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                                                                                      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.

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.

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?