The Books

Black Night for Bomber Command

Not my first book, but the first that was published.

The original title for Black Night for Bomber Command was Fighting the Weather.  The phrase was Churchill’s to ‘Bomber’ Harris:  “I am not pressing you to fight the weather as well as the Germans – never forget that”.  I liked the title but it wasn’t sexy enough for the publisher.  Hence the change.

The book tells the story of a bombing raid on Berlin.    Five hundred aircraft set out on the night of 16 December 1943 in bitterly cold weather.  The return was hindered by thick fog and in the end more than 300 airmen died that night, almost half of them when the raid should have been over, victims of the weather.

By the time the aircraft were returning, bombs dropped, the cloud base was desperately low, on occasions less than 300 feet.  At RAF Bourn, for example, the ‘fitness for flying’ quotient was judged as zero by midnight. 

The book tells the story of why the raid went so wrong: why did it happen despite Churchill’s seemingly soothing words about bad weather flying? 

The book was first published in 2007 by Pen & Sword and a paperback version followed in 2014. 

Get in touch if you would like a copy. 

A Lancaster on a clear day over Elvington, Yorkshire.

Flying Boats of the Empire

The cover is from a painting by the war artist R Vivian Pitchforth

The story is a dramatic and human one.  It tells of slow, meandering flights across the Empire, swooping down on sun-warmed stretches of water for luncheon and tea, passengers cosseted with white napkins and silver service.  But it also describes misadventure and disaster: flying boats crashing with unnerving regularity.  The characters who appear in the book’s pages hint at the story’s breadth: they include Winston Churchill; the playwright, Terence Rattigan; Sir John Reith (who chaired both the BBC and Imperial Airways); the wartime Pathfinder, Don Bennett, and the doomed Duke of Kent.  They, and the hundreds of others who populate this story, together with Short’s magnificent aircraft, are what make the flying boat years worthy of record.  The Empire Flying Boat’s magnificent military sibling, the Sunderland, is also featured and the book illuminates some less well known areas of the war: the Norwegian campaign of 1940, for example, and ‘Australia’s Pearl Harbour’.

The book was not a ‘technical’ one, but an evocation of a lost age of aviation. At its beginning I quoted the novelist Jane Mendelsohn from her novel I Was Amelia Earhart:

‘Back then, a plane was called a ship. There were still cabins and a sense of voyaging. There was a reverence for flight because it was so dangerous. People lost themselves. There was no safety.’

Flying Boats of the Empire was published by Robert Hale in 2011. The Crowood Press took over Robert Hale’s list and I’m not sure if the book is readily available from there. At all events, let me know if you’re interested in buying a copy.

It could not be resisted: years after writing Flying Boats, I got to fly in a seaplane over Vancouver.

The Sketchbook War

In the early months of the 1939-1945 war, a government committee was set up to ‘draw up a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad’.  Its chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, was engaged in a plot to keep artists both in work and alive.  As a result hundreds of artists painted some 6,000 paintings recording the war as they saw it.  Thirty seven of these artists were ‘official’ and hence salaried. 

The Sketchbook War focuses on eight of them: Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden, Anthony Gross, Thomas Hennell, Eric Ravilious, Albert Richards, Richard Seddon, and John Worsley.  They were, for the most part, close, either through friendship, background, education or wartime experience.  Each of them was much closer to the front than the majority − they all went abroad; many of them approached the front line; they heard guns firing in earnest; two were torpedoed; two were taken prisoner; and three died, two of them in 1945. 

This is a book about how each of these artists coped with war: how each man’s way of life and temperament came up against the relentless nature of warfare.  The artists in this story show courage, tenacity, inventiveness, and persistence.  They are transported overseas; battle with fresh demands on technique, weather, illness, discomfort and hardship; value freedom and their own abilities; keep the world of the non-artist at bay; and, finally, survive, or lose their lives in the most tragic of circumstances.

The war artist Edward Ardizzone (on the left) with Geoffrey Keating outside the Villa La Scala in Taormina, Sicily in August 1943. Keating was a Major in the Army Film and Photographic Unit.