Duty Calls Intro

A little over a year ago, one of the editors at Puffin, Shannon Park, asked me whether I would be interested in writing a novel set in the Second World War.  She asked me, I think, because she knew I was a historian of the war, but also knew about my adult series of war-time novels featuring Jack Tanner, a brilliant soldier in an ordinary regiment of the line, the King’s Own Yorkshire Rangers.  Tanner joined the army in 1932 as a sixteen year-old boy solider, and was immediately sent to the Northwest Frontier in India.  By the time the Second World War began, however, he was a decorated and highly experienced soldier and a platoon sergeant, and it was at the start of the war that I set the first novel.  I’ve now recently finished my fourth, Hellfire, set in North Africa in 1942.  Anyway, it seems that Puffin had been asking some children at Forest Boys School in South London what they would like to read and they said they wanted a series of stories about an ordinary young man living and fighting through the Second World War.  The result of all this is the first Duty Calls book, set during the Battle for France in May and June 1940.  I hope you enjoy this first story about Johnny Hawke’s war.



Johnny Hawke

Johnny main character in Duty Calls, a boy only just sixteen, and one of the many who served in the war who lied about their age to fight before they should have done.  The army – as now – does take in boy soldiers at sixteen, but they were not expected to fight in the front line.


Johnny was born in March 1924, the only son of John and Lucy Hawke.  John had been a hero of the First World War, and also in the King’s Own Yorkshire Rangers, and was much decorated, although twice wounded and gassed.  Tragically, however, it was the after-effects of the gassing combined with a severe bout of pneumonia that led to his early death at Christmas 1923.  Johnny was then raised by his mother and his three sisters, Maddie, Molly and Joan, and later, by his father John’s best friend, Alex Mallaby, whom Lucy married.  Mallaby works as a foreman at textile machinery manufacturing factory and is able to keep Lucy and her family.  They have no children of their own.  Johnny learned the stories of his father’s exploits during the First World War from Alex; and it was Alex who also fostered Johnny’s love of cricket and football.


Johnny left school at fourteen – as most children did in those days – and although he had hopes of one day playing cricket for Yorkshire, he knew he had get a job first.  His step-father, Alex Mallaby, arranged for Johnny to be taken on at the factory, but Johnny hated it.  But when his sister brought Tom Spears, her new boyfriend, to the house in the summer of 1939, Johnny began to think of joining the army.  Tom was friendly towards him, telling him stories of fighting on the North West Frontier and of life in India.  When Tom and Maddie then became engaged, and with war looking ever more likely, Johnny made up his mind: the thought of another winter at the factory was unbearable, but he also had dreams of emulating his heroes – his dead father and soon-to-be older brother, Tom Spears.  In August 1939, and without telling any of his family, he went to the regimental headquarters of the Yorks Rangers and joined up, lying about his age, giving a false name  – Johnny Hutton – and pretending to be eighteen.  As a tall lad of just under six foot, he was believed.

He then wrote to his mother asking her not to try and find him.  However, his oldest sister, Maddie, asked Tom to look for him, but almost immediately the 1st Battalion, Yorks Rangers, were sent to France and so there was little Tom could do about it.  At the beginning of May 1940, with his training complete, Johnny was posted to France, and there joined B Company of the 1st Battalion – and was placed in none other than Tom Spears’ 2 Platoon.


Johnny is eager to please, and certainly very brave, but with very little understanding of the wider world – his has been a comparatively sheltered upbringing.  He is loyal, quick to learn, and loves his sport – especially cricket.



Sergeant Tom Spears

Tom Spears is engaged to Johnny Hawke’s eldest sister, Maddie.  Born in 1917 on a farm in the Yorkshire Moors near Scarborough, Spears is a countryman.  He joined the army as a boy soldier, and went to India with the 2nd Battalion, Yorks Rangers, where he served on the Northwest Frontier and took part in the Loe Agra Campaign of 1935.  He is a highly experienced and competent platoon sergeant, but feels weighed down by the added responsibility of looking after Johnny Hawke.  Resolute, brave and fundamentally a good man, Spears is a soldier anyone would want on the same side.



Private Charlie Drummond

Charlie Drummond is eighteen, so still very young, although an acceptable age to be a front-line soldier.  Born and brought up in Sheffield, Charlie is a highly gifted footballer, who once had been offered a trial with Sheffield United, although the offer arrived after he had already signed up to be a soldier.  Charlie soon becomes a good friend to Johnny, although he is slightly lugubrious and tends to think the worst.



Private Bert Hebden

In contrast to Charlie Drummond, Bert Hebden is one of life’s optimists.  Always seeing the best In everything, he is a cheerful presence and the life and soul of McLaren’s section.  Twenty years old in 1940, Bert is a farmer’s son, and, like Spears, a countryman with an affinity to nature.  Always on the look out for opportunities to brew up mugs of tea, Bert keeps a close eye on Johnny and along with Charlie Drummond, is Hawke’s closest friend in the Platoon.


Corporal Sid McLaren

Sid McLaren is, at twenty-five, older than the others.  The Section Commander, with nine men under his command, he has a slightly gruff exterior, but always makes sure he keeps a close watch out for his men.  McLaren left school at fourteen and became a mechanic, working in a garage in a village just north of Leeds.  However, aged eighteen, he decided to join the army, hoping it would allow him to see something of the world.


Lieutenant Farrish

Farrish is also young – just twenty-one, and still new to army life.  Privately educated, he had joined the army the previous year having spent three years at university.  He also speaks a little German, having been on an exchange to Germany as a teenager.  Farrish is a serious-minded man, but a good platoon commander, although like so many subalterns, lacks experience.  He naturally depends very heavily on Tom Spears, although certainly knows his own mind.


Pilot Officer Archie Jackson

Archie Jackson is twenty, a former public school boy, and a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve before the war.  This meant he had had some limited flying training but was fully mobilized the moment war was declared and then completed his flying training, and joining 629 Squadron, newly equipped with Spitfires, in April 1940.  A happy-go-lucky character, he is a good pilot and like so many of his fellows, thrilled to be flying Britain’s most modern and very fast new fighter plane.


Brigadier Nigel Fitzroy Somerset

Brigadier Somerset, was, unlike most of the other characters in the book, a real person.  In 1940, he was forty-six, and a career soldier.  He also had good soldiering pedigree – his great-grandfather was Lord Raglan, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army during the Crimean War of the 1850s.  Somerset had been a lieutenant-commander and commanding the 2nd Battalion, the Gloucestershire Regiment, when the German offensive started on 10th May 1940, but was hastily promoted to brigadier with command of 145 Brigade five days later when the previous brigadier was sent home due to illness.  Sadly for Somerset, a chance to reach higher command was thwarted by becoming a Prisoner of War after the Defence of Cassel.  Released in 1945, he remained in the Army, becoming Commanding Officer of Kent Sub-District, before retiring in 1949.  He died in 1990, aged ninety-seven.




The Lee Enfield Rifle (Short Magazine Lee Enfield No 1 Mk III)

Also known as the SMLE for short.  The first bolt-action rifle which used a magazine came into service in the British Army in 1888.  The Lee Enfield Mark I came in a few years later in 1895, and had barely changed forty-five years later.  The No. I Mk III looked the same as the original Mk I and had been used throughout the First World War, but had improved rifling and sights.  The magazine could take two five-round clips of bullets, and with its short pull-back bolt, could be fired reasonably rapidly – a half-decent rifleman could fire thirty rounds a minute without too much difficulty.  In contrast, the German K98 Mauser rifle had a long bolt, which meant the rifleman had to move his head after every shot, which in turn meant he had to re-aim every shot.  This gave it a practical rate of fire of around fifteen rounds per minute.  Both, however, were robust, solid rifles, accurate to up to four hundred metres, which was quite a distance.  Both also weighed around 8 pounds, much the same as the SLR rifle used today.


The Bren and the MG 34

The Bren was a Czech design, invented in Brn, and then licenced for production by the Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield.  Combining the first two letters of the original design with the first two letters of Enfield, it became the ‘Bren.’  It was a reliable, robust, light machine-gun that could, on paper, fire more than 500 rounds per minute with a range of up to a thousand yards (nearly a kilometre).  In practical terms, it would only fire in short bursts, so perhaps 120 rounds per minute.  This was because if the Bren gunner fired more than that, the barrel would get so hot, it would lose accuracy.  It did, however, have a wooden grip around the barrel so that the barrel could be easily taken off and a new one put in its place.


The MG 34, on the other hand, had a far greater rate of fire – some 1,200 rounds per minute, or twelve per second.  If you were hit by one of these at a couple of hundred metres, you would literally be sliced in half.  It’s velocity – the speed at which the bullet travelled – was incredible, and yet in practical terms, it was fired at around 120 rounds per minute – much the same as the Bren.  Its barrel would get so hot, it would start to melt if you fired more than that.  Each MG34 crew carried a staggering six spare barrels – a lot of extra weight – and unlike the Bren, it had no handle with which to make any change simple.  Instead, its users had to carry a huge padded mitten.  It was beautifully engineered, but took 150 man-hours to make; the Bren took just thirty-seven.  The British used to call the MG34 (MG for Maschinengewehr, German for machine-gun, and 34 for the year of its adoption by the German armed forces, 1934).


The British Two-Pounder Anti-Tank Gun

The 2-pounder gun was small, light and very easy to operate and manoeuvre, but in terms of velocity was not really suitable for modern warfare.  Two-pounder refers to the weight of the shell it fired (2.38 pounds to be precise), while German guns (75mm, for example) refers to the muzzle diameter.  This made the 2-pounder a 39mm gun, and its velocity was good over short distances: at 500 metres, it could penetrate 40mm of armour, which was why it was quite useful in France in 1940, where ranges fired tended to be quite short and where it was mostly up against Mk I and Mk II German panzer tanks.