At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.
Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.
I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.
THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.
How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.
The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.
Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.
On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.
Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.
Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution. Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.
Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. But she’s about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.
Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice …
Sashenka is a classic historical fiction novel focusing on the lives of a family across generations. Encompassing the story of Russia through the 20th century Mr Montefiore has woven a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Soviet Russia and its impact on Sashenka, the daughter of a wealthy family, who embraces the message of equality within the communist doctrine. As with all good books in this genre a number of historical figures are featured, and it is their interaction with fictional characters which is so appealing – you can know the history of Russia, but the way it impacts on this fictional family is new to you and, as such, draws you in.
As always, Mr Motefiore has conducted detailed research into the period he is writing about. The description of St Petersburg under the last of the Tsars gives an insight into two very different Russias – high society with its materialism and decadence, coupled with the secret police and their attempts to destroy the fledgling communist party set against the extreme poverty of millions of women and children whose men are sent to fight in the First World War. The novel then leaps forward to the Soviet period under Stalin and focuses on the fear and insecurity of people like Sashenka, people who have been loyal communists from the very beginning yet are just as likely to suffer under Stalin’s mercurial rule. The final section is moving in the way it portrays life after communism, the search of people who lived through difficult times for those they loved and lost, most not expecting any kind of reunion but just wanting to know what happened to their families.
The author of Sashenka has created believable characters who can be idealistic yet brutal, worldly yet naïve, and who it is easy to sympathise with. This is not a comfortable novel to read, at times it can be quite brutal, but to omit such sections would give a false picture of those times in Russia and do a great disservice to the real people on whose lives these fictional characters are based. The style of Mr Montefiore’s writing is clear and precise at times but can then switch to a description of deep love and passion, whether between a man and woman or a woman for her children, and as such the book has a great emotional impact.
Sashenka is a novel full of plot twists and turns, it is well-paced and vivid, complex and passionate, and incredible evocative of time and place with its accurate historical backgound; in all a gripping read which I would recommend to anyone with a love of historical fiction or of Russia.
What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.
The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).
The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.
Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.
It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.
The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.
Did you ever write messages in code when you were a child? I remember having fun believing that what I wrote to my friend was unreadable by anyone else – even though we only used a simple code where the letters of the alphabet were transposed a number of places. For instance, if we transposed the letters by two places we could send this message:
UJCNN YG IQ VQ VJG EKPGOC VQOQTTQY – I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to read!*
Communication is vital during war, particularly for agents who may be behind enemy lines, but sending messages can also be very dangerous. For agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War it was always possible that the enemy might decipher their messages or get a fix on the radio when the message was sent – both scenarios which could put the life of the agent in danger. To ensure a transmission was as safe as possible some sort of encryption was needed to keep the message secret.
Before learning how to encode a message the SOE agent would first have to learn how to send in Morse code which is a method of transmitting text as a series of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches which are known as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ and are, in effect, a simple binary coding. The code is named after Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in the 1830’s and needed a new electronic system to be able to send messages. Each letter or symbol in Morse code is represented by a series of these dots and dashes and it is the simplest and most versatile method of radio/telegraph communication. The most well-known grouping of letters in Morse code is the universal distress call . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot), more commonly known as SOS.
But learning Morse code was only the first step for an agent who was preparing to go overseas as it was a universally known code and so the enemy would be able to read any messages that they sent. In the early days of the SOE agents used a simple, and consequently insecure, code known as ‘poem code’ to encrypt their messages. Both the agent and the person receiving the message would have a copy of the same poem. The sender would start his message with five letters to indicate which part of the poem his encryption would be based on; the message would then be written in columns before being transposed and transmitted. These poem codes worked well because they were quite secure but the agent didn’t need to carry a code book as they could memorise the poem. There were, however, weaknesses to this system. For instance, it was relatively easy to make a mistake when encoding; also, if the enemy managed to decode one message they then had all the information they needed to decode other transmissions from that agent in the future, and even ones they had intercepted in the past.
The SOE knew that they needed to improve their communications system and so Leo Marks was appointed as codes officer. He found that the poems used for encryption had to be easy for agents to remember and so were often famous ones such as ‘Daffodils’ – the problem was that these famous poems would be known by the enemy and so make it easier for them to crack the codes. One of the first changes Marks made was to have original poems written for the agents to use rather than famous ones, these original poems were often comic, satirical or sexual to make them more memorable. Not all fell into these categories though, and one of the most famous of his original poems was, in fact, a love poem written for his girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash; he later gave this poem to agent Violette Szabo to use when she was posted to France. (Violette was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 and her service in the SOE was commemorated in the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’).
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have Of the life that I have Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have A rest I shall have Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years In the long green grass Will be yours and yours and yours.
Another method Marks introduced was to simply use a different poem for each transmission to prevent any sort of pattern which might help the enemy. As it would have been hard for an agent to remember a number of poems correctly these were written on silk rather than memorised.
Leo Marks continued to work on more secure methods of encryption and the poem code was gradually replaced. The Worked-Out Key (WOK) system used a number of codes which were used only once and were written on silk (to be hidden in the agents clothing as described in my article on radio operators). Once a particular key had been used it would be torn off the silk and destroyed, leaving the next key ready for use. Marks went on to develop a One-Time Pad code where the letters of the alphabet were written in a list, the agent encoded his message by using a substitution square (i.e. substituting a different letter for each one in the alphabet). After being used once the list was thrown away and a different one used next time but still using the same substitution square. This was much safer than the poem code as there was no pattern to the listing of the letters of the alphabet and so even if the enemy managed to break the code for one message it wouldn’t help them with future ones. SOE agents liked this method as it was quick and secure.
As well as ensuring the safest possible codes Leo Marks worked on ways of deceiving the enemy through agent’s transmissions. One of these deceptions was Operation Gift-Horse which included key codes from the WOK system at the beginning of each message and fooled the enemy into thinking it was a poem code. The main aim of this operation was to get the Germans to waste their time trying to decipher coded poems when the message was, in fact, a completely different system. ‘Gift-Horse’ was used extensively just before D Day in 1944 at a time when there was already a huge increase in radio messages and so made the chances of the Germans decoding and compiling information about the invasion much more difficult.
So the types of puzzles which we find so enjoyable as a leisure activity had a far more serious role for a secret agent behind enemy lines. Maybe next time you do a puzzle in a magazine or a book you can take a moment to think of those for whom coding was not a simple pass-time but a key part of their work which, if not done correctly, could cost them their life.
*My code de-encrypted: SHALL WE GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW
In the summer of 1913, the world seems full of possibility for four very different young men.
Young Jean-Baptiste dreams of the day he’ll leave his Picardy home and row down-river to the sea.
Earnest and hard-working Frank has come to London to take up an apprenticeship in Regent Street. His ambitions are self-improvement, a wife and, above all, a bicycle.
Organ scholar Benedict is anxious yet enthralled by the sensations of his synaesthesia. He is uncertain both about God and the nature of his friendship with the brilliant and mercurial Theo.
Harry has turned his back on his wealthy English family, has a thriving business in New York and a beautiful American wife. But his nationality is still British.
Three years later, on the first of July 1916, their lives have been taken in entirely unexpected directions. Now in uniform they are waiting for dawn on the battlefield of the Somme. The generals tell them that victory will soon be theirs but the men are accompanied by regrets, fears and secrets as they move towards the line.
1st July 1916 will always be remembered as the day that the Battle of the Somme began, a day of appalling loss of life in the midst of terrible confusion. At Break Of Day is the story of what led four young men to be there on the Somme on that day, and what happened to them. As you begin to learn about these young men you discover why they joined up and what led them, inexorably, to be in that place at that time; and as you read you know that, statistically they will not all survive to the end of this story.
Ms Speller introduces us to four very different young men, giving each his own distinctive voice in the narrative and crafting believable characters whom it is easy to sympathise with. It takes great skill to write about four main characters using slightly different styles in a way that makes them believable and yet very distinct for the reader, so avoiding any possible confusion. As the story moves towards its climax the lives of the protagonists cross briefly and often unknowingly. This had the potential to feel contrived and weaken the story line, but the author’s deft handling of the narrative made it all seem so natural – after all these four disparate characters are no different to those thousands of young men from so many different places and backgrounds who did, in reality, find themselves in that same place on that same day with such tragic consequences.
Many of us know about the First World War from documentaries, photographs and the poems written in the trenches, and At Break Of Day certainly evokes that sense of a landscape of mud and craters, barbed wire and fortified positions, horror and despair. I felt it was a clever plotline for Ms Speller to have her French soldier, Jean-Baptiste, growing up on the banks of the Somme as we see how the beautiful pastoral home that he loves is changed beyond all recognition by the terrible destruction of the First World War, and it is not difficult to see this as a metaphore for the way the Battle of the Somme changed men of hope and vitality into wounded and scared men who would never be the same again, if they survived at all.
The final section of this novel brings our characters together on that one fateful day. Here Ms Speller describes the trenches and no man’s land; the officers, soldiers, and medics; the fear and confusion. This section, like the remainder of the novel, is well researched and gives an insight into a little known soldier – the cycle messengers and their folding bicycles which they often carried over the rough terrain as they struggled to deliver orders in a sea of confusion. It is research which truly enhances the novel without ever being heavy or slowing the storyline.
At Break Of Day re-creates for us an image of life at the beginning of the 20th century with all its sense of hope and promise, and then shows how that hope and promise was shattered. It encapsulates the fragmented nature of the battlefield and so evokes some understanding of what it might have felt like to be a soldier during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is an intensely moving novel though never sentimental and although it is, finally, about death and destruction, it is also about family and friendships and love. Reading this novel is not always easy but it is something which I would recommend as a reminder to all of the utter futility of war.
Many of you will recognise this painting; it is called ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ and was painted by William Frederick Yeames in 1878 (oil on canvas). It is a painting which I have always found fascinating as there is so much going on. With the deftly painted depictions of people and emotions you can’t help but be drawn into the story, in fact I have seen this work of art used by school teachers as an introduction to the topic of the English Civil War. So, what exactly is going on here, and how does it fit into this period of our history?
The scene depicts events in a Royalist household when a young boy is questioned about when his father was last at home. The house has obviously been captured by Parliamentary forces as can be seen by the central figure lounging in a chair – he wears the military clothing of a Roundhead cavalry officer, including long riding boots and orange sash.
The young boy and the females are all dressed in Royalist style; the young girl who is crying appears to be next in line for interrogation whilst the mother, and possibly elder daughter, watch. The man with his arm around the shoulders of the young girl is carrying a halberd which identifies him as a sergeant; it is likely that his role was to arrest the family and bring them before the Parliamentarian questioners. Amongst the other characters in the painting are a clerk who is making notes and bringing the air of a courtroom to the proceedings, and two Puritans (wearing the tall black hats and white collars) who appear stern and obviously pleased to have another dangerous Royalist within their grasp.
Most people believe that this is a fictional scene although John Adair, who wrote ‘By the Sword Divided’, says that it depicts what happened to the family of Bulstrode Whitelocke whose house at Fawley Court near Henley was ransacked by both Royalist and Parliamentary forces during the war. I suppose we will never know whether this painting is a depiction of a real event or pure fiction, but for me at least that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the quite accurate glimpse which it gives into a conflict which tore England apart in the seventeenth century, dividing people on grounds of politics and religion. It is interesting to note that although the painting depicts a frightening time for the Royalist family it is not overly aggressive. One can almost imagine the sergeant has placed a hand on the young girl’s shoulder to comfort her, and the lead questioner appears to be leaning sympathetically towards the little boy. But that does not take away from the seriousness of the situation, or the conflict which the child faces. A young boy in his position would have had the ideal of honesty instilled into him from an early age, and he would know that he should not tell a lie. Yet, on the other hand, to tell the truth might put his father’s life in danger. What should a small boy do? How would he respond to such pressure?
My admiration for this beautiful piece of art, and the way it fired my imagination as to ‘what happened next’, led to my writing a particular scene in ‘The Cavalier Historian’ where the young hero of the novel is questioned about his father’s whereabouts as things begin to look increasingly bleak for the followers of the King…
375 years ago saw the start of the last civil war to be fought on British soil when King Charles I raised his royal standard in Nottingham on 22nd August 1642. But what had led a ruling monarch to declare war on his own people?
Charles I was a complex man who, like most people, had his good and bad points. He was a principled and conscientious ruler, believing he had been divinely appointed by God and therefore had a duty to rule for the good of the people. Yet he was also reserved, stubborn and politically unskilled. Charles believed that everyone was subject to his will, all his actions were for the good of the people and he could do no wrong as God’s chosen king. Such a belief made the need for deft political intrigue totally irrelevant in his eyes.
Charles had been crowned king in 1626, and it was not long before many of his subjects began to feel uneasy about his religious beliefs and policies. England had been a Protestant country since the time of Elizabeth I, and many of the more zealous Puritan Christians were afraid that the King planned to overthrow their faith and restore Catholicism as the state religion.
In 1633 King Charles sent Thomas Wentworth to Ireland as his Lord Deputy to ‘civilise’ the Irish and force them to conform to the Church of England. The titles of Irish landowners were challenged and many old plantations taken over or new ones set up with English landowners in charge. Charles had hoped that this would isolate the Catholics, but what he didn’t foresee was that the Protestant ruling elite would feel alienated too. Similar problems arose in Scotland when Charles tried to ‘manipulate’ land titles there, and things finally came to a head when he tried to introduce a version of the English Book of Common Prayer into that country, provoking riots and leading to the drawing up of a National Covenant to demand immediate withdrawal of the offending book. The Covenant was a hard-hitting tract against the authoritarian rule of Charles and tacitly implying that revolt against him would be justified.
King Charles believed that the Scots had no right to oppose him and tried to crush them by force, with disastrous results. The ‘Covenanters’ overwhelmed the poorly trained English army which had been sent against them, and the king was forced to sign a peace treaty at Berwick. Charles was even more desperate to crush the opposition after this humiliation and so he summoned the English Parliament in October 1640 to ask for more funds. Unfortunately for him, Parliament took the opportunity to complain about his policies and refused to grant him funds until he had dealt with their complex grievances, some of which dated back to the beginning of his reign. Charles was furious and dissolved Parliament. The Scottish Covenanters invaded northern England again and, lacking funds, it was another poorly trained and poorly-equipped army which Charles sent north. Unsurprisingly, it was soundly beaten once again.
The embattled and embittered king was forced to recall Parliament, once again leaving himself open to attack by the politicians who opposed him. The Catholic Irish and Scottish Covenanters also took the opportunity to work together and put pressure on Parliament to impeach Wentworth (who had been created Earl of Strafford by the King) because of the trouble he had caused in Ireland. The leader of Parliament, Pym, helped to organised the opposition to Stafford who was tried, found guilty, and executed.
If problems in England weren’t bad enough for Charles, the Catholic Irish decided to take advantage of the situation and rebelled against their Protestant English rulers in 1641. Many Protestant English and Puritan Scottish settlers were killed and panic began to spread in England yet, rather than unifying people, it only emphasised their religious differences and the two camps – Puritan and Royalist – became even more sharply divided. Charles and Parliament argued about who should be put in charge of the army which was to be sent to crush the Irish rebels. Parliament would not agree with the king until he had addressed their grievances but Charles, believing in his divine right to rule, would not allow them to bully him and decided to raise an army himself. He believed that the Members of Parliament had tried to humiliate him once too often and needed to be put in their place; on the other hand, Parliament believed that the King would never accept their input into his rule which, in their eyes, made him a tyrant. Both sides were entrenched and there was no going back. England was irrevocably divided and embarked on the final descent into civil war.