By day he sits at his desk in front of a pair of wide screen monitors that span more than five feet of computer screen real estate. One screen holds the word
processor, another a simulation of the action he is describing, with numerous other windows layered four and five deep, holding research info fished from the web. A cup of Peet’s
Coffee sits on a small cup warmer to the right, near an open notebook wherein he scribbles notes, ideas, map sketches, research tidbits. There is a stack of these notebooks that chronicle
his writing journey through the 26 book Kirov Series thus far, there beside a pile of other books on various aspects of the war. At one end of the L-shaped desk, the statue of a classic meditating Buddha surveys the desktop landscape in serene silence, and without judgment, except for an occasional sidelong glance at the bottle of Peach Brandy near the top of the line Dell desktop box Mr. Schettler uses to write
“I’ve always been a desktop warrior,” he exclaims. “Never owned a laptop in my life. To do my work, I need abundant screen real estate, a decent mouse, and a nice quiet illuminated keyboard. That and plenty of solitude—lots of time.”
To be as prolific and consistent a writer as he is, Mister Schettler will be found at that desk day in and day out, sometimes until well after dark. “Dinner at six,” he says, but its coffee and proofing time after that, until at least 8 or 9pm.” That’s a heavy schedule, considering he often starts his day at 6 or 7 am, all in the effort to get at least one eight page chapter completed for each writing day.
“I don’t write every day,” he says, eying one of his great weaknesses—donuts and coffee. “Some days are simply research days, or design days on the military simulation software. For the naval engagements, I’ll use at least two different simulations, and then compare results, selecting out what I think the most plausible outcome is.”
Why eight pages?
“It’s just my method. I find that length just long enough to present a good engaging scene, but not too
long. You want flow and pacing in a novel, and a mix of both good narration and interactive character dialogue with the action scenes. Sometimes I’ll let a scene extend to ten or
twelve pages, but it has to be very crucial material for me to do that. Narration, of course, is largely to tell backstory, or to set up the material I’ll be covering. It pays
homage to the history I’m writing about, and also serves to educate the reader, though many series readers are already well educated on this history. Sometimes the more you know
about the war, the more you might appreciate the twists I’m introducing in that history. More often than not, I’ll use character dialog instead of a narrative information
dump. I put two Generals together and let them hash out their situation, and in that exchange the reader gets everything he needs to know, the where and why of this particular battle they
are about to enter into, and the problems each side must deal with.
The scale of the action can vary quite a bit, like a camera moving in and
out, sometimes a close up shot, and sometimes a sweeping panorama.
“Yes, I move from strategic overview, to operational moves, and then to tactical encounters. One
scene will present the strategy, the units involved and the leaders. Another might zoom right in to a soldier on the thankless burial detail in Volgograd, trying to bury a comrade in a
cemetery without getting killed in the process. They’ll be some of all those scales in every book. Of course, I could never finish the war if I tried to do blow-by-blow tactical
presentations of every battle, but I think the mix I have going is achieving what I want here—a detailed presentation of an alternate History of WWII that is lived and experienced
by the main fictional and historical characters, and one that also honors the history it recounts, even if I do take a good many liberties with that history. That’s where the fun
comes in, but you have to know what you’re talking about—the history itself. Only then can you introduce a plausible variation that stands up and presents a credible new
direction for the overall course of events.”
Can you give an example of that?
“Well… Lets look at the
strategic level first. Take the material presented in Book 11, Hinge of Fate. That was the account that focused on the German Operation Felix to take Gibraltar. Now that has always been
one of the real “what ifs” of the war in the West, and all the history after that successful German operation has been profoundly influenced by that battle. It led to all the
action involving the Canary Islands, Operation Condor, the big naval battle of Fuerteventura, the decision to send Kaiser Wilhelm into the South Atlantic, and the dramatic
“event” they stumble upon there. The consequences of that have yet to be seen, but they are coming. In more recent books, Operation Felix profoundly altered the complexion of
Operation Torch. To retake Gibraltar, it was necessary to control the landward side, which was going to mean an invasion of Spain. With Franco sympathetic to Germany, this was going to be
inevitable. That operation ends up knocking Spain out of the war, but now the Allies are looking at a very different battle in Algeria. They couldn’t just race into Tunisia as they
did after the landings at Algiers, because German control of Gibraltar made those landings impossible.”
And Operation Hercules taking Malta was also a big change.
“Yes, very significant. It basically means that the Germans can supply and sustain far more divisions in North Africa, because Malta isn’t there to provide all
those airfields for the British to go after Italian shipping. That matters a great deal when it comes to the operational level of the battle. For me, my understanding of the history has
always gone deeper than the overweening strategy of the war. It goes to the operations born of that strategy, the units that carried them out, and then to the tactical level where the men
who make up those military units actually lived and breathed in that battle. I’ve gamed all this out for 30 years. So those units matter, the divisions, regiments and battalions
that were at any given place and time matter a very great deal, as do the breath and thoughts of the men who fought in those units. This is why I’ll tell you more than “Patton
attacked” at this or another place. I’ll tell you why he did that, and what units he relied on to get the job done. I’ll point out the military difficulties and
challenges on both sides to flesh out your understanding of that battle.”
Does the presence of one unit or another change things that
much? Won’t any panzer division do in a given situation?
“Yes to the first question, and no to the second one. Take the situation in the real history during
Operation Uranus. There was a panzer division on the scene backstopping the front where the northern pincer struck. That was 22nd Panzer, and its composition, experience, the state of its equipment, and its leadership mattered a very great deal. It was not able to react effectively to stop, or even delay, the Russian offensive there. Why? Though it was formed in September of 1941, It was largely built up with the older captured Czech Pz-38T tanks. It lost a good deal of equipment in operations prior to the Stalingrad battle, in the Crimea and at Kharkov and Rostov. So there it sat, along with the Romanian 1st tank Division, and under General Heim it was the heart of the 48th Panzer Korps. Heim was no slouch. He had the 14th Panzer in France and did so well that he was made chief of staff of 6th Army and was in on a lot of the planning for Barbarossa. He was a good and competent officer, but his sword was dented, and his shield too thin. After 6th Army was cut off, Hitler scapegoated him and relieved him of command. He literally threw him into solitary confinement, and right out of the Army itself. Given that division, in that place and time, with old equipment, understrength, and the tanks barely able to start because mice had gotten in and chewed the wiring and hoses in places, Heim had no chance to stop that attack.”
I see. Yes, I suppose the men and machines in any given place do matter a great deal.
They do. Now let’s look at the situation
on the River Chir. The whole front is busted open, 6th Army is trapped, and Romanenko’s 5th Tank Army is about to cross the Chir and basically make a disaster into a catastrophe for
the Germans in the south. If he had taken Morozovsk, pushed to the Donets, he was going to literally cut off all the German forces in the Caucasus. In December, 1940, well before
Barbarossa, Romanenko attended a conference trying to analyze how the Germans achieved their great offensive victory in France. He proposed the creation of fast moving mechanized armies,
like the German Panzer Korps, but his ideas and opinions were basically overlooked and countered by more senior officers, even Zhukov. So Romanenko had something to prove when he was
given 5th Tank Army. Unfortunately, he was to run up against one of the most experienced and skillful Panzer Commanders in the German Army, Hermann Balck and his 11th Panzer Division.
That unit had just come out of reserve, so it was very near full strength, and it was being led by a consummate master of the art of mobile warfare that Romanenko was trying to
demonstrate. Balck and his division literally tore that Soviet tank army up, stopping it cold and stabilizing the situation. It took that man, and that precise division and the men in it
like “the incomparable Hauser,” Balck’s recon commander. This is the level you need to reach in order to really understand that history, and why things happened as they
did. Balck wasn’t just another German Panzer Commander. He mattered.
But yet the Germans still lost that battle.
they did. While Balck’s intervention was timely, competent, and very effective in stabilizing the shattered front and allowing Manstein to collect forces to rebuild it, it was not
decisive. That is to say that intervention did not produce a decisive victory for the Germans. If, however, Balck and his 11th Panzer Division had not been there…. That entire front
could have collapsed, and the Russians could have bagged Kleist in the Caucasus. As it was, the Germans barely prevented that outcome, holding what I call the “Rostov Gate”
open long enough to get those troops out. It would have been an absolute disaster had he been trapped, worse than the loss of Paulus and his 6th Army. So, to relate this alternate
history, I need to go to that operational level, complete with information on what units participated, and then sometimes to the tactical level as well at a crucial point in the battle, a
turning point, as I did in the desert battles with Rommel. This is how I understand the history, and like baseball, the deeper your knowledge is of the game, the more you can appreciate
it. I know some readers don’t want to be taken to that level, but I’m thinking most do, and many have a very deep appreciation and understanding of this history. That’s
who I’m really writing for.
You do the same in many of the naval engagements.
“Yes, the ships and their commanders matter. We’ve seen that all through the series. Sometimes I’ll go into great detail in those battles,
right down to the workings of the fire control systems on a ship like Yamato when it fought Kirov. There I was trying to showcase the vast difference in that interval
between estimation and certainty when it came to firing. The outcome of the battle was hidden in those split seconds, not in the thickness of Yamato’s armor, or the size of her massive guns. It was in that fire control capability--the ability to put harm on the enemy. I can’t always go into that level of detail, but when it matters, I do, as in the death of Admiral Volsky on the Bridge of HMS Invincible.”
Did Hindenburg get the bum’s rush the way it went down?
“Well, after I wrote that, I had second thoughts, thinking I should have made that more dramatic. After all, it was the Hindenburg, the big alternate history inclusion on the German side. But was it the ship that really mattered? Hindenburg represented the extreme of one end of naval thinking for the projection of power at sea--the battleship. Yet Raeder, and Tovey are now starting to see things differently. They realize the day of the battleship is over. Two things really matter now at sea--speed and air power. Tovey sees the virtue of both, and on the German side, Kaiser Wilhelm and the Goeben, ended up being a much more important ships than the Hindenburg.
That said, there is something to be said for showcasing the death of the battleship era. Everybody loves the battleships, and so I’ll give you more there. Don’t forget, the
Germans still have Bismarck and Tirpitz, though neither have fared well in their brief careers. Bismarck is back now, a ship I have loved from the days of my youth. So look for more action there soon, and I’ll make up for the short shrift I gave the Hindenburg.”
Ok, How about the Pacific. Did the Fiji operation run aground?
“You might say as much. I was focusing so much on the East Front
of late that I have a lot of catching up to do in the Pacific. Some of that gets covered here in Thor’s Anvil. The US was able to get all of the 1st Marine Division and 23rd
“Pacifica” Division to Fiji in May-June of 1942 after the battle of the Koro Sea. That was enough to halt the Japanese advance, and forced Yamamoto to plan the reinforcement
of Japanese forces to match the US buildup. Then both sides withdraw their carriers from the scene, and the Fiji group becomes the province of surface ships running and out at night with
troops and supplies. There were a lot of naval duels that resulted from similar tactics at Guadalcanal, and I’ll present some of those in the next book. But the Japanese took a hard
blow at Koro Sea too, so it takes them time to regroup. Yamamoto orders Takami north, and we’ve seen that action. Then Thor’s Anvil covers an operation in Late 1942. In the
meantime, the Fight for Fiji settles into a kind of stalemate. The US wants to land the 2nd Marine Division and the 25th Division from Hawaii, but is unwilling to do so without adequate
air support. By late 42, they get that, and then things start to move again in the period December-January. I’ll be covering a good bit of that in the next book.”
Thank’s John. One last question… Do we find out what Fedorov does in Thor’s Anvil?
“Yes. Fedorov stars in 7 full chapters, and that mission concludes, for good or for ill.”