The Shepherd: A ghost of Christmas past

Robin Evans reveals the origins of, and profiles, bestselling author Frederick Forsyth’s ‘The Shepherd’ – is it the best story in aviation?

Five minutes later I knew, without doubt of it, that I was going to die tonight. I wasn't even afraid anymore – just enormously sad. It's a bad thing to die at 20 years of age with your life unlived”. These are the words of an RAF pilot heading home from Germany on Christmas Eve in 1957 as the fog sets in over the North Sea and all radio communication is lost, that have captivated countless people through Frederick Forsyth’s 1975 novella The Shepherd

Is Frederick Forsyth’s book ‘The Shepherd’, the best story in aviation?
Is Frederick Forsyth’s book ‘The Shepherd’, the best story in aviation? KEY Collection

With The Day Of The Jackal, The Odessa File and The Dogs of War, Forsyth established himself as a master of the contemporary thriller novel, acclaimed for his meticulous research and almost forensic attention to detail. Immediately after his debut trilogy, he surprised many fans by penning the illustrated supernatural novella The Shepherd, which later became a perennial favourite on Canadian radio at Christmas. Now the story has been reimagined as a short film released on the Disney+ streaming platform on December 1 (see the tailer here).

Origins

As revealed in The Shepherd, Forsyth humbly described his brief tenure with the RAF as “some dilettante with a blink-and-you-miss-it flying career.” Nevertheless, his limited time as a pilot was spent in the cockpit of the de Havilland Vampire, which would later inspire his yuletide novella.

Written on Christmas Day 1974, Forsyth described The Shepherd as a gift for his first wife, Carrie. Believing he had not bought her a present, she asked him instead to write an alternative ghost story. The title refers to both salvation and the season, key factors in evoking what he later described as “the awful loneliness of a single-seat fighter lost in the freezing vault of a winter’s night.”

Forsyth’s 2015 autobiography The Outsider: My Life In Intrigue reveals multiple cat’s lives, coincidences, youthful chutzpah – and consistent references to flight. Born in 1938, he ascribed the necessary detachment of the writer – and solo pilot – to being an only child. Against the droning of V-weapons and swathes of RAF and Luftwaffe types, he wryly observed: “The spring of 1940 was not a relaxing time to be in East Kent.”

His father’s protected occupation in the Fire Brigade and welfare role for the War Office took him to RAF Hawkinge in 1944. Here a young Forsyth was hoisted aboard a Spitfire Mk.IX by welcoming pilots: “I sniffed in the odours of petrol, oil, webbing, leather, sweat and fear – for fear also has an aroma... and in the manner of little boys, I swore a little boy’s oath. A month later I turned six and the dream did not die.”

Pilots of No 610 'County of Chester ' Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force Fighter Command positioned at readiness near their Supermarine Spitfire Mk I monoplane fighters during the Battle of Britain on 29th July 1940 at RAF Hawkinge, Kent, United Kingdom
Pilots of No 610 'County of Chester ' Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force Fighter Command positioned at readiness near their Supermarine Spitfire Mk I monoplane fighters during the Battle of Britain on 29th July 1940 at RAF Hawkinge, Kent, United Kingdom (Fox/Hulton/Getty)

With his father’s linguistic focus, the young Forsyth derailed academic exchanges in France, Germany, and Spain into more authentic territory. Dispatched to Germany in 1952, his family host, a Luftwaffe officer, took him to a local gliding championship, where famed German aviatrix and test pilot Hanna Reitsch’s cheery mood evaporated upon meeting “Ein Engländer!”

Despite witnessing the DH.110 crash at Farnborough on September 6, 1952 – in which test pilot John Derry, observer Tony Richards and 31 spectators lost their lives – Forsyth attended RAF selection, going on to learn to fly at Rochester while still at school: “In my boyish imagination I was over the fields of Flanders circa 1916, in formation with Bishop, Ball, Mannock and McCudden.”

Calling in a favour to join the RAF before his 18th birthday, Forsyth, number 5010968, was gazetted as Acting Pilot Officer on August 28, 1956. Posted to Ternhill in Shropshire on a weekly wage of £3 with £20 flight pay, he began 120 hours on the Percival Provost. At RAF Worksop with No.4 Flight Training School (FTS), he finally achieved his dream of flying the de Havilland Vampire T.11 dual and FB.9 solo: “At last, single-seat jets,” he declared.

A flight of Vampire FB.5s from 1 Squadron lined up at RAF Oakington, August 1954
A flight of Vampire FB.5s from 1 Squadron lined up at RAF Oakington, August 1954 Hulton Archive/Getty

The Vampire’s value as a maturity tool was abruptly reinforced in August 1957. Forsyth wrote: “I think that in the lives of most young men there comes a moment when the boy simply has to grow up and become a man. For most of us it was the day we buried Derek Brett.”

Leaving Worksop on August 8, 1957, in T.11 XE866, Fg Off Brett and his instructor Fg Off Philip Jones are believed to have crashed after misreading their altimeter while descending through cloud towards the ragged moorland of the Pennines. “The scythe-bladed compressor wheel is right behind the cockpit. Still spinning at several thousand rpm, it just comes off the axle and churns forward,” Forsyth later recalled. 

Brett’s coursemates, Forsyth included, buried him in the rain. He remembered: “We realised this thing, this Vampire, was not just a sports car loaned by a generous queen… it was ten tons of aluminium and steel, that if you did not treat with respect, would kill you.”

Graduating in March 1958, the RAF’s then youngest pilot observed: “The thing about wings is that they are yours and yours alone. You cannot inherit them from an indulgent father; you cannot buy them in Savile Row.”

But with dreams of a Hunter posting crushed, he opted out: “I had not the money to travel, but I knew people who did: the editors of the great daily newspapers. I would become a foreign correspondent.”

Pilot to pen

An apprenticeship with the Norfolk Press must have seemed prosaic in comparison with flying a Vampire, though the location would later resonate. By autumn 1961, Forsyth was an unblooded Fleet Street correspondent. His world knowledge opened doors at the London-based Reuters news agency, and his fluent French brought an invite to cover escalating tensions in Paris. Exposure to bodyguards and aggressors in the 1962 assassination attempt on President Charles de Gaulle would inspire his first novel, The Day Of The Jackal.

Forsyth became Reuters’ sole East Berlin agent for 1963-1964. Learning to live under constant surveillance, his tenure saw President John F Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, and the downing of a US 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron Douglas RB-66C over East Germany by a Soviet MiG-19 Farmer on March 10, 1964. Dispatched to investigate, Forsyth found the wreckage before being intercepted by Soviet forces – he brazened out the interrogation by adopting a stumbling Bertie Wooster persona.

It was a USAF Douglas RB-66C similar to this one shot down by the Soviet MiGs on March 10, 1964
It was a USAF Douglas RB-66C similar to this one shot down by the Soviet MiGs on March 10, 1964 KEY Collection

Joining the BBC in 1965, he arrived in Nigeria to cover the burgeoning civil war, declaring that with Vietnam an American mess, Biafra was a British one. Disagreeing with BBC foreign policy, he resigned, returning independently to report on the bullets, blockades and famine sweeping the West African nation.

Nigerian troops pose with a captured ‘Biafran Air Force’ A-26 Invader in 1968 during the Nigerian–Biafran War
Nigerian troops pose with a captured ‘Biafran Air Force’ A-26 Invader in 1968 during the Nigerian–Biafran War Getty Images-Getty Images- Express-Terry Fincher
Seen here while visiting Finland in October 1972, Forsyth shows the bullet that grazed his head while reporting on the Nigerian–Biafran War. The British writer openly declared that if the civil war was like American mess caused in Vietnam, Biafra was a British one
Seen here while visiting Finland in October 1972, Forsyth shows the bullet that grazed his head while reporting on the Nigerian–Biafran War. The British writer openly declared that if the civil war was like American mess caused in Vietnam, Biafra was a British one Helsingin Sanomat-Hannu Lindroos

During this period, he also travelled to Israel, tracking down David Ben-Gurion and pilot Ezer Weizman, respective founders of the Israeli State and Air Force. Sourcing the air arm’s first fighters – Czechoslovak-built Messerschmitt Bf 109s dubbed Avia S-199s – Weizman had led young Jewish fliers against Egyptian Hurricanes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. To its creators the Avia was the Mezec (mule); to the Israelis it was the Messer, Yiddish for knife.

Ezer Weizman poses with an Avia S-199 on strength with the Isreali Air Force’s 101st Squadron in 1948. When Forsyth met him during the early 1970s, he recalled: “As he was describing to me the first dogfight he was in during the War for Independence he took his hands off the controls, which I grabbed. I got a history lesson and a flying lesson all at once!”
Ezer Weizman poses with an Avia S-199 on strength with the Isreali Air Force’s 101st Squadron in 1948. When Forsyth met him during the early 1970s, he recalled: “As he was describing to me the first dogfight he was in during the War for Independence he took his hands off the controls, which I grabbed. I got a history lesson and a flying lesson all at once!” KEY Collection
Still flying today in Israel Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XI ’57’ was once the personal mount of Ezer Weizman. Dubbed the “Black Spitfire of Ezer Weizman”, it is the oldest and most famous Israeli aircraft in existence
Still flying today in Israel Supermarine Spitfire Mk.XI ’57’ was once the personal mount of Ezer Weizman. Dubbed the “Black Spitfire of Ezer Weizman”, it is the oldest and most famous Israeli aircraft in existence Alamy Stock Photo-PhotoStock-Israel

By 1970, Forsyth had aspired to, achieved and abandoned two dream careers. Penniless and with only his hard-won reportage skills, he began hawking the manuscript of The Day Of The Jackal. Offered a three-book deal, his subsequent two bestsellers would focus on Nazi-hunters and mercenaries drawn from his experiences in Germany and Africa.

All were optioned to be made into films. Earning a £500 initial retainer, the rights extended to either £17,500 and 5% of the box office or a flat £20,000. Forsyth chose the latter, confessing he had no idea his work would prove so successful. Unfortunately, his growing celebrity was not always conducive to method research. Posing as a South African arms trader in Hamburg, Forsyth’s targets were tipped off by seeing his picture in a bookshop window. Alerted by an unknown insider, he fled.

The Shepherd

By consensus, Forsyth’s literary genius is the way he subtly validates fiction with meticulous field research or lived detail. Set during his 1957 RAF tenure, The Shepherd conceals autobiographical elements: the callsign ‘Charlie-Delta’ is his own, while the kernel of the story perhaps lay in his exposure to RAF folklore.

He includes pilot specifics like the lurching acceleration upon retracting the landing gear: “I held her low above the deck, letting the speed build up till a glance at the airspeed indicator told me we were through 120 knots… I heard the dull clunk of the main wheels entering their bays, the lunge forward of the jet as the drag of the undercarriage vanished.”

He also speaks from experience when he describes the warm cocoon of the cockpit becoming a prison of dismay, fear and bitter helplessness. In consigning his pilot to their fate in the lost Vampire, he echoes the warning of his own flight sergeant: “It is the only jet the RAF has ever sent into the sky that has no ejector seat. And no one has ever escaped from a dying Vampire. You either fly in it or die in it.”

As the editor of the anthology Great Flying Stories in the early 1990s, Forsyth described how there are only five truly lonely places: mountains, poles, deserts, oceans and the air. In playing upon the fears of the long-distance pilot, lonely if not always alone, he nods to aviating camaraderie over generations of aircraft and their pilots. The term ‘shepherd’ is still used by air arms today to describe formating to assist others in distress.

Forsyth fictionalises real locations for the story. Found outside Hanover, the air base at Fliegerhorst Celle-Wietzenbruch dates back to World War One. Becoming a strategic location for the Berlin Airlift as RAF Celle, it stationed Vampires and Venoms and was returned to Germany just before Forsyth’s reference to Christmas 1957. Using his knowledge of Norfolk geography earned as a cub reporter 15 years earlier, he created the fictional RAF Minton, five miles inland of Cromer. Elsewhere, RAF Merriam St George is either a variation of County Durham’s RAF Middleton St George, former home of Forsyth’s No.4 FTS, or else Norfolk’s RAF Horsham St Faith.

Newly re-released by Penguin this winter, The Shepherd is particularly atmospheric thanks to artist Chris Foss’s monochrome spreads of dark skies and snowy ground, with a restless North Sea shrinking the Vampire to the size of a toy. Inspired by a childhood in post-war Guernsey, Foss started by drawing aircraft, but became a prolific sci-fi artist specialising in aerodynamic spacecraft for book covers. He also did pre-production design for films such as Alien, Flash Gordon, AI: Artificial Intelligence and Guardians of the Galaxy. The Shepherd is one of his notable flight projects, alongside book jackets for Len Deighton’s Bomber and Douglas Bader’s life story, Reach for the Sky. “I had cornered a small market in Second World War, aircraft-type illustrations so was rapidly becoming a bit of an expert,” recalled Foss. “Around that time, I was going to the Imperial War Museum quite a lot. They were allowing me to go through their reference section and had a huge number of cardboard boxes labeled ‘Top Secret’ from the war that no one had unpacked. That is how we ended up living in our first house, a village called Sutton in East Anglia. I actually went up there from London to research the bomber airbases and you could still, in those days, see the odd control tower sticking out of a wheat field. I vividly remember the story of The Shepherd; it really caught my imagination so it’s nice to have that raised again.

“I was very drawn to the war, whereas I wouldn’t bother reading science fiction. I read The Shepherd on the train coming down from our house to London and it so gripped me that when I looked out of the window some trees were going underneath us on an embankment and I said: ‘Shit, he’s really low.’ That’s how much it gripped me.”

From page to screen

In August 2023, the film of The Shepherd received its premiere at the HollyShorts Film Festival in Los Angeles – making it eligible as a nominee for next year’s Academy Awards . Made in partnership with John Travolta and directed by Iain Softley, whose previous films include the Beatles biopic Backbeat and the fantasy adventure Inkheart, it forms an opening salvo for producer Richard Johns’ television-oriented Argo Films, described as a company breaking new ground in filmed television and developing regional UK talent.

Despite John Travolta’s outstanding credentials as an aviator, Ben Radcliffe (who also stars in the forthcoming Masters of the Air, the long-awaited mini-series produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks following the actions of the USAAF’s 100th Bombardment Group during World War Two) plays the young Vampire pilot. Which means Travolta is a strong bet to play the ethereal title role as ‘JK’, the de Havilland Mosquito pilot who appears out of the fog. The supporting cast also includes Steven Mackintosh, who previously appeared in Memphis Belle.

Filming took place at the former RAF West Raynham in Norfolk in spring 2022, aptly once a Central Fighter Establishment base for the Vampire. A friendly Travolta was spotted locally and confessed The Shepherd was a book he’d always loved. Around the same time, the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre confirmed that its resident de Havilland Mosquito – owned by Tony Agar – had been readied for a starring role in the film. Similarly, the Royal Norwegian Air Force Historic Flight marked up its Vampire FB.52 (LN-DHY) for the production as WA123/R-A, a 94 Squadron example based at Celle in 1957.

An apparition? Tony Agar’s incredible Mosquito NF.II HJ711 – seen here taxiing into the night at its East Kirkby home – has also been involved in the production
An apparition? Tony Agar’s incredible Mosquito NF.II HJ711 – seen here taxiing into the night at its East Kirkby home – has also been involved in the production KEY-Jamie Ewan
Seen here displaying at Duxford in September 2022, the Norwegian Air Historic Flight marked up its Vampire FB.52 (LN-DHY) as WA123/R-A – a 94 Squadron example based at Celle in 1957 - for filming work
Seen here displaying at Duxford in September 2022, the Norwegian Air Historic Flight marked up its Vampire FB.52 (LN-DHY) as WA123/R-A – a 94 Squadron example based at Celle in 1957 - for filming work Alamy Stock Photo-Andrew carruth

Full circle

In 1988, Frederick Forsyth moved to a 170-acre Hertfordshire sheep farm, bringing The Shepherd from military metaphor and fantastical concept into reality – he said his new home took him back to his Kentish childhood. He never flew operationally, nor in a Spitfire, as he had sworn to do aged five, but his autobiography closes on a flight in a two-seater in 2014, confessing that it was enough to make even a cynical old journalist choke up: “The same Weald I had pedaled through as a boy, just as it was in 1940 when Spitfires and Hurricanes hurled themselves at the incoming Luftwaffe. England, our England. It was over too soon, but it was done. The 70-year-old promise was fulfilled and the little boy’s dream had come true.”

Bestselling author Frederick Forsyth, now 85, pictured on October 16, 2013 
Bestselling author Frederick Forsyth, now 85, pictured on October 16, 2013  AFP via Getty Images