The Plane Truth: The Story Behind DARKEST HOUR

Last week, I took great effort to dramatically reveal the cover for my newest book, DARKEST HOUR, the first of a series of young adult historical adventures. This great cover was drawn by Daryl Toh, who also drew the amazing cover for my other work, ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES. It goes without saying that Daryl has a great eye for character, color and drama. His work is a delight.

Now that the cover is out, I wanted to explain the inspirations and processes that brought me to tell this story. Normally, I’d include these as notes at the end of the book, but since I received some questions, I thought these ramblings would serve a better purpose here.

DARKEST HOUR is an alternate history where events that brought about World War II and the Battle of Britain have changed. Some keen-eyed observers have pointed out the aircraft on my cover and some of the illustrations I provided feature American aircraft in British insignia and camouflage paint—planes that did not participate in the actual Battle of Britain. I chose the planes for a reason and those reasons led to the creation of the story.

Before I go further, some actual history. The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918. This terrifying conflict resulted in the deaths of over nine million combatants and over seven million civilians. It ended the monarchies of several European countries, including that of the Tsar Nicholas Romanov II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Austria-Hungary empire. The end of the war and the bitter defeat also laid the groundwork for the ascent of a disgruntled corporal named Adolph Hitler.

The European world was also greatly affected by huge losses of one gender. Here’s a quote from an on-line article in Quartz:

“Take, for example, France after World War I. The war of 1914-1918 devastated France demographically. During the war years, there were roughly 8.7 million Frenchmen between the ages of 20 and 50. Some 8.5 million enlisted in the military. Roughly 1.4 million died. After the war there were about 40% fewer single French men for every unmarried woman, compared to before, according to a recent paper on the topic by John Knowles of Simon Fraser University and Guillaume Vandenbroucke, of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.”

What has this to do with planes?  Nothing. I’ll get to that soon enough. But here’s a quote from another on-line article, “Surplus Women: A Legacy of World War One”:

More than 700,000 British men were killed during World War One. This tragic loss of life affected the lives of young women in 1920s Britain. Virginia Nicholson has discussed in her 2007 book, Singled Out, the difficulties of unmarried women following the gender imbalance of the population which followed World War One. The middle classes were especially affected with a higher proportion of officers killed than those in lower ranks. The 700,000 deaths resulted in a particularly large gap between the male and female populations of people aged 25 to 34 with 1,158,000 unmarried women and 919,000 unmarried men, according to the 1921 census.

Although the press sensationalized the results of the 1921 census, using the phrases ‘surplus’ and ‘superfluous’ women, the imbalance of population in Britain was not a new phenomenon arising with World War One. The 1851 census showed that 30 per cent of English women aged 20 to 40 were unmarried. By the late 19th century, around a third of British women between the ages of 25 to 35 were unmarried, and census records show that an imbalance of men and women continued in the Edwardian years. Indeed, Jay Winter has argued that World War One actually increased the popularity of marriage in Britain in general, but that there was an effect on women born between 1894 and 1902.

Like the press in the early 1920s, Nicholson focusses on the 2 million ‘surplus women’. However, she notes that this was a number rounded up from 1.75 million, which was documented in the 1921 census. Ten years later, half of the women who were 25 to 29 years old in 1921, were still unmarried.

This is the background that sets the story in motion. Now imagine a twenty-year world war beginning in 1914 and not ending until 1934. Besides the destruction and the ruin, the effect on population and society in Western Europe would be horrific, if not catastrophic. In short, an entire generation or more of men would not be there to marry, raise families or rear children. There would be more women than men.

Such changes might lead to something more than just an imbalance of genders. Some nations—like Britain—would be forced to adapt to the crisis. This means women would replace men in politics, business and even in the military. Women could vote in superior numbers: changing laws and establishing greater equality. This is unexpected for this period of history, years before such changes actually took place.

World building requires cause and effect. If DARKEST HOUR is based on a Twenty Year Great War, there had to be a reason for it. In actual history, one of the factors that brought about the end of the First World War was America’s entrance in the conflict in 1916. This happened after the sinking of the steamship Lusitania by U-boat (many Americans were killed) and the Zimmerman telegram (a secret message sent from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to the Emperor of Mexico promising military aid and the return of Texas—if Mexico attacked the United States and kept it out of European affairs. The telegram alone was reason enough to incite a declaration of war.)

If America never entered the First World War, remaining neutral instead, then the trench warfare and slow crawl of death across Europe and Africa would only continue. It could be further speculated that America would evolve as a singular superpower—supplying food and materials for both sides, and become richer for it.

In DARKEST HOUR, the long Great War began and ended before the first chapter of the book. When we meet the main character, Briley Bannatyne, it’s 1940. Briley is a seventeen-year-old girl living on the eastern coast of England in a village where there are still many women and few men. Britain is an economically depressed country. There are few cities. Many people live in the country, subsisting on farming. Briley and her older brother Mackinley are machinists using their skills to repair farm equipment and fly the post in a decrepit old biplane.

About Those Planes

Airplanes make up an important part of DARKEST HOUR—they are symbols of Briley’s past (her father was a pilot during the Great War), her future (the warplanes she comes to fly) and the freedom to choose her own life. I admit to being an aviation buff. My admiration comes from books like the Jane’s Illustrated series, trips to the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, aircraft collector’s web sites, pilot recollections, documentaries and films.

In the story, Briley trains and flies several different aircraft. These planes are fictions and part of the alternate timeline of DARKEST HOUR. In this 1940, Britain is at a different place in its history. After the long war, some nations fell completely apart and their borders are in flux. Paris is a fortress, surrounded by an immense wall. The Scandinavian countries have collapsed into anarchy, serving only to hide vicious criminals, the Nordlander pirates. The brewing hatred of defeat has given birth to a resurgence in nationalism among the defeated officers and nobility of Germany and Austria-Hungary. This leads to the emergence of the story’s primary antagonist—The Black Legion.

Back in Britain, the armed services have to contend with dwindling numbers of recruits. The British Navy and Army are smaller. There is no Royal Air Force; only a Royal Air Militia. The Long Great War destroyed London and much of the manufacturing complex in southern England. This leaves the country desperate for military enlistees and modern equipment. The answer—allow women to join the ranks and buy equipment from other countries. The airplanes seen in the illustrations look like American planes because they originally were. They were designed in the United States and then licensed or sold to Britain.

This was not an unheard-of practice. During World War II, Britain bought or leased hundreds of Sherman tanks, ships and aircraft (including the P-40 Warhawk and the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair) from the USA through the Lend-Lease Act. One of fifty dilapidated destroyers leased to Britain by President Roosevelt took part in Operation Chariot: a commando raid to destroy the Normandie dock in France—keeping the battleship Bismarck from having a safe Atlantic port. The USA licensed the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine from Britain for its P-51 Mustang fighter—a design commissioned by the Royal Air Force. Planes were swapped by many countries during the war. The Soviet Union put the P-39 Bell Airacobra to good use as a low-altitude fighter and built licensed copies of Studebaker-Packard engines for their trucks (a design “borrowed” later by Russian manufacturers.)

Even the Germans sold their designs to other nations. In the 1969 film Battle of Britain, the Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters seen in the movie are Spanish Hispano Aviación HA-1112s—license-built versions painted and refitted to look like their 1940 German cousins. Ironically—after the war—these Spanish planes used Rolls-Royce Merlin engines imported from Britain!

So to answer those keen-eyed observers’ questions, why are my characters flying American airplanes in the Battle of Britain? Its due to necessity and ingenuity.

Konqueror Kestrel

The British Konqueror Kestrel is a license-built version of the single-seat Boeing F4B acquired in the late 1920s to replace aging and outclassed fighters during the Great War. The design changes include Vickers machine guns and retractable landing gear.

 

Boeing F4B
Boeing F4B

The Kestrel design borrows the retractable landing gear of the later-built Boeing F3F fighter.

Boeing F3F
Boeing F3F
Konqueror Kestrel
Konqueror Kestrel from 102nd “Red Devils” Observation Squadron

Exeter Lancer

The Republic P-43 Lancer was leased to Chinese forces during the Second World War and led to the development of the famous P-47 Thunderbolt. The British-built Exeter Lancer uses a different engine and firepower was increased to eight .303 Browning machineguns.

P-43 Republic Lancer
P-43 Republic Lancer
Exeter Lancer
An updated Exeter Lancer for the Royal Air Militia

This plane is circa early 1940, prior to Battle of Britain camouflage paint. This model was flown by Wing Commander Andrew Lumis. Wing commanders were allowed to use their initials to designate their aircraft to guide other pilots. Note the four barrels of the .303 Browning machine guns in the wing, the “horse-collar” cowling for the Rolls-Royce Python radial engine and Nordlander pirate symbols and pirate airship kill marks on the aircraft’s side.

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