Fleet Air Arm Protecting Convoys

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 22308) Protection for convoys is one of the jobs of the Fleet Air Arm planes of the Royal Air Naval Station, Sierra Leone. Here a Boulton Paul Defiant from the station sweeps over a big convoy which is just leaving Freetown Harbour. The aircraft took off from from HMS SPURWING, Royal Naval Air Station in Sierra Leone, once a stretch of untouchable bush. Part of the wings and struts of the biplane from wh… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016128

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 22306) Two of the station’s Boulton Paul Defiant aircraft in flight after taking off from HMS SPURWING, Royal Naval Air Station in Sierra Leone, once a stretch of untouchable bush. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016127

 

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7869) A Fairey Fulmar returns to HMS VICTORIOUS after doing patrol during a Home Fleet convoy to Russia. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185619

Escorting convoys to Russia was a brutal task given the terrible weather and constant attacks by German aircraft and U-boats out of Norway. Home Fleet provided “distant cover” since fleet carriers like HMS Victorious and battleships such as KGV were too valuable to risk anywhere close to German air attack. Home FLeet distant cover was laid on in the event the Tirpitz came out.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 22312) A Fairey Fulmar aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm about to take off from HMS SPURWING, a Royal Naval Air Station in Sierra Leone, on a coastal reconnaissance. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186969

The Royal Navy named all of its bases as if they were ships. Hence, HMS Spurwing was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm base providing cover for convoys forming up off Freetown, Sierra Leone, a major convoy destination point where escorts changed.

The Royal Navy did most of its accounting by ship so it was easier to keep track of everything if all bases were treated as ships. For instance, unassigned officers were carried on the books of HMS Victory although they were obviously not on the ship itself although it did have accommodation for a small number of officers in transit.

If you wrote someone in the Royal Navy in World War Two, you addressed the letter to that person followed by name of ship followed by GPO, London.

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6123) A Fairey Fulmar being flagged off from the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS at Scapa Flow. The carrier’s island can be seen in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185487

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6120) A Fairey Fulmar taking off from the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS at Scapa Flow. Two more of the aircraft can be seen at the end of the flight deck. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185486

The two photographs above are unusual because they show planes both landing and taking off from the Royal Navy fleet carrier HMS Victorious while the carrier is at anchor in the Royal Navy Home Fleet anchorage of Scapa Flow.

Because of aerodynamic reasons, carriers in World War Two typically had to turn into the wind which gave added lift to planes taking off.  As an aircraft carrier neared its anchorage, the planes based on the carrier took off while the carrier was still at sea and could turn into the wind and flew to a Fleet Air Arm base on land.

They usually practiced landing on a carrier deck by landing on runways on land marked with the length of a carrier deck. Aircraft carrier pilots then and to this day often describe landing on a carrier as a “controlled crash.” It isn’t and wasn’t for the faint of heart.

In the last few years, the US Navy has started to fly drones from aircraft carriers which calls in question our naval strategy based around massive aircraft carrier battle groups. This is according to defense writer and expert Thomas Ricks, not me.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 6955) A Fairey Fulmar warming up on the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS. Note the Donald Duck painted on the nose of the plane. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185544

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7003) Sub Lieutenant (A) M Bennett, RNVR, in the cockpit of his Fairey Fulmar on board HMS VICTORIOUS. Note the art work on the nose of the aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185552

RNVR means Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Officers wore wavy stripes on their coat sleeves instead of regular stripes worn by professional “regular service” officers. Hence known as “wavy navy.” Nonetheless, RNVR officers came to vastly outnumber the regular service officers of whom there were only about 5,000 when the war began.

RNVR officers who were pilots assigned to the Fleet Air Arm wore a small insignia denoting this. The men claimed the small insignia was meant to inform all other RN personnel that they knew absolutely nothing about the navy.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7279) In the hangar deck of HMS VICTORIOUS at Hvalfjord, Iceland a row of Fairey Fulmars is flanked on either side by two rows of Fairey Albacores, all with their wings folded. The photograph was taken around the time of the search for the TIRPITZ. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185573

Hvalfjord was a treacherous anchorage because it was exposed to vicious winds. Ships at anchor normally dropped both bow and stern anchors which they usually didn’t do in more protected anchorages as well as keep steam on since they often had to make revolutions for two or three knots simply to stay where they were and not drag their anchors if a storm came up.

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 5950) The forward part of the flight deck of HMS VICTORIOUS with Fairey Fulmars and Fairey Albacores on board during preparations for Norwegian operations. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185479

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 7540) A bearded Fleet Air Arm gunner, Leading Airman C H Clark, from Tadworth, Surrey, exits his Fairey Albacore aircraft carrying his flying kit, after his aircraft returned from a patrol to HMS VICTORIOUS off the coast of Iceland. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205185586

 

Featured image shows: Fairey Albacores, the torpedo carrying plane of the Fleet Air Arm landing on the deck of HMS VICTORIOUS while the ship was en route to Hvalfjord, Iceland from Scapa Flow. The automatic Bat can be seen in the right of the picture, as can the arrestor wires running across the flight deck.

World War One Aircraft Deployed In World War Two?

Swordfish only entered active service in 1936 and Served Royal Navy Throughout the WORLD War Two.

A Swordfish taking off from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal, with another passing by astern, circa 1939.                                                                                      (Photo courtesy of US History and Heritage Command).

Although the Swordfish bi-plane looks like a relic from World War One, it only entered active service in 1936. The Fairey Aviation Company came up with the plans for the Swordfish. The plane was made of heavy canvas stretched over a wooden frame.

While originally built as a prototype for the Greek Navy, they turned it down in the mid-30s and Fairey Brothers Aircraft offered it the Royal Navy primarily for use on aircraft carriers. After design changes the plane went into production as the famous Royal Navy Swordfish which served multiple roles: patrol and reconnaissance, torpedo bomber, tactical bomber to support infantry and U-boat hunter/killer. The plane was oddly effective in all of these roles and was used operationally for the entire war.

 

THE BATTLE OF ATLANTIC, 1939-1945 (A 19718) A batman uses signal bats to guide the landing of a rocket-firing Fairey Swordfish of No. 816 Squadron Fleet Air Arm on board HMS TRACKER in the North Atlantic, September-October 1943. Note the rocket projectiles under the wings. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205186701

 

A FAIREY SWORDFISH IN FLIGHT (TR 1139) Distant view of two Fairey Swordfish aircraft in flight. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188677

FAIREY SWORDFISH’S NEW STING. JUNE 1944, ROYAL NAVAL AIR STATION, ST MERRYN, PADSTOW. THE FIRING OF ROCKET PROJECTILES FROM FAIREY SWORDFISH AIRCRAFT OF THE RAF. THE FAIREY SWORDFISH IS PRACTICE FIRING AT A ROCK TARGET. (A 23783) Fairey Swordfish loaded with rocket projectiles. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205155832
A FAIREY SWORDFISH IN FLIGHT (TR 1138) Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish Mark II, HS 545 ‘B’, in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No 824 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, 1943-1944. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205188676
THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 3538) No 785 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm: Fairey Swordfish Mk I Naval torpedo aircraft during a training flight from Royal Naval Air Station Crail. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205015987

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 24983) Three rocket projectile Fairey Swordfish during a training flight from St Merryn Royal Naval Air Station This operational squadron was commanded by Lieutenant Commander P Snow RN. Note the invasion stripes carried for the Normandy landings on the wings and fuselage of the aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016145

(Shortly before D-Day, all Allied aircraft with the exception of heavy bombers had three black stripes painted on each wing to help Allied troops ientify them as friendly aircraft. Allied soldiers had a tendency to fire on any aircraft and this continued despite the three black stripes)

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 24986) Three rocket projectile Fairey Swordfish during a training flight from St Merryn Royal Naval Air Station This operational squadron was commanded by Lieutenant Commander P Snow RN. Note the invasion stripes carried for the Normandy landings on the wings and fuselage of the aircraft. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016147

 

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 23784) Rockets fired from a Fairey Swordfish on their way to the target. The Fairey Swordfish was firing 60 lb HE heads at a rock target. The aircraft has flown from the Royal Naval Air Station at St Merryn, Padstow. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205016140

 

ROCKET FIRING FAIREY SWORDFISH. 1 AUGUST 1944, ST MERRYN ROYAL NAVAL AIR STATION. PRACTICE WITH AN OPERATIONAL SQUADRON OF ROCKET PROJECTILE FAIREY SWORDFISH, COMMANDED BY LIEUTENANT COMMANDER P SNOW, RN. (A 24985) Rocket projectile Fairey Swordfish in flight. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205156785

U-Boat Bunker St. Nazaire

 

nazaire1

Vizeadmiral Dönitz during the opening (photo courtesy Uboat.net)

 

U-Boat Bases and Bunkers: Saint Nazaire: The U-Boat Bunker suffered thirty major raids through the war with three being extremely heavy. The 28 February 1943 raid consisted of 430 bombers, the 22 March 1943 raid consisted of 350 bombers, and the 28 March raid consisted of 320 bombers. The town was almost completely destroyed in these raids while the bunker saw minimal damage.

From Uboat.net:

“The construction work started in February 1941. The bunker, built on the western side of the basin at Saint-Nazaire, was 295m wide, 130m long and 18m high and contained 14 U-boat pens.

After only 4 months the first pens were ready and so Vizeadmiral Dönitz opened on the 30th June 1941 the bunker. U-203 under Kptlt. Rolf Mützelburg was the first boat to use one section of the newly completed shelter.

Later a sluice bunker was also built, which the U-boats used to reach the sea.”

uboat.net/flotillas/bases/saint_nazaire.htm

One of My Favorite Books: Escort, by D.A. Rayner – Part 3

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Over two-hundred Flower class corvettes were built in 1939 and 1940 in the UK. Their length at the waterline was just less than two-hundred feet because that was the longest ship which could be built by the majority of civilian shipyards in the UK. These ships were hurriedly constructed by indifferent British laborers. They did not have the redundant heavy steel framing and structural supports common to other Royal Navy warships.

But there was a war on and this was the best the British could do. If the ship was seaworthy, the engine worked, the guns worked, and the depth charge apparatus functioned, then everything else was excused. Consequently, deck seams leaked, portholes weren’t properly sealed, and ventilators were badly designed and badly installed and had to shut down in storms depriving the interior of the ship with fresh air.

The mess decks, where the sailors lived, were often awash with six inches of sea water washing from side to side as the ships rolled from side to side, often in an arc of ninety degrees. The interior hulls of these ships were not insulated and condensation formed and dripped onto the decks.

Officers didn’t have it much better. They usually had two or three inches of water in their cabins and unlike the sailors, who slept in hammocks which swayed to the movements of the ships, the officers had bunks and staying in their bunks and trying to sleep in heavy weather was difficult, almost impossible.

flower_class_corvette


A Flower Class Corvette on patrol in the North Atlantic. The distorting camouflage pattern can be seen here although it is much faded.

 

[Source: Escort by D.A. Rayner. Image courtesy of World War II Today.]

MyShelf.com Interviews Author of World War Two Uboat Epic Charles McCain

 

 

bestselling naval epic AN HONORABLE GERMAN by Charles McCain resize

MyShelf: I really did enjoy reading An Honorable German. Looking at World War II from the viewpoint of a German Naval officer was a rare experience. I can not even imagine the work that went into writing that novel.

Charles: Thank you! Sometimes I can’t imagine it myself. Fortunately, I like to read, and reading about WWII and the Third Reich is something I’ve done since I was a young teenager. Even those years when I wasn’t thinking about the novel I was always reading. My publisher thinks I may be the only American author, if not the only author, ever to write a WWII epic from the German point of view. (Given the research I can certainly understand why).

The inspiration for the novel began with an article in a 1944 edition of Time magazine I picked up in the Tulane University library, while pretending to study for final exams. This article recounted how a number of German Navy prisoners had tunneled out of a POW camp in Phoenix, AZ and temporarily escaped. I had no idea there were German POWs in the US in WW Two. (There were 375,000). And I was very surprised that some of these prisoners—approximately 8,000—were from the U-boat force, or Ubootwaffe as the Germans call it.

I initially wanted to write the German version of The Great Escape ( book | movie). But my story first had to get the men to the POW camp. Several Germans named in the Time article had been aboard the pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee, Admiral Graf Speeincluding the leader of the escape, who had been the Senior Navigation Officer. I later corresponded with him. These men from the Graf Spee had escaped from Argentina in 1940 and made their way back to Germany, then to be pressed into service on U-Boats, from which they were ultimately captured. I discovered all of this through my research. The journey of these men from the Graf Spee to U-Boats to captivity in a POW camp in Arizona fascinated me.

When I plotted these events out over time, and wrote and rewrote different sections of the novel, it finally became clear that the journey of the protagonist to the POW camp was the most interesting and longest part of the story line. But this was more an unconscious process at the time. Only by looking backward do I understand it.

 

An Hon German by Charles McCain

MyShelf: Please tell us about yourself, your life up to now, and your road to publication.

Charles: Well that’s a lot to answer in a few paragraphs! After I had signed the contract with the publisher I told my editor that I had all three things everyone wanted in a novelist. “What are those,” he asked me. “I’m from the oral tradition of the South which has produced many Southern writers, I had a traumatic childhood and I’ve suffered from depression.” He was most impressed. “All three?” “Yes.” We had a long laugh although it is true. I told him that most Southerners can talk the bark off a tree and that’s why so many of us become writers. We want to get away from our relatives who won’t shut up.

I grew up in my mother’s hometown of Orangeburg, SC. Unfortunately, my parents and my grandparents died when I was a youth and my older sister, one of two people to whom the book is dedicated, raised me from the time I was a young teenager. She is seven years older than me and we really didn’t know each other very well. So imagine being 22 years old and living in Washington, DC, only to move back to South Carolina to look after a 15 year old little brother who was a complete hellion. That was our situation. The dedication in the book says it all: “With love to my older sister Mimi who many times in her life has given me the courage to go on.” Sometimes people tell me I must read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I tell them, “I wouldn’t go near that book with a barge pole.”

The subtext of An Honorable German—being abandoned by people you love because they die; the fear of sudden death; and brooding over your own death, yet still going on in spite of your grief and pain—that subtext is from my own life. There are two lines in the novel that speak poignantly to this and are drawn from my own life. And they seemed even more prescient when I was diagnosed with cancer three days after I signed the final proof of the novel. Fortunately, the Almighty and the brilliant physicians at the National Cancer Institute cured me of that monster.

“It wasn’t anger, or love or desire or even fear that kept him alive. It was simply his primal will to survive; an independent force within him, bound neither by logic nor reason; a force few ever discovered in themselves.” An Honorable German

I graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, which took me five years because all I wanted to do was read novels, study history and raise hell. I accomplished all of these goals, including being thrown out of the rowdiest bar in New Orleans—Pat O’Brien’s.

After college I spent almost three years working full-time, researching and writing numerous drafts of the manuscript which became An Honorable German. I could not get anyone interested no matter what I did. I grew despondent and actually quit writing.

I moved to Florida and had to find a job, since my dream of being a novelist had slipped from my grasp. I didn’t know much, but I did know how to take a few facts and spin a convincing story, which qualified me to become a stockbroker. I then made a professional career in the financial services industry.

An Honorable German coverThen, not three years ago, an author friend of mine read my forgotten manuscript, which I had not looked at in fourteen years. I had almost thrown it away. It was not in an electronic format, and only two paper copies existed. He called his agent and said he had just read the best WWII novel of his life. She immediately wanted to read it, but I refused. I didn’t want to go back to it. There had been so much disappointment. He hectored me. I asked him why in the hell a literary agent in Washington, DC who probably sold nothing but “kiss and tell” memoirs would know or care about a novel featuring a German U-Boat captain in WWII?

My friend said, “She discovered Tom Clancy.” Long pause. “Well, if you’ll stop badgering me I guess you can take it to her.” She signed me as a client. I quit my job and spent the next 18 months working full-time on the novel both before and after it was sold to Grand Central Publishers.

MyShelf: Were you influenced by any other authors? Who are your favorites?

Charles: When I was twelve, my mother gave me an old paperback copy of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C.S. Forester. From then on I was hooked. I’ve probably read the entire Hornblower series thirty times. I’ve read them again recently, and I can see the effect it had on me and my writing. Another influence at the time I wrote my original drafts was Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith. Published during the Cold War, it was the first of these Soviet era murder mysteries that have become so popular. The author had done incredible research into the details of everyday life in the Soviet Union by interviewing Russians who had defected to the United States. It’s hard to believe it now, but the Soviet Union was the most ominous society in the world after the Nazis were defeated and the Cold War began. We knew little about it then, and I was fascinated with the details of everyday life and how that gave verisimilitude to the story. In An Honorable German, I very much wanted to give readers a sense of everyday life in another ominous society, the Third Reich. You have to paint the details in very carefully—like watercolors on an eggshell—because you never want the history to be obvious, or to overwhelm the protagonist, since the book is about him. The protagonist always needs to be center stage and you have to color in the backdrop very carefully lest it be too bright.

Three other writers who influenced me are Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hemingway because he is the best writer of the “American” language. Blunt. To the point. All the useless decorative words shorn off. Evelyn Waugh because he is the best stylist of the English language in the 20th century. He writes so beautifully that sometimes I cry when I read sections of Brideshead Revisited or his Sword of Honor Trilogy. And Fitzgerald because of the impact The Great Gatsby had on me when I was struggling to master the rudiments of novel writing. I distinctly remember reading it in 1981 and telling myself that if I could only write one sentence as wonderful and haunting and perfect as he did thousands of times, then it would be worth all the work. And no, I still haven’t done it.

MyShelf: Max is a very compelling character. Is he based on any real person? Tell us about the development of this character and others in the novel.

Charles: A part of him is based on me, which is very hard to avoid since one knows oneself the best. This also reveals oneself in conscious and unconscious ways, which I don’t want to do. Since I wrote the first drafts of the novel when I was 22, Max in many ways represents the kind of man I wanted to be, with the kind of father I had wanted, and the kind of courage I needed and wanted to live my life. The majority of Max, however, is a figment of my imagination, although he seems very, very real to me.

MyShelf: The Naval battles seemed so realistic and frightening. Tell us about your research for that phase of your story.

Charles: I have read about practically every naval battle that ever happened, including all the books on the Graf Spee, at least 50 books on U-boats, and countless memoirs of life at sea, battles at sea and bad weather at sea from the Age of Sail to the present day. I have also read dozens of memoirs of soldiers who have been in battle and all of them comment on how unreal it seems—dream-like almost—and how long combat seems to go on, yet afterward one realizes it was just a short time. I combine all that with my imagination.

As a historical novelist, you have to learn the original story so well that you can write it by memory, and paint your characters into the actual history without changing it. And finally, 35 years ago, my writing mentor said something to me which I have always practiced: “If the action is not happening to someone, it’s not happening.” Throughout the book I constantly keep in mind and describe to readers what Max smells, what he sees, hears, feels. But it has to be judicious because you don’t want to describe all things at one time.

MyShelf: Your descriptions of the bombing of Berlin were also realistic, and very emotional. How did you psyche yourself up to write these scenes?

Charles: My shrink told me something interesting about those scenes. He told me writers are able to access that part of the unconscious which contains the roiling witch’s brew of our most powerful and frightening emotions: fear, lust, greed, hatred, love, envy. But unlike other people, writers can access that part of themselves without freaking out, so a writer can draw on that part of himself to describe, say, the horror of being bombed, then put the lid back on and go out for coffee.

It’s also important to remember that I’ve read dozens of books on the Anglo-American bombing offensive against Germany (with which I personally fully agree) and so it isn’t gut wrenching to write about, since I had read so much about them, and I rewrote those scenes at least a dozen times. Because of that, the horror loses its impact. There is a paragraph in one of the bombing scenes that contains a phrase, “fire so terrible, fire so merciless that all you could do was run from it with all the strength God had given you.” And I remember writing that and thinking to myself, “Wow, that totally captures the mood.”

MyShelf: We Americans tend to think of all the Germans that were involved with “The good War” as being Nazis. Of course, as your book really points out, they were not. Do you get any criticism for writing this story with a German Officer as the good guy?

Charles: Fortunately not because I wondered about that before the book was published. I personally despise Nazism, and politically, I’m a yellow dog Democrat as we used to say in the South. (I’d vote for a ‘yellow dog’ before I would vote Republican). But I’ve learned that readers know there is a difference between the novel and the novelist. That people find the story so convincing is a testament to my skill as a novelist. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything in it. I despise the Third Reich.

MyShelf : I had previously read about German sailors from the U505 in Gary Moore’s nonfiction Playing with the Enemy ( reviewed at Myshelf) who were incarcerated in an American prison camp, and now you are telling us about another prison camp in Arizona. I don’t believe that most Americans knew about prisoners of war being held within the US. Tell us about that.

Charles: I haven’t read Playing With the Enemy but reading your review I plan to. The U-505 story was one of the great secrets of the war and is the only ship captured on the high seas by the US Navy since the War of 1812. The U-Boat itself is beautifully preserved in its original condition at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

But to your questions on POWs. When I read the Time magazine article which gave me the idea for the novel, what astounded me most was learning that there were German POWs in the US. What astounded me even further during my research was when I learned there were almost 400,000 German POWs, including the entire Afrika Korps. (We also imprisoned a number of Germans who were American citizens for the same specious reasons we imprisoned Japanese-Americans). I have discovered over time that people who grew up in small agricultural towns, where there had been German POWs did know about this, since it had happened within the living memory of some people in the town.

During my research, I reviewed documents from the archives of the Provost Marshal General of the US Army, which had custody of all POWs, and discovered there were camps in every single state of the union. (Alaska and Hawaii were not states at that time and had no POW camps). Because so many of our young men were overseas fighting there was a huge demand for labor and most of the German prisoners were happy to work, since they were paid.

Under the Geneva Convention of the time, enlisted men who were prisoners of war could be forced to work but officers could not, although they could volunteer to work. So German POWs provided a large amount of farm labor. Many had grown up on farms and knew the job, and along with their guards, they ate with the farm families just like other hired hands. There are unsubstantiated stories that German POWs in states like Nebraska and Minnesota, with large German populations, often worked on farms owned by their American relatives.

Other POWs did such things as repair US Army vehicles, and to the surprise and dismay and often anger of American soldiers, German POWs processed many of our soldiers coming back from Europe where they had been fighting the Germans.

Several Americans did assist German POWs in escaping, although none of the POWs got very far. Some of the American citizens who helped in these escape attempts were tried and executed.

MyShelf:  What was your biggest challenge in writing this novel?

Charles: First, teaching myself how to write a novel. Second, ensuring the novel gave the illusion of being German. Since it is written in English, for an English-speaking audience, it can’t actually be too German in feeling or people won’t identify with it. I had to create the illusion it was German and also have the words and dialect reflect the era of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

This meant stamping out all Americanisms. I’d use either archaic or British spellings of words such as aeroplane, and characters in the novel never phoned each other, they telephoned—or rang—each other. They didn’t drive cars, they drove automobiles or motorcars. I also researched German idioms and talked to German friends and used as many idioms as I could where their context would explain them. For example, their phrase for “paper pushers” or bureaucrats, is “office horses” which I use because the context explains it.

MyShelf: What was your favorite part of the book, and why?

Charles: Well an author likes all of his work, but if I had to choose I would say that one of the U-Boat chapters and one of the bombing chapter are my favorites.

MyShelf: Your least favorite and why?

Charles: I can’t say I have a least favorite. If something wasn’t appealing to me, I cut it out. To me, when writing a novel, the most important audience is the novelist. If I don’t like something, I cut it out.

MyShelf: You mentioned in your online bio that you had written two other novels before this one. Do you have plans to publish either or both of them?

Charles: I wrote a novel in college which I threw away. I wrote halves of three novels after that which I also discarded, and I wrote one novel after An Honorable German. It is titled Vote Early and Often and is a first person coming of age story set during a political campaign in New Orleans. I had been very involved in politics in New Orleans, which was quite an experience. The novel is autobiographical but I would have to rewrite it to make it viable, and that would be emotionally painful to do. I doubt I will try and get it published, at least not right now. Besides, publishers don’t want you to write outside your genre because that screws up your “brand.” If you can write lots of different novels about different subjects, told from third person to first person—this isn’t actually useful.

I have lots of other things I’ve written—most of them about the South—and I’ve thought about writing a reminiscence about growing up in the small town in the South where my family had lived since before the Civil War. I want to call it In The Shade of the Trees—thought to be the dying words of Stonewall Jackson, who purportedly said, “Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.” (As with many famous quotes of the Civil War, it was likely invented by a newspaper reporter). But writing something like that would also be very difficult for me emotionally, and I may not be able to do it.

MyShelf: What are you working on now? Do you have plans for future novels?

Charles: I’m working on a proposal for another WWII novel featuring a German naval officer, but this time a completely different character. I would like to use this character in a series of novels. My editor told me that by being the first American author to write a high concept action/adventure novel from the German point of view, I had invented my own sub genre. So I’ll stick with it. At the same time there are so many other things I want to write. So who knows?

One of my lifelong dreams has been to get An Honorable German published. (The original title was Sea Eagle).I temporarily quit working in the business world to put all my energy into rewriting and polishing this novel. But I don’t make enough money from novels to write full-time so I will return to the business world shortly. Novel writing will again become an avocation as it was before An Honorable German.

MyShelf: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with fans?

Charles: People often say to me that they wish they could write. And I tell them they can. They may not have the talent to write a novel or a play or a short story, but they do have the skill to write. In this day and time where email abounds and you can send a birthday card electronically, nothing touches people so much as receiving a hand-written note or letter wishing them a happy birthday, or condolences or congratulations.

It doesn’t matter if the prose isn’t smooth and you misspell words. What is important is that you took the time to sit down and think about that person and then write something to send them—about something funny you shared, or how often you think of them.

My best writing will never be published because it wasn’t written to be published. A year ago I wrote a letter of condolence to an old family friend on the death of her husband, which turned into a 7,000 word reminiscence of everything I recalled about their family and mine, whose friendship goes back more than 50 years. This letter was a gift to my friend that money could not buy, and it demonstrated how much I cared. A few weeks after I sent her the letter, I received a note from her that said never in her life had she been so moved by a piece of writing, and she laughed and cried as she read through it repeatedly. What more could a writer ask for than that? I will treasure her letter always.

And so I tell everyone, if you can walk into a drug store to buy a card—buy a pad of paper instead—it can be notebook paper or lined school children’s paper—it doesn’t matter. Then go home and write to the person you were going to send the card to. Make up a bad poem. Anything. And your friend or loved one will cherish that piece of writing more than anything else they received. Try it.

MyShelf: Charles, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us at MyShelf.com. An Honorable German is certainly one of the best books I’ve read and I will be watching for your next book…you have me hooked.

MyShelf Interview with Charles McCain

 

Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewlitt interviews author Charles McCain

 

An Hon German by Charles McCain

 

 

Back in July the website LOADED QUESTIONS with Kelly Hewlitt interviewed me about An Honorable German

Loaded Questions: This is your first novel; how are you enjoying being a published author? Are you heading off on a book tour?
I’m still getting used to it. My biggest surprise is the interest people take in my life as a novelist. Given that I spend large amounts of time alone, reading or writing or thinking, my life as a novelist ain’t too glamorous.

Everyone wants to learn the process of how I write a novel. They assume there is a “way” to do it; a step by step process of some sort which I follow. When I tell people it is a mystery to me how the novelist part of me actually works, they seem disappointed. I liken it to someone who cooks by feel and someone who cooks with a recipe. I write by “feel.” That’s all I know about it.
Writing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. By age ten I was writing about things going on around me. When I was fourteen I tried to write my first novel—didn’t get very far—and later on in my late teens I wrote two novels, which I threw away. The corollary to novel writing is novel reading and there were many years when I read two hundred or more novels.

Curiously, I don’t read a lot of novels these days. I wrote the initial drafts of An Honorable German in the early 1980s. I had just graduated from college, I was 21, and I was determined to be a published novelist. My life took a different course for many years but I always felt that somehow I would seize the brass ring. So becoming a published novelist is the fulfillment of a life long dream. To have my talent recognized and to walk past a bookstore and see my book in the window gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction and achievement. Sometimes I read through my novel and think, “I wrote this!”
I’m not off on a book tour. As an unknown first time novelist, there is no way I can sell enough books to cover the costs to the publisher of a book tour. I’ll just have to wait until I’m famous! I do have friends in various parts of the country who are going to hold book signing parties for me after Labor Day and I anticipate those will sell a lot of books.

Loaded Questions: You have written that the idea for this story first struck you in the late 70s when you came across a Time Magazine article from 1944 about German POWs escaping from a camp in Arizona. How detailed was your initial idea? Were you simply interested in exploring how the Germans came to be POWs in Arizona and where they were trying to go, or did were you struck by a more complete picture of the story you wanted to tell?
I initially wanted to write the German version of The Great Escape. But first I had to get the men to the POW camp. Several Germans named in the Time Magazine article had been aboard the Graf Spee, including the leader of the escape, who had been the Senior Navigation Officer. I later corresponded with him. These men from the Graf Spee had escaped from Argentina in 1940 and had made their way back to Germany and served on U-Boats which is how they got captured. I discovered all of this through my research and the journey of these men from the Graf Spee to U-Boats to captivity in a POW camp in Arizona fascinated me.
When I plotted all that out over time, and wrote and rewrote different pieces of the novel, it finally became clear that the journey of the protagonist to the POW camp was the most interesting and longest part of the story line. But this more of an unconscious process at the time. Only by looking backwards do I understand it.

Loaded Questions: The depth of historical detail in this book is amazing. What sort of sources did you look to in exploring German history? Did you focus primarily on history from the German point of view or did you just read anything you could get your hands on?
Thank you. Most readers tell me that they were fascinated by the small facts woven into the narrative. It helps them connect with the story. I wish I could say I had this in mind when I wrote the novel but I didn’t. I just find small details about history to be fascinating.
Slipping in those facts took a whole lot of thinking and rewriting. I liken it to painting with watercolors on an egg shell. I had to paint the history in very delicately, so delicately that people would not actually notice the history but simply come across a historical fact as a natural part of the story.
In terms of researching, I just read anything I could get my hands on for many years. I started reading about World War Two when I twelve so my interest in the subject arose early in my life. In college I majored in history and spent most of my spare time—when not being a delinquent—reading history and novels. One of the reasons I read so many books when researching is that “I don’t know what I don’t know.”
Hundreds of times I came across small facts that I never would have imagined—such as people in Berlin playing ping-pong during the war. Often I would plough through a book like “The German National Railway in World War Two” and find maybe one or two facts that were useful in 500 pages. But those facts were important to know. One of the facts that came from that book—actually its in two volumes—was how trains in Germany during WW II were often made up of rail cars they had stolen from countries they had conquered. That is the kind of detail which gives that sense of verisimilitude to the novel.

Additionally, I met a guy on the Deutsche Kriegsmarine forum who had recently retired from the German navy and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the German navy and of Germany. We got to know each other via email and both came to realize the other person was who they said they were. He was a huge help in many ways. He corrected mistakes in how I described a ship being maneuvered and several dozen of the small details, such as what type of cigarettes the officer’s smoked, came from him. His father had served in the German Navy in WW II and he had talked with his father extensively over the years about his service in WW II. My friend even gave me a copy of his father’s unpublished memoirs which also had some great details. He read the entire manuscript and was an invaluable help.
In the last years I read or re-read German history books by the dozens and continue to do so to this day. To write a World War Two epic from the German POV required that I know German history so well that I would automatically know how the different characters would have reacted to events around them. When writing, I almost have to temporarily became German. It sounds weird but if you are writing authentic historical fiction you have to be able to project yourself into the time you are writing about. This caused some confusion in the editing process.
Example: In 1943 a major British air raid on Hamburg killed 50,000 people. In the novel, the protagonist discusses this with several others and uses the figure of 200,000 people killed. The copy editor flagged that, which was his job, and pointed out that Wikipedia said only 50,000 people were killed.
I told him that he was absolutely correct. That it had been established after the war, that only 50,000 people were killed in the RAF raid on Hamburg in 1943. But at the time German newspapers, all of which were under government censorship, reported 200,000 people had been killed. Therefore, that would be the only figure the character would have know. The New York Times also used that figure in its coverage, claiming to have verified the figure with neutral sources in Berlin.
So when writing An Honorable German I had to know what the actual facts of a situation were but far more important I had to know what the people of the era believed to be true since you can never, ever, write anything that gives the slightest hint that the characters have some foreknowledge of events since they don’t and couldn’t. That would break the “suspension of disbelief.”
We know who won the war and the history of the various events but the characters don’t. I watch like a hawk when I’m writing to make sure that there is nothing in the narrative which is out place in that era. I had a florescent light in one scene and I tracked down when florescent lights started to be manufactured and they were not being made in the year the scene occurs so I had to change it.
I had to understand and me familiar with the entire war from several sides to write the novel. That involved reading a whole lot of books.
Would you ever consider writing about another aspect of German history?
Right now I wouldn’t write anything outside of the Third Reich during the war years. There are so many untold stories about Germany in World War Two that I plan to stick with that for awhile. It took me years and years to acquire the knowledge I have.

Loaded Questions: Without giving away too many of the books details I thought that one of the most poignant parts of the story was when the character Max was in the American south. It is always interesting to see America through the eyes of an outsider but the contrast between the German and American societies and war experiences was really insightful. Was that exploration one of your goals when you sat down to write the book?
I really want to answer this question in a deeply profound and intellectual way. Yet, truth be told, I never thought of that until you mentioned it in your question. When I’m writing, I’m focused on three things: creating characters who are realistic, moving the story as fast as I can, maintaining complete historical authenticity.
I never think about symbolism when I’m writing. I’m not sending a message. I’m just trying to tell the story in the quickest, most dramatic and factual way. Because I’m from the Deep South, and was living in Louisiana when I first wrote the drafts, and there were POW camps in MS which was right next door, it was easy to write those scenes since I knew exactly how people would have behaved and would have said.

As sickening as it was, strict segregation was maintained all through the South during the war which often found white German soldiers eating in restaurants African- American G.I.s could not eat it. The Germans were the enemy but they were white. One of very key scenes in those chapters was a story told to me by an old timer in New Orleans in the early 80s.
Loaded Questions: You’ve said that one of the hardest things about finalizing this book was cutting sections that didn’t move the story forward. Can you describe one of your favorite scenes
that didn’t end up making the final version?

There is a scene featuring Max’s father, Johann which I really, really liked but cut down to a few sentences from a page and a half. He calls on Countess von Woller at her request to tell her details of how her oldest son, Ernst, perished at Verdun. She asks Johann such questions as “did he have a quick death, Sergeant Major?” “Did he suffer?” etc. And Johann assures her that he had a quick death.
But Ernst didn’t have a quick death. He took a piece of shrapnel through the side of his head which blinded him and drove him to madness with pain. It was horrible, Ernst tried to claw out his own eyes, he suffered terribly. As Countess von Woller asks these questions, the description of the actual events is told through interior monologue from Johann’s point of view. He keeps promising her on his oath as a Prussian soldier, or in the sight of God that Ernst didn’t suffer. Only we know he is lying about the entire incident to save her from the brutal truth. And its very moving and says a lot about Johann. But we already know that Johann is a sensitive man in his own way, that he had the deepest respect and admiration for “Herr Ernst” and that Johann took care of his men. So it wasn’t necessary to repeat it but it was a wonderful scene. I’ve attached it so you can read it. I guess it would be an “outtake.”
Loaded Questions: And to sort of piggyback on that question, because I am suddenly struck by the fact that books should come in collector’s editions with “extras” much like DVDs do, I read that you created extensive histories and family trees for each character. How detailed did you get? What are some of the silly, random facts that you used to shape a characters world view that were never explicitly stated in the book?
Hmmmm. I’m not sure about that. I worry it might destroy the “suspension of disbelief” which is so critical to maintain. I think it was Bismarck who said the two things you didn’t want to watch being made were sausage and laws. I would add novels to that list.
Besides the family trees, I wrote down in detail how Johann met his wife, what her parents were like and what his parents were like. How it was that Max met Mareth. I wrote scenes which weren’t intended to go into the book such as how Max lost his virginity, how the village priest keep wanting him to go into the priesthood and how strongly he resisted especially when he started to sleep with women.

I wrote about Max stealing pipe tobacco from his father and coughing so badly he started crying and his father picked him up and walked him up and down in the garden till he got over the coughing fit. His father taught him to sword fight. Lots and lots of things like that along with a very specific timeline of Max’s life and what was going in Germany during each year of his early life.

Loaded Questions: What’s next on the horizon for you?
I very much plan to continue with writing novels and hope I can make a living doing it. I have always followed my interests in life and that has worked out for me. I’m even more determined to do that now because I was diagnosed with lymphoma three weeks after I signed the final proof of my novel. That was a trick of fate. With the help of the Almighty and the brilliance of the physicians at the National Cancer Institute, I was cured of that monster. But it was yet another reminder to me of how brief and fragile life is. No one knows the future so you need to enjoy the present and take risks in the present and not wait until everything is lined up since that never happens.

The Continuing Mystery of U-234 (Part 1 of 2)

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First and foremost, without a doubt, the boat was carrying 560 kilograms of uranium oxide.

Historians agree on this based on documents declassified after the Cold War. Additional confirmation comes from one of the senior enlisted men aboard, Wolfgang Hirschfeld, in his memoirs, Hirschfeld, the Story of A U-boat NCO. He witnessed the uranium oxide being loaded onto the U-Boat. One of the most intriguing things Hirschfeld mentions in his book, is that Germany’s pre-eminent post war naval historian, Jurgen Rohwer, informed Hirschfeld that the uranium oxide had been requested by the Japanese through their embassy in Berlin in late 1944 or early 1945.

For me, this raises another question. Japan’s Ambassador to the Third Reich was a highly capable and very observant army general, Oshima Hiroshi, who was much liked and trusted by Hitler and the Nazi Government. Hiroshi sent hundreds of insightful reports to Japan – each one sent by radio after being enciphered using the Japanese diplomatic code we called “Magic.” Since the United States had cracked “Magic” in 1940, all of these reports were recorded by U.S. Army Signals Intelligence, deciphered and translated within 48 hours. In fact, while little known today, one of our best sources of information about the internal debates and decisions of the Nazi government come from the decrypts of Oshima’s very thorough reports. See Hitler’s Japanese Confidant by Carl Boyd.

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These facts alone are enough to make a mystery. Even more intriguing is this speculation: the uranium oxide seized from U-234 was used by the United States to make the second atom bomb dropped on Japan. This has been suggested by several people, the most authoritative being Sharkhunter’s International President Harry Cooper, who knew Hirschfeld. Sharkhunters publishes the official journal of the U-Boat Veterans Association. I discussed this with Harry last year and I suggested that somewhere in the depths of the Federal government the records about this must exist. Harry asked me why I thought anyone involved would have left records on such a sensitive subject.

Everything about U-234 is a mystery. What else did she carry? Why did she even go on this mission, leaving Germany only fifteen days before Hitler committed suicide? We know there were twelve passengers on the U-Boat, and we know who they were. But why in the world were they taking such a risk as to hitch a ride to Japan on a U-Boat when almost every U-Boat which moved was sunk by Allied patrols. I will address each of these in future posts.

For now, here is the beginning of a video series produced by the Discovery Channel on U-234.