Flt Lt John Nichol was born in 1963 in North Shields, Tyne & Wear. He joined the RAF in 1981 and trained as an electronics technician, subsequently serving in the South Atlantic in the wake of the Falklands War and in many other parts of the world, including Norway, Denmark, Kenya and Ascension Island. He was commissioned from the ranks as a navigator in December 1986. He and his pilot John Peters were deployed to Bahrain in December 1990 as part of Operation Desert Storm and were taken captive after their aircraft was hit and forced to eject over the Iraqi desert.
The bestselling story of their ordeal is told in Tornado Down. John left the airforce in March 1996 to write full-time and he is now a broadcaster and novelist. His first novel, Point of Impact, was published in 1996. He is also (alongside John Rennell) co-author of Home Run: Escape from Nazi Europe.
John Nichol & Tony Rennell talk about their latest joint project Home Run: Escape from Nazi Europe
You have co-authored a number of books now, including Tail-End Charlies and The Last Escape. How do you make this partnership work so successfully?
JN: I’ve known Tony for many years; he used to commission work from me when he was Associate Editor at the Mail On Sunday. We started writing together on our first book, The Last Escape, in 2000 and have worked as a team since then. The partnership is successful because we both have exacting standards and have total trust in each other. We sometimes argue and bicker over a subject; but it always results in a great book. I suppose we are like an old married couple really!
What inspired you to write about the experiences of evaders in the Second World War?
JN: Having been a prisoner-of-war myself during the first Gulf War, I already had an interest in the topic of evasion! Tony and I met a couple of evaders at an event and were amazed at the stories they told; they had stared death in the face and been through incredible dangers yet few people had heard of their experiences. It seemed a natural step to tell their stories.
How did you go about finding the people you interviewed for Home Run?
TR: Our first port of call was to try to find veterans’ associations connected with the subject. We found an old association called “The RAF Escaping Society” and they put us in touch with hundreds of evaders and their ‘helpers’ (civilians who had hidden or guided them on their journey to safety). There were also many accounts stored in the Imperial War Museum and the RAF Museum, which are always good places to visit. Another group, “The Escape Lines Memorial Society” allowed us to attend their annual reunion where we made many other contacts.
What is the most extraordinary thing you learned while researching this book?
JN: I think the bravery of the helpers really stood out - some of these civilians were merely children when they began hiding the evaders. Tony and I interviewed one famous helper, ‘Nadine’, who was a seventeen-year-old teenager when she started. The amazing thing was that her parents wouldn’t allow her to go out with boys or stay out late, but she was allowed to work with the Resistance and guide evaders across Europe!
TR: The research dramatically changed my view of the French and their part in the Second World War. Yes, they surrendered to the Germans in 1940 under pretty despicable circumstances, but there was a whole unacknowledged raft of people ashamed by their country’s capitulation, who made amends – at the risk of their lives – by actively helping evaders to escape. The same went for Belgium and Holland. I hope our book helps to put the record straight.
If you were able to interview any three people from history, who would they be and why?
JN: I’d like to interview Churchill to ask him about the loneliness of leadership in warfare. Perhaps some of the Generals in command during the intense phase of trench warfare during World War One – it would be interesting to hear their take on a subject that so many historians now criticise them for. Finally, Nelson Mandela – I know he’s not dead but he is an incredible figure from history. I visited Robben Island to see where he’d been imprisoned and was really moved by the experience. I was held in solitary confinement for seven weeks during the first Gulf War, yet he spent twenty-seven years of his life in prison.
TR: US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, to ask him if he really knew what the hell he was doing at Yalta in February 1945 when he gave away half of Europe to Stalin.
Richard III, to find out the truth about him.
Shakespeare, just to be in the presence of unsurpassed genius – and to tell him what Richard III had said!
What books would you recommend as your top military history titles?
JN: I readily identify with the musings of people who served in the military, especially those who like me, have given death a good 'stare in the face'. Here’s my top six.
The first book on my shelf would be The Railway Man by Eric Lomax. Eric was a prisoner of the Japanese in World War Two and his first hand account of the brutality and insanity of the forced labour camps is breathtaking. Having spent a mere seven weeks as a POW in Iraq, I cannot begin to imagine how Eric survived his ordeal and he spares the reader none of the unspeakable torture and hardship he endured.
My next choice would be the little known book about life in Bomber Command called The Eighth Passenger. Miles Tripp was a bomb-aimer in a seven-man crew flying Lancaster bombers during the later part of the war. The title refers to the eighth member of the crew, which was fear, and Tripp’s account details the harsh reality of life in the air. Put simply, if you were selected to fly in Bomber Command, you had a greater than evens chance of dying. Tripp manages to avoid the normal clichés of life at the time and delivers a stark account of what it was really like to go out each night and face the flak and fighters knowing that the chances were that you wouldn't make it home.
No military library would be complete without Falklands war veteran, Simon Weston's Walking Tall. Simon was a young guardsman onboard the Sir Galahad when it was attacked by Argentinean aircraft. He describes the moment his world exploded as a ‘personal Hiroshima’. And if you read his description of watching the flesh melt and slip off his hands, you can begin to see what he means.
After the Falklands conflict it would be time to move on to one of the best – and most famous - books to emerge from my own war during Desert Storm, in 1991. Andy McNab's Bravo Two Zero is reported as being the biggest selling military book of all time. It’s a magnificent account of his experiences as a POW at the hands of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime.
The next book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, comes from the next conflict I was personally involved in – Bosnia, in 1993. As a journalist, Anthony Loyd might not strictly qualify for military memoirs but his brilliant first hand account of the brutality, murders and chaos of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia easily warrants a place on my shelf.
My final choice comes from a man who experienced the very worst that the aftermath of war offers. Chris Moon was a mine-clearance expert who was working for a charity in Mozambique. In a tragic accident he stepped on a mine, losing a leg and part of an arm as a result. One Step Beyond is a self-depreciating yet brutally honest account of his journey from the Army to a hospital bed in Africa, and the prospect of facing a life of disability.
The point about all of my choices is rather simple. They are all written by people who have experienced conflict at first hand and they should be required reading for anyone who believes war is easy, glamorous or impersonal. It's not.
TR: I read history at university and loved it but it was very academic and ideas-based. It was a surprise and a joy later on in life to come across Barbara Tuchman and books such as her The Guns of August about the First World War and realise that history is really about people, and the telling of it can (and should) have huge narrative drive behind it. This has now become the dominant style in history-telling and nowhere is it combined better with scholarship and revelation than in Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, setting the standard that the rest of us can only hope to reach.
For insights into the strange nature of leadership in war, I would recommend Alistair Horne’s Monty: The Lonely Leader, 1944-1945 which, though written in co-operation with Montgomery’s son, gets to the essence of the man in a way that other biographical tomes do not. Carlo d’Este’s A Genius for War does the same job for the flawed but brilliant and brave General George Patton. Closer to home, Bomber Harris: His Life and Times by Henry Probert, makes sense of the much-misunderstood commander of Bomber Command. This biography shows too, as do the other two mentioned, that real men of war are not much suited to peacetime.
But, like John, it is the stories of the individuals at the sharp end – in the front line or the cockpit or at the helm – that I find most compelling. Many thousands of accounts were written by ex-servicemen after the last war, some published, most not. The vast majority disappeared without trace. They are a treasure trove of experience, drawing the reader to the heart of what it means to go to war, to face an enemy, to be afraid, to try not to think about dying. Among the gems that surfaced for our latest book were the Earl of Cardigan’s I Walked Alone (about getting home after Dunkirk), Sir John Hackett’s I Was a Stranger (caught behind the lines after Arnhem) and Hugh Dormer’s Diaries (the story of an SOE agent in France). If you can find any one of them on a dusty shelf somewhere, grab it, read and enjoy.
What are you working on/researching at the moment?
JN: Tony and I are working on our fourth book together, which will be published in 2009 - it’s still in the early stages and as we wouldn’t want anyone to pinch the idea it’s also under wraps! Suffice to say it’s another amazing, and untold, story of bravery and heroism from WW2.