Biography

John McKay served in the Royal Air Force for seven years before pursuing a career in the Fire and Rescue Service. He lives in Wigan, Lancashire, with his wife, Dawn. He has two grown-up daughters and one granddaughter.

With a huge interest in all things World Wars One and Two, John took up writing a few years ago, finally embarking on an ambition he had held for years. This has led to an interest in the Arctic convoys of World War Two and him completing the wartime memoir of a veteran of the voyages, Charlie Erswell (Surviving The Arctic Convoys, The Wartime Memoir of Leading Seaman Charlie Erswell, Pen & Sword, 2021).

Read more

In 2019, John was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology about Resistance in the Second World War. The anthology went on to feature in the USA Today Bestseller list and raised thousands of dollars for the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Washington D.C.

John was also asked to contribute to the production of a permanent exhibition to the Arctic convoys at the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool and was on the judging panel for a literary prize to coincide with the opening in February 2022.

He was also involved in the production of a memorial to Tom ‘Ginger’ Jones, an SAS hero of World War Two, at the Armed Forces Centre in Wigan in 2021, after reading his story in Damien Lewis’s book, SAS: Band of Brothers.

His latest book, Hell and High Water, recently won the Aspects of History Unpublished Historical Novel award, which has now been published by Sharpe Books.

 

John enjoys spending time with his family, is a keen Liverpool Football Club fan, (his all-time hero being Sir Kenny Dalglish), and, when not working, reading or writing, can often be found enjoying a pint in his local.

Home » Authors » John McKay

Books

Click on any of the books covers below to either buy or get more information on Amazon

A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea
A Burning Sea

Articles

Click on the links below to read the full article

The Arctic Convoys

The Arctic Convoys

There are many images of World War Two that have come to be ingrained in the modern psyche. When one thinks of the war, images such as those of British soldiers forming lines on the Dunkirk beaches as they wait patiently to be evacuated to England; American and British troops storming the ...
The Vercors Uprising, July 1944

The Vercors Uprising, July 1944

At 23:15 hours on 5 June 1944, a broadcast was made from the BBC in London. It was the second part of the poem Chanson d’Automne - “Blessent mon coeur, d’une langueur, monotone” (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”). Upon hearing this, Resistance leaders in France knew this was a call to
Operation Codicil

Operation Codicil

Operation Codicil, is the first instalment of The Manner of Men series – which is to be a three-part series based on the Parachute Regiment in the Second World War. The series will follow a group of elite pathfinders from D-Day until war’s end, where they see action in Normandy, Arnhem and the ...

Author Interviews

John McKay
John McKay, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?I have been interested in the two world wars from an early age. I used to read Battle Comic and collected the Commando graphic books as a child. My interest grew with the more I read and watching old war movies TV. I visited some of the battlefields when I was stationed in Belgium with the RAF in the early 1990s, again adding to this interest in all things WW1 and WW2. My interest in this period of history has never waned and I still enjoy finding out new information, stories etc. even now.What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?I generally have an idea of what I want to write about and have developed a good basic knowledge of the period over the years. When I decide I want to write about a certain event I will then go into more depth in regards to research and read as much as I can on the subject. The internet provides a good source of information, as does the Imperial War Museum and National Archives. For Hell & High Water I also visited HMS Belfast on the Thames, to get a feel for how being onboard a World War 2 Royal Navy ship would have been like. I also interviewed a veteran of the Arctic Convoys who was the inspiration for the book.Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?Damien Lewis is probably the best out there at the moment. The level of research he puts into his books is amazing, but you are never bogged down with the detail when reading them. He is at the top of his game and his books read almost as though you’re watching a movie. It doesn’t take me long to read his books because I simply can’t put them down.Another is Cornelius Ryan. His books are classics now, particularly The Longest Day, The Last Battle and A Bridge Too Far.James Holland, Max Hastings and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore have also written some extremely well researched books on the period.I also enjoy reading books that are fairly contemporary to the time, or written by veterans themselves. I recently read The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart which was amazing.What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?It cannot be emphasised enough just how important accuracy is when writing historical fiction. So research is key to getting it right. Read as much as you can about the period and events you want to place your characters in and check, double check and triple check your work to ensure the accuracy is there.Secondly, don’t be hung up too much on things that aren’t important – for example, if you aren’t sure on what something would have cost in say 1914 (and can’t find the information), simply write ‘he paid for it’ etc.; i.e. keep the narrative flowing. Historical fiction, like all other fiction, has to primarily be enjoyable.Thirdly, at some point you will have enough knowledge of your subject to start writing. There are so many books out there, you could easily end up “over-researching”, delaying you getting anything down on paper.  Know when to take the plunge and go for it.If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why? This is a hard question to answer as there are so many. I have more interest in the combatants and ordinary people rather than the generals, politicians, etc. David Stirling and Blair Paddy ‘Mayne’ of the SAS would be near the top, but being ex-RAF I would probably go for Guy Gibson. A very brave man and exceptional leader who sadly died way too young.Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?The raising of the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. It is an iconic image, declaring the Nazis had been well and truly defeated, bringing an end to their evil and the utter chaos they had caused. Another, on a lighter note, would be watching Bobby Moore lift the World Cup for England at Wembley in 1966.Which other historical novelists do you admire?Sebastian Faulkes – I absolutely love his writing style. It’s magical. His work is exceptional and I find myself lost in his novels every time I read them. There’s not a book I’ve read by Faulkes I haven’t enjoyed or been moved by.Robert Harris is another I enjoy immensely. His trilogy on Cicero was brilliant and his books are always thought provoking, well researched and, most importantly, highly entertaining. There’s no need for me to read the blurbs on his books, I’ll pre-order every time.Wilbur Smith is another favourite of mine, especially his earlier work before he started collaborating with other writers. A master storyteller.When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first - the protagonist, plot or history?The history. There will be an event or period that interests me and I will want to write something on it. I will then think up a plot where I can include the event and then the protagonists will be developed from there.Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?Yes I have a routine. I will write until I become tired of it, or realise I’ve reached a point where to continue would be to produce work of a sub-standard quality. The next day I read through what I did the previous day and edit it. This then gives me the buzz to carry on. I will write again until I reach the same point.Having the support and encouragement of other authors is very important to me as it validates what I am doing and gives me the belief that what I am writing is actually quite good. Having this support from writers I admire and respect is immeasurable in terms of giving me confidence to carry on.Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?Sharpe Books are keen for me to write a series of books following a paratroop unit from D-Day to the end of the war and I've agreed. This is the one I will be working on in the coming weeks/months.Non-fiction - I am intrigued by an Australian soldier of the First World War – John ‘Barney’ Hines aka the Souvenir King. Eventually I want to write an account of his quite colourful life. Watch this space!John McKay is the author of Hell & High Water.
Angus Konstam on The Convoy
Angus Konstam, many congrats on the book. What inspired you to write The Convoy?Thanks! It was really enjoyable to write. A few years ago I read a short article about it written by Mal Wright, an Australian naval historian. It really piqued my interest, as I’d been looking for a way to encapsulate the drama the Battle of the Atlantic by zooming in on a single convoy. I also read the transcript of a lecture, covering the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, which also highlighted the importance of this particular convoy. After that I was sure that Convoy HG-76 was the perfect one to focus on. It had everything going for it - drama, tragedy, high stakes, new technologies and inspiring leadership. The more I researched it, the more I was convinced that the HG-76 story was the perfect one to bring all that drama to life.The book's main character, Commander Johnnie Walker, was one of the Royal Navy's most effective commanders of World War Two. Do you think he's had the recognition he deserves?

Johnnie Walker

While “Johnnie” Walker made his name during the HG-76 battle, and he was promoted afterwards, he was never fully given the recognition he should have. He almost single-handedly altered the course of the Battle of the Atlantic through scrapping the old way of protecting convoys, and replacing it with a far more aggressive version. For him, it wasn’t good enough to keep the U-boats at bay. Walker wanted to destroy them. His real achievement was that after HG-76, his tactics were adopted by the Royal Navy, and by other Allied forces. Had he lived until the end of the war he might have been lauded more highly, and given honous and titles he probably didn’t really want. Today he is known for being Britain’s great U-boat killer - and that, probably, is exactly how he’d have liked to have been remembered.HG-76 was clearly one of the turning points in the Atlantic sea war. How important, do you think, it was in the overall victory in the Battle of the Atlantic?Well, the Battle of the Atlantic was the long-running campaign of the entire war, running like a thread through it from start to finish. So, any historian worth his salt could prbably point to several “turning points”, all of which they could claim was the most important. So, I like the way you used the term “one of the turning p[oints”.  However, it was certainly a key one, for three main reasons. First, it saw the introduction of new aggressive escort tactics, which led directly to the sinking of five U-boats. Second, it demosntrated the value of the escort carrier. Without Audacity, Commander Walker and his escorts would have been hard-pressed to achieve what they did.After the convoy, both the use of Walker’s new tactics and the building of new escort carriers became a priority for the British Admiralty. Both were developments that would dramatically alter the course of the war agaisnt the U-boats. The third reason is that never before had a convoy battle resulted in the loss of so many U-boats. In the end it was so bad that Viseadmiral Dönitz, the U-boat commander-in-chief called off the attack. This more than anything showed that the tide was turning. The Allies were no longer on the ropes, and getting pounded into submission. With HG-76 they showed they could fight back, and come out swinging.Do you think that the sinking of the escort carrier, HMS Audacity, made HG-76 something of a pyrrhic victory?The loss of HMS Audacity was a real tragedy, and it claimed the lives of 73 of her crew, including her captain, Commander Douglas MacKendrick. However, by then she had proved her worth. In September she had accompanied a convoy bound for Gibraltar, and one of her Martlet fighters shot down a shadowing Condor long-range reconaissance aircraft. Before then, these German FW-200s had been able to shadow convoys which were beyond the range of Allied air cover, and could help U-boats intercept them. Now, thanks to Audacity, the convoys had the means to drive off these Condors. During the HG-76 battle, Audacity did the same job, and two more Condors were shot down by the escort carrier’s young pilots. Just as importantly, they proved they could detect U-boats on the surface, often dozens of miles away from the convoy. That allowed aggressive escort commanders like Walker the chance to hunt down and destroy these U-boats. So, while the sinking of Audacity could make the convoy battle seem like a phyrric victroy, her real achievement was greater than the ship herself. Audacity was a prototype. Despite her loss, she proved the worth of this new type of warship. She then, would be the first of many - and the escort carrier would go on to play a crucial part in achieving victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.By covering a single convoy, you are able to focus on the main players and tactics in great detail. This makes for a more immersive book for the reader, and, in my view a most enjoyable read. It both informs and entertains. How important is it for you to 'entertain' your readers as well as providing an accurate depiction of what took place?Thank you for saying that. Yes, for me the telling of a good story is a key part of the whole thing. It has to be fun to read, or else it isn’t worth doing. We’ve all read history books that are fairly turgid, despite covering some fascinating historical events. So, I like to make sure the reader enjoys reading the book. It was the American historian Bruce Catton who first showed me the potential of writing well-researched history in a style which took the reader along with it. I’m simply following that hallowed example. The best review I can have is when someone said they enjoyed reading the book.

HMS Audacity

The numbers involved during the Battle of the Atlantic are extraordinary – over 70,000 losses on the allied side, around 30,000 German U Boat submariners. It was a vital victory nonetheless – is this the fascination for you?You’re right -the casualty figures were horrendous. I once spoke to a merchant seaman who’d been torpedoed three times, and lost shipmates in each  ship. He hid it well, but the shadow of those experiences stayed with him for the rest of his life. As for the U-boat crews, their chances of survival were slim. All of these young men - and yes, most of them in the merchant ships, escorts and U-boats were young - many in their mid 20s or less - were asked to place themselves in harm’s way, and many of them paid the ultimate price. I used to be in the navy myself, and know that there’s a bond between mariners - one where once an enemy vessel is sunk, the crew are no longer foes, but fellow mariners in need of help. For these men, that basic instict had often to be ignored, as it wasn’t always possible to rescue survivors, in case the rescuers bacame victims themselves. So, what I really am fascinated with is the stories these young men told, later in life, when describing the experiences they went through. Their story, after all, is the one we’re trying to tell.How close was the battle – did the Kriegsmarine come close to victory?One of the real advantages of wiring The Convoy was that it let me “drill down” and look at one particular convoy involved in the Battle of the Atlantic. That big picture is almost too big of a canvas to portray - at least in a way that readers can easily engage with. Choosing Convoy HG-76 allowed me to look at a particularly hard-fought convoy battle, with losses on both sides. The British lost the escort carrier Audacity and the old destroyer Stanley, while the Kriegsmarine lost five U-boats.You can even claim a sixth boat, lost at the hand of others, but from the same predatory wolfpack.  In many cases when these vessels sank there were very few survivors - and in some cases all hands were lost. The human cost then, was high on both sides.This though, was a convoy battle, so the real arbiter of victory was the number of merchant ships which were sunk.During 1941, some convoys lost a dozen merchantmen, and heavy losses were the norm. In HG-76, of the 32 merchant ships which sailed from Gibraltar, all but two of them reached Liverpool safely. That then, was a real achievement. Despite the loss of Audacity and Stanley, the Admiralty were delighted with the outcome. Were it not for Commander Walker and Audacity, things might have been very different. Thanks to them though, this was a convoy which had defied the odds, and achieved a victory which marked the way forward in this bitter, hard-fought war.The book is extremely well researched. Is this an aspect of your writing that you enjoy?Thank you. Actually, I love the research part of any project like this. It’s almost impossible now, to interview those who took part. Fortunately though, their experiences have often been recorded in one way or another, and so their voices can still be heard.The research can often mean pulling long hours reading through things like naval log books, muster lists, action reports and even the records of ammunition expended. You can learn a lot from that though. The idea that some of Walker’s escorts reached port with almost no depth-charges left reveals a lot about the ferocity of the convoy battle, The secret though, is taking all this information, and presenting it in a way the reader can enjoy reading, without being submerged in a tsunami of detail.I’ve always been keen to wear my scholarship lightly. I see it as the historian’s job to trawl through all this information on behalf of the reader, and then to present it in a way that’s understandable. So, while I was writing the book, I had to become something of an expert in a whole bunch of things, from the way torpedoes were fired, or depth charge patterns launched, to the way aircraft are handled on a flight deck. A lot of this is information you can’t really get from the archives, or from books. Fortunately, I had people I could ask, who’d done many of these things, albeit in a slightly later navy to the one described in The Convoy. So, what I enjoy the most then, is the learning of new things. If I can learn something from researching and writing a book, then what I really want is that the reader is able to learn something too. That, actually, is what gives me the geatest thrill of all. Like any book, The Convoy was something of a labour of love. If I can pass on some of that love to the reader, then the whole thing has been well worth it.Angus Konstam is the author of The Convoy: HG-76: Taking the Fight to Hitler's U-boats, published by Osprey. John McKay is the author of Surviving the Arctic Convoys.