‘Paris’ by Edward Rutherfurd

City of love. City of splendour. City of terror. City of dreams.

Inspired by the haunting, passionate story of the city of lights, this epic novel weaves a gripping tale of four families across the centuries: from the lies that spawn the noble line of de Cygne to the revolutionary Le Sourds who seek their destruction; from the Blanchards whose bourgeois respectability offers scant protection against scandal to the hard-working Gascons and their soaring ambitions.

Over hundreds of years, these four families are bound by forbidden loves and marriages of convenience; dogged by vengeance and murderous secrets; torn apart by the irreconcilable differences of birth and faith, and brought together by the tumultuous history of their city. Paris bursts to life in the intrigue, corruption and glory of its people.

Author of Sarum, London and New York, Edward Rutherfurd illuminates Paris as only he can: capturing the romance and everyday drama of the men and women who, in two thousand years, transformed a humble trading post on the muddy banks of the Seine into the most celebrated city in the world.

Mr Rutherfurd has written an engrossing saga of interwoven stories of four families who lived and loved in the city of Paris, families which come from all aspects of society – nobility, bourgeois, revolutionary and labourer. The lives of these fictional families are skilfully entwined with the history of the city from its earliest days to the Second World War and beyond, which makes the novel ideal for someone who wants to get an overview of the history of Paris and how different social groups influenced, or were influenced by, events. Each family history is carefully plotted and although there are rather a lot of co-incidences these are necessary to bring the characters together in a complex yet coherent plot, ‘Paris’ is, after all, historical fiction not fact.

Mr Rutherfurd has obviously conducted a great deal of detailed research into the history of France and Paris which is evident in the complexities of both the culture and politics of France which he has handled with skill. Whilst the main portion of the novel covers the period from 1875 to the mid-1960’s this story is interspersed with cameos of the families from 1261 onwards, the abiding theme being the socialist and revolutionary spirit of many of the city’s inhabitants. This is an effective way of telling the story of Paris without overwhelming the reader with too much detail or including information just for the sake of it. Mr Rutherford seems to get the right balance here, and anyone who wants to find out more about any of the periods will be able to conduct further research for themselves.

‘Paris’ is a story of divided loyalties, lies, deceit, love, honour, and a whole raft of other emotions, all told against the backdrop of this vibrant city. One fascinating aspect of the novel is the descriptions of the landscape and architecture and how these changed over the centuries. The physical space of the city is so well written that you can feel yourself there, and anyone who has ever visited Paris will recognise the authenticity of the descriptions from Versailles to Notre Dame, the Eifel Tower to Montmartre.

Mr Rutherfurd has a writing style which is engaging and moves the story on at a good pace. The one thing which readers may find difficult to follow is the relationships of the characters and family histories but the author has provided excellent family trees to help with this, and the more you read the less you need to use them. What draws the reader in is the believable characters who elicit a variety of responses, from sympathy to anger; what is interesting is that you are able to see the history of France from many different perspectives and find your sympathies residing with different parts of society at different times. It takes a very clever wordsmith to create such a believable world for his characters to inhabit.

I would recommend ‘Paris’ to anyone who enjoys historical sagas. The novel is an easy and engaging read from which it is possible to learn a great deal whilst also being entertained. Based on my enjoyment of this book I shall certainly be reading more novels written by Edward Rutherfurd.

‘Paris’ can be found on Amazon

Mr Rutherfurd’s website can be found here

More of my Recommended Reads can be found here

The fruits that won the war – Mulberry Harbours

If you holiday in France you may like to visit Arromanches on the Normandy coast. This was the site of one of the Mulberry Harbours, an amazing engineering feat which helped to change the course of the Second World War. The remains of the harbour can still be seen today.

German coastal defences at Arromanches

Both the Allies and Hitler knew that an Allied invasion of Nazi held Europe was essential for the winning of the war. They also knew that any landing was unlikely to succeed without a safe harbour in Allied hands. Once the liberating forces had established a foothold on the Normandy coast enormous amounts of men and supplies would need to be landed to re-enforce the bridgehead before pushing on towards Germany. The problem for the Allies was that the Germans had occupied and heavily fortified all the ports on the northern coast of France. The disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe in 1942 showed that taking such ports would only be done with immense loss of life and would not be quick. What the Allies needed was access to a port that was not controlled by the Germans. Small fishing ports would not be suitable as the large ships needed to transport bulky supplies needed a deep port with harbourside cranes; the Allies therefore decided that if no such ports were available they would have to create their own.

The plan they came up with was simple yet would be incredibly complex to achieve – the construction of a new harbour the size of Dover at the site of the invasion. The plan was to prefabricate the elements needed in Britain before towing them across the English Channel and creating a harbour off the landing beaches. The schedule was to complete the construction within two weeks of the D Day landings in June 1944. Winston Churchill knew that there would be enormous problems with this idea but was determined that it should work if the invasion was to be successful. A trial of three competing designs for the floating harbour was set up in 1943 with prototypes built and tested on the Solway Firth. Once the design was finalised the War Office could begin the prefabrication of the concrete caissons.

D Day Copyright: © IWM.

The invasion of Europe began on 6th June 1944, D Day, with thousands of Allied troops landing along the Normandy coast. Once the beachheads were secured the work on the floating harbours began, the first stage of which was to scuttle a number of old ships off the coast at Arromanches as temporary outer breakwaters (the Gooseberries) to protect the area where the harbour (the Mulberry) was to be built. The huge prefabricated caissons (water-tight concrete structures codenamed Phoenixes) were then sunk to provide the permanent breakwaters which would shelter the floating roadways and jetties.  Once the completed Mulberry Harbour was in place the Allies could begin unloading the supplies which would be so vital for their victory.

There were actually two Mulberry Harbours towed across the English Channel to support the Normandy beachheads. Mulberry A was constructed at Omaha Beach whilst Mulberry B (nicknamed ‘Port Winston’), was constructed off Gold Beach at the town of Arromanches. Once assembled the harbours could unload 7,000 tons of supplies a day. Each incredibly complex harbour had masses of pontoons which supported around 6 miles of flexible roadways ending in huge pier heads supported by underwater ‘legs’.

An incredible feat of engineering had both harbours almost fully functional when they were hit by a storm on 19th June. The Mulberry Harbours had been designed for summer weather not the worst storm to hit the Normandy coast for 40 years, and the harbour at Omaha beach was so badly damaged that it was beyond repair. This could have been a disaster for the Allied forces, but although the second Mulberry suffered some damage it survived the storm and continued to land supplies in support of the invasion. Although it had been designed to last for just ninety days Port Winston was in continuous use for ten months following D Day and in that time landed over half a million vehicles, two and a half million men and four million tons of supplies.

When the invasion had moved eastward and liberated ports from the Nazis the harbour was no longer useful and was abandoned. If you visit Arromanches today you can see the remains of the Mulberry Harbour from the beaches.

The scale and sheer audacity of the Mulberries took the Germans completely by surprise. At the Nurembeurg trials after the war Albert Speer, Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production for Nazi Germany, gave a German perspective on the Mulberry Harbours:

“To construct our defences we had in two years used some 13 million cubic metres of concrete and 1½ million tons of steel. A fortnight after the Normandy Landings, this costly effort was brought to nothing because of an idea of simple genius. As we now know, the invasion force brought their own harbours, and built, at Arromanches and Omaha, on unprotected coast, the necessary landing ramps.”

When we remember the troops who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy we should not forget those who designed and built the Mulberry Harbours which were so instrumental in making D Day and the invasion of Europe such a success.

The women who spied for Britain

The Invasion of France at the beginning of the Second World War is known as the Blitzkrieg – Lightning War – and it really was like lightning. It was just six short weeks from the start of the invasion on 10th May 1940 to the French signing an armistice with Germany on 22nd June. Yet although Germany had defeated the French army many French citizens were not ready to submit to the conquerors and so the British government set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its instructions from Churchill were to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by helping to fight the Germans behind enemy lines.

German soldiers in Paris

Recruits to the SOE underwent commando training as well as learning how to use guns and explosives, to effectively sabotage enemy installations and transport, to use wireless radios, to be proficient in silent killing and unarmed combat. They also had to learn how to blend in and live in secret in occupied territory, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Many may find it surprising to know that women were members of the SOE right from the start. At first their role was only to work in the offices producing forged papers for the men who would be going into action (ration cards, passports etc.), or perhaps coding or de-coding messages from agents as well as transmitting these messages via wireless. It wasn’t until April 1942 that Churchill finally gave his approval for women to be sent as agents into Europe. Part of the reasoning for this was that women would be less conspicuous as they were always out and about – shopping or taking children to school etc. – men who were seen on the streets too frequently soon came to the notice of the Gestapo. So the SOE recruited women as wireless operators and couriers and, like the men, these women had to be proficient in the language of the country they were going to, know it’s customs etc. The ideal recruit would have spent some of their formative years in the target country and so would know how to ‘blend in’. In all 431 men and 39 women were sent as SOE agents to France during the Second World War, as well as agents sent to other occupied countries.

Radio used by SOE agents

It would be impossible to describe the ‘average’ female SOE agent as there was really no such thing. A recruit could come from an aristocratic background or be working-class, she might have only just left school or be a mature and experienced mother, she might be demure or a little wild; the one unifying factor was that they were prepared to go behind enemy lines as the only women to bear arms during the war. They knew what they were signing up for, the chances that they could be captured and tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed, but that didn’t stop them.

One of the first women to work for SOE was actually an American called Virginia Hall who was living in France when the Germans invaded. Although she was disabled (she had an artificial foot) she managed to escape to England where she was signed up by the SOE and went back to France as a ‘correspondent for the New York Post’ (America had not yet entered the war at this time and so was considered neutral). After some time the Gestapo became too interested in Virginia so she escaped over the Pyrenean mountains to Spain (which could not have been easy with her disability). When she got back to England Virginia joined the newly formed US equivalent of SOE, went back to France prior to D Day and, after the war, served in the CIA.

Virgina Hall

Another famous SOE agent was Noor Inayat Khan who was born in Russia, the daughter of an Indian prince and American. Noor grew up in Paris where she became known as a writer and musician, but when her family fled to England to escape the Germans she trained as a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The SOE couldn’t ignore someone who spoke fluent French and could handle a wireless so they recruited Noor and she was sent to France in 1943. The network which she worked for was infiltrated and her colleagues arrested. Life was hard for Noor as she was forced to keep moving, finding a new place to stay every day in an effort to evade the Germans, carrying the all too conspicuous wireless with her. Noor continued to send reports to the SOE but her luck eventually ran out when she was betrayed and captured in October 1943. After spending months in solitary confinement Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female SOE agents where she was executed. Witnesses say that Noor spoke just one word at the end – liberté.

Noor Inayat Khan

Violette Szabo came from a very different background to Noor Inayat Kahn, a cockney working-class girl who had spent some time growing up in France and spoke the language well. She was married to a member of the French Foreign Legion, Etienne Szabo, who died at El Alamein. Violette had a one year old daughter but didn’t hesitate when the SOE came knocking at her door and immediately agreed to be sent to France, knowing the risks involved. Like Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo was captured and executed (at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945).

Violette Szabo

Although 13 of the women who were sent to France by the SOE were executed by the Germans and 2 others died of natural causes the other 24 survived until the end of the war. One of these was Odette Strugo Garay. Odette had a Czech father and a French mother. She was recruited by the SOE in 1944 after her husband, who was a Finnish RAF pilot, was killed in an accident. After undergoing her training, including four parachute jumps, Odette was sent to France, (she didn’t receive her RAF wings as she had not completed five qualifying jumps). After a time in France Odette returned to England via the route through Spain and on the way met the head of the escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay, who was later to become her husband. After the war Odette and  Santiago moved to Buenos Aires and it was there that she met the Air Attaché Wing Commander Dowling. During conversation she mentioned that although she had worked for the SOE and parachuted into France she had never received her RAF wings. He argued that her jump into France should count as a qualifying fifth jump and  Odette finally received her wings in 2007. She wore the badge every day until her death in 2015, proud of the contribution she had made to the work of the SOE in France.

Monument remembering all women who played a part in winninng the Second World War

The 39 female SOE agents who served in  France were ordinary women who did extraordinary things and, like their male counterparts, those who survived the war never sought the limelight but slipped back into civilian life as though their experiences during the war had never happened. They all felt that they were just doing their duty, no more than any other soldier who fought the Nazis. The women who went into enemy territory as agents of the SOE were pioneers – back at home women were working in the factories, taking over the roles of men who were away at the front, but the women of the SOE showed that not only could women do the work on the Home Front which had been done by men but that they could also fight like the men too. In my novel Heronfield Angeline is a radio operator who is parachuted into France by the SOE, her story is my tribute to the bravery of all women of any nationality who were prepared to put their lives on the line to preserve the freedom of others.

Recommended Read – The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.
They break the rules and follow their hearts.

After reading the above description I was expecting ‘The Light Between Oceans’ to be a romance/crime thriller, but in fact it turned out to be so much more. Set in Australia in the aftermath of the First World War it is a moving tale of how difficult it was for survivors of that conflict to integrate back into society, how their loved ones were affected by these shadows of men from the trenches, and how those whose husbands, brothers and sons never came back from the war struggled to understand the appalling waste and come to terms with their loss. This sounds like a novel in itself, yet it is purely the backdrop for a story packed with emotional highs and lows and a sympathetic understanding of human psychology.

The main characters of the novel struggle throughout with the concepts of right and wrong, and with putting these into some sort of acceptable order. Is it ever right to break the law to help a loved one who is suffering? Can love conquer all? Can we close our eyes to the suffering we may have unknowingly caused to someone else once that has been revealed to us? You will find yourself sympathising with Tom as he struggles to support the woman he loves, even though it goes against his conscience, and you will also find yourself sympathising with the other main characters too. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is an incredibly well written novel with believable characters who draw you into their stories. Ms Stedman has great skill as a writer in that she is able to describe the places and environment which are inhabited by her story in a way which makes you feel as though you are there breathing the salty air, feeling the wind and rain etc. whilst at the same time she creates characters, including some very minor ones, whose lives you can fully appreciate and whose driving forces are wholly believable.

The themes of love and loss, fear, anger, and hope are played out against the backdrop of a lighthouse on a rocky island, The Light Between Oceans of the title, and Ms Stedman has clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching the life of a lighthouse keeper in early twentieth century Australia. Her writing is very descriptive and the reader feels an affinity for the small-town community on the mainland as well as the incredibly difficult life of the lighthouse keeper and his family. It is a period of Australian history which I was not familiar with yet, by the end of the book, felt wholly engaged with.

This book is a highly emotional and moving read, I can guarantee that you will go on a roller-coaster ride of emotions and be left pondering some big philosophical questions at the end. ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is certainly a book which will stay with you for some time to come and I heartily recommend it.

The Light Between Oceans can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about M L Stedman here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

A British Game Of Thrones

Imagine the scenario:
There was once a king of a northern country who had a distant claim to the throne of a country in the south. When the ruler of the southern land died childless the King of the North also became King of the South, and although there was one king to rule them both the two realms remained separate and continued with their longstanding enmities. When the king died his son came to sit on the thrones of both countries but the lords of the southern lands were not happy with how he ruled and so went to war against him. The land in the north supported the southern nobles for a time, then their support moved to the king, then shifted back to the nobles once more. Power ebbed and flowed until the king was finally captured and executed. What would happen now? Who would rule? Would the lands be united at last or continue divided and at war?

Sounds like the plot to a book in the style of A Game Of Thrones, doesn’t it? Yet this is real history. The history of Scotland and England. It is a history I had to grasp to enable me to write my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’, and it is a part of the story which many people find fascinating. So, what was the situation between the two nations in the seventeenth century and how did that impact on the English Civil War?

James I

Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII, died childless. The next in line to the throne was James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots and great great grandson of Henry VII. James VI and I (as he is sometimes known) moved from Edinburgh to London; England and Scotland were now united under one monarch BUT this was a dynastic union only, the Stuarts reigned over two separate and distinct countries even though King James wanted them to be united as one.

Part of the problem which James I faced was that the Scottish Church would not accept the High Anglican Church of England. When his son, Charles I, succeeded him he introduced a Scottish version of the English Prayer Book in 1637. The Scots responded with anger and rioting, culminating in a meeting of the National Covenant in 1638 which overwhelmingly objected to the prayer book; and when the General Assembly met in November 1638 all bishops were expelled from the Scottish Church which became fully Presbyterian. Charles put together a military force to bring the Scottish to heel, but didn’t like using soldiers from his southern kingdom to invade his northern one, so a settlement was reached under the ‘Pacification of Berwick’. The peace didn’t last for long, hostilities broke out again and Charles’s English forces were defeated by the Scots at the Battle of Newburn.

Charles I

This was how Charles I found himself to be the king of two kingdoms with a history of dislike for each other and widely differing views on religion. Once civil war broke out in England, with parliament looking to exercise more control over the king, his taxes, and the religion of the country, things got even more complicated. The English Parliament entered into a ‘Solemn League And Covenant’ with the Scottish Church and Scottish troops played an important role in the defeat of Charles I, constantly playing one side against the other from the outbreak of war:

22nd August 1643 Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham, formally declaring war on Parliament.

August 1643 The Solemn League And Covenant promised to preserve the Scottish Church and reform religion in England and Ireland in return for Scottish help against the king.

6th May 1646 Charles I surrendered to the Scots in the hope that they would support him as their king against the old enemy, England. At the same time he was trying to negotiate with the English Parliament – unaware that the Scots were doing the same!

30th January 1647 The Scots handed Charles over to the English Parliament and he was imprisoned at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.

November 1647 The king escaped but was soon re-captured. From his prison Charles I carried out secret negotiations with the Scots, hoping for uprisings in England to coincide with an invasion from Scotland which would free him and put him back on the throne.

28th December 1647 An ‘Engagement’ was signed, with the Scots agreeing to support the king as long as he imposed the Presbyterian Church on England for three years.

Spring 1648 The uprising began in Wales and England, but the Scottish forces were delayed which enabled Cromwell to put down the Royalist forces throughout most of the country although the king’s forces held out under a long siege in Colchester. When the Scots finally invaded they were defeated at the Battle of Preston on 17th – 19th August 1649. This effectively brought the Second English Civil War to an end.

Charles I was in prison in England throughout this second war, and at the defeat of his forces was put on trial for treason, and executed. With the death of Charles I Cromwell invaded Scotland and brought it into his Commonwealth, but after his death Charles II became king and Scotland became an independent country once more. It wasn’t until 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, that the ‘Acts of Union’ were signed in England and Scotland in which the two separate states with their different legislatures but with the same ruling monarch were ‘United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain’.

Union Flag

With such complex relationships between Scotland and England, as well as divisive politics and religion within England itself, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be conflict under Charles I. It is a period of history which makes for a great story and I thoroughly enjoyed the research I conducted for my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’. I hope my readers will find the novel equally enjoyable!

Experience An English Civil War Battle Near You!

In England we are lucky with the resources available to us if we want to learn about the civil war which tore our country apart during the 17th century. As well as countless books on the subject you can conduct research online or maybe visit the National Civil War Centre in Newark, but to get a real experience of what life was like when parliament rose up against the king we have a number of wonderful re-enactment societies.

Cavalry (copyright Sealed Knot)

Both the Sealed Knot and the English Civil War Society provide authentic re-creations of both civilian and military life, and the information they provided was very helpful to me whilst I was conducting research for my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’. You may think that re-enactment societies glorify war but that is far from the truth, and those who take part in these activities would say that their aim is to honour those who died in battle as well as to educate people about life in the 17th century. I can well remember the re-enactment of a battle which I attended at Faringdon in Oxfordshire some years ago with its guns and smoke, its sights and sounds of civil war. The battlefield commentary explained tactics and weaponry, and as I strolled around the campsite I was able to see authentic artefacts and clothing. I certainly felt that this was a great learning experience for the whole family.

Musketeers (copyright Sealed Knot)

If you have never seen a re-enactment featuring Cavaliers and Roundheads I would heartily recommend it. Wherever you are in the country you should be able to get to an event hosted by either the Sealed Knot or the English Civil War Society. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see a full scale battle with hundreds of infantrymen on each side as well as artillery, cavalry, and a huge array of camp followers. Perhaps it will be the re-creation of a specific battle, or maybe just a fictional episode designed to demonstrate the art of 17th century warfare. If you are not able to get to a battle then maybe you can see a skirmish, which is much smaller and has a focus on infantry with only a few cannons or cavalry men.

Copyright English Civil War Society

Whatever event you are able to attend you should also have the opportunity to see what camp life was like during the civil war. Take the time to wander around the tented areas where you will see re-enactors dressed in authentic costumes and carrying out authentic trades. There may be blacksmiths and armourers, barber-surgeons and laundresses, as well as kitchen areas providing food for both the officers and ordinary soldiers.

Army camp (copyright English Civil War Society)

As well as re-enactments these two societies will also visit schools to give students a taste of 17th century life, or sometimes staff a whole house with a costumed population for a truly immersive experience (this is part of the premise of The Cavalier Historian). So, if you are interested in the English Civil War, or history in general, why not try to see a re-enactment this year? I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it!

Cannon (copyright Sealed Knot)

The Sealed Knot

The English Civil War Society

Lord Thomas Grey’s Regiment of Foote

Sir William Pennyman’s Regiment

National Civil War Centre

Upcoming events:

English Civil War Society Events

Sealed Knot Events

Horror in the beech forest – the liberation of Buchenwald, 11th April 1945

Would you like to visit somewhere called ‘Beech Forest’? It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But our impressions change immediately we find out the German for ‘Beech Forest’ – Buchenwald. Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of that infamous place.

The concentration camp at Buchenwald was built just 5 miles north of Weimar, on the slopes of Ettersberg mountain, and was the largest complex of its kind in Germany with a main camp as well as 139 subsidiary camps and extension units. Established before the Second Wold War began, most of the original inmates of the camp were criminals or political prisoners who arrived in July 1937. The number of prisoners rapidly increased during 1938 when ‘undesirables’ who opposed the Nazi ideal or were considered to be antisocial elements were incarcerated in Buchenwald. After the outbreak of war in 1939 the numbers of inmates increased dramatically when many Polish prisoners were interred. It is believed that around 239,000 prisoners from 30 countries passed through the hell of the Buchenwald camps during the eight years from 1937 to 1945. No-one knows exactly how many people died there as some of the records were incomplete, but estimates range from 43,000 to 56,000. The conditions in the camp were horrendous, many of the inmates died of disease or because of medical experimentation, and over 8,000 Soviet prisoners of war were shot in an area of the camp designed for that specific purpose. These estimates of the numbers who died don’t include the inmates who did not survive the death march from Buchenwald in April 1945, or the camps which they were moved to.

Prisoners during a roll call at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
— US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The prisoners held in Buchenwald were an amalgam of the kinds of people whom Hitler believed had no place in his Reich – Jews, the mentally and physically disabled, Roma gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s witnesses, political prisoners, prisoners of war, homosexuals, criminals – but rather than simply killing them as happened in many of the other camps, these people were used as forced labour in local factories which were a part of the German war effort (mainly armament factories), or in the Buchenwald quarry. Like Auschwitz there was a slogan above the gates at Buchenwald; in Auschwitz the sign read Arbeit macht free which translates as ‘work sets you free’, in Buchenwald the message was Jedem das Seine, the literal translation of this phrase is ‘to each his own’ but the understood meaning in German is much more sinister – ‘everyone gets what they deserve’.

As World War Two was finally drawing to a close in the spring of 1945 the prisoners in Buchenwald began to hope that they might actually survive their ordeal. On 4th April the US 89th Infantry Division liberated the subcamp at Ohrdruf as they moved eastwards towards the Russian armies which were advancing from the opposite direction. By this time the Germans knew that they could not win the war and, with the Allies getting ever closer, the 6th April saw the start of the evacuation of over 28,000 prisoners from Buchenwald and the satellite camps in an effort to hide what had been happening there. Almost 8,000 of these prisoners died during the march to other camps further east. Some of the prisoners who remained in Buchenwald had built a secret short-wave transmitter and were able to send a Morse code message on 8th April saying ‘To the Allies. To the army of General Patton. This is the Buchenwald concentration camp. SOS. We request help. They want to evacuate us. The SS wants to destroy us.’ Only three minutes later they received a reply – ‘KZ Bu. Hold out. Rushing to your aid. Staff of Third Army.’  Most of the SS had already fled and, on receiving this message, the jubilant prisoners took control of the camp, effectively freeing around 21,000 of their fellow inmates.

At 3.15pm on 11th April 1945 four soldiers from the 6th Armoured Division of the US Army were the first Allies to reach Buchenwald where they were greeted as hero’s by the survivors, some of whom even found the strength to throw their liberators in the air in celebration. (The clock at the entrance gate of Buchenwald is now stopped at 3.15 as a memorial).

Although the prisoners were delighted at their liberation and able to celebrate for a short time, most of them were so ill that the Americans wondered if they would survive to enjoy their freedom. As Edward Murrow reported for CBS – ‘I asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description…As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others, they must have been over 60, were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.’

Allied soldiers liberate Buchenwald

The American soldiers were hardened men who had fought hard all the way from the beaches of Normandy but Buchenwald was almost beyond their comprehension, when Eisenhower entered the camp he said that “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.” The American liberators described finding lampshades made out of human skin and being shown where the land had been fertilised with the ashes of the dead. These horrific sights influenced their attitude when they arrived in Weimar the next day. The civilians in the town, just five miles from the camp, said that they hadn’t known what was happening there even though they had seen thousands of trains arriving laden with prisoner and none leaving. Elie Wiesel, arguably the most famous survivor of Buchenwald, later said that some of the inmates took jeeps and drove into Weimar where the American GI’s stood by and watched as the newly liberated men looted homes, killed German civilians, and even raped some of the German women. After what they had seen the soldiers felt little inclination to intervene and stop the former prisoners from taking their revenge.

Sadly, the liberation on 11th April 1945 was not the end of Buchenwald as a concentration camp. Between then and 10th February 1950 it was a ‘special camp’ run by the Russian NKVD. Finally, in October 1950, the Russian authorities decided to demolish the camp although parts were retained as a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today those remains contain a memorial and museum to the memory of the thousands who died in one of the most notorious of all concentration camps.

The Buchenwald Memorial

During the Second World War Buchenwald was the destination for many spies and resistance fighters who were captured in occupied France. In my novel Heronfield Tony was a member of the SOE and, as such, would have been sent to Buchenwald. I found writing that particular section of the book harrowing although the words I wrote in no way reflect the true horrors that the prisoners endured. In my own simple way I hope that my work can be seen as a tribute to all those who were sent to Buchenwald and other concentration camps simply because of their race, politics, religious beliefs or disabilities.

Sources

Official Memorial Site, Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation.

Film footage from 1945 inside Buchenwald Concentration Camp, British Pathé.

Buchenwald, jewishgen.org.

Guide to the Concentration Camps Collection, Leo Baeck Institute, New York City 2013. Includes extensive reports on Buchenwald collected by the Allied forces shortly after liberating the camp in April 1945.

Holocaust Research Project

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum