Author of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy

Author: Alan Jones

Workshop tales

Or, The Cabinetmaker

From an early age, I watched my dad tinker with woodworking, and would always visit my grandpa’s workshop in Rose Street Foundry when we were on holiday in Inverness, where he was a pattern-maker, crafting full size templates in wood that would be used to cast the iron for anything from large engines or pumps to the chairs that hold rails onto railway sleepers. It instilled a fascination for carpentry in my young mind that has never left me.

Rose Street Foundry, Inverness

On the other side of my family, my inspirational Granny Stephen was an unlikely collector of antiques, despite living in a high rise flat in the notorious Red Road estate in Glasgow. It gave me an appreciation for well made furniture.

Original GKN Nettlefold box of screws, c 1960, inherited from my dad

It wasn’t until I got married, and we moved into our first home, that I had the chance to start making and restoring our own furniture. I made a simple bed, and a coffee table, but they were cruder than I would have liked, with some questionable construction elements (the table had about a hundred screws holding it together, which could only be seen from underneath, fortunately.) On the positive side, I used reclaimed wood whenever I could, whether it was from a local skip, or donated as part of a piece of unwanted furniture.

We lived in a small village in south-west Wales and, once a month, there was a sale of furniture and bric-a-brac in the village hall, mostly from house-clearances of larger houses whose occupants had down sized, and I purchase a wardrobe and a dressing table for four pounds, only to discover that it had been sent to the sale by our next-door neighbour. All that lugging about hadn’t really been necessary, but it made a nice Welsh dresser once it had been converted.

Welsh dresser, 1985

Since then, I’ve gradually tackled more difficult projects, helped by the fact that in 1990, when I started up my veterinary practice, I had a spare shed next door to the surgery which I turned into a proper workshop, installing a second-hand crosscut saw, and making long benches which I still use today.

When I started writing, my love of woodworking and playing football became the backdrop to my first crime novel, The Cabinetmaker. I’d have loved to have been the master craftsman he was!

The Cabinetmaker
A little nod to our Street Cabinetmaking at Bloody Scotland!

I retired last year when I was 60, and in doing so, I lost my workshop beside the surgery. Since then, I’ve been searching for a building to use as a workroom but could find nothing close to suitable. A chance conversation with a friend of mine led to me renting a barn he had surplus to requirements and, after the final edits of The Turn of the Tide had been completed, and I waited for the proofs to come back from the printers, I threw myself into converting the empty shell into a suitable workshop. I was to have half the barn downstairs, but I could see that it was probably enough for my requirements and, anyway, I’d spotted a solution to the additional storage I’d need for all my reclaimed wood and salvaged pieces of furniture.

There was a large roof space, and it was ideal as a wood storage loft, but the rafters were unsupported, and would not have taken the weight. Steel beams and pillars were ordered to support a floor, and erected with some difficulty, with the help of a local agricultural contractor and his tele-handler.

In the year since I’d retired, I’d been spending 12-14 hours a day sitting at my desk, writing, editing, making video trailers and designing covers, and this sedentary lifestyle had led to me being the heaviest I’d ever been, so it was good to be doing some physical labour, lifting and laying forty plywood sheets for the loft floor, and dwanging all the beams (a Scottish term for infilling the beams to support the joints in the flooring). Climbing up and down ladders all day was a great workout, and I lost around a stone, and felt the better for it.

Beams, flooring and dwangs

There were no lights, and only two sockets at the supply board, so I rewired the whole barn, upstairs and down. An electrician checked the final connections, just to be safe, and we were up and running with light and power.

It was cold, working in the barn over the winter, but Lia, one of my beta-readers, took pity on me and crocheted a wonderful pair of fingerless gloves, with a hat to match. Despite protesting that they were far to good to use in the workshop, she insisted. They do make quite a difference!

Essential PPE

I installed the benches and the crosscut saw from my old workshop, and a swathe of racking I’d picked up at a reasonable price on Gumtree. I’d hoped to pick up a staircase somewhere as well, but with nothing coming up, I set about making one. Never having tackled it before, it took me a while to get my head around the angles but, with a home-made router jig, I cut out the rebates on the stringers and cut the steps to suit. With a bit of trepidation, I hoisted it up into position. Amazingly, with only a few minor tweaks, it fitted, with one small compromise.  Due to the size of the ‘hatch’ in the loft floor, you have to duck to get up the stairs. Still, it is far better than the ladder I was using before!

The Staircase. Remember to duck!

I salvaged some old steel beams and cut them to make a frame for a half ton hoist, my friend and fellow lifeboat crew-member, Luciana, a trainee welder in a shipyard, welded it for me. With its own hatch, it allows me to lift heavy items, including furniture, up to the loft.

With all the excellent storage facilities, I’ve been able, for the first time, to have my workshop organised the way I want it, with all the tools in racks for better access, and everything easy to find and get to, it will be much easier to work in.

A number of years ago, I’d rescued an old table saw from being thrown away – its motor didn’t work, but a few months ago, I managed to find a suitable replacement. With new electrics fitted, it is now up and running, as is the wonderfully named Dominion Elliot Minor, a vintage combination woodworking machine, with planer, thicknesser, morticer and tenoner that I found on Gumtree. I had one or two issues setting it up but it has now been restored to its former operational glory.

The ‘Dominion Elliot Minor’, with table saw behind

With the new machinery, it will be much easier to do the projects which have been on hold for the last five years. This includes a new kitchen for the house, which her indoors has been desperate for, and a conversion of my van into a modular camper van. She has been very patient, bless her. I now have no excuses. 😊

So that’s it. Here’s a gallery of some of my furniture I’ve made, restored and converted over the last forty years.

Bedside Cabinet, Spalted beech
Dining stool, whisky barrel oak & distressed steel
Bookcase (Sacred heart School) and shop drawer chest (old hardware store)

Snooker table, my first attempt at French polishing
Coffee table, reclaimed oak
Wardrobes, beech, with spalted handles

I like to think it is done to a reasonable standard, but when I was asked on my retirement if I was going to take up cabinetmaking as a new career, I had a quiet laugh to myself. I take far too long to make things – any realistic charging for my furniture would be impossible. I admire cabinetmakers who do it for a living – they must work significantly faster than I do!

I have too many interests, I know, and it’s sometimes hard to fit it all in, but each has its own wonderful qualities, and planning a piece of wood, watching the paper thin shavings curl from my grandfather’s old jack plane is still up there with the rest.

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GIRVAN ARTS FESTIVAL

And why it’s a big deal.

It’s the inaugural Girvan Arts Festival from the 11th to the 12th of June, and I’ll be appearing on the programme, closing the festival on Sunday evening. The venue holds about 25, when full. It may not seem much, but it’s a big deal to me.

Why? Firstly it’s my home town and I’ll support any initiative to promote Girvan as a cultural hub.

And because I’ve hidden behind a pen name for so long, it is my chance to showcase my writing in my own community.

But there’s another reason.

As a self-published author, getting an appearance at one of the many book festivals that take place every year in the UK is incredibly difficult; in the ten years I’ve been writing, it has only happened once, despite me getting in touch with more than a few organisers of these events.

There are reasonable grounds for this – why should a festival take a punt on an unknown author, without a publisher behind them to give an assurance of quality, and probably with limited book sales under their belt? If it was me, I’d probably think along the same lines.

Despite that, the one festival that did give me a panel (together with a couple of other self published authors, David Videcette and Alison Bailley) was Bloody Scotland, the world-famous crime fiction festival.

It was a number of years ago when, Bloq, my third crime fiction novel did, for a short time, create a small stir in the crime fiction community, and it is credit to Bloody Scotland that they were prepared to put us on the programme, coming on the back of me doing a couple of pop up book launches at the festival – Street Cabinetmaking for my book The Cabinetmaker, and the Bloq Street Nightclub, selling mocktails to festival-goers in Stirling.

Street Cabinetmaking
The Bloq Pop-up Bar

That, a reading at Noir-at-the-Bar in Edinburgh, and a lovely evening with Kirkintilloch Library Book Group being grilled by Sharon Bairden, is the sum total of my public appearances, so I’m looking forward to the upcoming event in the Dome, in Girvan’s Community Gardens, a wonderful venue in a green space at the very heart of Girvan, a stone’s throw from the harbour and the town centre.

I’ll be in conversation with Douglas Skelton, an author with a plethora of crime fiction and true crime books under his belt, who has interviewed some of the greats in Scottish writing, so I was delighted when he agreed to make the trip down to Girvan. And he has connections, with the Girvan area, and with me, long before I started writing.

For a number of years, Douglas and his wife lived in Colmonell, a small village inland from Girvan, with three dogs and a gaggle of cats, and I was their vet while they lived there. Years later, when I started writing, Douglas was a treasure trove of advice on how to get my books out there, which was a real hand up the ladder for me.

We’ll be talking about my books, The Sturmtaucher Trilogy in particular, but we may chat about the writing process too and, of course, we will be taking questions from the audience. Tickets can be purchased on the website. I’d love to see you there.

The Arts Festival is a new event in the Girvan Calendar, joining the successful Girvan Folk Festival, the Ballantrae Food Festival, and the  incredibly popular RNLI Harbour Gala as key events in our neck of the woods, and there are a number of sessions over the two days covering everything from fine art, photography and poetry through to music, flowers, and even regenerative farming, so take a look at the programme – there’s something for everyone.

https://girvanartsfestival.com/festival-information

The Girvan Community Garden is a fantastic resource for the people of Girvan, and visitors. It opened to the public in 2011 and has gone from strength to strength. It is entirely run by volunteers and is used for a number of other events throughout the year, and is well worth a visit.

Girvan Community Garden
The Dome

So, please come and spend an hour in our company, and take in some of the other events at the festival, and a look round the garden. You’ll be most welcome.

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Why Ailsa Publishing?

Ailsa Publishing is me. It only exists to publish my books, to save me having to leave a blank space in the ‘publisher’ field in Kindle Direct Publishing, where both my Kindle books and paperbacks are published, and in Smashwords, which distributes my eBooks to other retailers such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple Books.

But I could have called it Alan Jones Books, which would have fitted in with my social media brand and reflected the fact that I’m a self-published author but, in the beginning, I thought it might look a bit more professional to have a publisher with a different name, not that it ever convinced anyone. 😊

So I scrabbled about for a name for a while, but they all sounded contrived. Living a few yards from the beach, many of them were sea related, but I gazed out, looking for inspiration, I realised I was missing the obvious. There was an enormous rock, staring back at me, so to speak.

Ailsa Craig, approaching from Girvan

Ailsa Craig is a volcanic plug, a lump of granite 1,120 feet high, three quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. It sits eight nautical miles to the west of Girvan harbour, and it dominates the view of Ireland to the southwest, the Mull of Kintyre to the west, and Arran to the north.

Although many places and organisations are named after the iconic island, in and around Girvan and South Ayrshire, I was quite happy to join them. There’s an Ailsa Street, the now defunct Ailsa Hotel was once a lively hostelry, and the Ailsa Berth is the longest one in the harbour, where the Lady Ailsa used to moor. William Grant and Son produce a malt whisky, Ailsa Bay, at their distillery in Girvan. Further afield, the Ailsa Hospital is on the outskirts of Ayr and, of course, The Marquess of Ailsa owns Ailsa Craig, along with an estate close to Culzean Castle.

The island itself is quite fascinating. The solid, cooled core of a volcano that formed the mountains of Arran, the microgranite rock is particularly hard, making it the material of choice for many of the world’s curling stones, including every stone used in the Winter Olympics since 2006.

The remnants of a narrow gauge railway line can still be seen connecting the quarry at the north end of Ailsa Craig to the jetty near the lighthouse. There is also a second railway which has largely survived, from the jetty to the Gas house, used up until 1911 to transport coal which powered the lighthouse, and the foghorns at the south and north end of the island.

The Lighthouse

The lighthouse, like many in Scotland’, was built by Thomas Stevenson and was completed in 1886. Along with its two foghorns, it warned shipping of the perils of ‘The Craig’, especially in fog or at night. It was manned until it was automated in 1990 and is now solar powered, still flashing every four seconds, 365 days a year.

Paddy’s milestone

Ailsa Craig is often called Paddy’s milestone, due to it’s location at the half way point of the ferry trip from Scotland to Belfast, when the ferries ran from Greenock, further up the Clyde. One of my earliest memories, at five years of age, is passing Ailsa Craig on the way to a holiday in Northern Ireland. The ferries now run to Belfast and Larne from Cairnryan, a much shorter crossing, without the romance of the ‘steamer’ from Greenock.

Back on the island, the ruins of Ailsa Castle, built in 1500, sit facing eastwards, looking down on the lighthouse, half way up to the summit of the island, and the path to the top passes close to it. A small loch, Gary Loch, provided water for the castle, and later, the lighthouse. There is a history of pirates and smugglers, befitting the looming cliffs and caves, and the rocky beach.

Ailsa Castle

Ailsa Craig is now uninhabited, but granite was quarried until the 1950s, and the quarryman’s wife, appropriately named Margaret Girvan, ran a tearoom on Ailsa Craig to cater for the trippers on boats from Girvan. Loads of granite are still taken from the quarry every twenty or so years, for curling stones.

The ‘Glorious’, a local boat, still takes folk out to the Craig during the summer months. They are mostly nature watchers, hoping to catch a sight of the seals that haul themselves out to bask on the rocks of the island’s shores, or the 35,000 birds of the Gannet colony on the south cliffs of the island, the fifth largest in the world.

The Gannet Colony

Birds from Ailsa Craig will travel up to 150 miles to feed before returning to their nests. Gannets are considered of least concern ecologically, with the population increasing worldwide each year.

Puffins have also returned to the rock in increasing numbers since rats were eradicated a couple of decades ago by the RSPB, who now lease the island from the Marquess of Ailsa.

On the lifeboat, we regularly exercise around Ailsa Craig, often ‘rescuing’ people from its rocky shores and the deep water surrounding it. It’s always impressive, sometimes foreboding.

When I chose Ailsa publishing as the name that would go on my books, I knew that the logo had to be the island itself, with its iconic lighthouse, although I had to alter the proportions and scale of the buildings somewhat to fit the outline of the rock and form the letter ‘L’.

It’s the sort of thing that not every reader might notice, but I’ve looked out at Ailsa Craig for the last twenty five years every morning, and every evening, and I love that it’s there on the spine of my books.

I’ll leave you with the view of Ailsa Craig as the sun sets over Kintyre. It never fails to stir me.

Photo: F A MacDonald
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The RNLI and me

I’ve been an RNLI member for a long time – as a yachtsman, I knew that I could always rely on the organisation if disaster struck, and my crew or myself were in danger at sea, but I’d never considered joining the crew of the local lifeboat – for almost half my working life, I was the sole vet in the practice and was on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it wasn’t really an option. By the time the practice expanded, and I began to get some time off, I thought I was too old. I knew that 55 was the cut off, and I’d just passed that landmark.

Snowgoose, Sound of Jura

But out of the blue, not long after I’d started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, the local lifeboat operations manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in being a Deputy Launch Authority for Girvan lifeboat, or DLA for short.

The job is not onerous – the on-duty DLA responds to a request from the coastguard for the launch of the lifeboat and passes the information on to the boat’s coxswain, and gives permission to launch the lifeboat on service.

Silvia Burrell, Mersey Class, Girvan lifeboat

I accepted, and started popping down to the station during Monday night practices, watching the crew head out on our ALB (All Weather Lifeboat) of the Mersey class, and learning all about the station and the lifeboat from the other DLA, Ian McClymont, an ex crew-member.

Girvan Lifeboat Station

When asked if I’d like a trip out on the boat, I jumped at it, and was suitably kitted out on one of the training nights. When they told me the maximum age for being on the lifeboat had been raised from 55 to 65, I didn’t look back.

My Yellows

Within a couple of weeks, I had converted from DLA to rookie crew member. Some of my experience on yachts was helpful – the navigation side of the training is very similar. Just getting used to navigating at 15 knots rather than the sedate 5 knots that I was more familiar was the only issue, and all the ropework was the same. And the support from everyone at the station was incredible.

It was a steep learning curve though, especially when the senior crew suggested that I should go on a navigator’s plan once I’d worked my way through my crew plan. In the meantime, I’d been on my first shout and the sense of satisfaction of being part of a team that had rescued someone at sea was intoxicating.

I attended a couple of courses at the RNLI training College in Poole, an amazing experience – the Crew Emergency Procedures course involved several scenarios where we were dumped in the pool, with waves, rain and darkness to make it more realistic, having to get into life rafts or right our inflatable boat while the ‘sea’ raged around us.

Fresh out of the pool at Poole

The long-range radio course gave me a commercially endorsed radio operator’s licence, should I ever consider a second career at sea, but it was vital for the effective communication that keeps lifeboat crews safe, and is critical in coordinating every rescue, often with two, three or more agencies involved. No sooner had I passed out as a navigator, the senior members of the crew persuaded me to start training as a coxswain, and put me nominally in charge during a routine exercise. By this time, we had a new boat, the Gertrude and Elizabeth Allan, a Shannon Class, which has a top speed closer to 25 knots, using water jets rather than propellers, and cutting-edge electronics that control everything on the boat, from the navigation and radar systems, to fire-control, bilge pumps and the engines. Each crew member has a job to do, but each seat can take function of any of the main screens, so the radar operator may also control the charts, if the navigator is busy doing something else, like caring for a casualty.

Elizabeth and Gertrude Allan, Shannon Class, Girvan Lifeboat [photo: Nigel Millard]

It has two computer servers on board, either of which can run the boat if one fails, and each crew member’s workstation is a computer in its own right, all connected by a ‘bus’ system which means that all the computers talk to each other. A route set by the navigator not only shows up on the helm screen, but is also superimposed on the radar screen, and ‘targets’ selected by the radar operator show up on the chart screen at the navigator’s seat.

Girvan lifeboat, glazing covered during a blind navigation exercise

The coxswain can rotate around everyone’s screens on his own workstation, making sure the crew are doing their jobs while also coordinating the rescue, and making decisions of a life-or-death nature, for the crew and the casualty. Getting to grips with this, as well as learning how to handle the boat for berthing, and for coming alongside other vessels, was a time-consuming but extremely rewarding task, though splitting my time between writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, working through my coxswain training, and carrying out my duties as a full time vet in my practice was tough, and a few compromises had to be made – I didn’t put my own boat in the water, and sailed only once or twice a year with friends during the five years I was writing the books. And furniture making, which I’d always done, also took a back seat during this time.

But it was worth it, and two years ago, I passed out as an RNLI Shannon coxswain. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and I was only sorry my dad wasn’t there to see it – he was a lifelong supporter of the RNLI. It also saddened me incredibly that Ian McClymont, so helpful to me at the station, and also a very enthusiastic beta reader of The Sturmtaucher Trilogy, passed away last year. He’d become a great friend.

The coxswain pass-out

I’ve now been the coxswain on over half a dozen shouts, and for a raft of training exercises. Despite the cold sweat and the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that always accompanies the pager alert when I’m on-call coxswain, I genuinely enjoy every time I’m in charge of the boat. I know it’s an incredible responsibility, and honour, to be handed the keys for a two-million pound vessel that has to go out in the most horrific conditions, if needed, and that the the lives of the crew and those we are out there to rescue depend on the decisions I make, and I don’t treat it lightly. If I ever feel that I’m not up to the job, I’ll walk away, as I won’t put anyone at risk just because I don’t want to give it up.

I’m hoping, though, that I have a few years left at sea with the RNLI before I have to hang up my ‘yellows’ for the last time, and become a DLA again, perhaps, or help with the fundraising team, to help keep the RNLI’s lifeboats afloat.

On that final note, it would be great if you could find a way of contributing – The RNLI is the only emergency service that relies entirely on charitable donations, and its volunteers depend on the public’s generosity to keep them safe at sea. Check out Girvan lifeboat’s Facebook page for the countless ways you can help.

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POST WAR JUSTICE AND THE STURMTAUCHER TRILOGY

* Warning – contains spoilers. * Please only read this if you have finished all three books of the Trilogy.

The narrative of the Kästner and the Nussbaum families ends on the last page of The Turn of the Tide, the third and final book in the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, on the 17th August 1945, although the epilogue provides a short summary of how the members of both families fared in the years following the horrific aftermath of the Second World War.

But I didn’t expand on what happened to those other characters, good and bad, who also had a part to play in the harrowing journey the two families faced from Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 to the Nazi’s defeat in 1945. This post is about the justice served after the war was over, and about some of the characters lives, both real and imagined in the decades following the cessation of hostilities.

The defendants, Nuremberg War Crimes Trial

A series of war crimes trials took place in Germany, and elsewhere, in the years after the war. The principal Nazi party leaders who survived, and were captured, were tried at the Nuremberg trials, although the whereabouts of a number of the most heinous war criminals remained a mystery, some forever, others for years after the war ended. Muller, the Gestapo chief, Eichmann and Josef Mengele were unaccounted for – Eichmann famously was located in the late 1950s after a tip-off from a German prosecutor and was smuggled out of Argentina in 1960 to stand trial in Israel. He was sentenced to death in 1961 as one of the main architects of the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Eichmann on trial, Israel 1961

Mengele lived out the rest of his life in Argentina, then Paraguay, and finally Brazil as investigators tried to find him. He drowned in 1979 but his death remained a secret for a decade or more, and the remains weren’t confirmed as Mengele’s by DNA until 1992.

There were a number of smaller War Crimes Trials, but these dwindled out as it became more important for both the East and the West to allow both of the new Germanies to function as nations, albeit under the military occupation the victors, and most protagonists of the Holocaust, and almost all of their supporters and sympathisers, escaped Justice. In addition, for the bulk of those who were convicted, and given long sentences, early release became the norm and, apart from a few high profile prisoners, there no former Nazis in prison by 1960, the year of my birth, only 15 years after the end of the war.

Historical figures.

There were many real characters in the sturmtaucher Trilogy, and I tried to write them pretty much as history presented them, although I obviously fictionalised their interactions with the Kästners and the Nussbaums, and the other fictitious characters in the books.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris

Of all these real-life people I used in the books, Wilhelm Canaris was by far the most integral to the story and, if you haven’t read the trilogy, the remainder of this article most certainly contains spoilers.  For those who have read the books, you will know Canaris’s fate, but it is worth mentioning how he is considered by history. He was a controversial character and his initial support of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party (the NSDAP) was tempered by his gradual realisation that Adolf Hitler was both mad and extremely dangerous for Germany and for Europe, and that the war, and latterly the persecution of Europe’s Jews, should be stopped by whatever means were available to him. It is not known for sure that he was an integral part of the almost successful attempt on the Fuhrer’s life, but it was his connections with the plotters that ultimately sealed his execution three weeks before the end of the war.

In an interesting adjunct, Erica Canaris, his widow, received a widows pension for the rest of her life from Franco’s Spanish government, presumably in recognition of Canaris’s pivotal role in keeping Spain out of WW2.

Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt

Of the main Nazis who lived and worked in Kiel, Obersturmbannführer Friedrich (Fritz) Schmidt, Kiel’s Gestapo chief, and the man who built the Nordmark worker’s “education camp”, survived the war, and, under a false name, worked first as a construction worker in Munich, then as a clerk and finally manager for the regional government. His real identity was discovered in 1961 and he was given a short prison sentence for the deception, but did not serve it. He was arrested again in 1963 and convicted of complicity in the murder of four allied officers in 1944. He was released after two years, and returned to work. In 1968, he was re-arrested for his part in the murders, and served another year in prison. He died shortly afterwards.

Johannes Post, Nordmark Kommandant, on trial

The man he appointed Kommandant of Nordmark, Sturmbannführer Johannes Post, was tried and executed in 1948, not for his crimes at Nordmark, but for his part in the killing of the same group of Allied airmen that Schmidt was later tried for.

By the time of Post’s trial, the efforts of the war crimes tribunal in the British sectors was largely geared to prosecuting Nazis who had committed war crimes against British and Commonwealth subjects, a policy expediated by the need to have West Germany as an ally against the growing threat of expansion of communism and the Soviet Bloc.

Hinrich Lohse

Hinrich Lohse, the Oberpräsident of Schleswig-Holstein and the Reichskommissar for the Ostland, was the top Nazi in control of the most Northern of the German provinces and the occupied Baltic States. Despite overseeing the slaughter of almost all of the Jews, Romani Gypsies and Communists in the areas under his control, he escaped the death penalty and only served 3 years of a ten-year prison sentence due to illness. He lived as a free man for a further 13 years.

Lise Mey, a staunch Nazi supporter and the daughter of Beate Böhm, and the Kästner’s neighbour, is one of the more colourful fictional characters in the trilogy, but three of the many high ranking Nazi lovers she took were real historical figures:

Heinrich Himmler

The first of those, Heinrich Himmler, committed suicide in prison after being captured by the allies by biting down on a cyanide capsule when medics tried to examine his mouth, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, another of her lovers, was captured shortly after the war in an alpine lodge high in the mountains, trying to escape southwards through Switzerland and Italy. He was the highest ranking SS officer to face trial and was executed in 1946.

SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Kaltenbrunner at his trial at Nuremberg, showing his duelling scars, a badge of honour amongst the German elite.

SS-Gruppenführer Otto Hofmann, the third of Lise’s senior Nazi lovers, was responsible for organising testing for racial selection in the territories occupied by Nazi Germany. He was also a participant at the Wannsee Conference, where the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question was ratified. During the war, he was transferred to Stuttgart as SS and Police Leader for South-Western Germany.

In March 1948, Hofmann was tried for his actions as chief of the Race and Settlement Main Office and was sentenced to 25 years in prison for Crimes against humanity and War Crimes but, on 7 April 1954, he was pardoned and released from Landsberg Prison. He worked as a clerk until his death in 1982.

In a fictional aside, at the end of the Trilogy, we find out that Lise has attached herself to an American Major who was besotted by her looks and her sexual allure. I’m sure Lise Mey would have made it to the states and, after divorcing the unlucky major, would have found herself a rich, older husband and a series of lovers, living to a ripe old age, pining for the glory years of National Socialist rule, and for the return of Adolf Hitler as leader, whose death she quite never believed.

Captain Wheatley, the Army lawyer who investigated the Cultybraggan murder of Feldwebel Wolfgang Rosterg, which actually took place at the POW camp in Comrie, went on to become Lord Wheatley. In the books, I wrote Axel Langefeld and Gerhard Schlesinger as part of the group found guilty of the German prisoner’s murder. In real life, five Nazi prisoners, the oldest being twenty-one, were executed at Pentonville prison in 1946 for the crime.

Doctor Kate Hermann, the physician who treated Franz’s injuries in hospital, and saw the first spark of his recovery, was real. She was a Jewish refugee who arrived in Britain in 1937 and was the first female neurology consultant in Scotland. She retired from medicine in 1970 and lived to see the re-unification of Germany, passing away in 2007, in her nineties.

Fictional Characters

After five years, and over a million words, I came to think of my fictional characters as real people, even those who only played a peripheral part in the story.

One such group were Børge Lund and his family, and his friends, who helped the Kästner brothers and the two young Nussbaums during their voyage of escape. As part of the Danish resistance, their lives would have been constantly at risk, but I like to believe that they would have survived the war.

Because of the rescue, and of the following Danish efforts to obtain the release of the Danish Jews who were the Theresienstadt concentration camp, over 99% of Denmark’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.

Plaque, Yad Vashem, Danish Resistance

As part of the organisation who rescued their country’s Jews, Børge and the others would have been among those honoured for their collective heroism by Yad Vashem in Israel as being “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Captain Andrew Stanworth and Sub lieutenant Graham Archibald, of HMS Intrepid, the Destroyer that intercepted Der Sturmtaucher as it entered British waters, were both fictional, but their stories had a ring of truth to them. Most officers commissioned in the Royal Navy during the war came through the ranks of the Royal Naval Reserve (professional seamen), or the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve (civilians with no experience, trained first as seamen, with some going on to be officers.)

An intermediate form of reserve, between the professional RNR and the civilian RNVR, was formed in 1936. This was the Royal Naval Volunteer (Supplementary) Reserve, open to civilians with proven experience at sea. By September By 1939, there were over 2000 RNV(S)R members, mostly yachtsmen, who were recruited for active service after a 10-day training course, joining their colleagues from the RNR and the RNVR. Some went on to command vessels, mostly coastal and auxiliary, but a few advanced to command larger naval ships. Almost all were demobilised after the war.

A number of famous public figures came through WW2 with the RNVR, including two of my favourite writers: Nicholas Monsarrat, frigate commander during World War II, and author of The Cruel Sea, reached the rank of lieutenant commander. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, served in Naval Intelligence during the Second World War, and reached the rank of commander. Both used their very different wartime experiences extensively during their literary careers.

I’d like to think that, after the war, Franz and Johann would have looked up the Captain and the Sub-lieutenant of HMS Intrepid to thank them for the way they they’d been treated, and because they’d spared Der Sturmtaucher from her fate as gunnery practice.

I would also have hoped that Johann would have managed to explain his actions to his friend, Lieutenant Maximilian Grabner, and that ‘Maxi’ would have come to forgive him. As for Colin McLeod, I’m sure that the injured merchant seaman and Franz Kästner, the German soldier he befriended, would have continued their acquaintance in Scotland when Franz (or Frank as Colin knew him) returned to Oban to live with Ruth and his new family.

The Weissbergs, who accepted Ruth and Manny as part of their family during their internment on the Isle of Man, and in Finchley after their release, would have stayed in touch with the young Nussbaums, and I can imagine Aaron, Gella and their children would have spent many holidays on the West Coast of Scotland with Ruth and Franz.

With Heinrich Güllich, dead, Carl Meyer, his fellow Gestapo officer, was the most evil survivor of the war, and although in prison, he would have likely have been released during the decade following the end of the war. I suspect he would have finally made the journey across the border to East Germany, and may have found a use for his particular talents in the Eastern Bloc country’s dreaded security services, as a Stasi officer. Like many former Gestapo or SS members, punishment was often a secondary consideration to the need for experienced security personnel, on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Finally, Gus, the elephant seal, watched by Erich Kästner and his daughter Antje at Hanover zoo in 1942 as their world collapsed around them, was a real character. Those of the Zoo’s animals that weren’t killed by the intense bombing of Hannover were evacuated to safety but, sadly, few survived the war, often becoming food for the starving hordes during the destruction of Germany in 1944-45.

Gus the Elephant Seal, Hamburg Zoo, 1938

I’d like to think that Gus was the exception.

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ERIKA CANARIS – HER LETTER TO AMERICAN WAR CRIMES COURTS

Warning – for those who haven’t read the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, this post could be a mild spoiler, although Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s life is well documented, and many readers will already know his story.

After finding Admiral Wilhelm Canaris during my research for the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, and realising he would be perfect as one of General Erich Kästner’s oldest friends, and a close confidant, I delved deeply into the controversial and secretive character’s life. I’m not sure I ever got near to finding the real Canaris, but I wrote him pretty much as history recorded him, taking one or two minor liberties to fit in with my fictional stories – I had him a little jollier than the real-life Canaris, who was reported by his staff to be ‘often taciturn’.

Wilhelm and Erika Canaris, 1944

One of the items I found during my research was a translation of a letter written by his wife, Erika, after the war, to General Donovan, chief of the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, and a man who Canaris had dealings with leading up to the war, and during the war itself. General Donovan also was a significant player in the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. In her letter, she strives to make sure that her husband’s name is cleared of any of the heinous crimes the National Socialists had inflicted on Germany, and on the people of Europe.

Here’s the first page of the translated document, from Cornell University’s digital collection:

You can read the whole letter here, but in it she gives a brief précis of his life, including his endless desire to help people, no matter their circumstance. She also states that she knew of his involvement in the July 20 plot, the failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, but for me the most telling statement she made was about his increasing dismay at what the Nazis were doing to Germany’s future. She wrote:

After he saw the first bombardment of Warsaw by the German Luftwaffe he [Canaris] returned home, deeply shaken, and said: “If there is justice, and I believe there is, we will go through the same thing. And then God save us.” He also said: ” We are all guilty, all, and we will all have to pay for it.

She finishes the letter with a plea that General Donovan, and history, should think well of her husband.

If I have told you all this, I have done it only for the sake of my husband, in order to show him to you in the proper light, and also, perhaps, in order to convince you, General Donovan, that my husband, together with those who thought and lived as he did, represented the decent Germany, which always existed and which will always exist,

With kindest regards, and renewed thanks, I am

Erika Canaris

It is worth downloading and reading the letter. From my research, it does seem to sum up the character of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.

And you’ll see why I made him Erich Kästner’s friend.

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BOOK INFLUENCES: THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS and the remarkable story of ERSKINE CHILDERS

After penning three crime novels, the last of which was incredibly well received, I should have continued writing in the crime genre, one per year perhaps, to capitalise on my growing readership.

But I’m a keen sailor, piloting my 45-year-old yacht around the west coast of Scotland and the Irish Sea and, because writing what you know about always seems a good place to start, I felt compelled to publish a book where sailing played a prominent role. I did consider a murder investigation connected with sailing and the sea, and one day I might come back to that concept, but a germ of an idea had wormed its way into my head, and I couldn’t shake it loose.

I’d read Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands as a teenager, and in a way, it was his description of the very ethereal sailing among the tidal mudflats and low islands of the North Sea coasts of Europe in the creeping disquiet just prior to the First World War that intrigued me, but I’d also read numerous books about the Second World War, including many harrowing stories about the Holocaust, both fact and fiction, and a jumble of ideas swirled around in my head, eventually congealing into the narrative that became the Sturmtaucher Trilogy.

And like Erskine Childers, I used the Frisian Islands in my story, and the islands and sheltered seas of the West coast of Denmark. In homage to Erskine Childers, perhaps, I chose to use a traditional wooden gaff-rigged ketch as the iconic vessel, Der Sturmtaucher (The Shearwater in English), the type of vessel that would have been numerous when he wrote The Riddle of the Sands, and similar to Asgard, the last yacht he owned. They were both , Colin Archer ketches, designed as rescue boats for the fishing fleets of Norway.

But there’s more to it than that. Robert Erskine Childers was a remarkable man, and his story has far greater depth to it than just his writing.

Childers was born in London, in 1870, to a well to do family, but his father died when he was six years old from Tuberculosis, and his mother passed away six years later. He was sent to his mother’s family on their estate in County Wicklow, Ireland, and along with his four siblings, was treated kindly and grew up loving the countryside of Ireland, as part of the privileged protestant ruling class. He was admitted to Cambridge university on finishing school, and edited the Cambridge Review. Although his cousin, Hugh Childers, worked tirelessly for Irish home rule as a member of the British cabinet, at this point Childers argued vehemently against it in the college debating society.

On leaving university, he became a parliamentary official, with the intention of one day following his cousin into the house as a member of parliament. A sciatic injury sustained as a teenager precluded him from most sports, so he took up sailing, and bought a little yacht, Shulah, which he sailed alone in and around the Thames Estuary, but he sold her, and over the next years, the yachts he owned and sailed grew a little larger and more capable, until he purchased Vixen, a 30-foot cutter in 1897 and sailed her across the North sea to the Frisian Islands, in Holland and Northern Germany, which he repeated over the following few years. It was these voyages that became the inspiration for The Riddle of the Sands.

His sailing was interrupted in 1898 when he joined up to fight in the Boer War, where he was involved in a few significant engagements, but was evacuated from the front line with severe trench foot, and spent a few weeks in hospital in the company of a group of soldiers from Cork, who had enthusiastically signed up to fight with the British, and who were firmly against the growing calls for home rule.

He began writing The Riddle of The Sands in 1901, and it was published in 1903, almost immediately becoming a best-seller. It was largely based on his sailing experiences around the Frisian Islands and predicted the war with Germany and urged that Britain should prepare. It was an influential book – Churchill later claimed that it was a major factor in the British Navy expanding its naval bases in Scotland, at Scapa Flow, Invergordon, and Rosyth.

On a trip to America after the book’s publication, he met American heiress, Molly Osgood, a well read woman with Republican leanings. When they married in 1904, the bride’s father had a 28-yacht, Asgard, built as a wedding present for the couple, and again they cruised to the Frisian Islands. Gradually, Molly’s influence wore down his belief in Britain’s imperial policies, especially in Ireland and South Africa.

Childers was critical of British tactics in the Boer war in a volume of The Times History of the War in South Africa, and he was also scathing about the outdated strategy of the British Army, with the threat of war with Germany looming. It brought him unfavourable attention from the British military establishment. In retrospect, his criticisms were insightful and General Haig’s rejection of them ultimately added to the carnage of WW1.

By 1910, the Erskines had three children, although Henry, their second son, died before his first birthday. By then, his political stance with regard to Ireland had almost completely reversed, and he became a staunch advocate for Irish home rule, writing a book setting out its framework in 1911. The growing power of Ulster Unionism and its unwillingness to even consider home rule for the much wealthier and industrialised northern counties of Ireland made this an almost impossible ambition, and Childers became increasingly frustrated, especially when the Liberal Party, which he’d joined because of its support for Irish home rule, began to backtrack, with talk of excluding some or all of Ulster from their plans.

In response to the Ulster Unionists arming themselves with rifles, Childers’ support for Irish Home Rule dramatically deepened, and he used Asgard, his last and most famous yacht, to smuggle guns to nationalist fighters in Ireland. The vessel is now exhibited at The National Museum of Ireland.

Asgard

A bill passed to enable home rule in 1914 was shelved for the duration of the 194-18 war and, despite his support for Irish Nationalism, he volunteered and fought for Britain during the war, earing a Distinguished Flying Cross. A violent crushing of the Irish Easter Rebellion in 1916 hardened Childers attitude to the British Government and, on being demobbed in 1919, convalescing from a severe attack of influenza, he met with the Sinn Féin leadership in Dublin. In 1921 he was elected as a Sinn Féin member to the Irish Dáil, but lost his seat in the 1922 General Election.

When negotiations for the Anglo-Irish Treaty returned a watered down home rule, Ireland was plunged into a civil war, intensified when Michael Collins, the Sinn Féin leader, was assassinated. Childers held various posts with in the Irish Republican movement but was never fully trusted, and was eventually marginalised. He disagreed vehemently with the Treaty’s insistence that the new Irish parliament should pledge allegience to the British King.

During the Irish civil war, he was arrested by the new Irish State he’d campaigned tirelessly for and tried for possession of a firearm, ironically gifted to him by Michael Collins, in contravention of the emergency powers resolution. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. An appeal launched by his lawyer was not heard by the time he was executed by firing squad, at Beggars Bush Barracks in Dublin. Before his execution, he shook the hands of the men who would shoot him and, in his last meeting with his 16-year-old eldest son, Childers he told him find and make peace with every man who had signed his death warrant.

His final words were to the firing squad, when he told them it would make it easier if they took a step closer.

Plaque on Howth harbour wall, near Dublin, in memory of Erskine Childers and Asgard

Erskine Hamilton Childers, Childers’ son, went on to become the fourth president of Ireland.

And the mud flats, the sandbanks, the creeks and the marshes of Denmark and Northern Germany found their way into the Sturmtaucher Trilogy.

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THE MENORAH AND THE SWASTIKA. A PHOTOGRAPH.

During my research for The Sturmtaucher Trilogy, I came across a remarkable photograph while searching for information on the Jewish residents of Kiel prior to the Second World War, and on what happened to them during the Holocaust.

The article I found it in was titled A Jewish menorah defies the Nazi swastika.

Rachel Posner’s photograph

In Rabbi Avi Posner’s home in GartenStraße in central Kiel, his wife, Rachel, was lighting the candles on the Menorah in the window of her home for Chanukah, the festival of lights. Across the street, in the local offices of the National Socialist Party, the Nazis were just beginning to flex their muscles, although holding power was still a few years for Adolf Hitler’s party.

Rachel, a photographer by profession, saw a dramatic dichotomy in her view from the window and rushed to fetch her camera. When she developed the photograph, she wrote a caption on the reverse:

Chanukah, 5692

(1932).

‘Judea dies’, thus says the banner.

‘Judea will live forever’, thus respond the lights.

The caption on the reverse of the photograph

I knew instantly that the photograph, and the story behind it, had to be in the trilogy but I realised that the timing wasn’t right – my story didn’t start until January 1933 and the photograph was reported to have been taken during Chanukah, 1932, in December.

In fact, after further research further, the Jewish year of 5692 was 1931. The Julyan Calendar year written on the back of the photograph, 1932, probably referred to when the photograph was developed.

I did use it in the book – The rabbi shows the picture to Yosef and Jacob, two of the main characters in the book, and tells them his wife took it a few years previously. The Rabbi in my story is not Avi Posner, but he is strongly based on Rabbi Posner’s life in Kiel.

Rabbi Posner was vociferous in his warnings to the Jewish community that something terrible was happening in Germany and, late in 1933, he left the land of his birth with his wife and family, arriving in Palestine in 1934. His warnings were heeded by large numbers of Kiel’s Jews, who followed him to Palestine or travelled westwards to the the United states before the door to escape was closed at the outbreak of war.

The Posner Family leaving for Palestine

Of those Jews who remained in Kiel, almost all were deported, and perished in the ghettos to the east, and in the death camps associated with them.

I tried to contact Avi Posner’s grandson in Israel to tell him I’d recounted the story of his grandmother’s photograph in The Gathering Storm, but the letter was returned ‘Not at this Address’.

The Sturmtaucher Trilogy is now in the Yad Vashem Library in Jerusalem, and I hope that one day, Rachel Posner’s descendants might read it, and understand why I included their forebears’ story in my fictional one.

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Blog post no. 1

Hello, and welcome to my blog. This is my first post.

You’ll find a bit about the reasons behind the blog, and about me and my writing, on the Home, About and The Books tabs on the menu, but I thought, in this first post, I’d give you a little more background about the reasons I decided to start a blog.

I began writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy around six years ago. I was working full time as a mixed practice vet but, on average, I researched, planned, wrote or edited for about five hours every day until I retired from looking after the farm animals and pets of Girvan and the surrounding area in December 2021. From then until the last eBook was published in November of that year, I increased my time in front of my laptop to ten hours a day, working on getting the final edits done, formatting the eBooks and the paperbacks, making a website and putting together a trailer video for the first book, along with all the other tasks that needed to be done to self-publish a book, three times over.

I’d done little social media time during the five years prior to publication – writing had to take precedence or I would never have finished the trilogy. As I approached publication day for The Gathering Storm, the first book of the trilogy, I found I was spending and increasing amount of time on Twitter and Facebook, as reviews came in thick and fast from the wonderful blog tour organised by Anne Cater, and from the many lovely ARC readers and beta readers who had read the books prior to publication.

By early December, I’d spent tens of thousands of hours at my desk in my writing room and, although I’d loved almost every second of it, my mind was telling me that it had had enough. In addition, I had a project hanging over my head which now had real urgency.

When I retired in December 2021 and sold the remaining half of my veterinary practice, I knew I was losing my workshop, along with my woodstore and somewhere to keep my stock of old furniture, which was in a large shed adjacent to the surgery. Woodworking has been a passion of mine since childhood, a love inherited, along with their tools, from my father and grandfather. I had a year to find another workshop, convert it to my requirements, and move the mass of tools, equipment, wood and furniture that I had gathered over the years – I love recycling, so I collect and reclaim not only timber, but anything that I could conceivably use for furniture, or in the garden, or for house renovations.

I managed to find a barn to rent by late October so, after The Turn of the Tide eBook was published, and I waited for the paperback proofs to arrive, I took a few steps back from social media, cutting my interaction with Twitter and Facebook to around an hour a day, and knuckled down to a bit of hard physical graft. It was a joy to do something that made your muscles tired by the end of the day, and to use my hands.

I installed a large steel H-beam with three pillars, floored the loft and built a staircase. I rewired the barn, and plumbed in a outside tap, and installed all my benches, shelving the downstairs and upstairs areas to take all my tools and hardware. I built wood racks to store, for the first time in a truly organised manner, my wood stocks. I will be doing a post about the workshop and my woodworking in the near future, so please look back in on the blog, or subscribe, or sign up for my newsletter.

It’s almost complete, though I still have to repair and install a couple of woodworking machines that I inherited or bought second-hand, but by early February I realised that book sales were suffering by my neglect of the promotional side of self-publishing, something I find harder than writing the books in the first place.

I began a series of tweets and posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook; facts about the holocaust, pictures of Kiel, and a series of quotes I’d used as faceplates at the start of each year in the trilogy, from 1933 to 1945. I’m currently up to 1940. You may have seen them, and many thanks to those who have retweeted, liked or shared my content.

But I knew that it wasn’t enough, and I also wanted to give readers a bit more background to my life outside books, and what makes me tick, and to explore some of the issues raised by the books, the writing process, some of the amazing things I’d come across while researching, and a bit about my own likes, in books and films and perhaps even food.

Hence the blog.

I hope to post once a week, and to produce a newsletter three to four times a year. I hope some of you enjoy my musings, both those who have read the trilogy, or my other books, and those who I’d like to persuade to give them a try.

Thank you for reading. Stay well.

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