  ‘Finished  Holy Smoke  and I can tell you, you ain’t lost your touch.’  My thanks to all who wrote.  

 Lastly, proof that good cartoons don’t have to make you laugh  -  they reach parts that other cartoons never reach.  This  one is by a great New Yorker cartoonist, George Price, a man whose ‘chosen terrain was proudly, even defiantly, lower crust.’

         I heard a bit of good news today, We shall pass this way but once               "I heard a bit of good news today, We shall pass this way but once.”

Readers Write #71 July 2020


                       Norwegian wreckage,

                                and better by night.  

    Balloon-busting on the Western Front in World War One seems like fun, compared with war in the air. German observation balloons were big. How could you miss a target that was 70 yards long and 20 wide?  The balloon couldn’t dodge, it couldn’t fire back, and it was full of incendiary gas.  Balloons looked absurd, out of place in a modern war.  Yet balloon-busting was so dangerous that the RFC reckoned that one balloon destroyed was the equivalent of three enemy aircraft shot down..  Here (thanks to John Kush) is a German balloon being towed to its launch pad.   
German Balloon in RW71 
There was a good reason why observation balloons were valuable, and why the RFC tried so hard to get rid of them. 1914-18 was the first war when soldiers never saw their enemy unless one side emerged and attacked the other. By 1917, the Germans had 170 observation balloons, each four miles behind the Lines and two miles apart, capable of flying at up to 6,000 feet.  (Allied balloons were similar.)  In his wicker basket, the observer with his telescope could see as much as 60 miles.  He had a clear view of the enemy’s layout. With his telephone link he could direct artillery fire onto promising targets, and correct near-misses.  He could identify any unusual activity that might mean an attack was being planned.  Observation balloons were the spy in the sky, and Allied artillery tried hard to destroy them. Total failure. So the RFC got the job. First problem: how to get near the bloody balloon.  
Each German launch site was surrounded by guns that, when the balloon was flying, could saturate the approaches to it. Their shellfire was assisted by heavy machine guns whose bullets could reach 6,000 feet, and by rocket guns that sent ‘flaming onions’, bright balls of fire that soared towards the aircraft. If the fighter pilot survived this barrage, he had to get close to the balloon so that his incendiary bullets would work    -    beyond 150 yard they would be useless.  And if he hit it, there was no guarantee that the balloon would burn;  wet weather and cold air had odd effects on its gas. If it did burn, the observer had ample time to parachute to safety.  
Fighter pilots used two ways to avoid the flak:  either fly low, about 20 feet, to the balloon site and then climb steeply, or fly very high, preferably above cloud, and power-dive on the balloon before anyone had spotted them.  Both methods had risks of their own. And even beating the defensive fire might be disastrous.  Germans sometimes discouraged attack by replacing the observer with high explosive and blowing both the balloon and the fighter to bits.  
Few RFC pilots liked balloon-busting. Most squadrons decided that a pilot who destroyed a balloon would never be sent to hit another; one was enough.  Balloons, both German and Allied, were a symptom  of why the Trench War lasted almost four years.  What both sides could see was a stalemate.   
Fast-forward twenty-three years.  You may be surprised to know that, in the summer of 1941, the RAF was flying B-17 Flying Fortresses in raids on German targets when America was, strictly speaking, neutral.  Jon, in Norway, told me that his grandfather had seen the evidence of such a raid. It happened on 8 September 1941, a few months after the Blitz had ended and while German armies were storming into Russia.  On that day, Jon said, ‘Messerschmitt Bf109s took off from Stavanger (in Occupied Norway) to intercept four RAF B-17s of 90 Squadron from Scotland, aiming to bomb the battleship Admiral Scheer at port in Oslo.’ (German warships in  Norway threatened British convoys to Russia.)   The B-17s never reached their target. One 109 hit a B-17 with cannonfire, blew holes in it, set an engine on fire, and the bomber exploded before it could hit the sea. Jon describes how ‘Leutnant Alfred Jakobi shot down another B-17 over a remote valley in southern Norway. My grandfather, Gunnar Rysstad, saw it crash. It caused a fire in the hills. The local Nazi asked Gunnar to put it out.  Gunnar told him to sod off  -  after all, the Nazis had started it. Nazis don’t like to be told off, and Gunnar had to run.  My grandfather was on the lam when he met a smart and strong daughter of a physics professor and she wanted the young fugitive for her huband.’  They married, had a daughter, and that’s how Jon came to be.   
No surprise that the RAF welcomed the Fortresses.  In 1941, every air force in Europe operated two-engined bombers;  now, suddenly, the RAF had twenty brand-new four-engined bombers, part of President Roosevelt’s policy of shipping war material to Britain despite strong isolationist feeling at home.   

                                          B17 in TW71 

What America got out of it was an opportunity to test the B-17 in war, and on 8 July 1941 three Fortresses took part in a daylight raid on Wilhelmshaven;  all returned. Other daylight operations followed. With a crew of nine or ten and up to fourteen machine guns, the B-17 was believed to be able to defend itself.  The op on 8 September proved otherwise.  Two of the four B-17s were shot down and a third crashed on landing. The RAF ceased daylight raids and donated the Fortresses to Coastal Command and the Desert Air Force. 
The fact was that the RAF Fortress wasn’t strong enough. It lacked power-operated gun turrets, adequate armour, and self-sealing fuel tanks.  Boeing  -  which had experience in making airliners  -  got to work and  made a better B-17,  yet there was little they could do about its bombload, which was very limited. The Fortress had been the product of a 1934 requirement, and it had signs of 1934 thinking. The heaviest bomb the B-17 could carry was 2,000 pounds. Even the Wellington could carry a 4,000-pounder,  and the Lancaster had a bomb-bay that was 33 feet long and could carry a 22,000 bomb.   
When the U.S. joined the war, it had to fight with what it had,  which  included the B-17 with its small bombload.  So America built 14,000 of them. With numbers like that, they delivered a big punch.    
Finally, my thanks to readers  -  too many to list   -   who enjoyed ‘Odds & Sods’.  As one said: ‘You ain’t lost your touch.’


   Readers Write #72 Sept 2020

         Fat Albert,   the Mk.1 eyeball,   and the salty violin.   


 These two Hercules, with special paint schemes on their rudders, celebrated their 50th year in RAF service, and No 47 Squadron’s 100th birthday in 2016.  The RAF took delivery of 66 aircraft in 1967 and the Hercules is still going strong, with 1.75 million-plus hours on the clock. Lockheed designed it as a transport for troops, medevac or cargo. Its freight bay is 41 feet long, 9 feet high and 10 feet wide, and the aircraft weighs upward of 100 tons  -  yet it’s able to use unprepared runways for takeoffs and landings.     

 The Hercules is very strong, very agile, and a pleasure to fly, and it holds the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft and the worst nickname   -   ‘Fat Albert’    -  which in fact applied only to a single aircraft in the U.S. Navy’s display team.  Forget Fat Albert. The Hercules has successfully tackled many tasks throughout the world, including Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia.    

 In 1979, the civil war in Rhodesia    -   Ian Smith’s Whites against Robert Mugabe’s Blacks  -  had been going on for the best part of 14 years, until the Lancaster House talks persuaded both sides to hold elections. A Commonwealth Monitoring Force (CMF) would ensure fair play.   The British Army sent soldiers; the R.A.F. sent Hercules.  It wasn’t going to be easy.  The country was bigger than Germany, with a population of only 7 million. The Patriotic Front fighters were somewhere in the bush, there was no way to communicate with them, and they might well mistake the CMF for the enemy. 

 A year later, I interviewed soldiers and airmen of the CMF for BBC Radio.  White Rhodesians, they said, had told them that if they went into the bush they’d never be seen again.  British soldiers would be wiped out, Hercules would be shot down.  Not surprisingly, the Patriotic Front was trigger-happy  - that’s how they survived. The Army used tact, good humour, promises and intelligence,  and they persuaded the PF not to fire. But the PF was jumpy.  A Scottish soldier told me that, deep in the bush, he was asked by a PF fighter what his shoulder badge meant. ‘That’s the Black Watch,’ he said,  and immediately realised his mistake.  It took a lot of explaining.  The PF had a cast-iron rule:  every fighter  must always keep his weapon at hand, in case of attack.  One PF force camped at a ruined building which had an old bath.  A fighter filled the bath and got in  -  with his rocket launcher,  which fired and killed him.  The camp believed it was ambushed,  and it took a long time for the nearby British camp to reassure them.   

 For Hercules’ aircrews, the first problem was to locate the PF, and the next was how to survive an air drop.  It was known that some PF had SAM-7s, effective up to a height of 14,000 feet, and guns galore.  Bear in  mind that the PF were used to seeing South African Hercules operating in support of their enemy.  Also that, in 1979, R.A.F. Hercules had very little electronic equipment. ‘The best aid for tactical flying,’ one pilot said, ‘was the Mk 1 eyeball.’  Flying fast and low over the bush seemed advisable. Practice showed that this was 300 knots and 60 feet.  ‘In an aircraft with a 133-foot wingspan, this required a great deal of concentration,’ another pilot said.  

 They flew three sorties a day.  (The PF were large and scattered,  they had nothing, they needed everything.)  Bird strikes were always a danger. Tracer was sometimes seen. The Hercules was both rugged and powerful, qualities that were invaluable.   In the end, thanks to the Hercules’ resupply (the country was short of essentials), the CMF kept the truce, the elections were held, Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.


Thanks to Laurence McMurdie for this picture of the Titanic violin that fetched £900,000 at auction in 2013.  (The bidding started at £50.)  In Never Mind The Facts (a few copies still available) I exploded the myth that the band played on as the liner went down    -    the ship was listing so severely that the band would have fallen in the sea.  The violin belonged to the band leader, Wallace Hartley, and it was found in a leather case strapped to his body.  The fiddle is still stained with sea water. It gives a final knock on the head for the myth.     


Readers Write #73 Nov 2020

          Pride and Persistence,

                   Airmail, snailmail,

                             and Goshawk flies again.   

   The single great advantage of democracy is that, every few years, we get the chance to throw the scoundrels out and elect somebody better, or at least different.  Which is a great improvement on the Regency period, two hundred and a bit years ago, when the Prince Regent  was in charge and he was too fat, too selfish, and too obsessed with fashion, womanising, and the power of the monarchy.  He was also a great fan of Jane Austen’s novels, so much so that he had a complete set of them in each of his residences. This must have struck the author as a backhanded compliment,  since she intensely disapproved of the Prince and her novels made fun of the system that placed women in the secondclass category. Life for women in Regency times was a very bad joke indeed.     

 Every novel is a gamble, and Jane Austen was a great example of tenacity.  The Regency threw every obstacle in the way of women authors and she never quit. She wrote Pride and Prejudice, sent it to a publisher and he rejected it without reading a word. She wrote  Northanger Abbey and a different publisher bought it for a tenner and never published it. (Years later, she bought the rights back.) She wrote Sense and Sensibility and a third publisher made her pay for the printing and advertising. The novel appeared only because it was sold on commission, meaning that a group of people agreed in advance to buy it.  Most novels were published in editions of only 500 (handmade paper was expensive) and sold for 15 shillings a copy    -    at least £50 in modern money and a price that only the Regency gentry could afford. So what did Jane get out of her hard work?  

 Not fame.  In her lifetime, her novels were anonymous,  with ‘By a Lady’ on their title pages. Not social change.  She died in 1817 at the age of 41,  when the Prince Regent was staunchly reactionary.  What she got from her novels was a sense of satisfaction and a hope that posterity would read them and learn. Her tenacity was admirable, and it’s a model for every writer. Talent without determination goes nowhere.  

 Moving on. You may have noticed that the skies are empty of aircraft.  This is a knock-on effect of Covid-19.  Nobody is flying anywhere, airlines are going bust,  and one unhappy result of this is that airmail postal rates have doubled.  Six months ago, when I sent Odds & Sods plus NMTF  to readers in the USA, the airmail postage for that package was £7.  Now it’s £14.  (Mailing by seamail would cost £4.84, but seamail is painfully slow.) The Post Office tells me that the big increase is because Covid-19 means few cargo planes fly across the Atlantic,  and that the new airmail rates apply to every English-speaking country.


Readers Write #74 Jan 2021

Prangs, the Flying Suitcase, and the trouble with fantasy.   

   Before jet engines and pressurised cabins, flying was dangerous.  Half the deaths in the Royal Flying Corps were during training, and the situation was not much better in World War Two, when RAF Training Command recorded 8,803 deaths in training or accidents. (In the USA, flying training killed 15,000.)   

      When war broke out, one of the main RAF bombers was the Handley-Page Hampden.  In 1939, Lawrence Wheatley qualified as an Observer/Navigator on a Hampden squadron.  The bad news was that he was soon grounded by the medics, but this probably saved his life. Of the 48 men who completed his Air Observer course, 28 died in action or in flying accidents.


      The Hampden was known as the Flying Suitcase, and you can see why.  There were six squadrons of Hampdens in 1939,  and it was popular with aircrews. Its Pegasus engines carried it on 16,541 sorties (and usually brought it back again).  Twenty Hampdens bombed Berlin on 25 August 1940 in retaliation for the German (accidental) bombing of London.  It was one of seven raids that Hampdens made on Berlin. This was a round trip of 1,150 miles which might take five hours, often more if they faced a head wind. There were hazards apart from enemy flak and fighters. It was bitterly cold at 15,000 feet. Navigation was by dead-reckoning and the predicted winds were sometimes wrong.  Nevertheless, Hampdens repeatedly bombed Germany, which was a humiliating shock to Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, who had promised the German people that their country would be impregnable.  The Hampden even dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on the battleship Scharnhorst. 

      After the final Hampden attack on 14 September 1942, the bomber was withdrawn from operations. Soviet Russia was demanding British aid in the battle against Nazi invasion, and the decision was taken to send 32 Hampdens. It is not hard to imagine the thoughts of the aircrews at the news that they were to fly to Russia.   

      The raids on Berlin had been at the Hampden’s limit of their fuel capacity, and the flight to northern Russia would be longer: about 1,200 miles. Even with extra fuel tanks, the Russian trip would be hairy. The Hampden cockpit was cramped: the pilots would be in their seats for seven or eight hours. What’s more, the aircraft were not new; they had flown a lot of ops over Germany. One   -   AE436 of 144 Squadron  -  had been part of the Thousand Bomber Raid on Cologne in 31 May 1942. They faced a long route from Shetland, around the north of Occupied Norway and neutral Sweden, to a Russian airfield near the Finnish border.  A Swedish citizen, Per Kjellberg, who reads my books in English, told the story of those 32 Hampdens, and in particular of AE436.    

   The story began in 1976, when a Swedish teenager, Ake Wahlqvist, was hiking in the remote mountains, alone except for a few wild reindeer. He climbed the great peak of Tsata, admired the stunning view, and descended a few hundred metres to a stony slope. He noticed scraps of metal. He went on and was the first person to find AE436. It was a tangled wreck. Scattered around were ammunition, machine guns, oxygen bottles, flying overalls, handguns, parachutes and human bones. Nobody had been there since 1942.   


   The Hampdens had left Shetland at dusk on 4 September 1942. Formation flying was impossible at night; they flew separately. Hours later, AE436 was on course when a storm front blew it over the north of Sweden.  It may be that the navigator misread his maps and decided that they had passed a mountain range, so the pilot lost height.  Nobody knows. The Hampden flew into the side of Mount Tsata. Three Canadian crew were killed at once. By a freak of circumstance, the English pilot, although burned, was able to get out. A Welsh signaller was even luckier; he was more or less unharmed.  The two survivors walked for three days, and reached the town of Krikkjokk. They didn’t want to be detained in neutral Sweden, and they told a convincing tale of being shot down in Norway and having strayed into Sweden.  In a month they were back in the UK.  Of the 32 Hampdens, six others were lost:  either shot down, or hit by ground fire, or ran out of fuel and crashed.    

      Sweden gave the three Canadians a military funeral. The Swedish Air Force recovered the wrecked AE436 and shipped it to the UK. 

 Histories of RAF Bomber Command  make no mention of the flight of  the 32 Hampdens or the fate of the seven who were lost.  They were a footnote to the war.  Today, AE436 is in the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre,  who plan to rebuild a complete Hampden, in honour of the men who took the battle to Germany in the first years of the war and then flew to Russia.     

   My thanks to Per Kjellberg.   


    Back to books.  I could never take Henry James’ novels seriously after he wrote of a character that she ‘ejaculated capriciously’.  I once mistakenly promised to contribute a chapter on Tolkein’s output, choosing to write about the author’s humour.  The difficulty was that there is precious little of it.  I found five lame puns in all of his fiction.  This is the trouble with fantasy  -  it’s too easy to solve a problem when you can magic it away.  A large part of fiction is things going wrong. In Cake, Moggy Cattermole is often a shit, but he’s an essential shit. A fighter commander in the Battle of Britain told me that he recognised Cattermole:  ‘Every squadron needs one.  Just one. Bad for discipline, good for morale.’  If I had sanitised Cattermole (as some Puritans suggested) the story would have been weaker. Tolkein was a historian before he was a novelist and when he wrote about the Norman Conquest he was on shaky ground because he hated France and everything French.  He loathed the phrase cul-de-sac and he replaced it with Bag End  in his stories. Every time he saw cul-de-sac on a street sign, his rage overflowed. Clive James (no relation) once defined humour as ‘commonsense at high speed’, and he would have found comic elements in Tolkein’s sensitive ego. Humour is one of the essential colours in the spectrum, and ignoring humour doesn’t make a book more serious; it makes it less real. When Nina Bawden reviewed Goshawk Squadron fifty years ago, she wrote: ‘I laughed aloud, several times. And was, in the end, reduced to tears.’  Laughter and tears are not incompatible.

                              Readers Write #75 March 2021

  Odd flying machines, horsemeat, and lockdown bonus.   

   Birds have been flying since the world began, and yet few designers of aircraft in the decade before WW1 copied them.  Many of their designs were highly improbable.  In 1910, the Committee of Imperial Defence advised the Government that 'the experiments with aeroplanes should be discontinued' and the whole madness be left to private enterprise.  Nobody was surprised.  Some army officers learned to fly; they believed in aerial reconnaissance.  The cavalry dismissed the idea.  Reconnaissance was their preserve.  Horses didn't fall out of the sky.    

    Nevertheless, a Royal Flying Corps was formed in 1912, and it held a competition to find the best type of military aeroplane.  The Corps' rules say a lot about the generals' hopes.  An aircraft had to reach 55 mph: slower than some Edwardian racing cars.  It had to 'rise without damage from long grass, clover or harrowed land in 100 yards' and it had to 'land without damage on any cultivated ground, including rough plough'.  Airfields were unknown then, and it seems the judges expected a machine with the same resilience as a cavalry horse. 

   This may explain the bizarre design of Bleriot's entry, called the Aerial Wheel. It was propelled by a single wheel of 12 feet diameter, big enough to revolve around the wing and the propeller.  The inventor claimed it could land on uneven ground without damage.  It never flew.

   The contest attracted applications for 32 aeroplanes from several nations.  Eight never appeared.  Others failed to take off.  One of the rules required that the pilot must have a clear sight of the country, yet one entry, the Avro Type G biplane, had an enclosed cabin with no forward view.  Landing the thing must have been a challenge.  Other designs were even stranger.  The War office knew nothing about military aircraft, so it was not surprising that the winner was the least practical aeroplane on show.  It was the monoplane of Colonel Cody (not to be confused with Buffalo Bill Cody).  It had a very long wingspan of 43 feet and a tail unit like a big box kite that was attached to the fuselage by lengths of bamboo.  His plane hit a cow as Cody was landing, killed the cow, Cody survived but his machine was wrecked.  Not that it mattered.  The design was never copied.    Here it is:


Cody IV  experimental aircraft  21 June 1912
This is photograph RAE-O 561a from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

   World War One was a matter of trenches and artillery.  After the initial skirmishing, the 7,000 mounted cavalry in the British Expeditionary Force had nothing to do.  They had no answer to German machine-gun fire and the shell-holes that littered no-man's-land.  The RFC (plus observers in baskets below balloons) provided reconnaissance for the next four years.  The cavalry never gave up hope of pouring through a hole in the German defences and doing their stuff in the countryside beyond.  In May 1915, Sir John French, who commanded the BEF and was always happy to be on a horse, wrote:  "How I should love to have a real good 'go' at them in the open with lots of cavalry and horse artillery and run them to earth.  Well!  It may come."  But it never did.


    Readers' emails arrive.  Jo in Australia hungered for my novels, but Covid-19 has doubled or tripled the cost of airmail, so he bought secondhand copies from ABE books.  Michael, perhaps in Europe, thanked me 'for the many hours of joy that you've given me', especially during 'a very difficult period in my life'.  (Fiction can be therapy too.)  Eric in New Zealand is 're-re-re-reading Goshawk Squadron for the umpteenth time and still enjoying it'.  Martyn, somewhere in the UK, is now 'halfway through your RFC/RAF series' and says my books 'have been a real personal bright spot in this latest lockdown'.  Happy to hear it.  My thanks to all who wrote.   


Readers Write #76 April 2021

                                  NEW BOOK - Odds & Sods Mk 2 



This sequel has more of my Notes from Everywhere, including:

        - Snatch gliders and Doodlebugs
        - British tsunamis and motorbikes at Dunkirk
        - Throwing down the gauntlet at Coronations
        - Murders and the average man
        - Sketching on the Burma Railway
        - Tin legs and Spitfires
        - The birth of antibiotics

        ... and much more.


        Spring cleaning                               

After a year of lockdown, it's time for a change.  Down through the years, I've researched the background of my novels and found much useless stuff, often allegedly humorous.  All humour is capable of offending someone.  Here's a selection: 

(1) A driver stops when he sees a hitchhiker who has three heads, no arms and one leg.The driver says: "Hullo hullo hullo. You look 'armless. Hop in."

(2)The Fabian Society holds a demo.They chant:

"What do we want? The inevitability of gradualism!
When do we want it? As soon as is reasonably possible."

(3)  This limerick is bound to upset someone: 

On the breast of a barmaid from Sale
Was tattooed the price of brown ale,
And on her behind,
For the sake of the blind,
Was the same information in Braille.

Everyone has a book in him, unfortunately.  As someone said: "A novel must be exceptionally good to live as long as the average cat."

Here's a cartoon about fiction:


Now to sport, and Bill Bryson, who covered the Olympics for a newspaper.  About the team epee event, he wrote:

'There are basically four thrusts, known as the cartilage, the chaise longue, the aubergine and the fromage anglais.  These can be parried by four defensive feints - the pastiche, the penchant, the demitasse and the salmon en croute.  Scoring is on the basis of one point for a petit pois and two for a baguette.  Actually, I don't have the faintest notion of what goes on in fencing.'

Next, poetry.  Dorothy Parker hit the spot in four lines:

Oh life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea: 
And love is a thing that can never go wrong: 
And I am Marie of Roumania.

(There once was a queen of Romania called Marie.)

 And politics?  Abraham Lincoln was once asked if an opponent, Simon Cameron, was honest.  Lincoln said:  "He would not steal a red-hot stove."  Later challenged over this, Lincoln said:  "Oh well, I apologise.  I said that Cameron would not steal a red-hot stove.  I withdraw that statement."

 And here's another literary cartoon:


An American senator grew tired of his badtempered mail, and so he sent critics a short letter. It said: "Some crackpot is writing me letters and forging your name."

And a future President of the US, General Ulysses S. Grant, was reviewing his troops when his horse kicked up its hind leg and put its foot in the stirrup.  Grant said: "If you're gettin' on, I'm gettin' off."

Lastly:  some American companies have a softball team (like baseball but soft) that plays after work.  This New Yorker cartoon skewers bad management:


Readers Write #77 May 2021

                                   4,840 Yaks, 1,523 factories, and echoes from the past.      

     Russia was lucky to have Aleksandr Yakovlev, a brilliant aircraft designer whose Yak-1 fighter first flew in 1940. (Just as Britain was lucky to have Reginald Mitchell and Sydney Camm, who designed the Spitfire and the Hurricane.) The Yak was a small, light fighter, and probably the most manoeuvrable aircraft of its time. The Soviet government recognised Yakovlev’s brilliance: it awarded him the Order of Lenin, a Zis car and a prize of 100,000 roubles.    

     When Germany invaded Russia, the Yak-3 proved a match for the Luftwaffe - German pilots were ordered to avoid dogfighting the Yak-3s below 5,000 metres. The Yak-3 was armed with a 20 mm cannon in the nose cone, a machine gun in each wing, and sometimes six rockets for ground attack. Its V-12 engine produced 1350 hp, and the Yak’s power-to-weight ratio gave it a top speed of well over 400 mph. At low level, where Yaks usually operated, it was lethal. Here it is, courtesy of Wayne Dingle in New Zealand, who enjoyed his half-hour in the fighter (‘My bucket list for the month’). He found it ‘great fun'.


     Yaks were remarkable for being partly made of wood, plywood and fabric - aluminium was scarce in Russia.  Steel tubes in the fuselage and wing provided structure, but ribs were wooden and the skin was of plywood. A thick coat of polish gave it a metallic smoothness. Inevitably, the Yaks’ construction made them vulnerable in combat. A total of 4,848 Yak-3s were built; few survived, and the survivors are not airworthy. Enter Sergei Yakovlev.

     He is the son of the great Aleksandr Yakovlev. He contacted an American company called Flight Magic, and they used the original engineering drawings to build ten new Yak-3s, now with all-metal construction. In 1999 one crashed, and a man named Graeme Frew bought the remains, shipped them to New Zealand and, over the next four years, painstakingly rebuilt the fighter as a two-seater – which made it possible for Wayne to experience a Second War fighter. Aleksandr Yakovlev would be proud of Graeme.


      Hitler’s invasion rapidly crushed the Soviet armies in western Russia, but it failed to achieve his planned swift victory. This was partly because, in the first three months of that war, the Soviet Union shipped eastward the machinery of 1,523 factories and relocated them in the Urals, Western Siberia and elsewhere, far beyond the reach of his Panzers. Stalin gave the orders, but the colossal evacuation was directed by a little-known economic genius, A.I. Mikoyan. He made possible ‘a second industrial revolution in the Soviet Union’ by rescuing factories from the Germans’ path, loading their plant on railway wagons, and speeding them to the east.

      One example gives a hint of this huge task. In September 1941, Mikoyan ordered the heavy-machine-tool works at Novo-Kramatorsk to empty its workshops (including the only 10,000-ton presses in Russia), and head for the Urals. Once there, the plants were in production again amazingly quickly: the Kharkov Tank Works was transplanted to Chelyabinsk, and just ten weeks after leaving Kharkov it produced its first T-34 tanks. Hitler made the blunder of underestimating his enemy. In 1941, Soviet factories made more tanks, aircraft and guns than Germany did. Men like Yakovlev and Mikoyan, plus the Russian winter, stopped Hitler.


      Copies of Odds & Sods Mk2 have gone around the world, to USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several nations in Europe, plus of course to the UK. 

      Charlie Webster, in Oxford, told me the book ‘has been consumed voraciously’, and he added further information to my report about the unhappy life of Lawrence of Arabia. When Charlie worked at the publishers Jonathan Cape, he found a contract in the archive, signed by G.B.Shaw, who had represented T.E.Lawrence. The document was about the publisher’s right to a second book from Lawrence, and someone had hand-written a comment: ‘If the said author, after the annoyances and vexations of getting Seven Pillars of Wisdom into print, is ass enough to try again!’ The uncrowned King of Arabia was not completely popular at Cape.

Meanwhile, Martyn in Shropshire has read most of my stuff, and said of Why 1914? -‘I found this book really raced along’, which is a rare compliment for a military history. He added: ‘Your books have been an eye-opener for me.’ My thanks to all who wrote.




'Odds & Sods’ sounds like something frivolous, but there’s a lot of serious stuff in my sequel, Mk2  -  such as items on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Blitz, American gun deaths,  Tin Legs and Spitfires, the future of the Parachute Regiment, the disintegrating Canary Islands, and the life and death of T.E.Lawrence.

Same price: £7.50 including postage in the UK.

 Readers' verdicts on Mk 2:

 'Just finished O&S Mk2. it was a delight from SnatchTailpiece.' (From start to finish.) -  John Kush to

'Fascinating, with quick wit and twists and turns that take the reader behind the scenes of real events.' - Bill Stroud

'It has left me anxiously awaiting your Mk3.'  -   Ken Nickel


 Readers Write #78 July 2021

                                   Pork pies, a Canadian Shark, and a brewer's Stuka.      

     War breeds myths. In World War One, no German officer ever said that the British soldier is a lion led by donkeys. That was a postwar invention. In WW2, when France fell it was a myth that ‘Britain stood alone’.  Many servicemen had escaped from Europe to join the Allied fight:  in 1940 3,000 Czechs, 15.000 Norwegians and 18,000 Poles (plus other nationalities) were in the British Armed Forces.  What’s more, the Empire and Commonwealth made large contributions to our defence. An Australian infantry division and two New Zealand brigades reached Britain in June 1940, just after Dunkirk; so did a Newfoundland artillery unit. A Canadian infantry division had been in Britain since the spring; a second division landed in September.     Canada was especially valuable to Britain.  The Hurricanes of No.1 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, flew in the Battle of Britain, and Canadian aircrew made their mark in WW2. One pilot was outstanding, and his son Peter told me his remarkable story.

    John Wright, known as ‘Gary’, was 18 when he enlisted in Ottawa in 1940. He trained as a pilot, came to Britain and was 19 when he flew with 1 Squadron RCAF. Then he volunteered for the North African campaign.  In July 1942 he joined No.112 Squadron RAF (Shark Squadron) and he flew Kittyhawks until the German surrender in Tunisia,  by which time he had won the DFC.  Here he is with his fighter in Africa.


    By now he was 21 and a very experienced fighter pilot. Gary Wright served as an instructor in an Operational Training Unit - often considered more hazardous than combat operations - and then he transferred to No. 442 RCAF as a flight commander, flying Spitfires in Johnnie Johnson’s wing in the Normandy invasion. Johnson was a high-scoring fighter pilot, so action was hectic. Gary Wright ended the war as a flight lieutenant - and immediately switched to the Royal Canadian Navy, where he flew off carriers: in those days, a risky business. Clearly, Gary couldn’t get enough flying.


    My ‘Odds & Sods’ has a section called Horseplay, with examples of off-duty high jinks. Gary Wright rarely talked about the war, but he told Peter about his memories of horseplay in North Africa. His squadron was in a hotel in Alexandria when a large potted plant got tipped over the balcony. Nothing to get excited about (drink had been taken), but the pot had hit a horse and flattened it. The squadron went downstairs. The horse belonged to a merchant, and it had pulled his cart; so his livelihood was harmed. The pilots felt guilty. How much was a dead horse worth? They passed the hat. The collection satisfied the merchant. He unbuckled the horse’s harness, pushed the cart, and went on his way.Whereupon the horse recovered and stood up. Now the squadron owned the horse, so they took it back to their hotel room.Which is another story.

     ‘Up the blue’- slang for in the desert - Gary’s squadron found a fairly intact Junkers 87 Stuka divebomber. Their mechanics made it flyable, painted it orange with RAF roundels, and it got flown for fun by pilots of Shark Squadron. The Stuka was a two-seater, with ample space, so they used it for beer and food runs to Cairo, always with a Kittyhawk escort. Why not? Johnnie Johnson did much the same thing in Normandy.  Here’s his Spitfire’s brewer’s dray to prove it.



 Readers Write #79 September 2021

                                                                Swift exit for Mussolini.      

     In 1940, Musso badly needed a victory. He had watched as Hitler's blitzkrieg had stormed across Europe, and at the last minute Italy became an ally of Germany, hoping to get a chunk of France. But when Italy intervened, the Italian invaders got a bloody nose from French soldiers. In June 1940 the Italian battle fleet had to retreat, damaged by British warships in the Mediterranean. The Italian army had camped inside Egypt, built strongpoints, and showed no sign of moving.   

     Mussolini hoped to get some glory from Hitler's threatened invasion of Britain. He offered the Italian air force to help the Luftwaffe throughout the Battle of Britain, and he was always declined.  Then, in mid-September - when invasion seemed unlikely - Germany agreed.  Mussolini's Corpo Aero Italiano  flew to Belgium.

    With 178 bombers and fighters, they might have made an impact.  In fact it wasn't until 11 November that they went into action.  On that day - coincidentally when British aircraft battered the Italian fleet at Taranto - an Italian force of ten bombers and forty fighters set out to attack Harwich, a British port 100 miles from Belgium.  A few German Me-109s went with them,  perhaps to navigate.

    British radar found them and three squadrons of Hurricanes were scrambled. The Italian force was slow and ponderous, and the combat was a turkey shoot.  The Italian CR42 fighter was a biplane with an open cockpit and fixed undercarriage; it lacked speed, armour and guns, but it was very agile.  Mostly it dodged Hurricanes.


    Three CR42s and six bombers were destroyed, and the cherry on the cake was the shooting down of a Messerschmidtt 109.  The RAF squadrons had no loss. Harwich was spared.  The folly of sending biplanes against Hurricanes was demonstrated by Flight Lieutenant 'Cowboy' Blatchford, a Canadian leading 257 squadron. In the fight he ran out of ammunition and he attacked the upper wing of a CR42 with his propeller, shredding it.  The CR42 crashed.  Blatchford landed safely, as this picture shows.


    Clearly, the training and equipment of the Italian air force were inadequate. The Corpo left Belgium in the New Year.  Mussolini looked to his army for victory. When Hitler invaded Russia, Mussolini sent a division to fight at Stalingrad.  Same result.


    The arrival of a special edition of Goshawk Squadron, celebrating its fifty years in print, got a tremendous review in The Times and a flurry of congratulations.  It prompted Roger in London to get the novel: "Am enjoying it very much." Jonathan in Melbourne, Australia, told me: "I own and have read multiple times all of your RFC and RAF novels.  They have amused, troubled and moved me over many readings and I remain grateful for the experience."  He wondered about Churchill's questioning of the RAF's 'cricket scores' of enemy aircraft destroyed in the Battle, so soon before his 'The Few' speech.  In fact there was no contradiction: Churchill's speeches were partly aimed at America, whose aid he desperately needed.  'The Few' speech reminded America that Britain was a pugnacious friend.


 Readers Write #80 November 2021

Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson review — 

this savage portrait of war is a modern classic

This novel, first published 50 years ago, was championed by Saul Bellow and nearly won the Booker Prize. Review by Antonia Senior 


A British Sopwith Camel in battle with German biplanes during the First World War  BETTMANN ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

    In 1971 an acerbic debut novel about fighter pilots in the First World War nearly won the Booker Prize. Goshawk Squadron was championed by Saul Bellow but it lost out to VS Naipaul's In a Free State. If Bellow had swayed his fellow judges, Derek Robinson would be a household name, rather than the darling of a small band of devotees. 

    Robinson, who is 89, has written 25 books, but Goshawk Squadron, reissued next week by MacLehose Press, remains his finest. It centres on the unforgettable figure of Stanley Woolley, the