Declarations of War by Len Deighton (1972)

Deighton’s only collection of short stories, a baker’s dozen of tales about war.

The short story puts a premium on setting the scene quickly, thus many of the stories open with a traditional description and feel rather old-fashioned…

Until you realise that many of them have some kind of gag or twist, like the two which lead you to sympathise with what you think are British fighters, until they are revealed to be Germans in the final sentences. Boom boom. The ‘conceits’ or tricks in A New Way To Say Goodnight and Bonus For A Salesman made me laugh out loud. The pay-offs are funny, but at least in part because they’re so cheesy. Ending a short story is the hard bit.

  • It must have been two other fellows WWII. Set in the present, a travelling salesman pulls into the garage where his former colonel is fixing a car. They reminisce about the time at a farmhouse in Italy during the War where the salesman rescued a tank, but both have drastically different memories of the incident.
  • Winter’s Morning WWI. A fighter ace, his partner and a new boy go for an early morning patrol and engage in a fierce firefight with enemy planes. Only on landing are we told the ace is German, something which jolts our whole understanding of the story.
  • First Base Vietnam. Two GIs driving a truck get lost in rainy weather on minor roads in Vietnam before stumbling across a deserted US military base where they accidentally crash the truck. One of the soldiers sustains fatal burns and dies after a few days, the other burying the body. Then the survivor hunkers down with years worth of rations, and he may be there still. A JG Ballard effect of collapse and abandonment.
  • Paper Casualty WWII. An invasion exercise is being carried out early in the war in Kent. Deighton withholds the context for a while, deliberately misleading the reader to believe he is describing a real invasion of Kent by enemy forces. The senior officers guiding the exercise are assembled in a country house when an ‘enemy agent’ (ie  British soldier play-acting an infiltrator) gets past their security and pins a piece of paper with the word ‘bomb’ on it to the meeting room door – thus ‘killing’ all the senior staff, much to the colonel-in-charge’s chagrin.
  • Brent’s Deus ex Machina WWII. Interview between working class Flying Sergeant Brent who is overcome with stress and fear piloting his bomber, and upper class doctor Hassal. The former is eventually so overcome with anger and hatred that he goes on to become one of the most fearless and decorated pilots in the squad.
  • *A New Way To Say Goodnight 1930s. A young lecturer and his distinguished air ace guest discuss contemporary politics, the economic troubles, all the students into sex and drugs, and a keen young new political movement which is going to overthrow the corrupt old order – you are led to believe it’s at an old Oxbridge college and a contemporary (1970) setting, until the last line when the lecturer says thank you, Herr Göring. It’s meant to sucker you in to seeing how you would react to the political bromides the General airs, but it was such a sharp trick it made me laugh out loud.
  • Lord Nick Flies Again WWI. A young British pilot gets the unenviable task of flying a dilapidated biplane back from France across the Channel. At the end of a nailbiting flight all he can think of to say to the sergeant who starts fixing his plane, is to quote from a Biggles-style comic of his youth.
  • Discipline American Civil War. A ragtag squad of Union infantry take the mickey out of their sergeant till the most troublesome four are ordered down to the valley bottom and up the other side to see if rebel forces are there. They are. The four are all shot.
  • Mission Control: Hannibal One Ancient Rome. First person narrative by a Roman comanding a reconnaissance troop when Hannibal’s elephants come over the Alps.
  • *Adagio WWII. Adagio is the Italian word used to describe a slow movement in classical music. This is a riveting account of a British Hurricane pilot closing on a flight of Heinkel 111s and the thoughts that go through his mind as time slows right down, and we are shocked to realise the entire story takes place during 1 minute. As completely absorbing and convincing as Bomber.
  • *Bonus For A Salesman 1930s. Starts as a letter from a bedraggled lower-class salesman who makes a living travelling round God-forsaken south American countries, who’s been pulled off a bus and arrested in the middle of a revoluçion. Turns out he’s carrying samples of weapons and is asked to demonstrate them to the soldiers and finds himself taking over supervising an ambush against loyalist troops, then managing the transport of the dead leader’s body to the capital and – by the end – it becomes clear that he himself was installed as the new Generalissimo, and is now looking back at the odd chain of events which brought him to power. Clever. Funny.
  • *Action WWII. This is more like the tricksy Deighton of the Ipcress spy novels: a bomber pilot and his friend seem to be recalling the squalid airfield digs they shared during the war. Slowly and obscurely it dawns on you the narrative is hopping between a conversation they are having in 1943 and the memories and conversation of the same two men 30 years later. But there is in fact a further twist on the last page, where you realise they’re both in fact watching a rough cut of a movie which has been made about the pilot’s life, and which refers to real incidents he and his friend remember but which have been altered in the film to make a better story. Genuinely moving.
  • *Twelve Good Men and True 1920. Twelve squaddies travel by train through the ferocious heat of the north Indian plain, decamping hungry and thirsty before marching up to a base in a deserted village where, only slowly, we realise they have been brought in from outside to perform an execution by firing squad of a mutineering Irish soldier.

Maybe because I’m old and tired the depiction of the old bomber pilot in Action, and the combination of the genuine sentiment, the sense of loss and old wounds, with the clever-clever of the interpenetrating time zones (1943 and 1970), has stayed most in memory. And it is a story about memory and fiction and the way both betray ‘reality’. Whatever that is.

He could hear a Lanc on the circuit. The trees of Dirty Lane hid the great machines as they passed over Grebe Fen village. When they came into sight to the right of the church steeple you could watch out for the bank of the wings as they came on to finals. You could tell then: you could tell if they were badly shot up or the driver was not at his best. ‘Not at his best’ was the Wingco’s way of saying half dead. That Wingco: a cold fish. The red Very lights had already been fired to keep the other planes circling and clear of the cripple. The sky behind the church was dark, and he couldn’t see the aeroplane. He felt for his spectacles and put them on before he realised that the sound he could hear was traffic on the Great North Road. The planes had all landed a quarter of a century ago; there were no more to come. The blackboards had long since been wiped clean, the telegrams sent, the widows paid, the war won. (Action, p.142)

Related links

1970s paperback edition of Declarations of War

1970s paperback edition of Declarations of War

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Leave a comment


  1. Great storyteller . . . I have read nearly all of these books. Good descriptions of each one. I read Declarations of War donkeys years ago but I remember nearly every single one. Just looked this up as I was telling a neurologist about the story Adagio and how time slows down when your very good at something that requires a lot of dexterity and you are also tense and scared.

    I love Bomber myself, I have read it many times . . . might just start it again tonight!

    Many thanks for this and all the best,


  2. Why do you think the mission commander praises his army at the beginning?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: