Drawing the Desert – a historical short story

Ernst Schmatlock cursed as his plane swept down towards the Egyptian desert. The Luftwaffe had been sure this area was still in Axis hands, that the squadron would make it safely back. But here he was, out of fuel behind Allied lines.

Desert sand dunes

He wrenched at the yoke, pulling up the nose of the plane moments before it hit the ground. Wheels tore through the sand, the Stuka tipped, and for a terrible moment he thought that the whole thing would flip over, trapping him. But then the tail sank back, there was a jolt, and the plane came to rest against a sand dune.

Schmatlock grabbed what supplies he had – a few biscuits, a half-empty canteen of water, his service pistol. He hadn’t been prepared for this. Next time he would do better.

If he lived through this time.

Before he climbed out, he took one last small bundle from the back of the plane. That package of pencils and paper was his lifeline, a connection to the artist he had been before the war. Food and water would keep him alive, but drawing would keep him sane.

Schmatlock had no idea where the nearest people were, or any source of water. All he knew was that friendly troops lay somewhere to the west, and so that was the way he walked.

Sand sucked at his boots, making every step a strain. By nightfall he was exhausted, his food and water used up. As the blazing heat of the day gave way to the bitter chill of a cloudless night, he took a few minutes to draw the desert, to tame it with his art. Then he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When he woke, the sun was well up and he could feel his face starting to burn. He took off his jacket, draped it over his head, and followed his shadow west.

By the middle of the day, his strength was fading. The dry heat sucked the water straight out of his body, leaving him with a parched throat and a spinning head. When he stopped to rest, he drew wine bottles and waterfalls, but they only threw his thirst into starker relief.

Somewhere along the line, he started losing things. A pair of binoculars. The empty water bottle. Even his pistol, abandoned during a delirious, desperate attempt to lighten his load. But he clung tight to the pencils and paper. Those he needed. Those were part of him.

He was on the verge of giving up when he saw movement between the dunes ahead. He staggered up a slope and looked down at a town below.

At last, somewhere he could find water! A chance to survive and to make it home.

A truck was driving into the town, a long dust cloud snaking out behind it. A British truck, driven by British soldiers.

Schmatlock cursed his luck. If the British spotted him in that town, he would be sent straight to a prison camp. But he was so thirsty, so exhausted, what choice did he have?

A sound made him look back. A camel was approaching with a man on its back, laden with saddle bags. The man looked like a local.

Better to risk exposing himself now than to face the British unprepared. Schmatlock waved and called out a greeting.

The camel rider approached. He looked down and said something Schmatlock couldn’t understand.

“Thirsty.” Schmatlock pointed at his mouth. “Water, please.”

Perhaps the rider understood, or perhaps he just saw Schmatlock’s desperate state. Regardless, he threw him a water skin and Schmatlock gulped the contents gratefully down. His guts gurgled at the sudden change, but he felt some sense returning, his mind emerging from the fog of dehydration.

He handed the water skin back, then tugged at the edge of the rider’s robes.

“I need these,” Schmatlock said.

The rider drew his leg back and frowned.

“Please.” Schmatlock pointed at the robes, then at himself. “Please, I need different clothes.”

Again, the rider said something, then he laughed. He pointed at Schmatlock, then over the ridge, and finally plucked at the hem of his robes.

“Yes, exactly!” Schmatlock said. “I can’t go there looking like this. Will you help?”

The man rubbed his thumb and forefingers together.

“You want paying.” Schmatlock sighed. “Of course. But I don’t have any money.”

He opened each of his pockets, turning them inside out or holding them open for the rider to see. The only thing that came out was the bundle of papers and pencils.

The rider frowned, shrugged, then pulled a worn robe and a headscarf from his saddle bags. He held up the clothes, then pointed at Schmatlock’s papers and pencils.

“You want these?” Schmatlock stared at the proffered bundle of cloth, then at his precious art supplies, the one thing he had clung to all this way.

The rider said something, then made as if to put the robes back in the bag.

“No, wait!” Reluctantly, Schmatlock held out his art supplies. True, he could sneak on past the town now he had had a drink. But what were the odds of finding somewhere else out here?

Better to go a little crazy staying alive than to let the desert take him.

He took a single sheet from the bundle – his sketch of the desert at night, a reminder of what he had been through. Then he handed the rest to the rider and took the robes in return.

The man said something and his camel started walking, heading over the dunes and away. Schmatlock pulled the robes on over his uniform, hiding him from the sun and from scrutiny. As he stepped over the ridge and down towards the town, his fingers tightened around his one remaining piece of paper.

He hadn’t given his art up for nothing. He would find a way home.

***

This story is a prequel of sorts to my latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”. If you want to find out what happens to Schmatlock next, you can find that comic in newsagents or on Comixology.

And if you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Out Today – Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”, is out today! You can buy it electronically through Comixology, or get a paper copy through newsagents in the UK.

Stealing Stukas

The Western Desert, 1941. When they find information about an abandoned squadron of German planes, RAF intelligence officer Captain Ian Thompson and daring Squadron Leader Samuel Westwell head out into the desert to steal a Stuka. But rising tempers and enemy action threaten to keep them from their coup…

My latest Commando Comics story, “Stealing Stukas”, is out this week. It’s a story of action and adventure set during World War Two. What’s most remarkable, given the story it tells, is that it’s inspired by true events.

Stumbling Into Inspiration

I’ve always had a soft spot for second-hand book shops. The smell of old paper. The unexpected books you stumble over. The certainty that you’re getting a bargain.

When I was writing for War History Online, I kept an eye out for second-hand books I could use as sources. Among them was Freedom’s Battle Volume 2: The War in the Air. This is a collection of first-hand accounts of the RAF’s role in the Second World War, edited by Gavin Lyall. It’s not a recent book, nor one that digs deep into historical cause and effect, but it’s full of interesting anecdotes about real experiences.

Bowman and Rozier’s Desert Adventure

Among the remarkable stories in Freedom’s Battle is one involving Wing Commander Bowman and Squadron Leader Rozier of the RAF, recorded by Squadron Leader George W Houghton.

Three Stukas in flight
Image by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J16050 / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In September 1941, Allied troops in North Africa found several crashed Stukas. These dive bombers were a widely feared weapon central to German Blitzkrieg tactics. The crashed planes indicated that a squadron had run out of fuel and been forced to land. Retrieving one of these Stukas intact would be a coup for the Allies.

Bowman and Rozier were given permission to hunt for the planes. They searched by land and air, with the help of a South African armoured car unit and some Italian prisoners.

After several days, they found one of the Stukas and got it working, only for it to crash land. The two men were stuck in the desert without supplies. It took a long trek and help from another South African unit to get them safely home.

Not to be defeated, they retrieved a technician, fuel, and spare parts, returned to the Stuka, and got it working again. At last, they flew the captured plane back to base.

Adapting History to Story

Bowman and Rozier’s adventure was intriguing, and I could see that it had potential for a war comic. But rather than stick with the real story, I took its basic parts and turned it into something else, with different protagonists and incidents that never really happened.

Why?

To tell a better story.

The real events had a lot of novelty, but not enough to fill a full-length issue of Commando. It’s a cool war story, but it’s not a complete narrative. Houghton’s account says almost nothing about Bowman and Rozier as people, so I couldn’t accurately portray them as characters. They faced some difficulties, but not the escalating challenges that make for a complete World War Two comic book. On top of all this, there was no antagonist.

Instead of misrepresenting real people for the sake of a story, I decided to create a new story inspired by them. Captain Thompson and Squadron Leader Westwell are fictional creations who I could shape as I needed. Ernst Schmatlock, a German pilot, takes the place of the Italian POWs, and in the process provides an antagonist. The nameless South Africans of the real account are now led by Lieutenant van der Walt and given more prominence. Bad situations are made far worse than they were, moments of tension and trouble more dramatic. Imagined personal conflicts add to the real challenge of retrieving a broken plane from the desert.

The Challenge of Historical Fiction

There is no perfect way to fictionalise a real historical story. In “1066“, I stuck with reality but added an extra character. There, the real story is important and well-known. The whole point was to tie into it.

For this story, I don’t think I could accurately depict the real people involved, who may still have living relatives. Nor could I tell the story I wanted while sticking to the truth. So I wrote my own version.

Even when we make up historical stories, it’s important to remember the reality behind them. Two RAF officers achieved something remarkable, far from home and in difficult circumstances. Thanks to Gavin Lyall, Bowman and Rozier’s names are still remembered. And thanks to a trip to a charity shop, they’ve found a new place, as the inspiration for a comic book.

1066 from Commando

“So you want to hear the story of Hastings, eh? The saga of the Fighting Man and the fall of a nation. Well, all stories start far from their endings…”

1066 is an iconic year in English history. It was the year that William the Conqueror seized the throne, changing the royal line. The year that brought in French customs and language, transforming English culture. A year that every English school kid learns about.

And it’s the year I’ve brought to life in my latest Commando comic.

I wanted to show a different perspective on the Norman invasion. Thanks to the Bayeux Tapestry, we’re used to hearing the Norman side. It’s the story of the victors and the story of powerful people.

Instead of focusing on William, I decided to tell the story from the English point of view, through the fictional character of Durwin. He’s not one of the great lords vying for control of the country, but a warrior in the household of Harold Godwinson, claimant to the English throne. This let me do a few things that I think make for a more interesting story.

First, it adds a personal conflict. Sure, Duke William and Earl Harold had met each other, and Tostig Godwinson’s alliance with the Norwegians hints at acrimony between him and his brother. But for these men, the conflict was principally about power.

Durwin’s motivations, on the other hand, are purely personal. He’s looked up to Harold as a hero his whole life, so the chance to fight for him is a great honour. When Harold breaks his oath, that’s also personal, a moment of terrible disappointment as Durwin sees the flaws in his hero, a moment that propels him into danger.

Focusing on Durwin also let me show all three battles of the 1066 campaign – Fulford, Stamford Bridge, and Hastings. None of the leading figures in this political struggle were at all three battles, but it’s likely that some English warriors were, and so Durwin became a vehicle for me to show the full action.

There’s a hierarchy to the way these battles are remembered. If you know anything about English history, you know about Hastings, where the Normans beat the English and conquered the country. If you’ve taken an interest in English history, then you probably know that the English defeated another invasion first, this one by the Norwegians, at Stamford Bridge. But few people know that, before that, the Norwegians beat the English at Fulford. For several days, it looked like the Vikings might be the ones to take over.

Together, these three battles tell a fuller and more satisfying story than they do on their own. We see the English struggle, recover, and taste the sweet relief of victory, only to have it snatched away on the south coast. The forgotten Battle of Fulford makes the story stronger.

This comic has one other unusual touch for an issue of Commando – it’s told in the first person. Commando’s text boxes are normally in the third person, telling the story from the outside. But I wanted to make these events both more personal and more epic. To do this, I switched to having Durwin tell the story, bringing us closer to his perspective while reminding us that the story of that year is one that’s been told and retold, becoming the stuff of legend and of national pride. It’s history that’s grown in status through the retelling, from the Bayeux Tapestry to childhood recountings in a thousand schoolrooms up and down the land.

So after all of that you want to hear the story of Hastings, eh? The saga of the Fighting Man and the fall of a nation. Then you can get Commando 5301 through newsagents or Comixology now.

Out Now – Splashdown in the Pacific

You know what’s good? Pictures. You know what’s even better? Words. You know what’s best of all? Shoving them together to make comics.

Which is my way of saying that I have a new comic out – an issue of Commando titled Splashdown in the Pacific, it’s the story of an American reconnaissance pilot who’s enjoying the quiet of the early Pacific campaign until he meets an Australian officer with a taste for adventure. When they set out on a mission to look for the Japanese fleet, things go downhill fast. There’s a dogfight, a shark attack, a jungle trek, and more.

This story was originally inspired by a photo Commando shared on their Twitter feed, showing the crew escaping from a plane that had been shot down over the ocean. That got me thinking about what that crew might encounter and especially what could make the situation worse. Pretty much everything that crossed my mind is thrown in here, from the aforementioned sharks to Japanese patrols and deadly snakes.

The early stages of the Pacific war were a tense time. After Pearl Harbor and the Japanese seizure of European colonies in the Pacific, it was clear that they were going to head south for an invasion of Australia. The Allies knew that they were coming, but not when and where.

There, as elsewhere in the war, aerial reconnaissance was vital. As Ralph Bennett explains in his book Behind the Battle, there had been a mad scramble to rebuild military intelligence services internationally due to their neglect between the wars. Aerial reconnaissance was a vital part of this work, especially in the wide expanse of the Pacific. A story about two guys taking photos wouldn’t be very exciting, but by putting them in peril, I’ve found a way to make the action centre on them.

As is often the case in war stories, the conflict doesn’t just come from facing the enemy. Being on the same side can trap people together and exacerbate their differences, creating huge tensions. It’s why Richard Sharpe is constantly arguing with the officers on his own side. Stories get dull if everybody’s working well together.

Which is where Mike Anderson comes in. Mike is one of the characters I’ve most enjoyed writing over the past year, and not just because I had fun throwing in Australian dialect. He’s confident, entertaining, and outspoken, which comes across as annoying and abrasive to someone who’s stressed out and just wants a chance to think. Can you see where this is going?

Like most Commando comics, Splashdown in the Pacific is a pulpy action adventure. But like all the best pulp adventures, it’s not the sharks and the snakes and the crashes that make it – it’s the characters and how they relate.

***

If you like Splashdown in the Pacific then you might also enjoy my collection of history and alternate history stories…

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Writing What I Like

I recently spent nearly a whole week writing comics.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written comics. I’ve created quite a few scripts for Commando, not to mention the short I did for Top Cow a few years ago. But this is the first time I’ve had enough of that work, and few enough other urgent work distractions, to make it my main focus for a whole week.

This is one of the things about building up your own business. These moments creep up on you. You’re just trundling along, doing a little more of this, a little more of that, and suddenly you have a week that would make the you of a few years ago sit up and say “damn, that’s great!”

So yeah. I’ve spent a week writing what I like. It was fantastic. Here’s hoping I get more of the same soon.

Out Now – Lady Death

War has come to the Ukraine, German tanks driving back the Red Army in a brutal mechanical tide. Faced with the prospect of losing everything she holds dear, Svetlana Ivanovna Korzh takes up the gun, ready to defend her homeland. Turned from a teacher into a sniper, she heads into the streets of Odessa in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. But as her friends start to fall, a far more personal struggle begins…

Lady Death is my latest story from Commando Comics, brought to life by the art of Manuel Benet. It was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary history book The Unwomanly Face of War, which explores the role of women in the Red Army in World War Two, their experiences both in action and in transitioning to and from civilian lives. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it enough for the way it brings forgotten stories to light and personalises a vast historical narrative.

While an action comic could never do justice to the complex and difficult lives these women led, I wanted to at least draw attention to their experiences, from the harrowing losses to the touching moments of friendship amid the horror of war. In doing so, I’ve taken fragments of reality and stitched them together into a fictional whole. Many elements of the story are taken from real life. The recruiting officer who doesn’t want to accept women. The troop trains strafed on the way to war. The wedding dress made from parachute silk. The partisans fighting in the catacombs. And most importantly, the thousands of female snipers who risked their lives, only to be forgotten in the aftermath.

Historical storytelling is a strange thing, a delicate balance of truth and fiction. I hope that I’ve included enough truth here to make the story worthwhile, and enough fiction to keep you entertained.



***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.



Out Today – Harriet’s War

I have a new comic out today!

Harriet’s War is part of Commando‘s Armistice celebration, marking 100 years since the end of the First World War. The story of an ambulance driver on the Western Front, it’s a story I was really excited to write, not least because it covers the under-represented role of women in the war.

You can get Harriet’s War from newsagents in the UK and in digital form around the world via Comixology. If you want to read more about it, check out my post from Monday. And if you enjoy it, please let me know – it’s always nice to hear when people like your work.

 

Cover image © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018

Harriet’s War

This week, I have a new comic out from Commando – Harriet’s War.

Harriet’s War is part of a series from Commando marking the centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Called The Weekes’ War, the series follows several members of a single family, all serving in British forces.

As I’ve written about before, World War One is an important part of history. It was a war of unprecedented destruction in which people were reduced to cogs in industrial-scale killing machines. Because of the way soldiers were recruited, entire communities sometimes lost a generation of young men. Seeing how the war could touch the many members of a single family is particularly fitting, as well as a smart way to show different sides of the war.

Showing different sides is why I’m particularly proud to have written Harriet’s War. It’s only right and proper that we talk about the millions of young men who fought and died in the Allied armies, but it’s also important to remember other people and places, and that’s what Harriet’s War does.

The central characters, Harriet and Vera, are both women. Though very few women fought in the war, many were involved in it. Filling roles such as factory workers and nurses, they did hard, sometimes dangerous work. Though it was driven by men, this wasn’t just a men’s war.

This story focuses on medicine in a time of war. Harriet and Vera are an ambulance crew, risking death in no man’s land to save injured soldiers. We don’t often see the work of medical staff in war, but from frontline combat medics to the surgeons rebuilding broken bodies, theirs is tough, vital, life-saving, heart-breaking work. Without them, countless more lives would be lost, and it’s good to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Once Harriet gets out between the trenches, the story shows yet another side of the war – the experience of the Germans. In Britain, we mostly focus on the Allied experience, whether intentionally or by default. But a generation of German youths went through the same hardship the Allies did, the same losses, the same horrors. By the late war, they were battered, demoralised, struggling to survive. When Harriet encounters a German unit, the story takes a dramatic turn, one that reveals the humanity of the other side.

Of course, there are still many other sides to the war, ones that aren’t included here. From the struggle on the Eastern Front to the fighting in Africa to the war at sea, they are too easily forgotten when discussing the war. We can’t deal with them all at once, but we can at least make a start. If there’s a part of the war you think is under-represented, leave a comment about it and I’ll try to write about it in the future.

Art for this issue is by an artist who’s new to Commando – Khato of Creaciones Editoriales. As I write this, I haven’t yet seen the finished issue, but based on the pages you can see here I think it’s going to be great, full of vivid action and character. I love the collaborative element of comics, the way an artist gives the story life in ways the writer never even imagined. This is no exception.

On a personal note, this issue features a small tribute to my Great Aunt Vera, who died earlier this year. Vera was born during the war and lost her father to the fighting in the trenches. She went on to become an extraordinary person in her own right, lively, outspoken, and insightful until the end. Harriet’s friend and colleague is named after her.

Harriet’s War will be out in newsagents and on Comixology this Thursday, the 29th. Other issues of The Weekes’ War are already out there for you to buy. I hope that you enjoy this journey into some of the less remembered parts of the First World War.

 

All art © DC Thomson and Co. Ltd  2018

Out Now: The Forlorn Hope

I have a new comic out now, courtesy of the fine people at Commando.

The Forlorn Hope is the story of Tom, a young ne’er-do-well who drunkenly signs up to fight in the Napoleonic wars. Sent to Spain, he struggles to escape his new life of hard work and danger. But as the redcoats are thrown into a series of bloody sieges, Tom has to decide what sort of person he really wants to be.

Like my previous Commando story, The Forlorn Hope‘s characters are fictional, but the events they’re caught up in are entirely real.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British army expanded hugely to face the might of the French Empire. To get enough men, recruiting parties scoured the country, often relying on drink to make men susceptible to exaggerated promises of pay and adventure.

The unit I put Tom into for this story is a real one – the 45th Nottinghamshire Regiment. The events of the comic cover actions they took part in, including the bloody storming of Badajoz. The details of the fighting are as close to the truth as I could make them, down to the moment when a grenadier named MacPherson turned his red jacket into a flag. I’ve skimmed over the uglier details of the aftermath, as they seemed out of place in Commando, but the moment when the victorious British immediately start drinking reflects the real behaviour of Wellington’s army.

As for calling assault parties “Forlorn Hope”, that’s also real, though its original meaning isn’t what you might expect. The phrase arose during fighting in the Netherlands. It’s a corruption of the Dutch phrase “verloren hoop”, literally meaning “lost heap”. So a similar sentiment but with a different meaning. It’s a fitting description. Many men were lost in the assault parties sent to storm besieged towns and forts. It was a difficult, dangerous business, and it was with good reason that the survivors were held in high regard.

 

You can find Commando #5139: The Forlorn Hope in British newsagents now and in digital form via Comixology.