Durand’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

The second of two comics I wrote for the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, Durand’s Dunkirk follows the crew of a French SOMUA S35 tank. With the French armies shattered and the Allies in retreat, Regis Durand and his indomitable crew gain a new mission – to hold up the advancing Germans and allow the British to evacuate through Dunkirk.

A Story of Sacrifice

Both Durand’s Dunkirk and its companion comic, Dodger’s Dunkirk, are stories with a message, but those messages are very different. During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the British showed that there could be courage and even triumph in a well-executed retreat, that not every battle should be fought to the bitter end. But the French army showed how sometimes you have to fight on, one person’s sacrifice becoming another’s salvation. The French fought hard to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation, even knowing that it would leave their country undefended. That’s the battle that Durand fights.

Just as the evacuation didn’t only rescue British troops, the stand that made it possible wasn’t only fought by the French. The film Darkest Hour touchingly demonstrates this, in a section dealing with the fate of British troops in Calais who fought on as a distraction for the others rather than being given a chance to escape. But it was the French army that provided the greatest barrier to the advancing Germans in those last days.

An International War

Another point of this comic was to explore the international nature of the World Wars, a point I bang on about so much it’s probably getting boring, but that bears repeating.

Originally, Durand and Dodger’s comics were pitched as a single script, one that showed how the very different fates of the withdrawing British and the French rearguard were connected. I wanted to celebrate the British success at Dunkirk while remembering how many other countries were involved. It was thanks to my editor at Commando that the one story became two, and I’m really glad I got the chance to expand on that original idea.

In England, we refer to the First and Second World Wars but often neglect that “world” part. Our stories tend to be focused on British experiences, which is understandable but also a bit repetitive, limiting how many facets we see of an incredibly complicated story. There have been some interesting exceptions in recent years, such as the film Hurricane and the recent inclusion of a Sikh soldier in a scene from 1917. I think it’s good that we’re doing that more, as it makes the stories more interesting and more representative of reality. So of course I wanted to depict the French as much as the British in exploring Dunkirk, and also to show other nations, such as the Belgian soldier who plays a key part in both these stories.

One of these days, I might stop banging the drum on this subject. Today is not that day.

The Myth of National Character

This story is also about one of the big myths of late 19th and early 20th-century military thinking – the power of superior national character.

Across Europe, every country found a way to convince itself that it was inherently superior to the rest and that this was reflected in its armed forces. A superior fighting spirit would ensure their victory over a far less impressive enemy. This is a myth that Durand, the tank commander of this story, buys into.

The inherent flaw in this thinking is obvious – if everybody has a superior national character then nobody is actually superior. The myth falls apart based on logic, never mind evidence. It can be a useful myth in motivating troops, but it’s also a dangerous one if it encourages soldiers, commanders, and politicians to ignore reality. Germany didn’t win the Battle of France because of superior national character, but because it had better tactics and the element of surprise. Russia didn’t defeat the Germans in the east because of a greater fighting spirit, but because of superior numbers and a willingness to spend lives in a war of attrition.

Durand goes into the story believing in a superior French fighting character. The question the story asks is how that attitude can stand up to the prospect of defeat.

Out Now

Both of my Dunkirk comics are out now. Both work as standalone stories, but together they create something more complex, showing the same events from different angles. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

Blood on the Beach – A Historical Short Story

There was blood on the beach. Somehow, in spite of everything, Louis hadn’t expected that. He’d seen the soldiers here, thousands of them lining up to board the boats. He’d seen the heaps of equipment they left behind. He’d heard the bombs falling and the rattle of gunfire as planes flew across that teeming crowd of men. And yet somehow he hadn’t anticipated those dark stains, turning patches of sand into sinister, crusted lumps.

The salt smell of the sea was a familiar one around Dunkirk, but now it had a different edge.

Photo by Sean MacEntee via
Flickr Creative Commons

There were no more boats. That he had expected, or rather feared. No way out. He walked across the sand, between piles of discarded equipment, some of it burned to stop the Germans using it. What was he hoping to find? An abandoned row boat? An uninflated dinghy? Enough wood to make a raft that could survive the crossing to England? Each idea was more absurd than the last. The gulls mocked him with their screeching laughter as they pecked at the remnants humans had left behind.

He looked back towards the shop fronts facing the harbour. More soldiers had appeared, ones in different uniforms. He had seen them in the newspaper and he knew what they represented. Reluctantly, he raised his hands and walked back up the beach.

One of the soldiers pointed a rifle at him and shouted in heavily accented French. “Stop! Stop or shooting!”

“I’m not going to make trouble,” Louis called out in German. So many sailors and travellers passed through town, he had picked up a smattering of a dozen languages and enough for conversation in three. “I own that café.”

He pointed to his building. He’d closed up shop days ago and shuttered the windows. By that point he’d sold or given almost all he could to the waiting soldiers. There had been no point continuing, especially not with bombs falling and planes strafing the promenade.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” the soldier said. Others were gathering around him, some watching Louis, others staring warily at the nearby buildings. “You could be a soldier in disguise, looking for a way out.”

“May I lower my hand? It will help me prove this to you.”

“One twitch of trouble and you’re a dead man.”

Slowly, Louis lowered his trembling right hand, slid it into his pocket, and pulled out his keys.

“May I?” he asked, gesturing toward his front door.

The German watched him with narrowed eyes, but stepped back to make the way clear.

Louis walked up to his café, turned the key in the lock, and opened the door. The whole way, those guns kept pointing at him, and it was all he could do not to freeze in fear. One slip of a finger and he was dead.

He let the Germans walk in first, three of them, pointing their guns at the counter, the tables, the hat stand, as if any of them might hide a British soldier. Louis was glad that he’d hidden the cash box already. He would give it up in an instant if they threatened him, and leave himself destitute in the process, but the dead had no use for money.

“Would you like coffee?” he asked, easing his way between. “I got my supply from a Brazilian sailor fresh off the Atlantic run. There’s only a little left, but it’s very good.”

One of the soldiers grinned and pulled out a chair, its legs scraping against the tiled floor. Sweat ran down Louis’s back, sticking his shirt to his spine. If these men looked around properly then he would be in a world of trouble, but he couldn’t just kick them out. He had to be cooperative, had to keep them happy, had to show that he was compliant.

“No time for coffee,” the oldest soldier said. “Not until the town’s secure.”

His comrades pulled faces, but they followed him out the door.

One of them turned in the entrance and smiled at Louis.

“You’ll be open later, yes?”

“Whenever you want,” Louis said, with the same forced smile he gave to poor tippers and people who broke his cups. “After all, I have new customers in town.”

The soldier laughed and left.

Louis waited until they were out of earshot, then closed and locked the door. He let out a deep sigh, then trudged up the stairs, walked into his bedroom, and opened the wardrobe door. A heap of blankets unfurled, revealing a man in uniform, bloodshot eyes wide with fear.

“No way out now,” Louis said. “We’ll need to find you a better hiding place.”

“So I’m stuck?” the man asked in English.

“Give me time,” Louis replied, remembering the Germans in his café, their own looks of exhaustion and excitement, distracted by something as simple as a cup of coffee. “We’ll find a way.”

***

As well as this story, I have two comics out this week about the Dunkirk evacuation –  Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

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.

***

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 Now – Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk

I have not one but two Commando comics out this week, with matching covers by the excellent Keith Burns.

Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk tell the stories of two soldiers, one French and the other British, taking part in the fighting that led up the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. The two stories stand alone but are connected, with events and characters crossing over between the two. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve had at Commando, and I’m really pleased with the results.

You can get both Dunkirk issues on Comixology or wherever copies of Commando are sold.

Heart of a Hero – a historical short story

Dieter crept across the rubble and through a gap in the wall between two houses. The rifle was heavy in his hands but he clutched it close, the only solid thing left in a broken world.

For days he had been hiding alone in the ruins, trying to find the courage to do as the Hitler Youth leader had told him, to protect Berlin from the barbarians from the east. He knew his duty, knew that the blood-thirsty Communists would kill everyone if he didn’t stop them, but he still trembled with fear at the thought of fighting these monsters. And so he had sat in the dark, cold, hungry, and alone, wishing that he could be the hero he was meant to be.

It was the cheering that finally brought him around. It had started this morning, resounding in waves through the city, and the sound made him sick. How dare the Russians celebrate destruction? They were vermin that needed to be cleansed.

Movement drew Dieter’s eye towards a shattered window. A huge man in a Russian uniform was walking up the street, a rifle hanging from his shoulder and the tooth of some terrible beast dangling on a string around his neck. A hunter. A killer. A Communist.

Dieter raised his rifle and pointed it at the soldier. He peered down the length of the barrel, but his trembling hands made it hard to aim. He took a deep breath and shifted his feet, trying to steady himself.

A broken brick slid out from under his foot. He stumbled against the wall as the brick clattered away.

The soldier looked straight at Dieter. Dieter’s heart raced as terror swept through him. He raised the gun again and placed his finger on the trigger, but as he looked into the man’s eyes he couldn’t bring himself to fire.

The soldier called out. Another man appeared beside him, old and stubbly, his uniform frayed. Now they outnumbered Dieter, but he mustn’t be afraid. He had to do what was right.

He took another deep breath, tried to tell himself that this was the right thing. He would be a hero if he killed these men.

The large soldier said something, then the old one raised his voice.

“What’s your name, boy?” he said in a thick Russian accent.

“I am Dieter Hahn, and I am going to kill you.”

“Of course you are, Private Hahn,” the old soldier said, his tone deadly serious. “Quite an achievement for such a young man. You must be, what, ten, eleven?”

“I’m thirteen!”

“Well, then you’re a better soldier than either of us. We never killed anyone before we were eighteen, the sergeant and I. Of course, we never killed anyone when there wasn’t a war on.”

“You think this isn’t a war?” Dieter’s voice was shrill with grief and fury. “You killed my Uncle Klaus! You blew up my school! I’m going to kill you all!”

“This was a war,” the old soldier said. “But it ended today. Didn’t they tell you?”

Could it be true? Dieter barely remembered a time before the war, though he remembered a time before the ruin, and the thought of returning to that time made him want to cry with relief.

But heroes didn’t cry and heroes weren’t fooled.

“You’re lying,” he said, aiming the rifle once more. “It’s a trick to stop me fighting.”

The old soldier murmured something to his companion. The big man shrugged, reached into a pouch on his belt, and carefully pulled something out. First a length of sausage, then a hunk of bread, and finally a canteen. He set them down on the broken stump of a wall, stepped back, and said something to the old soldier.

“If this was still a war, we would give you bullets straight from our guns,” the old soldier said. “We’ve fought a hundred better soldiers than you, and we’ve won every time.”

“More lies!”

“If we hadn’t won, would we still be here, offering you bread instead of bullets?”

The soldiers turned their backs on Dieter and walked away down the street.

“If you want more, then come find us,” the old soldier called out. “But get rid of that toy gun first.”

Dieter aimed down the length of the barrel. His hands were steadier now. He was ready to kill for his homeland.

But heroes didn’t shoot their enemies in the back.

He lowered the rifle and stood staring at the food. He was so hungry it hurt.

A sob burst unbidden from him. He dropped the rifle, stumbled out of the ruined building, and grabbed hold of the bread. His mouth watered as he tore a chunk off between his teeth and swallowed it almost without chewing.

He could hear cheering and singing, thousands of men celebrating in the ruins of the city, the ruins of his home.

Dieter picked up the sausage and the canteen. He stumbled down the street after the soldiers, still chewing as he went. He didn’t need to be hungry anymore, didn’t need to be alone. He would never know if he could have been a hero, and he didn’t care.

***

This story was written to go with Rats in the Rubble, my latest Commando comic, which is out this week. It follows a group of Soviet soldiers storming a ruined orphanage in the final days of World War Two, and the dilemmas they face when they find children still living there. Rats in the Rubble is available now through Comixology and direct from D C Thomson.

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.

***

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.

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.

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“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.