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.
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.
During the Second World War women took on many jobs that were previously reserved for men. One such job was with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ‘Attagirls’ delivered planes from the factory to operational airfields, which freed up male pilots to fly missions.
One of the 164 women who flew these planes was Joy Lofthouse, who died this week aged 94.
Please do take a look at his article and listen to Joy, who was interviewed earlier this year. A remarkable lady who did a remarkable job for her country.
At 11am on 11th November we remember the ending of the First World War, and the men and women who lost their lives in other wars and other parts of the world. Much of our focus is often on Europe, and those who fought and died in other theatres of war can sometimes be forgotten or relegated to the sidelines. One such group are the men who fought and died in North Africa during the Second World War.
Mersa Matruh is an ancient fishing port dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. It was also the place where Anthony and Cleopatra would escape for seclusion – at the time it was a village of sponge fishermen where the two lovers would relax and swim naked together in the sea. Allied troops were stationed in Mersa Matruh during the First World War, and at the time of the Second World War it was at the end of a narrow-gauge railway from Alexandria and as such was an important supply post for the Allies. The Allied troops who fought in North Africa came from all around the world – from the United Kingdom to Australia, from India to New Zealand, and the British Eighth Army (including the famed Desert Rats) set out on some of their most important operations from Mersa Matruh. Mersa was also the site of a crushing Allied defeat by Rommel’s Afrika Corps in June 1942.
I would like to thank Ian from the Desert Rats website for allowing me to use the following poem as a tribute to all those who fought and died during the North African campaigns of World War 2.
THE GRAVES AT MERSA MATRUH.
How often do you folks at home
Think of sandy graves without a stone,
Where sleep our comrades brave and true,
Out in the desert at Mersa Matruh.
The raging sandstorms awake them not,
They’re cool below but above is hot
The trails of the desert are over them,
They fought and died like Englishmen.
Do you not feel pride in your heart
Where you think may be a friend took part
in the struggles for the empire, Britain and you,
And lay down their lives at Mersa Matruh.
On honoured scroll their names shall shine,
And will not dim through pass of time
In years to come we will remember them
As soldiers of the empire and British men.
Then forget them not you folks at home,
Those men who lie in the desert alone,
They died for their country, Britain and you
In the western desert of Mersa Matruh.
Winter, 1916. In St Petersburg, snow is falling in a country on the brink of revolution. Beautiful and headstrong, Sashenka Zeitlin is just sixteen. As her mother parties with Rasputin and her dissolute friends, Sashenka slips into the frozen night to play her role in a dangerous game of conspiracy and seduction.
Twenty years on, Sashenka has a powerful husband and two children. Around her people are disappearing but her own family is safe. But she’s about to embark on a forbidden love affair which will have devastating consequences.
Sashenka’s story lies hidden for half a century, until a young historian goes deep into Stalin’s private archives and uncovers a heart-breaking story of passion and betrayal, savage cruelty and unexpected heroism – and one woman forced to make an unbearable choice …
Sashenka is a classic historical fiction novel focusing on the lives of a family across generations. Encompassing the story of Russia through the 20th century Mr Montefiore has woven a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of Soviet Russia and its impact on Sashenka, the daughter of a wealthy family, who embraces the message of equality within the communist doctrine. As with all good books in this genre a number of historical figures are featured, and it is their interaction with fictional characters which is so appealing – you can know the history of Russia, but the way it impacts on this fictional family is new to you and, as such, draws you in.
As always, Mr Motefiore has conducted detailed research into the period he is writing about. The description of St Petersburg under the last of the Tsars gives an insight into two very different Russias – high society with its materialism and decadence, coupled with the secret police and their attempts to destroy the fledgling communist party set against the extreme poverty of millions of women and children whose men are sent to fight in the First World War. The novel then leaps forward to the Soviet period under Stalin and focuses on the fear and insecurity of people like Sashenka, people who have been loyal communists from the very beginning yet are just as likely to suffer under Stalin’s mercurial rule. The final section is moving in the way it portrays life after communism, the search of people who lived through difficult times for those they loved and lost, most not expecting any kind of reunion but just wanting to know what happened to their families.
The author of Sashenka has created believable characters who can be idealistic yet brutal, worldly yet naïve, and who it is easy to sympathise with. This is not a comfortable novel to read, at times it can be quite brutal, but to omit such sections would give a false picture of those times in Russia and do a great disservice to the real people on whose lives these fictional characters are based. The style of Mr Montefiore’s writing is clear and precise at times but can then switch to a description of deep love and passion, whether between a man and woman or a woman for her children, and as such the book has a great emotional impact.
Sashenka is a novel full of plot twists and turns, it is well-paced and vivid, complex and passionate, and incredible evocative of time and place with its accurate historical backgound; in all a gripping read which I would recommend to anyone with a love of historical fiction or of Russia.
What image do you have of Winston Churchill as he led Britain during the Second World War? Most people would say positive things like ‘steadfast’, ‘unflinching’, ‘courageous’, etc., few would mention the word ‘afraid’. Yet there was one thing which worried him more than any other, in his own words ‘…the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.’ And Churchill had every right to feel afraid. The route across the Atlantic was Britain’s lifeline, and Germany’s best hope of defeating the island nation would be by winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
Britain relied heavily on merchant ships carrying supplies of raw materials, food, troops, and military equipment from America. If the convoys had failed to get through Britain would most likely have been starved to the brink of surrender; her badly equipped armies, lacking tanks and weapons built in America, would have been overrun; it would have been impossible to transport land forces to North Africa, the Mediterranean, or across the English Channel on D Day; and it would have been impossible for the British to blockade the Axis powers in Europe. In short, if German U-boats had reigned supreme in the Atlantic then Hitler would, in all likelihood, have won the war.
The first phase of the Battle of the Atlantic lasted from the outbreak of war in 1939 until the British retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940. This was a time which saw the British and French with the upper hand, establishing a long-range blockade on German merchant ships. But after the German victories in northern Europe in 1940 and the entry of Italy into the war, Britain lost the support of the French navy. It was a difficult time; as well as the loss of the French ships Britain also suffered losses in the retreats from Norway and Dunkirk, losses which cut the British merchant fleet to almost half of its former size at the critical moment when Germany was acquiring naval bases on the Atlantic coast of France which made it easier for them to attack Allied shipping in the Atlantic; bases such as the one at Saint Nazaire. The attacking forces had the support of long-range Kondor aircraft which carried out reconnaissance for the U-boats and also attacked Allied shipping. Between the fall of France in June 1940 and the end of the year German U-boats sank three million tons of Allied shipping. To make matters worse, the Axis powers in the Mediterranean made the route through the Suez Canal so dangerous that British merchant ships had to take the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The situation, which was so dire for the Allies, appeared more hopeful for the Germans who believed that it would only be a matter of time before they would knock Britain out of the war by attacking her trade. (The Germans estimated that they would have to sink 150 merchant ships a month to starve Britain into submission).
The German U-boats hunted in ‘wolf packs’ which were faster than the convoys and had the advantage of being able to see without being seen. The merchant convoys were relatively safe in either British or American waters where they could receive fighter cover, but were much more vulnerable in the mid-Atlantic where German submarines reigned supreme. During the autumn and winter of 1940-41 German U-boats had great successes supported by surface ships and planes. But Britain hung on with the help of Canadian naval and air forces so that, by May 1941, a system of fully escorted convoys was in place. The position for Britain was eased further with the ‘Destroyers for Bases’ deal in which America, although not yet in the war, provided more than 50 old World War I destroyers in return for 99-year leases for bases in the Caribbean. New lightly-armoured and much faster ships called corvettes began to accompany the convoys; with their ASDIC (which helped them to hear submarines underwater) and their arsenal of depth charges they began to make a difference. Close to shore new planes like the Sunderland were able to give better air cover as a submarine had to be close to the surface to fire its torpedoes and so became a sitting target for the planes. Allied losses began to fall at last, particularly when the convoys sailed during bad weather as the U-boats could not fire their torpedoes in a heavy swell.
Things changed again after Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war. US ships were re-deployed to the Pacific to face the Japanese threat, and the Germans found that shipping on the American east coast in early 1942 was unguarded. The situation led to a rise in Allied merchant shipping losses in the first half of 1942 with disastrous results – in those six months more tonnage was lost than in the entire preceding two and a half years. To make matters worse, the U-boat packs were ranging across the South Atlantic as well, targeting the shipping lanes from Asia and the Middle East, while Allied convoys to Russia were also suffering heavy losses.
It was Canada who once again came to the rescue, providing escorts for the North Atlantic convoys while America underwent a huge ship-building programme so that, by the autumn, they had caught up with losses and were increasing their fleet. The Allies were also intercepting German U-boat communications through the Ultra programme which made a real difference. Then, in March 1943, Ultra failed for a short time during which the Germans sighted every single Allied convoy and attacked over half of them. But, finally, the Battle of the Atlantic was turning in the favour of the Allies. Once more able to break the German codes, using more modern radar equipment, with the addition of new aircraft carriers to the escort groups, and more aggressive tactics meant that, by May 1943, the success of the German U-boat fleet in the North Atlantic was severely diminished. For the remainder of the war the Allies had more or less unchallenged control of the Atlantic sea lanes.
The men and women who served with the Army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are frequently remembered for their courage, and rightly so. But the men of the merchant navy who sailed the gauntlet of an ocean of hidden submarines to re-supply ‘Fortress Britain’ are often forgotten. Yet their courage and sacrifice under fire was no less heroic, and without them the war might well have been lost.
Did you ever write messages in code when you were a child? I remember having fun believing that what I wrote to my friend was unreadable by anyone else – even though we only used a simple code where the letters of the alphabet were transposed a number of places. For instance, if we transposed the letters by two places we could send this message:
UJCNN YG IQ VQ VJG EKPGOC VQOQTTQY – I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to read!*
Communication is vital during war, particularly for agents who may be behind enemy lines, but sending messages can also be very dangerous. For agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War it was always possible that the enemy might decipher their messages or get a fix on the radio when the message was sent – both scenarios which could put the life of the agent in danger. To ensure a transmission was as safe as possible some sort of encryption was needed to keep the message secret.
Before learning how to encode a message the SOE agent would first have to learn how to send in Morse code which is a method of transmitting text as a series of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches which are known as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ and are, in effect, a simple binary coding. The code is named after Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in the 1830’s and needed a new electronic system to be able to send messages. Each letter or symbol in Morse code is represented by a series of these dots and dashes and it is the simplest and most versatile method of radio/telegraph communication. The most well-known grouping of letters in Morse code is the universal distress call . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot), more commonly known as SOS.
But learning Morse code was only the first step for an agent who was preparing to go overseas as it was a universally known code and so the enemy would be able to read any messages that they sent. In the early days of the SOE agents used a simple, and consequently insecure, code known as ‘poem code’ to encrypt their messages. Both the agent and the person receiving the message would have a copy of the same poem. The sender would start his message with five letters to indicate which part of the poem his encryption would be based on; the message would then be written in columns before being transposed and transmitted. These poem codes worked well because they were quite secure but the agent didn’t need to carry a code book as they could memorise the poem. There were, however, weaknesses to this system. For instance, it was relatively easy to make a mistake when encoding; also, if the enemy managed to decode one message they then had all the information they needed to decode other transmissions from that agent in the future, and even ones they had intercepted in the past.
The SOE knew that they needed to improve their communications system and so Leo Marks was appointed as codes officer. He found that the poems used for encryption had to be easy for agents to remember and so were often famous ones such as ‘Daffodils’ – the problem was that these famous poems would be known by the enemy and so make it easier for them to crack the codes. One of the first changes Marks made was to have original poems written for the agents to use rather than famous ones, these original poems were often comic, satirical or sexual to make them more memorable. Not all fell into these categories though, and one of the most famous of his original poems was, in fact, a love poem written for his girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash; he later gave this poem to agent Violette Szabo to use when she was posted to France. (Violette was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 and her service in the SOE was commemorated in the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’).
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have Of the life that I have Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have A rest I shall have Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years In the long green grass Will be yours and yours and yours.
Another method Marks introduced was to simply use a different poem for each transmission to prevent any sort of pattern which might help the enemy. As it would have been hard for an agent to remember a number of poems correctly these were written on silk rather than memorised.
Leo Marks continued to work on more secure methods of encryption and the poem code was gradually replaced. The Worked-Out Key (WOK) system used a number of codes which were used only once and were written on silk (to be hidden in the agents clothing as described in my article on radio operators). Once a particular key had been used it would be torn off the silk and destroyed, leaving the next key ready for use. Marks went on to develop a One-Time Pad code where the letters of the alphabet were written in a list, the agent encoded his message by using a substitution square (i.e. substituting a different letter for each one in the alphabet). After being used once the list was thrown away and a different one used next time but still using the same substitution square. This was much safer than the poem code as there was no pattern to the listing of the letters of the alphabet and so even if the enemy managed to break the code for one message it wouldn’t help them with future ones. SOE agents liked this method as it was quick and secure.
As well as ensuring the safest possible codes Leo Marks worked on ways of deceiving the enemy through agent’s transmissions. One of these deceptions was Operation Gift-Horse which included key codes from the WOK system at the beginning of each message and fooled the enemy into thinking it was a poem code. The main aim of this operation was to get the Germans to waste their time trying to decipher coded poems when the message was, in fact, a completely different system. ‘Gift-Horse’ was used extensively just before D Day in 1944 at a time when there was already a huge increase in radio messages and so made the chances of the Germans decoding and compiling information about the invasion much more difficult.
So the types of puzzles which we find so enjoyable as a leisure activity had a far more serious role for a secret agent behind enemy lines. Maybe next time you do a puzzle in a magazine or a book you can take a moment to think of those for whom coding was not a simple pass-time but a key part of their work which, if not done correctly, could cost them their life.
*My code de-encrypted: SHALL WE GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW