The Windsors at War – Part 1 King George VI

King George VI was a reluctant monarch. He grew up with the expectation that his elder brother would become king, a situation he was more than happy with as he was a rather shy man who suffered from a stutter. Unfortunately for George his plans for himself and his family were turned on their head when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in December 1936 so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. George suddenly found himself in a position he had never wanted and, what was worse, at a time of impending crisis. But George also had a profound sense of duty and honour, things he found sadly lacking in his elder brother, and vowed to be the best monarch he could as the world faced up to the growing threat of Nazi Germany.

George VI had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War and was present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when Britain lost 14 ships and over 6,000 men. As with many of his generation the King wanted to avoid another war like the one which had blighted his youth and so was in favour of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, but as time passed he realised that this was hopeless and war against Germany was unavoidable. In 1939 George VI travelled to America and Canada in an effort to build support for the inevitable conflict. By 3rd September of that year, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, he was resigned to what was to come; he wrote…

“As 11 o’clock struck that fateful morning I had a certain feeling of relief that those 10 anxious days of intensive negotiations with Germany over Poland, which at moments looked favourable…were over. Hitler would not and could not draw back from the edge of the Abyss to which he had led us. Despite our protestations that the Polish Question could have been settled without force, Hitler had taken the plunge.” The King went on to compare his situation in 1939 to the one he had been in at the outbreak of war in 1914 when he was “keeping the middle watch on the bridge of HMS Collingwood… Today we are at War again, and I am no longer a midshipman in the Royal Navy.” The King obviously felt that Edward VIII had shown a great lack of character, and remarked in his diary that, before the abdication, he had “never expected to have all this responsibility on me”.

On the day that war was declared the King spoke to the nation in a radio broadcast, something he always found difficult as those who have seen the film ‘The King’s Speech’ will know. In his address George VI said “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history…for the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain…The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead and war is no longer confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commend our cause to God…with God’s help we shall prevail. May He bless and keep us all.”

(You can listen to the full speech here.)

King George VI made it a matter of principle that, no matter how busy he was, he would write a diary entry every night for however long the war lasted, and his writings give an insight into the reluctant monarch, his relationship with his government, and his sense of duty and service.

In May 1940 Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and the King, along with many others, wanted Lord Halifax to take his place; the monarchs role in appointing a Prime Minister is, however, little more than a symbolic confirmation of the will of the ruling party and George was reluctantly persuaded that Winston Churchill should be made Prime Minister. The King initially found Churchill difficult to get along with, but as time passed they developed a deep respect for each other and a close personal relationship, meeting for lunch every Tuesday to discuss the war in private in a very open and frank way.

At the outbreak of the war some of the King’s closest advisors suggested that he should move from London to the countryside to avoid enemy attacks, but both he and the Queen were adamant that they would stay in the capital as a symbol of strength and unity. George VI was not reckless, however, and personally set up the Coats Mission which was to be enforced if a German army invaded the British Isles. The key to this was the creation of a personal bodyguard of Coldstream Guards and Royal Lancers led by Major Coats to protect the King, the Queen and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The Lancers had specially adapted armoured cars which were to be used to take the royal family from Buckingham Palace to either Windsor or one of four other country houses which had been secretly prepared to conceal them, and where they would be met by the Coldstream Guards. King George was firm in his instructions that the royal family should not be handed over to the enemy and the guard were to fight to the last man if necessary. The second stage of the plan was to fly the Princesses abroad whilst the King and Queen remained behind to bolster resistance.

Thankfully the invasion never came and the Coats Mission was never put into operation, but there were other actions which did take place to ensure the safety of the royal family and Britain’s heritage. Hiding the Crown Jewels in a biscuit tin is just one example. This may sound like a comedy sketch but it did, in fact, happen. Some of the most precious jewels, including the Black Prince’s Ruby from the Imperial State Crown, were taken to Windsor Castle where they were put into a biscuit tin and buried under what is known as a sally port (a secret exit which could be used in an emergency). A large hole with two chambers protected by steel doors had been dug in preparation and was accessible by a trap door which, reportedly, still exists today.

The royal family spent most of the war at Buckingham Palace, although they often spent the night at Windsor Castle during times of heavy air raids. The King and Queen were at Buckingham Palace on 13th September 1940 and narrowly missed injury or death when two bombs exploded in the courtyard. In a letter to her mother-in-law the Queen wrote that they had gone to the Palace to collect some possessions after a previous bombing raid when they heard the approach of a German plane closely followed by the scream of falling bombs. At the first explosion they all dived for cover, after the second they all made their way to the shelter. The Queen describes how everyone remained calm whilst the three people who had been injured were treated. She later went on to say that “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel we can look the East End in the face.”

King George VI believed that he had an important role to play in keeping up the morale of the British people and so frequently visited bomb sites and munitions factories, accompanied by the Queen who took a great interest in what was being done to help people whose homes had been destroyed in the bombings. The Royal couple were also interested in the war work which was being done by civilians, often women, and their visits had a profound effect. The Ministry of Supply found that production figures inevitably dropped on the day of a royal visit, but the workers found it such a morale boost that they worked even harder and the weekly production figures always rose after such a visit. Both King George and Queen Elizabeth were compassionate by nature and also toured hospitals to visit wounded civilians and troops.

In his role as monarch George VI held the ranks of Admiral of the Fleet, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and Field Marshall, and he made a particular effort to visit every type of unit within the armed force; whenever he toured work places or inspected troops he would invariably do so in uniform. The king often visited troops in the UK, but it was not always so easy for him to do so abroad because of fears for his safety, although he did visit military troops in France in December 1939 during the ‘Phoney War’, Malta and North Africa in 1943, Normandy 10 days after D Day in June 1944, southern Italy in July 1944 and the Low Countries in October 1944. His trip to the Mediterranean in 1943 is an example of how he saw his role as that of a ‘morale booster’ for armed forces and civilians alike as he inspected the Roya Navy (and also the US Navy), the Merchant Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army, and the Royal Air Force before going on to the island of Malta. As well as visiting troops George VI also took a keen interest in the planning and strategy of the war and it was after he made a personal request to be kept informed that Dwight Eisenhower briefed him on the plan for Operation Overlord – the invasion of Europe via the Normandy beaches in 1944.

King George VI created the George Cross which is awarded “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger” and can be awarded to civilians as well as members of the armed forces. During the war air raid wardens, fire men, policemen and other individual civilians were awarded the George Cross, but one of the best known awards went to Malta. The people of the island had suffered dreadfully when besieged by the Germans and Italians who bombed the island round the clock. Malta held a strategically important position in the Mediterranean and so the people were determined not to give in even though whole towns and villages had been reduced to nothing but rubble, and there was a terrible food shortage. King George made a personal decision to award the George Cross to the island of Malta saying that “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. During his visit to North Africa in 1943 King George was determined to visit Malta and spent a day touring the island where he was greeted by cheering crowds and the ringing of the island’s church bells.

Although he was the monarch George VI believed that he and his family should share the same difficulties and dangers as his subjects. He insisted that the royal family should have the same rations as everyone else and follow all other war time directives; what’s more, this also applied to visitors. When Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President, visited Britain she commented on her time at Buckingham Palace which was unheated and boarded-up and where she was only allowed limited bathwater and was served rationed food. The royal family also knew what it felt to lose a loved one to the conflict with the King’s brother and the Queen’s nephew both killed.

Prince George, Duke of Kent, was a member of the Royal Air Force and set off alone on a mission about which little is known. His plane crashed into a hillside in Caithness in Scotland, and his body was found with a briefcase full of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to one wrist.

After sharing the dangers and deprivations of a country at war it was only fitting that the royal family shared in the jubilation when victory was finally achieved in Europe. At 6pm on the 8th May 1945 the King made a broadcast to the country, and during the afternoon and evening of that day the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the city celebrated VE Day, huge crowds cheering the royals who had refused to leave Britain and stayed to play an active part in the war effort. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had become symbols of national resistance, as had Princess Elizabeth who served in the ATS. The man who had only reluctantly taken on the role of king at his brother’s abdication had proven to be the one most fitting to lead his country in a time of war and, as such, was greatly loved. It is sad that he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of peace as he died in February 1952, aged 56, the beloved king of a country which still had another two years before rationing was finally over.

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Shadows and Strongholds by Elizabeth Chadwick

An awkward misfit, nine-year-old Fulke FitzWarin leaves his family for the household of Joscelin de Dinan, Lord of Ludlow. Once there, he begins to learn the knightly arts which he desperately hopes will free him from the shadows of his past.

Joscelin’s youngest daughter, Hawise, befriends Fulke when he most needs it. But as the years pass, an enemy to Ludlow changes their friendship unalterably, forcing them onto opposite sides of a cruel divide.

When the menace to Ludlow intensifies, Fulke must confront the future head on or fail on all counts, all the while desperate to know if Hawise stands with or against him.

Shadows and Strongholds is the early part of the story of a family who appear in Ms Chadwick’s novel Lords of The White Castle, which is itself based on the history of the FitzWarin family as it was told in a rhyming story written in the thirteenth century – the sort of story told to pass long winter evenings in the great hall. After completing that book the author felt compelled to tell the story of the early life of the key characters, and I am glad that she did! This is a tale steeped in the tensions and conflicts of a time which may not be well known to many readers but which is a fascinating period of English history, telling the story of the lords of Ludlow and Whittington against the broader backdrop of a country riven by civil war. The competing claims for lordship of Ludlow and Whittington castles are well documented, as is the outcome (no spoiler here!), but what is compelling for the reader is the fact that many of the key players in this novel are unknown to us so we don’t know how they will be affected by events, creating an exciting plot line which draws you in.

The original writer of the medieval tale is known to have been free with chronological order and some facts, Ms Chadwick has often followed his lead as this creates a great story line, and as Shadows and Strongholds is a work of historical fiction most readers will be happy with that. After all, this is not an academic historical account of the times but, instead, the author immerses the reader in the sights and sounds of a bygone age, the structure of a society which is unfamiliar to us, the violent conflicts between barons and those in authority which would be impossible in England today but which moulded and influenced the political scene in a much more turbulent time.

Those who are already familiar with Ms Chadwick’s work will recognise her style in this novel – a well written character driven story based on detailed research. The characters are well rounded, with the young Marion in particular drawing a sympathetic response despite her actions (which stem from a traumatic event in her childhood). In the modern world Marion would have been given psychiatric counselling and would most likely have turned out very differently, but understanding of mental problems in the twelfth century was limited, and Ms Chadwick has used this to develop a character whose interactions with those around her are pivotal to the plot. As well as Marion and the other characters about whom we know little but their names there are also brief appearances in Shadows and Strongholds by key players in history, such as Henry II, and the interplay of these characters is what makes for an exciting story. Added to this is a strong evocation of period through the careful use of language with the novel written in an easy to read style yet utilising a number of medieval words for clothing and objects which we no longer have, further infusing the reader with a sense of time and place.

Shadows and Strongholds will appeal to both fans of Ms Chadwick and those new to her work. If you enjoy good historical fiction, politics and battles, family life and romance, good strong plot-lines, well rounded characters and authentic dialogue then this book is for you. I enjoyed it, and Lords ofThe White Castle is now on my list of books to read.

Shadows and Strongholds can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Elizabeth Chadwick here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Carl Lutz – Forgotten hero of the Holocaust

The Second World War saw the mass slaughter of a number of groups of ‘undesirable’ people by the Nazi regime. Amongst them were the Roma, homosexuals, and the handicapped; but by far the greatest number to die were Jews, around six million of them. Yet the number could have been much greater if not for courageous men and women who laid their own lives on the line in defiance of Hitler’s Final Solution. So on Holocaust Remembrance Day perhaps it is fitting that, as well as the millions who died, we remember those people who risked everything to save others.

Carl Lutz, Budapest 1944 By FOTO:Fortepan — ID 105824

The names of some of these brave people are known to us – Oscar Schindler (who employed Jews in his factories so that they would not be sent to the concentration camps) and Raoul Wallenberg (who I shall mention again later) to name but two – yet few people have ever heard the name Carl Lutz, including those in his homeland of Switzerland. Lutz was the Swiss consul in Palestine in the 1930’s before being transferred to Hungary as the Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest in 1942; he stayed there until 1945. Hungary had joined the war on the side of Hitler in 1941 and so Lutz found himself in an unusual position in a country at war – as Switzerland was neutral Lutz was given the task of representing the interests of countries which were at war with Germany and had closed their embassies in Budapest, countries which included Britain and America. Soon after his arrival Lutz began working with the Jewish Agency for Palestine and issued Swiss safe-conduct documents to almost 10,000 Hungarian Jewish children who were then able to emigrate to Palestine.

It was not until 1944 that German forces actually moved in and occupied Hungary. They immediately began to target the local Jewish population, and Lutz saw how Jews from the countryside were being rounded up for deportation (mostly to Auschwitz). He was not naïve and realised what the fate of the Jews would be. Although a quiet and rather shy man Lutz was unable to look the other way; he felt he had no choice but to do something to help, and whatever that was he would have to do it quickly.

Carl Lutz in his office at the United States legation, Budapest © Archives of Contemporary History, ETH Zurich / Agnes Hirschi

Lutz’s solution was to give Swiss protection to any Jews who had connections to Switzerland or the other countries which he was representing in Hungary. Somehow he managed to persuade the Germans to let him issue 8,000 diplomatic letters of protection. These letters were intended for individuals but Lutz issued them to whole families instead so that thousands of Jews received protection; yet there were thousands more who needed help. As the number of letters available swiftly diminished Lutz decided that there was only one thing to do – he issued letter number 7,999 and then re-issued letter number 1. It was a gamble which could have cost him his life, but it paid off and the Germans were never aware that he was duplicating the numbers. Carl Lutz single handedly ran the largest civilian rescue operation of the war and is credited with having saved around 62,000 Jews with his diplomatic letters. Other foreign diplomats in Budapest were aware of what Lutz was doing and decided to copy his methods, notable amongst them was the Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg who also saved tens of thousands of Jews.

Jews queuing outside the Swiss Embassy in Budapest By FOTO:FORTEPAN / Archiv für Zeitgeschichte ETH Zürich / Agnes Hirschi, CC BY-SA 3.0,

As the war dragged on and it became obvious that Germany would lose, the Nazis in Hungary became more brutal than ever. Rather than deporting Jews to be killed in the concentration camps they began to take whole families to the banks of the Danube where they were shot and their bodies disposed of. One day, Carl Lutz came across a group of fascist Arrow Cross Party militiamen who were shooting Jews on the banks of the river. One woman had not been killed in the initial shooting and was struggling in the water, bleeding badly. Lutz jumped in and grabbed here, swimming to the bank with her where he confronted the officer in charge, declaring that the woman was a foreign citizen under the protection of Switzerland. He then calmly walked her to his car, got in, and drove away. The Arrow Cross men were stunned and subdued by the diplomat; not sure if he was telling the truth or not, no one dared to stop him. (That quay beside the Danube in Budapest is now named after Carl Lutz).

The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial by film director Can Togay anad sculptor Gyula Pauer on the east bank of the River Danube River in memory of the people who were killed by Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during the Second World War. The Jewish victims were ordered to take off their shoes, and were then shot so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away.

As the end of the war drew closer, and the Nazis more brutal, Lutz realised that his diplomatic letters might no longer offer protection and so he set up 76 safe houses in the city. He told the authorities that each house was an annex of the Swiss legation and so, according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Nazis were not allowed access. Among the safe houses was one known as ‘The Glass House’ which sheltered around 3,000 Jews. The Red Cross and Swedish embassy also set up safe houses and there were a total of 120 in Budapest by the end of the war. Carl Lutz’s efforts to undermine the Nazi genocide were so extensive and so openly defiant of the Nazis that the German Proconsul in Hungary asked for permission to assassinate him; Berlin never answered.

In the winter of 1944-45 the Soviet Army was moving westward through Hungary and targeted Budapest. For two months the city suffered an horrific bombardment which resulted in a Russian victory in February 1945. Lutz was recalled home to Switzerland. While not necessrily expecting to be rewarded for his bravery Lutz was stunned to actually be reprimanded for overstepping his authority in saving the Jews. That may seem strange to us today but the main reason that Cal Lutz was not celebrated as a hero was the concept of Swiss neutrality. Switzerland was determined to be neutral at all times and Lutz’s actions had compromised that position.

Whilst in Budapest Lutz’s wife Gertrud (‘Trudi’) was a constant help and support to him. One of the women they helped was Magda Csányi who had gone to Lutz to ask for help for her young daughter, Agnes. Lutz gave them a lettere of protection in 1944, and when the Russian bombardment began they took shelter in the Swiss consulate. Although the end of the war brought a happy ending for Magda and her daughter it was less so for Trudi as her husband, Carl, had fallen in love with the Hungarian. The Lutz’s were divorced, and Carl and Magda were married.

Lutz died in Bern, Switzerland, in 1975.

Carl Lutz Righteous Among Nations Plaque Washington, DC

Although Lutz had been criticised for his actions when he returned to Switzerland in 1945 things slowly changed and, in 1958, the government honoured him for his actions. There are a number of streets in Switzerland named after him but few people know who he was or why he is remembered. Other nations have also commemorated the heroic stand which Carl Lutz made, and the thousands he saved from Hitler’s Holocaust.

  • In 1963, a street in Haifa, Israel was named after him.
  • In 1965, Lutz was the first Swiss national named to the list of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.
  • Lutz received the Cross of Honor, Order of Merit, from the Federal Republic of Germany.
  • In 1991, a memorial dedicated to him was erected at the entrance to the old Budapest ghetto.
  • In 2014 George Washington University in Washington, DC, posthumously honoured Lutz with the President’s Medal in a ceremony attended by various international dignitaries and his step-daughter Agnes Hirschi.
  • His name has been included in The Raoul Wallenberg-memorial at the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest.
  • A street in Jerusalem has been named after him.
  • In November 2017 a memorial above the Sea of Galilee was inaugurated in his honour.
Carl Lutz can be easily described as “forgotten hero” in his home country Switzerland. In Israel however the situation is different, as he was the first Swiss to be recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations”. A new scenic lookout high above the Sea of Galilee was inaugurated in his honour in November 2017

Recommended Read – House of the Hanged by Mark Mills

France, 1935: At the poor man’s end of the Riviera sits Le Rayol, a haven for artists, expatriates and refugees. Here, a world away from the rumblings of a continent heading towards war, Tom Nash has rebuilt his life after a turbulent career in the Secret Intelligence Service. His past, though, is less willing to leave him behind. When a midnight intruder tries to kill him, Tom knows it is just a matter of time before another assassination attempt is made. Gathered at Le Rayol for the summer months are all those he holds most dear, including his beloved goddaughter Lucy. Reluctantly, Tom comes to believe that one of them must have betrayed him. If he is to live, Tom must draw his enemy out, but at what cost to himself and the people he loves…?

House of the Hanged is a thriller with the majority of the story set in the mid-1930’s when the threat of war hangs over Europe once more, but no one is sure whether it will be fascist Germany who is the enemy, or communist Russia, or maybe a combination of the two.

The novel begins almost twenty years earlier in revolutionary Russia with the main character, Tom, failing to save the life of the woman he loves. The story swiftly moves on to the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War where Tom has given up working for British Intelligence and settled down in the south of France. As the novel progresses we learn more about Tom’s work, how it affected him, and how he is now trying to redeem himself, put the past behind him, and enjoy a life of peace. Each year Tom invites friends to join him at his villa for the summer; he also extends a welcome to refugees, particularly from Russia, as though his efforts to help them may in some way atone for not saving his love. After the thrilling opening the pace of the novel slows as we settle into the relaxed lifestyle of cocktail parties, sailing, swimming etc. in the south of France, but there is already a feeling that this year will not be like those which have gone before. When an attempt is made on Tom’s life the pace quickens again as he begins to question those around him – one of the people he is close to, perhaps someone he loves, has betrayed him.

Mr Mills has created a cast of well-drawn and believable characters in this novel, and the reader will enjoy learning about them and how they could be involved in the attempts to kill Tom. Is the threat to him linked to the current political climate, or has his past in Russia finally caught up with him? (Don’t worry, no spoilers here!) Tom is so unsure of the people around him that he keeps the danger to him a secret; all is calm on the surface, but the author has deftly created an undercurrent of fear and suspense which draws the reader in, helped in no part by his skilled writing, particularly in dialogue. Mr Mills has obviously researched this period of European history and has therefore been able to contrast the relaxed lifestyle of a particular social group on the French Riviera with the tension of a continent edging ever closer to all-out war. He has an evocative style which leaves the reader feeling immersed in a particular place and time – it is almost possible to feel the heat of the Mediterranean sun, the coolness of the water and the everchanging breeze – yet, at the heart, this is a well-paced cat and mouse thriller in which the pace is not slowed by the historical detail.

House of the Hanged is a classic spy story which would make a great holiday read for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries and intrigue. I will certainly be trying other books by this author.

House Of The Hanged can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Mark Mills and his work here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

A wartime Christmas

Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.

As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade  in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which  meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.

Poster issued by the National Savings Committee. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16433)

Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper  impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.

Children at Fen Ditton Junior School (Cambridgeshire) making paper chains for Christmas..© IWM (D 23619)

Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).

© IWM (D 23296)

American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.

© IWM (EA 10182)

Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.

A Shelter in Camden Town under a Brewery: Christmas Eve, 1940, by Olga Lehmann. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1899

Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.

Ready for Christmas: the Canteen under St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, 1941, by Edmund Knapp © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 800)

Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the  armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.

May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for  a happy and peaceful  Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.

Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode. Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change for ever.

Right from the start Belgravia immerses the reader in life in Victorian times with its detailed descriptions of two families. The initial scenes at a grand ball on the eve of Waterloo cleverly introduce the families who will become the main protagonists two decades later, as well as giving an initial insight into a society where class and position were all important. But things were changing in the nineteenth century, and this novel deftly portrays the currents of prejudice faced by wealthy self-made families when they came into contact with those with inherited wealth. This conflict is the backdrop to a story of love and loss, hope and fear, prosperity and debt, and as such it draws us in.

As always, Mr Fellowes has created a cast of characters who are all too human, with all the strengths and foibles which we possess ourselves. We can feel sympathy for some whilst others draw feelings of anger or even contempt from us as they live life in their ivory towers, expecting everything but giving nothing in return. The detailed research conducted by the author places these characters in an authentic historical setting where such behaviour was the norm, and it is a testament to skilled writing that we see the events of the novel through the eyes of Victorians and not our own with our two hundred years of hindsight. Belgravia immerses us in the past with its descriptions of houses, parties, costumes and transport of a bygone age; I found the description of the development of central London and its architecture during that period particularly interesting.

As with Downton Abbey Mr Fellowes cleverly interweaves the lives of the wealthy with those of their servants creating a novel which is well-paced with interesting plot twists to keep the reader wanting to find out more. With a deft touch the author gives us light romance, humour, mystery, suspense, scandal, conflict, and murderous intent. Belgravia is a classic love story which would appeal to anyone who loves books in a similar style to that of Jane Austin.

Mr Fellowes is able to bring the past alive for us is a way which helps us to understand the social and political conflicts of a time which, in some ways, is not too different from our own where reputation is all important for many people. If you like historical fiction, and enjoyed Downton Abbey, then I can pretty much guarantee that you will enjoy Belgravia.

Belgravia can be found on Kindle

You can find out more about Belgravia here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

(New York Times Bestseller)

In Nazi-occupied Holland, seventeen-year-old Noa snatches a baby from a train bound for the concentration camps, fleeing with him into the snowy wilderness surrounding the train tracks.

Passing through the woods is a German circus, led by the heroic Herr Neuhoff. They agree to take in Noa and the baby, on one condition: to earn her keep, Noa must master the flying trapeze – under the tutorage of mysterious aerialist, Astrid.

Soaring high above the crowds, Noa and Astrid must learn to trust one another…or plummet. But with the threat of war closing in, loyalty can become the most dangerous trait of all.

In this novel Noa, a Dutch teenager who falls pregnant after a one-night stand with a German soldier, is disowned by her family and forced to give up her baby. She later comes across a train pulling a cattle truck full of Jewish babies en-route to a concentration camp, and impulsively takes a child – partly because of her horror at the situation and partly because of the loss of her own child which has left her feeling guilty and bereft. Noa gets lost in a snow storm and expects to die, but is rescued by a travelling circus where she makes a strange alliance with Astrid who has her own complicated history as a Jew who had once been married to a German officer. The premise of this story may seem far-fetched but, surprisingly, it is based on a number of true stories from the Second World War. In her notes at the end of the novel Ms Jenoff explains how she came across two stories in the Yad Vashem archives whilst doing research for her job as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department handling Holocaust issues in Poland. The first story was an account of a boxcar full of babies being sent to a concentration camp, the second was the story of a German circus which had sheltered Jews during the war (the owner, Adolf Althoff, was named Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem). The author has taken these stories and woven them together to create a fictional circus with characters and incidents which give us a glimpse of the fear and hardship of those who put humanity above nationality during one of the darkest periods of the 20th century.

Using parallel narratives Ms Jenoff tells an inspiring story of two very different women brought together by war; characters who are believable because they are so flawed – capable of generosity and selflessness at times, and at other times quite reckless and selfish; women who are changed for the better by the tragedies they have to endure. I must admit that I found Noa’s almost instant love for Luc, and his for her, rather improbable; for me this is the weakest part of the novel but, setting that aside, it does help the author to explore one or two other themes connected to war and conflict, particularly how a family (in this case Luc’s) can be divided by their beliefs and by what they feel is the best way for them to protect the people around them. Noa also seemed rather reckless at times as she knowingly did things which could jeapordise the safety of others but, having said that, one must remember that the character is just seventeen years old and I’m sure that the characteristic traits of a teenager could not be totally surpressed even during a time of war! The focus of this novel is on the relationship of these two women rather than the war itself, and I find this to be one of the strengths of the book. The two women journey from jealousy and suspicion to a grudging respect, and then even love for each other.

Ms Jennoff has also shown a detailed knowledge of circus life in her writing. The atmosphere of the circus ring is vividly evoked – the excitement and glamour as seen from the perspective of the customers. Yet this is well contrasted with life behind the scenes – the shabbiness, the hard work, the lack of privacy, the monotony. The author also conveys how life became much more difficult for German circuses during the war as restrictions were placed on them by the Nazis, yet the determination that ‘the show must go on’ shines through, particularly as the circus brings a feeling of normality and escapism to the people of towns and villages living under German occupation.

‘The Orphan’s Tale’ has a well-structured plot which is well paced with the tension rising steadily to the ultimate climax in the big top. Interestingly the pivitol role is a baby who has no words to speak and no actions which influence the tale; the purpose of his character is, in my view, to be a symbol for all those who were victims of the Nazis. The child represents every Jew, or gypsy, or homosexual, or disabled person taken by the regime; it doesn’t really matter who he is or where he came from, the underlying current of this novel is that he should survive to tell the tale and to live a life denied to so many others. ‘The Orphan’s Tale’ is historical fiction with a focus on how ordinary people survive during times of conflict and upheaval rather than on the key events of the war. If you are fond of character driven  historical novels you will probably enjoy this.

The Orphan’s Tale can  be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Ms Jenoff here

You can  find more of my Recommended  Reads here