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                                                                                        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 to AGCF  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 what HRGE is all about.
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
(But if you are in UK, see Spring Sale offer in panel above!)

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.

Why 1914_Amzn Ebk cvr
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?