Interview with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree James Stevenson

I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree James Stevenson to talk with me today about his book, Dartmouth Conspiracy. James was born in England four years and nine months before Britain declared war on Germany. His father, a newspaper proprietor and former cadet at Dartmouth during WW1, left the Royal Navy in 1929 nd recalled at the outbreak of WW2 for trans-Atlantic convoy escort duties. He developed a stomach ulcer and became a training officer at the Royal Naval College; his family of five followed him to Dartmouth in 1942.

On 18 September 1942 James, aged eight, heard mighty explosions and saw a German aircraft at chimney-height being pursued by two RAF Spitfires: “I could see his face, Mother, I could see his face!” This event left a lasting impression on the young boy and implanted his life-long interest in aviation.

In 1952, aged 18, James began his compulsory stint of National Service at a time when World War Three with the USSR threatened the Western world. James joined the RAF, was sent to Canada for training, enjoyed a memorable two weeks’ leave in USA, flew jets and gained his “Wings”.

On leaving the Air Force, James studied agriculture, married and moved to Portugal (at that time ruled by a Fascist dictator). He managed a large farming and animal feeds operation near Lisbon, became fluent in Portuguese and developed an interest in amateur dramatics making several appearances on the stage of the Lisbon Players. In 1968 James had to answer questions about a talk he gave to Lisbon’s British Institute entitled World Population and Agriculture because the Portuguese secret police wanted to make sure he wasn’t developing an unhealthy interest in politics. James’s friend Alain Oulman was arrested and jailed for left-wing activities and later deported to France. In 1973 James formed his own full-time import/export company based in Portugal. By now the father of two boys and two girls, he witnessed Portuguese troops advancing on Lisbon in April 1974; during an almost bloodless coup Portuguese soldiers expelled their Fascist rulers, opened the jails, took over the government and made history. Youtube

Two years later James returned to England and set up a business with his brother importing decorative ceramics from Portugal, setting up house with his four children after divorcing his wife. In 1989 James remarried and in 1999 self-published his first novel Dartmouth Conspiracy followed by Fly The Storm in 2010. Both novels have been taken up by Large Print and Audio publishers and both are Indie Brag Honorees. His latest work, Stalin’s Had It Now! was published in 2014; the Large Print edition and Audio version (read by the author) came out in October 2015.

 Now living in Devon, James likes to visit the road where he lived as a boy, and likes to stand on the exact spot where, long ago, he looked up and saw the face of a German pilot.

Please tell me a little about your book, Dartmouth Conspiracy.

Dartmouth Conspiracy is a story of severely traumatized men and women, swept into battle against each other during World War Two. How do they handle their conflicting instincts of revenge and reconciliation when the war is over? None of my characters relish the task of warfare; all of them seek peace, but all are traumatised by their experiences.

Dartmouth Conspriacy BRAG

One can live a whole lifetime and not know all there is about World War II. Why many of us are avid readers about this powerful and tragic event. My Grandfather was a World War II Vet and died with many secrets about the war, I’m sure. He rarely talked about it. When he did mention small details I would see the far-away look in his eyes; his voice would even change. Can you tell me something that sets your book apart from the others in this genre? And has writing this story impacted you in any way?

War continues to fascinate readers of both fiction and history perhaps because they wonder how they would I have reacted to war, how would they have behaved, would they have risen to the challenge of facing the enemy in combat? War veterans have witnessed events that they can hardly bring themselves to think about, let alone describe to others. The veterans have to live with deeply imprinted horror scenes that will never escape their brains and it is impossible for those who were not involved in such horrors to imagine what it was like. Those of us who seek the truth want to read about it, live the drama, the sweat and the tears and, yes, the comradeship and the good humour as well. War changes the course of every individual involved. In order to do their duty and protect their homeland some must kill, others must deceive, drop by parachute behind enemy lines, break seemingly unbreakable codes, work long hours in munitions factories, bring up children under the threat of aerial bombardment and keep them fed in spite of food rationing. Behind enemy lines, patriots lead secret but dangerous lives as they work towards freedom. Some veterans have been forced to betray their closest friends, driven insane by private demons and seen their comrades physically torn apart.

World War Two was a close-run thing. By 1940 most of Europe had been overrun and Britain stood alone, supported by supplies from the US and inspired by Winston Churchill: “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall never surrender.” As a boy I clearly remember the thrill of hearing our leader’s inspiring speeches, but I know that my mother was deeply worried.

Unlike some other novels in the genre, Dartmouth Conspiracy tries to be even-handed, aiming to share with its readers the conflict of heroes and heroines from both sides of the war.

Writing this novel has been a revealing journey for me. From the outset I was determined to hallmark the story with accurate research. As I delved the archives, unbelievable but true stories unfolded. My own father often spoke about his old naval days in China during the 1920s, but could never be drawn on the subject of WW2. At the time I couldn’t understand why this should be, but now, after researching Dartmouth Conspiracy, I think I know.

Please tell me a little about Andrew and Karl. What were their strengths?

Ever since he was a small child Andrew has been mad about ships. He wants to become an officer in the Royal Navy and desperately hopes to become a cadet at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth when he reaches the age of thirteen – but will he pass the stringent eyesight test? When Karl saves his life during a swimming expedition during a holiday in Devon, Andrew, his brother Ian and German cousin Karl solemnly swear a pact of friendship knowing that very soon their two countries will be at war.

Karl is a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe who longs for the day when he can resume his pre-war life as a school teacher. His aunt married an Englishman; she invited Karl to spend many pre-war boyhood holidays in England with Andrew and Ian her two sons. When war comes Karl is deeply disturbed by feelings of conflicting loyalty. He must lead a staffel of six aircraft to attack the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth but is almost certain that Andrew will be inside the building. By nature Karl is blessed with dogged persistence and is loyal to family, friends and comrades but, in order to save Andrew, should he somehow forewarn the British of the attack? If he does so he will be putting the lives of his fellow pilots in danger.

Czechairmen dog overs

Would you please share an excerpt?

A difficult choice: should I use a scene of fire and death like Helga’s ordeal in Hamburg during the Allied bombing, or would a more pastoral and peaceful scene show readers that this story is not all about blood and thunder? In the end we go with Anna as she revisits a French farm where, long ago, German soldiers surrounded the house and trapped her in the attic.

The man took a step forward. ‘What can I do for you? What is it you want?’

She said quietly, ‘Monsieur Dessoude was standing at the top of those stairs. He fired two shots. I heard bodies falling down the stairs. Men were shouting, I can hear them now, and rifle fire, slivers of wood splintered off that door – look, you can see where it’s been repaired. Dessoude fell backwards into the room, I tried to help him. Words bubbled in his throat before he died.’

The man’s face was frozen in surprise. ‘Martin Dessoude was my uncle. I knew he was murdered by the Nazis but nobody ever told me how.’

Anna took a deep breath but stayed exactly where she was, under the roof-beam. The years of shunning that day of horror from her mind were over now. Telling about Dessoude’s death was soothing the pain, leaking it away from the unhealed wound inside in her heart. ‘Your uncle fired both barrels. He killed two Germans soldiers but had no time to reload. What chance did he have against the rest of them – one pigeon-gun against four Nazis armed with MP-28 submachine guns?’ Anna watched his face as she continued. ‘You say this man was your uncle but have you ever wondered what happened to your aunt and your two small cousins who were also in this house that day?’

He looked away. ‘Sometimes I wonder. What do you know about it?’

‘They were taken with me to Amiens prison where we were put in separate cells. I never saw them again. That’s enough. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.’ She turned away to the window with the voice of Philippa shouting inside her brain. You have gone too far. The pain will return. You must be alone now. Retrieve your property and get on with the task.

She faced him again. ‘I have come to fetch something that I left here.’

His eyebrows lifted. ‘You left something – here?

She pointed. ‘On top of that beam. If it’s still there I’d like to claim it.’

The farmer walked across and reached up. ‘This beam, this one under the joist?’

She nodded.

He was a short man but the beam was low and his hand disturbed a shower of dust that fell shimmering across a shaft of sunlight from the window. ‘There is something here.’ He took it down and blew off the dust. ‘My God, a thirty-eight calibre Smith and Wesson Model 36.’ He balanced the revolver in his right hand. ‘I killed a man with one of these when I was in the Resistance. I should have been at school but killing the Boche to support Allied landings in Normandy was more exciting for a fifteen-year old.’ He swung out the cylinder with a practised thumb and light from the window caught a glint of brass. He paused for a moment. Looking up accusingly he said, ‘Did you know how to use this weapon?’

‘Of course I did, and I still do.’

‘These are live rounds, all six of them intact. If this revolver was yours and you knew how to use it, why is it still loaded? If my uncle was trying to defend himself with a shot gun he must have been protecting you too. What were you doing, standing in this room with a loaded pistol and then hiding it on top of that beam while Martin Dessoude was being shot to death?’

Anna heard herself translating an English quotation. ‘He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day, but he who is in battle slain can never rise and fight again.’

The farmer shrugged. ‘The war has been over for six years, the fighting has finished.’

Anna held out her hand to take the gun. ‘Has it?’

What did you learn while writing this book?

It’s extraordinary how one line of research leads to another. While assembling ideas for this book I visited the Public Records Office in London and discovered that the Spitfires I had seen with my own eyes during the German attack on Dartmouth in 1942 were flown by pilots of the RAF’s 310 (Czech) Squadron. These pilots had escaped from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and had travelled overland to Britain, the only unconquered country from which they could fight the enemy. While searching a library for a British test-pilot’s technical report on a captured Focke-Wulf 190 aircraft, I came across a fascinating autobiography: “Challenge In The Air” written by M.A. Liskutin a Czech fighter-pilot. Imagine my surprise when I learnt how these brave men, who had made the dangerous journey to England in order to fight for the freedom of Czechoslovakia, were considered as “Westernised Collaborators” when they returned to their war-torn homeland. Why? Because our former ally, Communist Russia, had imposed a suffocating regime of terror on their country. While still feeling angry from the injustice of this, I saw a film entitled “Dark Blue World”, which shows in graphic detail the horrors that awaited these loyal Czechs when they returned to their homeland.

After Dartmouth Conspiracy was first published in 1999 I began to receive letters from readers, some of them with first-hand experience of the main event. One of these letters came from a Czech fighter pilot now living in England who kindly sent me photographs of two of his compatriots who helped to repulse the raid on Dartmouth. Perhaps Squadron Leader Dolezal and Flight lieutenant Kimlicka were flying the two Spitfires that chased away that German aircraft, the one I saw flying at chimney-height on 18 September 1942.

For those who don’t know, what is Operation Jericho? What impact did it have?

The tide of World War Two took a dramatic turn when the USA joined the conflict in December 1941 an, even as a seven year-old, I can remember the uplifting flood of hope and optimism. By June 1944 the Allies were ready for the long-awaited invasion of northern France, which led to the liberation of Paris, the advance on Berlin and the death of Hitler. Sometimes, however, we forget the undercover resistance workers in Europe who risked torture and death in their quest for information valuable to the Allies.

A lot of controversy and some embellishment surround the dramatic story of Operation Jericho – but this is the supposed reason for it: when two Allied intelligence officers with knowledge of the D-Day invasion plans were captured and sent to Amiens prison, a low-level bombing attack to release all the inmates was urgently planned. Also inside the prison were members of the French Resistance who had been supplying the Allies with other vital information. Breach the walls of the prison and release the occupants before they could be forced to give-away their secrets – it was one of the most difficult tasks of the war. The facts are these: on 18 February 1944 eighteen RAF Mosquito aircraft took off from England in appalling weather; they flew down the main road to Amiens at a height of 50 feet, bombed the outer and inner walls of the prison and released over 200 prisoners who were seen making their escape across snow-covered fields. While returning to base the leader of the raid and his co-pilot were killed when their aircraft was shot down.

Where in your home do you like to write?

 I like to write at a desk I inherited from my father, given to him as a wedding present on 1 June 1929.

How did you discover indieBRAG?

IndieBRAG came at me out of the blue when they approached me unexpectedly after reading my second novel Fly The Storm.

Who designed your book cover?

Both my book covers were designed by David Sque, an artist with particular interest in the military, aircraft and ships.

How did you come up with the title for your book?

I like short titles that are unique; I search the Amazon catalogue to make sure of this. I think a title suggesting a hint of mystery is good.

I became seriously stuck with Dartmouth Conspiracy when I decided to change the original idea from a short magazine story of reconciliation into a full-length novel. Why would a German pilot want or need to return to the place he targeted during the war? The answer came to me while I was laid up in bed suffering from a bout of flu. EUREKA – the man’s English cousin was probably killed during the raid!

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a short autobiography about my time (one year) spent on a large farming estate in the Scottish Highlands. I am also assembling material for a novel based on the Portuguese Revolution of 1974.

Do you stick with just one genre?

My genres will always be “historical” but within my own lifetime (1930s onwards). I have so far written one autobiography (see above).

What do you enjoying doing when you are not writing?

My hobby revolves around my 45 year-old Triumph Stag sports car.   As a cancer sufferer I raised money for Cancer Research UK last year by driving it the entire length of Britain (from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back) with my son Henry a co-driver – some 2400 miles, taking a leisurely ten days to do so. Facebook

Author Link:

King & Queen visit Dartmouth Video

Facebook Page

 

A Message from indieBRAG:

We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview James Stevenson who is the author of, Dartmouth Conspiracy, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG . To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion TM, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Dartmouth Conspiracy, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money.

 

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