Douglas Reeman

Douglas Reeman
(Photo by Kimberley Reeman)

THE NAVAL FICTION of English novelist Douglas Reeman (left) dates back to 1958 with the launch of A Prayer for the Ship, the story of the Royal Navy’s Light Coastal Forces during the Second World War and the crew of Motor Torpedo Boat 1991. It is a remarkably human account of the war in the English Channel, often in insufferable conditions, and is told through the eyes of Sub-Lieutenant Clive Royce. Reeman’s authentic account of the war at sea drew the attention of the British publisher Hutchinson & Company, Ltd.

In an interview conducted in 2003, Reeman described his feelings upon learning that he was about to have his first novel published:

“Well, I was absolutely stunned, because it was three months before I heard anything from the publisher after I had sent up the manuscript. And when he asked to see me, I went to his office, and he was there with his chief editor. They talked about everything, everything you could think of, about me and my job, but not about the book at all. And then the publisher said, “Well, tell me Douglas, what are you writing now, at this moment?” So I said, “Well, nothing, this is the book, the work.” And he had a little chuckle, I suppose he’d heard it all before. And then he turned to me and said, ‘Well, look Douglas, I’ll tell you what we’ll do. We’ll give you a contract for this book’ — that was A Prayer for the Ship — ‘and two more’. “I walked out then. I remember it very well, because publishers used to be in Great Portland Street then, another dingy street in London, and there was a bus queue outside. I remember walking past. I spread my arms, in fact I probably did a little jump, and said, ‘I’m a writer!’”

It was the beginning of an extraordinary career that has seen thirty-six titles published under his own name, and another twenty-eight Richard and Adam Bolitho adventures, written as Alexander Kent, which are set during the American Revolution and the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Today there are more than 34 million copies of Reeman and Kent novels in print.

Reeman writes in a tidy brick home outside London, with its rose-garden and hedges, which he shares with his wife and literary partner, Kim. In a small study, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jammed with resource volumes on his right, Reeman works at his desk, pecking away on his ancient typewriter, creating naval fiction for generations of loyal readers throughout the world. This interview explores his life and writing.

As a boy growing up in a British army family, what drew you to ships and the sea? Were there specific influences which enhanced your interest in things naval?

My first experience of the sea came when I was seven. It was decided that we should visit my father, who was in Singapore with the army, so we left Southampton, not in a troop ship but a large liner, carrying a lot of army personnel, who were to be dropped off at various places. It was very exciting, because a military band was playing to see the ship off, and I was in the dining room. The engines started, or maybe it was a generator. Every-thing on the table started to vibrate and rattle and I thought it was wonderful, as this great ship suddenly started to move.

Singapore itself had an impact on me, very much army, and whenever I go back there places seem familiar to me, although so much has changed. When we got back I asked my grandfather, who was in charge of things, if he would take me to see the Victory, and that’s how it started. I used to read about the navy in my magazines as well. And I fell in love with Portsmouth, seeing all the ships, and I dragged everybody down for Navy Week (not Navy Day, as it is now), to see all the warships, and my particular favourites, Victory and Iron Duke, which was Jellicoe’s flagship at Jutland. She was a gunnery training ship and absolutely spot-on, polished from top to bottom.

My other great influence, of course, was my brother Jonathan, who was grown-up compared to me, being five years older. He belonged to a sailing club and sailed dinghies and was a naval reservist. He was called up for service before war broke out. He was even old enough to have a girlfriend.

At what age did you determine to attend the naval training school, HMS Ganges? What was the reaction of your family?

I had to have my parents’ permission because I was under-age, but there was no real opposition. It had always been thought that all three of us would go into the army, and I was an army cadet, only because my school had no naval cadet corps, and I even did an interview with my father and one of his friends wherein it was suggested that I go into the Royal Armoured Corps, but I stuck it out for the navy. My middle brother didn’t go into the army, either, he ended up in the RAF. Before the war I was talking about going into the Royal Indian Navy, because I was too old by then to go into the Royal Navy, who took people in at twelve. The Royal Indian Navy had vacancies for commissioned officers. But I only got as far as the leaflet.

Ganges had always been the senior boys’ training establishment for the Royal Navy; all sorts of people went there, but mainly it was for basic training for under-aged youths. The call-up age was eighteen. We were all sixteen or something like that. My training at Ganges was longer than anybody else’s I knew because I got mumps on leave, and I had to start a new class when I recovered. All my mates had already gone up.

What was life like at Ganges as a 16-year-old on his own for the first time?

It was wonderful, very exciting, all go from the moment you got up. Basic training, field training, gunnery, and most of all seamanship: boat work, cutters and whalers, learning basic navigation, the ‘rules of the road’, and learning how to hoist and lower boats as if from on board ship, but it was all really done from a long pier with davits. And of course Ganges overlooked Harwich harbour, which by this time was a principal harbour facing the enemy, and every day we saw the real navy: MTBs, destroyers, minesweepers, and we used to see them coming back knocked about, sometimes with little figures laid out covered on the deck. It was a big experience for a sixteen year old.

Did the experience at HMS Ganges meet your expectations? How long were you at Ganges before you were shifted into the Royal Navy? Did Ganges adequately prepare you for your introduction into the Sea Service? In what ways?

Didn’t know what to expect. One of my instructors, a petty officer said, “Boy, when you leave here you’ll remember it as a bloody good place to have been, but now, it’s a bloody awful place to be in.” Except he didn’t say ‘bloody’, and I didn’t think so anyway. Certainly everything I learned there is reflected in my work: signals, semaphore, anchors, cables, and discipline and tradition were all part of it. And it was the only time I ever saw anybody actually heaving the lead, which weighed fourteen pounds. I did it myself. Ganges itself was the Royal Navy, so I was already in when I was there. I was there about six months. After leaving I was sent to Royal Naval Barracks Chatham, hell on earth. And then, after that, I went to sea in a V & W destroyer, on escort duty. I was prepared up to a point, but nothing prepares you for the reality of war at sea, the experience of seeing your first dead man, in my case an airman floating in the water.

What was your initial assignment when you entered the Royal Navy? What were your progressive deployments?

I was assistant navigator’s yeoman. When I asked what the most important job was in this position, I was told, “Keep the navigator’s pencils sharpened.” I was CW at that time, so I was a candidate for wardroom, but not yet commissioned. After I got made up I went back into destroyers. I wanted to go into submarines, but it was suggested that MTBs would be more suitable, because they were short of people. I think what they really wanted were RNVR types, not regulars. When I went to my first MTB I was a subbie, and it was back to Harwich again, as one of ‘the glory boys’ myself! I spent most of my time there until we went to the Mediterranean in ’43, in the run-up to the invasion of Sicily, following the Eighth Army along the coast of North Africa as they drove the Germans out, then a little while in Malta, then Sicily. And finally Italy, then back to England to start preparing for the second front. I spent a little time up in the Arctic after the boat was blown up at D-Day, not the best place to get over it; it would make a good story one day.

Where were you on VE Day? What are your recollections of your feelings when the war’s end was announced?

I was in Germany, the Kiel approaches, on VE Day. We were shocked, more than anything, coming face to face with the enemy in such large numbers, with nobody in charge of them or looking after them, just wanting somebody to surrender to. We knew it was over before they made the announcement, because we’d just come from Denmark, where the Germans had surrendered. We managed to fuel up our boats there, then down we went to Kiel. The real part of the shock was seeing all those ships in the harbour, mostly sunk by the RAF. The Germans called it the Hindenburg Graveyard, just lying there, sunk, sinking, wrecked. I was in Kiel for at least six months after VE Day, helping clean up the mess, working with the German navy, or what was left of it.

How soon after VE Day were you discharged? Was it difficult to make the transition back to civilian life after five years in the navy and HMS Ganges?

My transition to civilian life was done for me, really, because a chap came out to Germany from the Home Office trying to get people interested in joining the Metropolitan Police. There had been no recruiting throughout the war, and it was on an ‘if we like you and you like us’ basis. I went relatively quickly from the navy into the police force.

Is it fair to say that your experiences in the navy assisted in shaping the man that you were to become? In what ways?

I never lost sight of the navy throughout my career, and I did nine years in the reserve after I came out. It shaped me, of course, but I would have to say the police were a tremendous help to me, and that influenced me as well, coming face to face with real life in the East End of London immediately after the war, when the wrongdoers, not the big-time hoods but the bookmakers, the ration book forgers, the black marketeers, were ex-servicemen like so many of us.

What did you do between the end of the Second World War and the publication of your first novel, A Prayer for the Ship?

I went back into the navy for the Korean War, and when I came out I decided not to return to the police, so I became a children’s welfare officer with the old London County Council.

What motivated you to write your first novel? What had you written up to that point in your life?

I bought my boat at a time when I was delivering boats to make more money — there were hundreds of boats on the market immediately after the war, which were either prewar boats which had been commandeered by the navy, as mine, Guardian, had been, or new boats built for the navy, and anybody who wanted one could buy one. And many of them had no qualifications whatever, so they needed people like me to deliver them. So three of us delivered boats all over England, mostly from dockyards. I was working in what would be the saloon of Guardian in Kingston Bridge Boatyard in Surrey, and listening to a man reading a book on the radio. I was only half-listening, I expect, but I wasn’t impressed, and I said to the foreman who was keeping an eye on me, ‘I could do better than that!’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you?’ I said, ‘I haven’t got a typewriter,’ so he bought me one, for which he paid £4. I paid him back, of course. The first were two short stories, both of which I managed to sell, and then I wrote A Prayer for the Ship, typing most of it on the blank backs of LCC nit notices in my LCC car in Richmond Park in the winter, watched through the windows by the deer. I had written a few pieces for The Kiel Gazette, the Royal Navy’s newspaper, but nothing before that.

Did you read maritime fiction and history as a lad growing up in pre-war England? Was there a particular author or book that caught your interest?

There was no maritime fiction as such when I was growing up, except my favourite, Treasure Island. I was more interested in becoming an actor when I was at school. I loved Shakespeare, even took a complete set of the plays to sea with me, which were lost when the boat went down. I remember writing to Penguin and telling them, and they sent me an entire new set, bless them.

Has your wartime experience been the most influential element in your Douglas Reeman novels?

Yes, without a doubt. I couldn’t have done them without it.

You wrote primarily about the twentieth century during the ten years following publication of A Prayer for the Ship. At what point did you begin to think about writing about the Royal Navy of Nelson’s time and the fellow who would become Richard Bolitho?

I thought about it for a long time, but I actually decided to do it when I met my first American publisher, Walter Minton, who said, more or less, that as I was so keen on the period, I should write about it. Then he said, ‘What are we going to call this guy?’ and I said without hesitation, ‘Richard Bolitho.’

Why did you select a Cornishman as your hero? Was the idea of Richard Bolitho from Falmouth planned from the outset?

I knew he would be a Cornishman. I’ve always loved Cornwall and felt close to it, used to go there when I was a child, liked the mystique of the place, the beauty, the language, and so many great seamen came from Cornwall. It was inevitable.

Did you know Cornwall well at the time, or was new research necessary? How did you determine his family history and that he would live in the ‘big grey house’, which became a continuing ‘character’ in the stories ?

I knew Cornwall well and I lived there for a while, in Portloe. And it seemed Falmouth was the place, situated on the River Fal. I fell in love with it. Most of the names of Richard Bolitho’s first ship’s company come from gravestones between Falmouth and Fowey and St. Mawes. The big grey house is not in Falmouth, of course, as a lot of people have discovered who’ve gone looking for it. It’s inland, in a small village. I saw it when I was planning the first book and I knew that was it, so I moved the house in my mind to Falmouth.

How do you name your characters in the Reeman and Kent novels?

Bolitho became Bolitho because many years earlier I had sailed Guardian into Gorey harbour, in Jersey, and as it’s a harbour where the rise and fall of the tide is very marked, I was looking for a berth, and ended up astern of a lovely yacht called Onward. Her owner came out to take my lines and introduced himself with the immortal words, ‘My name’s Bolitho, Captain Richard Bolitho.’ It turned out he was an army captain and his brother was the then Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and he did live to know that I had named my hero after him, and he was very pleased about it, I think. As for Bolitho himself, he simply walked into my mind and my life. I would know him anywhere.

Other names come from the navy lists of the period. Some characters arrive in my mind with their names attached. Allday arrived as just Allday. It was some time before I knew his first name was John. And Fallowfield, where Allday’s pub is, got its name from my captain at Ganges, William Fallowfield. Stockdale was based on a man I knew when I was on night duty, walking the beat. There was a night watchman in a block of offices along Mare Street in the East End, and while I wouldn’t say it was a scary place at night, it was utterly deserted, with a lot of bomb damage. I used to pass this place and this chap had been a boxer, and he was still a sort of sparring partner at the Lansdowne Club in the East End, and he always used to have a cup of tea waiting for me when I was going by. And he spoke in a strained, broken voice; his vocal cords had been smashed to pulp by all the punches. So all those years later Stockdale arrived as a ready-made character.

Is Richard Bolitho based on a specific person or persons from history? Are there any aspects of you or other individuals you know within him?

No, he isn’t really based on any one from history. He found me. I don’t feel I constructed him. It was decided that he was going to be a Cornishman before I met Captain Richard Bolitho in Jersey. The rest simply happened. As for qualities of me within him, I can’t say that. Maybe. My wife says so.

How long was your planning process before rolling the first sheet of paper into your typewriter to begin To Glory We Steer? Was a series planned from the beginning?

Yes, I knew I wanted several books about it, and I deliberately chose his age so that he would be at a certain point in his career and be experienced, a captain in the first book, but I didn’t know it was going to take off at all. It was always one of Forester’s regrets that he made Hornblower too old, and this shows up as jealousy in Hornblower of Bush and other officers who were at Trafalgar. I was determined not to fall into that trap. I wanted his career to be able to span the significant events of the time so that he wasn’t too old or too young to be involved.

Do you work out your plots in advance, before beginning each novel?

I work out against what historical background the story will be played, which is much more straightforward for research purposes. The finer points of the stories, the plot twists, are spontaneous and as much of a surprise to me as anyone. Otherwise it would smack of manipulation, and be so boring to write.

Do your characters ever take on a life of their own and influence the direction of your stories?

It does make it rather difficult, but it’s happened enough to be irritating, when you want people to do something or be something and they won’t co-operate. In the end I have to go along with it, unless I do what Monsarrat did with Bennett in The Cruel Sea and just elbow him out of the story. This also happened with Wouk and the awful Queeg in The Caine Mutiny; he just took over. I had to rewrite the end of Rendezvous — South Atlantic because of a character who refused to behave.

How important is historical credibility in creating engaging fiction for readers?

For me, credibility, accuracy, truth, is everything, whether it’s historical, technical or any other kind. Maybe because I’ve been there and done it. I could not write something that could not have happened, either technically or historically. I just couldn’t. If I can’t believe it, nobody else will.

When you are working on a novel, either set during the Second World War or during Napoleonic times, do you find yourself falling into the past?

Where Kent is concerned, I don’t say, ‘What were they doing then?’ I say, ‘What are they doing now?’ and I try to see it the way they see it. I’m there, I see it like a film. I try to evoke the realities of what I know as well, of war, and how it was for young men and women in my own time.

What was the genesis of the sense of ‘honour, duty and King and Country’ in your novels, particularly the Bolitho saga?

It’s something people were raised on, even when I was in the navy. I know some people didn’t take much notice, but that’s how it was. I don’t think it’s a particularly English or even British trait — I think these are universal concepts, and maybe that accounts for the very broad appeal of the books and the very varied readership.

Do you write specifically for your readers or do you write the sort of novel you would like to read?

I write what I like to read, and I just hope other people like it, too. I have no way of knowing what people like to read until they write to me and thank me (or otherwise). To write something you yourself didn’t enjoy writing or reading . . . I don’t know how you could go on. I couldn’t, certainly not for more than fifty books.

Would you describe where you write?

I write in my study, which gets the afternoon light, and is painted green. It’s almost the smallest room in the house, and everything is within reach. I have a large Chinese desk, on which sits a typewriter, not a word processor, not a computer, and my photos of my girl, to whom I owe everything. There are ships’ crests on the walls, a photo of HMS Kent, which adopted me a few years ago, a painting by my grandfather of his regimental crest, and a Huband painting of MTBs from A Prayer for the Ship. On a bookcase there is a beautiful pine carving of lucky carp from Hong Kong and a bronze Royal Marine, and in the floor to ceiling bookshelves, my reference library, which is vital to me, built up over many years. Absolutely essential. There are also reference books in the dining room.

Why do you think the Bolitho novels have gained such a strong resonance and carried on from generation to generation of readers since To Glory We Steer was launched in 1968?

The family, the generational span, I think; the technology of the various campaigns is probably secondary. Nelson said, ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy,’ and he was right. Maybe the values expressed in the books as well, which are universal.

You have enjoyed a hearty and warm relationship with your readers over the years. How important has this been to you?

I think about them a lot, and it’s only when you actually meet them, which is very rare, except at signing sessions, and through letters and e-mail, that you realize how very different they all are. Men, women, grandparents passing on the books to their grandsons and granddaughters, teachers who tell me their students never read or liked history until they came across a Bolitho novel, Germans who want to know more about Hitler, the Japanese, whose fascination with all things British is endless. In fact, my second biggest readership is German, and my third, Japanese. Without their interest and their loyalty, the books would not have continued to be written.

Finally, it is said every great man has a greater woman at his side. What important role(s) has your wife and literary partner, Kim, played in your work?

What role does Kim play in my work? The same role she plays in my life. She is everything to me. She edits, writes the blurbs, takes the author’s photos, does the newsletter with me, shares the research and the ship-visiting and the PR and the signing sessions, handles the computer side of things and the e-mail. She is my right hand and partner in everything I do, as well as being a hugely talented novelist herself, as you know. As I said in the dedication to her in my latest book, written at a very difficult time, I couldn’t have done it without her.