Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, March 25, 2022

No Victory without a Price - The Cost of even the most "Economical" Wars

In retrospect — or from the perspective of the government — the price of victory in the Battle of Britain was clearly affordable. During the Battle of Britain, the RAF lost 1,023 aircraft compared to the Luftwaffe’s loss of 1,887 aircraft. In fact, due to the dramatic increases in aircraft production, the RAF ended the Battle with more front-line fighter aircraft than it had at the start of the Battle. In contrast, the Luftwaffe’s fighter strength declined by 30%. The imbalance in personnel losses was even greater: while the Luftwaffe lost 2,698 airmen during the battle (killed, wounded and captured), the RAF lost 544 pilots killed. Yet these statistics are deceptive.

It must be remembered that pilots at the time were highly trained specialists who could not be easily or rapidly replaced. While the numbers were small compared to the total population, the pilot losses nevertheless represented roughly 40% of Fighter Command’s strength.

What this meant, is that from the perspective of the participants, chances of survival were barely greater than 50%. The situation was aggravated by the fact that, as a rule, the more experienced pilots had a 5-6 times greater chance of surviving than did the replacement pilots coming into the front line with very little flying and no combat experience. The most critical period for a replacement pilot was his first fortnight in the front-line squadron.

In consequence, there were a significant number of pilots who fought throughout the Battle (four full months) and survived, but many other pilots who did not survive four hours. This meant, in effect, that a smallish core of experienced pilots often watched waves of replacements arriving and then being shot-down in a short space of time. Meanwhile, sheer exhaustion wore down even the experienced pilots and by the end of the Battle it was the Squadron Leaders, Flight Lieutenants and Section Leaders who were falling victim as a result of inattention, and “sloppy flying.”

For an individual squadron engaged in the Battle of Britain the pilots who were seriously injured and hospitalised also had to be replaced, so the effective casualty rate (killed and wounded) at squadron level was closer to 70% than 50%. This situation forced ACM Dowding and AVM Park to pull entire squadrons out of the front line (i.e. 11 Group) and replace them with new squadrons when a certain — albeit very subjective — level of exhaustion and depletion had been reached. Altogether 16 squadrons were withdrawn from 11 Group in the one month between August 8 and September 8, 1940.

The problem with this rotation was that the replacement squadrons — like replacement pilots — were far more likely to suffer casualties and far less likely to destroy enemy aircraft than the tired but experienced squadrons. This was because the replacement squadrons often had no pilots with experience of the combat conditions reigning in Southeast England at the time. Without experienced leaders, these fresh squadrons were often mauled badly during their first encounters with the Luftwaffe. It was not uncommon for these squadrons to lose 5 – 6 aircraft and 3 – 4 pilots in a single engagement. 

Where Eagles Never Flew is a tribute to the men and women who were engaged in this crucial conflict. Based on first-hand accounts by pilots and other participants as well as retrospective historical analysis, this novel recreates the tense atmosphere of this dramatic summer. It allows the reader to see unfolding events through the eyes of characters involved both in the air and on the ground and on both sides of the Channel. 

Click here to see a video teaser of  Where Eagles Never Flew




 

Friday, March 18, 2022

The World Loves an Underdog - The Nazi Juggernaut against a "Few" British Amateurs

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, the ability of the out-numbered and out-gunned Ukrainians to withstand the Russian juggernaut increasingly attracts world admiration. People love it when the underdog defies expectations and stops a bully. 

The Battle of Britain had that quality as well.

In the summer of 1940, the RAF stood against an apparently invincible enemy, a juggernaut of  seemingly huge proportions, while RAF Fighter Command was tiny -- and largely composed of 18-22 year-old amateurs hastily inducted! Even including the foreign pilots flying with the RAF, there were only roughly 1,200 trained fighter pilots. (Numbers varied due to training, casualties and recruiting.) They were anything but "cannon fodder." Although very few of them were "regulars," because the process of learning to fly to the proficiency required took more than a year, fighter pilots represented a cadre that could not be readily replaced. The RAF had to beat the Luftwaffe with the few men it had.

Churchill – as so often – captured the sentiment of his countrymen when he claimed that “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” This image of a small “band of brothers” standing up to a massive and invincible foe in a defensive battle for their homeland was reminiscent of other heroic battles – Henry V at Agincourt, Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers, Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae. Such battles, pitting a few defenders against a hoard of enemy, have always appealed to students of history and readers of historical fiction like almost nothing else.

It would be easy to imagine Churchill's "Few" as a tiny elite like the knights of earlier centuries or the Spartan guard with Leonidas at Thermopylae. After all, this was a Britain that was still overwhelmingly white, Christian and intensely class conscious. 

Yet RAF Fighter Command was surprisingly diverse for the period. Of the nearly 3,000 RAF pilots who flew at least one sortie during the Battle of Britain, only 80% were British citizens. Twenty percent came from the Dominions and/or other Allied countries. The largest number of foreigners to participate in the Battle were Polish, accounting for 145 pilots, and the second largest foreign contingent flying for the RAF came from New Zealand with 126 pilots. Pilots also came from Canada, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Belgium, South Africa, France, the United States, Ireland, Rhodesia and Jamaica.

Even more astonishing, however, is that fully one third of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain were Sergeants. That is, they were not the children of privilege, not the scions of the aristocratic families or the product of “Oxbridge.” The Sergeant Pilots of the RAF were men with more mundane backgrounds, men without the ‘right accent,’ who had not gone to public schools, and sometimes had even left school at 14 or 15.  

This was because since its inception, the RAF had actively encouraged recruitment from all sectors of society, intentionally breaking with the rigidly class-conscious traditions of the Royal Navy and Army. The RAF had provided scholarships to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell for exceptional young airmen and apprentices. It had launched a special program to encourage ground crews to receive pilot training. The RAF Volunteer Reserve was established to enable young men still in civilian life without the means to finance flying lessons to learn to fly at RAF expense. These pilots almost invariably came from the classes of society whose sons did not traditionally go to public schools, University or the Officer Corps.

In the Battle of Britain, pilots of the VR flew, drank and joked alongside the titled and privileged pilots of the University and Auxiliary Air Squadrons and the regulars, who had graduated from Cranwell. Literally, the sons of dukes and miners served in the same squadrons, fulfilling the same duties, taking the same risks, and reaping the same rewards. Most of the Sergeant Pilots of the Battle of Britain who survived were later commissioned, and often rose to senior command.

Where Eagles Never Flew is a tribute to the men and women who were engaged in this crucial conflict. Based on first-hand accounts by pilots and other participants as well as retrospective historical analysis, this novel recreates the tense atmosphere of this dramatic summer. It allows the reader to see unfolding events through the eyes of characters involved both in the air and on the ground and on both sides of the Channel.

Click here to see a video teaser of  Where Eagles Never Flew





Friday, March 11, 2022

Some Battles are Decisive - Remembering the Battle of Britain

 Watching Ukraine fighting alone against a brutal, autocratic aggressor reminds me viscerally of the Battle of Britain. I cannot help but imagine Ukrainian pilots "scrambling" and fighting desperate battles, while their bases -- and their homes -- are bombed around them.  

Although very different, the parallels to the Battle of Britain are nevertheless striking. In 1940 it was Britain, now it is Ukraine that stands alone. Again the United States is on the sidelines -- if for very different reasons.

 As a historian, I firmly believe that remembering the past helps us understand the present. Studying the past can help us see options, remember hazards, and draw strength from examples of courage and endurance in adversity. However, in this and future posts, I will speak only about historical events. I leave it to the reader to consider parallels to the present and note differences of significance -- which may alter the outcome.

 

The Battle of Britain did not win or end the war against Nazi Germany. It would take five more grim and grueling years of conflict before Hitler was finally defeated. The Second World War first spread across the entire northern hemisphere and consumed millions of lives before it was finally over. Yet the Battle of Britain was the imperative first step toward Allied victory. It brought Hitler’s aggression to a halt for the first time since he had come to power in Germany in 1933. 

For Hitler, the failure to defeat the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1940 was viewed more as an annoyance rather than as a major strategic set-back. He had long declared his preference to have Great Britain as an ally. He had hoped the British would not ‘interfere’ with his invasion of Poland. He had expected the British government to sue for peace after the fall of France. When the Luftwaffe proved incapable of creating the conditions for an invasion, Hitler turned his attention back to his long-held goal of invading the Soviet Union. The war against the Soviet Union was Hitler’s passion; the war against the British Empire was an irritating complication about which he lost little sleep. To this day, most Germans have never even heard of the Battle of Britain, and if they have, they attribute to it no major significance.

Yet for Britain, the United States, Occupied Europe, and later even the Soviet Union, the significance of the Battle of Britain can hardly be over-stated.

Although Hitler had not expected it would be necessary to invade England, he had been prepared to do so. Likewise, while neither the German Navy nor Army were keen about a cross-channel invasion, they dutifully made (or pretended to make) the necessary preparations. Their reluctance would not have stopped Hitler from ordering the invasion of England had he chosen to do so. However, it was agreed within the German High Command that the Luftwaffe would pave the way for an invasion by establishing air superiority over Britain. It was hoped — and perhaps assumed — that the air attacks would drive the British government to the negotiating table.

It was only as the costs of the air fighting mounted and the British government remained intransigent that Hitler made the decision to postpone the invasion indefinitely. This decision was taken on September 17, mainly as a result of the air fighting on September 15. The furious and tenacious defense of English airspace on September 15, 1940 proved that the RAF was far from defeated.

The victory was not immediately apparent. The Luftwaffe continued to attack Britain on a smaller scale by day and neither German troops nor barges were withdrawn from the channel ports until the spring of 1941. Furthermore, the night “Blitz” of London continued savagely throughout the winter. The British people did not feel safe from invasion until the Wehrmacht had turned its attention to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.

Yet the RAF had failed to discourage Hitler from his plans to invade Britain, the course of the war would inevitably have been different. A German invasion would have been launched. Whether the Royal Navy, seriously weakened by the losses incurred at Dunkirk and dangerously over-stretched trying to protect the Atlantic lifeline, could have stopped it remains debatable. Certainly, the British ground forces lacked tanks and artillery for fighting the heavily mechanized Wehrmacht, if it successfully came ashore. Churchill was not only being rhetorical when he spoke about fighting a guerrilla war against the invaders!

Thus, in retrospect, we know that the Battle of Britain is what saved the British Isles from a Nazi invasion and very likely from Nazi occupation. What is often forgotten nowadays is that it was a very near-run thing. The outcome teetered in the balance day after day. It was also a victory won by an extraordinarily limited number of combatants — Winston’s Churchill’s “Few.” Yet they were not entirely alone in this vital struggle. They were supported by ground crews and controllers, by medical, clerical and catering staff -- and by the women they loved.

Where Eagles Never Flew is a tribute to the men and women who were engaged in this crucial conflict. Based on first-hand accounts by pilots and other participants as well as retrospective historical analysis, this novel recreates the tense atmosphere of this dramatic summer. It allows the reader to see unfolding events through the eyes of characters involved both in the air and on the ground and on both sides of the Channel. 

See a video teaser of Where Eagles Never Flew 

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Friday, March 4, 2022

FORGOTTEN HEROES: FIRST LIEUTENANT DOUGLAS RAYMOND STARRETT

Today I conclude my series on "Forgotten Heroes of the Air War 1939-1945" with a guest entry from Susan Martin of Cumberland Maine. Susan writes about her father, Lieutenant Douglas Starrett, who commanded a B-17 of the US Eighth Air Force in 1944-1945. Like "Stevie's" story, his tale is less about exceptional acts of courage and more about the spirit of dedication and commitment that so often characterized the men who flew for the Allies in WWII. 

"What does it matter how you feel about that?  It has to be done." 

"Self-discipline!"

When I was growing up, I never thought to ask why or how my father came to use such strong statements with me. Or why, whenever something went wrong, or in an emergency, my Dad got very quiet, very controlled and took care of everything. Only later did I start to think it had something to do with the fact that he had been the captain of a bomber plane in WWII. When he was alive, I never asked him about his experiences — and he never told me anything either. 

Yet I vividly remember one time as a teenager coming upon him watching a black and white movie on TV. His jaw was tensing, his fists were clenching and he didn't even know I was looking at him.  Quietly, I left the room, found my Mom and asked her what was wrong with him.  Her answer: "Oh he's just watching 12 O'Clock High again!"  Of course, I watched it myself as soon as I could.  I was shocked at the combat footage (some actually filmed during air battles) and came away in a bit of awe...wondering how anyone could function, let alone come back alive. My father was one who did, and this is his story.

My father was born in April 1920 in Framingham, Massachusetts, the oldest son of Arthur Starrett, the president of L.S. Starrett Tool Company. He was followed by a brother and sister.  After completing high school in Athol, Massachusetts, Dad went to Worcester Academy in 1937 for one year and then to Dartmouth College. He had not yet completed his junior year when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States. Returning home after completing his junior year exams at Dartmouth College, he informed his father that, like many other young men at that time, he did not intend to return to college but was going to join the Air Force instead. It ended up being an all-night-long fight with his father Arthur, but my Dad won the fight. He joined the USAAF.

He also got married to my mother, Janet Nichols. He was 21 & she was 22.  She had just graduated Skidmore College. After they got married, he took my Mom with him to Florida while he went through pilot training.  Married airmen at that time could bring their wives and they lived off-base in apartments. 

My father won his wings at Freeman Field, Indiana in March 1944. Further, training followed, until he was fully qualified on the four-engine B-17 bomber. On completing training, he was assigned to the USAAF 8th Air Force. The legendary “Mighty Eighth” was based in England and leading the U.S. strategic bombing efforts against Nazi Germany. 

My mother could not accompany my father overseas. She chose to live with her parents, while my father deployed to England. It must have been a scary time for both of them. He was facing the enemy day-after-day and with it the constant threat of death. All my mother could do was wait for his letters — while reading everyday how many B-17s had been shot down.  She knew the risks all too well — and so did he. According to my mother, they had refrained from starting a family before the war because my Dad didn't want to leave her a widow with a child. I would not be born until 1946.

My father joined the 486 Bombardment Group, Eighth Air Force, Third Air Division, stationed at Skipton Airbase. He was lucky to arrive so late in the war. In 1943, airmen flying with the USAAF from England had only a one in four chance of completing their tour. Average life expectancy was 15 missions, and a tour was 25. By the time my father completed training, however, the long-range fighters, the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang, had joined the fight, and the Luftwaffe had largely been destroyed. Chances of survival had improved so much that the USAAF increased the length of a tour from 25 missions to 35. And while the threat from the Luftwaffe had decreased, the German anti-aircraft batteries, the infamous “flak,” was as bad or worse than ever. As captain, my Dad was the pilot and if it were damaged, it was his job to stay in his seat and try to keep the plane level and on an even keel so his crew could bail out. He would be last to man to parachute out — assuming the plane didn’t spin out of control as soon as he stopped flying it, that is!  

The above photo shows my Dad and his crew. He is in the middle row, the dark-haired, smiling guy on the far right. Below is their B-17, “Lil Butch.” My Dad flew all of his 35 missions in it and it always brought them home safe. My Dad finished his tour on March 23, 1945.

 

On March 30, just a few days after Dad flew his last mission, his former B-17 went down over Hamburg. According to squadron records, one of the aircraft wings broke off and it went into a steep dive. Only two crewmen survived to become POWs. Yikes !!!  It guess it was bad karma for the new crew to change the name of the plane my Dad piloted on 35 missions and which had always brought him and his crew home from "Lil Butch" to “Rodney the Rocks.”

Not that my father never had problems. I remember my Dad saying that the B-17's, the Flying Fortress, could take a lot of hits and still remain flying. I later learned that he had to land once in France because he was so badly shot up that he knew he couldn't make it back over the English Channel.  An account of this appeared in his local hometown news paper on March 19, 1945.  The headline read:  "Athol Pilot Saves Fort"  "Lt. Starrett Lands Damaged Bomber in Nick of Time"   

To paraphrase, his gasoline was just about gone, the navigational equipment and radio destroyed, but flying in bad weather through a heavy cloud cover, he managed to land his plane and crew safely on a field not too far from Paris. He had flown through heavy flak over railroad yards in Munich Germany, dropping his bombs but being shot up pretty badly. "We hit that runway at the right minute" said my Dad. "The needles on those gas gages were kicking around like they wanted to jump out and do a tap dance on the instrument panel"  

He, his crew and plane stayed overnight on that field for emergency repairs and service so they could make it back across the Channel the next day.  Before they flew back to Britain, a local priest brought a group of over 60 children from a nearby village. They had often seen these large armadas of B-17s flying over their village but had never seen one close-up.  Dad's crew took the children out to their plane where they excitedly swarmed all over it, asking questions in French and broken English.  They were particularly excited to learn that each bomb painted on the big bomber's nose indicated one successful attack on a war target in Germany.  When the bomber finally took off down the runway, the kids cheered, waved and gave the V-Sign.

After the war, my Dad did not go back to Dartmouth but went right into the 4-year apprentice toolmaker's program at L.S. Starrett Co.  Back then, even if you were aiming to advance up the ladder, a college degree wasn't as important as it is now — at least that was my Mom’s explanation for why my Dad never finished college. I think that his war experiences also matured him, and he felt that he wasn't a college boy anymore. He wanted to get on with his career, married life and start a family.  I was born in 1946, a year after he left the Air Force, followed by my sister Sarah and brother Douglas.    

Dad's Father Arthur was not going to just put his son into the executive office. Instead, my Dad had to learn about the tools the factory sold at first hand. He had to work in all the departments as he worked his way up the ladder.  Eventually he became President and the CEO of the company. He established overseas branches in Scotland & Brazil and was still working at the time of his death at 81 years old in Nov. 2001. 

Once as a teenager, I was on a commercial flight with Dad, and it really got rough and bumpy.  I was scared and told my Dad. He said, "What are you afraid of?  No one is shooting at us."  Then I asked him, "Dad you kissed your wedding ring when we took off...how come?"  He replied, “I kissed the ring every time we took off for a bombing run over Germany, and I always came back!"

Susan Starrett Martin,  age 75,  Cumberland Maine USA

 

My novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground of whatever nationality that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. Find out more at:https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html


Lack of Moral Fibre, A Stranger in the Mirror and A Rose in November can be purchased individually in ebook format, or in a collection under the title Grounded Eagles in ebook or paperback. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles


Where Eagles Never Flew was the the winner of a Hemmingway Award for 20th Century Wartime Fiction and a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew