In ‘Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel’ you feel like you are deep in the Battle of Britain with its adventure, heroes and real life action, so much so actual veterans of the battle praised its realism. In this epic read, Helena P. Schrader has crafted a book that weaves together authenticity, and a story that includes everything from action and romance to real world drama, making it one of the best historical fiction books of this year, and no doubt for years to come.
‘Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel’ begins in the summer of 1940 and the Battle of Britain is gearing up, and the pressure is on. Why? If the swastika is not to fly over Buckingham Palace, the RAF must prevent the Luftwaffe from gaining air superiority over Great Britain. Standing on the front line is No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron. As the casualties mount, new pilots find a cold reception from the clique of experienced pilots, who resent them taking the place of their dead friends.
Meanwhile, despite credible service in France, former RAF aerobatics pilot Robin Priestman finds himself stuck in Training Command — and falling for a girl from the Salvation Army. On the other side of the Channel, the Luftwaffe is recruiting women as communications specialists — and naïve Klaudia is about to grow up.
‘Where Eagles Never Flew: A Battle of Britain Novel’ has been hot with readers, and we were dying to ask Helena about this fascinating book. Recently we did just that, and it was an amazing and enlightening experience.
A lot of novels have been written about the Battle of Britain. What makes ‘Where Eagles Never Flew’ different and better?
The vast majority of novels about the Battle of Britain focus on a single pilot and his girl — or at most a single squadron. That has the advantage of intimacy and allows an author to build strong emotional ties to the protagonists. The price is that it severely restricts perspective. It is like trying to see a panorama through a keyhole. ‘Where Eagles Never Flew’ is exceptional in that it widens the perspective by consciously opting for a large cast of characters and interweaving a range of plotlines into the book. Thus, the book isn’t just about RAF pilots on the front line, but also ground crews, controllers, the training establishment, British civilians, and Germans.
The latter are not just “the enemy;” they are fully developed protagonists. ‘Where Eagles Never Flew’ follows the fate of a young German woman who joins the equivalent of the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) and finds herself stationed on a Luftwaffe base in France – and way out of her depth. It also introduces a novice German fighter pilot and his more experienced and less politically orthodox protégé.
The book depicts engagements in which the British and German characters interact (without, of course, knowing each other), showing their different perceptions of the same clash. One of my favorite chapters describes the German raid on Portsmouth on 12 August 1940, by opening with the German briefing to aircrews, switching to the RAF squadrons on readiness, and then describing what it looked like on the ground in Portsmouth through the eyes of a female character working in an office in downtown Portsmouth.
In addition, parallel storylines highlight the degree to which problems on both sides of the channel were similar — intelligence failures, the difficulties of flying in bad weather with very primitive radio equipment, the attrition, and exhaustion, etc. The parallel storylines also underline differences such as the popular and political support enjoyed by the RAF compared to the bitter recriminations suffered by Luftwaffe fighter squadrons.
The other storylines, whether it is the controller (who provides a strategic perspective) or the ground crews (that underline just how vital these men were to success) contribute to a more comprehensive and nuanced depiction of the Battle of Britain than the bulk of novels that can be reduced to young-pilot-falls-in-love-and dies/lives-during-the-Battle-of-Britain.
Your book was praised for its authenticity by veterans of the Battle of Britain when it first appeared in 2007. What do you think made men who had lived through the conflict feel that you had got it “smack on the way it was for us” as Wing Commander Doe notably said?
I’ve given that a lot of thought and even went back to re-read several of the memoirs written by these men.
One thing that jumped out at me was that many of the post-war novels, particularly those published in the U.S., turn the RAF pilots into superheroes. For example, in these books, pilots fresh on a squadron often shoot down five or six Germans in their first engagement. That’s simply not the way it was, and the veterans of the Battle know it. Most young pilots were more likely to be shot down themselves before they could record even their first victory. Even highly experienced and exceptionally good pilots rarely shot down more than a single aircraft in any one engagement. ‘Where Eagles Never Flew’ avoids those kind of cartoon stereotypes and shows the pilots learning their trade, making mistakes, and having accidents. It also shows that some RAF pilots were insecure and frightened, that some commanders were poor leaders, and that some men could not live up to the demands made on them.
Another thing that struck me is that many modern books on the topic want to dramatize and agonize over the horrors of war and the huge stress the pilots were under. Englishmen in the 1940s, on the other hand, were products of a decidedly understated and unemotional society. People didn’t appreciate or accept passionate displays of emotion. Indeed, any kind of public display of emotion much less trauma was considered “bad form.” It just wasn’t done. I suspect that while some of my younger readers view my characters as cardboard and cold-blooded because they don’t talk on and on about their feelings, the veterans identify with and recognize emotional restraint as authentic.
An example of this is when a pilot with insufficient training, who the squadron leader has been trying to protect, is killed. The squadron leader reports the incident with “Ainsworth bought it today. At least that’s one less thing to worry about.” That doesn’t mean that this or other characters in the book are callous or heartless. Their behavior simply reflects what eye-witnesses report. Namely, that the participants could not allow themselves to feel their own emotions without endangering their ability to operate effectively. Many veterans report that the grief and shock came much later.
While this is a war novel, it also describes the love interests of leading characters yet sexual norms and behavior were very different in the 1940s than today. Did you strive for and achieve authenticity in this context too?
Good question. I’m not sure I did.
When I was doing research for my dissertation on the German Resistance to Hitler, I interviewed more women than men because most of the men had been killed — either in the war or executed for treason. The women, perhaps because they were speaking to a young woman, stressed over and over again that they had been raised very differently than “modern women” (and this was the 1980s!). They reminded me more than once that they had not had “the pill.” The memoirs of WAAF likewise reflect these very real inhibitions. In the 1940s, women did not jump into bed at the drop of a hat, certainly not with casual acquaintances, and despite notable increases in the number of unwed mothers in both wartime Britain and wartime Germany, sex before and outside of marriage remained the exception, not the norm.
But modern readers seem to want and expect sex to feature in every romantic relationship, regardless of what the cultural norms were in the era depicted. I think I’ve probably bowed too much to market demands at the expense of historical accuracy. That said, compared to some novels I’ve read set in this period, I’m a paragon of historical virtue, so readers should not expect sex on every page or even in every chapter.
This is a book about real-life heroes. Did you find that made the book easier or harder to write?
The word “heroes” is greatly overused these days. I have the feeling that the term has been gutted of meaning as a result. It is critical to remember that the young men who flew in the Battle of Britain were literally “just doing their job” (and earning 14 shillings a day for it). They did not think of themselves as particularly heroic, and many remember and admit to having been terrified, to making stupid mistakes, to being irresponsible, and taking stupid chances, as well as having many lucky escapes.
That is exactly what makes them so appealing to me as an author. I don’t write cartoon books and I don’t want superheroes for characters. What I like is exploring and analyzing the thoughts, actions, and emotions of ordinary humans.
That’s exactly what these young men — on both sides of the channel — were. They were ordinary, immature, and often irresponsible young men, who happened to have a skill that was suddenly terribly important to the survival of Western civilization (as Winston Churchill put it). There is a scene in the novel where (based on a real incident) some celebrities drop in on a squadron party in a pub, reflecting the sudden “star status” of “the Few.” One of the female characters remarks to one of the celebrities that although young pilots were no different the month or year before, no one had paid them any attention back then. The celebrity answers, “ah, but my dear, they weren’t the same last month or last year. Then they were just a bunch of spoilt youngsters letting the tax-payer foot the bill for their fun in the sky.”
There are many autobiographies and biographies of Battle of Britain pilots. Did you base your characters on real people?
Not one-to-one, but naturally I learned from autobiographies about the kind of things that happened — the difficulties with the aircraft, the conditions at messes and dispersals, the interplay between comrades, the drinking bouts, the close-calls — and how they felt about the whole thing. Here and there, I lifted entire incidents out of the anecdotal accounts. For example, Dr. McIndoe really did try to keep Al Deere in his hospital when he wasn’t seriously wounded just to give him a rest. One pilot really did just blurt out “oh, he’s dead” to the girlfriend of a fellow pilot when she called the mess and asked to speak to the dead man. Yet none of the characters in the novel is a replica or even modeled on a real person.
That said, very occasionally, I have characters who I believe are real (albeit ethereal) because I can neither control nor direct them. They tell me what they did, said, and felt. I’ve learned that if I try to make them do something they do not want, the entire book slams into a wall or breaks apart into a thousand worthless pieces. So, I work with them not against them, and when I do that, they are invariably a delight to work with producing particularly powerful prose.
One such character was Robin Priestman, the main protagonist in ‘Where Eagles Never Flew’. Although he is not a known historical figure, whose memoirs one can read, I do not for a moment believe he is just a figment of my imagination either. He did and said far too many things that surprised me for me to have created him. I personally believe he was an RAF squadron leader, although he went by his real name, but one who did not write his story during his lifetime — which is why he decided to use me as his voice.
Curiously, I encountered another such spirit when I tried to move on to my next planned project, a novel about the Berlin Airlift. I’d already written nearly a hundred pages when someone made me stop everything, delay publication plans, switch gears, and focus on his story causing me to write two completely unforeseen books: “Lack of Moral Fibre,” which is one of three novellas in my recently released “Grounded Eagles” Trilogy, and “Lancaster Pilot,” a full-length novel that should be ready for publication next year.
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