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In the spring of 1915 a young Austro-Czech naval lieutenant Ottokar Prohaska, just returned from foreign parts, find himself posted to the miniscule Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Submarine Service in the Adriatic port of Pola. In some trepidation at first because he has no experience whatever of submarines, his fears are soon set at rest when he discovers that nobody else has either: least of all his superiors. There follow three and a half years of desperate adventures fighting for the House of Habsburg aboard primitive, ill-equipped vessels, contending not just with exploding lavatories and the transport of Libyan racing camels but with a crew drawn from a dozen different nationalities — and a decaying imperial bureaucracy which often seems to be even more of an enemy than the British, the French, the Italians and the sea itself. After surmounting all this to become — accidentally — the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s leading submarine commander and a holder of its highest military decoration, the closing months of 1918 see him and his crew returning aboard a damaged boat from the shores of Palestine, only to find that the homeland they have fought for so doggedly over the previous four years is now in the final stages of collapse, and that they themselves are effectively stateless persons; sailors without a navy returning to a country which no longer has a coastline.
“Fresh, vivid, and without peer in the current market.” — Booklist
“Stark realism and finely crafted humour… Biggins's use of narration, his thorough knowledge of the Adriatic, and good technical detail make this… compelling reading.” — Library Journal
“A retro techno-adventure story… top notch military fiction with a literary flair.” — Publishers Weekly
First published in 1991 by Secker & Warburg, London. Paperback edition published by Mandarin, London in 1992. First published in the U.S. by St. Martin's Press, New York in 1993. Published again in 2005 by McBooks Press, Ithaca NY.
Early in the year 1912 the recently-promoted Lieutenant Ottokar Prohaska finds himself dying of boredom, stuck as a gunnery officer aboard a battleship moored for most of the time in Pola harbour. He answers a War Ministry advertisement to train as a naval air pilot, and after inadvertently wrecking a shooting picnic in Bohemia during his qualifying examination, finds himself appointed naval ADC for aviation to the appalling, boorish, near-insane Austro-Hungarian heir-apparent the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. After breaking a leg in a flying accident the following year he is de-appointed, and on coming out of convalescence is posted to a river gunboat on the Danube in the spring of 1914. Fleeing her vengeful husband after an ill-considered liaison with a Polish operatic singer, he crosses the Danube into Serbian territory where he is mistaken for someone else called Prohaska, and ends up enmeshed in a Serbian terrorist plot to kill the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff: with a small diversionary operation in the town of Sarajevo, designed to draw away the Austrian security services from the main event...
...But the side-show in fact becomes the main event. His warnings of the assassination plot mysteriously disregarded by Austrian officialdom, Prohaska is effectively…er…shanghaied to Shanghai aboard an Austrian liner, where he arrives just in time for the outbreak of World War One and the Japanese siege of the German colony of Tsingtao. From which he escapes aboard a Chinese junk, and makes his way home via the Dutch East Indies and Arabia , pausing on the way only to be instructed in the art of flat-earth marine navigation by an hardline-Calvinist Dutch sea captain, and to escape by a hair’s breadth from being hanged as a spy by the not-very-bright commandant of a Turkish fort in the Arabian desert.
“[A] robust sequel to A Sailor of Austria… Skillfully mixing derring-do with tragedy as well as stringent wit, Biggins offers a vivid catalogue of world history 1909-1918… This is engaging fare-reminiscent of George M. Fraser's Flashman series, but darker.” — Publishers Weekly
First published in 1992 by Secker & Warburg, London. Paperback published by Mandarin, London in 1992. Published in the U.S. by St. Martin's Press, New York in 1993. Published again in 2006 by McBooks Press, Ithaca NY.
Removed from command of his submarine in mid-1916 on suspicion of having mistakenly torpedoed a German U-Boat off Venice, Ottokar Prohaska is seconded as an observer to the Austro-Hungarian flying service, the K.u.K. Fliegertruppe, on the Italian Front just north of Trieste. It is not expected to be a long posting: the aircraft are primitive and highly dangerous, and the Italians have lately become rather good at shooting them down. But Prohaska and his monoglot Hungarian pilot Sergeant Toth somehow survive, communicating in Latin for want of any other common language and coping with all the problems of flying over the Alps where the ground is often higher than the maximum ceiling of the aircraft and planes are sometimes hit by anti-aircraft fire coming from above them. And not just that, but the paper-obsessed squadron commander of Flik 19F, who has never flown in his entire life and has no intention of ever doing so, plus the hazards of flying in aircraft which are not just flimsy and underpowered but also increasingly ill-maintained as the rickety Habsburg war machine begins its final slide to disaster and everything except official forms is in short supply. In the end, after losing his pilot in a crash-landing on an Alpine glacier and narrowly escaping being taken prisoner by the Italians, Prohaska attempts to strangle his commanding officer and is sent to a high-security sanatorium, then transferred surreptitiously to the naval flying service on an Adriatic island. Where he presides over the accidental self-sinking of a French steam-driven submarine, and ends up involved in a naval mutiny.
“Hair-raising and hilarious.” — Mail on Sunday
First published by Secker & Warburg, London in 1993. Mandarin Paperback published in 1993. Published in the U.S. by St. Martin's Press, New York in 1994. Published again in 2006 by McBooks Press, Ithaca NY.
The Prohaska saga ends at — for Austria-Hungary — the most appropriate place; which is the beginning. Growing up in a small town in Moravia, right in the very centre of central Europe, the young Ottokar Prohaska, son of a postal official, overdoses on adventure stories and becomes determined to go to sea even though he has never seen salt water in his entire life. He enters the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Naval Academy at Fiume in 1898 to learn the basics of seamanship and navigation: in which he so distinguishes himself that in the year 1902 he is chosen to take part in a six-month scientific cruise to the south Atlantic by the Austrian steam corvette "Windischgrätz": in fact a clumsy, ill-constructed sailing ship with a steam engine which is seldom used since the hard-up Austrian War Ministry is extremely reluctant to provide the coal for it. Once at sea, the real purpose of the expedition turns out to be the claiming of an Austro-Hungarian colony in West Africa, the Habsburg Empire having missed out on the partition of Africa and now thinking that colonies might be a good idea after all. But others aboard have their own private agendas: notably the sinister Professor Skowronek — later much admired by Heinrich Himmler — who is working on a system for classifying the entire human race according to their skull dimensions.
After duly claiming part of Liberia as a colony, the ship sails on to Brazil, then South Africa, but is later diverted to explore the waters of Tierra del Fuego in a search for a Habsburg archduke vanished there some ten years earlier. The missing archduke duly found alive, in good health and turned so embarrassingly eccentric in the meantime that it becomes necessary to lose him again, the expedition proceeds across the Pacific to claim yet another Austrian colony: this time the island of New Silesia which has thus far only escaped being claimed by some other European power because the natives are such ferocious cannibals that expeditions sent to claim it have seldom returned. A landing party is duly sent ashore, with Cadet Prohaska as standard bearer. The natives win once again, Cadet Prohaska ends up unwittingly eating a roasted slice of his former captain, and is saved from being eaten himself only by the intervention of a kindly Catholic missionary and the providential outbreak of a civil war on the island led by two rival English missionaries.
“Hilarious… devastatingly acute. It’s a book to cherish and reread.” — The Historical Novels Review
“Biggins writes with a fine sense of the sea and a truly marvelous wit.” — Booklist
First published by Secker & Warburg, London in 1994. Mandarin Paperback published in 1995. Published again in 2006 by McBooks Press, Ithaca NY.