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                                                                                      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 the island of Saipan, which had an airfield from which B-29 Fortresses could bomb the mainland,  that the raids on Tokyo made the Japanese generals reluctantly recognise that America was a superpower which, with Britain in Burma and Australia in Papua-New Guinea, was turning the tables.    

        But from 1941 to 1944, Japan thought she had more to lose in ChinaRussia 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 of China 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.”

My thanks to all who wrote.
Derek Robinson                                                                        

Previous Readers Write

Why 1914

Why 1914?

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

Here's a taste of what you get:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Paperback is available only directly from the author

In UK                                              8
In Europe                                         10
Rest  of World                                 12.50

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

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

Click here for details

Mentioned in Despatches

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

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

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

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

                                A Splendid Little War is now available in paperback. 

It's 1919. The  Great War is over but a civil war is raging in Russia.  Bolshevik Reds are fighting White Russians, and a volunteer R.A.F. squadron, flying clapped-out Sopwith Camels and DH9 bombers, arrives to duff up the Reds.  But the 'splendid little war' they are promised turns out to be big and brutal, a world of armoured train, anarchist guerillas, unreliable allies and pitiless enemies.  There is comedy, but it is the bleakest kind. A Splendid Little War shows war as it is: grim, funny, moving - but never splendid.

Reviews of A Splendid Little War
      The Daily Express
                                     American edition of GQ Magazine
                                                                                            The Independent                                                                    


DR_Who He?   When someone at a party asks what I do, I say I write Ripping Yarns.  It's a quick answer but a very incomplete one. I'm best known for my novels about the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force in the two World Wars and some might say the books are highly readable adventure stories.  Nothing wrong with that, but there's more than combat in the high blue yonder   -   there's also memorable characters, there's unexpected twists and turns of warfare,  and there's aircrew humour.   Especially the humour.  I did my National Service in the Royal Air Force.  I was never airborne; I was in a Ground Control Interception Unit, deep underground in a concrete bunker.  But I learned a lot about the special humour of flying people,  and it emerges naturally and unavoidably in my novels. Humour is one of the essential colours in the spectrum of life. You don't make a story more serious by removing the humour; you just make it less true.

The longer I do this job, the luckier I know I am.  For a start, I'm English and the English language is global. That's pure luck of birth. I might have been born in Hungary.  There are good Hungarian writers,  but it's a lot easier for me to find readers throughout the English-speaking world.  And I was lucky to have literate parents.  When I grew up there were always books and magazines about the house, unlike some other kids' homes. There was a good public library at the end of the street.  And there was the 1944 Education Act which created State Scholarships for bright lads and helped me get into Cambridge.
That's where I learned to write boringly. I was writing to impress, not to inform. Twelve years in advertising agencies (London and New York) kicked the crap out of my style. Every word had to work hard. I wrote ad copy and commercials for everything from Esso petrol to The Wall Street Journal.  Always I knew I wanted to move on, to be a fulltime writer  -  but I had nothing to say.  Nothing worth reading, anyway. (I was a late developer.) I wrote two bad and unpublishable novels and finally got it right with a story called Goshawk Squadron. Might have won the Booker Prize if Saul Bellow, one of the judges, had had his way. Not important. "The most readable novel of the year," Nina Bawden said of Goshawk in the Daily Telegraph. "I laughed aloud several times, and was in the end reduced to tears." That's worth more than any prize. The first novel bought me enough time to write the second, and so it goes. Lucky me.


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

                war story_new              hornets sting_new            goshawk squadron_new              

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

All four of the Luis Cabrillo novels (following the career of  probably the best WW2 double agent and later con-man) are now available as eBooks from Amazon/Kindle. Here are the covers:

                              Artillery                  RedRag                 OpBam 
                            Click on a cover to go to the Amazon sales page.

The R.F.C. trilogy and the R.A.F. Quartet are also available as e-books.



        'Operation Bamboozle' is a fastmoving black comedy about what happens when a high-stakes con artist takes on the Mob in Los Angeles.  The result is a heady brew of disorganised crime, hot dollars, triple virgins and dead bodies in the begonias.   

         Luis Cabrillo is the con artist, Julie Conroy is his squeeze, and here's the opening sentence:   

      For a man who had been hauled out of Lake Michigan in 1949, headless, his legs and arms broken, and stabbed in the heart with a red ballpoint pen, Frankie Blanco was in pretty good shape in 1953.  

Click to see the News of the World Review


                        RED RAG BLUES                                                  

  He's a heel, bless him. 

 Luis Cabrillo rides again in this "dashing tale of Nazis and Mafiosi", as The Observer called it. 
In fact, Nazis and Mafiosi play second fiddle to the real dynamo in this story.  It's 1953, and Senator Joe McCarthy's witchhunt for Reds under beds is scaring America witless.

Cue Luis Cabrillo, ex-double agent, now con artist supreme. Dollars flow, hotly pursued by bullets. Luis doesn't know it, but FBI, MI5, KGB and CIA have him firmly in their sights. Not to mention Stevie, the only three-times married virgin in New York City.  This is a rich, fast and very black comedy.

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

MacLehose Press (an imprint of Quercus Books) owns the book rights to all my RFC and RAF novels.  Sam Goldwyn Jr  owns the screen rights to Goshawk Squadron. In 1988, LWT made a six-part television series of Piece of Cake and they own the rights to that production.  I own the screen rights to any remake of Piece of Cake.  I own the screen rights to all my other novels. Quercus Books owns the e-book rights to all my fiction backlist, available through Amazon/Kindle.  Derek Robinson

Contact       I welcome comments and views about my books, though as a working writer I can't guarantee to have sufficient time to answer everyone.  

Click here to send me an email 

Main publications     Click any group heading to see details.

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

Bristol Books

Availability of the books.   

All my fiction is available as e-books.  Maclehose Press publish (in print) all eight of my flying novels, available from any good book seller (who may have to order a copy). Or you  could try the websites listed below, often useful for tracking down both new and used books. 

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

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

Quercus Books  Amazon UK      Amazon USA      Fantastic Fiction   

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

Major books and original publication dates:

1971 Goshawk Squadron
1973 Rotten with Honour
1977 Kramer's War
1979 The Eldorado Network
1983 Piece of Cake
1987 War Story
1991 Artillery of Lies
1993 A Good Clean Fight

1999 Hornet's Sting
2002 Damned Good Show
2002 Kentucky Blues
2005 Invasion 1940
2005 Red Rag Blues
2008 Hullo Russia, Goodbye England
2009 Operation Bamboozle
2013 A Splendid Little War

2014   Why 1914?