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Creator / Derek Robinson

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Derek Robinson (born 12 April 1932) is an English writer. He wrote four novels about the RFC/RAF in World War I, three about World War II, and several more about spies and secret agents. Other works include Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, about the British pilots who would have nuked Russia in any outbreak of World War III. He broke from type to produce Kentucky Blues, a generational novel about the Deep South before, during, and after the American Civil War. All are Black Comedy edging toward satire.

Tropes in Derek Robinson's Books:

  • Ace Pilot: Moggy Cattermole, certainly. Also the Maverick Major Wooley, a foul-mouthed and insubordinate Ace who rose from the ranks. Flight Lieutenant Silk, who in twenty-two years service (on and off) is never promoted, but starts out in Hampden bombers in 1940 and finishes his career in Vulcan nuclear jets in 1962.
  • Anyone Can Die: In just about all of his books. Frequently, nearly everyone ends up dead, and they can get killed at any time, with no warning, regardless of how central they seem to the story. Just like real life.
    • Although it is hinted that the initially Biggles-like pilot, Barton, survives the war to fly the first of the jets.
    • Specifically, only two of the original twelve pilots are still alive at the end of A Good Clean Fight. Out of more than twenty characters in Piece of Cake, four of them are still flying at the end. The body counts in some of the WWI novels — like Hornet's Sting — are even higher.
    • Averted in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England as this is only a Space Cold War. But subverted in that if they ever have to do it for real - there will be a very brief but emphatic "Everybody Dies" Ending. And that is very literally everybody. The only fatalities in this book are the bookie who tries to blackmail a pilot with gambling debts, and by inference, the Russian spy who tries to compromise Silk.
  • Arc Welding: All his aviation novels are threaded together through shared characters. Hornet's Sting, featuring the original incarnation of Hornet Squadron, also featured characters from his first, previously unconnected WW1 novel Goshawk Squadron, most notably the latter's main character, Stan Woolley. Skull Skelton of Piece of Cake and A Good Clean Fight appears in the otherwise unrelated Damned Good Show about Bomber Command, and Silk from that novel features in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England. Piece of Cake's adjutant Kellaway also makes his retroactive debut in War Story, set all the way back in 1916.
  • Balls of Steel: inverted in "Baggy" Bletchley. Due to warm summer weather and the scrotal bag that earned him his nickname, he manages to get his testicles trapped between the seat and the pedestal of a toilet. Whilst in pain and figuring out how to extricate himself, a German fighter does a drive-by shooting of the airfield and presumably kills him - he is trapped inside a badly shot-up lavatory.
  • Bathroom Control: His works are largely about air combat and the experiences of (mainly) RAF pilots in wartime. Again and again it is emphasized that crew comfort is not usually built into British military aircraft and the pilot must either soil himself or wait till he lands. This was particularly troublesome in WW1 when the oil lubricant used on the air engine would blow back as fumes into an open cockpit - and it had a marked laxative effect. Even in the nuclear jet bombers of The '60s there were no onboard toilets. A crew of a Vulcan jet bomber is berated by the squadron commander for even thinking of pissing into bottles (to be discarded later) while on a ten hour flight. They are ordered to hold it in until they land and can get out of an expensive aircraft.
  • Bedouin Rescue Service: In A Good Clean Fight, George the Greek is picked up by Bedouin after crashing in the desert. He stays with them a while, making friends with a shy young girl and learning their customs. Then the Germans find him and shoot him.
  • Blackmail Backfire: In Kramer's War, Major Paulus (the Gestapo Officer of the occupied island of Jersey) tries to blackmail the civilian administrator, Count Limner, over his wife's affair with General Rimmer, if he doesn't stop protesting to the plans to execute civilian hostages. Limner retaliates by instead using that same evidence to blackmail Rimmer into cancelling his plans to shoot the hostages, pointing out that the scandal would do far more damage to Rimmer's career than to his.
  • Black Comedy: Pitch black, and very, very funny.
  • The Brigadier: Air Commodore "Baggy" Bletchley fills this role to a tee. Although in the WW1 trilogy, a Brigadier appears who is competent, able and completely understanding of his pilots; he has risen through the ranks in the Royal Flying Corps, flown and survived combat missions himself, and is one promotion away from being a General even though he is only just over thirty. Testament to the incredible loss of life among combat pilots.
  • Brits Love Tea: They're British, after all. In Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, Squadron-leader Quinlan says, only half-jokingly, that if the Russians were gentlemen they'd delay Armageddon for a few minutes, to let us finish our tea first. (The Vulcan duty aircraft are at dispersal and their planes ready to be in the air within ninety seconds).
  • Buzzing the Deck: Happens frequently in A Piece of Cake:
    • One pilot buzzes ships on a French canal, forcing a barge to crash and a smaller boat to capsize. This is so that he can perform the feat of flying underneath a bridge, with feet to spare on all sides. He boasts about this and browbeats another pilot into doing the same. Unfortunately it has rained a lot since the successful feat and the river level has risen. so when the second pilot attempts to fly under the bridge...
    • Later in the book, an officious Desk Jockey has his car repeatedly buzzed by the same pilot, overturns it, and is killed in the crash.
    • In Hullo Russia, Goodbye England, a Russian "trawler" packed with electronic listening gear is buzzed at wavetop height by a Vulcan jet with all its electronic jamming gear full on. Between the jamming and the back-blast from the jet engines, it is left floundering in suddenly very choppy water in a deniable incident.
  • Cassandra Truth: CH3, an American volunteer pilot who'd previously fought against the Luftwaffe in Spain, tries to warn his new RAF comrades but goes disbelieved and unheeded... because, y'know, the Spanish Republicans lost, dear boy.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Fanny Barton's recurring nightmare about piloting an impossible plane with no airscrew, moving at impossibly fast speeds, with unresponsive controls which do not do what Barton expects them to do, and being unable to get out. He inevitably wakes sitting upright and sweating.
  • Deconstruction: Most of his books could be read as deconstructions of the more gung-ho brand of military fiction.
    • Goshawk Squadron tells us that a successful fighter pilot's job basically involved sneaking up behind an unsuspecting enemy and blowing his Precision F-Strike-ing head off. Word of God is that these were deliberately intended to subvert the Biggles philosophy.
    • Damned Good Show is about Bomber Command in WW2. Not the killing machine that flied sophisticated four-engined heavy bombers; more the ramshackle outfit expected to fly pre-war designs over Germany in 1939 and 1940. The survivors get to risk things all over again in Lancasters. And one survivor of Lancasters gets to risk everything in the nuclear-armed jets...
    • Piece of Cake makes the point that, despite what Churchill said, the pilots of the Royal Air Force during the Battle Of Britain were very much "daunted by odds".
  • Death by Adaptation: Two of "Piece of Cake"'s more prominent pilots survive the novel only to be killed off toward the end of the TV adaptation. There's no sign of them in "A Good Clean Fight," however, suggesting that at least one might be a Type 2 Db A.
    • The Real Life pilot that Christopher "CH3" Hart was based on, Pilot Officer Billy Fiske, died quite shortly after the point where Piece of Cake ends.
  • Disabled Love Interest: In Hornet's Sting, Cleve-Cutler's girlfriend has one leg.
  • Due to the Dead: subverted near the end of Piece of Cake when the survivors use the deceased characters' ready-room photographs as props for a "they're dead because they were stupid" lecture for their replacements.
  • Everyone Dies; just about.
  • Good Is Not Nice: See the bit above about "sneaking up behind your enemy and blowing his head off". Hick Hooper, the token American in A Good Clean Fight, develops a skill in blowing up German ambulances — whether or not they're full of ammunition. Moggy Cattermole, the Ensemble Dark Horse of Piece of Cake, once shot down a Luftwaffe rescue plane, then doubled back and strafed the dinghy it was trying to rescue. Moggy is so psychotic even is fellow RAF pilots hate him.
  • Hypocritical Humor: In Kramer's War, Kramer has a hard time believing that the island of Jersey is part of Great Britain due to being an island so far away from the mainland. The farmer whose giving him shelter is quick to bring up how far away Hawaii is from the rest of America.
  • Insufferable Genius: Skull Skelton, the intelligence officer who's too intelligent for his own good. The fact that a lot of his comments are dousing a little reality on false or hypocritical elements of the beliefs of the gung-ho pilots and officers just leaves them more sour.
  • Overturned Outhouse: Two in A Piece Of Cake
    • A pilot who is bullying and being unpleasant to a newcomer to the squadron gets his comeuppance when the bullied pilot waits for him to go to the port-a-lav parked near the pilots' waiting area. He uses a tractor to tip it over and drag it round the airfield while the bully is in there.
    • A Very Senior Officer, who is caught short on a visit to the base, uses it at exactly the wrong time - when German fighters conduct a low-level raid. Cannon fire from the Germans bowls it over, with the Air Commodore seated inside.
  • Potty Emergency: A constant source of worry for pilots, considering the length of flights and lack of facilities. In Piece of Cake, one pilot remarks that "if you see a pilot standing lopsided, it's because one leg has shrunk in the wash." In the RFC novels, many pilots take to dosing their morning porridge with whisky or schnapps in order to counteract the laxative properties of the castor oil that gets blown in their faces from their engines.
  • The Quisling: Used interestingly (and largely subverted) with Daniel de Wilde in Kramer's War, the Bailiff of the occupied English island of Jersey. He cooperates heavily with the German construction efforts and works to punish various rule breakers. However, doing so gives him the ability to punish German soldiers who get out of line (something he does quite often), and he passively resists the Germans in many ways. When a Turbulent Priest is in danger of being sent to a damp prison (which, due to his asmtha, would kill him) de Wilde bluffs General Rimmer into thinking that the guy would become an Inspirational Martyr when really no one takes him seriously. When Rimmer is paranoid about an American airman washed ashore, de Wilde finds a dead body to dress up like an American and leave lying around in the hopes of placating his anger and suspicion (and threats towards the populace). When executions look inevitable, he considers offering himself as a hostage to be shot in the place of innocent bystanders. Near the end of the novel, de Wilde admits to Count Limner that he has (correctly) suspected that the invasion of France will not come through Jersey, and so by collaborating with the building of the costal defenses, in addition to keeping his people safe, he has been encouraging the Nazi's to divert ships, artillery, money and building materials to Jersey that they really should have been sending elsewhere.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: O'Neill in Hornet's Sting (with perhaps a little retcon added in). Paxton has a Heroic BSoD at the end of War Story when he learns O'Neill is dead (which is never said in as many words...) The next book reveals O'Neill wasn't actually killed, though he was pretty grievously injured and can't fly anymore.
    • Paxton himself has an ambiguous end in Hornet's Sting; it is never said outright that he died note , he just "went" in the early hours of the morning. Another pilot who tipped over into mental collapse, Ogilvy, also "went" in a discreet way, being transferred to a mental hospital in England.
  • Running Gag: Owing to the chaos caused by the retreat out of France, the consequent scattered postings of squadron personnel to other jobs, and the frequent moves between bases in the South of England, the military bureaucracy has lost all the paperwork and none of the Piece of Cake pilots are, at the moment, even being paid for putting their lives on the line. This situation persists for a good five months. This leads a character to put an alternative meaning on Churchill's big speech: Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few...
    "He must be talking about our back-pay, then."
  • Sandbag Funeral: On more than one occasion, the funeral rites for a dead pilot are made problematical by the fact that if a man is burnt to death in a flamer a mile up, or if his plane explodes in mid-air or buries itself deep into the ground in a crash, there tends not to be much left in the way of mortal remains. In such cases, the few bodily parts that can be located are placed in the coffin which is then ballasted out with sandbags to approximate the weight of a full adult male corpse. Grieving relatives are then shielded from the full awful truth, and pallbearers at the funeral are seen shouldering a coffin that does not look suspiciously lightweight. This expedient works, provided the relatives do not ask to open the lid to look upon their beloved's face one last time, and that the load does not shift inside the coffin...
  • Screw the Rules, They're Not Real!: As Robinson portrays World War I air combat, the best and most powerful aces are those who have realised there are no rules whatsoever in air combat. Major Wooley, in Goshawk Squadron, is aware his bunch of largely teenage pilots, recent graduates of British public shools, are full of romantic crap about "knights of the sky" and individual jousts bounded by rules of chivalry. Wooley knows better: he has survived nearly three years of the air war mainly be being the sort of bastard who has realised that most German pilots, too, have their heads stuffed full of nonsense about air fighting being governed by rules and gentlemans' agreements, and is effective because he fights to win. As he tries to get this through to his new pilots, he uses shock treatment.
    "You get close behind him, so close you can smell his Brylcreem, and you blow his fucking head off!"
    • This attitude is Truth in Television: even Manfred "the Red Baron" von Richthofen believed that "the perfect kill was the one where they never even saw you coming", and would intentionally hunt for New Meat and shoot other planes In the Back as they tried to return to base.
  • The Scrounger: Sergeant Lacey throughout War Story, Hornet's Sting and A Splendid Little War. His careful system of using dead men's chequebooks, a finely honed sense for a good bargain and a cynical understanding of army bureaucracy makes Hornet Squadron's life in France much more pleasant than it might have been. In Hornet's Sting he even manages to get them a portable squash court for recreation.
  • Series Continuity Error: In A Piece of Cake, the bluff and energetic Air Commodore "Baggy" Bletchley appears to die a painful and embarrassing death - he is trapped in the toilet when a German fighter raids the airstrip, and the portable lavatory is seen bowling across the field in a hail of machine-gun and cannon fire. While it is not expressly stated that Bletchley dies, the circumstances would seem pretty conclusive. He would have to have been an immortal Houdini to have got out in time. Yet he re-appears, seemingly undamaged, in A Good Clean Fight to carry on delivering impractical, confused, contradictory and pilot-killing orders to Squadron Leader Barton... Series Continuity Error, or No-One Could Have Survived That?
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Surprisingly few, considering that six of the books take place during the war.
  • Toilet Humour: In A Piece of Cake, Steele-Stebbing's way of getting back at his tormentor Moggy Cattermole is to wait until Moggy is in the portable lavatory, and then connect it with a chain to a large truck. Which he then drives around the airstrip. The results are a bit messy.
    • The death of Bletchley (above). this is compounded by an embarrassing quirk of his anatomy - the reason for his nickname "Baggy", in fact - which traps him in the toilet, and delays his getting out in time.
  • Shoot the Dog: Squadron Leader Rex's dog Reilly receives a mercy killing halfway through Piece of Cake while pining for his dead master. Although it might have been because Reilly was constantly pissing on everyone's legs.
  • Token Religious Teammate: Lieutenant Gabriel in Goshawk Squadron, whose form of progressive madness involves speaking in Bible quotes, reciting psalms whilst killing Germans, and eventually taking the persona of the Angel of Death from Revelations and killing everybody, regardless of nationality.
  • Unfriendly Fire: in Piece of Cake the pilots allow Squadron Leader Rex to dive into a German formation unsupported because they've become convinced his inflexible adherence to impractical prewar tactics is going to get them all killed.
  • Unluckily Lucky: A number of characters find themselves in this situation. In War Story, Douglas Goss is constantly injuring himself in minor ways on the ground, but everyone notes nothing bad has ever happened to him when he's flying. And sure enough, he dies on the ground, bayoneted by the men he'd just been strafing from the air.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Any number of them - just look at the amount of double-barrelled surnames on this page alone. Usually they end up dead or thoroughly broken, just like everyone else. Paxton, protagonist of War Story, is a notable example in that through sheer absurd luck he manages to miss all the horror and still think War Is Glorious long after his social contemporaries have been thoroughly brought down to Earth. He even thinks the large pits Chinese labourers are digging the week before the Somme are swimming pools.
  • World War I: In chronological order, War Story, Hornet's Sting and Goshawk Squadron. All feature the exploits of the Royal Flying Corps. A Splendid Little War takes place one year later, in 1919, with a squadron involved in the Russian Civil War.
  • World War II: Piece of Cake, A Good Clean Fight, and Damn Good Show. Mostly about the Royal Air Force, with cameos from the Special Air Service, the Afrika Korps, and several reporters.
    • Also, Kramer's War, The Eldorado Network, and Artillery of Lies, though these are about noncombatants. Has since written a novel Hullo Russia, Goodbye England about the Vulcan Bombers of the 1960's, then Britain's primary nuclear deterrent, and the sort of pilots who would have nuked Russia.