In England, at our 2017 family Christmas dinner, my Dad shared a story that he had in his head for over ten years. He wanted to write it himself but simply could not join up the dots. I thought about what he had said and before I flew back to San Francisco with my family, I agreed to help him.
That started a quest that took me to 10 different countries. I spent three years plunging headlong into the historical events of 1940 and the dark world of the Nazis before I was finally able to complete The Jackboot.
My parents had both retired to the Island of Anglesey at the end of the 1970s. They spent over 40 years there enjoying the peace and quiet in a tiny village called Llandonna. They returned to the English mainland in 2016. Anglesey is a magical place. Thousands of people from all over Britain, especially Merseyside visit the island which is still a popular vacation spot. There is something truly magical about driving over the Menai Bridge with the spectacular Menai Straits flowing underneath. It’s almost as though time slows down the moment you arrive on the island. Welcome to Menai Bridge, the charming town that shares the same name as the iconic bridge and thundering straits.
One day while walking his two collies on Penmon Beach, an idea came to my Dad about a man finding an old Nazi jackboot that had a unique gold badge attached to it. The question of where it came from and who it belonged to would become the basis for the story he wanted to write. He also wanted the owner of the jackboot to somehow fall from the Menai Bridge, plunging to his death into the Menai Straits for a dramatic end to the story. He had named the owner of the jackboot, Max von Seeckt, the ultimate Nazi.
My Dad had also discovered that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had an alliance with the Nazis that he wanted to weave into the storyline. Most ingenious of all, he had considered the question of what if the Nazis were in cahoots with the IRA, invading Britain from Ireland through the back door, namely Anglesey. I found this fascinating. As an amateur student of history, I had never seen this concept in any of the World War II fiction that I had read, or the hours of documentaries that I had watched. It seemed like a new and unique idea, an absolutely critical ingredient for any work of historical fiction. Maybe the old man was on to something after all.
These ideas were the bare bones of what he claimed would someday be a Blockbuster novel. It was my job to put meat on the bones. Quite a challenge, considering I have never written a book in my life, nor did I know anyone who had written a book, let alone a Blockbuster! That aside, ironically I had always wanted to write a book, but like millions of other aspiring novelists I just couldn’t come up with an original idea. My preference was always to write about a bank robbery, or a diamond or gold heist. Writing a World War II novel always seemed like too large a concept to get my arms around. The idea of a back-door invasion through Anglesey was too good to pass up, so I plunged myself into writing. My first piece was to add a good guy to counter the evil Max von Seeckt. At 35,000 feet somewhere over the north pole on our return flight back to San Francisco. Peter Francis Legh, an RAF Spitfire pilot, the antithesis of Max von Seeckt, was born.
My Mother’s maiden name was Legh (pronounced Lee). It’s an unusual spelling. However, the Legh family has ancient origins that can be traced back to King John of Magna Carta fame, and beyond. Her family tree is graced with an abundance of Kings, Knights and Earls. It seemed only fitting that a swashbuckling fighter pilot would surely be a Legh. I now had a hero and a villain.
My travels have taken me to some amazing places, many of which set off my – this would be a great place to feature in a novel antenna. One of those places was always Anglesey. If I were to capitalize on Dad’s idea of an invasion through Anglesey, then I needed to know more about the island known as the Mother of Wales. The biggest challenge was trying to visualize how Anglesey would have looked in 1940 especially the village of Menai. One thing is for sure, Anglesey is still very rural today. In 1940 the population must have been very sparse.
After days of research, I discovered there is very little information available about life on Anglesey, in 1940. The population of the island was probably a few thousand at most. Then, almost unbelievably I found a short clip of black and white film from British Pathe News from 1939. It only lasted 47 seconds. However, what it revealed was fascinating. The iconic bridge was originally built with iron chains used to hold the weight of the span. Ravaged by high winds and salt spray from the Irish Sea, the iron links and support rods had rusted to the point that they needed to be replaced with steel. The project started in 1938 and was still underway when World War II broke out. Incredibly, the 47 seconds gave me a glimpse of the Menai Bridge along with its namesake village at the exact time I was writing about in history, namely 1940. It also placed hundreds of iron workers in the normally sleepy village of Menai. This opened up a whole new realm of possibilities to be able to bring the bridge into the story. More importantly, it gave me a shot at being able to create some hustle and bustle required for a background to help the main storyline along. The short clip was a unique find and I felt truly blessed that I had come across it.
Google Maps is a phenomenal tool. I was using it one day to follow the coast road that runs around Anglesey from the comfort of my home office in beautiful Rossmoor, Walnut Creek, California, some 6,000 miles away. Anglesey is an incredibly green island. It receives more than its fair share of rain, resulting in some of the lushest grazing pastures on earth. I switched to the satellite view and as I barreled across the island through my computer, I noticed there was one area that was not green. It was more of a reddish-brown color. I zoomed in and found Parys Mountain. I had discovered what is today known as the ancient Copper Kingdom of Anglesey and found the place absolutely fascinating. I began to study its history and found that the Romans had discovered gold there. As if by fate and much to my delight, gold had just inserted itself nicely into the plot.
Naturally, my focus switched to gold and its whereabouts during 1940. Perhaps I could find a nugget somewhere to start to build the novel around. I was aware of the massive looting by the Nazis and stories of stashed gold found hidden in caves. Much has already been written on the subject. I was about to give up when a small footnote in an article I was researching caught my attention. I had stumbled on Operation Fish.
I was stunned to find out that Churchill had secretly moved the country’s gold reserves and securities from the Bank of England to Canada, using the Royal Navy. Considering it was the single greatest movement of wealth in history, I was equally stunned to find out just how little information is available about the operation. Hundreds, if not thousands of people, all sworn to secrecy took part in the operation. Yet today, 80 years after the event there is almost no record that Operation Fish even took place. The official records and the secrets they contain will remain sealed for twenty more years.
One thing that I was able to find out was that a large percentage of the gold that left the Bank of England in London, ended up in Martins Bank in Liverpool. That’s where it stayed until being shipped aboard heavily armed Royal Navy ships to the safety of Canada. It was a massive movement of gold, the largest in history, pure fodder for a guy who wanted to write a gold heist novel. I had found my groove. I could finally see a path.
A movie was now starting to play in my head. I thought about it constantly. The more I thought about it the clearer the movie became. It was fuzzy, really fuzzy in some areas, and simply nonexistent in others. I began to analyze the ideas that Dad had put together over ten years. He had painstakingly written tens of thousands of words, one key stroke at a time. I kept the parts that I had committed to and were important to my Dad and some that were too good to discard but I couldn’t yet find a place for them. One of the things that I very much wanted to include was the Irish connection, especially the Dublin to Holyhead ferry. In my Dad’s original idea, the Nazis gained a foothold on Anglesey by working with the IRA. The IRA enabled the Nazis to be smuggled onto Anglesey by way of cattle trucks that supplied Irish beef to the British mainland on a daily basis. I knew I could use the same path to get the stolen gold out of Anglesey.
I then began to look for evidence that the IRA had ever worked with the Nazis. Dad was correct, they had. Several operations were undertaken by the two organizations, all failed, some comically, but there was an alliance. I also found that U-boats were used to land their agents. An IRA Chief of Staff did die aboard a U-boat on a return journey to Ireland and was buried at sea. I knew the U-boat needed to be included in The Jackboot.
My Dad originally had Max von Seeckt as a ruthless commander of a Panzer brigade, hardly the type of outfit that would be used in a gold heist. I figured that would require some version of a special force, more of a stealth outfit. I found out about the Brandenburgers, Hitler’s special force of the day. They specialized in specific tasks, sabotage and covert operations being amongst them. In addition, they were made up of foreign nationals who were committed to the Nazi doctrine and spoke multiple languages. Max von Seeckt naturally became a Brandenburger.
My research into the movement of gold around Europe provided some amazing statistics and stories of heroism. The most fascinating was the story of the Norwegian gold. Gold Run by Robert Pearson tells the story in great detail. The herculean effort of a small band of Norwegians to keep 50 tons of gold out of the hands of the pursuing Nazis was inspiring. There was something about the ring of 50 tons. That’s when I settled on the amount of gold to be stolen by the Nazis and the IRA, 50 tons, Blockbuster stuff!
In 1939, King George VI made a historic visit to Canada and the United States. My research told me that several Royal Navy ships that accompanied the King as his escort were loaded with 50 tons of gold bullion. Britain was not yet at war. Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor feared the likelihood of another war with Germany and had already begun to ship Britain’s gold to Canada. Further research revealed that even this was not the first time that gold had been secretly removed from the Bank of England. The practice started during World War I. I found the story of the Laurentic, a ship loaded with close to 50 (that number again) tons of gold, incredibly was sunk after striking two mines laid by a U-boat off the coast of Ireland.
During the planning stages of the King’s visit to Canada and the United States, it was determined that three Royal Navy ships, the battle cruiser HMS Repulse along with cruisers HMS Southampton and HMS Glasgow would each carry a third of the gold bullion weighing in at…you guessed it, 50 tons. At the last minute, the King had personally intervened and insisted that the plan be completely altered. The German pocket battleship Deutschland had been spotted off the coast of Spain. Fearing war with Germany, the King was reluctant to have a battle cruiser escort him all the way to Canada. He wisely surmised that Repulse remain with the main fleet. In the end a compromise was reached. The King agreed to have Repulse escort him halfway across the Atlantic and then return to the fleet. This meant the gold now had to be split amongst Southampton and Glasgow. It was an interesting example to me that the King still yielded considerable clout. More importantly, the King was willing to take a stand on matters he deemed to be of national importance. If the King decided that some gold remain hidden in the Kingdom, then that was the way it was going to be. A fuzzy spot in the movie in my head, suddenly cleared. The gold that Max von Seeckt intended to steal, was going to be hidden on Anglesey, and what better place than the ancient Copper Kingdom of Parys Mountain.
If I were to remain committed to my Dad’s ending, somehow the hero, the villain, and a huge stash of gold all needed to end up on Anglesey for the grand finale. I knew very early on that obviously the climax needed to involve Peter Legh and Max von Seeckt in a fight to the death on the Menai Bridge. There had always been something extra terrifying about two men fighting to the death at a great height in the air. Inevitably, the loser had to fall to his death. I replayed the scene from the movie, Where Eagles Dare, in my head countless times where two men fight to the death on top of a cable car, hundreds of feet in the air. The top of the Menai Bridge, with its drop of a couple of hundred feet straight down onto the foam-covered rocks below would provide the perfect scene. I decided to bump the intensity up a notch by introducing a massive thunderstorm. The final scene was crystal clear in my mind. How and why the two combatants ended up on top of the Menai Bridge in a fight to the death…well, I would need to figure that one out sooner or later.
Finally, I was beginning to get enough meat on the bones. I was able to explain the partially complete movie constantly playing in my head, with enough detail that my wife Taryn was able to follow along. This was a huge step forward. It’s one thing to have an idea in your head. Being able to write about it so that someone else can visualize it, is a whole different ball game. I had introduced a new character, an MI5 agent, dispatched by Churchill to investigate some flashing lights out at sea, dangerously close to the secret location where the gold was hidden. I needed a very English sounding name for the agent. Taryn suggested John Ashley, her late grandfather who was a decorated WWI veteran. John Ashley completed the main trio. This meant that the three leading characters heading to Anglesey were all men. Taryn suggested that I needed a female character in the mix. I agreed and in a salute to her, Taryn Thomas, a stunning blond Welsh beauty entered the story.
One other main character was also introduced, a gnarly WWI veteran called ETR. He was modeled after my grandfather, Edward Thomas Raymond Wells, who simply went by the initials of his first names ETR. He was every bit as tough as the character Edward Thomas Riggs or ETR in the novel. The story about his hand strength and his service in His Majesty’s Royal Artillery are all true. He also worked at Spiller’s Mill for 50 years and received the obligatory gold watch at the end of his service.
At this point I had five main fictional characters. I also had the framework for a fictional novel that I could weave in and out of the historic events that had actually taken place. I had lots of giant historical characters both good and bad involved in the story line, Winston Churchill, King George VI, Clement Atlee, David Petrie and Montague Norman on the British side. While the bad guys featured Adolph Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, Wilhelm Canaris, Herman Goering and of course Joseph Goebbels. In short, it was Hitler and his Henchmen. I watched hours and hours of historical documentaries and was fascinated by the constant infighting and backstabbing amongst the top Nazis to gain Hitler’s favor. The competition for the Fuhrer’s attention was ferocious and relentless up until the bitter end when Goebbels, along with his wife and six children committed suicide along with Hitler and Eva Braun.
Goebbels was of particular interest to me. His ability to bend, manipulate and deceive the German population using the media of the day was impressive. He was the master of propaganda and of course, a fanatical Nazi and vicious anti-Semite. I wanted to get this evil man in the story but couldn’t figure out a way to weave him into the plot. It came to me at around 2:00 in the morning. Lying in bed, playing the movie in my head yet again, I came up with a new twist in the tale. Goebbels, always innovative and thinking out of the box would have the gold heist filmed. It would be used against the British, blowing the lid off, Operation Fish in a propaganda victory that could change the outcome of World War II. I finally felt that I had enough of a storyline with a twist or two, to hit the road. I needed to visit every place that I intended to write about, starting in Dublin, Ireland.
Dublin was a blast. The people, pubs and food were all terrific. I needed to find a classic Irish pub that would have been around in 1940 that had remained somewhat unchanged. We visited many, but I finally settled on Murrays Pub on O’Connell Street. While the exterior had a modern façade, the interior was perfect. I’m sure it was very much the way it was in 1940. We visited the Customs House, and of course the famous Guinness brewery, before catching the Dublin to Holyhead ferry.
Anglesey, as I stated earlier, is a magical place. We spent a week there. We wish we could have spent longer but we had a lot of ground to cover. The main pub in the story is called The Bull. The only difference is it is actually in the town of Beaumaris not Menai. It has a rich history and fabulous ambience. One night we were sitting in the bar when I noticed a date carved into the back of the old wooden chair that Taryn was sitting in, 1711. We stayed at the attached bed & breakfast several nights. However, the floor plan of the pub itself is nothing like described in the book. The floor plan in the book was my imagination based on one of my favorite pubs growing up, the Farmers Arms in Wallasey Village. We also visited The Ship at Red Wharf Bay along with The Bulkeley Hotel and The Victoria Hotel.
Parys Mountain was an amazing experience. I had visited Anglesey many times as a youngster and later when my parents lived there. I had never visited Parys Mountain. Indeed, I wasn’t even aware that it existed. The area was a lot bigger than I expected. It also went a lot deeper into the earth than I realized. To my delight, walls of the hand dug abyss contained numerous tunnels that I had envisioned the gold being hidden in. Unfortunately, access to them was prohibited. Understandably, it would take skilled rock climbers with lots of safety equipment to be able to get down to any of the tunnels. Carrying 130 pound crates of gold would be out of the question. This was quite a blow. I loved Parys Mountain. It was just one of those places that you visit and then say, that was really cool. I wanted the gold to be hidden there somehow.
The entire area now has a Heritage Trail that runs around the perimeter. Off in the distance I could see what looked like a stone tower, so we set off towards it. When we finally arrived, we discovered it was an abandoned windmill. We explored all around the area. It really was a barren place. Then it came to me, why not hide the gold in the windmill? Perfect, Parys Mountain was very much in play. This would be the scene of the crime, illuminated by a full moon in the middle of a thunderstorm.
We left Anglesey and headed to Merseyside, where I was born and raised, to visit the Martins Bank building. Martins no longer exists but the main office building is still there. Although boarded up, it is a designated Grade II historical building. I was delighted to find a granite plaque on the wall that mentioned the transfer of the gold in 1940. I recall touching it as one might touch a grave headstone. It was great to actually feel something that was a lasting testament to the top-secret Operation Fish. To my knowledge this is one of the very few pieces of physical evidence that Operation Fish actually took place. While we were there a tour guide arrived with tourists from a cruise ship. He stopped at the plaque and gave a brief overview of what happened during Operation Fish. People milled around and took selfies before heading off to the next landmark. Taryn and I stood nearby, both praying for the same thing…please don’t steal our idea!
We visited the Liverpool waterfront where we admired the Three Graces – the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port Authority Building. The area has changed a little since I worked in the Cunard building in the 1970s. It is a lot more tourist friendly, complete with a Maritime Museum and a fantastic bronze statue of the Beatles. We watched the famous ferries that had been immortalized in Gerry Marsden’s hit single, Ferry Across the Mersey, sail back and forth across the river. It brought back some great memories for me.
Our next stop was the city of Oslo and the Royal Palace. We got a taste of the Norwegian terrain and its legendary fjords. It gave us a good understanding of the colossal effort and courage that the Norwegians showed in avoiding the pursuing German troops. There was certainly enough fodder to add the Norwegian story to The Jackboot.
We spent time in Germany visiting Berlin and the fantastic city of Munich. We also spent time with members of the Wells family who now live in the tiny village of Wiesen/Prati in the region of Bolzano, Italy. We enjoyed the majestic Alps along with the incredible Dolomites. I was able to get a real taste of the Alps and although the Berghof is now reduced to some crumbling concrete foundations and retaining walls, the views and ambience still remain the same.
We had seen and gathered enough information for me to fill the many gaps in the story that we were writing. It was time to return home and begin to put the pieces together in a chronological order that made sense to the reader. When I finally laid out all the pieces, I realized what a massive amount of work it would be to make the story flow smoothly and follow a logical order. In addition to the five main characters, I had almost thirty additional characters that all played a role. The story covered almost three decades following the two main characters from birth to Eton, to the final conflict between them in 1940. It took place in ten different countries on two continents. Some of history’s most iconic symbols and buildings are well represented among them, Spitfires, MGs, steam trains, Eton, Buckingham Palace, U-boats, the Royal Liver Building and the Menai Bridge.
Even more intriguing were the giants of history such as Churchill, Hitler, King George VI, Goering, Canaris, Himmler, Atlee, Bormann and Goebbels. All played relevant and critical roles in the plot. I learned of the continuing backstabbing amongst the top Nazis for Hitler’s attention and made every effort to weave that into the story.
By now I had been writing for over a year. Having never written a book before I just developed my own system and style. I tried to write in complete chapters. I usually stayed with one character at a time and followed him or her for several chapters. Which character I wrote about was determined by the latest ideas that I had formulated for the story. Often, the characters would change the direction of the story. Not every idea panned out. Eventually I had written enough to justify printing pages for each chapter that had bullet points of the main events of the chapter.
I began to lay them out on the floor in the best sequence that I could to see if the story made sense and whether it even flowed. The trail led from our front door through the entry and living area and ended at the rear patio door. It was cool to see it laid out. It was an impressive amount of paper. What I had was a very basic skeleton. The hard work of putting meat on the bones now began. We returned to England again and I was able to lay out the pages on my sister’s dining room table for my Mum and Dad to be able to see it. It was a great day.
I continued to work on the characters, developing them at the same time as making them relevant to the story. It was a real challenge to weave those characters into the actual events that had happened while keeping the story running in the correct chronological order. In the end I only had to compromise on a couple of dates or events. By now the novel had grown too big to lay out on the floor and it simply wasn’t a practical method of keeping track of things. I needed a better solution.
In the fall of 2018, I retired and we sold our home in Walnut Creek and headed to Florida’s Sun Coast. We ended up with a lot more space including a room that became The Pub that housed many of my mementos from England. More importantly, it gave me an entire empty wall to turn into a writing board and lay out the novel much better than the floor.
I figured the best way was to lay out a chronological timeline moving from the left side of the wall starting at 1912 to the right hand side of the wall that finished in 1940. I had the two main characters Peter and Max also starting on the left side. Each was represented with a different colored string that passed through the various points of the boys’ lives, starting at Eton, and then moving through the various stages, such as Peter heading to California before returning to England to join the RAF and Max becoming a Nazi and joining the Brandenburgers. Both pieces of string headed to the right hand side of the wall where they came together for the final clash.
I added other characters and grouped them together into the good guys and bad guys. Each character was given their own colored string. Again, they moved chronologically from left to right. At the top of the wall I had all the major historical events that were in the novel listed in the same chronological direction. It took several days to lay out all the pieces but in the end, I finally had the completed novel. I could finally follow the story from beginning to end and confirm that there were no loose ends or strings in this case, left hanging. To my delight there weren’t.
For the first time I was able to walk Taryn through the novel to see if it made sense to her. She was able to follow it and understand the main plot. This was a tremendous relief to me, I hadn’t wasted almost three years of my life. Looking at the wall, I realized that it was actually two books. The first book of approximately 50 chapters covered the journey of the two boys from Eton to Anglesey representing the years 1912 to 1940. The book was called The Long Road to Parys Mountain. The second book, also around 50 chapters covered two days on Anglesey in August 1940 and was called 48 Hours on Anglesey.
As a final check, I ran the entire novel using the wall as a guide by my mother-in-law Cora. I was massively relieved when she too said it made sense to her and that it was an exciting new World War II story that she had never heard of. The best comment she made was that she could not tell the true events from the fictional events that I had weaved in. Perfect! I had finally achieved my goal.