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Books on a stove

The Back Burner

They seemed like good ideas at the time...

In fact I still think they're good ideas, I just can't get the bloody things written. Writing a full-length novel is a massive task, for me at least. A book of 200 pages represents about six and a half hours of reading - that's why the film of the book always leaves so much out - and that's a long time to keep your audience entertained. Having the attention span of a Big Brother contestant, I struggle to stay focused for that long. Distractions creep in, rabbit holes open, and the story I started with gets lost in a ball of knitting.

The two books here keep floating back to the surface though. I'm determined to wrangle them into some sort of shape, and this page is a reminder for me to keep them alive and, one day, do the decent thing by them.

Vickers Wellington

Maybe It's Tonight

"Gentlemen, you are Britain’s fists. Each night you rise to the sound of the bell and take the fight to our enemy. Hitler knows, and knows well, that you are hunting him down. As his guard falters your blows fall ever closer to Berlin, where he lies in his bed each night, listening for your approach and thinking, 'Maybe it’s tonight'."

The title comes from a surprise visit to 142 Squadron by Winston Churchill. Bomber Command aircrews in the Second World War suffered appalling casualties. Almost half were killed, yet it wasn't until 2012 that a memorial was raised to their service. Maybe it's tonight must have been in the thoughts of every man as he climbed into that dark fuselage.

The story pivots on three anchors:

Stephen Forrester

We first meet Stephen as he tries to keep his butterfly mind focused on maintaining formation with the other two Hurricanes on his patrol Vic. He's not a bad pilot, but his concentration lapses lead him to make mistakes that earn him regular bollockings from his flight leader. He muddles through on likeability and consistently genuine efforts to keep his mind on the job and improve.

Raina (Ray) Forrester

Ray was born in India and came to England when she was six. She fell in love with flying while still in her teens and volunteered for the Air Transport Auxiliary soon after the outbreak of war. She and Stephen were married just a few weeks before the book starts.

Harry Sallis

Harry's first impressions of 142 Squadron are somewhat mixed. He's assigned as second pilot to a crew who welcome him warmly. All except the pilot who, in the words of the the rear gunner, "gives arseholes a bad name". The delivery of a new Wellington introduces him to Ray, and things begin rapidly to change.

You can read more about the book's background here

Karl Niemeyer, alias Milwaukee Bill

The Kingfishers

Towards the end of The Larks, Colin Hingley crash lands behind enemy lines and is taken prisoner. In The Kingfishers we will learn what happened next.

Holzminden prisoner-of war camp was a straflager - a punishment camp. Its inmates included a large number of habitual escapees and other troublemakers, though some were just plain unlucky. Colin is among those unlucky ones. The camp's commandant was hauptmann Karl Niemeyer, and eccentric character who had lived for seventeeen years in the USA. Know to the prisoners as Milwaukee Bill, Niemeyer had adopted the Americans' accents, but failed to master their vocabulary.

By 1918, life in any German POW camp was uncomfortable and challenging, not through cruelty but because food was becoming increasingly scarce. Red Cross parcels and gifts sent by prisoners' families meant that the inmates were often better fed than their guards. But the Holzminden regime under Milwaukee Bill was brutal and inconsistent. The brutality stemmed from the kommandant, who was designated a war criminal at the end of hostilities. The inconsistency had a more benign origin. Several German guards were disgusted by their superior's actions and tried surrpetitiously to ease the prisoners' burden. Many were severely punished for doing so; others, however, chose the safer route of carrying out orders.

Concentrating those most likely to escape into one camp seemed like a good idea. Placing them where they were free to swap ideas and plans, and overseeing them with guards who had more fellow-feeling for their charges than for their officers, introduced a flaw to the reasoning. Escape attempts included cutting the wire, climbing the fences and strolling through the gates in stolen civilian clothes, German uniforms or - at least once - a woman's dress.

And on the night of 23rd July, thirty men left the camp via a tunnel.

 

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