Christmas Eve 1957. A young RAF pilot takes off in his de Havilland Vampire from Celle airfield in Germany to fly back to England. But somewhere over the North Sea his instruments fail. And when he radios for guidance, all 12 channels are dead. Beneath him is an unbroken sea of cloud, giving no indication of landmarks or his position. With only 50 minutes of fuel left, he realises he is flying blind, and begins to fly in triangles, a standard emergency procedure, hoping radar monitors will spot him.
With only five minutes of fuel left he is nerving himself to fly East, blindly out over the North Sea (to avoid crashing on land, into inhabited areas) and bail out into the freezing water. He’ll be dead in under an hour.
And it’s at this point he notices that a plane has appeared just above the cloud layer and is shadowing his triangles. He descends low enough to see the pilot through his perspex canopy signalling him to follow. Controlling his panic, our man indicates he only has five minutes of fuel left. He is amazed to see his guide is flying an old turbo-prop de Havilland Mosquito, a relic of the war. He follows it in a wide circle and then the other pilot indicates they’re going to plunge down into the fog layer.
Because all the description up to this point in the narrative has been so technical, with lots of detail about navigation aids and signals, about how radio direction finders work, even about how fog forms easily off the Norfolk coast, that the description of the pilot’s fear is all the more gripping. He signals with controlled panic to the other pilot that his fuel gauge is now on zero. He can feel the sweat making his suit stick to his back.
The other pilot guides him down through the fog and suddenly there are the lights of an airfield. He pushes down onto the landing strip then clamps on the brakes, bringing the Vampire to a juddering halt just yards from the end of the runway. It takes a while for an old lorry to come lumbering out to him from the airfield buildings, which all seem to be dark for some reason.
A super-annuated and rather tipsy Flying Lieutenant Marks greets him and drives him back to the base buildings. He isn’t at RAF Merriam St George, as he expected, but at a disused, all-but-abandoned airfield called RAF Minton, which was decommissioned soon after the war. The narrator confidently puts to Marks his theory that one of the pilots from the weather station at RAF Gloucester, who still use Mosquitoes, must have guided him in. But when he phones RAF Gloucester there have been no flights that evening, and they stopped using Mosquitoes months ago. He calls RAF Merriam but they haven’t had their GCA location finder equipment turned on that evening. He is deeply puzzled. Who was his mystery saviour? And why guide him to this almost derelict airfield?
The only other employee on the base, an old boy named Joe, fixes the narrator a bath then a hot meal of bacon and eggs. There’s an old photo in the bedroom he shows him to, of a certain Johnny Kavanagh, star of the Mosquito squadron which was based there during the war. Joe explains that Johnny was the best pathfinder in the squadron, could fly blind through fog and rain. Once back from missions, he made it a personal task to go back out to find any heavy bombers which had been damaged during their mass raids on Germany, guiding them back to the nearest landing field in England.
Having eliminated all the other possibilities of who the mystery Mosquito pilot was, the narrator now builds an elaborate theory around this ‘Johnny’. Must have retired, built up a nice business, maybe bought one of the old Mosquitoes and kept it as a going concern himself. Must have been him who found the narrator and guided him to safety with literally only seconds to spare as his fuel ran out.
‘Oh no,’ says Joe the servant. ‘Johnny went out on his last patrol on Christmas Eve 1943. Never came back.’ Then… then… was the narrator rescued by… a ghost?
This is a nice, tidy Christmas ghost story, told with Forsyth’s habitual concern for practical and technological detail, all of which ground it in a prosaic reality – and with a typically short story-esque shock ending.
The slender text is padded out into a slim 120-page long paperback by the wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white illustrations of Chris Foss. There are lots of them – I counted 48, sometimes filling two pages – and they vividly convey the black and white night-time ambience of the story, with especially vivid wide shots showing the plane in the huge empty sky, or looking like a tiny toy on a huge airfield, or a vivid picture of the restlessly cold waves of the North Sea.
The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1975. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.
- The Shepherd on Amazon
- Frederick Forsyth Wikipedia article
- Forsyth’s column in the Daily Express
- Chris Foss’s website
1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.