During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.
The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.
Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.
As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.
Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.
Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.
While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.
The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.
It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’
But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.
Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.
As a complete change from my usual historical writing I have been asked to write a short story for ‘Little Radio’. This radio station for children is run by TV presenter and actor Chris Jarvis (people in the UK will know him from the BBC TV children’s channel CBeebies, or may have seen him in pantomime). ‘Little Radio’ is a great resource which you can listen to 24 hours a day via the app or online.
If you have some little ones at home please do listen in at 6.30pm or 8.30pm on Wednesday 12th August when Chris will be reading my story, ‘The Lost Egg’.
On July 3rd 1940 the British Fleet fired on the French Fleet which was at anchor in the North African port of Mers el Kebir, near Oran in Algeria. The attack lasted for only 10 minutes but in that time hundreds of French sailors were killed and their ships crippled. Yet only days before France and Britain had been Allies fighting against Hitler’s Germany, so what went wrong?
The German Blitzkrieg was unexpected and totally devastating in its speed and France fell to the Germans which left the British in a difficult position. Many of the ships in the French Fleet were still at sea or in port and Churchill realised that it was vital to keep these resources out of enemy hands by any means possible.
Many French ships were already in British ports but there was also a large squadron of battleships in the port of Mers el Kebir. The Admiralty were worried that if these ships were to join with the Italian navy in the Mediterranean it would give the Axis powers naval superiority there and possibly make Britain’s position in North Africa untenable. On 23rd June 1940 an armistice was signed between France and Germany, and when the details were announced they confirmed the worst fears of the Admiralty. The agreement said that ‘The French war fleet is to collect in ports…under German and/or Italian control to demobilize.’ The declaration went on to say that ‘The German Government solemnly declares to the French Government that it does not intend to use the French War Fleet which is in harbours under German control for the purposes of the war.’
However, the British government did not trust Hitler as he had broken many promises before, which left Churchill afraid that the French Fleet might be used to help an invasion of Britain. He had to make a decision about what to do next and so announced that ‘At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another we must make sure that the navy of France does not fall into the wrong hands.’
Churchill ordered the immediate setting up of Operation Grasp whose aim was to simultaneously seize
all French ships in the UK ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth
all French ships in the port of Alexandria in Egypt
At the same time Operation Catapult under Rear Admiral Somerville was to give an ultimatum to the ships in Mers el Kebir. Somerville had command of a force consisting of Ark Royal, Hood, Valiant, Resolution, 2 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. At Gibraltar Somerville met with Admiral North who was Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, and Captain Holland who spoke fluent French. The three officers had been ordered to present French Admiral Gensoul with 3 options
Join the Royal Navy to fight the Germans
Sail to a British Port where the ships would be taken over and the crews repatriated
Sail to an island in the French Caribbean, disarm, and stay there for the remainder of the war
Churchill had ordered that if Gensoul refused to make a decision he would be told to scuttle his ships. If he refused to do that the last resort would be for the British to fire on the French Fleet and sink it.
Somerville and North both felt that these orders went against what was honourable as the French had so recently been an ally; the Prime Minister understood this but explained his decision by saying that ‘you are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with.’ But, despite that, he was still convinced that this confrontation with Admiral Gensoul was the only way forward.
On the morning of 3rd July the British Fleet arrived off Mers el Kebir and Holland was ferried in by the destroyer HMS Foxhound to conduct negotiations. Gensoul initially refused to allow Holland on board his flagship because he felt insulted that the British had sent a mere Captain to speak with him, as he was an admiral he insisted that talks had to be conducted by an intermediary. Gensoul eventually rejected the British proposals saying that he would scuttle his ships if the Germans tried to take them but would not do so on the orders of the British.
Somerville recalled Holland and gave Gensoul until 3pm to reconsider his decision. Whilst waiting Swordfish aircraft were sent in and dropped magnetic mines across the harbour entrance to prevent the French leaving. At 2.15pm, probably in an attempt to buy more time, Gensoul said that he would finally speak directly to Holland. In acknowledgment of this Somerville extended the deadline to 5.30pm because he did not want to fire and hoped that further talks would lead to a resolution of the situation. However, Gensoul continued to insist that he was not prepared to relocate to the Caribbean or scuttle his ships unless they faced a direct threat from the Germans.
The Admiralty notified Somerville that French re-inforcements were on the way and so his time was up. Holland left the French admiral at 5.25pm whilst Gensoul still thought that the British would not open fire and that they were simply bluffing to put pressure on him to scuttle.
At 5.54pm the British battleships Resolution and Valient opened fire on the French Fleet, closely followed by Hood. The French tried to leave anchor to escape but it was too late and the Dunkerque, Gensoul’s flagship, was hit four times killing 181 men and causing a great deal of damage. When the Bretagne was also hit one of her main magazines exploded and the ship capsized, taking 1,079 of her crew with her.
At this point Somerville ordered a halt to attack to give the French time to abandon their ships so that the British could scuttle them, but the French had no intention of letting the British sink their ships so two destroyers and a battleship broke out of the harbour and returned fire on the British. Gensoul hoped to gain some time to allow these ships to escape so he sent a signal to Somerville to say that he now agreed to the British terms. Somerville, however, knew what was happening and told Gensoul that ‘Unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again.’
The French ships which had broken out managed to escape their British pursuers, but there was no hope for those left in Mers el Kebir. A final bombing run was made on the ships a few days later to make sure that none were seaworthy but the battle had, in effect, ended late in the afternoon of the 3rd July.
During the Battle of Mers el Kebir the French lost 1,297 sailors with over 350 wounded. They saw the British attack as an act of treachery, and at the funerals of those who died Gensoul told the remaining French sailors that ‘If there is a stain on a flag today it is certainly not on yours.’
Somerville himself felt that the action he had been ordered to lead was dishonourable and called himself ‘the unskilled butcher of Oran’. He wrote home to his wife and said ‘I just felt so damned angry being called on to do such a lousy job. We all feel dirty and ashamed that the first time we have been in action was an affair like this.’
Churchill however was unrepentant. He had felt that he could not give more time for the negotiators to seek a peaceful solution and believed that ‘Mers el Kebir showed that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.’
There are a number of theories as to why Churchill ordered his fleet to fire on the French. Some argue that the British Prime Minister was simply ruthless and took this action to show the world, particularly the Americans, that Britain was not beaten and that under his leadership there would be no surrender to the Germans.
Others argue that keeping the peace between Britain and a France which had already been defeated by the Germans was not as important to Churchill as ensuring that the French ships could not be used against the British.
For Churchill making a public statement of British resolve was a major factor in ordering the operation against the French.
So, was the sinking of the French Fleet at Mers el Kabir an unpleasant necessity (Churchill’s view), a dishonourable act (Somerville’s view) or a murderous atrocity (Gensoul’s view)? Or does the answer, as is so often the case during a time of war, lie somewhere in between?
During the Second World War women took on many jobs that were previously reserved for men. One such job was with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ‘Attagirls’ delivered planes from the factory to operational airfields, which freed up male pilots to fly missions.
One of the 164 women who flew these planes was Joy Lofthouse, who died this week aged 94.
Please do take a look at his article and listen to Joy, who was interviewed earlier this year. A remarkable lady who did a remarkable job for her country.
Today I would like to pay tribute to one of the women who has inspired my writing and who died today, aged 105.
Clare Hollingworth was one of the most respected war correspondents of the 20th century. Born in Knighton in Leicestershire on 10th October 1911, Clare’s father worked in the shoe trade. Clare had a fairly ordinary life as a youngster, and by 1939 she had married and was living in Poland with her husband. She was horrified by what she saw of the Nazi treatment of many groups of people and decided to help, rescuing around 3,000 refugees from Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia which had been annexed by Hitler). For some reason the British government was not happy with what she was doing and MI6 persuaded her employer to ‘let her go’. Clare returned to England and decided that she wanted to be a journalist, partly due to stories told to her by her friend Trilby Ewer. Trilby wrote for the Daily Telegraph and arranged an interview there for Clare. She was hired on the spot as a ‘stringer’ (a freelance journalist) working with Hugh Carleton Greene, who was the Telegraph’s correspondent in Berlin.
With her nose for a story Clare headed for Katowice where she borrowed a car from the British consul-general and drove towards the Polish border. The road was full of motorcycle despatch riders who seemed to be incredibly busy, and as she drove Clare passed a long hessian screen which had been put up to stop people looking down into the valley below. With the luck which seemed to follow Clare at times a random gust of wind caught the screen and pulled it back, revealing hundreds of German tanks and other vehicles lined up and ready to invade Poland. 29th August 1939 was only Clare’s third day as a journalist, but she already had her first headline in a national newspaper when the Telegraph printed her story as the Page One lead.
On 1st September Clare was woken by anti-aircraft guns as German planes crossed the border into Poland. She immediately telephoned Greene who notified the Polish foreign minister – who didn’t believe him. Clare then phoned officials in the British embassy in Warsaw, who also didn’t believe that war had broken out as Germany and Poland were still negotiating. To prove her point Clare held the phone out of the window so that the embassy official could hear the guns himself!
Clare Hollingworth went on to report throughout the Second World War and other conflicts of the last century including Palestine, China, Algeria and Vietnam. She also broke the story that the British intelligence officer Kim Philby was spying for the Russians. Clare Hollingworth was awarded the OBE in 1982 and as the 1980’s progressed she decided to semi-retire, but retirement never stopped her from following up a story. In 1989, approaching her 80’s, Clare was in Tiananmen Square where she wrote about the Chinese government crack-down on protesters – watching the unfolding story from a lamppost which she had climbed to get a better view!
Clare Hollingworth was a trail blazer for female war correspondents, a woman of drive and ambition whose life is the inspiration for the main character featured in my new series of books. Today is a day to remember a remarkable woman who lived life to the full and will be long remembered.
Marston Manor is an old manor house in Oxfordshire which the new owner plans to turn into a ‘themed’ attraction based on the years of the English Civil War. When historian Robert Hardwick joins the project he is delighted to discover a family link with Marston dating back to the time of King Charles I and the witch persecutions of the 17th century.
But right from the start disturbing events raise mistrust and fear on the estate. Who, or what, is trying to halt the plans for the Manor? Can the disruption and sabotage be linked to the traveller camp in the woods or to the more sinister appearances of a ghostly old woman? And just who is Rebekah, and why does she have such a hold over Rob?
In his haunted dreams Rob finds himself living through the turbulent years of the English Civil War, experiencing it all through the eyes of his ancestor, Simon. Dreams which begin gently enough in the days leading up to war in 1642 but which become ever more frightening, ending with the terrifying events of the witch trials of 1651.
The Cavalier Historian is a novel which follows characters separated by more than three centuries, living in the 17th century yet somehow linked through time to present day events. Over the centuries they live through war and peace, experience love and loss, suffer fear and persecution yet, at the very end, is it possible for them to find hope for the future?
I woke up this morning with just days to go before ‘The Cavalier Historian’ is published on kindle and feeling rather nervous. Now I have a big smile on my face after receiving my first pre-publication review by Romuald Dzemo writing for Readers’ Favorite. Romuald has given my new novel five stars, which is a wonderful achievement from such a large and respected review site. So, thank you, Romuald, for the review – and the consequent boost to my confidence!
Romuald’s review: A story that begins with a man waking in the middle of the night, feeling cold and uneasy, to find an ugly woman lurking in his room and telling him she’d waited many years to face a certain Mr. Hardwycke is a good promise for an adventure. The Cavalier Historian by Dorinda Balchin is this story, a tale that features witchcraft, civil war, and a gruesome injustice.
Robert Hardwick has been entrusted with the task to help transform the legendary Marston Manor in Oxfordshire into a themed attraction on the English Civil War. But strange things begin to happen as he starts this exciting project. Someone seems to be working against him, making sure that he doesn’t make any progress. He doesn’t have to investigate because his dreams create the link for him, thrusting him back in time to relive the awful events that took place during the war, and the witch trials of 1651. A woman named Rebekah seems to be at the center of the mystery. Can Robert right the injustice she’d suffered back then?
Part historical and part paranormal, The Cavalier Historian is a story that allows the reader to relive the horrors of the Civil War and the persecution of witches, a story about one of the controversial events in English history. What is most astounding is the bridge the author creates between then and now, making the story read as though it was happening now. The descriptions are vivid and readers will enjoy how the settings and culture are portrayed through the masterful use of language. The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and I enjoyed the suspense created around the ghostly woman. Dorinda Balchin is a good storyteller with the gift of making the supernatural feel as real as the rainbow and creating characters readers want to stick with. Brilliant. Loved it so much!