Monthly Archives: June 2016

Under the jackboot

Do you enjoy watching films about the Second World War? There is such a wide variety out there from action packed battle scenes to sagas on the Home Front, and many give us an insight into what it was like for civilians living in England – the bombings, the shortages, the evacuation of children – the list could go on and on. But what do we know about life for civilians on the other side of the Channel during World War 2? What would it have been like to live under Nazi occupation? Northern France is just a short ferry ride from the south coast of England, but life there was more complex and more difficult for ordinary people, people like you and me, who lived the unimaginable.

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The biggest psychological issue for the French was to see their towns and villages patrolled by German soldiers, the swastika flying above the Hotel de Ville and at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The disassociation of seeing the unfamiliar in familiar places, of no longer seeing the French flag or feeling at home in the towns and villages where they had lived all their lives must have been an incredibly shock.

The other psychological problem for French civilians was not knowing what was happening in the rest of the world as the Nazis had a stranglehold on the media. The Paris daily newspaper, Pariser Zeitung, was written in German and contained around ten pages of news; this was usually summarised in a single page translated into French so real news was scarce and only what the Nazi regime wanted to tell people. This was the only news available, including heavily edited ‘news’ from the Vichy press. Pariser Zeitung was anti-communist, ant-semitic and anti-British; there was even a daily propoganda cartoon with an anti-British theme. Yet this was the only newspaper available to people in Occupied France.

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As well as having to cope with enemy soldiers in their towns and villages, everyday life was also constrained by a curfew lasting from 10pm until 5am. No one was allowed out at night without an Ausweis, a German pass. The curfew combined with the blackout created a situation where, as dusk fell, people found themselves confined at home, curtains drawn, with no entertainment as their radios had been seized; it must have filled many people with despair.

Added to these problems was the endemic shortages which the French people suffered from almost the first day of the Occupation. The armistice which France signed with Germany meant that the French were responsible for the costs of the occupying German army of around 300,000 men; a cost of 20 million Reichsmarks every single day for the duration of the Occupation. As it was the Germans who set the exchange rate, obviously in their favour, this meant that there was little money to buy food. There was also little coal or petrol, which disrupted transport and meant that it was difficult to get food supplies from the villages to the large towns and cities. Imports were no-existant because of the Allied blockades, and labour was short on the farms because so many prisoners of war were being held in Germnay, as well as other able men being sent there to work in labour forces, so there were not enough people to work the land.

Many French families were divided by the occupation, either because some members lived in the Vichy controlled area whilst others were in the occupied zone, or because they lived many miles away from each other. An Ausweis was needed to cross the ‘border’ between the zones, and these were very difficult to acquire. The only correspondence allowed was between family members for which pre-printed cards were provided and people had to tick whatever applied to them (something like the postcards provided for prisoners of war). Little could be communicated with these if you could only tick words such as ‘prisoner’, ‘dead’ ‘in good health’ etc.

Of course, good health was something which was lacking as the food shortages increased. A huge amount of French food production went to the Germans, a situation which was exacerbated by a fall of about 50% in food production due to the lack of labour, fertilizer and fuel. Despite these problems with production the Germans seized about 20% of all crops and dairy produce, 50% of meat and a huge 80% of the champagne production. Such problems of supply and demand inevitably led to rationing with coupons issued to be exchanged for bread, butter, cooking oil and meat. Even so, the rationing only allowed civilians around 1,300 or fewer calories a day so home grown vegetables, home raised rabbits and chickens, and black market produce became key to survival. As hunger increased, particularly for young people in urban areas, queues outside shops became longer with no guarantee that there would be anything left to buy once you reached the front of the queue. Only those who could afford the ridiculously high prices could benefit from buying food on the black market, or buy the counterfeit food coupons which were often available. If a person was lucky enough to live in the countryside they could get more food by bartering cigarettes or skills although, as with most things, this was forbidden with confiscation of the food and imposition of fines if you were caught.

The Germans, to their credit, realised that this poor diet was bad for the youth of France and issued children and teenagers with vitamin tablets or biscuits through the schools. For most people, though, the only way to get some products was by substitution. Ersatz produce (ersatz being the German word for substitute or replacement) became the norm – coffee was replaced by toasted barley mixed with chicory, saccharin replaced sugar, wood replaced leather for the soles of shoes and wood gas generators on trucks and cars burned wood pellets or charcoal as a substitute for petrol. There was also a shortage of textiles so that clothes were often made from curtains or old blankets. Life for French civilians was, in a word, grim.

Allied bombing of Caen (Normandy, France) in 1944 Date: 1944
Allied bombing of Caen (Normandy, France) in 1944 Date: 1944

The population of France, bowed, hungry and desperate, was also subject to periodic bombing by the Allies which intensified as the Allied invasion approached. 550,000 tons of bombs were dropped and almost 75,000 civilians killed by Allied bombing during the war. In the weeks and months leading up to D Day the Allies targeted French railways, rail yards and railway bridges in particular, hoping to disrupt German troop movements immediately after the landings. On just one night, 26th May 1944, five cities in south-eastern France were hi,t with over 2,500 civilian deaths.

We often think of how difficult life was for civilians on the ‘home front’ back in England but forget their counterparts in France. The main characters in my novel ‘Heronfield’ see life on both sides of the channel, from the bombing of Coventry and rationing in England to life in the city of Saint Nazaire and the surrounding countryside. It is my tribute to those who were not in the armed forces but who suffered greatly during the dark days of the Second World War.

Heronfield

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An absolutely amazing story that needs to be read

I would like to thank Jodie at Whispering Stories for her lovely review of Heronfield. As an author it means a great deal to me to know that my work has touched someone in this way. Here’s what Jodie said:

Set in Europe during the Second World War, Heronfield takes us on a six year journey of war, friendship, love, sadness, and hope. We meet many different characters, a few of whom are taken right into our heart.

I became strongly attached to one of the main characters, Tony. A young man hardly in his twenties, he is secretly recruited as a British agent in the efforts to foil Hitler’s war. I found myself feeling sorry for him when certain members of his family turned against him for shirking his duties when in fact, unbeknown to them, he was doing the exact opposite, but was duty bound not to tell them.

I felt the turmoil and heartache he was going through. He showed a tremendous amount of strength and courage throughout the story – all borne by his passion to defeat Hitler, to prove to his father that he was indeed fighting in the war, and most of all, the driving force to keep going – his love for a woman.

Another character I enjoyed reading about was Sarah, a volunteer nurse. She gets stationed at Heronfield, a family home turned war hospital. She has plenty of heartache along the way but it makes her stronger over the years. As the story progresses and I found myself rooting for her all the way.

Some characters are constant, and others are fleeting, but memorable all the same. We come across a German soldier who makes us realise that they are not just the enemy. They are human too.

The German soldier does a selfless and heartfelt deed. We meet him again later on in the story and he has the opportunity to end a life. Instead he chooses to back down and explains that he doesn’t agree with Hitler, but if he doesn’t fight under the regime then he’s as good as dead anyway. It’s a touching scene and puts a different spin on the people behind the enemy faces.

The story grabbed me from the opening pages, with the graphic descriptions of the attacks on innocent civilians by the Germans. It’s harrowing but draws you right in, and you get a real sense of what actually went on during the war.

I liked the mini segments that gave real life time lines of what was happening during the war in various locations. It gave a sense of where the story would head next, and the progress of the war. They were superbly detailed without being boring.

The author has expertly carried out her research. The environment descriptions, the horrors of war, the abhorrent conditions of concentration camps, torture methods meted out, and many more besides are so wonderfully detailed that I found myself there. I winced at the persecution of innocents, gasped and grimaced at the torture methods bestowed on one of the characters, and I shed quite a few tears along the way.

My heart was in my mouth many times and the raw emotion grabbed at me and didn’t let go, even after finishing the book. I’ve never read a story that’s taken me by the soul and stayed with me quite the way Heronfield has done, and that’s a really good and beautiful thing – and a sure sign of a brilliantly well-written story.

Sadly I can only give this book five stars. I wish I could give it more but five is the maximum! An absolutely amazing story that needs to be read.

If Jodie’s review has intrigued you why not read Heronfield yourself and see if you agree?

If you have already read Heronfield, then have you thought of leaving a review? I love to hear what my readers think.

Book review – ‘The Nightingale’ by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale‘The Nightingale’ is a novel which will grip you from start to finish with its portrayal of life for two sisters in France during the Second World War. Vianne’s husband is taken by the Germans to a labour camp. Having a daughter makes Vianne cautious, intent on ensuring that they both survive the war. Her sister, Isabelle, is younger, more daring; a girl who has felt unloved for most of her life and feels she needs to do something, anything, to give meaning to her existence. Yet as the years progress, as hunger and lack of all luxuries set in, so the characters change to meet their changing circumstances. Small changes at first, but for each action there is a consequence leading, almost inevitable, to more dangerous actions. This is real life in the sense that it is moral choices that people make which mould them, choices which they sometimes wish they didn’t have to make but which cannot be avoided.

The Nightingale’ covers many aspects of life in occupied France – living with German officers who are billeted in your home, whether you like it or not; the treatment of Jews; the harsh realities of Occupation; the French Resistance; escape routes for Allied pilots across the mountains into Spain. Unusually, this novel’s two central characters are women, giving us a deeper understanding of what life was like away from the battlefields of the war, and helps us to realise that there are more battles to be fought than those involving guns and bombs.

The relationship between the two sisters changes dramatically during the novel as they finally come to realise the strengths and weaknesses which they each have, both different yet both equally brave and selfless in their attempts to help the lost and vulnerable under Nazi occupation.

This novel is well-paced, the plot developments work well, the characters are believable and many faceted, the dialogue realistic. The novel begins in America in 1995 with a French immigrant receiving an invitation to a ceremony in France to honour a heroine of the Second World War. Part of the suspense of the novel is wondering which of the sisters it is to honour, and which is the one who received the invitation. Did they both survive the war?

The Nightingale’ is fiction but is based on the lives of real people who put their lives on the line to help others during the German occupation of France. Many of these people made the ultimate sacrifice, but those who did survive rarely spoke of their experiences, sometimes because their memories were just too painful, or maybe because they felt that they had done nothing more than others. In ‘The Nightingale’ Kristin Hannah pays tribute to these people in a story full of pain and fear, yet also humanity and courage. It is a novel which I can heartily recommend to you.

The Nightingale can be found on Amazon

Kristin Hannah’s website

You can find more of my book reviews here