The Website of Novelist  Derek Robinson

 Quick Links:                      

  RFC Books   RAF Books   Luis Cabrillo Books  Other Novels    Bristol Books   Rugby Books

                                                                                        Readers Write #42 January 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
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?