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.

Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

***

The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

When the Nightingales Return – a flash historical story

“The nightingales have stopped singing.” It was the first thing Olga said when she arrived home from the war. Not “Hello.” Not “I’ve missed you.” No tears on seeing her family again. Just the nightingales.

I looked my older sister up and down. If the war had gone on another year, I might have ended up like her. Hair cut short, dressed in a fraying uniform designed for a man.

“The birds flew away during the fighting,” our mother said. “Never came back.”

She didn’t mention the others who never came back. Whole villages that had been burned to the ground. Jewish neighbours dragged off by the Nazis.

“I missed the nightingales,” Olga said.

She said little else for the first few weeks. She helped readily enough with the work around the farm, but it was as if some part of her wasn’t really there. She would stare off into the distance, lost to us. All those times I had imagined her return, it had been nothing like this.

I tried to find the sister I had known. I shared gossip about our remaining neighbours, anecdotes about the dogs, stories where the cat fought animals twice its size. None of it drew a response.

“The nightingales will be back soon,” I said one day, as I saw Olga gazing into the treetops.

“Really?” Her face showed its old brightness for the first time since the war.

“Of course,” I said. “This is their home.”

I had thought that answer would cheer her further, but instead she looked away sadly.

“Home changes.” She tapped her chest. “In here.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. The thought of her face in that moment, of those words and what they might mean, left me sobbing quietly in the dark.

In the days that followed, I became even more determined to lift Olga out of the darkness. I didn’t mention home again, but I talked often about the nightingales’ return. I brought her presents – bunches of flowers, interesting stones, models I whittled from scraps of wood. A collection grew on top of her chest of drawers, a cluttered tribute to my failure. Each one earned me a “Thank you,” but never a smile.

The pain of rejection grew within my heart. Every moment around her was a fresh wound, but I couldn’t stay away. Olga had done so much for us. I had to do this for her. I had to make things better.

“What am I doing wrong?” I finally blurted out one day, as she sadly added another of my gifts to the heap. “What can I do to make you happy?”

“Tatiana, please,” she said. “Stop.”

“No. I won’t stop. I can’t stop. Not while you’re so miserable! What can I do?”

“What can you do?” Anger flared in her eyes. “Can you bring back my friends who died? The men I shot? The thirteen-year-old boy I stabbed to death on the streets of Berlin? Can you wash my soul clean?”

From the next room there came a crash of breaking china, followed by our mother’s sobs.

“I would do anything to mend your wounds,” I said through streaming tears.

“I do not need to be mended. This is who I am.”

That night, I curled up beside my mother in her bed, as I had when I was small, and we cried ourselves to sleep.

The next day, I went to work in the fields beside Olga. I offered no jokes, no anecdotes, no gifts. And over the days that followed, the weight upon my heart slowly lessened. It would not go, but at least now it could be borne.

“Look,” Olga said one day, pointing at the nearby treetops. “The nightingales have returned.”

* * *

 

This story was inspired by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich, a historical account of the experiences of female Russian soldiers in the Second World War. You can read more about it here.

If you enjoyed this story, you can get more like it to your inbox every week by signing up to my mailing list.

“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

Beneath Cloudy Skies – a historical flash story

Estelle stood in the darkness beneath the trees, watching the surrounding fields. Her heart was pounding from her frantic cycle ride and from the fear of being caught. But she had heard the bomber go by overhead and seen the flash as it crashed in the distance. If any of the crew had survived, they would have landed somewhere around here. If she was to save them from the Nazis, she had to act quickly.

It was a cloudy night, as it usually was when the British sent out a raid. It was almost impossible to make out shapes in the darkness. If she hadn’t been so familiar with these fields, she might never have noticed the movement by a hedgerow. As she peered more closely a shape emerged – a man, made bulky by his thick jacket, a bundle in his arms.

As she approached, the man dropped his burden, parachute silk tumbling across the stubble of this year’s corn. He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at her.

“Friend,” she said, trying to sound reassuring despite her fear. “You understand?”

He said something in English – she had no idea what – then put his pistol away.

Estelle grabbed the parachute and thrust it into the depths of a haystack.

“I’ll come back and bury it later,” she said. “You understand?”

The airman stood staring.

“Never mind,” Estelle said. “I can take you to-”

Engines roared through the silent countryside. Cars coming this way along the winding road, their lights just bright enough to see a few feet in front of them.

Only the occupiers and their pet authorities drove at this time of night.

She grabbed the airman’s arm and pulled him after her, running up the hill toward the trees. He stumbled, found his footing, and kept moving, even as one of the cars moved off the road and headed across the field, slowing as they bounced across rough ground.

The Germans must have seen a parachute coming down and come to look. She prayed that they were too busy driving to spot her in the darkness.

She flung herself behind one of the trees. The airman did the same. As Estelle peered out, she saw that the car had stopped less than two hundred yards away. Four flashlights blinked on, their bearers spreading out to scour the area. Two were heading this way.

She looked at the airman, barely visible in the shadows and the night. There was still time for her to get away on her own – to grab the bicycle and ride to safety. She had come out here to help this man, but if he was clumsy or stupid then he could get them both caught. For him, that would mean a prisoner of war camp, for her torture and death.

He didn’t try to look out from behind his tree. Instead he looked at her, waiting for her next move, trusting her to make their choices.

That was enough.

She moved deeper into the trees, going slowly and carefully to avoid making noise. She waved to the airman to follow. As he did, he seemed to imitate her movements, taking the path she had picked out, one that avoided dense undergrowth and places where she knew dead wood and dried leaves fell.

The beam of a torch flashed into the woods. Estelle scrambled beneath a thicket of dense, low-lying bushes. The airman followed her. As they lay in the darkness she could hear him breathing inches from her face.

The torch shone above their heads again. Footsteps approached, breaking twigs underfoot and crashing through the undergrowth. The man called out in German and someone replied.

He was less than twenty yards from them now and still coming closer. He held his torch in one hand, a light machine-gun in the other. All he had to do was look down and they would be caught. Taken away to a dank cell and a man who knew all about questions and about pain.

The airmen shifted beside Estelle. She heard the faint sound of something being drawn from a pouch at his belt. Then he reached out past her, moving with terrible slowness, pointing a pistol at the German.

Horror gripped Estelle. Was he mad? Didn’t he understand that there were other soldiers around, that they would close in the moment they heard the shot? What good was shooting this one man if it got them caught?

Silently, she placed her hand on the airman’s arm and pushed down. For a moment he resisted, but then he gave way, letting her lower his weapon.

The man with the torch kept walking, past them and away into the night.

They lay there until the Germans were long gone. Then Estelle led the airman out of the darkness and down the winding, narrow roads to her family’s farm.

Dawn was breaking as they entered the kitchen. Papa was up, cooking breakfast with his one good hand. He greeted the airman in broken English, and the airman responded in a rush of words, a smile of relief filling his face.

“I think he says to thank you,” Papa said. “For saving him from the Nazis.”

Estelle shrugged and sat down at the table, waiting for the eggs to be served. She was tired and needed the energy to help her think. Already she was considering when and where to contact the escape line, how they would get the airman to people who could start his journey home.

“Tell him he’s not safe yet,” she said. “His journey has only just begun.”

* * *

 

The work of the escape lines during World War Two was truly remarkable. Civilians risked their lives to get stranded airmen, soldiers, and spies out of Nazi-occupied Europe. Many lost their lives in the process or suffered imprisonment and interrogation at the hands of the Nazis’ brutal security services. If you want to know more, I recommend Ian Dear’s book Escape and Evasion, which also covers other escapes of the Second World War.

And if you’d like more historical fiction, check out my short story collection From a Foreign Shore or sign up to my mailing list for stories straight to your inbox every week.

London’s Burning – a historical flash story

By New York Times Paris Bureau Collection.

Even through the thick walls and the blackout curtains, the sounds of the bombing raid filled the fire station. Sirens blaring. Bombs exploding. The fire of anti-aircraft guns. The roar of engines from the planes overhead.

Albert Wright sat on the side of the fire engine, ready for action. He had rushed here as soon as the raid started, leaving behind the flat above his tailoring business. He was surprised that they’d been waiting here so long.

The phone rang. Macaulay snatched up the receiver, listened for a few seconds, then set it back in the cradle.

“First of the night,” he said grimly.

A minute later, they were out the doors and racing through London’s dark and empty streets. Somewhere overhead, the RAF were fighting the Nazis.

Down here, Albert had his own battle to face.

As they reached the street, it was obvious what had happened. The remnants of incendiary bombs still smouldered in the road, but the fire at the end of the terrace lit up the night. Smoke billowed from the blazing house. Flames darted from the windows.

They leapt from the wagon, connected the hoses, and directed them onto the blaze. Neighbours watched, some fearful, some grim, some blank-faced as they stared up into the deadly skies.

Albert was helping Macaulay direct a stream of water when a woman tugged at his elbow. She pointed to the next house along. The flames were spreading there, smoke starting to drift out.

“There’s a boy lives there,” she said. “Mother works nights. He hasn’t come out.”

Albert looked to Macaulay.

“Do it,” Macaulay said. “I’ve got this.”

As Albert let go of the hose, his colleague struggled to direct the spray. The woman grabbed the hose to help as Albert grabbed a torch, ran to the next door house, and kicked the door open.

“Anyone in there?” he shouted through the smoke.

He wasn’t sure whether he heard a voice or the creak of straining timbers. That was the sort of mistake that had cost a lot of good firemen their lives, and Albert knew he wasn’t even much of a fireman. Just a tailor with a badge and a determination to help.

He couldn’t live with himself if it turned out that he’d left someone in there.

Smoke rasped at his throat and made his eyes stream as he strode into the house, the beam of the torch showing the way. The noise had come from upstairs, so that was where he went. He could barely see the threadbare carpet through the smoke, and the heat was already pressing in, but he took the stairs two at a time until he was on the upper landing.

There he froze. A bomb protruded from the ceiling above him, where it had got trapped on a beam. A small device, as incendiaries went, but more than enough to kill him and burn the house down.

Through a bedroom door, a boy of twelve years or so sat in his bed, staring in terror at the bomb.

“Come on,” Albert said, holding out his hand. “Got to get you out of here.”

“What if it goes off?” the boy shouted.

Albert could almost have sworn. What was he meant to say? Of course the bomb might go off. With the house straining as its neighbour collapsed, their movements might be the thing that caused the bomb to drop. But if they didn’t get out now, they’d be burned alive.

“It’s fine,” Albert said. “Hurry.”

“I…” the boy said. “I can’t.”

He pulled back a blanket, revealing the stumps of his legs. This wasn’t his first bomb.

There was a crash as a section of ceiling gave way, flaming timbers falling onto the landing, fire threatening to catch on the stairs. The bomb shifted and for a moment Albert thought it was all over, but it didn’t fall yet.

Summoning all the courage he had, he leapt through the flames on the landing. He’d never thought of himself as strong, but he swept the lad up in a single motion.

“Hold on tight,” he said.

Sweat poured down him and the boy’s fingers dug into his back. He couldn’t jump with this weight, so instead he laid the blanket across the boy for protection, turned, and strode through the flames.

His legs blazed with pain and his exposed fingers felt like they might burst.

The smoke was so dense he could barely breath. His head spun as he staggered down the stairs, desperate not to let the boy go.

Something groaned behind him.

Albert let momentum take over, almost falling down the stairs in his rush to get out. Then he was on the flat and running, slamming against a door frame before he stumbled into the street.

Someone took the boy. Someone else – he couldn’t see who, his eyes were streaming so badly – pushed him down on the pavement and beat at him with a blanket, putting out flames.

Behind him, there was a roar as the bomb went off.

At last, he got back to his feet. He tried to walk back to the hoses, but Macaulay stopped him, pointing instead toward an ambulance.

“There’ll be more fires,” Albert protested, trying to ignore his pain.

“Not for you,” Macaulay said. “Go let someone else save your life this time, you stupid bloody hero.”

* * *

 

I’ve been reading a lot about the Second World War lately for my work at War History Online. It’s been a powerful reminder of the fact that civilians are always affected by war. Several British firefighters won medals for their lifesaving service during the Blitz. Many more died. Their courage and hard work are worth remembering, especially as many were not professionals but had volunteered to help.

If you’d like more historical fiction, check out my collection From a Foreign Shore. And if you enjoyed this story then please share it.

The Man in the High Castle: WW2, Identity and Resistance

The Man in the High Castle is a gripping piece of television. It takes the ideas laid out in Phillip K Dick’s book and expands upon them to create something powerful and fascinating. More than this, it’s an exploration of morality and of why the Second World War is still so powerful in all our imaginations.

Why WW2?

The Man in the High Castle is a rarity. It’s an alternate history story that, both in its original novel and in the TV show, has reached beyond that small cultural niche and found a wider audience. Both versions have received popular and critical acclaim.

A huge part of its success lies in the choice of historical settings. The Second World War lies heavy in historical memory. For the generation before mine, it still had a great immediacy. In Europe, they grew up amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts. Across the world, they grew up with the consequences and with the war stories of their parents’ generation. As a result, the war also felt immediate for the generation that followed – my own. It was a modern event that shaped the modern world.

The scale and impact of the war are also factors. The term “World War” is a little misleading, given the number of countries that weren’t involved. But it was still a war on an unprecedented scale in the number of nations and combatants, as well as the sheer destruction. Millions died both in combat and in atrocities against civilians. The political and cultural landscape of entire continents was transformed in the space of a decade.

Perhaps most powerfully, it is a war where the sense of moral right and wrong has lingered. While all sides committed terrible acts and every nation had figures striving for good, a distinction remains. The Nazis and their allies sought to enforce their will upon others through violence. They tried to wipe out entire groups of people because of who they were. The Allies fought against that.

Trying to assert a sense of right and wrong upon history is usually misguided at best. But in this case, nothing has shaken off the sense of being in the right that the Allied nations retain.

Playing into Our Vision of WW2

The Man in the High Castle plays into this collective vision. It uses our understanding of the war and how significant it is. This is an easy shortcut to show us that the alternate world is very different and far darker.

By sticking inside the 20th century, it retains that sense of immediacy. Sure, its 1960s setting is now decades behind us. But it’s still modern enough to feel achingly familiar, painfully so when things are wrong.

Most powerfully, it plays up the moral aspect. The horrifying nature of Nazi moral values is there from the start. Characters have taken part in and borne witness to atrocities. Political murder and oppression are common. Aberrations against what the Nazis consider normal, even those as innocent as ill health, are dangerous.

On the Pacific coast too, continued Japanese militarism creates a menacing state with clear racial distinctions.

Undermining Our Certainties

But what makes The Man in the High Castle so powerful is that it questions and undermines these certainties.

Partly, this is about the significance of the war. Within the story, films of alternate realities create questions about the world the characters live in and by extension our own. If there are many other possible realities, is any one event really so significant? Don’t other events equally shape our lives? If the Axis powers had won, would the war still be the single most significant event, or would others that followed match it?

Most tellingly, The Man in the High Castle challenges our moral certainties.

By dropping the atomic bomb on Washington, it forces us to face the terrible nature of the things the Allies did to win the war. The Nazi leadership may have been villains, but can the other side still be considered heroes after wiping out entire cities?

By showing us sympathetic characters on the German and Japanese sides, it undercuts the image of these regimes as all bad. It reminds us that ordinary people can do terrible things if society leads them that way. The question for anyone watching then becomes “in what ways is society leading me to harm others while seeing myself as right?”

Darkest of all, the story undermines the image of those resisting the Axis powers as good. Resistance fighters do desperate and terrible things in the name of freedom. At times, they become antagonists to the show’s hero. They go so far that it’s hard not question whether anyone is in the right here. There are different degrees of wrong and the Nazis are clearly far more hideous in their values than anyone else. But still, the certainties fade…

No Certainties

The Man in the High Castle uses a powerful part of our historical memory to raise powerful questions. To do right, we have to be able to act. We cannot be frozen by doubt. But we still need those doubts, to be able to see when we might be wrong and to adjust our path.

This is a show that should help us to approach morality more intelligently and to examine the past more critically.

Fortunately, it’s also damn good entertainment of the most chilling kind.

A Ray of Light by Russell Phillips

ray of lightMy friend and writing support Russell Phillips has a new book out this week, A Ray of Light. Normally, when I’m writing about a book by someone I know, I just say “hey, here are the things I like about it, maybe you will too”. But this time I’m going to go further. This time I want to encourage everyone to go pick up this book, or at the very least read up about the events it describes. Because this book exists to help us remember terrible things from the past, and to hold out hope through the way we respond to them.

In June 1942, Nazi troops occupying Czechoslavakia destroyed the mining village of Lidice. The men were killed. The women and children were taken away, many of them to die. The village was so thoroughly destroyed that nothing remained to mark where it had been.

This atrocity came in response to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Gestapo and one of the leading planners of the Holocaust. That Heydrich had acted monstrously, leading the murder of millions, is beyond doubt. The value of his assassination, on the other hand, is more questionable. Thousands of Czechs died as a result of his death at the hands of British-trained Czech agents. When Lidice was mistakenly linked to the killing, the village was wiped out. While Heydrich’s death was celebrated among the Allied nations, many in Czechoslovakia questioned whether it was worth the cost.

Lidice’s memory did not die. As Phillips discusses in his book, people around the world were shocked by the atrocity and acted to preserve Lidice’s memory. In particular, miners from Staffordshire in England strove to remember Lidice and help in its rebuilding. Out of the darkness came a ray of light.

Phillips’s short book describes Heydrich’s career, the planning of the assassination, the atrocities that followed, and how Lidice was remembered. It’s important that we remember events like this, not just for how terrible they were, but for how terrible moments can emerge from such seemingly innocuous beginnings as the childhood persecution of Reinhard Heydrich and the legitimate desire of Czech exiles for vengeance on the man persecuting their people.

You can find links to buy A Ray of Light from Phillips’s website. If it’s not your sort of book, then please instead take a few minutes to go and read about Lidice. It’s something we should all remember.