I was born sixteen feet below sea-level in a town called Alkmaar, in the Dutch province of North Holland. Just over six months later the German Army crossed the border in breach of Hitler’s promises and the Nazi occupation began. There was no connection between the two events, but the war in occupied Holland looms large in my earliest memories and may well account for my interest in Germany, military history and related matters.
For example, the house next door was taken over by SS men who stacked the bikes they stole from the locals against the chicken-wire fence between “their” front garden and ours. As any other small boy would, I was idly pushing and pulling the fence when the bikes fell over. I fled what I remember as a great distance (it turned to be as far as a neigbour’s house round the corner).
Resident in London from late 1945, I attended state schools and studied classics at Durham University. I joined the staff of The Journal, Newcastle, as a graduate trainee in 1960. I moved on to the Manchester office of the Daily Mail in 1963; they sent me back to Newcastle as Chief Reporter in the North-East region in 1964. During a stint in London in 1965 I was invited to join The Sunday Times. I transferred to its daily sister, The Times, in 1967 and worked on investigations and as a special foreign correspondent before going to South Africa in 1969 to open an office there. In 1972 I moved to Bonn as bureau chief, returning to London in summer 1977 to write in-depth features. Unable to speak Australian, I left six months after Mr Murdoch took over, with two daughters in school and no job to go to, but another book to write. After a year I was invited to join The Guardian, where I became Chief Foreign Leaderwriter before leaving after six happy years to become a full-time author.
By then I had written the first four of my naval histories in my spare time. This may seem an odd departure. But The Times sent me to cover a controversial seal cull in the Orkney Islands in November 1977. The Journal had sent me to one at the Farne Islands, Northumberland, in 1962 but it was cancelled for bad weather. The Daily Mail sent me to another at the same place in 1964 – and it too was cancelled because the cullers’ boat broke down. In 1977 a storm of protest by the freshly formed Greenpeace and others forced the cancellation of my third, which gives me a claim to be the most successful talisman of the British seal population. So I took the opportunity to expore a most beautiful area and found a museum at Stromness which featured a display on the scuttling of the Kaiser’s fleet in Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919. I soon found that nobody had written a book about this extraordinary act of self-destruction. And then The Times was shut down for 50 weeks by its own management in a futile and incompetent effort to switch over to new technology. The Grand Scuttle, my first book, was how I filled the time of the lock-out.
The background research for this led me to choose two other naval topics from the First World War before being urged by my publishers to turn to the Second, for the sake of a bigger readership. Having seen The Atlantic Campaign published on both sides of the eponymous ocean, the American publisher remarked that the only way I could follow it up was to write The Pacific Campaign. I pointed out that I had a full-time job on a leading newspaper. He said I should give up my day-job. I said there was not enough money on the table – and to my amazement, he rectified the omission, enabling me to resign from The Guardian and go my own way as an author.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 opened the way for me to do something I had always wanted to do since moving to Germany at New Year, 1972 – to have a really close look at East Germany, which I was able to do just at the moment its dissolution began. The result was my one and only travel book so far. Then it was back to sea with a history of the submarine, followed by the Titanic. My co-author, Robin Gardiner, had written a manuscript about his conspiracy theory (the ship had been switched with her sister!), but it needed work. His literary agent had once been mine, so she sent it to me. My role was to go back to the original sources and check them out for clues, and then to write the book, with line-by-line consultation with Robin. The publishers were disillusioned when the theory did not stand up but, thanks to the magnificent support of the late Dame Beryl Bainbridge and others, it became a bestseller in several countries (Japan, Germany, Italy) as well as Britain. The whole affair was great fun and, for once, decently rewarded. The Good Nazi followed, making waves when I claimed that it was the only biography of Albert Speer that did not depend on his “cooperation.” Standard of Power, my history of the Royal Navy in the twentieth century, was the culmination of twenty years of research into naval history.
Pearl Harbor proved a bestseller in America (200,000 copies sold in hardback) and gave me an excuse to go to Hawaii. My second shot at a lavishly illustrated, large-format, “coffee-table” book was D-Day, which also prospered on both sides of the Atlantic, leading me to give lectures in such far-apart places as New Orleans and Toronto. To come up to date, the year 2009 found me in the unusual position of publishing within two months two books that could hardly be more different: The Dardanelles Disaster (an old obsession of mine from First World War research) and Eel Pie Island, in which Michele Whitby and I tell the story of an islet in the Thames that somehow became the cradle of modern British popular music – another coffee-table book with lots of illustrations.