All posts by Dorinda Balchin

Recommended Read – To The Ends Of The Earth by Frances Hunter

Brilliant but troubled, Meriwether Lewis never found his footing after returning home from the West in triumph. It is with some reluctance that the young discoverer accepted the job as Governor of the sprawling new Louisiana Territory he had just explored. Within a year of arriving in St. Louis, the remote frontier town that served as capital of the West, Lewis’s life had entered a downhill slide. He became convinced that he would soon be dismissed in disgrace by the corrupt politicians in Washington he had sworn to serve, and vowed to travel to Washington to set the record straight. The next weeks of Meriwether Lewis’s life can fairly be called one of the great unsolved mysteries of American history. All anyone really knows is that on October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis was found shot dead in a remote inn on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, a road through the wilderness so dangerous it was called “The Devil’s Backbone.” Was it suicide? Or murder? To this day, historians cannot agree. No inquest was ever held into Lewis’s death; no investigation was ever undertaken. Based on extensive historical research, To the Ends of the Earth reconstructs Lewis’s last days and brings alive the atmosphere of intrigue and danger that characterized the early American West. Then, in a powerful reimagining of the tale, it is given to brave William Clark, Lewis’s best friend and partner in discovery, the role of discovering the truth. Clark’s relationships with Lewis, his teenage wife Julia, and his African-American slave York form much of the emotional core of the novel. Readers will join Lewis and Clark on the final voyage of their legendary friendship in a story of honor, vengeance, and, ultimately, redemption.

Lewis and Clark are famous for their expedition to cross the United States from east to west, this novel is set a few years later and deals with the still mysterious events surrounding the death of Meriwether Lewis. Francis Hunter (actually the writing team of sisters Mary and Liz Clare) has seamlessly woven together historical fact and fiction to create a story of greed, political rivalry, ambition and betrayal in a still relatively lawless part of America. The descriptions of the privations of a journey through the wilderness evoke a sense of time and place; the complicated relationships between slave and master, free black and employer are compelling; the description of the deprivations suffered by American soldiers realistic; the contrasting aspects of Lewis’s character well described. In an attempt to re-create the final days of Lewis the authors have laid a focus on his friend, William Clark, through whose eyes we see the strengths and weaknesses of the explorer. Clark’s obvious struggle to come to terms with different aspect of Lewis’s character and behaviour during the last weeks of his life and his relationship with his own wife, who is more distant from Meriwether Lewis and therefore perhaps more open minded, are used to present the two very different views currently held by historians as to what really happened to Meriwether Lewis on his final journey. Was it murder or suicide? I must admit, however, that I found some parts of the plotting which related to Julia Clark a little far-fetched for the type of woman she was and the time she was living in.

To The Ends Of The Earth is not a deep narrative in the sense of a historical novel such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel but is more like the type of adventure story such as The Royalist by S J Dees or The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor. If you are a fan of adventure stories set in the past and also have an interest in historical mysteries then this book is for you.

To The Ends Of The Earth can  be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Frances Hunter here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here  

 

Accident or murder? The mysterious death of Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard was a superstar actor of his day. The son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary he was born in London in 1893 and served during the First World War, he was mustered out of the army a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme began in 1916 as he was suffering from shell shock. It was actually his doctor who suggested acting as a therapy little knowing that Howard would go on to international fame, particularly for his roles in Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind. When the Second World War broke out the English actor gave up his lucrative Hollywood contract (including his share of the box-office takings for Gone With The Wind) and returned home to see what he could do to further the war effort.

Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind

Howard was not the only Hollywood actor to join up at the first opportunity, Americans Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Charles Bronson also served whilst Clark Gable and James Stewart were awarded medals for their bravery; on the other side of the Atlantic British actors Richard Todd, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde all served in the armed forces.

Leslie Howard, however, decided that rather than fighting he would put his acting skills to use and so offered to do whatever he could for the British government. One of the first things he was asked to do was to make broadcasts to the United States which still remained a neutral country with Churchill doing everything he could to get the Americans to join the war as Britain’s allies. Many women in America were isolationists and strongly against the war, it was recognised that their views had a not insubstantial effect on the views of American men so it was thought that a matinee idol such as Howard might go a long way towards making them change their minds. But America was only a part of his focus as Leslie Howard also made programmes for the domestic audience appearing on ‘Britain Speaks’ and making National Savings documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Many of his broadcasts focused on British values which the soldiers at the front were fighting to protect – freedom, tolerance and decency. The propaganda programmes which Howard was involved in were so successful that William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw) singled out Howard as a target in his radio broadcasts from Europe (‘Germany Calling’) saying that he should ‘stick to acting’.

Howard’s work for the government also included directing, co-producing and starring in several war films including 49th Parallel, The First Of The Few (the story of RJ Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire) and Pimpernel Smith (based on the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel who rescued aristocrats from Paris during the French Revolution, only this time the plot revolved around an English professor rescuing refugees from the Germans). The work that Howard did was obviously propaganda but he felt that it was justified whilst the country was at war with Hitler, in one broadcast Howard even used what was considered strong language for the 1940’s when he said “To hell with whether what I say is propaganda or not, I’ve never stopped to figure it out and I don’t think it matters anymore.”

On the set of The First of the Few

Howard had met Winston Churchill in 1937 when they had several informal talks where Howard made his anti-Nazi views known. Churchill remembered this and when he became Prime Minister he used Howard and other actors, including Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, to get access to famous or important people who might be able to help with the war effort. To this end Howard went to Spain and Portugal in May 1943 purportedly to open links between Spanish and British film-makers and present a series of lectures on his films and the role of Hamlet, but it is believed that his real purpose was to try to prevent General Franco from joining the Axis powers. The Iberian peninsula was neutral during the war and so became a magnet for spies from both sides which meant that the actor was closely watched by German agents during his visit.

Pimpernel Smith

Howard left Portugal in June 1943 on a civilian Douglas DC-3 which flew regularly across the Bay of Biscay as there was an informal agreement for both sides to respect the neutrality of civilian planes. On this day, however, the agreement was ignored and six Junkers JU88 fighters shot it down killing all seventeen passengers and crew. The news of the death of incredibly popular Leslie Howard shocked the British people, and the reason for the German action raised many questions which have not been fully answered to this day.

Why was the plane shot down? Was it an accident or deliberate? If deliberate, who was the target?

One thing we do know is that this same plane making its daily Lisbon to London run had been attacked for the first time two weeks earlier, but it was assumed that the aircraft had been hit by mistake and so the flights continued. Now the plane had been fired on again, and this time shot down with a number of people on board who could have been a possible target. There was Arthur Chenhall, Howard’s manager who was travelling with him and who looked a lot like Churchill. There was also Kenneth Stonehouse who was a reporter for Reuters, Wilfred Israel who was a Jew from Berlin whose work with the Kindertransport had been, in part, the inspiration for Pimpernel Smith, Tyrrel Shervington who was the Lisbon manager for the Shell Oil Company, and Ivan Sharp who had been negotiating tungsten and wolfram imports which were important for the British war effort and deals which the Germans would obviously like to prevent. Any one of these men could have been targeted by the Germans although many thought that the clear target was Howard as when Goebbels (the German Propaganda Minister) had seen the film Pimpernel Smith he had taken it as a personal parody of himself and wanted to kill the director and star.

Pimpernel Smith

There is, however, another possibility. On the same day that Howard’s ill-fated plane set off from Portugal Winston Churchill also took off from Gibraltar to return to Britain after a visit to North Africa. The British Prime Minister was to have flown in a similar flying boat and on a similar flight path to the plane which was shot down but, due to bad weather, he decided to take a bomber instead. The German pilots who brought down the plane took photographs of the wreckage before flying back to their base in France. So, was Leslie Howard the target of the German Junkers, or did they mistake the civilian plane for the one carrying the British Prime Minister? What a coup it would have been if they had been able to shoot down and kill the man who was the inspiration for so many of the Allies.

Three days after the plane was shot down the New York Times reported that “It was believed in London that the Nazi raiders had attacked on the outside chance that Prime Minister Winston Churchill might be among the passengers.” When secret files about Ultra (the Allies’ secret Nazi code-breaking capabilities) were finally made public decades after the Second World War it was learned that the British had known in advance that the Germans assumed Churchill was on Flight 777 and so might target the plane. It was obviously vital for the war effort that Ultra could not be compromised and so the intelligence was not passed on to the Portuguese authorities or the airline. When Churchill wrote his history of the war he fed the flames of the mistaken-identity thesis when he referred to Leslie Howard’s death as one of “the inscrutable workings of fate.”

We will never know for certain the true circumstances of the death of Leslie Howard, but JB Priestley spoke for many when he made a broadcast after the actor’s death was announced on the BBC – “The war has claimed another casualty, the stage and screen have lost an unselfish artist, and millions of us have lost a friend.

 

Recommended Read – I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial Roman dynasties. In I, Claudius he watches from the sidelines to record the reigns of its emperors: from the wise Augustus and his villainous wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula. Written in the form of Claudius’ autobiography, this is the first part of Robert Graves’s brilliant account of the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome, and stands as one of the most celebrated, gripping historical novels ever written.

I, Claudius is an enduring favourite of mine. A fictional autobiography of Claudius based on meticulous research and an incredible depth of knowledge of the Roman Empire places the reader at the heart of events in Rome. The Roman way of life – dress, food, customs, religion etc.– are woven into the story in such a way that the reader comes away from this novel with a deeper understanding of the time and place yet never feeling that they have been educated in any way. Graves’ light touch in this transfer of knowledge is balanced by his deft use of language which, particularly in dialogue, draws out the aspirations, jealousies, fears, hatreds and loves of real historical characters in a way which the source documents never could.

As well as a cleverly plotted novel I, Claudius is also a study of human psychology, to see how Claudius understands and manipulates those around him in order to stay alive is an underlying pleasure of this book. From the relative calm of the rule of Augustus this fictional autobiography details the cruel reign of Tiberius followed by the madness of Caligula all purportedly written from the viewpoint of an historian who likes nothing more than to study the past yet must spend his time balancing the politics of his present in order to stay alive.

It is necessary for Mr Graves to introduce us to a number of generations of the imperial family to tell his story and some readers may find the number of Latin names difficult at first, but I urge you to persevere for it is this richness of connections and understanding of family which underpins the novel and gives it a wholeness which many other historical novels focussing on the Roman  era do not have.

I, Claudius is a classic work of historical fiction telling a story of intrigue, lust, murder and dynastic politics from the point of view of a man who appears such a hapless fool that it is not worth the effort to kill him, yet this supposedly incompetent historian becomes, at the end of the novel, the next Roman Emperor. If you enjoy this read, which I hope you will, then you will be more than happy with its sequel – Claudius the God – which continues Claudius’ autobiography in recounting the reluctant emperor’s surprisingly successful reign.

I, Claudius is a classic in every sense of the word.

I, Claudius can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Graves here

You can  find more of my Recommended reads here

VE DAY – The end of the Second World War in Europe

The long weekend of 8th – 11th May 2020 was supposed to see massive celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day (the ending of the Second World War in Europe) with the British May Bank Holiday being moved for only the second time in history to accommodate this. We are, however, living in unusual times with many countries in lockdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic so ceremonies and celebrations will not go ahead as planned. I believe it is hoped that these can be postponed until August to coincide with VJ Day (Victory against Japan), but until then we can remember and celebrate online…

(Please read this article for some ideas on how to celebrate VE Day during lockdown).

VE Day in London

VE Day marked the end of six long years of war against Germany which had caused so much suffering and death for many countries. April 1945 saw many of the Allied forces beginning to overrun Germany from the west whilst Russian troops were advancing on the eastern front. The two armies met at the River Elbe on 25th April and it was obvious to everyone that Germany could not win the war.

The inevitable defeat of the Nazi forces had long been anticipated, and with Berlin surrounded by Allied armies Hitler took what many saw as the cowards way out by naming Grand Admiral Donitz as his successor then killing his dog and his new wife, Eva, before committing suicide himself on 30th April 1945.

© IWM (EA 65715) Jodl signs the instrument of surrender at Rheims.

On 4th May Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in northwest Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark at Lunehurg Heath near Hamburg. Three days later The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at Reims with General Jodl signing the document on behalf of the German people. The agreement was for the war to officially end the following day on 8th May 1945.

 

The long-awaited end of the war in Europe was announced in a radio broadcast on 7th May and the following day declared a national holiday.

 

 

Building a bonfire to celebrate

 

 

As soon as the news of victory was announced flags and bunting were strung across streets and house fronts, bonfires were built and lit, and the pubs were full as many people did not want to wait one more night to begin their celebrations!

 

 

 

After years of rationing people were told on the morning of the 8th that they could buy bunting without ration coupons, many restaurants quickly put together a ‘victory menu’, there were parades, street parties, and services of thanksgiving – St Paul’s Cathedral in London accommodated 10,000 people in ten services which ran one after the other.

Throughout the war years the British people had been led by Winston Churchill who spoke on the radio in the afternoon of the 8th reminding people that ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’ He was, of course, referring to the fact that the war in the Far East was still on-going with British soldiers, sailors and airmen still fighting and dying for freedom. Later in the day the Prime Minister stood on the balcony of the Ministry of Health and thousands listened to his speech declaring that ‘This is your victory’ to which the crowd replied ‘No, it’s yours!’

© IWM (H 41849)

As the victory celebrations unfolded huge crowds collected in the Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace to see the royal family. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth went out onto the balcony no less than eight times, once accompanied by the Prime Minister. During their last appearance two young women standing looking up at them were no less than the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret who had been allowed to go out incognito to join the celebrating crowds. Queen Elizabeth later said ‘We stood outside and shouted, “We want the King”… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.’ (see The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II).

© IWM (MH 21835)

It is thought that around 50,000 people were crowded around Piccadilly Circus as the first VE Day came to an end with people dancing and singing in the streets. The joy of victory broke down the famous British reserve as people spoke and danced with complete strangers as pubs and dance halls stayed open until midnight to allow the celebrations to continue.

VE Day in London

Celebrations took place around the world, although there was sadness in America that President Roosevelt who had led the country throughout the war did not live to see the final victory (he died on 12th April 1945). Even so the celebrations were so great that large numbers of police officers were detailed to control the crowds in Times Square. In Paris huge numbers flocked to the Champs Elysees and Place de la Concorde. There were also celebrations in Australia although the war so close to them in the Far East was still ongoing. In Canada where the liquor stores had been closed for the celebrations military personnel in Halifax rioted and led the looting of liquor stores which led to a number of deaths.

Amidst the celebrations for the ending of the war in Europe there was also sadness at the thoughts of those who had died and would never return home to a country at peace, and people were aware that the hard times were not yet over – the war against Japan still had to be won, rationing would no doubt continue and there was a great deal of re-building to be done. But for now, for one day, they celebrated the ending of an era of destruction and a new beginning…

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel full of engaging characters who surround Count Rostov as we are immersed in his life confined in the Metropole Hotel for 32 years. You may wonder how following the day to day life of one man in captivity for such a long period of time can create a storyline varied enough to fill a novel, and perhaps some people have not picked up this book for that reason – if so they have missed a gem. This book has been a favourite of mine since I first read it and was drawn into a country in upheaval, following the dramatic changes within Russia during the first half of the 20th century.

The novel begins with Count Rostov being condemned by a tribunal in Moscow as an unrepentant aristocrat, but because of a poem he wrote in his youth which showed a sentiment for revolutionary change he was not put to death, instead he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in his current residence – the Metropole Hotel. As we follow him through the long years of his confinment we come to know the Count as a learned man, a philosopher at heart, who is determined to adapt to his new way of life. Through his friendship with a young girl called Sophie he learns of the rich life behind the scenes of the hotel. Through friends who visit him he is able to follow the turbulent events taking place in his country from both sides – the oppressed and the oppressor. When an unforeseen event changes his life even further Count Rostov becomes a father in all but name and focusses his life on educating and raising a daughter to go out and face a world in which he can no longer partake himself.

This is a book full of humour, pathos, laughter, friendship and love. It is written in an elegant style with beautiful prose and insightful dialogue which subtly explore deep questions about the purpose of our lives and how we can make a difference through many small acts. The characters are well observed, the writing sophisticated, the humour at times gentle and at others farcical. It is a rich, multi-layered novel with much to offer even the most discerning of readers.

As Count Rostov muses towards the end of the novel ‘it was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone’. I urge you to join him within the four walls of his attic room and experience the rich delights of this novel

A Gentleman In  Moscow can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Amor Towles here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here 

The war-gaming Raspberries who helped to win the Battle of the Atlantic

After the fall of France in the early days of the Second World War Britain stood alone in her opposition to Germany in Europe. As an island nation she was vulnerable because food and materials for the war had to be brought across the Atlantic from America, running the gauntlet of German U-boats hunting in ‘Wolfpacks’. Britain needed more than 1 million tons of imports a week to survive so it was imperative to find ways to combat the U-boat threat in what was known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

HMS BARHAM explodes as her 15 inch magazine ignites, 25 November 1941. Copyright: © IWM. object/205022049

Britain had prepared her sea defences based on the belief that Germany would fight a similar sea war to the one fought during World War I. No one had anticipated that France would fall so quickly thereby placing its ports on the western coast of Europe in the hands of Germany and enabling the Nazis to have a stranglehold on the Atlantic crossing. A new approach to the war at sea was needed.

‘War games’ have always been an important feature of military tactical planning and so the Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU) was set up in Liverpool led by Captain Gilbert Roberts under Sir Percy Noble who was made responsible for protecting convoys from the threat of German U-boats. Roberts brought together a group of officers and ratings from the Women’s Royal Navy Service (the Wrens) to ‘explore and evaluate new tactics and then to pass these on to escort captains in a dedicated ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) course’. Churchill’s instructions to the new unit were clear – “Find out what is happening in the Atlantic, find ways of getting the convoys through and sink the U-Boats!” The small staff under Roberts consisted of Chief Petty Officer Raynor, four Wren officers, and four Wren ratings, two of whom were only seventeen.

Captain Roberts consults with Commander J M Rowlands, DSO, RN, an Escort Group Commander. One of the most important phases of the Tactical Unit is the consultation with Escort Group Commanders and Commanding Officers of Escort Vessels when they come in from sea. © IWM (A 27825)

Roberts first analysed reports of attacks on convoys and came to the conclusion that only one Commander, F Walker, had any sort of tactic against the U-boats – he had set up a system whereby when the signal ‘Buttercup’ was given all escort ships under his command turned outwards and fired starburst shells to illuminate any German submarines on the surface. Robert’s analysis also led him to believe that rather than U-boats moving in to attack the perimeter of a convoy at night they were already amongst the supply ships and using their targets as cover!

The facility which housed WATU was very simple – a pattern of squares painted on the floor, some basic ships models, and a number of tactical tables. The first thing that the new team needed to do was to learn current ASW techniques and get an understanding of their technology before they began to create a set of rules so that they could play ‘real-time’ games where they responded to simulated naval attacks, developed tactics to combat them and analysed communications problems. The first problem they approached was the perceived tactic of U-boats hiding withing the convoys. By playing their war games they came to the conclusion that a U-boat would fire on the stern of a ship, dive and fall back behind the convoy, then surface again. To counter this they moved the escort back after an initial attack to sweep the area where the U-boats were expected to re-surface. This seemed to be a successful defence.

Measuring up and preparing contact chits. © IWM (A 27823)

Sir Percy Noble thought that the plan for wargaming was unlikely to work, but after visiting WATU and watching the team at work he changed his mind. He observed a series of attacks on a convoy where the logic behind the assumptions made about U-boat movements were explained as were the tactics to combat these. Immensely impressed he gave his full support to ‘Operation Raspberry’ and ordered that all escort officers should attend the course.

Sir Max Horton (Western Approaches Command) attended one of the courses where he played the role of a U-boat captain. During the course he initiated five attacks on a convoy and each time his submarine was tracked and destroyed using the tactics derived from the war games. He was astonished that an eighteen year old Wren was able to outperform him so well and made sure that the new tactics were included in the next set of orders sent to the Fleet. King George VI was also impressed by the work coming out of Liverpool and visited WATU in November 1942.

© IWM (A 27821)

After a time the unit adapted the training room so that the players who represented the commanders of the Allied convoy escort ships could only have a limited view of what was happening as would be the case in real life situations; only the umpires of the game were able to see the U-boat’s position. As each German tactic was countered and new ones introduced the war gamers of WATU came up with new counter-measures and Germany’s losses in the Atlantic grew. During the remainder of the war 5,000 officers attended the course, one of the very few military courses at the time which were run by women. By the end of the war WWATU had a complement of eight male officers as well as thirty six Wren officers and ratings.

The models used on the Tactical Table. © IWM (A 27824)

At the end of 1943 Roberts was invested as a ‘Commanded of the British Empire’ for his work at WATU. He took a Wren Officer and a Wren Rating with him to Buckingham Palace for the investiture in recognition of the remarkable team of young women who played the war games which saved British shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic.

A Treachery of Spies by Manda Scott

A Treachery of Spies is an espionage thriller to rival the very best, a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse, played in the shadows, which will keep you guessing every step of the way.

A body has been found. The elderly victim’s identity has been cleverly obscured but one thing is clear: she has been killed in the manner of traitors to the Resistance in World War Two.

To find answers in the present, police inspector Inès Picaut must look to the past; to 1940s France, a time of sworn allegiances and broken promises, where the men and women of the Resistance fought for survival against Nazi invaders.

But, as Picaut soon discovers, there are those in the present whose futures depend on the past remaining buried, and who will kill to keep their secrets safe. Old fashioned espionage might be a thing of the past but treachery is as dangerous as ever.

A Treachery of Spies is a well-crafted fast-paced thriller. Much of the novel focusses on the exploits of a number of agents in France – French, English, and American – and their efforts to thwart the Nazis. Ms Scott writes with a clarity which opens up for us the supreme courage of the people who found themselves in such situations; she also describes in detail the time and place so that one can almost feel yourself there, struggling to survive in Occupied France.

As counter-point to this we have the 2018 investigation into the murder of an elderly woman which leads back to the individuals who had lived and fought beside each other in France without knowing that one amongst their number was a traitor. Who was the traitor? Why did they do it? And which, if any, of these old spies is responsible for the trail of death created to hide a dark secret…?

Ms Scott has conducted a great deal of research to provide authenticity to her story with many of her characters based on real people, from the infamous Klaus Barbie to the numerous agents whose biographies inspire many of the actions of the Resistance in her novel. Using the concept of a dual time-line the author is able, however, to take the actions of these agents one step further – how did the men and women of the SOE, the Maquis and the Jedburghs influence post-war spying and politics? What happened to many important Nazis who escaped at the end of the war, and what influence have they had in shaping the world in which we now live?

A Treachery Of Spies is a novel which will appeal to those interested in war stories, particularly the Second World War, and those who love a good thriller which keeps you guessing right to the end. If, like me, you enjoy both genres, then this book is for you.

A treachery of Spies can be found on Amazon

You can find out Manda Scott here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The battleship which failed to deliver – the German warship Tirpitz

In my previous article about the North Atlantic Convoys I mentioned the German battleship Tirpitz. This ship was over 250 metres long and weighed over 50,000 tons with a hull made of 30cm thick steel. Tirpitz also had not one but eight of the biggest naval guns ever built – 38cm. With a crew of over 2,600 men and a speed of 30 knots it was bigger and faster than any of the opposing Allied ships, a formidable weapon which instilled fear in all those who faced her. Yet this behemoth which could have played such a significant role in the war at sea was rarely out of coastal waters and contributed little to the German war effort.

Tirpitz

One would have thought that Germany’s biggest warship should be deployed in the Atlantic but instead it was sent to a remote area in Northern Norway for one simple reason – the Arctic convoys which set out from Britain to supply the beleaguered Soviet Union. With the Tirpitz in northern waters Hitler hoped that he would be able to attack the convoys whilst at the same time preventing any Allied attack against Nazi-occupied Norway.

When the Tirpitz originally arrived in Norway in January1942 she was anchored in Trondheimsfjord from where she made an attack on the mining communities of Spitsbergen, the only major attack that the ship ever carried out. Then, in March 1943, her mooring was moved to Kåfjorden; with an approach to the fjord which was easy to defend and a greater distance by air from Britain the Tirpitz was well protected and able to continue to menace the convoys.

X-craft midgit submarine © IWM (A 22900)

Winston Churchill saw the Tirpitz as a direct threat to the success of the supply convoys to Russia and was determined to sink her. Kåfjorden was out of reach for the British bombers so the Allies decided to try an underwater attack using X-craft – 51ft long submarines with a diameter of just 5ft and with a four-man crew. The plan was for each submarine to drop two 1.5 ton charges of Amatex high explosive beneath the Tirpitz. This was not going to be an easy attack as anti-torpedo nets protected the ship but it was hoped that the midgit submarines would be able to get around these. Moonlit nights between the 20th and 25th September provided ideal conditions for an attack so six normal sized submarines towed the smaller X-craft close to the target where the operational crews then took over ready for the attack – two submarines targeting a small battleship called the Scharnhorst,  one targeting a heavy cruiser called the Lutzow, and the final three making for the Tirpitz, although two of the attacking X-craft were lost en-route.

The Fleet Air Arm preparing for the attack on the TIRPITZ, April 1944 © IWM (TR 1812)

Although the raiders were able to plant explosives which tore an 18 meter long gash in the hull of the Tirpitz they were unable to sink the ship which was fully repaired by April 1944. Over the next seven months the Allies carried out six bombing aids on the Tirpitz which although unable to sink the ship did enough damage for her to be kept in port undergoing constant repairs. The Germans eventually moved the ship to Håkøybotn near Tromsø in October 1944 in the hope of getting better protection, but things went badly wrong for them on 12th November that year when thirty-two Lancaster bombers attacked with Tallboy bombs weighing five-tons each and capable of piercing the thick armour of the Tirpitz. Following three direct hits the pride of the German fleet sank in only eleven minutes with the loss of between 1,000 and 1,200 men.

The Tirpitz was arguably the finest battleship of the Second World War yet she made very little contribution to the conflict. It is true that her presence in the Norwegian fjords was a constant threat to the Arctic Convoys but she did very little actual damage there. The Germans were not able to utilize the Tirpitz as much as they had hoped in Norwegian waters as there was a constant shortage of fuel. Neither was the ship deployed into the Atlantic where she could have created havoc amongst the convoys bringing food and supplies from America to the hungry and beleaguered United Kingdom. It is possible that the Tirpitz tied up men and resources which could have been used to better advantage elsewhere, indeed it could be argued that when all actions are taken into consideration the huge battleship which saw so little action was more of a hindrance than a help to the German war effort; it seems likely that the journalist Ludovic Kennedy was right when he wrote that the Tirpitz had “lived an invalid’s life and died a cripple’s death”.

The end of the Tirpitz © IWM (CL 2830)

Recommended Read – A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A stunning debut historical thriller set in the turbulent 14th Century for fans of CJ Sansom, The Name of the Rose and An Instance of the Fingerpost.

London, 1385. A city of shadows and fear, in a kingdom ruled by the headstrong young King Richard II, haunted by the spectre of revolt. A place of poetry and prophecy, where power is bought by blood. For John Gower, part-time poet and full-time trader in information, secrets are his currency. When close confidant, fellow poet Geoffrey Chaucer, calls in an old debt, Gower cannot refuse.

The request is simple: track down a missing book. It should be easy for a man of Gower’s talents, who knows the back-alleys of Southwark as intimately as the courts and palaces of Westminster. But what Gower does not know is that this book has already caused one murder, and that its contents could destroy his life. Because its words are behind the highest treason – a conspiracy to kill the king and reduce his reign to ashes…

A Burnable Book is a medieval thriller with London in 1385 as its main setting, but it is not London as we know it. It may surprise some readers to discover that it was really three cities at that time – the walled city of London with Southwark and Westminster beyond. Each of these areas is described in fascinating detail, from the houses to the places of work, the bishop’s palaces to the slums, the law courts to the brothels. Bruce Holsinger has conducted an incredible amount of research which enables the reader to feel that they are there, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of medieval London. I found the detail of the developing legal profession particularly fascinating as the Inns of Court came into being during this period at the end of the fourteenth century. Here we learn something of the education system which underpinned this legal system, the serjeants-at-law and other members of the legal profession, all within the framework of a novel which keeps the reader engrossed until the last page has been turned.

A Burnable Book is set during a turbulent time in English history with renewed tensions with France, Scottish incursions to the north, and friction amongst nobles all vying for power. This political intrigue is the backdrop for a story with Chaucer and his contemporary writer, Gower, as two of its main characters. Whilst planning his Canterbury Tales Chaucer has written a fictional poem which is then taken and used by enemies of the king who present it as a prophesy of his death, then work to fulfil that prophecy. Can Gower prevent this from happening? (An interesting plot device is the use of playing cards, which were fairly new to England at this time, and which introduce an element which would not be out of place in a modern crime novel).

Mr Holsinger has created a believable cast of characters (some based on real historical figures), they are well rounded with strengths and weaknesses which we will all recognise and who are brought to life by well crafted dialogue which gives the reader a feel for the time without being too anachronistic and difficult to read.

A Burnable Book is a good read; there are admittedly one or two weaknesses in the plot but these can be forgiven by a reader who likes to immerse themselves in past times, and one cannot fault Mr Holsinger’s knowledge and ability to present this in a style which draws the reader in. If you like crime novels, thrillers, and history, then this is a book for you.

A Burnable Book can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Bruce Holsinger here

You can afind more of my Recommended Reads here

The Canaries who helped win the war

This year sees 75 years since the end of the Second World War and no doubt there will be many events to commemorate that fact. Often memorials focus on the soldiers who fought and died for their country, but while the men were away at the front it fell to the women to work in the factories and fields on the Home Front of England. Approximately 950,000 women worked in the munitions factories alone, producing the shells and bullets used by their fathers, husbands, and sons at the front. One of the largest of these factories was at Rotherwas, Herefordshire, which employed up to 4,000 women at its height and produced around 70,000 shells a week. Many of the women who worked there were as young as 16 but others were considerably older, some were even the daughters of women who had worked in the munitions factories during the First World War.

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The job was relatively well-paid for a woman at that time, but the hours were long with the women often working eleven- or twelve-hour shifts to keep the factories running day and night. During these mammoth shifts the workers were only allowed a couple of short breaks, and this went on day after day, seven days a week, with just the occasional leave day granted every now and then. As well as long hours the job was also dangerous. There was the ever-present threat of an explosion, and the women suffered physically due to the effects of the chemicals which they were handling constantly. The TNT reacted with melanin in the body causing the women’s skin and hair to turn yellow, which earned them the nickname ‘Canary Girls’. The effects of the chemicals were more than skin deep however, as any of the women who became pregnant whilst working there gave birth to yellow ‘Canary Babies’. The colour gradually faded away but the women must have been afraid that there might be long term effects on their new born babies.

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Little, if any, training was given to the women who worked in the munition’s factories – they would simply turn up for their first shift and within minutes were filling shells with TNT. It was delicate work as they collected the hot explosives from a huge mixer (something like a cement mixer), filled the shells and inserted the tube to take the detonator which they then had to tap in very carefully in order not to cause an explosion. In other parts of the factory women had to clean the shells ready to be filled, they did this by rubbing a pad on something like an emery board before inserting the pad into the top part of the shell, this was followed by another disc, tiny screwdrivers and screws were used to finish the fuse and  put it in place. It was tedious, and dangerous, work. As well as the constant fear of explosions the workers were also at serious risk from accidents with dangerous machinery. It was not uncommon for women to lose fingers and hands, to suffer burns and blindness. In February 1944 19 workers, mainly women, were in a shed in the Royal Ordnance Factory in Kirby, Lancashire when one of the anti-tank mine fuses they were working with exploded, setting off a chain reaction amongst the other fuses. The girl who was working on that tray was killed outright, her body blown to pieces, other workers were injured, one fatally, and the factory badly damaged. There were also explosions at factories in Barnbow near Leeds, Chilwell in Nottinghamshire and Ashton-under-Lyne.

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To reduce the risk of explosions the women had to pass through the `Shifting House` twice daily – on the way in to work and on the way out again. This was a long building divided down the centre by a red barrier, one side being the dirty side and the other side the clean. Such were the fears that a rogue spark caused by static might lead to an explosion that the women were banned from wearing nylon and silk. On arriving to start their shift their outdoor clothing, jewellery and hairpins were removed along with any matches and metallic items in their pockets (although jewellery was taken off women could continue to wear their wedding rings as long as they were taped up). The women would then be checked for any metallic fasters on their under garments (only lace up corsets could be worn, no bras with metal clasps) before they could pass to the clean side and put on their regulation cream coloured gowns buttoned right up to their neck and tight around their wrists, and their regulation issue hats – a tightly fitted mop cap with as much hair tucked away under it as possible. Of course, at the end of a shift or to leave the danger buildings area for any reason the complete reversal had to be undertaken so to save time the women were not allowed out on their breaks but had to use their own canteen inside the Danger Building where everything was stained the same ubiquitous yellow as the girls.

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If the dangers inherent in the job weren’t enough there was always the threat of bombing by the Germans. The factory at Rotherwas was bombed at dawn on 27th July 1942 when the Luftwaffe dropped two 250kg bombs on the 300 acre site. The women were coming to the end of their shift and ran out when the sirens sounded. To their dismay they found that the air-raid shelters were locked so they sought cover wherever they could. The attacking plane flew in so low that the women could clearly see the black cross on its wings and the bombs falling from beneath it. There was a direct hit which ignited some of the munitions on the ground, the result was absolute carnage – from one unit of two hundred and thirty women only two survived.

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It is a credit to the Canary Girls that despite all that they endured they rarely complained about the terrible working conditions, they were proud to know that they were doing their bit for the war effort and saw it as a patriotic duty. These women were putting their lives on the line every bit as much as the men who had gone to war, yet the numbers of women who were killed or seriously injured whilst working in the munitions factories is not known, and few people know of the work that they did and its lasting effects on their lives. Although the Canary Girls lost their yellow colouring when they left the factories the women often suffered with illnesses in later life ranging from throat problems to dermatitis, the most debilitating was a liver disease called toxic jaundice caused by prolonged exposure to TNT, which often proved fatal. As we celebrate 75 years since the end of the war this year, I hope we take time to remember all those who served, including the Canary Girls of the munition’s factories.

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