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Too Big for the Page


The inexcusable hold-up on my forthcoming book releases isn't being helped by my having bitten off more than I can chew. And my belt overhang will tell you that I can chew an awful lot. But this time I'm not sure I'm up to the task.

Now that we've established that the war stories are to have their own collection, I wanted a novella-length piece to finish off the book. One subject I've had bubbling around my head for quite a while is the infamous Convoy PQ17. For those who didn't know, this was an Arctic convoy that set off in summer 1941 to take vital war supplies to Russia. At the time it was the largest tonnage of merchant shipping ever assembled, making it an irresistible target for the Germans. To counter the threat, the Admiralty assembled a heavy escort force consisting of minesweepers, destroyers, cruisers and the mighty Home Fleet itself.

And now I have to over-simplify massively. The suggestion reached the Admiralty that the Tirpitz (sister ship to the Bismarck) had left port, accompanied by the cruisers Admiral Scheer and Lutzow. The convoy's defenders were withdrawn and the merchantmen ordered to scatter. The reasons are complex, but no rationalisations can fully erase the resulting stain on British naval history. Tirpitz never came near PQ17, but German torpedo bombers and U-boats decimated the near-defenceless freighters.

But amid the disaster, there were acts of heroism and compassion, on both sides of the conflict. Here was a splendid tale to re-tell through a work of fiction that stuck closely to actual events and combatants. I began researching with enthusiasm.

And that's where I hit the problem. This subject is a giant. The cast numbers into thousands, from Winston Churchill to a freezing deck hand too poor to buy sea boots. To cram it into 20,000 words or so means a level of creative licence I find uncomfortable, and the omission of a score of stories that ought to be there. It's bigger than anything I've ever attempted; far too big for an extended short story.

There's really only one solution. I'll complete the story to the best of my abilities and hope to do it justice. Then the new war collection can be released. Then I have to start on something bigger still.

It has to be a complete novel.


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