Interview by Lee Davis:

by Phil Johnson | March 11th, 2010

Wednesday, 10, Mar 2010 09:34

The date is September 21st 1940, in the dark days of World War II, and the Germans’ Operation Sealion, the invasion of Great Britain, is underway.

This is the premise of Seelöwe Nord, a thrilling, detailed and very cinematic novel from new author Andy Johnson. Written with the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in mind, Seelöwe Nord postulates what would have happened had the Germans been able to get a foothold on mainland Britain in the late summer of 1940.

The author, Andy Johnson, a former regimental sergeant major in the renowned Coldstream Guards, brings 24 years’ worth of military experience to his writing, which crackles with the earthy dialogue and ‘getting on with it’ attitude of fighting men and machines with a job to do.

Johnson, who joined the British Army aged 16, retired in 2009 after serving in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He was born and educated in the city of York and draws upon his upbringing in and around east Yorkshire as the setting for his novel. The writer also incorporates his love of military history into the book, as he said: “In the wholly historical context, it’s accurate.

“The period in the book, the 20th to 25th September 1940, was the high point for the invasion threat to Britain. And if you read the war diaries of the British commanders they were literally up all night thinking: ‘It’s going to be tonight.’

“All our intelligence suggests it was going to happen somewhere on the south coast, which was the original German plan, somewhere between Folkestone down to Southampton.”

“So the context is accurate,” he continues. “The German order of battle is almost exactly as it was. The layout of British forces was almost exactly as I describe it in the book.

“I have made up some fictional British regiments and placed them where there were real regiments.

“I haven’t changed the amount of troops in any one place. I’ve just changed the names because where something happens in the book I didn’t want to offend the reputation of a good, well-known British regiment that still exists.

“In terms of fiction, what I’ve done is given the Germans the bonus of crossing the North Sea. But the reality is, we didn’t know where they’d land, it could’ve been anywhere, from Scotland to Wales. We were pretty paranoid as a nation.”

According to Andy, Germany most likely would have left from Norway onboard their destroyers.

“What I’ve done, with artistic licence, is given them passage across the North Sea,” he explains. “They’ve managed to pull it off and I’ve put them on the east coast of Britain.

“There’s a number of reasons for that. Firstly, the original thought of the British commanders after Dunkirk was that the Germans would land on the east coast.

“They thought that would be where the Germans would come across as the east coast has some very good beaches, and because it would be a very short dash from there to the industrial Midlands.

“And the other reason is due to the fact that I know that whole stretch of the country rather well.”

As a boy, Andy used to holiday in places like Filey Bay and he recalls seeing pill boxes there and wondering what they were for.

It wasn’t until he was older that he realised that Britain had faced an invasion from Nazi Germany and how the whole of the UK had become a fortress in anticipation of such an event.

Andy added: “And there was the GHQ, general headquarters, which was the final line of defence if the Germans had landed, about 30 to 40 miles inland and it ran parallel to the coast.

“It followed the Ouse down to the Humber and followed the line of the Derwent.”

In his final year in the army, Andy had the concept of the German invasion of the east coast in mind for a military exercise. He wanted to employ the idea for an exercise training non-commissioned officers, however it was never realised.

“Because of operational reasons, the boys got deployed to Afghanistan then my retirement hit me and I never got the chance to do the exercise,” he elaborates.

“But I had this whole thing in my head, and I’d been trying to write books for years, and it occurred to me that this year was the 70th anniversary of everything I was talking about.

“So after a considerable amount of time pressure, I sat down last March and just ploughed into it. That’s where the book comes from, basically.”

The novel sizzles with very cinematic action sequences that are character-driven, from both the British and German forces’ points of view, as the following extract demonstrates:

“Koch suddenly found himself on the edge of a ditch and half-jumped, half-fell into it, landing heavily and biting his tongue in the process.

‘Ah, f**k!’ He swore, then, seeing something writhing on the floor and moaning, he emptied a short burst into the figure. Just to his left there was an ear-splitting scream and he whirled around, his heart hammering with fright.

In a split second, he recognised the figure of Corporal Braun leaning back against the side of the ditch as a Tommy soldier drove his bayonet deep into the German’s guts.”

The author also respects the German military in the book, as he explained: “The reality is, in 1940 the Germans had completely revolutionised the science of war.

“They’d already proved that several times over, seizing Norway the way they did, and they were in Poland, across the Low Countries, and they were in France. So even at that early stage of the war, the Germans were completely revolutionising war.

“We did get proper paranoid about it, y’know, and maybe thought a little too much of them but they were a very competent war machine, and had they put more commitment into Operation Sealion, they would’ve stood a very good fighting chance, I reckon.”

Seelöwe Nord is chockfull of gripping and all-too-human characters, ranging from Winston Churchill to the British and German soldiers fighting it out on the ground.

Regarding characters, Andy said: “No-one in the book is based on a single individual apart from one character who’s based on a very good friend of mine,” said the writer with a smile. “He’ll know who he is.

“Other than that, I haven’t thought: ‘Oh, he’ll be in the book and I’e put his name in.’

“But over 24 years in the army, you get to meet a lot of characters and within every army you always get your jokers and your absolutely obsessed professionals.

“You get your guy who is a tough, Victorian father type, who is actually a good bloke, so you get all these characters and I was very keen to give them all a bit of vulnerability in a way, because in war films and Playstation games people seem to think of soldiers as robots, who every time they fire a weapon they hit a target, that kind of thing.

“And I just wanted people to understand that, not only that the soldiers were very real, but actually the nature of infantry warfare is very, very chaotic.

“And from my own experiences, half the time I’ve been shot at I don’t know who has been shooting at me!”

Chaos and long periods of boredom appear to define the life of an infantryman as Andy elaborates: “You can spend hour after hour at night on sentry in Iraq, you can go on patrol in Afghanistan a dozen times and see nothing.

“But when it happens, it’s lightning-quick. A man drops down, his life ended. No final last words, he just drops dead.

“And when it calms down, you’re left feeling drained and disoriented, that’s what war is like.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends in Afghanistan, but, y’know, it’s in the nature of what we do, and me and my friends accept it.

“The way I see it, and one of the reasons for writing this book, is that 70 years ago we were on the verge of being invaded and losing all our freedoms.

“And the threat to Britain’s security is as severe now as it was in 1940. It’s just that it comes in a different way, and we don’t quite register it because we’re fighting these two wars in distant lands and we haven’t got bombs dropping on our heads, so to speak. It is very hard to understand the threat.

“So I just wanted to say in a way that freedom costs at the end of the day. In 1940, when conscription was starting, a lot of people would’ve been thinking: ‘What do I care about Germany? This isn’t my business.’

“But if we hadn’t done our bit we wouldn’t be living the way we live now. I think, in a way, I just wanted to prick people’s consciences.”

Commenting on Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, Andy said: “You can go on about whether it was legal or illegal but the fact is there are bad countries out there which host bad organisations, which will eventually impact on life here in the UK.

“Regardless of the minor political squabbles regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve been there. I’ve seen British soldiers do good stuff for the people of Iraq and seen their lives improved.

“Yes, there has been unfortunate incidents and casualties, but in the long term, I’m convinced that what we’re doing is right.

“If someone doesn’t deal with it now, then our grandchildren will have to deal with it, against nuclear powers, in 30 years’ time.”

Returning to his book, Andy said he started writing it in March 2009 and finished it in November, sending it to the publisher at the end of the month.

Getting your book published is a struggle for first time authors, and Andy is no exception.

“It was really unusual,” he explained. “I wanted to get it to a major publisher, who would, y’know, pay me a certain amount and publish the book on my behalf, get some royalties and do all the business for me.

“But in the publishing world there’s a certain amount of snobbery about submissions. You have to get an agent. Submit it, get a refusal from a publisher, then you have to play one off against the other.

“That could, potentially, take years and I was determined that if this book was ever going to be a success it would be in this anniversary year.

“So I thought the only way I’ll get this published is to do self-assisted publishing, and I was looking at some companies who would look affordable to me.

“By happy coincidence, a friend who works in the youth service said they’e got a friend who runs a publishing company.

“I wrote into them with a proposal, slightly wary because they tend to publish religious books and I was conscious of the swearing in my book. So I was amazed to get an email one Sunday morning saying they were more than happy to publish the book.

“The process was so user-friendly, it was unbelievable. It is a fantastic company. So I would say that self-assisted publishing, with print on demand, is fantastic.”

Thus far Seelowe Nord has been available to buy on Amazon and knocked two Bernard Cornwell books into touch in war books sales charts for February.

“It seems to be going quite well,” Andy comments. “I know a lot of people from my time in the army, so there’s a lot of old comrades who’ve bought the book.

“And it will appeal, predominantly, to ex-soldiers and those serving in the army. I’ve had a few people who have said it’s bang on the money.”

Writing has always been something Andy has enjoyed and after receiving glowing praise from high-ranking officers in the military for penning some factual pieces, Andy’s confidence was bolstered, as he says: “If I’m to be honest, that’s what gave me the confidence to plunge into getting a book published.”

Andy, a fan of military history, which shines through in his book, admits also to being an old romantic, saying that if he had been in the American Civil War, he would have been a Confederate; “I like the idea of fighting for a lost cause, of being up against the odds.”

Andy is currently working on a new book, a pre-Celtic, Bronze Age mythology-style novel.

“That’s a labour of love. It started one misty day when I was misted-in at an observation post in Northern Ireland in 1996. I was surrounded by all these old stone circle sort of things.”

Andy’s love for military fiction can be traced back to him receiving a raft of Leo Kessler books one Christmas when he was in his early teens.

In later years, Andy discovered the first Sharpe novel by Bernard Cornwell in the 80s and Andy highly rates Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy, too.

“I read very widely – history, fantasy fiction, archaeology, and war diaries fascinate me,” he goes on.

“And what finally persuaded me to write Seelöwe Nord was reading Alan Brooke’s war diaries, as there’s so much fantastic detail in there.

“I’ve been able to put a lot of these details about critical points in this nation’s history into the novel, like Brooke’s relationship with Churchill,” said Andy.

The following extract gives some insight into the two men’s relationship with one another:

“The Prime Minister was sitting a small writing bureau, dressed in his air force blue battle-dress style suit which he often wore. Next to him, General ‘Pug’ Ismay, his military attaché, was standing attentively by.

The room was heavy with cigar smoke, which Brooke found irritating. Winston Churchill, the new, inspirational, and in Brooke’s opinion, slightly eccentric Prime Minister, turned to face them.”

Seelöwe Nord bristles with knockout battle action from close quarters fighting on land to breakneck sea engagements, although the latter did concern Andy somewhat.

He explains: “To be honest, the only bits [of the writing] that worried me was the naval sequences because I’m not a naval man. I had to do a lot of reading for those sequences.

“The bulk of the book was so easy to write as it was rolling war story, action sequence after action sequence.

“I found them very easy to write. I really wanted to make people understand that this isn’t like a Rambo film, with one man taking out 20 guys.

“And as you read through the book I’ve tried to put in many personal little things, like losing a tooth after smashing it on the butt of your gun or skinning your knuckles every time you cock your weapon.”

Andy’s favourite character throughout the novel is a German soldier called Corporal Nuemark. Despite being foul-mouthed, the soldier is a consummate professional.

Remarking on Nuemark, Andy said: “He’s just like so many people I’ve come across in my time in the army. Chunters all day about what he’s got to do, but will go and do it very well. I found myself chuckling as wrote I some of his dialogue.”

Unfortunately, Andy had to sacrifice some of the book’s expansive page count to get it down to a publishable size, in the process having to cut Nuemark’s ‘screen’ time.

However, Andy has a prequel sketched out which would show Nuemark in France and the Low Countries.

Andy has also undertaken for a percentage of the profits from Seelöwe Nord to be donated to military charities, the Army Benevolent Fund and his old regiment, the Coldstream Guards.

“I thought I’d write a fictional novel about something from a long time ago and make it readable for soldiers,” he adds.

“And the least I could do for my friends over there fighting, and in some cases dying, was to give something to the organisation that looked after me very well for a quarter of a century and gave me a great career.”

Lee Davis

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Seelöwe Nord is the online home of Andy Johnson, a war fiction novelist. Seelöwe Nord is a war novel that tells the alternative history of Operation Sealion, the proposed German invasion of Britain in 1940. Followed by Thunder in May, and the recently released Crucible of Fate, the trilogy of War Fiction remains a popular read within the genre.

Andy has also started to publish small Leadership and Management Booklets drawing from his extensive experience across many sectors and industries, both military and civilian, the first of which is entitled Captains of the Gate and is now available for download on eReaders directly from Amazon.