Monday, May 26, 2008

"The Onion Files."

[Victoria Times Colonist, May 25, 2008.]

Ex-Intelligence Chief Val Pattee Now

A Successful Author of Spy Novels.

By Sidney Allinson.

Val Pattee is fit-looking and courteous, with a wry humour and shrewd observations about the current perilous state of international affairs – a retired military general perfectly suited to his new career as writer of espionage novels. Still tanned from spending three months in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with his artist wife Joan, he says, “Our annual winter vacation works very well for us both creatively; Joan busy at her easel, painting local scenes, and me at the keyboard almost non-stop, writing a sequel to “The Onion Files.”

That title of his first book, which came out last fall, refers to a multi-layered plot of international intrigue that reflects a good deal of his own first-hand involvement with the grim world of espionage. Starting as a young Canadian Air Force jet-fighter pilot, Maj.-Gen. Pattee eventually became Chief of Intelligence & Security at headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] in Mons, Belgium, during the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

He recalls, “Every morning, my desk would be flooded with new secret information from space satellites, signal intercepts, allied counter-intelligence services, and our espionage agents in potentially hostile countries. My job was to quickly assess all this detail and boil it down into a concise daily situation report for military and political leaders of NATO’s sixteen European member nations, including Canada, the United States, and Britain.”

Pattee also worked in Paris to help combat Action Direct terrorism, and in Germany when the Red Army Faction was creating havoc across Europe. On leaving the Canadian Forces, he moved to British Columbia to become Assistant Deputy Minister of Police Services, then the Director of BC Ambulance Services, and finally “retired” for good in Victoria five years ago.

All this front-line knowledge of dangerous international intrigue uniquely equips him to become a successful author of spy thrillers. He says, “Considering what I do these days, it’s almost funny that most of my professional life required me to compress masses of information into a very tight digest form for strategic briefings. Now, as a novelist, the situation is reversed, and I’m faced instead with the need to expand material to make entertaining novels. Usually I aim for about 96,000 words.” He did not just stumble onto that particular number, his study of the trade having found most publishers ideally prefer book-lengths to total just below 100,000 words.

Pattee obviously tackles writing novel-writing with great enjoyment. “I find the process of writing comes easy to me. I just capture related thoughts, character traits, and incidents, and flesh them out. My approach is not the usual first-draft, second-draft, and so on. I continually rewrite or rearrange the manuscript daily, as the story unfolds. That’s where my laptop word-processor is so marvellous. You can go back to revise a paragraph to suit a time-line, or move an entire chapter from here to there. The technology makes the physical act of writing so easy, I can’t imagine how authors did it in the old typewriter-and-paper days. I’ve got the second book pretty much all down already. I just have to refine it, add some details, and it should be ready for publication in a couple of months. Unlike a lot of techno-thrillers, I don’t add a lot of fluff; those clumps of extraneous details that can bore readers and don’t move the story along at all.”

There is no danger of that, judging by his first book. “The Onion Files” flings us into a fast-paced chillingly-possible scenario that never lets up. It is that rarity, a believable spy yarn, whose heroes and villains alike seem credible human beings, unlike the comic-strip characters who populate some thrillers. The lifelike opponents include a pair of intrepid agents from the Central (Defense) Intelligence Agency, abetted by a sympathetic Soviet spy, who battle evil master-mind Osama bin Laden and his fanatical cohorts across the world. They are portrayed in such an authentic atmosphere, that many so-called fictional incidents portrayed in it could have actually occurred. He confirms that by saying, “Many of the anecdotes in my book are the real stuff, encounters during my own experience, altered just enough for security’s sake.”

Not to give away the story, but his book focuses on countering a devilishly clever terrorist scheme to cause a catastrophic disaster aimed at killing millions of civilians across the United States. Drawing on his insider knowledge, Val Pattee expertly describes the technicalities of how to cause this mass atrocity so well, one hopes his novel does not fall into the wrong hands and give them another nasty idea to use against us. Moreover, “The Onion Files” could make a useful defensive primer for governmental security agencies on both sides of our border.

His strategic skills obviously helped make careful analysis of the publishing process and the modern author’s prospects for getting into print. “I find that the entire publishing trade is in a state of turmoil,” he says. “Large conventional publishing houses are overwhelmed by changes in public reading tastes, and by computer innovations that affect printing, marketing, and distribution. New print-on-demand technology that can instantly publish one or a thousand copies at push of a button is doing away with the need for bricks-and-mortar warehouses. Authors too are suffering, from the squeeze for shelf-space in bookstores, a huge increase in the number of people writing books, and most seriously by the difficulty of getting into print the old-fashioned way.”

“Prospects for most writers to get their work accepted are pretty limited today. Few if any publishing houses will accept manuscripts if they are not submitted by a literary agent. That goes to the near impossibility of getting an agent to take on new unknown authors. Time and again, agents sent back my own writing, saying, ’Good story, but you have to understand we get hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every month, so we simply cannot handle most of them.’”

“Had I been writing twenty years ago, I might have had it much easier. This style of book was very popular then – and Clancy, Forsythe, McCarry, Ludlum, and company were very big sellers. But by the time I jumped in, I found myself way behind the power-curve in terms of readership, and that’s mainly a question of time. Societal change, too. Now, there’s what can be best described as general disinterest in espionage, military subjects, and so on. Notwithstanding people are aware of Afghanistan and Iraq, there simply are so many other diversions that people find it hard to be as interested in those conflicts the way they did back in the Sixties and Seventies when the threat of nuclear war was very real to everyone. So the market for my kind of book has shrunk somewhat.”

All of which is why Val Pattee decided to self-publish his book, and turned to Agio Publishing House, of Victoria to produce it. He seems very happy with the result. “Now here I am, an old Cold War warrior who even had to learn how to type, with a published-on-demand book in hard cover and paperback, plus a web site and a podcast. Even though the podcast doesn’t directly give me any return financially yet, the idea is to start some buzz on the Internet and spread worldwide awareness of my book’s availability. And that it’s done in spades, as my book is already the sixth most popular title on Podiobooks. Sales are definitely starting to look up, and better still, I am having a lot of fun writing -- which is the main thing after all!”

Victoria-based novelist Sidney Allinson

is a past-Director of the Royal Canadian

Military Institute.

Military history

VIMY RIDGE: A Canadian Reassessment.

VIMY RIDGE: A Canadian Reassessment, Edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci, & Mike Bechtold, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, 353 pages, photographs, maps, bibliography, index.

The three military historians who compiled this study are acknowledged experts on Canadian participation in World War One, particularly well-equipped to select these commentaries on one of our country’s most epic battles. The result is a compendium of twenty cogently written opinions and reports about the final bloody struggle for possession of Vimy Ridge, now considered not only an important military victory but also a defining moment for Canadian nationhood.

They tell how (unusually for those days) the Canadian troops at all levels of rank were given detailed briefings on the planned strategy before the attack was launched, which enabled even private soldiers to surge forward confidently to fight a “corporal’s battle,” often independent of direction by officers.

The book puts the struggle in context; the hill’s strategic significance, the seldom-mentioned British participation, and the German point-of-view. It also provides insights about the personalities and military styles of various senior officers – including General Julian Byng, Canadian Corps commander, and Major. Gen Arthur Currie, who insisted on meticulous preparations before the attack by his First Canadian Division.

Excellent photographs movingly show Canadian warriors of all ranks who fought so valiantly that day, and good clear maps help readers follow various tactical moves during the battle. This retrospective provides a thorough explanation of exactly why those monumental concrete towers now stand atop Vimy Ridge.

-- Sidney Allinson

Military history

"In Flanders Fields."

My own late father, Private Thomas Allinson, served in the First World War as a soldier with The Green Howards, a famous regiment of the British Army. To my eternal regret, I seldom made enough of the opportunity to break through his modest silence about the horrors he faced in the trenches. However, one casual mention by him that our family had a connection with the author of the most famous war poem of all time: “In Flanders Fields.” did not dawn on me as significant until many years later, when I finally set about learning the details.
The incident is described in "Welcome to Flanders Fields - The Great Canadian Battle of the Great War: Ypres, 1915", by Daniel G. Dancocks. It recounts:
"On May 3, Maj. McCrae had spent 17 weary days performing surgery on hundreds of wounded soldiers, and took a brief respite on the back of an ambulance near his dressing station beside the Canal de l'Yser. McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches there, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook."
"A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae. The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly. 'His face was very tired but calm as he wrote,' Allinson recalled. 'He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Lt. Helmer's grave.' When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO."
"Sgt. Maj. Allinson was moved by what he read, saying later, 'The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word 'blow' in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.'"
I now feel a quiet pride that an Allinson relative -- Canadian cousin of my father -- was the first person to read the immortal words of "In Flanders Field" moments after it was penned by Major John McCrae.
Sidney Allinson.


"Breaker Morant" is one of the best motion pictures set during the Anglo-Boer War ever filmed. However, it took a lot of liberties with the actual historical events concerning the execution of Lt. Harry "Breaker" Morant. It did not mention that Morant was not Australian -- being in fact an Englishman -- or that on the night before his execution he met with the Reverend Canon Scott and signed a note in which he confessed his guilt of shooting Boer prisoners -- contrary to the movie's premise that he was an innocent scapegoat. One particular dramatic scene in the film depicts Morant shouting defiantly at the firing-squad: "Shoot straight, you bastards!" In reality, he said nothing of the kind. Here is an eye-witness account of his real last words and the calm manner of his dying, published soon afterwards in an Australian newspaper.



Mr. G. Aldridge, who was a member of the Second South Australian Contingent, has received a sad letter from Mr. J. H. Morrow, warder of the Pretoria Gaol, with reference to the shooting of Lieutenants Morant and Handcock. Aldridge was a friend of Morant's. The letter was dated March 1, 1902, and is as follows :-

"Dear George, I write these few lines to you on behalf of Lieutenant H. H. Morant, who was shot here on February 27, two days ago, by order of court-martial. His last word was that I should write and tell you that there were four officers- one South Australian, one Victorian, one New South Welshman, and one New Zealander, all Australians - concerned. The South Australian and the New South Welshman were shot, and the others were transported. It is quite a mystery here regarding the deed. All I know is that they shot 38 Boers, and there are rumours circulating that these Boers surrendered to them. Morant told me that he was guilty of shooting the Boers because they shot his captain.

I was the warder who was in charge of the officers the last week they had on earth, and they faced their doom as brave as men could do. Everyone said it was a pity to shoot two such brave men. Morant came out here with the South Australian Mounted Rifles with which you and I enlisted. Morant got a commission with the Bushveldt Carbineers, and I went on the railway duty here, and I was only transferred to this prison about six weeks ago. I was not here when they came here. They had been in prison at Pietersburg for four months, and then they were transferred to Pretoria, where sentence was passed upon them.

They were shot next morning at 6 o'clock, and were buried at 5 o'clock in the evening. There were a large number of Australians at the funeral; no less than 30 of them were Australian officers. I felt it very much. The only reply given by the two men when asked if they were ready was, 'Yes, where is your shooting party?' and the men marched out hand in hand.

The firing party went to blindfold the men, but Morant said, ‘Take this thing off,’ and pulled the handkerchief off. As the two sat in the chair awaiting death Morant remarked, ‘Be sure and make a good job of it.’ Morant folded his arms across his chest and looked them straight in the face. The firing-party fired, and Morant got all in the left side, and died at once. With his arms folded and his eyes open, you would have thought he was alive."

Military history