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My first book was Ark Royal, published in 2006. Before that, I made documentaries for television. I spent time in Beirut as a researcher during the Lebanese civil war. I remember sleeping in the bath in my room at the Commodore Hotel on some nights when the shelling was particularly fierce. What I saw in that city destroyed any illusions that war was glamorous.
I then started directing and producing my own films, for ITV, Channel 4, PBS in the States and then for the BBC. I filmed, amongst many other things, Russian scientists, who had worked on the first Soviet Atomic bomb, Kurds from Iraq who had seen their families gassed by Saddam Hussein, Red Adair as he fought the oil fires in Kuwait, and US airmen who had flown on the very first spy flights in the cold war. I learned a lot, in particular that the news media and history books, conventional wisdom if you like often have only a passing relationship with the truth. It took a long while for me to find the wreck of the Ark Royal and film it, the subject of my first book, and I produced over five programmes on the back of it. Curiously, even after such a long time, evidence from eyewitnesses on board the carrier proved to be more accurate about the resting place of the ship than the conclusions of the court of inquiry held six weeks after she sank.
I found writing a strange experience, it is hard work, but at the same time enjoyable. After Ark Royal, I wanted to write another book and did so, Sink the Belgrano being the result. Its origins can be read in the Authors Note at the beginning.
And so I continued. Target Basra seemed a logical extension from the work that I had done making a documentary about chemical warfare, interviewing Kurdish refugees, and spending time in Kuwait after the first Gulf war. I had also shot a documentary on board a US aircraft carrier in the Gulf during operation Southern Watch.
Making the series of documentaries about the Ark Royal and the history of the Royal Navy I had spoken to a large number of veterans. I found their stories, and the casual way they talked about their experiences of being bombed, or spending weeks in a life boat while the rear gunner of their Swordfish aircraft slowly went mad both horrific and compelling.
The life that ordinary people lived in wartime is now almost beyond imagining for us, and I wanted to tell as many of their stories as I could. So I Sank the Bismarck, Bomber Flight Berlin, We Fought At Arnhem and I Fought At Dunkirk have appeared. They are all based on stories told by people who actually took part in the events that are also described in the books. There is of course a lot of background, and there has to be so that the reader can better understand what is happening.
Essentially though, they are human narratives, told from the perspective of the man on the ground, in the fuselage of a Lancaster, or the cockpit of a Swordfish biplane, in a trench or pulling the lanyard of a 25-pounder gun.
I dislike the fact that these books are often promoted as military history. I think of them as adventure stories, personal accounts of what the men I have interviewed lived through in five years in the middle of the 20th century. Paradoxically they are unique and at the same time similar to the stories of millions of others. If you read them, I hope you enjoy them, and learn something from them. I learnt a lot by writing the books but I learnt the most by talking to the men they portray.
You may be able to locate some of the documentaries that I made. Search for the following: Hellfighters of Kuwait about the oil fires in Kuwait, which contains, as well as some dramatic footage, rare interviews with Red Adair and Joe Biden of Wild Well Control. For some amazing air-to-air footage of F14’s at Top Gun, and on the USS Independence (CV62) try to find Carrier produced for WGBH. Then there is the unforgettable B29- Frozen In Time, shot in Northern Greenland and Thule Air Base with Darryl Greenameyer. Blueprints of Genocide, about the architects of Auschwitz may also be available, and A British Legend, The Search for Donald Campbell might be obtainable from the BBC.
A full list of productions is The Other Bomb, Fog Of War, Hellfighters of Kuwait, Carrier, Blueprints of Genocide, aka in US as Nazi Designers of Death, B29 Frozen In Time aka for C4 Treasure of the Humboldt Glacier, Blow Up, Ice Cold In Japan, The Lost Fleet, Domeless In Seattle, The Search For Donald Campbell, and the War at sea series and The Search For the Ark Royal.