Category Archives: Heronfield

Spying in Europe – The work of the SOE


1941 found Britain standing alone against Hitler’s Germany. Britain had had no troops in Europe since Dunkirk, and there was no prospect of troops being able to land in the foreseeable future. Churchill was frustrated by this and set up the Special Operations Executive to train volunteers who were willing to parachute into occupied territories, where they would help the local population to fight the Nazis. More than 400 SOE operatives served in France where they played a decisive role in the preparations for, and days following, the D Day Landings. More than 25% of SOE agents who parachuted into France never returned home.

So how did someone become a secret agent during the Second World War? The initial choice was not of soldiers with military expertise, that training would come later. The key factor was whether someone had any special qualities which would be useful in occupied territory. Maybe they were fluent in a foreign language? Maybe they had a background living in France or one of the other occupied countries? Whatever first attracted the SOE recruiters, all volunteers initially underwent an interview in a foreign language, talking about nothing more sinister than their background. The possibility that they might be asked to work as a secret agent was never mentioned, and it can be assumed that all interviewees left the strange meeting in a London hotel room feeling very confused and, no doubt, curious. If the interviewer felt that the candidate had potential then another meeting would be arranged in the same hotel. If successful, working for the SOE was proposed to them, and any willing to serve their country in such a dangerous and secretive role started their basic training.

Training in Scotland
Training in Scotland

Training needed to be long and hard if operatives were to have the best chance of survival. The first stage was military based, with an emphasis on fitness, handling weapons, map reading, unarmed combat, demolition, how to operate in the field and basic radio communications. Not everyone made it through this first stage of training, but those who did headed north to Scotland. SOE’s staff HQ was at Arisaig in Invernessshire, located on a rugged coastline in a remote part of Scotland.  The location was a perfect place to train secret agents – in secret!  Trainees spent between three and five weeks living in local accommodation in and around Arisaig whilst continuing their weapons training, and working on other skills they had already started developing. By the end of the course they would be familiar with a large number of weapons from all countries, meaning that they would be able to make effective use of any guns they managed to ‘liberate’ whilst behind enemy lines. Alongside this they learnt unarmed combat and how to kill silently, as well as beginning to learn rudimentary coding. As sabotage would play a large role in an agent’s work Arisaig was the place where they learnt and developed their skills with explosives – from simple bombs, to planning and blowing up railway lines or arms dumps. The physical training was hard, with both men and women undertaking the same courses over difficult terrain, although everyone recognised its importance. Who knew when they might have to move silently and swiftly through the countryside to conduct a raid, or make an escape across country with the Germans in hot pursuit?


Arisaig House
Arisaig House
Parachute training
Parachute training

Many a recruit failed the physical training. Those who made it through headed south once again, to learn how to jump out of a plane. Training took place at Altricham, with the planes for their five jumps leaving from Ringway (now Manchester Airport). To pass this part of the training the recruits would have to conduct four daylight and one night time jump. Low altitude jumps were the norm as any flight into occupied country would be low in an attempt to avoid German radar.

The next stage of training involved specialization – from demolition to radio operation, industrial sabotage to silent killing. And all the time, more weapons practice, more physical training, more field craft. The training was intense and unremitting. As well as the obvious training recruits underwent tests of which they were totally unaware. Strong drinks were readily available, something which ordinary soldiers undergoing basic training would never experience. The ulterior motive? Could the potential agent drink sensibly and hold his or her drink? Were they likely to talk too much (and too loudly)? Would this be a liability? Any who failed the test would be reassigned elsewhere and never serve behind enemy lines.

The final training took place on Lord Montague’s estate at Beaulieu in the New Forest, where agents studied techniques for passing messages, how to live a secret life in enemy territory, personal security, how to act if they felt they were under surveillance and, of course, how to maintain their cover story. All agents received a new identity with a complete history and family for their ‘previous life’ in occupied territory. This was the most frightening thing for many agents, for it was the little things that could give one away. It was said that one agent looked right first when crossing a road instead of left, momentarily forgetting that the French drive on the other side of the road to the English. This small mistake was said to have been enough for him to give himself away to the enemy.

Beaulieu House
Beaulieu House

Final testing took place at Beaulieu with agents undergoing mock raids, or making contact with trainers posing as resistance members, or losing a tail – the list was endless. But, at last, those who had made it through from the initial strange interview in London to this final testing were given home leave, before preparing to embark on a journey into enemy territory from which many never returned.

The courage of the men and women who served behind enemy lines was remarkable, but people often forget that life for agents was not easy when they were back in England. No one knew their secret work, and this could take its toll on family life. The main character in my novel, ‘Heronfield’, is Tony, a young man who is proud to serve his country by joining the SOE. He knows that it will be difficult but the conflict within his family is far more than he ever dreamed it would be, compared by his father to his older brother who was a fighter pilot, and falling short of what was wanted and expected. As for the girl he loved… Could she love a man who seemed afraid to join an active unit and fight? I wrote Heronfield as a tribute to the brave SOE agents, both men and women, who offered so much for their country, suffered so much, and in many cases, made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mauthausen Concentration Camp

They achieved much having dared all – Operation Chariot

The Second World War saw many acts of bravery, but the raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 remains one of the outstanding acts of heroism during the war. So much so that ‘Operation Chariot’ has been called ‘The Greatest Raid of All Time’, and immortalised in film and book. So, why was the raid necessary? And what happened?


In 1942 Britain was dependent on supplies from across the Atlantic if she was to survive the war, but that lifeline was constantly under attack. Supply convoys were frequently attacked by German submarines and surface raiders, but the biggest threat to shipping was the Tirpitz. No British or American ship could compete with her 15-inch guns and massively armoured structure. The Royal Navy hoped that a fleet could possible sink her, or at least damage her so much that she would be in need of extensive repairs, so relieving some of the pressure on the convoys. If they managed to damage the ship there was only one port in Axis held Europe large enough to accommodate her – St. Nazaire on the Atlantic coast of France. A massive dry dock had been built there before the war to accommodate a passenger ship called the Normandie. The port was now being used by the Germans to bolster their war in the Atlantic.

The British decided that this facility must not be available to the Tirpitz, and so an attack was planned to take it out. It would not be an easy task. Huge 35 foot thick gates, 167 feet wide and 54 feet high, moved on massive rollers to enclose a dock measuring 1,148 feet by 164 feet. This dock played host to small German warships and a fleet of U-boats which sortied out to seek and destroy the Allied supply convoys. To service and supply these was a collection of wharves, bridges and locks, a power station and underground storage for fuel. Minesweepers and searchlights constantly combed the area to prevent any Allied attack. In support of these were around 100 massive guns. To try to take out such an installation would seem impossible.

U boats at St Nazaire
German U-boats entering St Nazaire

Bombing the dry docks was not an option as chances of a successful raid were remote. 80 anti-aircraft guns surrounded the area, and bombing would need to be accurate to do the necessary damage, but such pinpoint targeting was not possible in 1942. Even blanket bombing the area would not work as there could be no guarantee of success, and such a raid was likely to result in many civilian casualties. An attack by the navy was also impossible as the ships would not be able to get close, thanks to the narrow and shallow estuary protected by submarine nets, which also ruled out an underwater attack.

It was therefore decided that a force of commandos would attack the docks at St Nazaire during the last week of March 1942, which would give them a two hour window of full moon and a flood tide, vital for the attack to succeed. The plan was for some of the commandos to travel on motor launches with a shallow draught so that they could move in the waters of the estuary without entering the heavily fortified areas. The lead boat was to be a motor gunboat which could use radar and sonar to help the attack. The final boat was a motor torpedo boat which would lay torpedoes with delayed fuses.

A British Atlantic convol
A British Atlantic convoy

It was a good plan, but the dock was so huge that it was believed that the boats and commandos would not be able to put it out of action alone. That was when it was decided to take a leaf from the history books. England had caused devastation to the Spanish Armada through the use of fire-ships; perhaps something similar could work in St Nazaire? An old ship reaching the end of her life, HMS Campbeltown, was chosen for this role and underwent a facelift which left her looking a little like one of the German Mowe class warships. Unlike a warship, Campbeltown was lightly armoured and gunned, but she did have 24 depth charges which were the key to the plan. The ship was to smash her way through the massive gates to be scuttled in the dock with her explosives set on a timed fuse. When this triggered it would, it was hoped, put the dock out of commission for the rest of the war. Whilst Campbeltown was being scuttled, the commandos were to target the guns, bridges, lock gates and power stations which made St Nazaire such a dangerous asset for the Germans.

The landing force of what was considered by most to be a suicide mission, was made up of 256 officers and men. Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, told Lieutenant Colonel Newman (leader of the attacking force) that he and his men were, in effect, being sacrificed. He told him that ‘I’m confident that you can get in and do the job, but we cannot hold out much hope of you getting out again. Even if you are all lost, the results of the operation will have been worth it. For that reason I want to tell you to tell all the men who have family responsibilities, or who think they should stand down for any reason, that they are free to do so, and nobody will think any worse of them.’ Not one man took up the offer.

The training for the mission was intense, as was security. It would be a disaster if news of the target got out, so rumours were spread about that the force was going to North Africa, or possibly submarine hunting in the mid-Atlantic. No one mentioned France. By the middle of March, everything was ready. The force set sail from Falmouth on 26th March, heading out into the Atlantic ocean. The next day, the ships hoisted the German flag and changed course for St Nazaire.

At 11pm on 28th March the timer for the explosives on the Campbletown was set as the force made its way into the Loire estuary. Careful navigation of the sandbanks and shallows was essential, which slowed the flotilla down, and the force was spotted just before 1.30am. When the German guns opened up the false German colours were run down and the ships sailed into St Nazaire under the white ensign. As the Campbletown sped towards the dock gates she was raked with gunfire, but did not slow down, smashing into the gates at 1.34am, just 4 minutes behind schedule.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Many commandos never made it to shore, but those who did encountered fierce opposition from the defenders. They fought heroically as they planted their charges, all the time aware of the German guns pouring heavy fire onto the British boats which should have been there to extricate them and take them home. Newman was aware that the boats had been forced to withdraw and that he and his men were, effectively, stranded. He managed to gather together around 70 men, most of them wounded, and gave them the news that they would have to make a break across country, to make for Spain if at all possible, a journey of 350 miles. But the enemy were everywhere and, one by one, the raiders were shot or taken prisoner.

Captured members of the commando force

Other commandos, who had been on the flotilla as it withdrew, were taken swiftly north towards England, the ships fighting all the way. The enemy were now out in force, though, and not all of the ships made it home. Soon the fighting on both land and sea was over. In the dry dock 40 German officers went aboard the Campbeltown, gloating that the British had underestimated the size of St Nazaires defences. There were also another 400 Germans in the vicinity when the timer on the explosives in the Campbeltown’s bow reached zero and the ship exploded. The damage was so great that the dock was unusable for the rest of the war. The British had not underestimated the job after all.

No-one knows for sure, but it is thought that the Germans lost 60 officers and 300 men when the Campbeltown exploded. Added to those killed or wounded in the fighting, this was a great blow to the Germans. The British lost 169 killed with about 200 taken prisoner, most of them wounded, only 4 men made it overland to Spain.

Many of those who died in the raid are buried here
Many of those who died in the raid are buried here

Operation Chariot was a great success for the British. No one can calculate how many ships were saved, how much food and ammunition reached Britain which would, perhaps, have ended on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean if the raid had failed, but it was a very significant contribution to the Allied cause. Although the raid was a great blow for the Germans, the defenders recognized the amazing courage of the commandos who had taken part in the attack and mounted an honour guard over the coffins of the dead. This courage was also recognized back at home – 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 74 British decorations awarded, 4 French Croix de Guerres, and 5 Victoria Crosses.

The heavily defended port at St Nazaire features prominently in my Second World War novel, ‘Heronfield’, which also recognizes the courage of those British men and women who served in the SOE behind enemy lines, and the members of the French Resistance who gave up so much to win their freedom from the Nazis. My characters may be fictional, but through them I recognize and pay tribute to the extraordinary courage shown by ordinary men and women in times of war. Ordinary men like these five who received the Victoria Cross for their role in Operation Chariot:

Citations for the five Victoria Crosses awarded to men who took part in the raid

Robert_Edward_Dudley_RyderCaptain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, RN. For great gallantry in the attack on St. Nazaire. He commanded a force of small unprotected ships in an attack on a heavily defended port and led HMS Campbeltown in under intense fire from short range weapons at point blank range. Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the beaching of Campbeltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campbeltown and dealing with strong points and close range weapons while exposed to heavy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any of the Commando Troops who were still ashore. That his motor boat, now full of dead and wounded, should have survived and should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close range fire was almost a miracle.

Stephen Halden BeattieLieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, RN, HMS Campbeltown. For great gallantry and determination in the attack on St. Nazaire in command of HMS Campbeltown. Under intense fire directed at the bridge from point blank range of about 100 yards, and in the face of the blinding glare of many searchlights, he steamed her into the lock gates and beached and scuttled her in the correct position. This Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant-Commander Beattie in recognition not only of his own valour but also of that of the unnamed officers and men of a very gallant ship’s company, many of whom have not returned.


William Alfred SavageAble Seaman William Alfred Savage, RN. For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty as gun-layer of the pom-pom in a motor gun-boat in the St. Nazaire raid. Completely exposed, and under heavy fire he engaged positions ashore with cool and steady accuracy. On the way out of the harbour he kept up the same vigorous and accurate fire against the attacking ships, until he was killed at his gun. This Victoria Cross is awarded in recognition not only of the gallantry and devotion to duty of Able Seaman Savage, but also of the valour shown by many others, unnamed, in Motor Launches, Motor Gun Boats and Motor Torpedo Boats, who gallantly carried out their duty in entirely exposed positions against enemy fire at very close range.

Thomas Frank DurrantSergeant Thomas Frank Durrant, RE Sergeant Durrant, attached to No.1 Commando, was in the Royal Engineers. On 27th March 1942 at St Nazaire he was in charge of a Lewis gun on HM Motor Launch 306 which came under heavy fire during the raid, and although he had no protection and was wounded in several places he continued to fire until the launch was boarded and the survivors were taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day.  (It is believed that Durrant was wounded at least 25 times. He was captured and taken to  a German military hospital where he died of his wounds. A week later, the commander of the German destroyer which had captured Durrant met Newman in a prisoner of war camp and suggested that the Colonel might wish to recommend Durrant for a high award. Durrant’s Victoria Cross  is unique as it is the only award given to a soldier taking part in a naval action, and it was awarded on the recommendation of the enemy commander).

Augustus Charles NewmanLieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman The Essex Regiment was attached to No.2 Commando. During the St Nazaire raid on 27th March 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Newman was in charge of the military forces and was one of the first ashore, leading his men and directing operations without regard for his own safety. The troops fought well under his command and held superior numbers of the enemy at bay until the demolition parties had done their jobs. Newman then attempted to fight through into open country and did not surrender until all the ammunition was exhausted when he was then taken prisoner.


Other awards were granted for the St. Nazaire Raid: 4 DSO; 17 DSC; 11 MC; 4 CGM; 5 DCM; 24 DSM and 15 MM. Another 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 22 of them posthumously.

For King and Country – VAD nursing auxiliaries

Have you heard of the VAD’s? You may have read about them or seen them in a movie. But who exactly were they, and what did they do?

The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was a voluntary organisation which provided field nursing services which were of vital importance during the two World Wars as well as during other conflicts. The VAD was founded in 1909 when the War Office put forward a scheme which allowed the British Red Cross to provide supplementary aid to the Territorial Forces Medical Service in the event of war. In 1914 The Red Cross was joined with the Order of Saint John (the St John’s Ambulance) to form the Joint War Committee (JWC). The idea was to make sure that they worked together efficiently in helping the military hospitals; it was thought safer for the St John’s volunteers to work under the protection of the internationally recognised Red Cross symbol. There were over 2,500 Volunteers in Britain at the outbreak of WW1, by the end of 1914 there were 74,000, two thirds of whom were women and girls who also wanted to do their bit during the conflict.

WW1 recruiting poster for the VAD's
WW1 recruiting poster for the VAD’s

The British Red Cross were reluctant to send civilian women to work overseas as most of the Volunteers were from the middle and upper classes and would have found it difficult to cope with the unaccustomed discipline and hardships. The Military authorities also refused to accept the VAD’s at the front line. It was not until three VAD’s, led by Katherine Furse, went to France in October 1914 as canteen workers that things began to change. The women were unexpectedly caught in a battle where they helped out in the emergency hospital. Those in authority on the front line saw how well the women acquitted themselves and, as there was a growing shortage of trained nurses, this opened the door for the VAD’s to serve overseas – as long as they were over 23 and had more than 3 months hospital experience.

Coming from privileged backgrounds and with no real medical training the VAD’s were often critical of the nursing profession on the one hand and criticised for their own lack of experience and discipline on the other. It made for an uneasy relationship with the military and the doctors to begin with, but relations improved as the Volunteers gained more experience.

Between 1914 1nd 1918 over 38,000 VAD’s served as cooks and ambulance drivers and worked in hospitals in all theatres of war from the Eastern Front and Middle East through Gallipoli and on the Western Front. They also served in convalescent hospitals back in the UK. From being resented at the outbreak of war the VAD’s came to be highly respected and many were decorated for distinguished service.

Between the two World Wars the VAD were reorganised and Volunteers were trained to work as nurses, radiographers, pharmacists, clerks and laboratory assistants. When the Second World War broke out the British Red Cross and Order of St. John joined together again to form the Joint War Organisation (JWO). There were also women who had been living abroad with their husbands, notably in the Far East, when war was declared, and they formed local VAD groups. A number of these became prisoners of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. During WW2 the VAD’s consisted of some 14,155 Red Cross members, 1,695 from the Order of St John’s cross and 21 from the St Andrew’s Ambulance Association.

Kath Lewis who served as a VAD in WW2
Kath Lewis who served as a VAD in WW2

The VAD’s were opposed to the Governments proposal in 1942 that they should join with the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and they were supported in their campaign to remain a separate organisation by The Times newspaper. There was a commission of enquiry and The War Office eventually ruled that they should retain their identity and be given new responsibilities.

Being a member of the VAD was just one of many roles that women took on during the two great wars of last century, proving that they had just as much to offer as their male counterparts and spearheading the way for future equality for women.

Please click here to see an example of what life was like for one VAD during World War 2. Kath Lewis served as a VAD at RAF Halton. You can also find out about VAD’s by reading about my fictional heroine, Sarah, in Heronfield.

Were you or one of your relatives a VAD? Do you have a story to tell? If so please leave a comment and tell us all about it. Thank you!
Please see here for further information on the VAD’s

Jennie Upton has commented on this post and sent a picture of her mother who served as a VAD in Kenya.
Jennie Upton has commented on this post and sent a picture of her mother who served as a VAD in Kenya.
Isobel Mary Cumming 1941
Thank you to Alison Bilynskyj for this photograph of her mother, Isobel Mary Cumming, who was a VAD. The photo was taken in 1941. I’m afraid I don’t know where she served.

Canada and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. This last week has seen the world remembering the horror of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The use of these bombs issued in a new phase in world history, the nuclear age. As such the events of August 1945 are something which we have all heard about. But history is about more than ‘the big picture’. Many people, myself included, are fascinated by the way these major historical events affected the lives of ordinary people, moving from the impersonal to the personal.

Until a few months ago I was unaware of the fact that many Canadians suffered radiation poisoning caused by their involvement in the building of the atomic bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The sad fact is that these Canadians themselves were also unaware of what had happened to them during the Second World War, and the part they had played in such a devastating episode in world history.

The nuclear cloud above Hiroshima

The story was only recently told to me by Julie Salverson, professor of drama and cultural studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada. For more than ten years Julie has investigated the story of the atomic bomb and Déline, a tiny community on the western shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Towards the end of the war many of the men from Déline were employed in the transportation of goods. What they did not know was what was in the sacks they were transporting across the lake from the mines at nearby Port Radium to Port Hope in Ontario. The sacks contained uranium. Of course, the workers were never told that the ore they carried on their backs was to be used in the experiments at the Manhattan Project, and in the building of the bombs which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over the years that followed there were many unexplained illnesses in the community, and far more than the average incidence of deaths from cancer.

When the truth about their connection with the events of August 1945 finally came out, the people of Déline were devastated. They could now understand the illness and suffering which had plagued their community. In a global sense, they could also identify more fully with the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, what was the response of this small community of Canadians? Anger at the people who had used them and caused them suffering? A focus on the devastating effects on their own lives? No, they immediately sent a delegation to Japan to make their own personal apologies to those who had survived the bombs.

Atomic cloud over Nagasaki
Atomic cloud over Nagasaki

Julie Salverson first heard this story in 2001. She has since followed the trail from Canada to Japan; a journey which has touched her deeply, and is recorded in her book ‘Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir’. During her research Julie visited Déline, New Mexico, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, following the stories of people thousands of miles apart yet linked by such terrible events. Personal stories of pain and suffering, from both Canada and Japan, have saddened her. Yet she has also been encouraged by the strength and fortitude of the people on both sides, and their capacity to forgive.

Like Julie, I am interested in the stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Unlike Julie, I choose to tell these stories through fiction, as in my Second World War novel, ‘Heronfield’. In ‘Heronfield’ the bombing of Coventry is seen through the eyes of the civilians; the story of the French Resistance told from the perspective of one small family; the secret life of a spy seen from the perspective of his family and loved ones, as well as his own. ‘Heronfield’ follows the war in Europe from Dunkirk to VE Day – the dates, the bombing, the battles all historically accurate; but what brings it to life is the people. Ordinary people like you and me, people who were never famous but whose stories tell us so much about life in this fascinating period of history. Ordinary people like those who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Déline.


Remembering ‘The Few’

Battle of Britain

I often wonder how it would have felt, as a civilian in southern England, to live through the summer of 1940. After the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France and the heroic evacuation from Dunkirk everyone was waiting for the Germans to cross the English Channel. Waiting for Hitler to add Great Britain to his list of conquests. We are lucky to be able to look back at history and see the events of that summer from both sides of the conflict. How much easier it would have been for people then if they had known what we know now.

Hitler’s plan to invade the United Kingdom, code-named Operation Sealion, depended on getting his forces safely across the English Channel. The key would be to make sure that the Royal Navy could not interfere with the invading army; and that would mean having complete control of the skies. To achieve this, the Luftwaffe needed to defeat the Royal Air Force.

As Commander-in Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s main worry in the summer of 1940 was lack of pilots. At the beginning August 1940, when the battle was entering its fiercest phase, there were 1,434 allied pilots available. By the end of the month 840 of these pilots had been lost, an average of 120 a week. The RAF’s training units could not keep up, and only managed to provide 260 new pilots during that month. As the battle progressed new pilots were sent up too soon, and their inexperience often cost them their lives. In opposition, the Germans were turning out more pilots than could be absorbed by the front-line forces during the same period. It was lucky for Britain that, during the early days of the battle, Goring considered the fighter arm as defensive and of secondary importance to the bomber squadrons, giving Dowding time to build up his forces. It also worked to Britain’s advantage that Goring was known for dismissing as unimportant anything he did not understand. This led to him calling off the attacks on radar stations, which he said were not necessary for success. A decision he was later to regret.

In July 1940, Goring planned to tempt the RAF out for a full-scale battle and destroy it in just a few days, leaving the way open for the invading troops. To do this he sent up the Luftwaffe to seize control of the Straits of Dover on 10th July. However, the RAF pilots proved far more tenacious than Goring had anticipated, and the battle raged on. By the end of July the RAF had lost 150 planes. The Luftwaffe losses ran at 268. Goring knew that he could not keep up these losses for ever so, in August, the Luftwaffe began to attack Fighter Command’s airfields, operations rooms and radar stations. If the RAF could be destroyed on the ground the battle would be won.

Battle of Britain working on plane

Dark days for the people of Britain, who felt that they were standing on the brink. Yet victory was theirs, and when the battle was over a new chapter in the war began. For many those facts are enough. But for me the Battle of Britain is not just about numbers. It is about the men who climbed into their planes, time after time, day after day. Battling exhaustion, injury and fear just as much as they battled the enemy planes. How can we imagine what it was like for them? The answer is – we can’t. But we can get some idea of what these men lived through from their memoires.

Battle of Britain pilots

In my novel, ‘Heronfield’,  David Kemshall is a fighter pilot. For me it was incredibly important to make the scenes of battle, his emotions, and his relationships as real as possible. For this I drew on the book ‘Smoke Trails in the Sky’ in which Anthony Bartley recounts his remarkable experiences as a fighter pilot in World War 2.  Anthony Bartley was one of ‘the few’ who Winston Churchill referred to in his famous speech. A select band of whom the majority (82%) were British; but what is often forgotten is that pilots from thirteen other nations fought by their side. In the summer of 2015 let us remember those who, 75 years ago, fought for the freedom of Great Britain.

Nationality Pilots Men killed % of pilots killed
Great Britain 2543 418  16%
Poland 147 30   20%
New Zealand 101 14   14%
Canadian 94 20   21%
Czechoslovakia 87 8   9%
Belgium 29 6   20%
South Africa 22 9   40%
Australia 22 9   40%
Free French 14 0 0%
Irish 10 0 0%
United States 7 1   14%
Southern Rhodesia 2 0 0%
Jamaica 1 0 0%
Palestine 1 0 0%
Total 3080 515 17%


Remembance Sunday Parade and Ceremony held at Number one hangar (Museum) Royal Air Force Cosford with Group Captain James the Senior Officer Present.
Remembrance Sunday Parade and Ceremony held at Number one hangar (Museum) Royal Air Force Cosford


Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

Sir Winston Churchill


With thanks to the RAF museum for the use of the photographs


The Historical Novel Society reviews Heronfield

'Heronfield' a novel by Dorinda Balchin


The Historical Novel Society has just written a review of Heronfield. You cannot believe how pleased I am to have such a positive recommendation from such a prestigious society.

If you haven’t yet read Heronfield, then I hope that this review may encourage you to do so.

So what did the review say? Well, here it is…


The Kemshall family home, Heronfield, has been turned into a convalescent hospital during World War II. Tony’s brother, David, a hero to all in his family, is a Spitfire pilot and decorated as one of the men involved in the Battle of Britain. Tony, a survivor of Dunkirk, finds himself facing several battles: fighting a father who believes him a coward, fighting for the love of the woman of his dreams and fighting to keep the biggest secret from them all because Tony is a British spy, working in occupied France.

Heronfield is a hefty tome; a large paperback over 400 pages long, an indication of the amount of story here. The course of six years is spanned, from the beaches at Dunkirk to the liberation of the concentration camps. Many of the chapters have beginnings that are akin to the Pathé News segments, telling what is happening in other areas of the world before returning to the main action in either Heronfield or St Nazaire – a brilliant way of giving the reader all the information required.

The characters are incredibly realistic; it is difficult to set Heronfield down. It would not be possible to write a story about the bravery of the soldiers or the Resistance without making sure that the reader is aware of just why they were so brave, and this is put across tactfully, but still gives the reader an idea of the horrors faced by these people.

An amazing read.

Brand new Heronfield!

Heronfield has just undergone a professional proof-read and re-edit. There have been no changes to the storyline, but some sections  have been tightened up and a few minor grammatical errors corrected. My thanks to Maxine Linnell for an amazing piece of work. Living on different continents has not prevented us working well together; Maxine has a great understanding of my style and what I wanted – and has helped me to provide you with a great read.

If you have already purchased a Kindle version then you can download the new versions for free.

Print copies can be purchased from Lulu for just £12.99.

If you have a Kindle then take a look a Amazon where you can get a copy for just £2.99.

If you have any other type of ebook then buy your copy of Heronfield from Smashwords for £2.99.

Heronfield is a saga set in Europe during WWII following the interwoven lives of those who meet through Heronfield, a convalescent hospital. Life in the skies during the Battle of Britain, with the French Resistance, on the Home Front, in the push from D Day to final victory in Europe. Loyalty and love, anger and hatred, loss and betrayal – the characters of Heronfield bring the history of WWII to life.

At almost 295,000 words Heronfield is great value for money.

Heronfield has made the finals!


Book Cover Competition Finalist!
Book Cover Competition Finalist!


Heronfield has made the finals for the Authors Database book cover design competition of 2013

Thank you everyone who voted for the cover – Lorna Gray (the artist) and I really do appreciate your support!

There is no voting in the final round. Authorsdb says ‘The final round will be solely judged by our live judges on technical design elements, relation to subject matter and content, composition and preferance, using a proven point system.’ So this is where the cover has to ‘stand alone’ on it’s merits – and with such a good design from Lorna I’m sure we’re in with a chance!

Have you voted yet?

Heronfield is creeping ahead in the voting of the semi-finals in the Authors Database Book Cover Design competition for 2013.

Have you taken a look yet? There are some great designs there.

Please do look at the War and Military category and cast your vote. Hopefully it will be for Heronfield!

Heronfield - AUTHORSdB Book Cover Contest semi-finalist
Heronfield – AUTHORSdB Book Cover Contest semi-finalist