Tunbridge Wells local Gideon Roberton (writing as Gideon Saint) is the author of Drake’s War – a military espionage thriller set in the opening five days of the Second World War. Gideon, gives us a taster of his book ahead of the Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival this May.

How did you get involved with the Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival?

Actually I saw an article about it in the local magazine. I saw the festival had a local writers’ fair, and decided to get in touch. It was a happy coincidence, as my debut novel is due to come out on 1st May. I’ll be appearing and signing books at the Writer’s Fair on Friday 12th May from 11am – 4pm at The Amelia, Tunbridge Wells.

What does TW Lit Fest mean for locals?

From a reader’s point of view, the literary festival is a terrific way to see authors in the flesh, both well-known names, and newer authors you may not yet have heard of. It’s great for kids to get involved too, and fantastic to have big names like David Walliams coming to the Assembly Hall for school groups.

From a writer’s point of view, the literary festival is a heaven-sent opportunity to reach out to people who might not otherwise know you exist. In the digital age, it is all too easy to live in a bubble. It’s great to get out and meet actual living readers and writers!

What’s your connection with Tunbridge Wells?

I live here. I’ve been in TW for the past 11 years, and my kids go to school here. Like many, I moved down from London, and I think TW is great.

What’s your book about?

Drake’s War is about a former army barracks schoolmaster called Tennyson “Ted” Drake who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time in May 1940, as the German panzers come crashing over the border and the Blitzkrieg hits Western Europe. Drake’s commanding officer is killed, leaving him with no orders – just a cryptic codebook and a mysterious sketch of a raven. Drake has to stay alive long enough to discover the secret of the raven and stop its catastrophic consequences on the outcome of the war.

Does Tunbridge Wells feature in your book?

Not in this one, but it definitely will in future stories. There are some interesting ties between TW and Britain’s role in WW2. Two men in particular are worthy of a mention.

Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding lived in Tunbridge Wells, and is commemorated in Calverley Park. He was in charge of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and is often credited as being the brains behind the RAF’s defeat of the Luftwaffe.

Lt General (later Field Marshall) Bernard Montgomery lived in TW, in Broadwater Down, from 1940-41, and was visited there by the king. Monty directed British South Eastern Command from here, the main force set up to halt any German invasion. There are underground communication and command tunnels in Hargate Forest, built by the Royal Engineers, which are still visible (although you can’t go inside). Thankfully, the invasion never happened, largely thanks to Fighter Command! How differently things might have turned out without Dowding and Monty!

Why did you choose to write about the war?

The fact that it’s still known by many in the UK as “the war” tells you something about what it still means to people today. For me, as for many others, the whole concept of the war was a source of endless fascination: a catastrophic global conflict fought by our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers – and not forgetting mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers! There are at least two Hollywood movies a year on the topic, but I struggled to find the kind of novels I wanted to read about the war. There were lots set on the home front, plenty about concentration camps, quite a lot about civilian secret agents, but almost nothing of any quality in the military fiction genre, set during the actual fighting of the war. I loved all the Bernard Cornwell books – Sharpe’s Rifles, the Last Kingdom sagas etc, but there was nothing like that in the more modern period. So I wrote the book I wanted to read: espionage, action, adventure, intrigue, and combat, all set on the front lines, in the cauldron of war.

I was fortunate, when I was much younger, to have had a pair of grandfathers who were willing to talk to their young grandsons about what it was actually like. My maternal grandfather in particular, the late Colonel JL Martin, was an inspiration. Like the book’s hero, Tennyson Drake, JL Martin was an army barracks schoolmaster at the outbreak of the war. He was left behind after Dunkirk but found his way home, joined the commandos, fought at the D-Day landings, drove with the tanks in the race to seize the bridges at Nijmegen (A Bridge Too Far), was involved in the British defence of the German Ardennes offensive in 1944 (The Battle of the Bulge) and ended the war as a Colonel in Berlin. And then there was the stuff he didn’t talk about…

I wonder if the fictional Tennyson Drake will manage to follow in his footsteps all the way?

And finally…?

I look forward to seeing everybody at the Tunbridge Wells Literary Festival, Thursday 11 – Sunday 14 May 2023!