Friday, 24 October 2014

Interview with Author Chris Keltie and Bonus Extract from his book, 'Riding in the Shadow of Death', a True Account of Bomber Command Pilot Bill North and Crew.

Riding in the Shadow of Death, is the amazing true life story of Lancaster Bomber Pilot Bill North, who served as a pilot with RAF Bomber Command’s 61 Squadron during World War Two. His story is told by Chris Keltie, who as a 7 year old boy met Bill and his family after moving into the house next door in London, March 1970. Over the years, Chris heard many accounts of Bill's WW2 experiences and grew to realise that his unassuming next-door neighbour and good friend was actually, an extraordinary man. 

The odds in Bomber Command of crew survival were extreme. The chance of completing a tour of 30 Operations was one in three; the highest losses in the British Armed Services in WW2, dying as fast as Officers in the trenches during WW1. Only the German U-Boat crews would suffer similar losses. 

Bill and his crew had many near death experiences and witnessed many of their comrades dying. After completing many successful bombing missions on military targets, they were shot down on a night raid in Northern France. Bill could have saved himself by baling out, but one of his crew members was without a parachute. Though seriously wounded, he made an amazing, virtually blind night-time crash landing, in order to save his crew. In Bill’s words: “I have still yet to meet a Lancaster pilot who survived a night time crash landing in occupied territory." 

Bill was taken prisoner by a German Luftwaffe Officer and ended up at Barth Stalag Luft 1 on the Baltic coast. The rest of his crew ended up deep in Germany at Stalag Luft 7, and were eventually forced marched back into Germany as the Red Army relentlessly pushed west. 

In the face of adversity, the bond between crew members serving in the RAF was phenomenal. The same was so for Bill, who survived 17 operations out of the normal tour of duty which was 30. All his crew members said that there was no pilot better than Bill North, and no one that they would rather have flown with and put their trust in. 

Riding In The Shadow Of Death, weaves together a fascinating mixture of historical, political, social and cultural events from the turbulent 20th Century. It is a story of survival, comradeship, life and death, and will not fail to move and touch your soul.


Your book, Riding in the Shadow of Death, seems to be a suitable title, given the nature of the contents. Can you tell us how you came to write this book and perhaps explain who and what was the main driving force behind it?

Chris: I was 7 years old when I first met Bill and his family after moving into the house next door in London, March 1970. He had a picture in the front room of his RAF crew standing next to a Stirling bomber, taken in March 1944. This picture instantly fascinated me. Over the years I'd heard many accounts of Bill's WW2 experiences and grew to realise that my unassuming next-door neighbour and good friend was actually, an extraordinary man.

In the back of my mind I had always thought that someone could and should write a book about his extraordinary experiences. And more importantly that if it was not done, that they would be lost to time. When I was visiting Bill in 2007, I casually threw it into our conversation that I thought someone should write a book about him. He looked up at me and said, 'Why don't you do it then?' I didn't need much persuading and the overwhelming urge to share his story with the world was the main driving force - alongside the recognition due that these men so rightfully deserved.

Bill and I had thrown a few titles around and we were never quite happy with any of them. I was reading the war diary of Norman Jarvis - Bill's bomb aimer - and it was a comment of his that inspired the title. 'We rode in the shadow of death.' The minute I repeated those words to Bill he said, 'That's it, that's the one.'

I think it's so wonderful that you had this gift of an opportunity to write this book with Bill North by your side.
Did you always want to be a writer or was it something you drifted into by chance?

Chris: I love books and I'm a real bookworm. I have always wanted to be a writer and I've had complete books knocking around in my head since I was a child. It's a nice feeling to be finally setting them free.

Well, it seems you might have a number of stories all vying to be released first. 
Can you tell us a little about the research you had to do for the book?

Chris: Bill had a huge collection of documents: RAF Log Book, letters, diaries, photographs etc. It really was a treasure trove of information, so I had a great platform to start from. However, as I delved deeper, I discovered I needed more and more information to cross reference it all. This involved hours and hours at the Public Record Office at Kew, mainly copying the ORB (Operational Record Book) for 61 Squadron and also travelling around the country, tracking down and interviewing Bomber Command veterans. Alongside this, I used many great books by WR Chorley, Max Hastings and Derek Brammer, to name a few.

From your research and experience do you think that the veterans of Bomber Command still feel let down, considering the way that they were pushed aside whilst Churchill applauded the other forces? They played a crucial role in the war and yet became the forgotten heroes.

Chris: Yes, I think that they had felt forgotten, or not appreciated for a long time. However, over the seven year period that I was writing and researching, I discovered that the general public held our veterans in high esteem, and definitely appreciated the fact that their ultimate sacrifice and contribution had helped to shorten the war. I think this love and affection has helped heal the wound to some degree. For example, when I did a book signing at Bill North's old rugby club in Pinner, Dennis Bartlett - Bill's mid-upper gunner received a two minute standing ovation which brought tears to his eyes and to many in the room too.

Yes, I think that opinion has changed somewhat over the years and I'm glad. It's the least they deserve and we all applaud their courage and sacrifice.
Is aviation history your main interest?

Chris: I am fascinated by history in general. I'm always watching the documentary channels, but more specifically, WW2 and WW1. I do love aircraft, especially from WW2; Lancaster's, Spitfire's and all the different types used by the Axis and Allied Air Forces.

The book is not your stereotypical biographical account of a Bomber Command veteran. You begin with your biography which is unusual, making this a very personalised account. What made you decide to write it this way? 

Chris: It basically started in 1970 with a seven year old boy staring at a photo of Bill North's Bomber Command Crew, and it naturally evolved that I rather became the narrator in the writing process; we were also very close. I wasn't consciously aware of this until my editor pointed it out. But it seemed to work quite well and Bill was very happy with the strong first-hand narrative thrust.

Can you describe your writing routine?

Chris: It's a bit all over the place and I would like it to be a little more disciplined but circumstances right now don't seem to allow it to be like that. Kids, work, home etc. I try to read and write every day and it's either first thing in the morning or in the very late hours of the night when the house is still and quiet. Whenever I get a free moment basically, which is not as often as I would like.

What are you writing at the moment?

Chris: A psychological thriller with a supernatural twist. I had the original idea for this when I was at school. It starts in WW2 and bounces back and forth through time. It's about a man who has a recurring dream, the same one every night since the end of the war. I won't say any more than that because I don't want to give it away. I used my wife's grandfather Joe, who was in Special Forces in WW2, as the inspiration. This is a trilogy and I've written bits and pieces of the other two. It's exciting stuff.

What is the most positive remark you have received about the book?

Chris: The book has been extremely well received which is a very satisfying feeling. I've had emails from all over the world and people have rang me to say 'thank you.' One lady from Barnsley tracked me down from an article in the Daily Mirror and ordered a copy before it was even finished. One of the most positive remarks has been from a review on Amazon: 'Brilliant, wonderfully written and researched. Heartfelt recollection of the bravest of the brave. It will run you through every emotion, sometimes all at once. It's not a "war" story; it is life and death, an example to all. Everyone should read this book, young/old - male/female, and thank their lucky stars for men like Bill North and his friends!!'

Can you sum up your experience of self-publishing so far? Will you do it again?

Chris: I loved being in charge of the whole project and I definitely would do it again. It has been a steep learning curve and extremely challenging and I've had to push myself, but I never gave up no matter what. However, time and money continue to present the most challenging obstacles to doing what I really want to do.

Which book has influenced you most as a writer?

Chris: Good question. There's a few for different reasons. My imagination was sparked early on by CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth and later on by Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Jo Nesbo. I love a well told story, a strong theme that connects it all, and a first-class plot with characters that you can visualise. I think all of the above authors have achieved this and I find myself coming back to them time and time again for inspiration. I read Voyage of the Dawn Treader again the other day . . .outstanding.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Chris: Try to finish my never ending list of building work on our house, homework with the kids or, if I'm dodging all of the above, watching war documentaries.

Any advice you'd like to share with new writers out there?

Chris: Try and write something every day, no matter what. If you have a strong idea or story, it will never go away; it will rise above all the others. Believe in yourself and no matter what anybody says, you can be a writer if you really want to be.

There are so many little known stories out there that require a voice to inform the masses. Is this something that inspires you to go forth, research and write?

Chris: Yes, it absolutely does inspire me. I have a little motto that I repeat out loud every day: 'May these stories never be lost to time.'

Finally, what would you say you have learned or gained during the writing of this book?

Chris: I have learnt a lot about myself and have become much more disciplined. I've also gained an incredible insight into the publishing industry and discovered that it's not as hard as you think to self-publish. Amazing friends have been made along the way including many veterans and their families. And most importantly, I've learned to never give up.

Book Launch June 2013:
Percy Cannings PFF Veteran (left) with Author Chris Keltie

These are two pictures from the first day of the book launch weekend, 15/16 June 2013. They were taken in the debriefing room, at the Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirkby. With me is 97 Squadron PFF veteran, Percy Cannings and Pam Livingstone, the daughter of Bill North’s bomb aimer, Norman Jarvis. Pam came specially from Australia for the book launch. On the wall behind us is the map and details for an operation to the ‘Big City’, Berlin, and Bill North watching over the proceedings. The second day of the launch was at Newark Air Museum, the site of Bill’s training base, RAF Winthorpe, 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU). This was filmed by Percy Cannings’ daughter, Sharon Cannings and her partner Martin Nichols. 
Extract from Riding in the Shadow of Death.
Chapter 11. 
One in Three Chances, an Operational Background. Page 159,160
WR Chorley’s Bomber Command Losses series books have played an important part in my relationship with Bill, and our understanding of the astounding casualty numbers. Bill had a copy of the 1944 Losses book on his living room bookshelf. I can remember as clear as a bell, the moment I first looked into the pages of this moving book. It is a series including the complete record of all the aircraft and men lost during Bomber Command Operations in WW2. Bill had been explaining to me in the late 1990’s how lucky he was to have survived on the 4/5 July 1944 St Leu Ops. As we sat talking he said, ‘Can you get that book down off the shelf for me Chris, it’s the one with the black binding.’ I got it down not quite sure what I was really looking at. Bill said, ‘Open it up on the page that has a marker on it and look down the page. There is a 61 Squadron listing for Lancaster EE186, QR-D, 4/5 July. Look at it carefully and tell me what you see.’
I told him exactly what I saw. Under the listing was Bill's name, P/O Bill North, then the names of each of his crew. Next to their names were some abbreviations, pow and evd, short for Prisoner of War and evaded capture. He then said, 'That shows my crew all survived the crash that night. Now look at the 2 listings for Lancaster's immediately above it and tell me what you see.' 
All I could see was row after row of little black crosses alongside the names of the crews. I looked back up at Bill and said 'Does this mean that all these men died?' Bill looked me right in the eyes and said 'Yes, all those crews were 7 out of 7 lost. Now look at all the rest of the aircraft losses for this night.' I was absolutely stunned at the number of crosses. As I turned page after page trying to digest the enormity of these losses, Bill sat there in silence watching me.
I was completely captivated by this book and the short explanations by WR Chorley against most of the lost aircraft. It compels one to turn the pages and examine in more detail. I finally looked back up at Bill and said 'This is unbelievable; all those men died on Operations, many of them 7 out of 7. Now I understand what you have been saying about you and your crew surviving and being lucky to be alive.'
Bill was fascinated by WR Chorley's Losses book, each time he looked at it I would quietly observe him, and mentally note his own astonishment at his survival. Even though he was aware of the high losses Bomber Command had suffered, this book somehow fully confirmed what he already knew.  
Favourite quote: 
'Riding in the Shadow of Death' captures the apocalyptic nature of the task Bomber Command was charged with carrying out. 
                  Noeline Arnott. (niece of Bill's comrade, Lancaster Pilot Jack Goodyer, RNZAF, KIA 15th June 1944).

Author Bio:
Born in Stoke Newington, North London, 7 February 1964 – the day The Beatles first went to America. I lived in Cricklewood, North London but later moved to Harrow in March 1970. Attended Uxendon Manor Primary School, St Vedast Independent School and Harrow Technical College, gaining 8 O’Levels and 3 A Levels. Also went to drama school. Still a North London boy, presently living in Golders Green.
I've been in and out of the music business as a bass player since my school days. Being a bit of a ‘Rocker’, I love Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, Deep Purple, Foo Fighters and Sound Garden, but love all sorts of music.
Previous jobs include paper round, shelf stacking, contract cleaning, gardening, mechanic, trainee Trade Mark Agent with dad David Keltie, carpentry apprenticeship with general building skills, chauffeuring, London Taxi, green badge.
Music business: started first band at school with Alex, Matt Woolfe and Frank Tang, playing punk and Jam covers, second band with Keith Boardman and Greg Gregori (Peck), Clash, Jam, Sex Pistols etc, lots of other in-between bands, last serious band was with Laurie Mansworth - More and Airrace (with Jason Bonham, son of Led Zep drummer John Bonham) - and drummer Carl Mathews from Bronz, called Mansworth and then the Ice Mummies. Was managed by Tommy T (The Almighty and New Model Army) and Peter Hinton (More). Lots of studio work and toured, with The Damned, Wasp, Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath) Rehearsed at Terminal Studios, London Bridge, owned and run by ex Fixx bassist Charlie Barret. Been in Karrang and on XFM, Capitol and BBC World Service Radio stations.
Interests include history, music, films, rugby, surfing and a love of books. I'm a real bookworm.


Many thanks to Chris Keltie for being here today. We wish you every success with the book, Chris and best wishes for your future endeavours.



Book Launch at Newark Air Museum 16th June 2013:

Riding in the Shadow of Death can be ordered on Amazon for kindle format and from Chris Keltie direct via his website for the book.

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