Recommended Read – The Slaves Of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Measuring out the wartime days in a small town on the Thames, Miss Roach is not unattractive but no longer quite young. The Rosamund Tea Rooms boarding house, where she lives with half a dozen others, is as grey and lonely as its residents. For Miss Roach, ‘slave of her task-master, solitude’, a shaft of not altogether welcome light is suddenly beamed upon her, with the appearance of a charismatic and emotional American Lieutenant. With him comes change – tipping the precariously balanced society of the house and presenting Miss Roach herself with a dilemma.

Published just after the war (1947) The Slaves Of Solitude is set in 1943 and is a book about war from which war is remarkably absent. Set in the fictional town of Thames Lockdon (based on Henley-on-Thames) the novel reflects a provincial tranquillity where everything is touched by the conflict – from blackouts to food shortages, lack of small comforts to the arrival of the ubiquitous GI’s. Patrick Hamilton beautifully captures the narrow world and pettiness of middle England during the Second World War, portraying ordinary lives lived in extraordinary circumstance.

The central character of this novel, Miss Roach, left London after being bombed-out, and now resides at the Rosamund Tea Rooms with an eclectic mix of characters. In her mid-thirties, her prim timidity makes her the butt of the bullying Mr Thwaites, and she spends much of her time re-playing her conversations with him (and others) in her head. That is something which we all do, and Miss Roach finds herself with the same dilemma – does this re-playing of conversation clear up what was said or cloud matters even further! As the novel progresses, life brightens for Miss Roach (who hates to be referred to by her Christian name) when she meets a charming though somewhat enigmatic American soldier, and also befriends a German émigré – a woman not too far from her own age.

Building on the relationship between these three people and Mr Thwaites the story unfolds with gentle humour, quiet action and circuitous conversations. On the periphery of these interactions, we find Mr Prest who is seen as an oddity and ignored be his fellow residents at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, yet he pursues a secret life in London. As the book reaches its conclusion it is Mr Prest who is the instigator of Miss Roach’s ‘purification’.

The Slaves Of Solitude is a brilliantly written tragicomedy carefully detailed to evoke a specific time and place in which Miss Roach’s silent observations of her fellow guests tellingly reveal that this could be any time and any place. The characters are superbly drawn and the author has used his masterful knowledge of language to bring them to life with all their foibles; he handles the full range of human emotions with a light and deft touch which cannot but resonate with the reader.

For a gentle and humorous read you would find it hard to better The Slaves Of Solitude.

The Slaves Of Solitude can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Patrick Hamilton here

Recommended Read – Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

When 14-year-old Sophie encounters a mysterious mentor who introduces her to philosophy, mysteries deepen in her own life. Why does she keep getting postcards addressed to another girl? Who is the other girl? And who, for that matter, is Sophie herself? To solve the riddle, she uses her new knowledge of philosophy, but the truth is far stranger than she could have imagined.

An addictive blend of mystery, philosophy and fantasy, Sophie’s World is an international phenomenon which has been translated into 60 languages and sold more than 40 million copies.

Sophie’s World is a unique look at the history of philosophy combined with an engaging and thought-provoking story. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the purpose of life? These are questions which we all ponder at one time or another, yet many people don’t delve into philosophy in the search of answers because they feel that it will be beyond them. That is precisely why Jostein Gaarder wrote this novel. I used Sophie’s World when teaching philosophy to teenagers who, without exception, found it a fascinating way to study the subject.

Sophie’s World leads the reader on a journey through time from the earliest history of philosophical thought to the philosophers of today, presenting their ideas in a clear and concise manner. The style of this novel, with a teacher-student relationship in which Sophie is able to ask the questions we, too, would like to ask, is an excellent vehicle for the subject. Mr Gaarder’s writing is clear, the different styles for the philosophical discourse and the ‘story’ making it clear as to where we are at that precise moment. Some of the philosophical ideas may require re-reading to fully comprehend but it is well worth the effort.

Alongside the philosophers we are introduced to fictional characters – Sophie, the philosopher, Sophie’s mother and friend, the Major and his daughter – all of whom are well-described and add to the well-rounded dimensions of this novel. Although Sophie’s World Might sound like heavy reading the ‘story within the story’ often has touches of gentle humour which lightens the mood, and none of the philosophical explanations is over long so the reader doesn’t feel ‘bogged down’ but encouraged to read on and find out who Sophie really is. This is a novel which I have read more than once, and each time I find something different to take away with me and ponder. Whoever you are and whatever your outlook on life, this novel will include your view and lead you to an understanding of where your personal philosophy comes from and how it fits into the whole world view.

Sophie’s World is a novel which everyone should read at least once in their life and I heartily recommend it to you.

Sophie’s World can be found on Amazon

You can find out more of my Recommended Reads here

When Boy Scouts went to war – the Gray Ranks of Poland

What do you think of if someone mentions the Boy Scouts? Probably songs around the camp fire, working for badges, and distinctive uniforms. Yet the Boy Scouts of Poland have so much more to their history. Within two years of their founding in 1916 they were participating in the Greater Poland Uprising, but their involvement in war didn’t stop there as they were also participants in the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918), the Polish-Bolshevik War (1919-1921) and the Silesian Uprisings (1919-1921). The Nazis knew of this history of Polish Scouting and so, immediately after invading Poland in 1939, Polish Scouts and Guides were labelled criminals and the organisation banned. Rather than forestalling any action by the youth however, this simply led to Scoutmaster Florian Marciniak deciding to organize the boys to fight the invaders. Through contacts with the Polish government in exile and members of the home Army who had evaded capture by the invaders, the Scouts formed a resistance movement called the Gray Ranks (Szare Szeregi) in 1940 which actively fought against the German occupation of their homeland. Although formally independent the Grey Ranks worked closely with the official Polish Resistance movement.

Polish Boy Scouts who fought in the Warsaw Uprising

Before the war the Polish Scouting Association required an oath (Scouting promise) from the boys who joined. In this simple oath they promised ‘service to the people and country, and education and improvement of their skills’. When the Gray Ranks were formed the oath was extended to include ‘I pledge to you that I shall serve with the Gray Ranks, safeguard the secrets of the organisation, obey orders, and not hesitate to sacrifice my life.’ In addition to this code was a plan of action known as “Dziś – jutro – pojutrze” (“Today – tomorrow – the day after”) –

“Today” – struggle for Poland’s independence.

“Tomorrow” – prepare for an all-national uprising and the liberation of Poland.

“The Day After” – prepare to rebuild Poland after the war.

Scoutmaster Marciniak used the pre-war scouting structure to organise his new troops. Each member of the Gray Ranks was part of a 7-person ‘Squad’; three or four squads then formed a ‘Troop’, with the troops from a specific area (city district, town or village) coming together in a ‘District’ which was then part of a ‘Region’.

One of their first operations was to distribute propaganda leaflets amongst ethnic Germans who had been re-settled in Poland from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. By signing the leaflets SS (for Szare Szeregi) the Gray Scouts were deliberately sowing confusion amongst the Germans who thought that the information was coming from the Schutzstaffel – Hitler’s SS! During late 1939 and early 1940 the Gray Scouts also helped to smuggle people out of south-eastern Poland (which was occupied by the Russians) into Hungary. The Soviet Union captured a number of these young scouts and held them at Ostashkov prison; they were executed later in 1940.

As time went on and the children received more training their activities became more frequent, and more dangerous.

Boy Scout postmen during the Warsaw Uprising

The children within the Gray Ranks were divided into groups. Boys and girls aged 12 to 14 joined units called the Zawisza (named after a medieval Polish knight and diplomat) which were not allowed to take part in any activities such as sabotage and painting slogans on walls. Instead they were trained in secret schools to be auxiliary support once the national uprising took place, the most important role they played was the Scouting Postal Service which was organised during the Warsaw Uprising.

Members of the Zawisza (both boys and girls) couldn’t wait until they were old enough to join the Combat Schools (for ages 15 and 16) where the Scouts learnt about surveillance, communications, propaganda and reconnaissanace as well as committing small acts of sabotage to inspire local people to join the struggle against the Nazis. Amongst the actions these youths participated in were:

  • Surveillance of German military units and their movements, and passing the information to the Allies – this enabled the Allies to compile a complete list of German units stationed in Poland, their insignia and approximate complements.
  • Painting patriotic and anti-German slogans on walls.
  • Distributing leaflets and fake German newspapers to both the local population and German troops.
  • Destroying German flags.
  • Setting off fire alarms to disrupt German events.
  • Rescuing national monuments which were being removed by the Germans.
  • Letting off stink-bombs in cinemas used by German troops!
Monument to the Gray Ranks in Kaszub

When members of the Gray Ranks reached the age of 17 they joined the Assault Groups which were directly subordinate to the Home Army. The boys were trained at secret NCO schools as well as at officer schools for commanders of motorised and engineering units. As well as training for battle, members of the Assault Groups also attended underground universities to gain knowledge and skills which would be needed to rebuild Poland after the war.

The actions carried out by the Assault Groups was a step up from that on the Combat Schools with the young men taking part in acts considered to be ‘major sabotage’, and they were a key part of the Home Army’s special troops. The actions they took part in included

  • Liberating prisoners from German transports and prisons.
  • Blowing up bridges and other infrastructure.
  • Carrying out the sentences of special courts – including executions.
  • Fighting in pitched battles against the occupying forces.

There were many Assault Groups in Warsaw who were formed into a number of battalions which took part in the Uprising in that city in 1945 and were as successful, if not more so, as the adult members of the Resistance. Other units joined the partisan groups which operated in the forests covering the Swietokrzyskie Mountains.

Whilst the boys of the Gray Ranks were trained to fight the Nazis the girls formed units which worked as munitions carriers, liaison officers and nurses, as well as helping with propaganda and correspondence.

Girl Guides delivering post during the Warsaw Uprising

The Polish Scouts were so well trained that by 1943 the Gray Ranks were openly taking part in resistance operations, including playing a vital role in a raid on the Gestapo prison in Warsaw where they freed 25 prisoners, amongst them the important resistance leader Jan Bytnar. In 1943 the Gray Ranks also assassinated three SS officers who had committed atrocities against the civilian population.

After their invasion of Poland the Germans had created a ‘border’ between Polish territories annexed by Hitler and the parts of the country which were merely ‘occupied’. In the seven months from August 1943 the Gray Ranks joined with the Polish Home Army to target these border posts, thirteen were destroyed although the Scouts lost one of their best leaders – Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

Tadeusz Zawadzki Zoska.

The boys of Gray Ranks played a vital role in keeping up morale amongst the civilian population, and also seeking justice. Their chief target in 1944 was SS-Brigadefuhrer Franz Kutchera who ordered the mass executions of Poles and Jews; he was assassinated by members of the Gray Ranks in February 1944.

When the Poles heard about the Allied landings in Northern Europe in June 1944 there were more 8,359 members of the Gray Ranks who had a great deal of experience in fighting the Nazis. Ready to do their bit in the final push against the Third Reich they joined with the Warsaw Uprising which began on 1st August 1944, fighting with the assault groups which attacked and liberated the Gesiowka concentration camp with the aid of a captured Panther tank. The prisoners who were freed from the camp joined in the ill-fated uprising which lasted for 63 days. The Polish Boy Scouts fought hard to the bitter end and suffered incredibly high casualties – the Zoska Battallion, for example, (named after Tadeus Zoska) lost over 70% of its boys. Those who survived the Uprising retreated to the forests and hills where they continued to fight the Germans until final victory in 1945.

Gęsiówka inmates and “Zośka”-battalion assault-group soldiers after the camp’s liberation

After the war the Polish Scouting Movement took back its pre-war name and the Gray Ranks ceased to exist. Yet the reputation of these youthful fighters was well known and they were seen as a threat by the communist authorities which now ruled Poland. The Scouting Movement was forced to become a part of the Pioneer Movement and was eventually banned in 1949 and only reinstated after the fall of communism.

Monument to Mały Powstaniec (Little Insurgent) in Warsaw, erected to commemorate all the children who fought and fell during the Warsaw Uprising

Caravans by James A Michener

First published in 1963, James A. Michener s gripping chronicle of the social and political landscape of Afghanistan is more relevant now than ever. Combining fact with riveting adventure and intrigue, Michener follows a military man tasked, in the years after World War II, with a dangerous assignment: finding and returning a young American woman living in Afghanistan to her distraught family after she suddenly and mysteriously disappears. A timeless tale of love and emotional drama set against the backdrop of one of the most important countries in the world today, Caravans captures the tension of the postwar period, the sweep of Afghanistan’s remarkable history, and the inescapable allure of the past. 

It is rare for a country to undergo change as rapidly as Afghanistan did following the end of the Second World War which makes this novel a fascinating insight to the dividing line between past and present, old and new. Caravans looks forward to the modernisation of Afghanistan through the eyes of well-educated men who had studied abroad and could see the potential within their homeland. These key characters are aware that the mullahs could halt this progress but look forward in hope to a more progressive and prosperous society. This changed Afghanistan existed when Michener wrote his novel in 1963 not knowing that the mullah’s would eventually take power and the country lose much of the progress it had made. One wonders if Michener realised that the interference of western powers which he writes about would be responsible for much of the damage that has happened to Afghanistan in the years since he wrot

The plot of Caravans revolves around the journey undertaken by Mark Miller to try to find Ellen Jasper, a missing American woman. Whilst there is adventure in spades the plot is not action-packed or a great thriller in the classical sense, its allure lies more in the sweeping vistas described in detail, and the lives of the people of Afghanistan from the political elite to the nomads who wander ancient routes irrespective of modern-day borders. The author’s knowledge of life in this remote country is incredible and described in vivid detail, but what really strikes home is his ability to get to the heart of what makes people tick. This novel delves into the nature of evil and forgiveness, the roles assigned to gender, societal expectations and a search for the unconventional. The character of Ellen Jasper is selfish and self-absorbed and I found it impossible to warm to her as a person, yet found her musings on the meaning of life fascinating at times. This ability of Michener to create multi-faceted characters is one of the things I like about this book; these could be real people who lived in 1946 or who live today, the psychology has not changed.

In some way this novel is very different from Michener’s sweeping historical sagas which follow the history of nations over centuries (think of Hawaii, Centennial, or The Covenant) as this has a more intimate focus on a single event, yet it is a fascinating story for all that. If you like historical novels that make you think then Caravans should be on your reading list.

Caravans can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about James A Michener here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

White Rose – the students who defied Hitler

April 2021 will see the issuing of a €20 sterling silver collectors coin in Germany to commemorate 100 years since the birth of Sophie Scholl. One side of the coin will feature a portrait of Sophie, and the edge of the coin will carry her words “A feeling for what is just and unjust.” Sophie Scholl was just 21 years old when she died, so why does the German government think it is so important to remember her 100th birthday?

Sophie Scholl was born in Forchtenbeerg in Germany in 1921, the fourth of six children. Her father was mayor of the town before the family moved to Ulm when Sophie was 10. The young girl was intelligent and loved learning, she was also very religious, being brought up in the Lutheran church and spending a lot of time reading about Christian philosophers and theologians.

As with the majority of young Germans in the early 1930’s Sophie joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) in 1932, when she was 12. She was quickly promoted in the movement but, as the years passed, she became disillusioned with the Nazi ideology this was based on. Her brother, Hans, who had been a keen member of the Hitler Youth, also realised that Nazi teachings did not sit well with their Christian upbringing and joined the German Youth Movement along with his brothers and friends. The boys were arrested for this in 1937, an event which had a profound effect on Sophie and her political thinking.

When the Second World War began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 Sophie’s older brothers were enlisted whilst Sophie graduated from high school in 1940. She wanted to go to university to study biology and philosophy, but a pre-requisite for university admittance was for a scholar to spend time working for the Reichsarbeitsdienst (National Labour Service). Sophie wanted to avoid this if she could and so began training as a kindergarten teacher, but the ploy did not work and she was required to do the service before she could go on to study. She hated the experience with its mind-numbing routines and military outlook but persevered in the hope of finally being able to study and to marry her boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel, who was serving on the Eastern Front.

In May 1942, after her compulsory six months on the Labour Service, Sophie finally enrolled at the University of Munich; her brother, Hans, was already studying medicine there. Hans introduced Sophie to his group of friends, all of whom enjoyed the same hobbies – walking, swimming, philosophy and theology – as well as a similar political outlook. Sophie also spent time with philosophers Carl Muth and Theodor Haecker discussing how people of conscience should act under a dictatorship, a question of great importance to her as she was forced to do war service in a metallurgical plant in Ulm in the summer vacation of 1942 whilst her father was serving time in prison after having criticised Hitler.

At the same time, Sophie’s brother Hans and his friends Christoph Probst, Kurt Huber, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Jurgen Wittenstein had decided to adopt a strategy of passive resistance to the Nazi regime; they formed a group which they called the White Rose and, in the summer of 1942, wrote and distributed four leaflets calling for an end to National Socialism. The young men felt forced into this action by information they received from Fritz Hartnagel (Sophie’s boyfriend) about the atrocities he had see in the east where he had witnessed the murder of Russian prisoners of war and learnt about the mass killing of Jews.

Sophie saw some of the White Rose leaflets and found that she agreed with them. When she realised that her brother was involved in their printing and distribution she insisted on joining White Rose herself. The addition of a woman amongst their number proved valuable as she was less likely to be stopped randomly by the SS. Sophie began to help writing the leaflets using many of the ideas she had gleaned from philosophy and the Bible to support her intellectual argument for resistance, she also helped to copy and distribute the leaflets. At first the group posted the leaflets to thousands of people all over Germany, often getting friends from as far away as Hamburg in the north and Vienna in the south to post things for them so that the authorities would think there was a large nationwide network of members of the White Rose.

Christoph Probst

The aim of the leaflets was to prick the conscience of ordinary citizens and encourage them to stand up for what was right. The third pamphlet reads: 

“Our current ‘state’ is the dictatorship of evil. We know that already, I hear you object, and we don’t need you to reproach us for it yet again. But, I ask you, if you know that, then why don’t you act? Why do you tolerate these rulers gradually robbing you, in public and in private, of one right after another, until one day nothing, absolutely nothing, remains but the machinery of the state, under the command of criminals and drunkards?”

By the fifth pamphlet the group was encouraging sabotage:

 “And now every convinced opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can fight against the present ‘state’ in the most effective way….We cannot provide each man with the blueprint for his acts, we can only suggest them in general terms, and he alone will find the way of achieving this end: Sabotage in armament plants and war industries, sabotage at all gatherings, rallies, public ceremonies, and organizations of the National Socialist Party. Obstruction of the smooth functioning of the war machine….Try to convince all your acquaintances…of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists; of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to passive resistance!”

By early 1943 Sophie and Hans felt that they were making an impact as young people began to discuss their ideas and the authorities seemed to be increasingly worried by their activities. Some citizens were also changing their attitude after Germany’s disastrous defeat at Stalingrad and the members of White Rose felt emboldened enough to hand out leaflets in person to people at the university, and to write slogans such as ‘Down with Hitler’ and ‘Freedom´ on walls all around Munich. Their sixth, and final leaflet said:

 “Even the most dull-witted German has had his eyes opened by the terrible bloodbath, which, in the name of the freedom and honour of the German nation, they have unleashed upon Europe, and unleash anew each day. The German name will remain forever tarnished unless finally the German youth stands up, pursues both revenge and atonement, smites our tormentors, and founds a new intellectual Europe. Students! The German people look to us! The responsibility is ours: just as the power of the spirit broke the Napoleonic terror in 1813, so too will it break the terror of the National Socialists in 1943.”

On 18th February 1943 Hans and Sophie were distributing leaflets in person at the university when Sophie threw some down into the atrium. Unfortunately, she was seen by the caretaker who called in the SS. Hans and Sophie were arrested by the Gestapo who found the draft for the seventh pamphlet in Han’s bag, which led to the arrest of Christoph Probst later the same day.


Mug shots of Sophie and Hans Scholl after their arrest by the Gestapo on February 18, 1943.

The three were interrogated and then subjected to a show trial on 22nd February 1943 where they tried to take responsibility for all the actions of White Rose in an attempt to save their friends, but Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and Kurt Huber were arrested later in February and put to death shortly after. The trial of the three White Rose members lasted for only half a day, at the end of which Sophie, Hans and Christoph were sentenced to death. When asked if she felt that her actins were a crime against the community Sophie replied ‘I am, now as before, of the opinion that I did the best that I could do for my nation. I therefore do not regret my conduct and will bear the consequences that result from my conduct.

The three students were executed by guillotine at 5pm the same day.The chief enforecement officer of the Munich district court attended the execution as a witness and was struck by the courage shown by Sophie. Her final words were “Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go… What does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Image of Sophie’s indictment on which she wrote ‘Freedom’. Courtesy of Institute fuer Zeitgeschichte.

Although the execution of the three members of White Rose was barely mentioned in the German press it created a stir abroad. In April 1943 the New York Times published an article about the student opposition in Munich while, in June, a BBC broadcast aimed at the German population spoke of the actions of White Rose. A copy of the sixth leaflet printed by the group was smuggled to England where it was re-printed; copies were dropped over Germany by Allied planes in July.

Grave of Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst, in the Perlacher Friedhof, next to the Stadelheim prison in Munich

Remembering White Rose

The young people who formed White Rose represent the importance of following one’s beliefs, standing up for what is right, and fighting for freedom. The German  people have remembered them in many ways –

  • Since the end of the war many schools and streets in Germany have been named after Sophie and Hans Scholl, or the White Rose group.
  • The Hockbruck army base has been re-named the Christoph Probst barracks.
  • The main lecture hall at the medical academy in Munich has been named after Hans Scholl.
  • In 1961 a German stamp featured portraits of Hans and Sophie.
  • The Geschwister-Scholl Preis is a literary prize initiated by the State Association of Bavaria of the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels and the city of Munich. Since 1980, they have annually awarded this prize to the book which “shows intellectual independence and supports civil freedom, moral, intellectual and aesthetic courage and that gives an important impulse to the present awareness of responsibility”.
  • The new instutute for political science in Munich was named the Geschwister-Scholl Institut.
  • The area in front of Munich University’s main building is named Geschwister-Scholl Platz  where the last flyer of the White Rose is set in the ground.

A memorial to the Scholl siblings and other members of the White Rose can be found in the atrium of the main building at the university.

The memorial for the White Rose in front of the main building of the Ludwig Maximilians University depicts the group’s flyers.
German Democratic Republic stamp from 1961.
2,000,000 went into circulation.

Recommended Read – Pompeii by Robert Harris

Pompeii

Another brilliant book from Robert Harris written with his usual flair for fast paced narrative which keeps the reader gripped throughout. This novel is very well plotted with a number of sub-plots which keeps you guessing as to where they will take you next. The tension around the massive eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD gradually builds up to an explosive climax (pun intended!), and although we know the horrific outcome for Pompeii and Herculaneum we don’t know what happens to the fictional individuals who feature in Mr Harris’ novel and so are kept guessing until the very end.

As with all his novels the author has conducted a huge amount of historical research which brings the ancient Roman Empire to life for us. The historically accurate depiction of life in ancient Rome – the cities and towns, luxurious villas and dingy brothels, senators and slaves, baths and aqueducts, great feasts and hunger, decadence and poverty – are impressive, the contrast between every-day life and the sudden cataclysmic eruption is gripping. Although full of incredible historical detail (information about the aqueduct is fascinating) Mr Harris deftly reveals this great depth of knowledge as part of the plot rather than a ‘knowledge dump’ which enables you to come away from Pompeii knowing more about Rome without feeling lectured to or as though the plot has been side-lined in order to educate you.

As well as historically accurate the scientific information about the volcanic eruption which has been included works extremely well and gives an immediacy and truth to the narrative, as does the inclusion of Pliny who recorded the eruption and… (read it and see!) What the author has written about Pliny is an accurate rendition of what we know happened from his own and other historical sources and, as such, the reader can quite literally feel themselves right there in the centre of one of the most cataclysmic times in Roman history.

Pompeii is a well-crafted novel; the dialogue is totally believable which gives the reader an emotional attachment to the characters; the descriptions of the eruption are incredibly realistic and draw you in – you can almost taste the dust and feel pumice stone. I never hesitate to recommend books by Robert Harris and Pompeii is no exception; an easy to read, meticulously researched, fast paced page turner which will have any lover of historical fiction gripped until the very last page.

Pompeii can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Harris here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Fish Oil and Dynamite – the story of Operation Claymore

Lofoten. Photo by Pascal Debrunner

Norway’s spectacular Lofoten Islands, which lie 100 miles within the Arctic Circle, resemble the Scottish Outer Hebrides in their rugged beauty. Yet, despite their peaceful appearance, these islands with their small ports and fish oil processing facilities were the scene of a dramatic Allied commando raid during the Second World War.

Norway had declared herself neutral at the outbreak of war in 1939, but the country’s strategic position meant that both Britain and Germany had an interest in what was happening there. In particular, the port of Narvik was important to the Germans as it allowed passage through the North Sea for the iron ore which the Nazis obtained from Sweden thus avoiding the Baltic Sea, parts of which regularly froze during the winter months. Almost as important for the Germans as this sea route, if not more so, was the fish oil which was produced in huge quantities in Norway. Why fish oil, you ask? Well, surprisingly, it was used to produce glycerin, which was then used to make nitroglycerin – a major component of dynamite.

Rear Admiral L H K Hamilton, DSO in command of the naval operations. © IWM (A 6822)

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Britain planned to mine Norwegian waters in an attempt to force retaliation from Germany, which would subsequently allow Britain to move in to protect Norway’s neutrality. Hitler initially wanted to focus his advances westwards and did not want to be seen as the aggressor in the Nordic sphere and so he also wanted to appear to be protecting Norway’s neutrality rather than invading the country. Britain’s actions by mining Norwegian waters gave him the perfect excuse to move northwards. Although Britain had planned for and expected Germany’s advance into Norway, the action came sooner than expected, leaving the Allies wrong-footed. They were able to hold the Germans out of Narvik for a few weeks but eventually had to send troops back to mainland Europe as the situation there became desperate with the British forces pinned down at Dunkirk. And so the German take-over of Norway began. In just two months the country capitulated, and King Haakon VII went to Britain with a large number of Norwegian troops to form the Free Norwegian Overseas Forces. Churchill was unhappy with the situation in Norway and planned that his first major offensive there should take place as soon as practically possible. And so began the planning for Operation Claymore.

The pom-poms of one of HM Ships silhouetted against the snow covered mountains as she lies in Kirke Fjord. © IWM (A 6799)

Operation Claymore was to take place at the beginning of 1941 with a force of 500 commandos and 52 Norwegian troops sailing to Norway with three main aims:

  • To attack the Lofoten Islands and destroy any shipping there which was engaged in the German war effort, regardless of whether the ships were German or Norwegian.
  • To attack the ports of Stamsund, Svolvar, Henningsvaer and Brettesnes to destroy as much of the fish oil industry as possible.
  • To take German prisoners, capture members of the Quisling regime, and take back to Britain any Norwegians who wished to join the Free Norwegian Force.

© IWM N 418

The attacking force, consisting of 2 landing ships and 5 destroyers, sailed from Scapa Flow in 1st March 1941. The North Sea crossing was rough, with heavy seas and high winds for the entirety of the three day crossing; then, to make matters worse, the flotilla was spotted by a German reconnaissance plane. For some reason the Germans did not pursue this sighting leaving the commando force to arrive at their destination on 4th March unmolested. Not only that but, to the surprise of the attacking force, the harbour lights were lit and the German occupiers seemed to have no idea that an Allied attack could take place.

RAID ON THE LOFOTEN ISLANDS, 4 MARCH 1941 (N 397) Fires burning in Stamsund as British commandos leave. © IWM.

The landings began at 06:45 and, having met no opposition, were over by 06:50! The cold was so intense that the sea-spray froze on the uniforms of the attackers as their landing craft grounded on thick ice. The surprise was total, with the only German shots being fired from the Krebs, an armed trawler, which was subsequently sunk. The attacking commandos ran towards their objectives through the early risers of the local population who said and did nothing, the surprise being so total that they thought they were witnessing a German training drill! When the Allies came into contact with their first Germans the enemy immediately laid down their weapons and surrendered.

© IWM N 419

Prisoners were taken and explosives set. Soon the air was thick with the smoke from burning fish oil and there was the sound of explosions as the ships in all four harbours were sunk. In the meantime, the local population served ersatz coffee to members of the attacking force. 60 collaborators were identified and held with the 225 German prisoners. The success of the mission was so overwhelming that the commandos even had time to send a telegraph from the office in Stamsund to Hitler reading ‘You said in your last speech German troops would meet the British wherever they landed. Where are your troops?’

Allied troops were on the Lofotens islands for less than six hours, but in that time they destroyed the Lofotens Cod Boiling Plant and ten other factories; in all around 800,000 gallons of fish oil paraffin were destroyed along with 9 ships. By 13:00 hours the raid was over, all of the landing force along with the German prisoners and Norwegian collaborators had embarked; and with them were 314 volunteers, includindg 8 women, who would travel to Britaina to join the Free Norwegian  Forces. The British also repatriated the English manager of Allen & Hanbury chemists who had been trapped on the islands at the outbreak of the war. And the cost to the commandos? One officer accidentally shot himself in the leg!

© IWM N 399

Not only was the destruction of ships and fish oil a great success, but there was an even more important outcome to the raid when it was discovered that the armed trawler, Krebs, had an Enigma cypher machine! Although the machine itself was lost to the Allies when it was thrown overboard they did manage to recover a set of rotor wheels for it, along with a number of code books.

Back in England Churchill saw the raid as a complete success, not only because of the destruction of the shipping and oil, the capture of Enigma parts (which were used at Bletchley Park for months and led to Allied shipping being able to avoid Hitler’s Atlantic Wolf Packs), and the number of prisoners for no Allied losses, but also because Hitler was now aware that the Allies would always be a threat to Norway and so many German troops were tied down there rather than being used in other theaters of the war.

Yet, perhaps above all, Operation Claymore gave a much-needed boost to the morale of Britain at a time when victories were few. It gave renewed hope, to both British and Norwegian, that the Germans were not invincible and that future victory against the Nazi regime was possible.

© IWM N 396

‘Operation Fish’ – the gold that crossed the Atlantic to keep it safe from Hitler

“Hope you won’t mind our dropping in unexpectedly like this, but we’ve brought along quite a large shipment of fish.” This was the strange comment from British banker, Alexander Craig, when he arrived at Bonaventure Station in Montreal on 2nd July 1940, yet the ‘cargo of fish’ he had brought for his Canadian counterparts contained no fish at all. The train standing at the platform was actually carrying 2,229 bullion boxes, each containing 4 bars of gold with a total value of £30 million. As well as the gold there were 500 boxes of marketable securities worth in excess of £200 million. This was a massive amount of money, yet it was only the start of Operation Fish, a wartime mission so secret that few people know of it even today.

Canada set up a Central Banking System in 1935, and within a year Britain was purchasing and holding ‘earmarked gold’ there (that is gold bought in Canada and kept there for safety or trading). By the end of 1936 the British government, with one eye on early signs of aggression from Germany, was holding 3,304 gold bars in Canada, each with a value of $US 14,000. With the prospect of war continuing to grow, Britain approached the Bank of Canada in early 1939 with a request that it would receive and hold gold reserves sent from Britain to keep them safe and to make it easier for Britain to pay America for arms and munitions if war broke out. At this point there was talk of a Lend-Lease agreement but it was still in the early stages and the Americans were demanding cash payment from Britain for all deliveries of ships, planes, tanks and munitions.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrive in Vancouver, 1939

The first shipment of £30 million of gold bullion from Britain was sent ‘under cover’ with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they made an official visit to Canada in the spring of 1939. The project was so secret that no records of the arrival of the gold in Halifax were kept, instead the cargo was unloaded at a quiet out of the way pier where 100 armed mounted police waited to transfer the gold to trains for shipping to Ottawa. Once war broke out in September of that year shipments began in earnest.

HMS Enterprise, one o f the ships used to transport Britain’s gold © IWM FL 5389

In early 1940 the British Government used its Emergency Powers Act to force civilians to register their paper securities; these were later confiscated by the Government and sent to Canada to be used in the war effort. The decision to send Britain’s wealth to the New World was not an easy one to make as the ships carrying it would be at the mercy of Hitler’s U-Boats which were then wreaking havoc in the Atlantic. Yet with the prospect of an imminant invasion of the British Isles Churchill believed he had no choice, if Britain was overrun the Government would need a base oversees from where it could direct the Empire in it’s continuing fight against Nazism. Transferring the gold was such a great risk, however, that the British War Cabinet did not inform the War Risk Insurance Office of the shipments knowing that if even just one of the ships was lost the value could never be compensated. In the month of May 1940 alone, over 100 ships were sunk whilst making the Atlantic crossing – that was more than 40% of all transatlantic travel – yet, miraculously, not a single gold transport was lost during the entire war.

Guarding the gold

When the shipments arrived in Halifax the boxes were put on sealed trains guarded by the RCMP. They travelled first to Montreal where the paper securities were unloaded and sent to the Sun Life Building to be stored in an underground vault three stories below ground level, Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers kept a 24 hour guard. The vault beneath the Sun Life Building had to be constructed in a hurry, so a rumour that the British Crown Jewels were being held there was deliberately spread as a cover for the increased activity and security.

Sun LIfe Building c.1935

After the securities had been unloaded the trains would continue their journey from Montreal and deliver the gold to the Bank Of Canada’s vaults in Ottawa. Each rail car could only hold 150 – 200 boxes as they were so heavy, and so as many as five trains were sometimes needed to ship the gold from just one transatlantic convoy. There was so much gold (in excess of 1,500 tons) that it filled the 6,000 square foot vault, and the Bank needed to hire more than 120 retired Canadian bankers, brokers and investment firm secretaries to keep records. By the end of Operation Fish, the Bank of Canada was home to more gold than anywhere in the world outside of Fort Knox in the United States. The movement of such vast amounts was a highly labour-intensive task and the cost of transport was over $CAN 1 million.

Bank of Canada building c.1942

By the end of Operation Fish Britain’s assets in Canada exceeded over 1,500 tons of gold and over $300 billion in Securities (2020 value).

Britain was not the only country to send its gold to Canada for safe keeping. In June 1940 a single carrier from France shipped a staggering 254 tons of bullion across the Atlantic with an estimated value $US 305 million. Whilst the shipment was at sea the German Blitzkrieg rolled across northern Europe and France was defeated. The French government authorised Britain to take over France’s debts and assets to continue fighting the war, leading Churchill to request that the French gold be put with the British reserves. Unfortunately, the captain of the ship decided that he would take his orders from the hastily set up Vichy Government and so he slipped out of Halifax and sailed with his cargo to Martinique whilst France’s remaining assets in Ottawa were frozen until the end of the war.

It is testament to the high levels of security surrounding the shipment and storage of Britain’s wealth that no one found out about ‘Operation Fish’. The 5,000 employees of Sun Life never suspected what was being stored beneath their feet, and even though hundreds of people were involved in transporting, counting, recording, and storing the huge amounts of gold and securities the Axis intelligence agencies never found out about the ‘golden fish’ whch travelled from Great Britain to Canada.

 

Recommended Read – The Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

WINNER OF THE COMMONWEALTH PRIZE FOR FICTION
Based on a true story, Lawrence Hill’s epic novel spans three continents and six decades to bring to life a dark and shameful chapter in our history through the story of one brave and resourceful woman.

Abducted from her West African village at the age of eleven and sold as a slave in the American South, Aminata Diallo thinks only of freedom – and of finding her way home again.

After escaping the plantation, torn from her husband and child, she passes through Manhattan in the chaos of the Revolutionary War, is shipped to Nova Scotia, and then joins a group of freed slaves on a harrowing return odyssey to Africa.

The Book Of Negroes is an incredibly moving story which draws you in right from the first page when we are introduced to Aminata, an eleven-year-old Muslim girl who can read the Quran and is already an accomplished midwife – not the naked savage which was how the peoples of Africa were described in a perverted excuse for the slave trade. Firmly rooted in historical fact, Mr Hill enables the reader to discover more about a multitude of aspects of life for those who were torn from their homes and sold into slavery. This is a compelling story moving from freedom in Africa to the indigo plantations of the New World, from initial freedom in New York to failed promises by the British in Nova Scotia and on the exodus back to Africa; and the character of Aminata is a believable and compekking companion on our journey.

The Book of Negroes in the title is an actual historical document and is the largest single document about black people in North America up until the eighteenth century. Containing the names and details of 3,000 black people who received freedom from the British at the end of the American War of Independence, Mr Hill has utilised this document as a source for the characters who people this novel. Some of these characters are real historical individuals, but the fictional ones are also totally believable as they are well drawn, both physically and emotionally, and give an insight into the traumatic lives that these people lived. The dialogue is also strong and believable, which allows the story to develop and flow realistically.

The author has great skill at descriptive prose, and the reader cannot fail to be moved by the beautiful rendering of the land or the visceral horrors of the Atlantic crossing, the contrasting life on slave plantations and in the city, the clothes and food of the different strata of society. But, above all, this is a beautiful and compelling, dark and harrowing, totally engrossing story of the slave trade.

As the world begins to openly face the history of slavery, I believe that The Book Of Negroes is a must read for all.

The Book Of Negroes can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Lawrence Hill here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The teacher who hid children in baskets – the story of Johan van Hulst

Johan Willem van Hulst

On Holocaust Remembrance Day this year I would like to commemorate the life and work of Johan Willem van Hulst who was just an ordinary school Director in the Netherlands before the outbreak of the Second World War, but what he saw happening there led him to help in the saving of over 600 Jewish children destined for Nazi concentration camps.

In 1943 Johan was working as Director of a Calvinist teacher training college opposite the Hollandse Schouwberg theatre in Amsterdam. The theatre was the main clearing site for Jews who had received deportation notices from the Nazi government, whilst just two doors down from the college was a crèche for Jewish children.

Walter Süskind

Many of the records of those who were detained in Hollandse Schouwberg have been lost, but it is estimated that about 46,000 were deported from there to the death camps in the 18 months from mid-1942 to the end of 1943 (the majority going to Westerbork, Auschwitz and Sobibor). The deportation centre was run by a German Jew, Walter Süskind, who had links with the SS and so his Jewish heritage was overlooked; but Süskind had an ulterior motive to working at the centre. Soon after taking over as Administrator he began to falsify the number of arrivals, perhaps saying that 65 had arrived rather than 80 and so allowing 15 people to escape

In early 1943 the Nazis appropriated the crèche across the road and Süskind began to place children there to await deportation. Within days of taking over he was working with the head of the crèche, Henriëtte Pimentel, to sneak children to safety when a tram passed in front of the building, shielding their activities from the Germans in the theatre. Staff at the crèche began to smuggle out as many of the children as they could and placed them with families in Amsterdam and the nearby countryside who were willing to hide them, but it was a slow and dangerous way to save the children so Süskind approached Johan van Hulst to ask for his help.

Henriëtte Pimentel

Johan offered the use of his college as a transit point for the children who were passed over the fence which bordered the gardens of both properties and then hidden in one of the classrooms until picked up by members of the rescue organization; he also helped to find families who were willing to risk their lives to shelter these children. Süskind ensured that none of the Jewish children whose parents agreed to the subterfuge were registered at the deportation centre and so their disappearances were never noticed. It was heartbreaking for the parents who gave up their children, yet they believed it was the best chance they had to survive the war.

The college and creche

The children who were rescued varied in age from babes-in-arms to 12-year-olds. Süskind canvassed families who were willing to take them in, asking them for physical descriptions of themselves and their own children so that he could place the rescued children where they would best fit in. Once a safe house had been arranged the children were smuggled out in bags or laundry baskets, often with the help of the students from the training college, or perhaps openly on a bicycle by a member of the Resistance pretending that the child was their own.

In order to prevent suspicion only a handful of children were rescued at a time, and van Hulst later said that this was one of the most difficult parts of the work he did during the Occupation, knowing that for every child he saved many more could not be helped. “Everyone understood that if 30 children were brought, we could not save 30 children. We had to make a choice, and one of the most horrible things was to make a choice.”

As well as making difficult choices the group of rescuers also had to keep on good terms with the Nazis; Süskind and the staff at the crèche had to continue their jobs as though supporting the deportations whilst Hulst would often behave as if he was on the side of the German occupiers. He would frequently tell his students off for watching the SS guards and tell the to ‘Let these people do their jobs, it is none of your business’ whilst winking at the guards to try to gain their trust and confidence, an act of theatre which seemed to work.

van Hulst 1969

Things did not always run smoothly and there was one occasion in 1943 when a Dutch education Ministry official discovered several Jewish children hiding in the college and asked van Hulst to explain what they were doing there. After a long silence he replied ‘you don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?’ The official wrote up his report with no mention of the children. On another occasion a government inspector visited the college unexpectedly and heard babies crying; by an incredible stroke of luck the inspector was a member of the Resistance and joined in Johan’s work of saving the children. These incidents convinced van Hulst, who was married with two children of his own, that he must say nothing to his wife so that she would not have any compromising information if he was caught and arrested.

Henriëtte Pimentel

The rescue of Jewish children had been running for many months, but it all came to an abrupt end in July 1943 when Henriëtte Pimentel was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died that September.* 100 children from the crèche were sent with her and suffered the same fate. On the day of Henriëtte’s arrest van Hulst was able to save one last group of children which turned out to be one of the most harrowing experiences of the war for him as he tried to decide just how many he could save without the Nazis noticing. As he said many years later, ‘Now try to imagine 80, 90, perhaps 70 or 100 children standing there, and you have to decide which children to take with you… That was the most difficult day of my life… You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on I asked myself: “Why not 13?”’

Walter Süskind and his daughter

In 1944 Walter Süskind was sent to Westerbork concentration camp with his wife and daughter. None of them survived the war. **

It was at this point that the creche and the deportation centre at the theatre were closed, but that did not stop Johan van Hulst who continued to help people in hiding as well as defying attempts to conscript his students into the German army. Three weeks before liberation Johan received a tip-off that the Germans were coming for him; he managed to escape just minutes before they arrived and was forced to spend the next weeks in hiding until the Allies arrived.

In his later life, Johan van Hulst spent 25 years as a Dutch senator and was a Member of the European Parliament from 1961 to 1968. His old school now houses the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands, and the joint wall which played such a crucial part in the saving of so many lives carries a permanent exhibition in van Hulst’s honour.

In 1973, Johan van Hulst was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given by the state of Israel to Gentiles who helped Jews during the Second World War. Later on, in 2015, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told van Hulst that ‘We say: those who save one life saves a universe. You saved hundreds of universes.’

van Hulst and Netanyahu

Johan van Hulst died on 22 March 2018 at the age of 107. A bridge in Amsterdam close to the college where he carried out his rescue of Jewish children has been renamed The Johan van Hulstbrug. But this brave man was only one of many who risked their lives to help the Jewish population of the Netherlands at a truly horrific time – the Netherlands has 5,851 Righteous Gentiles, the world’s highest number after Poland.

“I only think about what I have not been able to do, about those few thousand children that I could not save.” Johan van Hulst.

* Henriëtte Pimentel has not been formally recognised for her role and her sacrifice by Yad Vashem

** As a Jew Süskind was not recognised as Righteous Among the Nations as this honour is reserved for Gentiles.