BookPick: Summer Selection 2022

With the warmer months underway in the Northern Hemisphere one of the great pleasures for me at this time of year is relaxing outdoors with a good book – and perhaps a chilled beverage. I have to say that much of my reading time is taken up with specific research for the current Kydd manuscript I’m working on but during breaks from that I enjoy an eclectic variety of titles over a broad range of historical periods and topics. This BookPick is a selection of five titles I’ve enjoyed recently including two naval biographies, a fascinating study of the connections between people and birds, a primer on natural navigation and the slave trade in Africa.

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Royal Navy Versus the Slave Traders by Bernard Edwards

may22 slaveryThis book was of particular interest to me because it touches on a topic that I will cover in a future Kydd title. On 16 March 1807, the British Parliament passed The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. In the following year the Royal Navy’s African Squadron was formed, its mission to stop and search ships at sea suspected of carrying slaves from Africa to the Americas and the Middle East. The Royal Navy went further, and took the fight to the enemy, sailing boldly up uncharted rivers and creeks to attack the barracoons where the slaves were assembled ready for shipment. For much of its long campaign against the evil of slavery Britain’s Navy fought alone and unrecognised. Ranged against it were the African chiefs, who sold their own people into slavery, the Arabs, who rode shotgun on the slave caravans to the coast, and the slave ships of the rest of the world, heavily armed, and prepared to do battle to protect their right to traffic in the forbidden black ivory. The war was long and bitter and the cost to the Royal Navy in ships and men grievously heavy.

When There Were Birds by Roy and Lesley Adkins

may22birdsI have always made time to read books by husband-and-wife writing team Roy and Lesley Adkins. In the past they have written various tomes on maritime topics, history and archaeology. This latest book is somewhat of a departure, but fascinating nevertheless. ‘When There Were Birds’ is a social history of Britain that charts the complex connections between people and birds, set against a background of changes in the landscape and evolving tastes, beliefs and behaviour. Birds were once key elements of the nation’s history, traditions and sports, and this gave rise to a rich legacy of literature, language and myths. I particularly enjoyed the various references to birds at sea.

How to Read Water by Tristan Gooley

may22 readGooley is a writer, navigator and explorer. Through his journeys, teaching and writing, he has pioneered a renaissance in the rare art of natural navigation. This book includes over 700 clues, signs and patterns. From wild swimming in Sussex to wayfinding in Oman, via the icy mysteries of the Arctic, Gooley draws on his own pioneering journeys to reveal the secrets of ponds, puddles, rivers, oceans and more to share skills to read the water around us. I guarantee you will never see water in exactly the same way again after reading this little volume! I commend any other books by this talented author, especially ‘The Secret World of Weather’ which I found most insightful.

More Lives than a Ship’s Cat by Jeremy Stoke

may22more livesMick Stoke’s experiences in the Royal Navy during the Second World War were remarkable. Aged nineteen, he was ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his courage during incessant bombing during the Siege of Tobruk. He survived multiple torpedo attacks, firstly serving in the cruiser Glasgow, which was hit twice; in the battleship Queen Elizabeth at sea and blown up by human torpedoes at Alexandria; and in HMS Hardy, struck in January 1944, while escorting Russian Arctic Convoy JW56B. In 1942, he was serving in HMS Carlisle during the fiercely fought Malta convoys and took part in the Battle of Sirte. Later that year he was awarded the MBE ‘for outstanding bravery, resource and devotion to duty during very heavy bombing’ at the port of Bone during Operation TORCH. He went on to serve at D-Day and later in the Pacific in HMS Rajah. Written by his son, this is an eminently readable biography of the most highly decorated midshipman in the second world war.

Alistair MacLean’s War by Mark Simmons

may22 macleanI’m always intrigued to learn how other authors first got published. Alistair MacLean won a short story contest and his entry moved the wife of publisher Ian Chapman so much that he persuaded Maclean to try his hand at a novel. The rest, as they say, is history. Many of MacLean’s most successful novels were sea stories. In 1941, he was called up after volunteering for the Royal Navy and served as Ordinary Seaman, Able Seaman, and Leading Torpedo Operator. For the majority of his service, he was in HMS Royalist, a modified Dido-class light cruiser, seeing action in the Arctic, and operations against the German battleship Tirpitz. The ship then deployed to the Mediterranean taking part in Operation Dragoon the invasion of the South of France and later in operations against German occupied Greek Islands in the Aegean. After this MacLean and Royalist were deployed to the Indian Ocean and operations against the Japanese in Malaya, Burma, and Sumatra. A fascinating insight into how the Royal Navy shaped his bestsellers.

Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year

BookPick: New Year Selection 2022

This first round-up of the year covers a broad range of topics including a sweeping history of the Port of London; stories of fifty important shipwrecks; and an engrossing autobiography of a marine engineer who began his career in the days of steamships and transitioned to diesel engines. There’s also the biography of the controversial admiral Roger Keyes; and an overview of Britain’s rise to superpower in the age of Napoleon. Whether it’s an addition to your library – or just a good leisure read – I hope there’s something for everyone in this eclectic selection.

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The History of the Port of London by Peter Stone

port londonAlthough my particular interest in the River Thames is its role in the Georgian Age I found this recently reprinted book a fascinating overview of the rise and fall – and revival – of Old Father Thames. The river has been integral to the prosperity of London since Roman times. Explorers sailed away on voyages of discovery to distant lands. Colonies were established and a great empire grew. Funding their ships and cargoes helped make the City of London into the world’s leading financial centre. In the 19th century a vast network of docks was created for ever-larger ships, behind high, prison-like walls that kept them secret from all those who did not toil within. Sail made way for steam as goods were dispatched to every corner of the world. In the 19th century London was the world’s greatest port city. In the Second World War the Port of London became Hitler’s prime target. It paid a heavy price but soon recovered. Yet by the end of the 20th century the docks had been transformed into Docklands, a new financial centre.

In the Treacle Mine by J W Richardson

TreacleEver wondered what happens in the engine room when the captain on the bridge rings ‘Full Ahead’ on the telegraph? The author has written an engaging account of his life at sea, from his beginnings as a lowly cadet to his work as a chief engineer. A selection of personal photographs do much to enhance the book. His story begins in the 1960s when steam power was still the preferred option for larger and more powerful ships but over the following decade, the availability of ever more powerful and more fuel-efficient, diesel engines sounded the death knell for steam propulsion. Sadly today there are only a few preserved steamships left as a reminder of how things used to be down below in the ‘treacle mine’, which was how Geordie marine engineers described the engine-room. However despite the fact that steam power has disappeared from everyday use, there are still a great many enthusiasts who are prepared to give up their spare time to ensure that steam lives on. Hooray, I say!

The 50 Greatest Shipwrecks by Richard M Jones

shipwrecksTales of tragedy at sea both fascinate and horrify us, and incidents such as the loss of Costa Concordia continue to this day. Historian Richard M. Jones has put together 50 stories of lost ships that are among the most important, infamous and, in some cases, tragic ships in history. When did two liners collide and lead to one of the greatest rescues in history? How did a Scotsman become an American hero against his own country? Which warship sank with gold bullion on board during the Second World War? Jones tells the story of these fascinating cases plus many more. Starting at the tiny island of Alderney in 1592, he takes the reader on a journey through history, including the First and Second World Wars, into the age of the passenger ferry and finally to the modern day migrant issues in the Mediterranean Sea. This book brings home just how many vessels are lost in Neptune’s Realm.

Britain’s Rise to Global Superpower in the Age of Napoleon by William Nester

superpowerThis title covers the historical time frame of my Thomas Kydd novels. Britain fought a nearly non-stop war against first revolutionary then Napoleonic France from 1793 to 1815. During those twenty-two years, the British government formed, financed, and led seven coalitions against France. The French inflicted humiliating defeats on the first five coalitions. Eventually Britain and its allies prevailed, not once but twice by vanquishing Napoleon temporarily in 1814 and definitively in 1815. French revolutionaries had created a new form of warfare, which Napoleon perfected. Never before had a government mobilized so much of a realm’s manpower, industry, finance, and patriotism, nor, under Napoleon, wielded it more effectively and ruthlessly to pulverize and conquer their enemies. Britain struggled to master this new form of warfare. With time, the British made the most of their natural strategic and economic advantages. Britons were relatively secure and prosperous in their island realm. British merchants, manufacturers, and financiers dominated global markets. The Royal Navy not only ruled the waves that lapped against the nation’s shores but those ploughed by international commerce around the world. Yet even with those assets victory was not inevitable. An important work that will appeal to students of the period.

Churchill’s Admiral in Two World Wars by Jim Crossley

churchill'sIn this naval biography we see many of our all-too-human traits, both good and bad. Roger Keyes was the archetype of the 19th to 20th century Royal Navy officer. A superb seaman, inspiring leader and fearless fighter, he caught the eye of senior figures in the naval establishment as well as Winston Churchill. The relationship between these two brave men survived disappointment, disagreement and eventually disillusion. Unlike some of his contemporaries Keyes was unable to make the transition from sailor to politician and was inclined to embarrass his friends and allies by his intemperate language and total lack of political acumen. Always eager to lead from the front and hurl himself at the enemy his mind set tended to be that of a junior officer trying to prove himself, not that of a senior admiral. Trained in some of the last of Britain’s sailing warships, Keyes served in submarines in the North Sea, destroyers in China and as a senior staff officer in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. As commander of the Dover Patrol he planned and led the highly controversial Zeebrugge Raid and successfully combated U-boats passing along the English Channel. A flawed hero of his time.

Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year

Yuletide Selections II

I’m a bit of a gruff creature when it comes to the commercialisation of Christmas – but there’s one thing that I fervently believe: a book is a present that, if well chosen for the recipient, will give hours of pleasure and be a lasting reminder in itself of someone putting thought, not just money, into a Yuletide gift. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone in this somewhat eclectic selection. They range from a superb coffee table book on the Kriegstein Collection of historic ship models to the true story of the Christmas truce. So do consider adding one or more from this selection to your gift-buying list – or just indulging yourself!

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Historic Ship Models of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries by Arnold and Henry Kriegstein

Nov 21 modelsI can never pass by a museum that houses a ship model collection without spending considerable time admiring these intricate works of art. The authors of this incomparably superb book, identical twins, have amassed a ship model collection that is recognised as the finest in private hands anywhere in the world, principally made up of official 17th- and 18th-century models in the Admiralty or Navy Board style. As well as lengthy descriptions of these magnificent artefacts, there is background information on how they were identified, and details of the research done by the Kriegsteins. Beyond the technicalities of the ships, readers will be fascinated by the brothers’ adventures in pursuit of every model and their dogged determination to secure them against official obstruction and dubious antiques-trade practices. The book also includes a chapter on the intricate bone PoW ship models of the Napoleonic era in the collection. One of my favourite, albeit humble, models is that of a ship’s boat c. 1750. In a similar craft in 1789, Bligh completed a heroic 4000-mile journey across the open ocean. Sadly, the Kriegstein models are not on public display but this book, a fully revised edition of a 2007 tome of the same name is an invaluable guide to the skills and dedication of the Golden Age of Sail model makers – and would make a treasured gift to any with an interest in this art form.

Tommy French by Julian Walker

Nov 21 TommyThe colourful language of Jack Tar certainly had an influence on the English language – as did the cant of the British soldiery. Anglicized French phrases came into use on the Western Front during the First World War as British troops struggled to communicate in French. One such is ‘napoo’ from ‘il n’y en a plus’ – there’s none left. Julian Walker explores the subject in detail and in the process gives us an insight into the British soldiers’ experience in France during the war and the special language they invented in order to cope with their situation. He shows how French place-names were anglicized as were words for food and drink, and he looks at what these slang terms tell us about the soldiers’ perception of France, their relationship with the French and their ideas of home. He traces the spread of ‘Tommy French’ back to the Home Front, where it was popularized in songs and on postcards, and looks at the French reaction to the anglicization of their language. A fascinating study of an encounter between two languages and cultures.

Years of Endurance by John R Muir

nov 21 enduranceRegular readers of this blog will know I have a soft spot for memoirs from Old Salts. Muir’s book is a vivid recollection of life in a Royal Navy battlecruiser during World War I. The author was the senior medical officer aboard HMS Tiger, from her commissioning in October 1914 until his departure in the autumn of 1916, when she sailed to Rosyth for repairs to the damage incurred at the battle of Jutland. Muir takes the reader right to the centre of the action in the first years of the war, his story also about the officers and men who were his comrades in those years; their qualities, their anxieties and the emotional dimension of their experiences. His insights are those of a man sensitive to the human condition in all its facets, and they bring vividly to life a generation of men who fought at sea more than one hundred years ago. Published in the late 30s, this new reprint edition is a valuable contribution to our present appreciation of the life in the Royal Navy afloat in the Great War.

The True Story of the Christmas Truce by Anthony Richards

Nov 21 truce‘One of them shouted “A Merry Christmas English. We’re not shooting tonight.” . . . [then] they stuck up a light. Not to be outdone, so did we. Then up went another. So, we shoved up another. Soon the lines looked like an illuminated fete.’ Rifleman Leslie Walkington.

On Christmas Eve 1914, a group of German soldiers laid down their arms, lit lanterns and started to sing Christmas carols. The British troops in nearby trenches responded by singing songs of their own. The next day, men from both sides met in No Man’s Land. They shook hands, took photos and exchanged food and souvenirs. Some even played improvised football games, kicking around empty bully-beef cans and using helmets for goalposts. Both sides also saw the lull in fighting as a chance to bury the bodies of their comrades. In some parts of the front, the truce lasted a few hours. In others, it continued to the New Year. But everywhere, sooner or later, the fighting resumed.
In his book, historian Anthony Richards has brought together hundreds of first-hand reminiscences from those who were there – including previously unpublished German accounts – to cast fresh light on this extraordinary episode.

They Have Their Exits by Airey Neave

nov 21 exitsI have watched the classic BBC production ‘Colditz’ several times, in my mind one of the great television dramas of the age. ‘They Have Their Exits’ was first published in 1953 and continues to stand in the premier division of military memoirs. The author, who as a senior member of Mrs Thatcher’s Government was tragically assassinated by the IRA, had the most distinguished of war records. Wounded and taken prisoner in the desperate fighting at Calais in 1940, he became a compulsive escaper and the first one of the very few to make a ‘home-run’ from Colditz Castle. Thereafter he rejoined the fighting serving in France and Holland before becoming a member of the International Military Tribunal at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials. There he was to meet the most notorious members of the Nazi hierarchy as they faced justice and, in many cases, death. This book is a fitting memorial to a man of exceptional energy, initiative and courage.

Still looking for bookish inspiration?
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Celebrating 20 Years of Thomas Kydd: Going Forward

20 years of Kydd - Social Card Option 2(1)I sometimes have to pinch myself that the Kydd Series has been coming out now for twenty years. I certainly remember my trepidation when putting together, at my agent’s request, a timeline for twelve books! But as I got into the Series, and found the historical record so rich and varied, my creative juices flowed and I now have greatly exceeded that original dozen – and have outlines for more still!

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Balkan Glory is out in paperback in the US this month, following the earlier launch in the UK.

Balkan GloryHB_Royal_V51811. The Adriatic, the ‘French Lake’, is now the most valuable territory Napoleon Bonaparte possesses. Captain Sir Thomas Kydd finds his glorious return to England cut short when the Admiralty summons him to lead a squadron of frigates into these waters to cause havoc and distress to the enemy. Kydd is dubbed ‘The Sea Devil’ by Bonaparte who personally appoints one of his favourites, Dubourdieu, along with a fleet that greatly outweighs the British, to rid him of this menace. At the same time, Nicholas Renzi is sent to Austria on a secret mission to sound out the devious arch-statesman, Count Metternich. His meeting reveals a deadly plan by Bonaparte that threatens the whole balance of power in Europe. The only thing that can stop it is a decisive move at sea and for this he must somehow cross the Alps to the Adriatic to contact Kydd directly.
A climactic sea battle where the stakes could not be higher is inevitable. Kydd faces Dubourdieu with impossible odds stacked against him. Can he shatter Bonaparte’s dreams of breaking out of Europe and marching to the gates of India and Asia?

Available as physical book, ebook and audiobook, it has earned rave reviews from press and readers alike :

‘Balkan Glory is thrilling stuff indeed’ – Warships
‘Storytelling is of a superb quality, all characters, whether they are real historical or fantastic fictional, come vividly to life within this tale of sea, battles, land, intrigue, war, and peace.’ – Amazon reader
‘Amazing book. Amazing author.’ – Amazon reader

Thunderer is the latest title, out now in the UK in hardback; worldwide in ebook and audiobook.
The hardback will be released in the US January 18.

ThundererHB_Royal_V3(1)1812. Arriving back in England after his successes in the Adriatic, Captain Sir Thomas Kydd is bestowed with honours. In London he’s greeted by the Prince Regent who, despite Kydd’s protestations that he’s happy with his present command, insists he be given a bigger ship – HMS Thunderer, a 74-gun ship of the line. But she’s old, and being part of a standing fleet, Kydd’s chances of further fame and distinction are slim indeed.
Winning over his new command is fraught with challenges. A hostile crew, abysmal levels of gunnery and sail-handling capabilities are intolerable to a fighting captain like Kydd. With the ship short of men and no incentives to attract more, can he ever bring Thunderer to a proper state of fighting preparedness?
Kydd is sent to reinforce the Baltic squadron as Bonaparte’s vast army invades Russia. News reaches him of French victory at the Battle of Borodino. The road to Moscow is now open. To avert total French victory, Kydd has a vital role to play.

‘Quarterdeck’ magazine had this to say:

‘As he has in twenty-three previous Kydd titles, Stockwin creates a knotty narrative, writing with authority about Britain’s Georgian navy and the physical world at sea with intrigue, captivating characters, and deft storytelling. Thunderer is a suspenseful journey back to the early nineteenth century, where the author’s imagination comfortably resides.’

At the moment I’m working on the manuscript of 2022’s Kydd adventure, working title ‘Yankee Mission’. It will be published in the UK on October 6 in hardback, and ebook and audio download worldwide. The US launch will follow in early 2023.
Do you have a favourite Kydd title? I always love to hear from readers and you could win a mystery prize! I’ll draw one lucky winner out of the hat at the end of November. Emails to Please include your full postal address.

Yuletide Selection 1

I’m a bit of a gruff creature when it comes to the commercialisation of Christmas – but there’s one thing that I fervently believe: a book is a present that, if well chosen for the recipient, will give hours of pleasure and be a lasting reminder in itself of someone putting thought, not just money, into a Yuletide gift. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone in this somewhat eclectic selection. They range from titles featuring the Napoleonic era to a biography of the admiral who created Armistice Day to an account of undersea war during World War II. So do consider adding one or more from this selection to your gift-buying list – or just indulging yourself!

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Nelson’s Navy in 100 Objects by Gareth Glover

Oct 21 nelson navyThe Royal Navy of Nelson’s time was such a vast organisation that it is sometimes hard to comprehend its full scope. During the Napoleonic Wars it was the largest employer in the world. Not only did the Royal Navy maintain a fleet of close on 1,000 ships, including over 100 line-of-battle ships, but it was also responsible for the entire organisation of maintaining them at sea – from the recruitment of crews, the maintenance and protection of bases throughout the world, the production and delivery of food supplies to feed this vast fleet and the procurement of naval supplies to keep the ships at sea. The Royal Navy was often Britain’s last line of defence and many of its most successful officers became superstars, although none eclipsed Admiral Lord Nelson, who became the personification of the Navy. The whole country revelled in their successes and ‘Jolly Jack Tar’ became a source of national pride, a large number of naval terms being taken into normal life, some still used to this day. This lavishly illustrated volume is charged with atmosphere and will be of interest both to students of history and those with a specific interest in all things Nelson.

Mediterranean Naval Battles that Changed the World by Quentin Russell

Oct 21 battlesChoosing seven decisive naval engagements from the Greek defeat of the Persians at Salamis in the fifth century BC to the Siege of Malta during the Second World War, historian Russell tells the story of the Mediterranean as a theatre of war at sea. Each of these fiercely-fought engagements changed the course of history. As well as focusing on each battle in detail, the history of the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean and the effect of the development of naval architecture and design on the outcomes is examined in this book. Lepanto was the last major battle fought between galleys; Navarino was the significant combat to be fought entirely by sailing ships; and Cape Matapan (where a young Duke of Edinburgh saw action) was the first operation to exploit the breaking of the Italian naval Enigma codes. The seven battles included are: Salamis (480 BC), Actium (31 BC), Lepanto (1571), the Nile (aka Aboukir Bay, 1798), Navarino (1827), Cape Matapan 1941 and the Siege of Malta 1940-42. A sweeping treatment indeed of the importance of the Mediterranean Sea through the ages.

‘Rosy’ Wemyss, Admiral of the Fleet by John Johnson-Allen

Oct 21 armisticeRosslyn Wemyss, a distinguished admiral in his time, is largely forgotten today. As the Allied Naval Representative at the Armistice negotiations on 11th November, 1918, he left an indelible mark on the life of this country when he was responsible, with Marshal Foch, for the creation of Armistice Day. Wemyss joined the Navy at the age of 13 in 1877, at the same time as Prince George, the younger son of the Prince of Wales, they became lifelong friends. In 1915, then a rear admiral, he was tasked with creating a naval base at Mudros, to serve the Gallipoli campaign and was in command of the landings and then the evacuation of all the troops. The evacuation was so successful that only one man was lost from the approximately 140,000 who were taken off the beaches. From there, he was sent to Port Said to command the East Indies and Red Sea Station. For the next 18 months he was involved in supporting the Arab Revolt and helping T.E. Lawrence and the Arabs to oust the Turks from all the ports on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. In 1917 he returned to the United Kingdom to become Deputy First Sea Lord, stepping up to the post of First Sea Lord at the end of the year. A fascinating insight into the life of a top-ranking Admiral.

Total Undersea War by Aaron Hamilton

Oct 21 underseaDuring the last year of World War II the once surface-bound diesel-electric U-boat ushered in the age of total undersea war with the introduction of an air mast, or ‘snorkel’ as it became known among the men who served in Doenitz’s submarine fleet. U-boats no longer needed to surface to charge batteries or refresh air; they rarely communicated with their command, operating silently and alone among the shallow coastal waters of the United Kingdom and across to North America. At first, U-boats could remain submerged continuously for a few days, then a few weeks, and finally for months at a time, and they set underwater endurance records not broken for nearly a quarter of a century. The introduction of the snorkel was of paramount concern to the Allies, who strove to frustrate the impact of the device before war’s end. Every subsequent wartime U-boat innovation was subordinated to the snorkel, including the new Type XXI ‘Electro-boat wonder weapon’. The snorkel’s introduction foreshadowed the nearly un-trackable weapon and instrument of intelligence that the submarine became and remains in the postwar world. This exhaustive treatment draws upon wartime documents from archives around the world. Extensive notes and references are included.

North Brittany & Channel Islands Cruising Companion by Peter and Jane Cumberlidge

Oct 21 cruisingThis update of the popular pilot guide covering the North Brittany coast, the Channel Islands and the harbours on the west side of the Cherbourg peninsula is packed with comprehensive pilotage and nautical information as well as suggestions of what to do ashore, including the best places to eat. Flicking through the book many of the numerous colour photographs reminded me of some of the highlights of my trips for location research for the Kydd Series. In particular, the section on the Channel Islands brought back warm memories of St Peter Port in Guernsey and St Helier in Jersey. As well as spectacular photographs, the book is enhanced with colour charts. A must-have for yachtsmen cruising these waters.

Leith-Built Ships Volume 2 by R O Neish

Oct 21 leithI launched my naval career as a seagoing shipwright, so my interest in historical accounts of shipbuilding is not surprising. Scotland has a long proud history of this activity, most recently centred on the west, the Clyde in particular, but many people are unaware of the part played by the shipbuilders of Leith, in the east of Scotland. Leith had begun building ships some 400 years before the great shipyards of the Clyde and these vessels reached all corners of the globe. With a pedigree of shipbuilding second to none going back over 660 years of recorded history, the ships built at Leith deserve their place in history and this book, the second of a trilogy, continues the story focusing on the period 1918-1939. Among the fascinating tales is the launch then tragic loss of the largest sailing ship ever built in a British shipyard, the five-masted auxiliary barque Kobenhavn.

Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year

BookPick : Disaster and Survival at Sea

It has been estimated that, astonishingly, more than three million shipwrecks lie on the ocean floor. The figure dates back to when humans first began venturing into Neptune’s Realm. The oldest wrecks include 10,000-year-old canoes while the newest are 21st-century shipwrecks. In the period (1793-1815) in which my Kydd tales are set, many ships were sent to Davy Jones’ Locker, some due to enemy action; others succumbing to the wrath of Mother Nature. In more recent times I personally experienced a peacetime collision between two Australian warships, Melbourne and Voyager resulting in the sinking of the latter with much loss of life.

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Breaking Seas, Broken Ships by Ian Friel

The author follows Britain’s maritime history from 1854 to 2007 through some of its most dramatic shipwrecks. From the country’s imperial zenith to the very different world of the early twenty-first century – an extraordinary range of people, ships and events, including the crew and passengers of a state-of-the-art Victorian steamship who vanished in the Atlantic; the sailors of a doomed collier brig in the dying days of sail – and the wives and children they left behind; a lowly ex-naval stoker who went into showbiz with his version of a disaster caused by an admiral; a First World War merchant ship captain who fought a running battle with German U-Boats; the courage and compassion shown by British sailors who escaped their dive-bombed ships; and the people who confronted the ‘black tide’ left by the oil tanker Torrey Canyon.
The book includes an extensive bibliography and notes as well as fascinating photographs; the cover is a poignant image of the underwater remains of the rudder of SS Hoche, a steamship wrecked in North Devon in 1882.

Titanic, ‘Iceberg Ahead’ by James W Bancroft

Sept 21 titanic 81T0Tc1AKILOn 10 April 1912, people from all walks of life began embarking aboard Titanic, then the largest ship afloat, for what was to be the trip of a lifetime on the ship’s maiden voyage across the North Atlantic. Many were looking forward to starting new lives in the United States. However, just before midnight on Sunday, 14 April, Titanic‘s crew sent out distress signals, ‘We have struck an iceberg’.
The liner had been steaming at speed when it collided with an enormous iceberg which laid open her bilge under the waterline for more than 100 yards, rent agape five of the front compartments and flooded the coal bunker servicing the boilers. The damage was fatal, and some three hours after the disaster began to unfold the last visible part of Titanic slipped beneath the waves. There were only sixteen lifeboats and four collapsible dinghies, completely insufficient for the numbers making the crossing. As a consequence, more than 1,500 passengers and crew died: two out of every three people on board perished.
This is the compelling story of the disaster taken from eyewitness accounts of fifty of those who were there.

Surviving the Arctic Convoys as told to John R McKay

Sept 21 convoys71PUgAf1tmLLeading Seaman Charlie Erswell saw much more than his fair share of action during the Second World War. He was present at the 1942 landing in North Africa (Operation TORCH), D-Day and the liberation of Norway. But his main area of operations was the Arctic Convoys, escorting merchant ships taking essential war supplies to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel which Winston Churchill described as ‘the worst journey in the world’.
Erswell served on two destroyers, HMS Milne and Savage. His story, as told to John McKay, is more than one man’s account; it is an inspiring tribute to his colleagues, many of whom were killed in action. This story of bravery and endurance gives an appreciation what it felt like to be there in such hellish, freezing cold Arctic seas while under fire from U-boat torpedoes, Luftwaffe bombs and with the ever present threat of surface raider monsters like Tirpitz and Scharnhorst lurking nearby in Norwegian fjords.
Fittingly, the book was released to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the first Arctic Convoy, which sailed from Liverpool on 12th August 1941.

Still looking for bookish inspiration?
You might also like to take a peek at my other BookPicks this year

Celebrating 20 years of Thomas Kydd: Readers Have Their Say

20 years of Kydd - Social Card Option 2(1)I sometimes have to pinch myself that the Kydd Series has been coming out for 20 years. I certainly remember my trepidation when putting together, at my agent’s request, a timeline for twelve books! But as I got into the Series, and found the historical record so rich and varied, my creative juices flowed and I now have greatly exceeded that original dozen – and have outlines for more still! Over the years reader feedback about my work has been very important to me; here’s a random selection of twenty recent comments.

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Reader Willis

Reader Chris Willis

Allan Smith: ‘I came across the Kydd series by lucky accident finding a paperback copy of Artemis in the local British Heart Foundation charity shop for the princely sum of 50 pence. All of the characters that Tom encounters, whether factual or fictional, are well developed with their own idiosyncrasies that either endears you to them or raises the hackles on the back of your neck; I don’t feel any writer can go further in drawing you into the story. I still find Seaflower and Mutiny two of the best books in the series, although sometimes I find myself rereading the passage in Tyger where all seems lost, the pumps struggling, the officers and men coming together as a team to beat the odds to return home putting Thomas Kydd into the ranks of Pellew of the Indefatigable and Keats of Superb. So from a old army WO2 all I can say to the salty sailor who pens these stories is Bravo Zulu, Julian.’

Chris Willis: ‘My position on James Craig is often as a Watch Leader (somewhat similar to a Petty Officer in the navy). This role requires a sound knowledge of how to sail the ship and knowing the ropes. One of the aspects of this role is calling the setting or trimming of sails as required by the officer of the watch. This requires ordering deck crew in your watch to perform the tasks involved. Reading the Kydd Series enhances traditional knowledge in this area as many of the terms etc. remain unchanged. This is a true indication of the accuracy of the books and research Julian has undertaken. I use traditional terms e.g. “roundly” or “handsomely” at times as I believe the crew should understand these terms as this is all part of sailing a traditional square rigger. I find the ongoing story of a humble wigmaker who really didn’t know his true calling until sometime after he was taken by the press that fateful night whilst enjoying a few ales with friends in the local inn, truly unique and in my opinion unrivalled in literature.’

Jeff Hillman: ‘I am 70/ex navy and enjoy Kent, Poe, Dumas, some of the best in literature. You are The Master of the genre. No series comes close. I have read all the books cover to cover three times now and am awaiting Thunderer with great anticipation. Please speed up your releases!’

James Bruce: ‘You have this amazing gift for explaining complex situations in a way that even lay people like myself can enjoy/understand.’

James Kitney: ‘As a ships master, and a past officer of a square rigger, I am also constantly impressed by the atmosphere of seamanship created in each book!’

Reader james kitney

Reader Capt James Kitney

Ian Noble: ‘Browsing in my local library many moons ago I spied a book on the end of an aisle. It was a hardback edition of Kydd, the first in the series. “That looks interesting” thought I. Who says you can’t judge a book by its cover. Read it…, I devoured it and now I’m hooked. No more waiting for the next one in the library, it’s my hard-earned specie invested in this particular pleasure. All the characters are so well formed but my particular favourite is faithful and dependable Stirk. I would always find a place for him in my crew. As for the impact the Kydd series has had on my life….it’s made me impatient as the time between each novel seems to drag like a poorly dropped anchor!’

[Richard Moorhouse: ‘I actually discovered Kydd in my local library, I have always loved maritime stories of the wars with Napoleon. I am also a fan of Alexander Kent with his series on Bolitho. I have all the Kydd books on my Kindle. I absolutely love them. Thank you Julian for many, many hours of entertainment, enthralment and often nail-biting tension! I love every second of reading your books!’

Dani Kalifornia : ‘Best book series I’ve ever read!’

Darren Wraith: ‘I found Kydd in the library while looking for Hornblower substitutes. Within the next few weeks I had caught up with all the books available and have kept up with them ever since. The cherry on the top is Christian Rodska on Audible who brings the books to life.’

Derek Edwards: ‘I came across your books on Amazon and downloaded the audiobooks. I particularly enjoy the realistic stories and the historical fact. Nothing better than washing up and listening to a book!’

Steve Landsdown: ‘My favourite book has to be The Baltic Prize. I’m a street cleaner (I’ve done that job for 43 years) and when I started at 18 one of the older men took me under his wing. Sadly this man has died now but he told me about when he served in the merchant navy during WW2 and sailed with a couple of Russian convoys. He had told me a lot about Archangel. The same man was also two days in an open boat after his ship was sunk by a U-boat. As for favourite characters – well everyone loves Toby Stirk, I do like Bowden as well and obviously Kydd himself and and I couldn’t not like Renzi. The main thing that makes the Kydd books worth reading is the amount of research you put into them.’

Reader Rob Fargher

Reader Rob Fargher

Robert Fargher: ‘I’ve read Hornblower, Bolitho, Lewrie, Aubrey & Maturin as well as Kydd and I’ve enjoyed them all. But Kydd stands out to me as the best portrayal of a pressed man/foremast jack that I’ve ever come across and is a marvellously original tale. The initial book Kydd is so well-written and so detailed a description of life before the mast, of the growth of an involuntary landsman into a true sailor, so manifestly authentic and gripping, as I think has ever been published about Nelson’s Navy. The physical book is a great read but I want to particularly praise the audiobook. Listening to Kydd’s story as read by a proficient voice actor [Christian Rodska] really brings the story to life.’

Alan Rootes: I first came into contact with Kydd working as a Property Manager in Tenby in 2003. The Maintenance Manager of the largest block of apartments I managed had been given the first 3 Titles: Kydd, Artemis and Seaflower by one of the apartment owners and after reading them himself, knowing I was ex-RN kindly gave them to me to read and keep if I enjoyed them. Keep I did and still have them to this day. Once I started to read Kydd I was unable to put it down, what an incredible story, quickly followed by my reading of Artemis and Seaflower. I was hooked and purchased all your subsequent books. I am in awe of the fantastic detail you achieve in your books and you are so lucky to have Kathy by your side to support you. You are a brilliant team and I’m really looking forward to receiving my copy of Thunderer in October.’

Christopher Prillwitz: ‘I discovered the Kydd series at the Aurora CO USA library. They are very well written and researched. The books have made me want to see some of the places in the novels other than London and Portsmouth.’

Reader Paul Kersey

Reader Capt Paul Kersey

Alan Eggleston: ‘Having just finished the last Hornblower book, I was desperately looking for a new author of age-of-sail stories. This was soon after I started work as a bookseller at an independent bookstore, and I found myself shelving a new title the store had just received with a wonderfully adept cover, and I sneaked a quick read inside. It was just what I was looking for. I found more of Julian’s books on the shelf and bought the first book of the series, Kydd, along with the second. And I have read every one of the following titles since. The realism, the research behind them, the amazing characters – especially the recurring characters, and the witness to history is what brings me back to the novels. I also love the vivid descriptions and heart-pounding action. My favorite character is Toby Stirk. If you ever kill him off I’m afraid I’m going to dissolve into a pile of mush. What a great hero of the Brit everyman Stirk is, with a heart of gold. I know I’ll never miss another good read as long as you’re still writing.’

Greg Dermody: ‘A dedicated long time fan, I found Kydd and Artemis on clearance at bookstore chain in Canada. After I read those first two I found Seaflower and was hooked. I waited patiently for the next editions, often as Christmas gifts. I think the main thing that keeps me coming back is the profound and sometimes surprising character development that is intertwined with the standalone yarns and adventures, accurate to the period and geography. Basically I am transported to a different time and place with people I have come to know and want to know more. It’s hard to pick a favourite book, like having a favourite child. One of the ones that really sticks with me is Treachery. The journey is full of twists and turns, heartbreaks and successes – some of those small and some grand! Thank you Julian for taking the risk to write, and then to expand your plot line, your character development and exceptional location development. A passion become a job, become a career, become a lifestyle.’

Reader Anthony Jerome

Reader Anthony Jerome

Rev. David Smith : ‘I found the Kydd series by computer search. I have been a reader of historical fiction for some time. I like the realism of the stories. I can picture myself in the action, and country where the story takes me. I think that Persephone would be my favorite. There are some similarities with my wife and I. As a pastor, I am always caught up in the times Capt. Kydd has the canopy set up for Sunday service. Every obstacle that comes across Kydd’s path, the characters press on to find the solution. In life there comes obstacles, and like the Kydd series, I press on to turn the obstacles into opportunities.’

Paul Kersey, Master, RV CEFAS Endeavour: ‘I just wanted to reach out and congratulate you on the Kydd series. I’ve been reading for a year now and just finished The Baltic Prize. As a Master mariner and square rig master I have to say your technical descriptions and sailing manoeuvres are faultless. So I doff my hat to you, sir.’

Nick Holt: ‘I always look forward to the next one, read it in a couple of weeks then it’s a long wait for the next. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t discovered Kydd until you had written the last book, then I could have locked myself away and read the whole series from start to finish. Wishing my life away again……Roll on October.’

Anthony D. Jerome: ‘I read them all within a year. Can’t wait for the next book!’

BookPick : A Secret World

This selection is devoted to the black arts of spy-craft – espionage, code breaking, clandestine operations and the like – and features four titles by recognised experts in the area. In my Kydd tales Nicholas Renzi, against his moral compass but undertaken from his sense of duty, is sometimes involved in covert operations involving the French and other enemies of Great Britain. As a serving Royal Navy officer I was privy to a number of classified activities and have long held a fascination for a world largely hidden from general view but crucial to the freedom and values of our democracies.

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Code Breakers by Stephen Twigge

July 21 code breakersThe story of British codebreakers from the reign of Elizabeth I to the Cold War is presented using faithfully reproduced key documents from the National Archives. Historian Stephen Twigge explores the use of ciphers during the Napoleonic wars, the role of the Royal Mail’s Secret Office and the activities the Admiralty’s ‘Room 40’ leading to the creation of the Government’s Code and Cypher School. His main focus is on the events of the Second World War and the battle to break the German enigma codes. The centre of Britain’s code-breaking operation was located at Bletchley Park in rural Buckinghamshire and it was from here that a hastily assembled army of code-breakers battled to decipher Nazi German’s secret wartime communications. The resulting high-level signals intelligence had a major influence on the outcome of the war. I was pleased to see a specific tribute in this book to the work of Alan Turing, the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, who so tragically took his own life in 1954. Fittingly, he features on the new £50 bank note issued on June 23 this year, the anniversary of his birthday.

Cold War by Stephen Twigge

July 21 cold warAlso by the same author, ‘Cold War’ tells the story of half a century of superpower confrontation from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book describes in chilling detail the military and ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that dominated the post-war landscape. Twigge highlights the role played by Britain during the Cold War and its involvement in Cold War flash points including the Berlin Blockade, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He goes on to describe the devastating consequences of nuclear war, the growth and influence of the peace movement and the exploits of the Cold War spy networks built up by both sides. Based on previously secret government reports and papers, Twigge presents a compelling story of global conflict and superpower politics set against a backdrop of dramatic social and cultural change. As with ‘Code Breakers’ the text is enhanced with images, documents and other material from the National Archives.

GCHQ by Nigel West

July 21 gchqSignal intelligence is the most secret – and most misunderstood, – weapon in the modern espionage arsenal. As a reliable source of information, it is unequalled, and the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, is several times larger than the two smaller, but more familiar, organisations, MI5 and MI6. Because of its extreme sensitivity, and the ease with which its methods can be compromised, GCHQ’s activities have remained largely cloaked in secrecy. West traces GCHQ’s origins back to the early days of wireless and gives a detailed account of its development since that time. From the moment that Marconi succeeded in transmitting a radio signal across the Channel, Britain has been engaged in a secret wireless war, first against the Kaiser, then Hitler and the Soviet Union. West describes all GCHQ’s disciplines, including direction-finding, interception and traffic analysis, and code-breaking. Peppered with fascinating anecdotes, ‘GCHQ’ is a well-written and engaging treatment.

MI6 by Nigel West

July 21 M16This title, also by West, exposes the operations of Britain’s overseas intelligence-gathering organisation, the famed Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and traces its origins back to its inception in 1909. The book mainly concerns MI6’s operations during the Second World War, and includes some remarkable successes and failures, including how MI6 financed a glamorous confidant of the German secret service; how a suspected French traitor was murdered by mistake; how Franco’s military advisors were bribed to keep Spain out of the war; how members of the Swedish secret police were blackmailed into helping the British war effort; how a sabotage operation in neutral Tangiers enabled the Allied landings in North Africa to proceed undetected; and how Britain’s generals ignored the first ULTRA decrypts because MI6 said that the information had come from a well-placed source called ‘BONIFACE’. An engaging inside story throwing light on many wartime incidents that had previously remained unexplained.

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BookPick : Summer 2021

With the warmer weather well underway in the Northern Hemisphere (albeit somewhat variable) one of the great pleasures at this time of year is relaxing outdoors with a good book – and a chilled beverage. There must be hundreds of thousands of books that have been written about various aspects of the Second World War, from high geo-political strategy to the famous battleships of the day to the role of secret intelligence services. I particularly enjoy reading memoirs of the seamen who fought in this terrible conflict. In this BookPick I have selected three titles dealing, not with the steel goliaths of the age, but with the small boats and their crews, indomitably venturing into Neptune’s realm on daring missions.

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Crash Boat by Earl A. McCandlish and George D. Jepson

June crashboat with JSThis is the compelling – and largely unknown – story of an American crash boat during World War II in the South Pacific, whose dramatic rescues of downed pilots and clandestine missions off Japanese-held islands were done at great peril. Earl A. McCandlish was commander of the 63-foot crash boat P-399, nicknamed Sea Horse. The vessel and her crew were credited with over 30 rescues, fought a fierce gun battle with enemy forces, experienced life from another age in isolated native villages, were ordered on boondoggle missions, and played a supporting role in America’s return to the Philippines. This book resonated with me as not only did I spend some years in this part of the world with the Australian Navy but I did time at Pearl Harbor under COMTHRDFLT and at sea in USS Midway, that legendary original WWII flat-top. Crash Boat reminded me of some of the Yankee characters I met during this time – such as the officer’s messman in Pearl, an old, grizzled marine who had gone in at Tarawa, and who certainly had a salty yarn or two to tell! Much recommended for its warmth and atmosphere.

The Shetland ‘Bus’ by Stephen Wynn

June shetland busThe Shetland Bus was not a bus, but the nickname of a special operations group that set up a route across the North Sea between Norway and the Shetland Islands, 110 miles north-east of Scotland. The first voyage was made by Norwegian sailors to help their compatriots in occupied Norway, but soon the British Secret Intelligence Service and the Special Operations Executive asked if they would be prepared to carry cargoes of British agents and equipment as well. Fourteen boats of different sizes were originally used, and Flemington House in Shetland was commandeered as the operation’s HQ. The first official journey was carried out by the Norwegian fishing vessel Aksel which left Luna Ness on 30 August 1941 on route to Bremen in Norway. These were extremely courageous individuals who helped maintain an important lifeline to the beleaguered Norwegians. It also allowed British agents a way in to Norway to liaise with the Underground movement and carry out important missions against the German occupiers. A moving tale of grit and determination of men pitted against the rough and unforgiving waters of the North Sea.

Gunboat Command by Antony Hichens

June Gunboat CommandThis biography draws heavily on the personal diaries of Robert Hichens (or ‘Hitch’ as he was known). After a brief description of his early life, his motor racing achievements (including trophies at Le Mans) and his Royal Navy training, the book focuses on his wartime experiences. Hitch was the most highly decorated RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) officer of the war with two DSOs, three DSCs and three Mentions in Despatches. He was recommended for a posthumous VC. Hichens served in vulnerable minesweepers and the Dunkirk Dynamo operation. In 1940 he joined Coastal Forces in the very fast MGBs (Motor Gun Boats), earning his own command and subsequently that of a flotilla. He was the first to capture an E-Boat. His abilities led to many successes and his reputation as a fearless and dynamic leader remains a legend today. The book contains detailed and graphic accounts of running battles against the more heavily armed E-boats. Tragically, he was killed in action in April 1943, having refused promotion and a job ashore. A fitting tribute by his son, who himself served in the Royal Navy.

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BookPick : May, 2021

Two hundred years ago this month Napoleon Bonaparte died, aged 51. It’s claimed that more books have been written about him than about any other person who ever lived, around 200,000, (although the French maintain that the number is closer to 400,000!). Tyrant or military genius – whatever your feelings about him, the man had a profound influence on European history. This BookPick highlights four volumes dealing with his life, the Napoleonic wars – and the man who defeated him at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington.

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Napoleon and the Art of Leadership by William Nester

Bonaparte understood and asserted the dynamic relationship among military, economic, diplomatic, technological, cultural, psychological and political power. War was the medium through which he was able to demonstrate his skills, leading his armies to victories across Europe, although he never conquered the seas. He overthrew France’s corrupt republican government in a coup then asserted near dictatorial powers. Those were then wielded in transforming France from feudalism to modernity with a new law code, canals, roads, ports, schools, factories, national bank, currency, and standard weights and measures. With those successes, he convinced the senate to proclaim him France’s emperor. Professor Nester has written a psychologically penetrating study of a leader who had a profound effect on the world around him.

Napoleon’s Peninsular War by Paul L. Dawson

Historian Paul Dawson tells the story of the early years of the Peninsular War using eyewitness accounts and other documents. These include the horrific Siege of Zaragoza, in which more than 50,000 soldiers and civilians were killed defending the city, and the cataclysmic Spanish defeats at Medellin and Ocaña. Interspersed are details of campaign life in the Iberian Peninsula and the struggles through the Galician mountains in pursuit of the British army marching to Corunna (which featured in my book
The Iberian Flame). As well as portraying the drama of the great battles and the ever-present fear of Spanish guerrillas, Dawson draws on the writings of the French soldiers to examine the ordinary conscript’s belief in the war they were fighting for their emperor. This study of the Peninsular War from the French perspective is an important addition to our understanding of the war in Iberia.

Artillery of the Napoleonic Wars by Kevin F. Kiley

Bonaparte began his military career as an artillery cadet and artillery played a fundamental part in all his great battles. Until the Napoleonic Wars artillery had been seen as a supporting arm to the infantry, but Bonaparte changed that. He massed his guns in huge batteries to blast holes in his opponent’s line. He even used the artillery to charge the enemy, the gunners galloping up to the enemy to open fire at pointblank range. The Napoleonic Wars was a time of innovation, with the introduction of shrapnel shells and military rockets. This book examines the artillery arms of all sides from ‘muzzle to butt plate’. Significant artillerymen of the period, the innovators, scientists, and leaders are also featured, as well the important battles and sieges, significant memoirs and documents, and artillery terms that became part of the military lexicon. A definitive reference on all aspects of artillery in the Napoleonic Wars.

The Duke of Wellington in 100 Ojbects by Gareth Glover

This companion volume to Napoleon in 100 Objects deals with Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. His victories at Seringapatam and Assaye extended British control in India and his famous campaign in Spain and Portugal helped to drive Bonaparte into exile. Wellington, ‘the Iron Duke’, is, of course, mostly remembered for defeating Bonaparte at Waterloo and his prestige after that epoch-changing event saw him becoming prime minister of Great Britain on two occasions. Packed with more than 200 full-colour photographs this fascinating investigation into the life of arguably Britain’s greatest general, sheds light on Wellington as a person, through the objects, large and small, that marked key episodes in his personal, military and public life. Although his reputation may have faded a little now, in his day he was an equal giant to Napoleon Bonaparte on the world stage.

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