Bagley and the ‘Overload’ affair

Overload by Charles Kearey and Carel Birkby - © HarperCollins Publishers 1970.

In January 1964 The Golden Keel, Bagley’s debut novel, had just been published. Still resident in Johannesburg the freelance journalist had embarked upon his career as a successful novelist and was planning a trip to London and possible relocation to Italy. Amongst Bagley’s nodding acquaintances at the bar of the Federal Hotel in Johannesburg, local haunt of journalists, was a man called Charles Kearey.

Charles Sydney Kearey, a former Imperial Airways captain and later pilot for the South African airline Comair, was born in Durban in 1916. Moving to the UK he served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a pilot in 211 Squadron from 30th June 1937 to April 1938, when he travelled to Egypt and was posted to 14 Squadron at Amman in Trans-Jordan.

Resigning his short service commission with the RAF on 25th June 1939 he was seconded to the South African Air Force (SAAF) [1]. In August 1940 Kearey, then a Lieutenant in the SAAF, was based at the old Nairobi Civil Airport flying Vickers Valentia Type 264 transport aircraft. A Fairey Battle single-engine light bomber had made a forced landing near Lokitaung a few miles from Namoropus, an Italian fort on the border between Abyssinia and Kenya. Kearey flew mechanics to the site in an attempt to retrieve the aircraft and whilst they worked mentioned in casual conversation to his colleagues that it was a shame they didn’t have a bomb to drop on the fort on their return journey. Lt. Joe Lentzner, one of the South African Engineer Corps mechanics, enthusiastically replied that he would make Kearey one.

Lentzner packed an empty 44 gallon petrol drum with 380 sticks (130 lbs) of gelignite, around the explosive he packed scrap iron shrapnel consisting of ploughshares, a scale, a sewing machine, a differential from a motor car and some nuts and bolts, all obtained from a nearby abandoned general store. Fused to give a delay of 60 seconds the drum was bound with 100 yards of wire so that it wouldn’t break upon impact.

Vickers Type 264 Valentia © Wikimedia Commons.

At 04.00hrs on the morning of 14th August 1940 Kearey flew towards the Italian fort with his crew: Fighter Pilot Lt. Oscar Coetzee; A./Sgt. F. Squares; A./Sgt. Ted Armour; and Lentzner acting as bomb aimer. As Kearey circled the target Lentzner lit the main fuse with a cigarette and manhandled the bomb into the doorway to a chorus of Roll Out The Barrel. The bomb briefly lodged in the doorway and Lentzner eventually managed to cajole it through the doorway where it fell in the courtyard of the fort killing 25 enemy troops. During the attack Coetzee received a wound in his foot from machine gun fire and the Valentia received 93 hits.

Back in Nairobi and sworn to secrecy due to the unplanned, unrehearsed and unauthorised attack the mechanics repaired the damage to the aircraft and Coetzee gave the cause of his wound as having stepped on glass from a bottle. A few days later a radio broadcast in Rome gave an account of an RAF bomber attack on the Italian fort, falsely claiming that the aircraft had been beaten off by anti-aircraft fire. The broadcast initiated an official enquiry and after a month of deliberation the fearless Kearey was publicly chastised, privately commended and quietly transferred to bombers. South African censors finally released the story with scant details to Time magazine for publication on December 4th, 1944. In January 1945 Kearey, now a Major, was awarded the Air Force Cross. When peace came, he led an equally adventurous life, operating Halifaxes between Rome and Palestine for the Jewish forces and later flew aircraft for ex-president Moïse Kapenda Tshombe in the Congo civil war. [2&3]

By 1964 Kearey was resident in South Africa and, knowing Bagley from the bar of the Federal Hotel, had decided to read The Golden Keel. After reading the novel Kearey telephoned Bagley asking for the opportunity to visit him at his apartment in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg. What might have prompted this request may have had its origins in this comment made by one of Bagley’s characters in the novel, the anti-hero and adventurer Metcalfe:

‘He shrugged. ‘Tangier is just about played out now the Moroccans are taking over. I think I’ll pop down to the Congo – things seem to be blowing up down there.’

Metcalfe and a few others like him would be ‘popping down to the Congo’, I thought. Carrion crows flocking together – but he wasn’t as bad as some.’ [4]

Intrigued at Kearey’s request Bagley agreed to a meeting. Arriving at the author’s apartment Kearey audaciously presented Bagley with two sheets of foolscap paper for his approval. The sheets contained a detailed analysis of The Golden Keel, broken down into its constituent parts on the left hand side of the paper and an item by item synopsis of a novel, with the working title ‘Congo Story’ proposed by Kearey on the right hand side. The Gold and 15 tonne boat Sanford in Bagley’s plot had been substituted for a special zinc alloy and an aeroplane in Kearey’s proposed novel. A short extract of this detailed analysis can be seen below:

GOLDEN KEEL: 11-17. Describes background of hero and how he gets partnership in boat building business.
CONGO STORY: 11-17. Describes background of hero and how he comes to be operating an air charter company on the rand.

GK: 17-36. Meets Walker who tells him about Coetzee and how they captured and hid the gold when with the Partisans.
CS: 17-36. Meets friend ex Katanga Air Force who tells him about the fighting up there and how they hid the special zinc alloy.

GK: 36-44. Walker propositions him but they decide to wait until it cools off.
CS: 36-44. Pal propositions him but second Katanga revolt breaks out and they have to wait for it to cool off.

GK: 44-49. Wife dies he’s restless, Walker turns up and tells him has seen Coetzee and gold is still there.
CS: 44-49. Business bad, restless, Pal turns up and says zinc still there Smith has told him.

GK: 50-56. Goes to Joburg, finds Coetzee and ties up a deal.
CS: 50-56. Meets Smith and they tie up a deal.

GK: 56-60. Make plans in Capetown to handle the gold.
CS: 56-60. Decide to fly in and get zinc out.

GK: 60-63. Get yacht ready to leave.
CS: 60-63. Get plane ready to leave.

[5] [sic]

Back in 1961, prior to writing The Golden Keel, Bagley had sought the advice of his wife Joan who worked as a Manager at ‘Exclusive Books‘ in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg as he thought her knowledge of the book trade, gained during her eleven-year term of employment, would prove extremely useful. Well placed to know what type of novel and publishing house were popular her advice led Bagley to the publishing house of William Collins. Collins were publishing successful authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh under their Crime Club imprint, but it was the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Geoffrey Jenkins that were proving the most popular at the time. This fitted Bagley’s idea for a plot involving Mussolini’s missing gold, which an old work colleague from Durban, had allegedly found and hidden in Italy. Taking his wife’s advice, he read the novels, taking them apart as an engineer would take apart a machine to understand the mechanics of the stories, analysing their word count and chapter structure.

Clearly Kearey, in Bagley’s opinion, had gone a step too far as he considered the proposed novel plagiaristic. He noted that Kearey had appeared not to consider this sort of thing out of the ordinary and to his knowledge had not previously written anything, which might have explained the prospective author’s naivety in plagiarising the plot of The Golden Keel [6].

Bagley’s immediate reaction was to see the humorous side of the situation and he laughed at Kearey’s naivety telling him that whilst he had no serious objection, no doubt his publisher, Collins, would. Kearey later submitted his novel, unseen by Bagley, to the author’s own publishers at Collins and also, unknown to the author, used his name as a talisman. As Bagley had predicted Kearey’s novel was rejected by Collins.

When Bagley arrived in Rome in July 1964 he indicated to his editor, Robert Knittel, that he was considering reviving his character Metcalfe. He planned rejoining Metcalfe at a point following his involvement in hostilities in the Congo, with his anti-hero now being involved in mercenary activities in the Middle East. Knittel thought this a fine idea, however Bagley ended up abandoning the Metcalfe novel just before writing what was to become Wyatt’s Hurricane as the novel ‘went sour on him’. This was a decision he later had cause to regret, for on 19th April 1965 Newsweek carried a story about Moïse Kapenda Tshombe’s white mercenaries whose contracts had run out with the Congo Government and had subsequently found a new theatre of operations in Yemen, fighting for the royalist forces of Imam Mohammed el Badr. Following this article Bagley commented to his editor in humour that the Newsweek reporters must have been poking into his files. The author later said that his character Metcalfe had been based on:

‘..a composite of two of the biggest con men and scallywags ever to hit South Africa. I had some strange friends in those days.’ [7]

Metcalfe was in fact revived for the author’s 1969 novel The Spoilers, and was one of only three recurring characters appearing throughout his published novels.

One might think that would have been the end of the affair, however five years later in 1969 Kearey resubmitted his novel to Collins, this time co-authored by one of Bagley’s old journalist friends Carel Birkby. In 1969 Birkby was chief reporter and assistant editor of the Johannesburg Sunday Times, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Africa, a well respected journalist, editor and published author he was in fact the person who had given Bagley his initial break into journalism.


Back in 1956 with an interest in journalism burgeoning, Bagley tried to obtain a job on a newspaper and a close friend, Pat Bawcombe, made an introduction to ‘Hux’ Huxham who worked for the Johannesburg Sunday Times, however with no position currently available ‘Hux’ in turn introduced Bagley to Birkby, then features editor of the Rand Daily Mail, saying ‘This is Desmond Bagley. He reckons he can write about anything’. Birkby later recalled that first meeting where Bagley approached him asking if he had any features available [8], empty of ideas he asked Bagley if he thought he could ‘do a readable article about the municipal sewage works?’ This request, described later in this polite fashion, was perhaps intended as a challenge to somebody claiming to be able to write about anything. Sending the prospective journalist on his way and thinking no more of this, Birkby was duly surprised when three days later Bagley returned with said readable article about the very subject. Although the article wasn’t used in the newspaper Bagley did in fact sell the article at a later date to a magazine for municipal engineers. Through this episode Bagley had proven his worthiness and his career as a freelance journalist then began to gather pace.

Carel Birkby from Dancing The Skies © Howard B. Timmins 1982.
Carel Birkby © 1982 H. B. Timmins.

Birkby would of course also have known Charles Kearey from the bar at the Federal Hotel in Johannesburg. He was widely known for his writings on the experiences of many aviators and later wrote on the history of the South African Air Force. The pair would have swapped aviation and war stories and it was Birkby’s skill as a writer that Kearey clearly needed to make the novel worthy of resubmission to a publisher. Though not a pilot himself, in 1934 Birkby had flown as navigator with the ebullient Cape Town pilot Billy Williamson, 14,600 miles around Africa in a month- long search for a missing aviator. The flight in an obsolete single-engined monoplane built of plywood, and partly held together with fencing wire, was financed by the Swiss government in an effort to find the errant pilot who had been attempting to break the record for flight between Cape Town and London. They didn’t locate the pilot and it was later discovered that the aeroplane had ditched into the sea a little north of Angola.

Birkby had spent 1939 in the Far East covering the war in China and subsequently was a war correspondent on the Abyssinian frontier, arriving in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa before the Allied troops. In 1942, whilst travelling from Egypt in an antiquated Potez 69, he was involved in a forced landing 200 miles from Brazzaville and after being stranded for six weeks, he was flown back to the Western Desert. Birkby was the only South African war correspondent to escape capture in the battle of Sidi Rezegh. [2]

Birkby’s experience as a writer evidently added to the literary qualities of Kearey’s original novel and rather surprisingly Collins took the novel on, appointing Philip Ziegler as the editor. Bagley’s own editor at Collins, Robert Knittel, aware of the affair five years previously informed Bagley that the novel had been resubmitted and taken on by his own publishers. Though Bagley considered there was ‘prima facia evidence of plagiarism’ he still retained his sense of humour and was inclined to be lenient, believing that ‘brawls over plagiarism do neither side any good’ [6]. By 1969 five of his novels had already been published and his sixth, The Spoilers, was on the brink of being published, his reputation as a world-class novelist was established and after all Birkby was a friend and former colleague. Bagley had retained those two pages of foolscap given to him by Kearey five years previously and submitted copies to Knittel leaving the problem in the hands of his publishers. Perhaps in a touch of mild irony it is interesting to note that in this same letter to his editor, dated 7th February 1969, in which he details the events of the affair, Bagley appends the dedication for The Spoilers, ‘This one is for Pat and Philip Bawcombe and, of course, Tickabe’ [sic], for it was Pat Bawcombe’s introduction back in 1956 that had subsequently led to Bagley’s initial meeting with Carel Birkby.

Overload by Charles Kearey and Carel Birkby - © HarperCollins Publishers 1970.

No doubt with further assistance from Ziegler the novel, now titled Overload, underwent some revisions to the plot and was published by Collins in 1970. Overload‘s protagonist, John Gibson, is a former RAF pilot finding it hard to make both ends meet in South Africa flying missions with Tshombe’s Air Force, which of course paralleled Kearey’s own career. Gibson is approached by a war-time friend, Tubby Sanders, the owner of a weather-beaten Dakota who tells him of a cache of germanium worth some £200,000 awaiting rescue in the jungle amid the brutal inferno of war in Katanga. Gibson’s destiny becomes involved with a Belgian planter, Van Ghent, and his beautiful daughter, Marie, and: Gibson’s caravan crept deeper into the jungle and Tubby’s battered Dakota throbbed through the storm clouds overhead, the tension built up to a climax of devastating drama. [2]

Kearey and Birkby went on to write a second novel together, The Black Box, published by Collins the following year, and the year following that, 1972, Kearey wrote another John Gibson adventure Last Plane From Uli, this time without the assistance of Birkby, which was also published by Collins.

The Black Box by Charles Kearey and Carel Birkby and Last Plane From Uli by Charles Kearey - © HarperCollins Publishers 1970/71.

Overload, The Black Box and Last Plane From Uli lack both the pace and craftsmanship of Bagley’s writing and a review of the latter referred to the novel as a ‘cliché-ridden adventure yarn’, which was perhaps a little unkind bearing in mind Kearey’s background. Although Overload received reasonable reviews from the Birmingham Post and the Auckland Star, it would be true to say that even with Birkby’s contribution and the assistance of an editor the novel doesn’t really compare with The Golden Keel. Copies of Kearey’s foolscap pages are still retained in Bagley’s personal papers, of which he wrote:

Those sheets of foolscap are a treasured part of my files, and there are no hard feelings on my part. [9]

It does seem apparent that Kearey identified with Bagley’s anti-hero Metcalfe, and perhaps his proposed Congo novel was intended as a form of flattery to the author. Kearey’s early draft clearly needed the assistance of both Carel Birkby and an editor to make the grade for publishing, as it had been rejected on first submission.

It’s probably worth pointing out, and readers of Bagley’s novels with ‘fly paper minds’ may have already made this connection, that one of Bagley’s minor backstory characters in what was to be his next novel, Running Blind, published the same year as Overload, was a freelance agent sacrificed by his own department head and killed by the protagonist Alan Stewart, an operative on his own side. That character bore the name Birkby, was this Bagley’s impish sense of humour, literary retribution or merely a coincidence? Reader, you decide.

Bibliography – Carel Birkby

African Travel:
Thirstland Treks (London: Faber & Faber, 1936)
Airman Lost in Africa (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1938)
Zulu Journey (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1937)
Limpopo Journey (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1939)
In The Sun I’m Rich (Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins, 1953)

War Reportage:
Springbok Victory (Johannesburg: Libertas Publications, 1941)
It’s a Long Way to Addis (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1942)
Close to the Sun – The Story of the Sudan Squadron (Middle East Newspapers, 1944)
The Saga of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment 1932-1950 (Ed) (Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins / Hodder & Stoughton, 1950)
Dancing the Skies (Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins, 1982)

The Pagel Story (Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins / Hodder & Stoughton, 1948)
Uncle George (Cape Town: Howard B. Timmins / Hodder & Stoughton, 1982)

Fiction: (with C. S. Kearey)
Overload (London: Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1970)
The Black Box (London: Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1971)

Bibliography – Charles Kearey

Fiction: (with C. Birkby)
Overload (London: Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1970)
The Black Box (London: Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1971)

Last Plane from Uli (London: Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1972)

Images: © HarperCollins Publishers; Faber & Faber; Frederick Muller Ltd.; Libertas Publications; and Howard B. Timmins; Wikimedia Commons.

[1] 211 Squadron personnel roles No. 211 Squadron RAF [online]. URL [Accessed Oct. 1st 2018]

[2] Overload by Charles Kearey & Carel Birkby [Author biographies & blurb] (London: Collins, 1970).

[3] Fortune Favours the Bold: An African Aviation Odyssey by Capt. Donald L. Van Dyke, FRAeS (Xlibris Corporation, 2009 pp, 11-12).

[4] The Golden Keel by Desmond Bagley (London: Collins, 1963).

[5] Kearey, C. Personal correspondence ‘Golden Keel / Congo Story’ from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.

[6] Bagley, D. Personal correspondence to Robert Knittel, Collins Publishers, London dated 7th February 1969 from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.

[7] Bagley, D. Personal correspondence to Robert Knittel, Collins Publishers, London dated 23rd April 1965 from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.

[8] ‘Point Profile – Bagley: runaway success for a penniless freelance’ by Carol Birkby To The Point 29th February, 1980, p. 21.

[9] Bagley, D. Personal correspondence to Robert Knittel, Collins Publishers, London dated 25th January 1969 from the Desmond Bagley Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University: Unpublished.