Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton (1977)

For new pilots the high-altitude battles could be a frightening experience. It was very, very cold at 25,000 feet, and the Spitfires slipped and skidded through the thin air, as the propeller blades failed to bite. Invariably the Perspex misted over and reduced visibility. Only slowly did the aircraft add a few hundred feet, and for this reason the throttles remained wide open. It meant that if a pilot dropped back from his formation through lack of flying skill, he could never catch up with them again. And above them were the Bf 109s, watching and waiting for just such a straggler. This was the way that many young men died: alone and cold in the thin blue air, peering through the condensation into the glare of the sun, unable to see the men who killed them. (p.244)

This is a totally gripping, impressively researched and comprehensive history of a key moment in British and world history and showcases the incredible depth and range of Deighton’s knowledge of the subject matter and period.

I read Blitzkrieg, the later book first, because that is the sequence of events. Both books are divided into five parts, with a long central section about the technical developments in the key weapons (tanks in Blitzkrieg, airplanes in Fighter) followed by an equally long section describing in detail the key events (of the German invasion of France in May 1940, of the Battle of Britain July-October 1940) ending with a fairly short epilogue or summary.

Fighter’s strengths

Fighter is the more enjoyable book, becoming steadily more gripping and exciting as you read on. I think it’s because:

  • Fighter planes are more beautiful and inspiring than tanks.
  • The planes were more directly the creation of inspired genius designers, who are more interesting to read about than the designers of tanks (Willy Messerschmitt, Reginald Mitchell the Spitfire, Sydney Camm the Hawker Hurricane).
  • The history of manned flight since the Wright brothers is more interesting than the history of putting metal plates and a machine gun on a lorry chassis and calling it a ‘tank’, and understanding how airplanes actually fly is more interesting, and more broadly applicable, than understanding how tank tracks work.
  • The fighter plane part of the battle concerns dashing and heroic individuals who Deighton names and describes in detail – Peter Townsend, Josef Frantisek, Adolf Galland – there are photos of them – unlike the largely anonymous and massed ranks activity of the Battle for France, led by a handful of rather imposing generals (Rommel, Guderian).
  • Later in the war, it all got vastly bigger. While Britain was producing 400 new planes a month, towards the end of the year President Roosevelt ordered his factories to begin producing planes, 50,000 planes a year! Later in the war the Luftwaffe was to lose in one day as many aircraft as it lost in the entire Battle. The Battle of Britain represents a moment when individuals still counted – Deighton calls it the last romantic battle in history.

Learnings

I learned that:

  • Lord Beaverbrook’s contribution to victory – put in charge of Fighter Command logistics by Churchill, cutting through lots of bureaucracy to maximise factory output and set up roaming repair squads – was as important as Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s contribution, and that Dowding said so. I was virtually cheering the Beaverbrook passages. I like his motto: Organisation is the enemy of improvisation.
  • The Germans didn’t have a plan. Hitler wasn’t much interested. Operation Sealion (the invasion of Britain) was conceived too late in the year (August) and Göring never gave clear strategic guidance to his marshals. The Germans fundamentally didn’t know what they were trying to achieve and Deighton lists four possible outcomes which included: destroy Fighter Command to give Germany control of the air and enable a cross-Channel invasion; bomb London into submission; destroy Britain’s war machine ie factories. They did some of each but none completely and all historians agree that they were on the verge of destroying Fighter Command – reducing airfields, planes and pilots below an operational minimum – when, early in September, they switched to the second strategy and bombed London for 57 consecutive nights. Though the population of London wouldn’t have agreed Dowding and Park considered this ‘the miracle’ for it gave them time to rebuild the fighter force.
  • When summer slipped into autumn and the weather worsened making a seaborne invasion impossible, Hitler shrugged his shoulders and got out his maps of Russia. Britain was effectively neutralised, the war in the West essentially over: he was interested in new adventures.
  • Deighton powerfully dislikes the bureaucrats at the British Air Ministry whose main contribution was to hamper Fighter Command with stupid orders, come up with pointless hare-brained schemes, and treat Dowding and Park, the two men whose masterly strategy won the Battle, appallingly. Both were sacked at the end of the year. Dowding was given 24 hours to clear his desk.

Robust views/detailed knowledge

As in Blitzkrieg, Deighton is confident in his opinions. Discussing one of the countless machinations of Air Field Marshall Erhard Milch, Deighton writes:

Milch’s allegations are nonsense. (p.301)

These kind of confident assertions are based on Deighton’s incredibly in-depth knowledge of the entire period, from the technical spec of the planes, through the organisational structure of both air forces, detailed profiles of the key players on both sides, to an understanding of the changing tactics developed by each side, down to precise descriptions of uniforms, medals, hats, parachutes and so on.

For example, his captions to many of the 62 photos in the book not only point out the figures in a picture but name the medals the pilots and generals are wearing; there are few photos of planes without additional information about their markings or pointing out details of design and construction to look for. As in his other books, he shows a special interest in organisational structures:

Geschwader was about 100 aircraft, give or take twenty according to circumstances. It consisted of three Gruppen, always designated by Roman numerals I, II or III. Finally there was the Staffel, about twelve aircraft. Staffeln were numbered from 1 to 9, in arabic numerals, to make a Geschwader. Thus, III/JG 26 means the third Gruppe of Jagdgeshwader (fighter Geshwader) number 26. While 8/KG 26 is the eighth Staffel of Kampfgeschwader (bomber Geschwader) number 76. (footnote on page 129)

Towards the end of the book, Deighton makes the very broad claim (repeated in Blitzkrieg) that, without Hitler’s anti-Semitism – which forced many of Germany’s best scientists and engineers abroad – the Nazis would probably have developed atomic bombs and the long-range missiles to deliver them and would quite possibly have taken over the world. From the minutiae of medals to grand sweeps of alternative history, this is a fascinating and rewarding book on countless levels.

Conclusion

After the first four Ipcress novels Deighton’s fiction changed – his prose became more obvious and functional while he experimented with new subject matter: comedy, a novel set in Hollywood, and then his devastating documentary novel about a World War II bombing raid, Bomber. When he returned to the spy genre in the early 1970s, the three spy novels leading up to Fighter feel much weaker than the Ipcress set.

Could it be that the time and mental energy Deighton expended researching his WWII histories, visiting key locations, months spent at the Imperial War Museum and other archives, and the correspondence and meetings he had with key players in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain (both books contain photos ‘taken by the author’ and refer to letters and conversation with eye witness participants) – could it be that this massive expenditure of time and effort and immersing himself in bureaucratic records and organisational archives, permanently damaged his imaginative prose style and weakened his fiction?

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Paperback cover of Fighter

Paperback cover of Fighter

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.

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth (1975)

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.


Credit

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1975. All quotes and references are from the 2016 Corgi paperback edition.

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Forsyth’s books

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.

Bomber by Len Deighton (1970)

The book’s sub-title says it all: ‘Events Relating to the Last Flight of an RAF Bomber Over Germany on the Night of June 31st, 1943‘. At 550-pages long this is an epic description of a fateful 24 hours in 1943, starting on an RAF bomber base and following in detail the lives of the RAF crews and relatives who are about to take part in a massive night bombing raid on a town in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley, simultaneously introducing and describing a wide range of German air force, army and civilian characters who will be on the receiving end.

Eventually, so intertwined do the characters’ stories become that Deighton is able, for example, to intersperse dialogue between crew in a bomber in the air with dialogue between the German radar team tracking them on the ground in alternating sentences. This ‘sandwich’ technique is deployed numerous times at the book’s climax creating multiple levels of dramatic intensity.

Emotional impact

Once the bombing begins, the death toll commences. It is difficult to cope with getting to know such a large cast of characters (maybe 50-plus named individuals), only to see almost all of them die horribly – eviscerated, burnt by wildfires or phosphorus, blown up, shot to pieces, cut in half, exploded, beaten to death, crushed under rubble and much more – I am still upset and stunned. The emotional impact is devastating. What horror, from start to finish, what inconceivable waste and pain and suffering. What terrible ordeals the people alive during this time (like my parents) went through. This novel is a great warning, a sober, understated plea from the past.

Information strategy

Deighton’s Ipcress novels (1962-66) used a wide array of metatextual tricks and gimmicks, including photocopies of letters, ‘secret’ files, footnotes and detailed appendices (plus free pullout spy kits in the early hardback editions) to give the text a sense of verisimilitude (and larky fun).

You might have expected this deeply historical novel, with its claims to documentary accuracy and thoroughness, to have used a similar strategy – maybe appendices on the structure of German air defence, diagrams of the main types of bomber and fighter involved, and so on (granted, there are copies of two official letters in the epilogue).

But Deighton adopts a different approach, incorporating all the technical information into the text and narrative. This means some pages read rather like encyclopedia articles and the text as a whole is very information-heavy, but has the advantage that the right information is presented in the right place, at its most dramatically relevant point.

Sobre style

In the Ipcress novels Deighton delighted in writing cryptically and allusively, deliberately omitting explanatory sentences in events large and small, so the reader was continually pausing to put two and two together or having to reread whole sections to figure out what just happened. These tricks and turns are part of what make the Ipcress novels so inventive and entertaining.

The style here is much more traditional, conservative, even, as, after all, is the subject matter. There must be hundreds of WWII novels – how many of them are experimental in tone or style? No, in this novel chapters open by setting a scene or introducing a character, and move on to dialogue or dramatic events, in an entirely traditional way.

Arguably, the space occupied in the Ipcress novels by jokey playfulness has been replaced by the dense weight of technical information. Only very occasionally, half a dozen times in the 550 pages, does the old tricksy Deighton twinkle for a moment.

Historical knowledge

Readers who don’t relish technical descriptions of planes and bombs and guns and radar etc might feel overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of Deighton’s knowledge of the period, not just the detailed descriptions of preparing, fuelling and flying a WWII bomber, but of every single part of all the equipment involved, as well as the attention he pays to ranks and decorations and uniforms and bureaucracy of the German side, the Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht and SS.

It amounts to a dazzling display of knowledge of the period, completely convincing you of every detail. You are there, the text integrating awesome amounts of technical information into its brisk heartless storylines until you just take it for granted that Deighton’s account of the most arcane aspects of bomber design or SS protocol is correct, and concentrate on the characters and the hideous sequence of brutal ends which overwhelm them.

Which is an enormous tribute to how seamlessly Deighton weaves a vast amount of factual information into his fictional narrative.

Clinical detachment

Deighton is a warmer writer than, say, Frederick Forsyth. There is an undercurrent of humour throughout his writing. The delineation of the characters may be a little schematic – the efficient bomber captain (Lambert), the sneaky station commander (Sweet) brown-nosing for promotion, the lonely wing commander (Munro), the humane German radar commandant (August Bach), the housekeeper half his age who loves him (Anna-Luisa) – but Deighton goes to lengths to humanise them, giving them all detailed and persuasive backstories. If the characterisation doesn’t have the depth and range we associate with non-genre ‘literature’, it is enough for a novel like this which in the end isn’t really about humans, but about the grotesque, vast killing machine of modern warfare.

But very often (too often?) the carefully constructed personality of one of the characters, someone we’ve got to know and sympathise with, is cruelly and clinically ended. After following August and Anna-Luisa’s love affair for over 500 pages it is hard to know what to feel when, on the verge of being freed from the cellar where she’s been trapped with Bach’s young son, she opens her mouth to speak and she, the boy and all their rescuers are vapourised by a British high explosive bomb. It is typical of Deighton’s clinical approach that he explains in flat, technical detail the process by which the delayed fuse reached the point of exploding at precisely that moment.

This abrupt, brutal end is typical of most of the characters in the book but the emotionless description of the mechanical process which results in such devastating loss of life is also typical. Deighton makes no comment. The comment is implicit in the telling. But nonetheless it leaves the reader high and dry, stunned, not knowing where to look or what to feel except a steadily mounting sense of horror and numbness.

A sample

This passage epitomises the technical, the clinical and the dramatic approach of this harrowing novel.

Three 20-mm MG FF cannons were fitted in the nose of Löwenherz’s Junkers 88R. In sequence of threes there was a thin-cased shell containing 19.5 grammes of Hexogen A1 high-explosive filling, an explosive armour-piercing shell with a reinforced point and an incendiary that burned at a temperature betwenn 2,000 and 3,000 degrees centigrade for nearly one second. Each cannon was firing at the rate of of 520 rounds per minute and was fed by a drum containing 60 rounds. So in seven seconds all of the cannon drums were empty and 180 shells had been fired at [the Lancaster bomber]. The target measured 300 square feet, and 38 struck the aeroplane. Theoretically 20 shells would have constituted an average lethal blow.

‘My legs,’ screamed Fleming. ‘God! Help me, Mother, Mother, Mother!’

The first shell that penetrated the aircraft came through the forward hatch. Missing the bomb aimer by only an inch, it exploded on contact with the front turret mounting-ring. It dislocated the turret, severed the throttle and rudder controls, burst the compressed-air tank and broke open the window-spray glycol container. In the airstream the coolant atomised into a cloud of white mist. One twenty-sixth of a second later the second shell came through the bomb compartment and exploded under the floor of the navigator’s position. In the mysterious manner of explosions, it sucked the navigator downwards, while blowing the astrodome, and the wireless operator standing under it, out into the night unharmed. Although without his parachute.

Three shells – one HE, one AP and one incendiary – exploded in glancing contact with the starboard fuselage exterior immediately to the rear of the mid-upper turret. Apart from mortally harming the gunner the explosion of the HE shell fractured the metal formers at a place where, after manufacture, the rear part of the fuselage is bolted on. The incendiary shell completed the severance. A structural bisection of [the Lancaster] occurred one and a half minutes later and two thousand feet lower. Long before this, another HE shell passed through the elevator hinge-bracket of the tail and blew part of the servo trim assembly into the rear turret with such force that it decapitated the rear gunner. Those six hits were the most telling ones, but there were thirty-two others. Some ricocheted off the engines and wings and penetrated the fuselage almost horizontally.

He couldn’t hold her, he couldn’t. Oh dear God, his arms and legs! Dropping through the night like a paper aeroplane. ‘I’m sorry, chaps,’ he shouted, for he felt a terrible sense of guilt. Involuntarily his bowels and bladder relaxed and he felt himself befouled. ‘I’m sorry.’

It was no use for Fleming to scream apologies; there was no one aboard to hear him. He outlived any of his crew, for from 16,000 feet the wireless operator falling at 120 mph (the terminal velocity of his weight) reached the ground ninety seconds later. He made an indentation twelve inches deep. This represented a deceleration equivalent to 450 times the force of gravity. He split open like a slaughtered animal and died instantly. Fleming, still strapped into the pilot’s seat and aghast at his incontinence, hit the earth (along with the front of hte fuselage, two Rolls-Royce engines and most of the main spar) some four minutes later. To him it seemed like four hours.
(HarperCollins 1995 paperback edition p.373)

Bomber is a devastating book, a masterpiece of historical reconstruction and dramatic imagining.

Related links

Cover of a paperback edition of Bomber

Cover of a paperback edition of Bomber

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.

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