Christopher Priest

Reading in a War

An informal bibliography for The Separation

NOTE: This article is more than 12,000 words in length. It describes in an informal way the books and other research sources which were used during the writing of the novel, The Separation.

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Reading in a War
by Christopher Priest
Holland House Library, 23 Oct 1940

Approximately one hundred and twenty other published books lie behind The Separation. Of these, I read about sixty all the way through, taking notes where necessary; I used the remainder as occasional reference resources.

Book research for a novelist, and how much of it he or she should carry out, is a subject I've written about elsewhere. I don't want to go over that ground again, except to say that too much literary research can be as bad a thing as too little. However, much of this new novel is set in the 1940s, a time when I wasn't around, or at least not as a thinking adult. Although like everyone else I've seen innumerable movies and TV plays set in the period I felt I couldn't launch into a whole novel without knowing something about what life was like then.

That very familiarity is another problem: nearly sixty years after the event, we are all surely so familiar with the Blitz spirit, the wizard-prang lingo of RAF pilots, the great speeches of Winston Churchill, the hell of the concentration camps, and so on, that without original research it's pretty difficult to come up with a fresh view. I didn't see much point in writing a novel that would be just another period piece, leaning for its inspiration on a kind of secondhand collective memory, so as far as possible I went back to first-hand accounts by participants. When researching a time of war you can't rely exclusively on personal accounts, because as is well known the larger picture is hard to see, so it's necessary to consult more objective works written after the events. Also, I had no intention of writing yet another war novel of the usual militaristic kind. My motives are broadly pacifist and my real interest in WW2 is social rather than military: the way people lived, what they ate, wore and read, how they travelled around, what sort of jobs they had to do, what they listened to on the wireless, what the politicians were up to, what it was really like to live under nightly bombing raids, and so on. Much of this is also familiar, of course. WW2 is well-trodden ground, imaginatively, from wherever you start.

What follows is a sort of informal and annotated bibliography of The Separation, which I hope will be interesting even to those people who can't stand war novels and couldn't care less about WW2. At the lowest level it's simply a list of books, which I feel like placing on the record somewhere. I lived with these books for a long time (I first read some of them while I was still at school), and they were always in the recesses of my mind while I was writing. But as well as that, some of them are works of real literature, others are minor classics of their type, neglected either because of the time that has passed since they first appeared or because fashions and interests have changed, and I found many of the rest enjoyable and interesting to read.

My interest in WW2 began in 1957, when as a schoolboy I read Paul Brickhill's remarkable book The Dam Busters. In the lists below, this falls into Category 1 (Histories), because Brickhill was not himself a member of the squadron which carried out the famous raid on the dams of the Ruhr valley, although he had in fact served in the RAF during the war. His own story, from Category 4 (Unimportant Participants), is told in another of his famous books, The Great Escape. Brickhill was born in Sydney in 1916 and in the years after the war became the most successful non-fiction writer of the period. He died in 1991. His real name was Chester Jerome.

After that I read many more books about the war, following no particular pattern or plan. My teen years happened to coincide with the first big flood of WW2 books. It seems that the people who are involved in war need about ten years afterwards to clear their heads, take stock, find the words to describe what happened, then (most important) find publishers and a public receptive to the material. Authors who rush into print while the war is still going on, or as soon as the shooting dies down, do not in general make much of a mark. (There are exceptions to this rule, and some of them are listed below.) If you look back at books about the First World War, you have to wait until the end of the 1920s before the first great works of literature start appearing: Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) and Graves's Goodbye to All That (also 1929).

As for the Second World War, the good and lasting and influential books began appearing in the middle of the 1950s. Books on the subject are still regularly appearing today, with no end in sight. TV also reveals an undying fascination with the subject. Indeed, it could well be that we are still too close to that immense catastrophe for any reliable or objective account of it to appear, especially insofar as being able to judge the historical consequences. John Keegan, himself one of the finest military historians, has said that we probably will not see the definitive history of WW2 until well into the 21st century. He cites as a parallel example James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, published in 1988, a one-volume history of the American Civil War, which, according to Keegan, "generally satisfied all shades of historical opinion over its causes, nature, and consequences". Only the events of September 11 2001, and their currently on-going consequences, appear to be on a scale of awfulness sufficient to move WW2 more emphatically from modern concern into the stasis of old history. Perhaps closure on the subject might at last be in sight.

Now a note about the publication data of the books mentioned here. My own copies were often either original editions found in secondhand shops, or were reprinted as modern paperbacks, sometimes revised or expanded. Wherever I have been able to trace a current edition of any book, I have created a link to the relevant page in Amazon's catalogue, where more information may be found, and, if you're sufficiently interested, where you may order a copy. Where there is no traceable modern edition, I have shown as much information about the edition as seems sensible.

Let's get to the books themselves. They are listed in seven groups. The definitions are not hard and fast and many of these books cross over between two or more categories.

I. Histories

1. Hidden Agenda by Martin Allen

By the irony of alphabetical order by author, one of the least interesting books comes first. This purports to be investigative journalism about the exploits of Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor) during the early months of the war. The author's central claim is that the ex-king was in league with the Nazis and was trying to negotiate a deal under which Hitler would help restore him to the British throne. The book is poorly written and riddled with spelling and other mistakes, and is ruined by a mistaken sense of its own importance. When the details are dodgy you begin to suspect the reliability of the ideas. Even so, I was struck by the fact that the Windsors appear to have stayed for several weeks in a place I myself have visited: an area of the Portuguese coastline to the west of Lisbon known as the Mouth of Hell. This minor coincidence gave me a location for a key scene in the book.

2. The Dam Busters by Paul Brickhill

The cover of the original Pan pb edition of The Dam BustersThis book describes what was for British people one of the most significant events of the war: the destruction of two German dams, and the damaging of several more, by the use of a revolutionary kind of aerial mine. Post-war research has shown that the military and strategic impact of the raids was much less than claimed at the time, and the loss of life much worse, but the positive effect on morale in a period when the war was going badly for Britain cannot be overstated. The dams raid occupies only the first half of Brickhill's book; the rest is a history of 617 Squadron throughout the rest of the war. It's a competent, well-researched book, and it charged the imagination and excitement of this particular 14-year-old like few other books of its time.

3. The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 by Angus Calder

Calder's long book is about the 'Home Front' in wartime Britain: rationing, air-raid shelters, Blitz spirit, the blackout, ITMA, barrage balloons, Vera Lynn, invasion fears, the Home Guard ... all the stuff that children of my generation grew up hearing about from their parents, usually to the point of tedium. The People's War is definitive. It is also remarkable for one unexpected quality, at least as far as this reader was concerned: Calder loathes Winston Churchill and uses words like 'egregious' to describe him. In 1971 I was still close enough to the influence of my parents to be shocked by this: for many ordinary people Churchill could do, and did do, no wrong. It was Calder who sparked my interest in Churchill, and who was therefore indirectly responsible for my own deeply ambivalent feelings about him.

4. Guilty Men by 'Cato'.

'Cato' was the pseudonym of three journalists: Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen. The book was published in the summer of 1940, between the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain, and was a polemical account of the pre-war years of 'appeasement', naming those politicians the authors felt were responsible. To be honest, my sympathies have recently come around to the appeasers, but even so I admired the sheer sensationalism of the writing, a classic piece of naked pamphleteering.

5. The Second World War (Vols. I to VI) by Winston S. Churchill

Probably the only works on this list which for a full understanding of the war are irreplaceable. Of course the books are from one man's point of view, but Churchill was at the centre of most of the important world events. Uniquely, he was also a brilliant writer (later, he became a Nobel Literature Prize laureate, partly on the strength of this work). The final volumes lose a certain amount of momentum as the war begins to go the Allies' way and politics and negotiations dominate Churchill's experiences, but the first three volumes constitute one of the best reads in the English language. Quite apart from the main text, Churchill adds a vast amount of supplementary material: maps, charts, memoranda, lists. These alone are a goldmine for the researcher, and a gift to a greedy novelist.

6. Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming.

A lighthearted but well researched account of what was going on in Britain during the period when a German invasion was expected on an almost daily basis. Fleming's amused style often reminded me of Richard Cowper's writing.

7. Uncommon Valour by A.G. Goulding.

A short and not particularly distinctive history of RAF Bomber Command in the war years.

8. Bomber Command by Max Hastings.

The best all-round history of RAF Bomber Command, brilliantly researched and compellingly written, with many asides and unexpected detours into personal narratives. I found it memorable for two passages in particular. The first was the account of Air Marshall Arthur Harris's daily routines in his headquarters, totally isolated from the men who had to carry out his decisions, and almost determinedly blinding himself to the pointlessness and barbarity of the bombing policy he was pursuing. The second is Hastings's description of the bombing of the German town of Darmstadt towards the end of the war, a sequence I found shocking and upsetting.

9. Challenge of Conscience by Denis Hayes (Allen & Unwin, 1949; 1st edition).

An account of what it meant to be a conscientious objector in Britain during WW2. It's not a particularly good or interesting book, but because I was researching the life of a man who became a C.O. it was an invaluable source of factual information.

10. The Second World War by John Keegan.

Probably the best single-volume general history of WW2. Keegan is a recent discovery for me: his writing about war and military history frequently transcends the subject-matter. I find much of his work inspiring and even sometimes moving.

11. A History of Warfare by John Keegan.

Remarks about Keegan, above, apply. The Introduction to this book (a four-page meditation on what it means to be a soldier, by a man prevented by polio from ever becoming one) is by any standards a brilliant and illuminating essay.

12. Roosevelt & Churchill: 1939-1941 by Joseph P. Lash (Andre Deutsch, 1977; first published in the USA, 1976).

The correspondence between the two Allied leaders and much information, from the U.S. point of view, of the surrounding circumstances. I found this fresh angle on familiar events useful.

13. Battle in the Skies over the Isle of Wight by H.J.T. Leal (Isle of Wight County Press, 1993; first published 1988).

Er, this is the sort of book you buy when you're on holiday. It's a rather garbled account of things that went on over the Island during the war. I thought it might come in handy – in the event, it gave me a tiny scene near the beginning of the novel.

14. Bennett and the Pathfinders by John Maynard (Arms and Armour, 1996; 1st edition).

The story of Donald Bennett, who led the RAF 'pathfinder' force during the war. Although Bennett was obviously a brave man and an inspirational leader, this book in his name is only adequate by the standards of war writing.

15. The Nuremberg Raid by Martin Middlebrook. 16. The Battle of Hamburg by Martin Middlebrook. 17. The Peenemünde Raid by Martin Middlebrook. 18. The Schweinfurt ­ Regensburg Mission by Martin Middlebrook. 19. The Berlin Raids by Martin Middlebrook.

When you first take a serious interest in a fresh genre of writing, you encounter a large number of writers whose names are unfamiliar, yet you soon realize that some of them are in a class of their own. So it was with Martin Middlebrook, a writer whose name was completely unknown to me before I began researching The Separation, but who rapidly became an author whose books I now always look for. His approach to war history is refreshingly different: he contacted a large number of surviving WW2 participants and asked them to describe their own experiences. He then wove these first-hand accounts into skilfully researched general histories of relatively small raids or campaigns in the war. Gradually, a whole picture emerges. (I have listed only his bombing books; he has written on other types of campaign.) You see the events not only from the point of view of the main participants (the aircrew, the senior officers), but also from the people who were caught up in other ways: the air-traffic controllers, the men firing the anti-aircraft guns, the civilian victims on the ground, the night fighter pilots. Len Deighton attempted something of the sort in his crudely written novel Bomber, but Middlebrook's books are the real thing. The results are gripping and often horrifying, as you start to realize that many of the described incidents are the same ones seen from different points of view. In The Separation I have a fictional character who has made a successful career writing similar kinds of books to Middlebrook's. Unfortunately, Middlebrook himself began working relatively late, so that by now few WW2 participants are still alive – it doesn't seem likely that many more of these books can be written. If you have even the slightest interest in what war experiences are really like, Middlebrook's the man to read.

20. Total War, Vol. 1 by Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint & John Pritchard.

A long general history in two volumes, but written in mandarin style and not offering many fresh insights. I never got around to the second volume.

21. The Hardest Victory by Denis Richards.

A long and conscientious history of RAF Bomber Command, concentrating on the experiences of the men. Most of the RAF personnel who performed acts of bravery or self-sacrifice have their stories told in full. The book is clearly intended as a tribute to the aircrews.

22. Westminster in War by William Sansom.

Sansom is one of my favourite writers, so when I came across this book in a secondhand shop I leapt on it with little cries of glee. He was one of those young writers whose careers were severely disrupted by the outbreak of war and whose reputation never really recovered afterwards. He worked as an auxiliary fireman in the London Blitz, producing several short stories and essays which, although little known these days, are amongst the best first-hand accounts we have of the Luftwaffe raids. His story The Wall (1944) is one of the finest I have ever read (of any kind) – in under four pages of stark narrative he captures not only the essence of war but of humanity too. Westminster in War reads like a commissioned work; by its narrowness of focus it was intended perhaps as a book of record for the City of Westminster. Although in this sense it is workmanlike, the sheer skill and individuality of the writing sets it apart from other accounts of the Blitz. It informs many of the short Blitz descriptions in The Separation.

23. Air Bombardment by Sir Robert Saundby (Chatto & Windus, 1961; 1st edition).

The history of aerial bombing from the First World war until the 1950s. Saundby spent much of WW2 working as one of Arthur Harris's adjutants at Bomber Command headquarters.

24.Battle-Axe Blenheims by Stuart R. Scott.

A routine squadron history, in this case that of 105 Squadron, Bomber Command, in 1940 and 1941. My interest in this book reflects a line of plot that I later discarded, but a ghost of its impression remains in the novel.

25. SS-1: The Unlikely Death of Heinrich Himmler by Hugh Thomas.

I have much more to say about Hugh Thomas's fascinating books later in this bibliography, but this one is not his best. In fact, it's a mostly disappointing work, with a less than convincing argument and evidence that's little more than circumstantial. On the strength of Thomas's other books, which are written well and argued lucidly, I also sense the intrusion of some 'creative editing'. In the middle of the book there is a description of the several unsuccessful attempts by Britain and Germany to make peace while the war was still going on (a subject of prime interest to me). The research here was excellent.

26. World War II: The Untold Story by Philip Warner.

It is a brave author who can publish a book about WW2 at the end of the 1980s, with the claim that there is still an 'untold' story. Philip Warner might be brave but he is wrong: there is almost nothing new in this book, to anyone who has read the standard works. There was one small story I had not heard before: twelve soldiers from the Royal Signals were present in Poland at the outbreak of war. During an air raid a German plane released an unidentified white gas, which drifted around the men (who protected themselves with their gas masks). They therefore became the first British servicemen to see action in the war, and the first (and last) to suffer an attack of poison gas.

27. The Struggle for Europe by Chester Wilmot.

I was put on to this book by a reference to it in John Keegan's The Battle for History (which itself gains an entry in this list, in one of the other categories). Keegan points out that Wilmot wrote the first independent history of WW2, one using original research and which did not accept at face value the accounts of Churchill and his allies. Although fairly limited in its scope (as the title says, it is almost exclusively about the European war, and that mostly about the Western front) it is an exhilarating read, still not redundant, even though half a century has passed since it was published and historians today have access to a vast amount of material unavailable to Wilmot. This was Wilmot's only book, incidentally: soon after it was published he was killed in the first crash of the Comet airliner, over the Mediterranean.

II. Biographies

28. Halifax – The Life of Lord Halifax by The Earl of Birkenhead (Hamish Hamilton 1965; 1st edition)

Halifax was Foreign Secretary in Neville Chamberlain's government when WW2 broke out. He was a leading appeaser. In 1940, when Chamberlain resigned, the succession to prime ministership was between Halifax and Churchill. Later, Churchill packed Halifax off to Washington D.C. as British Ambassador. Birkenhead's biography of Halifax is long and dull, describing a tall and dull politician who was a high churchman and an aristocrat and who made little impact on history. Little impact, that is, apart from what he did during one crucial week. I therefore eagerly grabbed the stuff I needed for The Separation.

29. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock.

The first full-length biography in English, necessarily incomplete at the time of publication because so many papers had been removed to the Soviet Union, but nevertheless a brilliant and authoritative work. Hitler is not of great interest to me, nor does he feature more than peripherally in The Separation, but I felt I couldn't write a book about WW2 without boning up on him. While I was still working, Ian Kershaw's vast two-volume biography of Hitler appeared; I did consult it for a few details, but I still haven't found the time or interest to read the whole thing. (A bibliophile note: I found my copy of Bullock's book in a secondhand shop. It has a slightly tatty cover, as you might expect of an old book club edition. However, when I started reading the book I realized that it was, in effect, brand new. The pages were still adhering close together as they had been guillotined, the paper smelt fresh and clean. I never thought I'd associate Hitler with a pleasant sensual experience.)

30. Guy Gibson by Richard Morris (Viking, 1994; 1st edition).

This book is in effect where The Separation began. I found my copy in Waterstone's in Eastbourne. Gibson was the RAF pilot who led the Dam Busters raid in 1943, a couple of months before I was born. From the Brickhill book (above) and also from the film directed by Michael Anderson in 1956, I gained an enduring image of Gibson as an authentic hero, a man of exceptional skill and bravery. He remains so for me today, even though the larger picture of the man reveals, of course, a flawed, complex and by no means entirely admirable character. When I read Morris's biography it reminded me forcibly of the other RAF books that had so impressed me when I was at school. I went back and re-read some of them. After that, I began haunting the military history shelves in bookshops, gradually acquiring many of the titles listed here. The mounting evidence of the inherent wrongness of the RAF's bombing of German cities began to depress me, and thoughts of a novel on the subject began to grow. Gibson is briefly mentioned in the novel (with my guess as to what might have happened to him had he survived the war), but the book is by no means 'about' him, any more than it is 'about' the other notable characters of the period who are mentioned in this list.

31. Winston Churchill by Henry Pelling.

The man who looked like ChurchillThe definitive biography to date of Churchill is by Martin Gilbert, but I chose this much shorter one. While I was still reading it, my wife and I took the children to Churchill's country house Chartwell, which is not far from where we live. I was standing in Churchill's former study, browsing through a tall bookcase that occupied much of one wall. For some reason, my eye fell on a copy of Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. No one was around so I reached up and ran my fingertips down its spine. The following day I was reading Pelling's biography and on p.605 I read about Churchill as he was recovering from an illness: "... he began to improve. He was really relaxing – reading Trollope's Phineas Finn, for instance." He must have read that copy, that very copy. From such apparent coincidences the whole business of writing novels, carrying out research, and so on, are symbolically confirmed as being worth doing. The photograph is a rarely seen one from the time of the London Blitz, showing 'Churchill' carrying his cane in his left hand.

III. Memoirs of Important Participants

32. My Early Life by Winston S. Churchill.

Written and published in 1930, just as Churchill's political career was going into what must have felt like terminal decline. He was in his late 50s, he had held all the high offices of state bar the premiership and in 1929 he and the Conservatives had been turfed out of government. His prospects for a comeback looked slim. My Early Life is a terrific read, written in Churchill's unmistakable prose, full of unconscious clues about how he would act and behave a decade later when he was a war leader. Best of all, for me with my peculiar preoccupations, was Churchill's anecdote about the time he came across his own double, an American writer called Winston Churchill. By heck, I knew I was on to something then ...

33. Bomber Offensive by Sir Arthur Harris.

Harris was known as 'Bomber' Harris by the press and the general public, but his aircrews, who knew more about what was really going on, called him 'Butch', short for 'Butcher'. Harris was an unimaginative and stubborn man, apparently without many redeeming qualities other than a determination to flatten as many German cities as possible. He rarely went to RAF stations to meet the crews, and he invariably pronounced the names of the German towns he was about to destroy with contemptuous Britishisms. E.g., he would call Wiesbaden 'weezbayden'.

34. Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer.

Speer was seemingly not involved directly in any war crimes, but he presided over a huge slave workforce and was therefore tried at the Nuremberg Tribunal and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He wrote this book after his release in 1966. He liked messing about in small boats. Towards the end of the war, when it was obvious what was going to happen, he cooked up a scheme in which he would row across to Greenland in one of his sculls and lie low there until things calmed down. He was one of the saner Nazis.

35. Bounden Duty by Alexander Stahlberg (Brassey's, 1990; first published in Germany in 1987).

Stahlberg was a German Army staff officer for most of the war, and claims to have been involved with the 1944 Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler. Stahlberg reveals that had Stauffenberg succeeded, far from suing for peace with the Allies, the war would have been stepped up, properly led by the Prussian Guard. John Keegan, incidentally, rates this as one of the more important and interesting books to have been written about the war from the German side. I agree.

36. The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941 by Joseph Goebbels, translated and edited by Fred Taylor (Sphere, 1982).

Joseph GoebbelsI could hardly believe my luck when I started reading this short (and incomplete) extract from the vast diaries Goebbels kept all his life. Goebbels was writing for posterity, intending that his diaries would be published in a postwar Germany after the Reich had been triumphant. For this reason he is all on his own a kind of alternative history of the war, exaggerating and lying on almost every page. His intemperate language, extreme views, inconsistency, outbursts of bad temper, cloying sentimentality, scurrilous treachery and much more make his journal as compulsive as anything I have read. What a gift to a novelist!


 IV. Adventures of Unimportant Participants

This is one of the largest categories of books about WW2 and the one I happen to find illuminating.

It has often been said that the second world war, unlike the first, failed to produce any great or important literature. In particular, the extraordinary outflowing of poetry from the first war had no real equivalent in the second. This is largely true, but it seems to me that what we had instead were books of personal experiences, written for the most part by people who were not professional writers, which used unpretentious and often artless prose to describe what happened. Most of the men who experienced the first war did so while they were in action, and few of them survived: war poetry was often written in the heat of action. The second war, because of the advances in technology and the more ruthless campaigns, affected many more people. Civilians were in the line of fire and women were actively involved at almost every level. Nearly all these books appeared after the war was over. Some of them, by their very ordinariness and their unsophisticated but vivid language, provide an emotional shock that is not all that different from the impact of poetry.

The word 'unimportant' needs to be defined. Most of the participants in a war are of equal status, or at least they start their involvement from a position of general equality. Is a rear-gunner on a Lancaster more or less important than a general, or than the captain of a submarine? Unimportant in my sense of the word means that the writers of these books usually came from an ordinary background and their experience of the war is interesting because of their normality. Even then, you find that several different types of experience, and the circumstances of the book, create several sub-categories.

Some writers used their war books as a springboard to a wider literary career. Russell Braddon's first book was The Pilkingtons, which grew from a friendship he made while a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese. Material from this was later expanded into his second book, now his best-known, The Naked Island. Braddon went on to a general writing career. (Among many other titles he wrote The Year of the Angry Rabbit, which was filmed as the sometimes derided Night of the Lepus.) Nicholas Monsarrat's first book was Three Corvettes, which he wrote and published during the war while he was a serving officer in the Royal Navy. After the war he recycled the material into a novel called The Cruel Sea, which became a bestseller and a famous film, and which was the beginning of his long and successful career as a novelist.

Some of the books brought early fame to the writers. Richard Hillary is probably the best example of this: his book The Last Enemy is an autobiographical account of the horrific injuries he suffered when shot down during the Battle of Britain. After the book was published he returned to service in the RAF but was later killed during a training flight. It's clear from the emotional intensity and the skill of the writing that had he lived he would certainly have become a successful writer (a career he aspired to before the war). The same literary destiny was not likely to be Guy Gibson's, in spite of his exceptional book. He wrote Enemy Coast Ahead shortly after the events it described and which had made him into a legend: he led the Dam Busters raid in May 1943. For several months after the raid Gibson was almost as well known in Britain and the USA as Churchill. He returned to duty and was killed during a bombing mission in September 1944, before the book was published. The book itself is vivid, ingenuous and as compulsively readable as a boys' adventure story (which it frequently resembles).

Still others became famous for activities after the war. For example, in 1942, when Leonard Cheshire published Bomber Pilot he was a fairly ordinary serving RAF officer. His distinction as a heroic airman was still to come (he was awarded the VC, not for any one act of courage but for his whole RAF career), as of course was his post-war work setting up care homes for the terminally ill. Spike Milligan's war writing came about the other way around. His hilarious accounts of his war experiences as a lowly trooper in North Africa and Italy were not written and published until after he became a celebrated comedian.

But most of these 'unimportant' books are written by people you've never heard of. They were the navigators in bombers, the WAAFs who worked in operations rooms, the Jewish boy who survived Auschwitz, the actor who happened to look like Field-Marshal Montgomery, the radio expert parachuted into Crete, the teacher who took part in the D-Day landings. They served in obscurity, their books made them neither rich nor famous and even today their names mean nothing to most people. Who has heard of Walter Thompson, Miles Tripp, Don Charlwood, 'Revs' Rivaz, Pip Beck, Ron Smith? They were unimportant participants in the war, and they are unknown or forgotten writers, but they wrote some of the war's best books.

After this preamble I won't dwell too long on each book, but instead give a brief idea of what it is about.

37. A WAAF in Bomber Command by Pip Beck.

Pip Beck was an RAF R/T operator, communicating with operational aircrew by radio as they departed for and returned from bombing raids. Her story tells of innocent loves in wartime: young airmen from Rhodesia, England, Australia, briefly flirted with, then inevitably lost again and again to the enemy. She worries about becoming a 'chop' girl; she finds love at last. The war goes along, a defining experience for all involved.

38. No Moon Tonight by Don Charlwood.

No Moon Tonight by Don CharlwoodCharlwood was an Australian who volunteered to join the RAF. He served as a navigator on Lancasters. Here he describes an incident he witnessed one night between raids:

I went next night to Cleethorpes to stay at the 'Rookery'. I had tuned to Breslau, to The Marriage of Figaro, when the Cleethorpes sirens began. In the distance I heard the guns along the Humber, like a roll of drums, moving closer. Then they opened up somewhere behind the house, shaking the walls with each roar. I went to the door and looked out. The Hull searchlights had illumined the garden strangely with a bluish, ever-moving light. High up, I could hear the drone of an aircraft, tortured and afraid. Knowing only the terror of air crew, my heart was with the pilot carrying out his lone task against extreme odds. I saw his aircraft caught by the searchlights. Small as a moth and beautifully silvered, it dived and turned frantically, the flak growing rapidly closer. Though I could not see the end, it came soon. Searchlights were doused, the firing ceased, and the long cry of All Clear came from the sirens. I went inside and resumed listening to Mozart, wondering what manner of man had died.

39. Bomber Pilot by Leonard Cheshire. 40. The Face of Victory by Leonard Cheshire (Hutchinson, 1961; first edition).

Written and published in the early part of the war, Bomber Pilot is interesting for two reasons. The style is racy, vivid and full of slang, producing a memorable account of what it was like to fly on the operations. Secondly, it provides an uninhibited glimpse into the mind of a young man who later rose to greatness. The second book, Cheshire's later volume of autobiography, is no longer quite so uninhibited, but the breezy RAF attitude and style had still quite not left him. His second wife was Sue Ryder, the famous charity worker whose fundraising shops are still seen in most British towns, who was involved with creating the Cheshire homes; there is a photograph of her on the back.

41. Last Waltz in Vienna by George Clare.

Clare (real name Klaar) was a Jewish boy growing up in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss, and he describes the increasing persecution of Austrian Jews that followed. He escaped in 1942.

42 Lancaster Target by Jack Currie. 43. Mosquito Victory by Jack Currie. 44. Wings over Georgia by Jack Currie.

Currie's Lancaster Target and Don Charlbury's No Moon Tonight have superficial similarities because they both describe the same area of war. But where Charlbury's memorable story is full of emotion and a sense of all the young lives being lost, Currie is made of harder, less sentimental stuff. Both authors write plainly and compellingly and in their different approaches to similar material they have produced real insights into the lives of the ordinary young men who were sent to bomb Germany. Currie's willing embrace of warfare and its sacrifices is not without its lyrical moments. Here he describes his feelings as he flies above Lincoln Cathedral one evening:

The stonework of the great cathedral shone softly in the sunlight, and the majestic structure seemed to float upon the city, above the fields of Lindsey and Kesteven. The sight of it, serene and monumental, imbued me with inchoate thoughts of England's past, and of our little part in working for her future sovereignty.

Young men had come from the far ends of the world to join us on the airfields lying round Lincoln: from Canada and India, Australia and New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa. I didn't know what moved them; was it a sense of duty, love of the old country, Commonwealth, Empire, democracy? Perhaps a hatred of tyranny or dictatorship, perhaps a zest for danger, who knew? We were subject to the general intake of patriotic exhortations, some stirring, some silly, like everybody else. Actors depicted us as leather-muffled public schoolboys, stiffening our upper lips in studio cockpits among the phoney flak bursts. On the other side, the Nazi propagandist Dr Goebbels called us 'terror-fliers' and 'hired assassins of the King', terms which chimed more with the latent love of violence in us than did the sentimental soubriquets of song and cinema.

Largely unmoved by exhortation, praise or condemnation, I satisfied what need I had for motivation by the companionship of the men from far-off lands around me, and the sight of the cathedral and the wide, green fields.

45. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

This is one of those books that most other people seem to rate highly (e.g., Jan Morris calls it a 'masterpiece' on the front cover, and Jeremy Lewis, one of my favourite writers, says that it was this book that made him want to be an author), while I didn't think much of it at all. It is written ordinarily, the observations are not especially good and the author keeps forgetting bits of his story. It describes a journey by a young Englishman through Germany in 1933, shortly after Hitler took power. For me, it was therefore useful in parts rather than enjoyable as a whole.

46. Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson.

For some time it was rumoured that this book had been ghost-written for Gibson by Roald Dahl, but the manuscript has come to light and has been verified as being Gibson's own work throughout. It is therefore undoubtedly one of the most important and interesting books about WW2, because of the author's involvement in the events described, because of his personal status and because of the time in his life when he wrote it.

47. The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary.

Much of the myth of the Battle of Britain was confirmed by this book. By cooler, more ironic postwar standards, Hillary's autobiography is overwrought and sentimental, but it is a classic for all that. An early sequence in Part 2 of The Separation was encouraged by some of the material here.

48. I Was Monty's Double by M.E. Clifton James (Popular Book Club, 1957; first published by Rider).

The fake Monty?The real Monty?A book about an actor who was an almost exact physical double of Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He was hired to impersonate the great man as a way of deceiving German intelligence about where 'Monty' was in the weeks leading up to D-Day. How could I resist such a subject?



49. Wing Leader by Air Vice-Marshal 'Johnnie' Johnson.

Although I'm not much interested in the Battle of Britain, and it barely comes into The Separation, 'Johnnie' Johnson (the RAF fighter pilot with the most 'kills' of enemy aircraft) died in January 2001, while I was still working on the novel. After reading his obituaries I felt I should read his own account of the war. It includes a brief but vivid description of a chance meeting with Guy Gibson.

50. I Married a German by Madeleine Kent (Allen & Unwin, 1938; 1st edition).

A real 'find' in a secondhand shop: I loved the confessional, almost guilty, quality of the title, a subliminal reminder that only sixty years ago European countries really were foreign to each other. Kent was a British woman who married a liberal German and lived with him in Saxony throughout the years of Hitler's rise to power. Because I was planning a long sequence of The Separation set in pre-war Germany, I plundered dozens of notes from this book. Inevitably, by the time I had finished writing most of such research material had been left by the wayside.

51. If This is a Man by Primo Levi.

I shrink from describing such a book as 'research material'. As a boy, Levi was rounded up with other Italian Jews and deported to Auschwitz (Monowitz). He survived. Nothing in his book directly bears on the novel I was writing, but I felt I should not presume to write about a war in which I hadn't been personally involved without learning something of its greatest horror.

52. Spitfire on My Tail by Ulrich Steinhilper & Peter Osbourne.

Speaking from experience, finding books about WW2 from the German 'side', written in English, is comparatively hard. This is the story of a young Luftwaffe pilot who after a long period of training flew on air-raids against London and the South-East of England. He was shot down and taken prisoner in October 1940. Much of the interest in this book was to learn about German attitudes to the war, and various other matters the British know little about. For instance, his squadron took part in a march-past of Hitler during the 1937 Nuremberg Rally, goose-stepping in an exact square, just like you've seen in the old newsreels; here is an account of what it was like to take part.

53. Coastal Command Pilot, 1939-1945 by Ted Rayner.

More wartime memoirs. A bit chaotically organized, but written with a sense of conviction and straightforward intent to tell things the way they had been.

54. Looking into Hell by Mel Rolfe.

A collection of twenty short memoirs of dangerous or exciting Bomber Command experiences, written by Rolfe but obviously based on interviews with the subjects. The attraction of this book is its wide range; it's a pity it is so badly written, as the dodgy style keeps making you wonder how good are the insights or how reliable the stories.

55. Lancaster to Berlin by Walter Thompson.

Nearly all the books I read by participants in the 'area bombing' campaign against German cities expressed qualms about the strategic value of what they were doing. Thompson, a Canadian pilot, addresses the subject directly. He describes how little choice he felt he had, was determined at the start of his tour of duty to bomb only military targets, but this meant putting himself and his crew at extra risk by flying lower than normal to be sure of hitting the right targets. Gradually he fell in with the rest, following orders. I have by now read many books on the subject of the Bomber Command campaign and the ambivalence of feelings of the men who took part is always a striking feature of their stories.

56. The Eighth Passenger by Miles Tripp.

The eighth passenger was fear. Tripp was a bomb aimer on a Lancaster. His story covers much of the usual ground of these books, but he is unusually candid about the qualms the aircrews had towards the end of the war, and particularly about their involvement in the destruction of Dresden. He claims – and who can disbelieve him? – that he directed the pilot of his aircraft to the south of the burning city, and jettisoned their bombload in open fields. He also claims that his was not the only aircraft to do this.

V. Miscellaneous Books

There were dozens of general books about WW2 littering my office throughout the writing of The Separation but I read only three of them all the way through.

57. Bomber Command by the Air Ministry ("text by The Cornwall Press Ltd", published by His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1941; first edition). 58. Front Line 1940-1941 by Ministry of Information, published by HMSO, 1942; first edition).

These two books are still relatively easy to find in good condition in secondhand shops. Thousands of them were printed in their day. They are large-size paperbacks, printed on semi-glossy stock, using what used to be called the photogravure process for the many photographs. In one of his books, John Keegan describes these government publications as exemplary propaganda. They are factually accurate throughout and contain not a single deliberate untruth, but they tell only one side of a complicated story. At the same time they contain nothing that would be of any strategic use to the enemy. Although they deliberately do not exploit the 'Blitz spirit' of those distant days, at the same time they contain nothing that might undermine morale. All those are past concerns, of course. From the point of view of a present-day literary researcher both books were mines of information and telling detail.

The Air Ministry's version of the air warThe book on Bomber Command was of particular interest to me, because it describes what was happening from the outbreak of war until the end of 1941, the period of The Separation. It was only from the beginning of 1942 that the 'legend' of Bomber Command began, after Arthur Harris took control. In these pre-Harris years, Bomber Command was a largely ineffectual force, using outdated and unsuitable aircraft, suffering terrible losses from the German defenders, and more often than not bombing so incompetently that they almost never hit their targets. In the autumn of 1941 the civil service carried out a survey of bombing results (using flash-lit photographs of the ground, taken by the crews considered to be the best). Even from this selective sample the investigators found that only one in four aircraft was within five miles of the chosen target, and on better-defended targets (like the Ruhr industrial area) only one in ten aircraft were able to hit within that range. In November 1941, the government called a halt to all but the most limited bombing operations. None of this is even hinted at in the Air Ministry book, which within the constraints of truth and by concentrating on a few of the more 'successful' raids, presents an image of gallantry, persistence and the wreaking of devastating damage on Germany.

59. If Britain Had Fallen by Norman Longmate (Arrow, 1975; first published by British Broadcasting Corporation and Hutchinson, 1972)

This non-fiction book, tied in with a long-forgotten TV programme about what would have happened if Germany 'won', was on my bookshelf for many years, long before I thought it might come in handy. Once The Separation was in progress I realized its theme was not dissimilar to Longmate's book, and so I felt I couldn't afford to skip it.

It's not a good book: it shows signs of sensationalism and speculation, painting a lurid picture Nazi hordes looting, pillaging and raping their way through South-East England in the autumn of 1940. Maybe those events would have been every bit as lurid as Longmate depicts them, but I felt there was a certain lip-smacking quality to his choice of images and words. At the same time, some of the facts he turned up were interesting and I hadn't seen them anywhere else, which justifies its entry in this bibliography. However, Peter Fleming's more responsible book of speculation (Invasion 1940; see no. 6 in this list) covered much the same ground. In addition, two other books that I referred to, but haven't listed here, taken in conjunction with the Fleming, give a much more chilling idea than Longmate's catchpenny book of what an invasion might have meant to this country: When Nazi Dreams Come True by Robert Edwin Herzstein (Abacus, 1982), an academic's survey of Nazi strategy, and (same title as Fleming's) Invasion 1940 by SS-General Walter Schellenberg (St Ermin's Press, 2000), the real plans drawn up by the Wehrmacht of what the Germans actually intended to do once they had landed. These plans include a long list of names and addresses of people for whom they would have been hunting. In all, more disturbing than television sensationalism. However, I did read Longmate's book, so here it is on the list.

VI. Reference Works

Only four titles under such a general heading? Again, these are the books I read all the way through, usually taking notes. Beyond those main sources, there were about another sixty books that I referred to from time to time, without sitting down and reading them. But all four of the following titles became special in different ways.

60. Over There written by U.S. War Dept.; edited by John R. Pinfold.

One of the greatest pleasures of literary research is the accidental or unexpected discovery. I came across this modest little pamphlet in the bookshop at Duxford Air Museum in Cambridgeshire, during a visit to have a close look at the Lancaster on display there.

Over There, but about over hereIn 1942, thousands of U.S. servicemen were being shipped to Britain in readiness for the invasion of France. As each man left the U.S. he was given a copy of this pamphlet to prepare him for what he was going to find on arrival in Britain. Many of the GIs came from rural areas of the U.S. and few had even left their own state, let alone travelled to a foreign country. The two years of friendly occupation by American forces were to cause one of the most important social upheavals this country has ever known, but that's another story.

From a modern perspective, the pamphlet represents a snapshot of Britain as she was perceived some sixty years ago. It has that candid, objective quality of a benign attempt to get to grips with different people, customs, currency, outlook and so on, a classic example of 'how others see us'. It contains advice on how the men should behave when out and about, how to order drinks or meals, how to treat British women, how to avoid conflict with British troops, what assumptions they should not make about British life based on wartime conditions. It is in turn surprising, amusing, revealing and often unexpectedly moving. This represents one side of Churchill's 'grand alliance', summed up in 16 extraordinary pages.

61. The Battle for History by John Keegan (1995, Hutchinson; first edition)

This is a book about books: a summary of the best and most useful books about WW2, as seen by the man who is presently the best military historian in Britain. Keegan confirmed my view of several of the books I had already worked with, and put me on to several more. His sense of scale and perspective of wars in general, and WW2 in particular, shows on every page.

However, I would add that as a reference work the book itself is a bit of a mess, typical of the attempts by modern publishers to save a few bob on non-fiction. Although each book mentioned is referenced to the bibliography at the back, the bibliography itself is in chapter order. So, for instance, on page 57 of the chapter Keegan calls 'Biographies' (identified in the running head on each page) there is a reference to Desmond Young's book Rommel, with a superscripted 11 against it. Using the bibliography you immediately discover that you need to know what chapter number it appears in, not the name of the chapter. You have to look back to the Contents page to discover that 'Biographies' is Chapter 3. The bibliography duly notes the book under Chapter 3, note 11. But the bibliography supplies little extra information from what you have already found in the text: Young's book was published in London in 1950. Nothing about publisher, edition or recent reissues. Furthermore, there's no index, so that if at some later time you are for instance interested in finding out what Keegan has to say about a specific title, the only way of locating it is to search through the chapter-order bibliography in the hope of finding it somewhere. Even if you do, there is no cross-reference back to the page-number on which it appears. Your only hope is to trace the chapter, then read it.

62. War 1939: Dealing with Adolf Hitler. 63. The Judgement of Nuremberg The Stationery Office, 1999; first edition thus)

Both of these titles appear in the recent 'Uncovered Editions' imprint. I can do no better than quote the short preface that appears in each book: 'Uncovered Editions are historic official papers which have not previously been available in popular form. The series has been created directly from the archives of The Stationery Office in London, and the books have been chosen for the quality of their story telling. Some subjects are familiar, but others are less well known. Each is a moment of history.'

(Other titles in the series deal with the loss of the Titanic, the British invasion of Tibet in 1904, the Christine Keeler affair, the murders at 10 Rillington Place, and many more. One of my favourites is called The Strange Story of Adolph Beck, a series of trial papers concerning a confidence trickster and an astonishing case of mistaken identity. However, none of these books has anything to do with my researches for my new novel.)

The first of the two titles mentioned here consists mostly of Foreign Office papers dealing with the period between the Munich Agreement and the outbreak of war a year later. It also includes much German material, including the texts of several of Hitler's pre-war speeches. The second includes transcripts of the proceedings against the Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg in 1945-1946, including the judgements. The books give you the feeling of having come across a large file of old papers, cleaned up but not tidied up, if you see what I mean, a treasure trove of raw information.

These books both have cover photographs of the Nazi leaders, one taken before the war, the other after it. Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, is visible on both books. Which brings me neatly to my final category of research.

VII. Rudolf Hess

While the war was still going on my parents subscribed to a weekly part-work called Pictorial History of the War (edited by Walter Hutchinson, published by Library Press). You can still find bound copies in secondhand shops. It's not much good as history because everything in it was subject to wartime censorship, but it represents an interesting snapshot of what the public actually knew about the war at the time. I loved browsing through the copies while I was a child and even today many of its images still hang around in seminal memory. It was in these pages that I first heard about Rudolf Hess and his flight to Britain in search of peace.

Hess before

The photos show Rudolf Hess before and after the war. The first is undoubtedly the real Hess, the second shows the man who appeared at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. His identity is still not known for sure. His physical resemblance to Hess is startling, but there are enough contradictions, mysteries and official evasions about what happened to this man before he appeared on trial that doubt remains.

Even as a pre-teen child, I was puzzled by the story of Hess. It was clearly a mystery (Pictorial History used the word even before it had seemed to become one), and it was a baffling one. Pictorial History contains only two references to the entire incident in its daily record of the war's progress.

The first, on 10th May 1941, says: "The sensation of the war is the escape from Germany of Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuehrer, in an aeroplane piloted by himself. He lands at night on a farm in Scotland and gives himself up under a false name. It transpires that he was hoping to land on the Duke of Hamilton's estate.

"The next day, 11th May, it adds: "The Rudolf Hess mystery deepens. He is taken to a hospital, having been slightly injured, and is there seen by a hospital official who identifies him as none other than Rudolf Hess. Meanwhile, the Germans are in a quandary. Before any British announcement is made, they say that he has gone up in a plane and not returned. As soon as it is known that he is in Britain they say that he has for some time been mentally deranged."

"Hess" after?

There are also three photographs: one blurry one of someone who looks a bit like Hess in the cockpit of an unidentifiable plane, another of the farmer and his mother who witnessed the arrival, and the third is of the wreckage of Hess's plane. The caption to this last one says: "The war's biggest surprise was provided by the arrival in Scotland on 10th May, 1941, of Rudolf Hess. He flew solo from Augsburg, a distance of more than 800 miles and landed by parachute. Wreckage of the plane, a Messerschmitt 110, is shown."

That's all there is. Hess is never mentioned again.

To my young but logical mind, the brief story cried out for more details to be told, for some explanation to be offered. At the very least, I wanted to know what happened next. Did Hess stay in hospital? Was he imprisoned? Was he sent back to Germany? What did his plan for peace consist of? Did Churchill ever talk to him? If not, why not? Was Hess mentally deranged, as the Germans claimed?

And then there was the aircraft. As any pre-teen boy in the 1950s knew, the Messerschmitt 110 was a two-seat fighter, crewed by a pilot and a rear-gunner. The comparatively slow 110 was vulnerable to attack from behind, so pilots rarely flew without a crewman. Why wasn't the other man mentioned, and if there hadn't been a second man aboard, why not? Finally, if Hess flew from Augsburg (a quick look at the atlas revealed it to be in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, not far from Munich), why did he fly to Scotland? Could a twin-engined fighter fly all that way without refuelling?

I later found out that at the end of the war Hess had been convicted of war crimes and was serving a life sentence in Spandau Prison, West Berlin. Even that seemed a bit odd: surely the fact that he had tried to make peace would have counted in his favour? Later on, the mystery deepened still further: all the other Nazi war criminals who had been jailed with Hess were released one by one, as their sentences were completed. By the end of the 1960s they had all gone, but Hess remained. He was alone in the prison. Every now and again you would hear of some human rights campaigners demanding his release on compassionate grounds, but these calls were always ignored, or rejected without explanation.

Here I can return to the bibliography, because it is in the following books that the story continues.

64. The Murder of Rudolf Hess by Hugh Thomas. 65. Hess: A Tale of Two Murders by Hugh Thomas (revised edition of the previous book)

Hugh Thomas was a surgeon serving in the British army during the early 1970s. After a tour of duty in Northern Ireland he had developed a specialist medical interest in bullet wounds. When he was posted in 1972 as a consultant surgeon to the British Military Hospital in West Berlin, he discovered that Rudolf Hess (now officially known only as Prisoner No. 7) would come under his care. Thomas had a professional interest in Hess, because during the First World War Hess had been shot and badly injured. His wounds had been tended by a surgeon called Sauerbruch, who, like Thomas, had had to develop surgical techniques for dealing with traumatic bullet wounds. On the only occasion he was able to examine Hess medically, Thomas discovered that apart from one tiny mark on his chest, there was no sign anywhere on Hess's body of the scars made either by the bullet or by the radical surgery that Sauerbruch would have carried out. As Thomas says, scars will fade slightly with age, and sometimes shrink, but they never disappear entirely. On this clear medical evidence, Thomas came to the firm conclusion that the man being held in Spandau Prison was not Hess and could not be. It had to be someone else.

Hugh Thomas's book is the story of his investigation into this mystery, and although it raises almost as many new questions as it answers, it makes a fascinating read. He addresses, for one thing, the unexplained nature of the long flight across the North Sea, which had always puzzled me. Churchill's silence and refusal to meet Hess is discussed and partly explained. The theory of Hess's alleged derangement is also investigated in depth. Thomas's forensic investigative skills are impressive.

The book is in two editions: the first came out while Prisoner No. 7 was still alive in Spandau, the second appeared after his death in 1987. In the first book Thomas concludes that the real Hess must have been murdered soon after his arrival, possibly by members of British Intelligence. An impostor was then put in his place. (Why and how this should have happened, and why the alleged impostor did not come clean as soon as the war was over, are some of the extra questions the theory raises.) The second edition, with its title referring to two murders, contains the additional allegation that the prisoner did not die of natural causes, but was murdered in mysterious circumstances while still inside Spandau. Again, Thomas supports this with a great deal of convincing evidence, but does not really explain why it happened.

The germ of the idea for The Separation arose from these two books: not so much from the books themselves as in the way they first satisfied and then amplified my own intrigue about the story. Although I have never really believed in conspiracy theories, I always enjoy reading about them and this account of Hess's fascinating story is one of the best. However, more was to come.

66. Hess: The British Conspiracy by John Harris & M.J. Trow.

The conspiracy theory thickened noticeably with this book, based on an earlier pamphlet I had read after coming across it through internet sources. John Harris is the main author (I assumed Trow was brought in to clean up Harris's poor writing style). Harris is suspicious of everybody and everything, a classic conspiracy theorist, and he approaches the Hess mystery from the principle that he couldn't have made such a daring flight without advance cooperation from the British. So he scours through what MI6 sources he can find, trying to show that Hess was gulled into the flight. As usual with these things, various new facts and pieces of intriguing information emerged, but I remained unconvinced and unimpressed.

67. Hess: The Führer's Disciple by Peter Padfield.

This book is in a different class from Harris's rather frenetic effort: Peter Padfield is the respected author of numerous books of military and naval history, and his work is a thorough examination of all the various aspects of the Hess story. (He discounts Thomas's theories about an impostor and believes there is insufficient evidence of the murders.) Ultimately, the conclusion Padfield draws is that Hess was set up by the other Nazis, perhaps by Heinrich Himmler, but that he was also a pawn in a larger game being played at the time by Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Hess's flight took place just over a month before the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

By the time I read Padfield's book I had written much of the first draft of The Separation, and therefore knew that although Hess was going to come into the story he would be playing only a fairly minor part. Hess had been a crucial element in my early plans for the novel, but as so often happens he had been overtaken by the sheer momentum of writing the story. Unless I were to abandon almost everything I had written, and make Hess into a major character, there was little I could use from all the research material I was coming across. The original mystery, as I first discovered it, was still enough of a puzzle to stir the creative juices. When you do so much research, it always comes as a refreshing blast of reality to realize that in fact you end up throwing most of it away.

So, there was Hess about to go. Then I came across:

68. Double Standards: The Rudolf Hess Cover-Up by Lynn Picknett, Clive Prince and Stephen Prior, with Robert Brydon (Little Brown, 2001; first edition)

The provenance of this book was not encouraging. The authors had in my view previously spent a bit too long on the familiar loony fringes of investigative writing: the Knights Templar, the Turin Shroud, pyramids, esoteric societies and all that. And why should it take four people to write a book? However, it was about Rudolf Hess so I thought I'd spring for it. At this point I was close to finishing The Separation and did not think I needed anything more to add to the Hess mystery, or conspiracy, or cover-up.

I started reading. The authors had clearly done their homework and were well briefed on all the various facts, contradictions and theories of the Hess story. Every aspect of the story, from Hess's early days, his war record, his ascendancy as Hitler's secretary and deputy, his power and influence within Germany (or otherwise, as is often alleged), the flight, the imprisonment in Britain, the behaviour at his trial, his long incarceration in Berlin, his death, it is all rigorously examined. The impostor theory is revived and made almost respectable: the authors believe that there was a double, one who was intended at first to act as a decoy, allowing the real Hess to move about more freely in high British circles in pursuit of his peace aims. Every incident, no matter how apparently trivial, is questioned, checked and re-examined. It is a marvel of investigation; gripping, plausible, well supported with evidence and interviews with surviving witnesses, long-lost files opened and examined. You finish the book believing ... well, believing that so many mysterious events have been confirmed or invalidated by the authors' researches that from now on any attempt to solve the Hess enigma will at least have to incorporate the mass of intriguing material that has been set out in this book.

Questions remain, as usual, but there are fewer of them and one of the most important of all now seems to have an answer. The government files on Hess have been closed for seventy years. Even today, a wall of official silence surrounds the story. The only papers released into the public domain explain nothing. Why should this still go on, even now? Surely there could be no one whose reputation might be harmed by revelations about the Hess enigma? Well, the authors of Double Standards suggest, indirectly, that there was one such person, close to the centre of the conspiracy (although patently not involved in it), whose standing with the public is such that a long time will have to pass before even general hints can be made that she was close to the events. It remains likely that we will have to wait until 10th May 2011 to be told the whole story.

Where did this amazing book leave The Separation? Exactly where it was, as a matter of fact. I read most of the book purely for entertainment, the enjoyment of a great story told well. If there was anything that rubbed off from it on to the novel, it was the reassurance that The Separation's central themes – identical twins being taken for each other, politicians and soldiers using doubles and decoys, bouts of déjà vu and amnesia, impostors, mistaken identity, confusion of roles, and all that sort of thing – had abundant correlatives in the real world, to such an extent that I did wonder for a while if I had actually understated the theme.

 Summing Up

So, that is the end of the informal bibliography. Next to those books there is a similar number of extras: books, videotapes, DVDs and CDs. These are the works of genuine reference, too long and detailed to be read or studied as narratives, but endlessly consulted for details, dates, verification of facts. There are gems amongst them.

For instance, I have all of Hansard for Churchill's greatest period, and that is complemented by a CD I picked up at Chartwell, of Churchill's best-known speeches (including some of the ones known or thought to have been recorded by Norman Shelley, an actor who was a member of the BBC Repertory Company). We are all familiar with the recordings of Churchill's broadcasts, but who actually spoke the words? It's still difficult to be certain and the trail has long gone cold. Some of these recordings raise other questions: the 'finest hour' speech on 18th June 1940, for instance, begins with the words, 'Mr Speaker', as if Churchill were addressing the House, but this was many years before Parliament was recorded. There are edited gaps, audible on the recording, and several minor textual changes in some of the famous phrases. For instance, Churchill is quoted as saying in Hansard, '[If we fail] we will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of a perverted science.' In the recording, 'prolonged' becomes 'protracted' and 'a perverted science' loses the indefinite article. Overall it sounds more like a politician's technical speech than a broadcast to the public. A post-war revision, perhaps? The voice certainly sounds like Churchill's, and he is speaking slowly and tiredly. Post-war, again? Churchill aged rapidly after the end of hostilities. Or is it a genuine recording of a man, as he sounds, at the end of his tether? I suppose we will never really know for certain.

On the same shelf there is John Keegan's invaluable The Times Atlas of the Second World War: every campaign, battle or general theatre of war depicted in terms of specially drawn maps, supplemented by a mass of other information. Leni Riefenstahl's films of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Olympics are there on tape. I have a host of videotapes recorded off-air, a testament to the huge amount of interest that remains in WW2, even today, even nearly sixty years after the war ended. Vast biographies of Hitler, Goebbels, Speer, Himmler. My parents' set of the Pictorial History. Martin Middlebrook's encyclopaedic The Bomber Command War Diaries, a truly obsessive book, every single wartime RAF raid described in detail, supported by endless statistics and anecdotes from both the RAF and the authorities in the German cities which were bombed. Tim Kirk's invaluable The Longman Companion to Nazi Germany, everything and more than everything you need to know about that dreadful period of German history. A collection of wartime newspapers. An anthology of extracts from Signal, a propaganda magazine that was published in Germany for almost the whole war. Rebecca West's The Meaning of Treason, the famous book about Lord Haw-Haw. Videotapes of The Dam Busters, Appointment in London, Memphis Belle, Twelve O'clock High, many more. A fabulous mass of stuff, littering my office, taking up space. How can I go on leaving it there? How can I ever get round to clearing it up?