All posts by Dorinda Balchin

Recommended Read – The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

An empowering, thought-provoking feminist novel that will change the way you see the world. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Day, Claire Fuller and Joanna Cannon.

1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.

The Woman in the Photograph takes the reader on a journey exploring the development of feminism in the UK from the 1960’s to the present day. It is innovative, thought-provoking, imaginative and moving. By following the career of Veronica we live fifty years of social history, charting the changing roles of women and discovering how far they have come yet how far they still have to go. The ‘descriptions’ of photographs that Veronica takes at key moments in feminist history give a real snapshot (pun intended!) of a particular time and place and are a testament to the authors descriptive writing and the clarity of her well-drawn characters.

Ms Butland has conducted in depth research for this novel which is crammed with information yet is never wordy or didactic, instead the reader experiences those years through the eyes of three very different women – Veronica, Leonie, and Erica – and is drawn into their lives and loves, their hopes and fears, their successes and failures. The Woman in the Photograph is unapologetic in this focus on the individual in the feminist movement but should not be seen as a simple history, it is so much more than that. This novel is also about the human heart with love and loss at its centre.

I must admit that when I first picked up The Woman in the Photograph I was not sure if it was for me, fearing that it might attempt be too moralistic and push feminism on the reader, but that is not the case. If you take the trouble to pick up this book you will certainly learn about the history of feminism but also enjoy a jolly good read.

The Woman in the Photograph is available on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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The sweet scent of collaboration? – Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel 1920

Coco Chanel is a name recognised the world over as the French fashion designer and business woman who founded the global brand which carries her name. There have been questions since the end of the Second World War about her links with Germany during the conflict, particularly her liaison with German diplomat Hans Gunther von Dincklage. So how much of this was true and how much mere rumour?

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was born in 1883 to a poor family; her mother died of TB when she was 12 and her father sent her and her two sisters to live in an orphanage at the convent of Aubazine where Chanel learnt how to sew, something which was to influence the whole of her life. When she was 18 the young Gabrielle moved to a Catholic girls boarding house in Moulins where she earned her living as a seamstress; she also liked to sing in cabaret, and it was whilst doing this that she got the nickname ‘Coco’.

Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, and Coco Chanel

In the years between the wars Chanel had a couple of love affairs with wealthy and influential French aristocrats. She always wanted to be at the height of fashion and so designed her own hats; from that humble beginning she moved on to open her own boutiques in Deauville (which was the fashion centre of the ‘Roaring Twenties’) and Biarritz. Her boutiques, funded by her wealthy lovers, sold hats and fashionable clothing. The poor young girl who grew up in a Catholic orphanage now mixed with politicians and aristocrats from across Europe including Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, and it was at this time that she met and became friends with Winston Churchill.

In 1924, Chanel was looking to expand her empire and reach by putting her new perfume on the global market but she needed financial backing to do this. Chanel was introduced to Jewish businessmen and brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer who invested heavily in Parfums Chanel, taking the majority of the stock for themselves and another business partner whilst leaving Chanel with just a 10% stake in the company. As her company grew Chanel met and fell in love with Paul Iribe and, during their relationship, she financed his controversial journal Le Temoin (The Witness) which was an extremely xenophobic, ultra-nationalist, and racist publication. Chanel was heartbroken when Iribe died of a heart attack.

Paul Wertheimer

At the outbreak of war in September 1939 Coco Chanel surprised everyone by closing her businesses and putting her 2,500 employees out of work. As the German Blitzkrieg forged its way through northern Europe Chanel moved to the Pyrenees for safety whilst the Jewish Wertheimers chose to go into exile, but before doing so they placed Parfums Chanel in the hands of a trusted friend, the Christian business man Felix Amiot. The Wertheimer’s ship sailed for New York just a few days before France fell to the Germans, and as they moved further away from France Chanel returned to Paris where she moved into the Ritz hotel which was the place where most of the highest ranking

Pierre Wertheimer

German military staff preferred to stay, and where she had an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

Chanel still felt cheated by the Wertheimers and resented the fact that she only held a 10% share in her famous perfume; when she heard that the brothers were now producing No 5 in America she was furious and wanted to get revenge. Chanel decided to use the Aryanisation laws to take control of the company – after all she was Aryan whilst the Wertheimer’s were Jewish and so, by law, had no rights of ownership over Parfums Chanel. On 5th May 1941 Coco wrote to the government department charged with disposing of Jewish financial assets to say that Parfums Chanel was still the property of Jews who had legally abandoned it. She claimed that she had never received a fair share of the profits from the company and felt that the department could now compensate her for that. In the initial legal review Amiot was able to show that he had gained control of the company from the Wertheimers through legal means, but the company was still declared Jewish, partly thanks to a friend of Chanel’s who sat on the board. The next step for Chanel was to write to the Commissioner General for Jewish Questions asking for all shares and control of all the Wertheimer’s perfume companies (not only Chanel) be given to her. Amiot had an aviation business before the war and was now working with Junkers to provide planes for the Germans (he used this link as a means to save his workers from being sent to Germany in forced labour units whilst at the same time helping to finance a resistance group working with the British). When it came to choosing between a man supplying bombers for the Luftwaffe and a female fashion designer the Germans found in Amiot’s favour.

Felix Amiot

This was a resounding defeat for Coco Chanel, and it was at this point that she appears to have begun working for von Dincklage at the Abwher (the German intelligence service in which von Dincklage was highly placed in Paris) in return for his help in trying to regain control of Parfums Chanel. The influential German agent who was also her lover gave Chanel the Agent number F7124 and code name Westminster (after her lover from before the war). It was late 1943 and the Germans were losing ground on all fronts so von Dincklage first took Chanel to Berlin to meet Walter Shellenberg who was head of the SD, the Nazi party’s intelligence agency. Schellenberg was Himmler’s right-hand man and wanted to negotiate peace with the British whilst still continuing the war against Russia and America. In November 1943 Chanel was sent to Madrid on Operation Modelhut (Operation Model Hat) to use her connection with Churchill to convince him to end the war on terms set by Hitler. Chanel and Churchill had been close friends in the 1920’s so she had every expectation that she would at the very least be able to have personal communications with him. However, Chanel’s close friend, Vera Lombardi , also knew Churchill and informed the British that Chanel was a Nazi agent, effectively ending any chance that Coco had of success in her mission – Chanel wrote a number of letters to Churchill, but as she had been denounced he didn’t answer any of them. Coco returned to Paris in January 1944.

Chanel’s relationship with von Dincklage was no secret, and the Free France Secret Services seem to have known about the work that she was doing for him. When Paris was liberated on 25th August 1944 citizens sought out any collaborators, particularly women who had had relationships with the Germans. Just four days later, on 29th August 1944 two FFI resistance fighters arrested Chanel at the Ritz and she was questioned by the Free French Purge Committee about her work as a German agent. It has been implied that Churchill remembered their previous friendship and intervened with de Gaulle, for she was released after just two hours questioning, and in September 1944 Chanel re-joined von Dincklage in Switzerland. In 1949 Chanel once more faced questions about how she used the anti-semite laws to try to gain control of Parfums Chanel from the Wertheimer brothers, her relationship with von Dincklage, and her work for the Abwher, but denied all accusations against her. Chanel continued to live with von Dincklage until the mid 1950’s. She returned to Paris in 1954 and reopened her couture business with help from her friend Pierre Wertheimer, the man she had sought to destroy during the war but who was now reconciled to her (Amiot had returned the company to the Wertheimers at the end of the war). The fashion business of Coco Chanel prospered as never before.

Coco Chanel, who died in 1971, is one of a number of French artists who were accused of collaborating with the Nazis during the Second World War – including Maurice Chevalier, Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry and Edith Piaf. So what was she? A shrewd businesswoman and opportunist, or an active collaborator? It was not until 2014 when French intelligence agencies declassified a number of documents that it was finally confirmed that Coco Chanel had worked as a spy for the Germans during the Second World War. On example from the French Defense Ministry’s archives showed that France’s secret services had suspicions about Chanel’s Nazi connections at the time:

A source from Madrid informs us that Madame Chanel, in 1942-1943, was the mistress and agent of Baron Gunther Von Dincklage. Dincklage was the attaché to the German Embassy in Paris in 1935. He worked as a propagandist and was a suspected agent.

Another example comes from Hal Vaughan’s book ‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War’. He spent a lot of time reviewing American, German, French, and British archives, and says that Abwehr Agent 7124 whose code name was ‘Westminster’ went on missions around Europe to recruit new agents for the Third Reich, travelling to Spain with Baron Louis de Vaufreland, a Frenchman who worked as an agent for the Germans; his job was to find people who could be recruited or coerced to spy for Germany, and as Chanel knew the British ambassador to Spain she went with him as cover, and to offer him introductions.

After the publication of Hal Vaughan’s book a spokesperson for the Chanel company said that “Such insinuations cannot go unchallenged. She would hardly have formed a relationship with the family of the owners (the Wertheimers) or counted Jewish people among her close friends and professional partners such as the Rothschild family, the photographer Irving Penn or the well-known French writer Joseph Kessel had these really been her views. It is unlikely…We also know that she and Churchill were close friends for a long time. She apparently approached him about acting as an intermediary between the Allies and the Germans for a peace settlement known as Operation Modelhut. No one knows for sure exactly what happened or what her role was to be. There are several different versions and it will no doubt always remain a mystery.”

So I leave you with a question…Did Coco Chanel really support the Nazi cause or did she just do what she thought was necessary to retain her company in a time of war? Two things remain of interest to me.  The first is her pre-war funding of Le Temoin which appears to show anti-semitic tendancies on her part. The second is the details of her relationship with General Walter Schellenberg who was chief of the German intelligence agency Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) and the military intelligence spy network Abwehr (Counterintelligence) in Berlin and who sent Chanel on her mission to Madrid. Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal at the end of the war and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for war crimes; he was released in 1951 because he had an incurable liver disease. It is interesting to note that Chanel paid for his medical care and living expenses, supported his wife and family, and paid for Schellenberg’s funeral when he died – make of that what you will.

Coco Chanel 1970

Recommended Read – A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

Two women separated by time are linked by the most famous murder mystery in history, the Princes in the Tower.

Lady Katherine Grey has already suffered more than her fair share of tragedy. Newly pregnant, she has incurred the wrath of her formidable cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, who sees her as a rival to her insecure throne.

Alone in her chamber in the Tower, she finds old papers belonging to a kinswoman of hers, Kate Plantagenet, who forty years previously had embarked on a dangerous quest to find what really happened to her cousins, the two young Princes who had last been seen as captives in the Tower.

But time is not on Kate’s side – nor on Katherine’s either …

The use of dual timelines has become a common plot device in the last few years, but what makes A Dangerous Inheritance different is that rather than having one timeline in the present and the other in the past both of the main characters in this novel are historical figures from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Katherine Plantagenet was the daughter of Richard III, Katherine Grey was the granddaughter of Henry VII, and what is interesting about them is that they are each descended from one of the two men who could have been responsible for the deaths of the sons of Edward IV, the infamous ‘Princes in the Tower ‘. In this novel both young women are trying to find out the truth about the disappearance of the princes, and about the role which might have been played by their family members.

As a respected historian Ms Weir has used countless primary sources to weave together the lives of these two young women who found that having royal blood can be more of a curse than a blessing as they each posed a threat to the Tudor monarchs who needed to secure the succession. It would be easy to criticise both Katherines for bringing some of the problems on themselves through their own actions, but the reader should not forget that these were teenage girls who fell in love and suffered for it. As we follow their stories we find ourselves immersed in the life of the royal courts which are brought vividly to life by Ms Weir, every aspect is conveyed in rich detail from fashion to food, accommodation to customs, and much more besides.

If the stories of these two young women are not interesting enough in themselves the author uses their imagined access to both primary and secondary sources written within 100 years of the deaths of the princes to weave together a compelling murder mystery. What did happen to the sons of Edward IV? Did they die of natural causes? Were they murdered? Where were their bodies? Were they killed on the orders of Richard III or Henry VII? Or did they survive to pose a threat to the Tudor monarchy? Ms Weir again uses her commanding knowledge of the period to present both sides of an argument which has intrigued people for more than 500 years, and whilst the protagonists in this novel come to their own conclusion history itself still cannot prove one way or another what happened to the unfortunate princes.

If you are fond of novels set in the Tudor period or enjoy a good ‘whodunnit’ then I think you will enjoy A Dangerous Inheritance.

A Dangerous Inheritance can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Alison Weir here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Forgotten Soldiers Of the Second World War

The Second World War was a truly global conflict, yet when talking of the British struggle against Germany we usually think predominantly of English men, but it was really the British Empire not Britain alone which fought the war. Millions of soldiers from Britain’s colonies served during World War 2, and many experts believe that soldiers from India were crucial to the winning of the conflict, yet they did not receive the same pay and conditions as the British soldiers they served beside, or recognition afterwards. There were just under 200,000 men in the British Indian Army at the outbreak of war in 1939 but over 2.5 million by August 1945, and these soldiers were all volunteers – there was no conscription of Indian soldiers because the struggle for Indian independence was at its height and to force men to fight for a government which they did not believe in could have been disastrous. It is true that many Indians signed up simply to provide for their families as there was a great deal of poverty in the country, but whatever their reasons for joining the army, this was the largest all volunteer force in the world.

 

Indian forces in North Africa © IWM (E 3660)

The British Indian Army fought in North and East Africa, Iraq and Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore, Burma, and across Europe. They first impressed British officers with their outstanding discipline during the chaotic retreat at Dunkirk before being sent overseas where they were instrumental in the victories against the Italians and Germans in North Africa. Indian soldiers also fought in Europe after D Day, but the vast majority of them served closer to home in the Far East where they fought the Japanese in Malaya and Burma (when the Japanese first attacked two thirds of the forces in the Far East were Indian not English). Thousands of Indian soldiers loyal to the British were taken prisoner when Singapore fell, and many of them were used as target practice or executed by Japanese soldiers. Other Indians, though, saw their captivity as a way to push their own agenda, and although they had been taken prisoner by the Japanese they formed the Indian National Army (INA) to work with their captors against the British in order to win Indian independence. Churchill was afraid that this attitude might spread amongst other Indian soldiers and so he promised independence to India after the war if the country stayed loyal until Germany and Japan had been defeated. Although the INA grew rapidly in the Japanese sphere of influence, most Indian soldiers who had signed up to defend the Empire refused to break their oath and for every one Indian who fought for the Japanese sixty-two remained loyal to the British. To encourage this the British began to promote more Indians as officers whilst the troops were being trained for jungle warfare. These loyal troops were eventually instrumental in defeating the INA, preventing a Japanese invasion of northern India and pushing the enemy back through the jungles of Burma.

British Indian Army in India © IWM (IND 3498)

The British Indian Army took heavy casualties during the war with 87,000 killed, 34,354 wounded, and 67,340 taken prisoner. The Indian soldiers showed great courage and bravery, in all 4,000 decorations were made including at least 28 Indians being awarded the Victoria Cross (numbers vary depending on which source you read), relative to their numbers this was more than in any other regiment during the war.

Indian Air Force in Burma © IWM (IND 3111)

After the war ended India gained her Independence and many Indians were embarrassed by the fact that so many of their countrymen had fought for the British so these loyal soldiers were forgotten, ignored, or persecuted. Members of the INA who had broken their oaths and fought against the British were given pensions by the Indian government, yet those who fought for the British were not. These are the ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ – forgotten both by the British for whom they fought and their own countrymen who, these loyal soldiers believed, had attained their independence in part due to the contribution which they had made to the war effort.

THE BRITISH INDIAN ARMY IN THE MIDDLE EAST, 1940-1943 (E 8771) Troops of one of the Indian mule pack companies watering their mules at drinking thoughs in a camp in Lebanon, 24 February 1942. Exact location unknown. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205409521

It was not until 2002 that Memorial Gates were erected on London’s Hyde Park Corner in memory of the men and women of the British colonies, including Indians, who volunteered to fight in both world wars. Under the dome of the small pavilion are the names of all those who received the Victoria Cross.

Memorial Gates, Hyde Park

The story of Indian during the Second World War is fascinating and complex. It is not possible to do it full justice in a short article such as this, but there is a compelling Timewatch programme which tells it in much more detail. You can find it (five parts) on Youtube, a fitting memorial to the Forgotten Indian Soldiers of the Second World War.

TIMEWATCH VIDEO    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TU1dQK-j-4   Timewatch part 1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Imn5lFHdTE Timewatch part 2

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGVCMn99JJI&t=11s Timewatch part 3

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCYHvVFw1J0 Timewatch part 4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_VjnK–TGU Timewatch part 5

Indian Forces in France © IWM (F 3923)

‘To the Bright Edge of the World’ by Eowyn Ivey

Winter 1885. Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester accepts the mission of a lifetime, to navigate Alaska’s Wolverine River. It is a journey that promises to open up a land shrouded in mystery, but there’s no telling what awaits Allen and his small band of men.

Allen leaves behind his young wife, Sophie, newly pregnant with the child he had never expected to have. Sophie would have loved nothing more than to carve a path through the wilderness alongside Allen – what she does not anticipate is that their year apart will demand every ounce of courage of her that it does of her husband.

To The Bright Edge of The World was inspired by the real-life journey of Lieutenant Henry Allen into Alaska in 1885 and tells the story of an expedition up the Wolverine River in search of passage through the mountains. It is an absorbing tale of a western explorers meeting with the First Nations people who had lived on the North American continent from time immemorial, a people steeped in myth and superstition at a point where their way of life was coming into conflict with one which was so very different to their own; a conflict in which we see that there will only be one final ‘victor’.

In her novel Ms Ivey has brought the stunning Alaskan landscape to life and peopled it with characters who are not only searching for a route across the land but are also searching for the truth within themselves. One can almost feel the cold and hunger which the early explorers of the wilderness endured, the nervousness with which they came into contact with the native peoples, the struggle for understanding when there was not always a common language between them, the fear that they might not make it back alive.

As the fictitious Allen Forrester makes his way through the northern forests his wife, Sophie, has remained behind. She is strong-willed, determined, a lover of nature; more than anything else she would have liked to travel part of the way with Allen but cannot because she is pregnant. As her husband encounters a changing world in which superstition and the natural world order are being slowly but surely changed by encroaching westernisation Sophie finds herself at an equally interesting point in the way women see and are seen. She finds it difficult to settle into what is expected of an officer’s wife on an army base and feels constrained by societies expectations of what she should and should not be allowed to do. Whilst her husband faces the trials and tribulations of the north Sophie has her own challenges which leave her, for a time, wondering where her life will take her. But Sophie also has an interest in photography which was just becoming popular, and I very much enjoyed reading about the development of this art form in the 1880’s, how Sophie experimented and persevered to try to achieve a particular type of photograph which is still not easy to achieve today.

I also enjoy the way that the author has used old black and white photographs of some of the key places in her story to bring the narrative alive and make it all the more believable to the reader. The photographs along with the colourful descriptions of people, time and place serve to immerse the reader in a world which is long gone yet which was so full of wonder, excitement and mystery at the end of the nineteenth century. I found myself wishing I could have travelled with Allen on his journey or gone with Sophie on her no less important journey into the art of photography, and into the heart of what makes us who we are.

To the Bright Edge Of The World can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Eowyn Ivey here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Spy in the sky – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit in the Second World War

Today we have satellites travelling in orbit around the earth which can take incredibly detailed photographs of what is happening on the ground below, an invaluable aid to intelligence agencies everywhere. Surprisingly, Britain also had its own sophisticated ‘spy in the sky’ during the Second World War. Blue painted Spitfires armed with cameras instead of guns took tens of millions of aerial photos over enemy territory, ten million of which survive today and are stored in archives in Edinburgh.

Spitfire mk11
Danesfield House

The centre for this reconnaissance was RAF Medmenham based at Danesfield House 60 miles west of London, a Base rivalling the code-breaking Bletchley Park in its secrecy; and it was here that one of the most important stories of the war unfolded. With the clever use of a simple stereoscope the workers at Medmenham were able to scrutinise the spy photographs and bring every building and fold in the land to life in 3D. This enabled them to measure the height and width of objects and so gave a more accurate picture of their targets. Operatives at the Base assessed railways, factories, shipyards, and buildings; and they were always on the lookout for something ‘unidentified’, searching for anything unusual which might have a bearing on the course of the war.

The Photo Interpreters (PI’s) at Danesfield House were tasked with providing up to date and incredibly accurate information about the movements of the German war machine – during the war 80% of Britain’s intelligence came from photo reconnaissance and interpretation. The most important example of the work done at RAF Medmenham was Operation Crossbow which identified and hunted down something which had never been seem before – Hitler’s mysterious ‘V-weapons’, the new pilotless drones and rockets which could potentially have led to Germany finally winning the war.

Air reconnaissance really ‘took off’ in 1940 when the RAF created a special wing – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, and the secret of its success was its adapted Spitfires. These planes were painted a pale blue to be camouflaged against the sky at 30,000 feet, which was the perfect height for taking the photographs. The guns on the reconnaissance Spitfires were replaced by cameras but pilots didn’t worry about this as they had a cruising speed of 365 miles an hour and knew that no German plane would be able to catch them for most of the war, not until the Germans produced their jets in 1944 were the Spitfires in any real danger of pursuit. The planes from RAF Medmenham, flown by both British and American pilots, were able to cover great distances which allowed them to reach Berlin, they even photographed the entire Ruhr in a single mission. These pilots were incredibly skilled in flying alone, navigating to their target where they had to fly a straight and level course to prevent distortion of the photographs which were taken of targets out of sight directly beneath them. To achieve this they would roll the plane on their initial pass above the target to identify the key features, and then come in for a second pass when they took the pictures. Each plane had five very large cameras which were able to identify and photograph something as small as a man on a bicycle from 30,000 feet. To ensure the best quality images the cameras had to be heated at altitude whilst the pilots in their cockpits were left to endure the freezing cold for 5 hours at a time. Once the planes arrived back at base the PI’s took over.

The analysis of the aerial spy photos was three-phased. Stage 1 – as soon as the plane landed the films were developed and the negatives viewed. If something needed acting on immediately (say within about 24 hours) for example shelling or bombing a bridge where German troops were crossing, these would be given priority. Stage 2 – the photos were then developed; it seems almost impossible to believe, but 36 million prints were made during the war. The priority pictures were dealt with and the rest sent to Medmenham where the PI’s identified any targets which would need to be dealt with during the next week. Stage 3 – items which were more long term, factories or dams for example, were dealt with last.

Scrutinising and interpreting the photographs was not an easy task and PI’s were often recruited from professions where people were used to working precisely and in detail – many mathematicians, geologists and archaeologists were recruited from Oxford and Cambridge universities. As well as these skills a PI needed to think laterally and creatively and so staff were recruited from Hollywood with their artists eye for detail, some actors were also employed at Danesfield House, including Dirk Bogart. Around 150 women worked with the men as PI’s, helping to both identify targets and assess the damage inflicted in bombing raids to see if they had been successful or if the RAF needed to go back again.

Other countries had their own ‘spy planes’, but what made Medmenham unique was the way that they processed the information by taking ordinary 2D photos which had been shot in an overlapping sequence and looking at them through a stereoscope to create a 3D image. The pictures overlapped each other by 60% to give a very detailed image which the PI’s became experts at interpreting. It was this expertise which identified something strange in May 1942. A reconnaissance Spitfire pilot had seen something unusual at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast where he photographed a new airfield which had three large concrete and earth circles beside it. A great deal of attention was paid to the photographs, but no one could identify what the circles were, and after concluding that they might possible have something to do with sewage the pictures were shelved.

The story of Medmenham and Peenemunde might have ended there if it had not been for a curious incident in March 1943 when two German generals who had been captured in North Africa were bugged talking at Trent Park Military Prison. They were discussing a new secret weapon, a rocket which would soon be targeting England and would probably change the course of the war. On 23rd June 1943 the RAF spy planes were sent out to scour Germany and northern France to see if they could find any evidence of these weapons. Hundreds of photos were analysed by the PI’s who were told to look for tubes which could fire missiles at Britain from France – a daunting job when no one at that time had any idea what a missile site might look like. One keen-eyed PI spotted a tube on its side in one of the strange circles at Peenemunde, and with this knowledge they went back over previous photos and found a picture of one of the rockets in an upright position; thanks to their 3D technology they were able to work out the height of the object from its shadow – an impressive 14m.

Peenemunde

Churchill’s chief scientific advisor Lord Cherwell refused to believe that Hitler had the technology to build such weapons so Medmenham needed to get more detailed information than could be seen from their simple 3D stereoscopes, what the needed was a Wild photogrammetric survey machine used for land surveys to get the detail needed to convince Cherwell. The problem was that the Wild machines were only available from Switzerland (a neutral country). Squadron Leader Ramsey Matthews arranged for a Swedish intermediary to buy two Wild A6 machines which were then shipped through Germany to Sweden before being flown to England. It was now possible to use the machines to analyse photos and get a greater understanding of Peenemunde, measuring the rockets and test sites with incredible accuracy so that scale models could be built, models which were convincing enough to persuade Cherwell that Hitler did indeed have a secret weapon.

Wild A6

Spy planes were sent out again and brought back more alarming photos from St Pol in northern France where they had found huge concrete bunkers and had no idea what they were for. Photos from 30,000ft didn’t help so pilots were sent in at just 30m high to get detailed close-up images; PI’s correctly identified these massive concrete structures as rocket launch sites. If Hitler was to be thwarted something needed to be done, and fast.

Aftermath of the Peenemunde raid

On 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy Peenemunde. The raid did very severe damage putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly some of Germany’s most important rocket scientists were killed in the raid. The missile sites in northern France were then bombed as well even though the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof. The only bomb that could touch them was the 12,000lb Tall Boy and the even bigger Grand Slam bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. The bombs created a mini-earthquake which caused the huge domes to shift on their foundations (although not destroy them) effectively putting the sites out of action.

La Coupole at Helfaut-Wizernes

After the air-raids Hitler moved his V-weapons programme deep into Germany and Poland so that it could not be hit by the Allies again, so Medmenham turned its focus to finding launch sites in northern France – the ramps for the VI’s hidden in woodland were difficult to spot but, with perseverance, 96 sites were eventually identified by the PI’s, and on 1st December 1943 a V1 rocket was identified on a ramp for the first time. This was one more piece to the puzzle and the Photo Interpreters looked back at the 96 sites in northern France and were able to correctly identify them as V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth, and London. More importantly, VI’s fired from these sites would also be able to reach the proposed beachheads for the Allied invasion of Europe, for D Day to be successful the launch-sites would have to be wiped out before any invasion force set out – Operation Crossbow was planned to bomb the V1 sites, beginning on 23rd December 1943.

V-1 ready for launch

From early 1944 Medmenham was given a second focus – to help invasion planning by monitoring German activity in northern Europe, and every platoon commander on D Day had maps of minefields and defences in the area he was attacking, all supplied by RAF Medmenham. When the first V1’s began to land on London just days after D Day in June 1944 the PI’s again put all of their energies into looking for the launch-sites which had been moved from the woodlands and were now even more cleverly concealed in factories and amongst buildings. As the Allied invasion forces advanced they overran the V1 emplacements, and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944. One day later the first V2 travelled from mainland Europe at supersonic speed, coming out of nowhere with no warning to crash into Chiswick in London with devastating consequences. There was no defence against the new threat as V2 launch sites were mobile and so difficult to spot in time. Thankfully the Allied forces had already advanced to a point where the launch sites were soon pushed back out of range of England.

In a few short months Hitler’s V-weapons killed about 9,000 people in England, who knows how many more would have died and how much longer the war would have gone on if not for the work of the air reconnaissance at RAF Medmenham. And Operation Crossbow.

ROYAL AIR FORCE: CENTRAL INTERPRETATION UNIT © IWM (CH 16105)/ ALLIED CENTRAL INTERPRETATION UNIT, 1941-1945. (CH 16105) Flight Lieutenant H H Williams demonstrates the Wild A5 ‘Stereo-autograph’ plotting machine to press visitors at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. A vital piece of photogrammetric equipment, the Wild A5 produced accurate maps from stereoscopic pairs of photographs, and was in constant use at the CIU and ACIU throughout the war. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196665

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

The Fire Court is an engaging ‘who dunnit’ set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. The fire which ravaged London in 1666 is well known, as are some of the buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren to help with the rebuilding; yet how many of us have ever taken the time to think about the aftermath of the disaster? How was it decided who owned which patches of rubble? Who would be responsible for re-building? And, above all, where would the money come from to re-build? I must admit that I have given little thought to that in the past and am grateful to Mr Taylor for introducing me to the Fire Court.

Set up by the king to untangle the complicated ownership/leases/sub-leases etc. the Fire Court was made up of a number of judges who gave their time for free to find the most equitable way to get the re-building underway as quickly as possible. Surprisingly for the 17th century there was very little corruption and the work went ahead swiftly. It is against this backdrop that the story of The Fire Court takes place.

The author has conducted an unprecedented amount of research into the Fire Court itself and 17th century London in general which immerses the reader in a city full of the rubble and ash of the fire, the dirt and smells of the Restoration, the filthy streets, the bridges and the river, the clothing and food which were a part of everyday life. He also shines light on the position of women in a society which still saw them as chattels yet where some women were already attempting to achieve a more independent role. In this realistic world we are introduced to James Marwood as he becomes embroiled in a legal battle for ownership of and therefore permission to re-build the Dragon Yard, a battle which leads to murder and through which we follow Marwood and Cat Lovett on a search for truth and their own survival. This is a well-crafted murder-mystery novel with twists and turns which keep the reader guessing to the very end, and well worth a read on so many levels.

(I was given this novel as a gift and was part-way through before realising that it is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s novel The Ashes of London but it is a novel which stands well on its own.)

The Fire Court can be found on Amazon

You can find out ore about Andrew Taylor here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here