I seem to have been writing about war for much of my life. I gave my first military lecture, aged 15, on the Battle of Austerlitz, at school, where I was secretary of the Montgomery Society. Monty was an old boy and my headmaster Tom Howarth had been one of his close intelligence officers.
Military history has always been my passion ever since my grandfather, unwilling to talk to his children, had filled my head with his vivid tales of the Somme and Passchendaele.
I first visited the D-Day beaches aged 10 and the trenches at Vimy Ridge aged 12. Today I’m a battlefield junkie. I take 20 battlefield tours a year to the Somme, Normandy, Arnhem, Waterloo and Dunkirk. My first trip to Waterloo was at 13 and since then I’ve been maybe 40 times. It’s my favourite site, but it led to other battlefields, including those where my family had fought, from the Western Front to South Africa.
My father was a National Service soldier and my uncle a wartime navigator in Bomber Command, flying over Germany. Both my grandfathers served in the Great War, one in the Gordons and one in 7th Black Watch who took Beaumont Hamel on the Somme in November 1916. My maternal great-grandfather served as an officer in the Boer War and the Great War. Beyond him we stretch back into the yeomanry and the militia to the late eighteenth century. On my father’s side an ancestor fought in the 4th Foot at Waterloo. My eldest son is currently a Captain in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the regimental descendants of the Scots Greys who captured a French Eagle at Waterloo.
So I suppose it’s in the blood.
Having worked as an arts journalist for some fifteen years, I returned to my first love and wrote my first military historical novel, Four Days in June, in 2003. Inevitably it was about Waterloo. I had been inspired by the novels of CS Forester and GA Henty as a boy, and later Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Sharpe books of Bernard Cornwell. But it was Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels, about the Battle of Gettysburg, that inspired Four Days in June.
My editor was also Bernard Cornwell’s, and had been George Macdonald Fraser’s editor on the Flashman series. A chance encounter with Bernard had brought me to her attention and I’m eternally grateful to him. My editor asked if I was interested in writing about the Duke of Marlborough. Of course I was! He was another old boy of my school, providing the name of the History society.
Marlborough’s wars became the Jack Steele series and were followed by a book on El Alamein and two more on WWII, including one set on Crete. Two factual books, including the official history of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, were followed by the James Keane series in the Peninsular Wars, and also a fictionalised account of the first day of the Somme.
Now, having already written about wartime Crete, I’m back on familiar territory with SBS: Special Boat Squadron. I had been keen to revisit the theme for some time. That extraordinary island, steeped in history and mythology, takes hold of the imagination. Walking its roads and hills, it is not hard to travel back in time to those dark days of the 1940s, when victory was far from certain and the fate of the world hung in the balance, more than often dependent upon the daring actions of a few brave men.
That black and white film masterpiece Ill Met by Moonlight had fired my boyhood imagination and in later years the gripping Cretan escapades of maverick SOE officer Patrick Leigh Fermor had continued to inspire. The plot for SBS was inspired by real events and many of the main characters are composites of actual people. There are also cameo appearances by key historical figures. Wanting something slightly different from the stuff of Commando comics, I decided to model my group on Ian Fleming’s intelligence commandos, tasked with stealing vital documents, equipment, and, on occasion, the enemy. So apart from being merely a sort of British ‘Dirty Dozen’, Hunter’s men have a few other skills to hand.
I have left the end of the book somewhat ambiguous with questions still waiting to be answered and a number of loose threads. This is quite deliberate and far-sighted readers might be able to guess at the possibilities for the future adventures of Lieutenant Hunter and his band of misfit brothers. I cannot of course comment on how right they might be, only that the ‘scrapes’ I have in mind involve all the intrigue and colour of the Mediterranean and Aegean theatres of war and, naturally, a few unexpected surprises…