Today is commemorated by the United States submarine community as National Submarine Day, the anniversary of 11th April 1900 when the American Government purchased its first commissioned submarine, the USS Holland. To celebrate, author David Black tells us all about the writing of his popular submarine thrillers, including the latest in the series, Never Too Old for a Pierhead Jump…
I’ve just delivered Never Too Old for a Pierhead Jump to my Lume Books editor. It’s now out of my hands. No more tweaking, or re-writes, or squeezing in the scenes or storylines that should have been in the book, but I forgot, or didn’t think of them in time. The book sinks or swims as it is – apart from the obvious professional polish and general all-round lustre my editor will bring to it; all that is in her safe hands now.
Never Too Old for a Pierhead Jump is the sixth, and probably the final (never say never), of my Harry Gilmour stories set in the Royal Navy submarine service during the Second World War. Their genesis goes back a long time to when I was a schoolboy watching the submarines of the Royal Navy, and in those days the United States Navy, arriving and departing from their bases of the Firth of Clyde. Those days I am talking about were not so far removed from the end of that war, and stories of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the relentless, war-long Battle of the Atlantic convoys, the Dam-Busters and D-Day were part of my life growing up, like they’d just happened yesterday.
The submariners’ stories were particularly epic. We all knew about the U-boats, and there was a long running American television series called Silent Service, each week an episode introduced by Rear Admiral Thomas Dykers USN, himself a retired submariner, with the words, “Tonight, we bring you another thrilling episode of Silent Service … stories of warfare under the sea.”
It pretty well wrapped up the US Navy’s submarine campaign in the Pacific.
But the Royal Navy had a submarine service too, and quite a big one. And even a cursory glance at its roll of honour told you it had been far from inactive: of the twenty-two Victoria Crosses awarded to the Royal Navy during the war, nine were awarded to submariners.
But where were their stories? The skimmers – as the submariners refer to the surface fleet – had novels such as The Cruel Sea and HMS Ulysses. Or going back in history, the Hornblower books by CS Forester, or Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial Aubrey and Maturin novels. The Army had Sharpe, and even the Brylcreem Boys had Biggles.
Then came an opportunity in my life; the money coming in and the time to write a novel. I’d always hankered after writing one, and in the Royal Navy submarine service I had an undiscovered ocean to explore as my subject.
So I invented my hero and deliberately set him on a course in the autumn of 1939 that would steer him through the heart of the tumultuous events about to engulf the world. I thought that by using the war as a frame upon which to hang my tale, it would free my febrile imagination to embellish and create a set of epic adventures that would amaze, thrill and entertain.
To that end I immersed myself in the lore of the Trade – the name the service gives itself – only to discover that the reality of what those young men actually went through; their daring, fortitude, and sheer belligerent and bloody-minded inventiveness in the face of adversity was far more epic than anything I could ever have conjured forth.
Here indeed, was a story to tell. And so I began. And now my task is complete. Yes, I feel a great sense of satisfaction at telling those young men’s stories, but I also have a confession to make. In truth, these Harry Gilmour books are not so much mine, as theirs. Because every action, every deed of derring-do and reckless courage you will read in those books actually happened, on a Royal Navy submarine, somewhere, at some time during the Second World War.
As to whether they think I succeeded in telling their stories, I will leave to the judgement of the Royal Navy’s most senior submariner, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Boyce, KG GCB OBE, who wrote of my Harry Gilmour stories, “… tales that encompasses not only the thrill of action, but also compassion and understanding for the true heroes of our nation’s seafaring traditions – our fighting sailors, then as now.”
Generous words, but then they were all about the submariners’ stories, I just passed them on.
Never Too Old for a Pierhead Jump will publish on 29th May, and is available to pre-order now!