All posts by Dorinda Balchin

Recommended Read – Island Song by Madeleine Bunting

In 1940, Helene, young, naive, and recently married, waves goodbye to her husband, who has enlisted in the British army. Her home, Guernsey, is soon invaded by the Germans, leaving her exposed to the hardships of occupation. Forty years later, her daughter, Roz, begins a search for the truth about her father, and stumbles into the secret history of her mother’s life.

Written with emotional acuity and passionate intensity, Island Song speaks of the moral complexities of war-time allegiances, the psychological toll of living with the enemy and the messy reality of human relationships in a tightly knit community. As Roz discovers, truth is hard to pin down, and so are the rights and wrongs of those struggling to survive in the most difficult of circumstances.

Ms Bunting has created an interesting blend of the past and present which shines a light on just how difficult it was for the residents of the Channel Islands to live under German occupation, the only part of the British Isles to fall into German hands. Roz’s search for the truth about her father is interwoven with the search for art treasure plundered by the Nazi’s, therefore creating a mystery to be unravelled at the same time as a quest for identity.

The author has clearly researched life on the islands during the Second World War – the hunger and fear, the plight of the Russian deportees sent to work on the island’s defences, the feeling of isolation. Alongside this the reader is reminded that nothing is ever black and white, especially not in wartime. Some women had relationships with the occupiers – maybe because they were truly in love, maybe to receive extra rations, maybe to save a loved one from deportation – but whatever the reason they were all vilified at the end of the war. Island Song brings this dichotomy clearly into the light; when reading the experiences of Helene, Roz’s mother, it is easy to see that people often had few choices, that they made the best they could out of a very difficult situation, and the ramifications of those experiences coloured and shaped the rest of their lives. It was not only those who fought the enemy face to face who had to deal with trauma and psychological problems as they moved from war to peace.

The descriptions of the island of Guernsey in Island Song are fascinating, giving the reader a real feeling of the place and its central role in the lives of the islanders. The sounds and scents of the island are brought to life and become a counter-point for the pain and hardship of occupation. Alongside this we meet a German whose background and motivations are not made clear until the final chapter of the book, leading the reader to questions their own views and prejudices of ‘the enemy’, who may well be just another person doing their best to survive.

Is you enjoy historical fiction rooted in fact, or an unconventional love story, then you will probably enjoy Island Song.

Island Song can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Madeleine Bunting here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

80 years since the first use of an ejector seat from a jet plane

As well as being a time of terrible destruction, wars are also a time of rapid innovation. An example of this occurred on 13th January 1942.

The ejector seat is designed to enable a pilot or aircrew to exit a plane in an emergency – an explosive charge propels the seat out of the aircraft, and the pilot with it. Everyone knows about ejector seats and how they work, but do you know how long they have been in use?

The first attempt to create an ‘assisted escape’ for a pilot happened as early as 1910 when Everard Calthrop, who also invented an early version of the parachute, patented a bungee-assisted seat which used compressed air to eject the pilot, but not his seat. The first design with a detachable seat was invented in the late 1920’s by Romanian Anastase Dragomir. It was first tested successfully at Paris-Orly airport on 25th August 1929.

But none of these systems was in use by the military at the beginning of the Second World War, and the pilot’s only means of escape was to jump clear of a plane (bail out). Sometimes this was difficult because the pilot was injured, or the escape route wasn’t clear; and with the advent of the jet engine the g-forces were too great for a bail out. Clearly a better way of escape from an incapacitated aircraft was needed.

Heinkel He 280

Heinkel and SAAB both worked independently on the project, using compressed air to eject the seat and pilot. The first system was used in a prototype jet-engined fighter – the Heinkel He 280 – in 1940, but it was not actually used in action until 1942. On 13th January of that year a German test pilot, Helmut Schenk, found the controls of his plane had iced up and were inoperable. He was flying a He 280 which was being used to test new jets for the Fieseler Fi 103, so the original jets had been removed and his He 280 was towed aloft during a heavy snow storm. When Schenk realised at 2,400m that he had no control over the aircraft, he made history when he jettisoned the towline and pressed the ejection button.

Still from film of the test flight in which Schenk made the first emergency use of an ejector seat

After Schenk’s emergency use of the system the first operational ejector seats were installed into the Heinkel He 219 Uhn night fighter later that same year. The system was crude, with the seat sliding along rails as it was ejected, but it worked. The innovation saved the lives of many German pilots; at the same time, the pilots of Allied jet planes were either unable to exit the plane or were likely to be killed while trying to escape. By 1944 bizarre reports were being received by the British Air Ministry of sightings of the pilots of German jets being fired into the sky as their planes crashed. It was the capture and investigation of seats from crashed Heinkels which led the Allies to develop their own ejector seats.

Recommended Read – At First Light by Vanessa Lafaye

1993, Key West, Florida. When a Ku Klux Klan official is shot in broad daylight, all eyes turn to the person holding the gun: a 96-year-old Cuban woman who will say nothing except to admit her guilt.

1919. Mixed-race Alicia Cortez arrives in Key West exiled in disgrace from her family in Havana. At the same time, damaged war hero John Morales returns home on the last US troop ship from Europe. As love draws them closer in this time of racial segregation, people are watching, including Dwayne Campbell, poised on the brink of manhood and struggling to do what’s right. And then the Ku Klux Klan comes to town…

Inspired by real events, At First Light weaves together a decades-old grievance and the consequences of a promise made as the sun rose on a dark day in American history.

I was fascinated to read the author’s notes at the end of this novel. At First Light is based quite closely on real events which took place as the Klu Klux Klan moved into Florida’s Key West during the early twentieth century, and as such it makes for an absorbing read.

Ms Lafaye has conducted intensive research not only into the specific events which are the basis of her novel, but also into the Klan. It’s methods of recruitment would be called radicalisation today, preying on the weak and vulnerable and promising a better life if only they joined this group. The contrast between some almost comical aspects of the clan and their murderous brutality are chilling, as are the descriptions of the hatred and bigotry which allowed such a movement to take a hold.

At First Light also encompasses the introduction of prohibition and the smuggling of liquor which followed, as well as the Spanish flu which took so many lives at the end of the First World War. The story is however also one of friendship, a ‘coming-of-age’ tale, and a depiction of life in the Keys which is full of depth and detail in which the reader can almost smell the odours, feel the heat, and come to know the characters who lived there at the time. But, at its heart, At First Light is a story of love; a story of two people who, for whatever reasons, chose to stand together in the face of hatred and violence; a timeless story which will touch the heart.

Well-plotted and paced, clearly written with believable characters, I heartily recommend At First Light for its accurate portrayal of a time and place in the past which should be remembered if we are not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.

You can fin At First Light on Amazon

You can find out more about Vanessa Lafaye here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Josephine Baker, singer and spy, is recognised as a National Hero by France

On 30th November 2021 France honoured the US-born 20th Century singer and activist Josephine Baker with a place in the Pantheon, the memorial to France’s national heroes, the first black woman to receive such an honour. So, who was Josephine Baker, and why is she such a hero to the French?

Josephine McDonald, the daughter of Carrie McDonald, was born in St Louis on 3rd June 1906. Her official biography states that her father was a vaudeville drummer, Eddie Carson, but it’s believed that she was actually the daughter of a member of a wealthy German family whom her mother was working for at the time. Carrie and Eddie often took Josephine onto the stage with them during their act but, unfortunately, their stage careers weren’t a success and the couple eventually split up.

Josephine grew up in a poor part of St Louis where she helped with the family finances by doing laundry, waiting on tables and babysitting; when she couldn’t find work she would dance in the streets collecting money from passers-by. By the age of 13, Josephine had left home and was touring with a vaudeville troupe, the Jones Family Band and Dixie Steppers, before joining the first African-American musical, Shuffle Along. In the show she was placed on the end of the chorus-line but drew attention to herself by exaggerating the dance routines in a comical way and soon became popular with audiences, the start of an illustrious career.

Josephine married four times over the years. Her first marriage was to Willie Wells when she was just 13 years old; the marriage was very short-lived. She married for a second time in 1921, to Willie Baker. This marriage didn’t last long either, but she kept Willie’s surname for the rest of her life as it was her name when she first became famous.

In 1925 Josephine travelled to Paris where she took part in a new show, La Revue Negre’ (The Negro Review). Her ‘Danse sauvage’ where she worn nothing but a feather skirt was seen as wild, sensual and charismatic, and she became an overnight sensation, becoming a symbol of the jazz age. She then moved on to perform at the Folies Bergère with her iconic costume – a skirt of artificial bananas and very little else. Although her audience was predominantly white Josephine’s performances followed African themes and styles. She became a French citizen in 1937 after her third marriage, to French industrialist Jean Lion. Her pet cheetah, Chiquita, often appeared on stage with her – it wasn’t uncommon for the animal to leap into the orchestra pit and terrify the musicians!

Josephine became the most successful American entertainer working in France – a level of success she could never have achieved in racially divided America. She was earning more than any other entertainer in Europe and was introduced to the elite of the time – Ernest Hemingway, Georges Simenon, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein amongst others.

In 1927 Giuseppe Abantino became Josephine’s manager and lover. In the same year she took etiquette and singing lessons and embarked on a world tour. By the time Josephine returned to Paris she had re-invented herself and set the foundations for an enduring career. Yet despite her popularity in Europe Josephine received mixed reviews in America, often with racial undertones. TIME magazine said “Josephine Baker is a St. Louis washer-woman’s daughter who stepped out of a Negro burlesque into a life of adulation and luxury in Paris… In sex appeal to jaded Europeans of the jazz-loving type, a Negro wench always has had a headstart… But to Manhattan theatre-goers last week she was just a slightly buck-toothed young Negro woman whose figure might be matched in any night-club show, and whose dancing and singing might be topped almost anywhere outside of Paris.” An unhappy Josephine returned to France.

When France declared war on Germany in September 1939 Josephine was recruited by French Military Intelligence – the Deuxieme Bureau – to collect information about troop movements etc. from German officials she met at parties in ministries and embassies. Josephine’s undercover work was successful because of her fame which allowed her to mix with everyone from Italian bureaucrats to Japanese officials. When Germany finally invaded France Josephine left Paris for her home, Chateau des Milandes in the Dordogne, where she helped the Free French arrange visas to escape the country; Josephine also used her work as an entertainer to travel around Europe visiting neutral countries such as Spain and Portugal. She smuggled intelligence about airfields, harbours and German troop concentrations to the Spanish resistance written in invisible ink in her sheet music, from there it was sent on to England. She also carried notes pinned to her underwear, hoping that her celebrity status meant she wouldn’t be searched. As well as her work with the Resistance Josephine was a member of the Free French Forces and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, she also served in the Red Cros, and performed for troops in North Africa and the Middle East. After the war Josephine was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur by de Gaulle. She was also awarded the Rosette of the Resistance.

Josephine had divorced Lion in 1940, she married for the fourth and last time in 1947, to conductor Jo Bouillon. This was a period in which she re-invented herself as a more serious singer, returning to the Folies Bergères in 1949. In 1951 she returned to perform in the US, initially a very successful run in which she refused to perform to segregated audiences and was named NAACP’s ‘Woman of the Year’. But her stance against discrimination and segregation ruffled too many feathers. Josephine was accused of being a communist, her work visa was cancelled, and she returned to France from where she continued to champion the American Civil Rights Movement.

Josephine returned to perform in the US where she continued to refuse to play to segregated audiences; her work for the Civil Rights Movement led to her being invited to speak at the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech. Dressed in her Free French uniform and wearing her medals Josephine described how a segregated America was so different from France – “You know, friends, that I do not lie to you when I tell you I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I could not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee, and that made me mad.”

After Martin Luther King’s assassination, his widow Coretta Scott King approached Josephine and asked if she would take her husband’s place as leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Josephine saw this as a great honour but eventually declined, saying that her children were “too young to lose their mother”.

In an effort to show that all people can live together in harmony if they are not brought up with ideas of discrimination Josephine adopted 12 babies from countries all around the world; she called them her ‘rainbow tribe’, part of what she described as her ‘experiment in brotherhood’. She continued to fight racial injustices for the rest of her life.

 On 8th April 1975 Baker starred in a revue marking 50 years in show business, the audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. Four days later Josephine was found in a coma in her bed, surrounded by newspapers with their rave reviews – she had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. She died later that day, aged 68.

Like so many people, the war years were only a small part of Josephine’s life, yet her actions during that time showed a courage which and dedication to her adopted country which means that she has always been a popular figure. That popularity, and the gratitude of the people of France, has now been recognised by an honour given to only a few.

You can see a short BBC video about Josephine here

Recommended Read – A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed. Nearly two decades later, a friendship grows between Mariam and a local teenager, Laila, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter. When the Taliban take over, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a classic novel which should be read by anyone who loves books which delve into human relationships and the impact that the world around us has on these. Set in Afghanistan, the story documents the changes from a country progressing towards a society where women were treated with more respect and equality than previously to a country run by religious fanatics.

Through war, deprivation, cruelty, inequality and much, much more we follow a raft of totally convincing characters as they struggle to survive in a hostile world and, in the process, learn about themselves. This may sound depressing, and I have to admit that this book is not full of fun and laughter, but at its heart is something worth so much more. Mr Hosseini has a depth of understanding of the human condition which he is able to express in a way which focuses on the one thing that can bind us all together – love. Love of a mother for her child, of a man and woman, of two strangers who come to depend on each other in such a way that we come to see that love is not just about family, it is so much more. Despite all the hardship and heartbreak in this book it does end on a note of hope.

Khaled Hosseini writes beautifully, evoking a time and place in such a way that you feel you are there. The plotting of this novel is delicate yet intricate, and true to life. A Thousand Splendid Suns is not an easy read but it is well worth the emotional involvement required as fact and fiction are exquisitely woven together to create an important historical novel of the human condition. I heartily recommend this book to everyone (with the caveat that people who have suffered domestic violence in the past are likely to find it a difficult read).

A Thousand Splendid Suns can be found on Amazon 

You can find out more about Khaled Husseini here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Lest we forget – One hundred years of the Royal British Legion

Over six million men from Great Britain served during the First World War. When ‘the war to end wars’ was finally over, more than 1.75 million of the surviving troops returned home with a disability, half of them permanently disabled. The economy was in free-fall, and by 1921 there were two million unemployed, many of them men who had so recently served their country on bloody battlefields far from home. Life was hard for the men, and for families whose loved ones had come back from the war changed, or had not come back at all. Widows and orphans, parents who lost the sons who may have been the bread-winner of the family, wives and children of the disabled who could no longer provide for them. The physical conflict was over, but its legacy endured.

In an effort to help those suffering hardship, four national organisations which had been created at the end of the war joined together to create The British Legion on 15th May 1921. These groups were

  • The Comrades of The Great War
  • The British National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers
  • The National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers
  • The Officers’ Association

One of the founders of the British Legion was Field Marshal Haig who had commanded the British forces at Passchendaele and the Battle of the Somme and who was President of the British Legion until his death in 1928. The British Legion was granted a Royal Charter in 1925, becoming the Royal British Legion, and links with the Royal family of the United Kingdom continue today.

The Royal British Legion is a charitable organisation which provides financial, social and emotional support to former and current members of the British Armed Forces, as well as their families and dependants. Every year they make around 300,000 friendship and welfare visits and help tens of thousands with their War Disablement Pension cases. Their work includes everything from research into issues affecting the health of servicemen and women (e.g., Gulf War Syndrome) to support for service personnel as they move from the military to civilian life. The support given by the Royal British Legion is costly, and their main fund-raising comes from the sale of artificial poppies in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday (the closest Sunday to 11th November, recognising the day on which the First World War ended).

The very first Poppy Appeal took place in 1921, with the poppies selling-out almost over-night and raising over £106,000, which was a large sum 100 years ago. The money raised was used to help veterans of the First World War with housing and employment. No-one in the United Kingdom today could fail to recognise the distinctive poppy, but how many of us know its history?

During the First World War much of the fighting was trench warfare in Western Europe with troops bogged down in mud and filth, constantly bombarded by the enemy. The landscape, once woodland and farmer’s fields, became a desolate landscape of mud and craters where little grew. Yet amongst the destruction, in the miles of mud, one thing seemed to thrive – Flanders poppies. The bright red of their petals seemed somehow symbolic of the blood which had been shed, and the sight of these flowers prompted Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor, to write his now famous poem ‘In Flanders’s Fields’ after learning of the death of a friend. This poem, in turn, inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to campaign for the poppy to be used as a symbol of remembrance in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.

In 1921, Frenchwoman Anna Guerin persuaded Earl Haig to adopt the poppy as a symbol, and nine million were sold that first year. The sale was such a resounding success that a factory was set up to produce the poppies in future years. Now around 40 million are sold by volunteers every year in the UK. There is a separate factory in Scotland which produces a slightly different version of the poppy there (with four petals and no leaves).

In the past everyone would stop what they were doing at 11am on the 11th of November to observe one minute of silence in remembrance of those who had died during the war. The modern world does not always allow people this time of reflection, but in the UK the closest Sunday to 11th November is always Remembrance Sunday, where parades and services are held. On the preceding Saturday night, the Royal British Legion holds a ‘Festival Of Remembrance’ in the Royal Albert Hall, London. This Festival is always attended by senior members of the British royal family, and involves a parade of servicemen and women, representatives of youth organisation and uniformed civilian services, and culminates in an act of remembrance in which the petals of thousands of poppies fall on the assembly below.

The Royal British Legion began in the years after the end of ‘the war to end all wars’ and continues to work for the well-being of those who have served in the numerous wars which have happened since. One hundred years after its founding the Royal British Legion is needed now just as much as it ever was then.

You can find out more about the work of the Royal British Legion over the last 100 years here

Here are more of my posts on Remembrance:

The Cenotaph

The Tomb on the Unknown Warrior

Cemeteries of the First World War

The Graves at Mersa Matruh (The Desert Rats of North Africa)

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.

SIGSALY – the birth of digital technology during the Second World War

Even before the United States entered the Second World War the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was constantly in touch with President Roosevelt. These communications were often sent via text message over a secure teletype system, by courier, or by diplomatic cable; but another, less safe, means of communication was also used – the telephone.

Scrambler phone © cryptomuseum.com

As well as censors monitoring all important transatlantic phone calls (including Churchill’s) an A-3 scrambling system was used in the early years of the war, but it was well known that these telephone calls could be intercepted and codes broken by an ordinary oscilloscope, (after the war it was found that a German listening post on the Dutch coast had complete transcripts of some phone calls, including ones between the Prime Minister and President). The Allied powers knew that a new and much more secure method of vocal communication was needed to help maintain communications secrets.

In the early years of the Twentieth Century, digital technology was in its infancy, being more theoretical than practical, and so Bell Laboratories began work on turning voice signals into digital data as early as 1936; research into a viable system, code-named ‘Project X’, began in 1940. This was cutting-edge technology and many patents were filed secretly – some only being disclosed in the late 1970’s. The pace of research increased when America entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Britain sent Alan Turing from Bletchley Park to evaluate the prototype before six terminals were built. The project was code-named SIGSALY (SIG indicating its link to the Army Signal Corps), although those who operated them called the prototypes ‘Green Hornets’ because anyone trying to intercept the call would only hear a buzzing sound.

SIGSALY © cryptomuseum.com

The US Army formed the 805th Signal Service Company to operate SIGSALY, many of the technicians had worked for Bell Systems before the war. The system was operated for around eight hours every day, the other sixteen hours were needed for the complex testing and maintenance of the new technology.

The first transatlantic test took place in November 1942 using a One-Time Pad encryption. This meant that the voice was broken-down, digitally coded and mixed with an element from a random key-stream held on a record (the same as a music disc), this mixed sound was transmitted then re-assembled into speech at the other end, although it was difficult to recognise the voice of the speaker. Identical discs were held and used at each end so that the random sound could be matched-up and cancelled out; as each disc could only hold twelve minutes of data there were always two set up ready for use to allow for long conversations. Keeping the discs running at each end meant that if there was a short interruption in transmission the conversation could be picked up again immediately contact was restored. These discs were only used once before being destroyed so each phone call had a unique pattern which made it impossible for the enemy to de-code. The initial vinyl discs were replaced by acetate-coated aluminium records in 1943.

Double turntable for SIGSALY discs © cryptomuseum.com

Each SIGSALY machine was huge, it needed 30,000watts to power the equipment which took up about 2,500 square feet and weighed 55 tons. These colossuses produced a huge amount of heat and had to be air-conditioned. Each terminal cost US$ 1 million in 1943, with twelve set up in various parts of the world this was a massive investment.

The first SIGSALY machine was set up in the Pentagon with a second in a basement of Selfridges department store on Oxford Street, London; these locations were chosen as they had space for the massive installations, and the deep Selfridges basement was safe from bombing. The US SIGSALY was linked via an extension line to the White House, while the British end was linked to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet War Rooms, and the US Embassy. The first discussions between the two nations took place on 15th July 1943 and are believed to have been about the Allied invasion of Sicily earlier that week; it is likely that the forthcoming invasion of Italy, planned for a few months later, was also discussed.

© cryptomuseum.com

Security measures were needed to protect the confidentiality of calls so the cables between SIGSALY and its extensions were enclosed in pipes which were further protected by gas pressure and microswitches. Any tampering would cause the gas pressure to drop and an alarm would automatically be sounded. The whole system was Top Secret, with fewer than twenty-five of Britain’s most senior leaders knowing of its existence. As the war progressed and the Allies moved eastwards through Europe, SIGSALY terminals followed; one was set up in Paris, another in Frankfurt, and finally one in Berlin after Germany surrendered. The system was also used in the Pacific theatre, one was even on board a ship which was part of MacArthur’s Pacific Fleet. All in all, the twelve sites transmitted more than three thousand teleconferences during the latter years of the war, the majority of them amongst military commanders for planning purposes. Churchill also used SIGSALY in April 1945 to call President Truman after Roosevelt’s death; the two leaders then held a conference two weeks later in which they discussed tentative German surrender offers – that call was the longest ever made via SIGSALY at a little over two hours in length.

An early SIGSALY in operation, 1943

Any SIGSALY terminal could contact any of the other eleven; if distances were too great they could also be used to relay conversations, for example Washington was used to relay messages between London and Brisbane. The twelve locations were:

  1. The Pentagon in Washington
  2. Selfridges in London 
  3. A second in Washington for dedicated use in the Pacific  
  4. Pacific, on-board ship with the Pacific Fleet
  5. Oakland in California
  6. Fort Shafter in Hawaii
  7. Brisbane
  8. Algiers
  9. Paris after the liberation of France
  10. Frankfurt after VE Day
  11. Berlin after VE Day
  12. Tokyo after VJ Day

After the war the SIGSALY system was removed from service, it remained secret for another thirty years and was only disclosed two years after the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park in England was de-classified. Despite the secrecy Bell Laboratories won several awards, including Best Signal Processing Technology in 1946. Of course, as the work was still classified guests at the ceremony had to accept on trust that the award was justified!

SIGSALY was a vital part of the communication system during the Second World War, and a key part of the development of technologies we use today. So, next time you rely on digital encryption to protect your messages and data on social media don’t forget that, as the United States National Security Agency has said, “Today digital technology is the backbone of the information industry…. But the pioneering work for many of these capabilities was performed early in World War II.”

Recommended Read – A Fine Madness by Alan Judd

A remarkable and meticulously researched novel from award-winning writer Alan Judd, exploring the life of literary genius Kit Marlowe, whose violent death composes one of the most fascinating unresolved mysteries of all time.  
 
In Elizabethan England, the Queen’s chief spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and his team of agents must maintain the highest levels of vigilance to ward off Catholic plots and the ever-present threat of invasion.
 
One agent in particular – a young Cambridge undergraduate of humble origins, controversial beliefs and literary genius who goes by the name of Kit Marlowe – is relentless in his pursuit of intelligence for the Crown. When he is killed outside an inn in Deptford, his mysterious death becomes the subject of rumours and suspicion that are never satisfactorily resolved.
 
Years later, when Thomas Phelippes, a former colleague of Marlowe’s, finds himself imprisoned in the Tower, there is one thing that could give him his freedom back. He must give the king every detail he is able to recall about his murdered friend’s life and death. But why is King James so fascinated about Kit Marlowe – and does Phelippes know enough to secure his own redemption?

Alan Judd’s rendering of the life of Christopher Marlowe is steeped in his intimate knowledge of Elizabethan times – whether it be the everyday life of gentlemen or the intricate spider’s web of the Queens intelligence agency. Cleverly constructed as a discourse by Thomas Phelippes as he is questioned about the death of the playwright, the novel not only describes what is known of some of the most important clandestine events of the time (for example, the Babington plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne) but also delves into the intellectual questions which were a part of politics – and life – at the time, questions about faith and morality as well as politics.

Such a novel has the potential to be dry or didactic, but that is not the case with A Fine Madness. Judd’s writing draws the reader in with his descriptive prose and clever use of dialogue which breathe life into people who have been dead for centuries. With his use of a clever plotting device the author creates a world of suspicion and fear where those who spy for the government can never feel secure in their own position as factions jostle for position at court. Against this backdrop we come to know something of Christopher Marlowe – a mercurial man, playwright, scholar, trusted confident yet enigmatic presence – with Judd’s writing based on the records that we have about this enigmatic man and the tavern brawl which led to his death. It is a mark of his excellent writing that Judd draws us in as we want to know what really happened, whether it was ‘just a fight’ or whether there was something more sinister behind it, yet all the time we are well aware that no one knows as the death of Christopher Marlowe remains one of the great literary mysteries of the last centuries.

A Fine Madness is a cleverly crafted novel balancing historical fact and fiction to create an honest portrait of the people and times with, at its centre, Christopher Marlowe seen not through rose-tinted glasses over the distance of time but as he most probably appeared to the men of his day – an intelligent man who questioned the hold of religion on men’s lives, energetic, a man who ‘burned too brightly’ and was gone too soon.

Part spy novel, part quest for intellectual truth and understanding; a study of duty, faith and friendship; I can highly recommend A Fine Madness to all lovers of historical fiction.

A Fine Madness can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Alan Judd here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

“I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!”

Operation Eiche – the mission Winston Churchill described as “one of great daring“.

1943 was a bad year for the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. His hopes of holding North Africa had been dashed, his decision to send Italian troops to help Hitler fight the Russians on the Easter Front was a disaster, and the Allies had landed in Sicily leaving Italy vulnerable in the south. To cap it all, the Allies bombed Rome on 19th July, damaging two of Rome’s airports as well as reducing parts of the ancient Basilica of Saint Lawrence to rubble.

Although Mussolini was a dictator he did not hold the supreme power that his friend, Adolf Hitler, had in Germany. Italy still had a king and a council with the power to remove Mussolini, and by July 1943 they had had enough. On 24th July the Grand Council passed a vote of no-confidence in their leader; Il Duce was summoned to the palace the next day, where King Victor Emmanuel told him that he was to be replaced by Marshal Badoglio. Mussolini must have been stunned when the king told him that ‘Italy has gone to bits. The soldiers don’t want to fight any more. At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.’  The dictator, who had been in power since 1922, was further stunned to find himself immediately arrested on the orders of the monarch.

From left to right Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Italian Foreign Minister Count Ciano, as they prepare to sign the Munich Agreement, 1938

The fall of Mussolini was also a shock to Hitler, who was afraid that Italy would now change sides and support the Allies against him. The only solution was to annex Italian territory and rescue Mussolini. This would not prove as easy as he might have thought as the Italians constantly kept their prisoner on the move, so Hitler appointed Kurt Student to plan a rescue attempt – codenamed Operation Eiche – whilst Hauptsurmfuhrer Otto Skorzeny was sent to Italy to find out where Mussolini was being held. Hitler made the importance of the mission very clear when he told Skorzeny ‘Mussolini, my friend and our loyal comrade in arms, was betrayed yesterday by his king and arrested by his own countrymen. I cannot and will not leave Italy’s greatest son in the lurch. To me the Duce is the incarnation of the ancient grandeur of Rome. Italy under the new government will desert us! I will keep faith with my old ally and dear friend; he must be rescued promptly or he will be handed over to the Allies.’

Hotel Campo Imperatore, 1943

Skorzeny had been wounded by shrapnel in the back of the head in 1942; when he recovered from his injury he was assigned a job on Hitler’s staff where he was developing commando warfare. In early September, with the use of intercepted radio transmissions, he finally discovered that the deposed dictator was being held in the Hotel Campo, a ski resort in the Apennine Mountains of southern Italy. Unfortunately for Skorzeny, any rescue attempt had to be briefly put on hold as Italy capitulated to the Allies on 8th September and German focus was on taking control of parts of Italy; but the mission could not be delayed for too long in case Mussolini was handed over to the enemy by the Italian government, so planning went ahead, and the rescue attempt took place on 12th September, led by Major Mors.

Mors’s plan was for 12 gliders transporting 3 platoons of Luftwaffe airborne troops and 1 platoon of SS men to land in an open area close to the hotel; at the same time, troops in 20 vehicles would take on the 100 guards at the lower cable-car station and so completely cut off the hotel higher up the mountain. The lower operation went smoothly, and was completed at 14.00 as the gliders (reduced from 12 to 10) came in to land 5 minutes later. To their dismay, the ‘open field’ which had been observed in reconnaissance photographs turned out to be a stretch of steep and rocky ground, causing one of the gliders to crash.

Mussolini leaving the hotel

But this crash did not hold up the operation and, within minutes of landing, the Italians’ radio equipment had been put out of action; the guards (100 men at the hotel) appeared confused and did nothing to oppose the attacking Germans – after all, the commando forces had recently been their allies, and the prisoner they were holding was their former commander-in-chief. Skorzeny quickly took advantage of their confusion and raced to Mussolini’s room where he declared “Duce, the Führer sent me to free you”, to which Mussolini replied “I knew that my friend Adolf Hitler would not have abandoned me!”

Whilst there had been a short fire-fight when the Germans took the lower cable-car station, the entire operation at the Hotel Campo itself was conducted without a shot being fired. Photographs were taken of a smiling Mussolini with his rescuers, and even some of the Italians who should have been guarding him grinneded happily as they had their photographs taken with their attackers. Il Duce was now the guest of the Germans, and his extraction was imminent.

Mussolini rescued by German troops from his prison in Campo Imperatore on 12 September 1943

A Fieseler Fi 156 Short-Take-Off-and-Landing plane survived a tricky landing on the rocky strip to pick up its passenger. On take-off there was a frightening moment as the nose of the overloaded Fieseler dipped and the plane plunged down towards the valley floor, but the pilot was finally able to regain control and the deposed dictator began his flight to freedom, changing planes at Pratica di Mare before continuing on to Germany via Vienna. As the plane disappeared into the distance, the gliders which had been used in the raid were destroyed and the German troops took the cable-car down the mountain where they made good their escape.

The plane which flew the rescued Mussolini to safety.

Mussolini arrived at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters, near Rastenburg, on 15th September. The Fuhrer was shocked to see how much weight his old friend had lost since their last meeting, but was glad that his fellow fascist leader was safe. Eleven days later Hitler set up Mussolini as leader of the Salo Republic in northern Italy, but the writing was on the wall for the man who was now hated by the people he once led. On 27th April 1945 Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were captured by Italian partisans as they tried to escape from the advancing Allies. The following day he was executed by a firing squad and his body, with that of his mistress and their supporters, was hung by the feet from the roof of an Esso petrol station in Milan.

From left to right, the bodies of Bombacci, Mussolini, Petacci, Pavolini and Starace in Piazzale Loreto, 1945.

The popular leader who had led Italy to war, and later been rescued in what Churchill described as a mission of “great daring”, had finally received what the majority of Italian people felt were his just deserts.

Book Review – The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal tells a story of a working-class American’s rise to become a cardinal of the Catholic Church. The daily trials and triumphs of Stephen Fermoyle, from the working-class suburbs of Boston, drive him to become first a parish priest, then secretary to a cardinal, later a bishop, and finally a wearer of the Red Hat. An essential work of American fiction.

Before anything else I must say that you should not be put off this book if you are not religious, or not of the Catholic faith. This is not a book about Catholicism (although there is much about Catholic beliefs and practice within its pages), at its heart The Cardinal is historical fiction, a saga of the greatest tradition, anyone who enjoys that style of novel will love The Cardinal.

We follow Stephen Fermoyle from the outbreak of the First World War to the days leading up to the Second. At the beginning of the novel he is a new priest returning to America from Rome, and we follow him on his swift rise through the ranks of the church, facing both financial and spiritual challenges as the Depression takes hold and society has to find ways to care for the most vulnerable. As Stephen progresses in his career he moves back to Rome where we see the rise of facism in all its ugliness, and the threat it poses to the world, both religious and secular. Stephen also falls in love, probably the greatest challenge for a celibate priest, and one can only sympathise with a man torn between his love for a woman and his love for God. As the reader accompanies the priest on his soul-searching journey to find his way forwards through this dilemma, we are given a deeper understanding of the cost and rewards of following a vocation.

But The Cardinal is not a novel confined to the priestly, not only do we follow Stephen on his journey of faith, but also the members of his family who face trials and tribulations no different to the rest of us. The Fermoyles are a loving family of Irish extraction, a group of characters who follow their own paths through life whilst staying closely knit and offering support to each other through the tragic events which shape them. They are not a ‘sugar-coated’ family, the have their disputes and arguments, their rifts and tragedies, but through it all there is a love and faith which binds them together.

The Cardinal is a beautifully written novel with a well-crafted plotline, believable dialogue, and engaging characters which draw the reader in and leaves you wanting more – which is my one criticism of this novel. At the end we journey with the new cardinal from Rome back to America where new challenges await him; he is only fifty-one and there is potential for so much more in the lives of the Fermoyle family in general and Stephen in particular, so I found it disappointing that the novel ends at the point where Stephen’s work as a cardinal begins. Having said that, this is a beautiful novel which I highly recommend to anyone who is a lover of historical fiction.

‘The Cardinal’ can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here