Empire of Sand by Robert Ryan

A sweepingEmpire of Sand epic historical novel about Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most compelling characters in British history.

1915: While the war in Europe escalates, a young intelligence officer named Thomas Edward Lawrence is in Cairo, awaiting his chance for action. His superiors, however, have consigned him to the Map Room at GCHQ. But there’s more to Lieutenant Lawrence than meets the eye. A man of immense energy, he runs a network of agents across the Levant. Lawrence is convinced that an Arab revolt is the only way to remove the Ottoman presence, and leave a free self-governed Arabia. Soon, alarming reports reach him of trouble in Persia, orchestrated by infamous German agent Wilhelm Wassmuss. Intent on taking down Wassmuss and, at the same time, unlocking the secret of his success, Lawrence assembles a small group and travels to Persia…

Anyone who has an interest in the First World War, the Middle East or T E Lawrence (as I do) will enjoy this book. Contemporary accounts of the life of Lawrence were often contradictory, and few people would ever have known of his actions if not for the journalist Lowell Thomas who is responsible for bringing the hero whom he called ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to public attention. Yet, 100 years later, the real man still remains elusive and enigmatic. Empire of Sand is a work of historical fiction although much of the novel is based on events which really happened to Lawrence (destroying railways, working with the Bedouins etc.), and the tactics he used in his unconventional warfare, which are mentioned here, are still used today. In its way this novel gives us a real insight into the complex character of Lawrence and how he came to be involved in such important events in the evolution of the Middle East as we know it today.

Mr Ryan has included in his novel a number of real people such as the German Wilhelm Wassmuss (who was the same age as Lawrence, looked similar, and worked in a similar way) and Captain Noel Edward, as well as the great female explorer Gertrude Bell. The main plot line (the importance of Wassmuss’ luggage – no spoilers!) is based on a real event in which all of these men were involved. This novel is a testament to the detailed research conducted by the author who has created an absorbing novel around real and very important events. The descriptions of Cairo, the life of the British in the Middle East, and the difficulties involved in desert warfare all serve to draw the reader into this story, giving an understanding of how people used to a British climate and culture struggled to live and work in the Middle East in the early part of the twentieth century. One can almost feel the burning sun and the wind-blown sand which plagued those who struggled in unfamiliar surroundings against the Turks and Germans.

Mr Ryan has delved deeply into the character of Lawrence and his love for the Arab peoples, so much so that this novel gives a clear insight into what Lawrence believed was the best way to bring about peace in the Middle East, it is a sad truth that if he had been listened to many of the problems which face us there today might never have arisen. The narrative of Empire of Sand enables the reader to get to know the real Lawrence, rather than the hero of David Lean’s epic film, and as such elicits a sympathy for and understanding of him which is often missing in purely historical accounts.

I was disappointed that this novel took the story of Lawrence up to the time he went into the desert to help the Arab uprising against the Turks but did not include the dramatic events which led to his ride on Damascus. To do what Lawrence did, lighting a fire beneath the Arab revolt and dealing with the difficult leaders of the Middle East, took a charismatic and quite unique character and I would love to see this part of Lawrence’s life portrayed in another novel by Robert Ryan!

Empire of Sand can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

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The longest five days…Operation Compass, 9th December 1940

When we think of the early months of the Second World War we often focus on the setbacks suffered by the Allies in Europe including the disastrous fall of France and the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. We also think of the losses we suffered in North Africa against Rommel and his Afrika Korps; but what is often forgotten is that our first adversary in Africa was not the Germans but the Italians and, for a time, things there were very different.

Both Britain and Italy were intent on protecting their colonies in Africa. There were skirmished between the two sides but the Italian commander, Graziani, was doubtful that his largely un-mechanized force would be capable of defeating the smaller but motorised forces of the British. The first major movement of troops began on 13th September 1940 when the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt and the British retreated before them to shorten their long supply lines from Alexandria, finally setting up defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italians had advanced 60 miles in 3 days before facing similar supply problems and halting at Maktila where they set up 5 fortified camps whilst they waited for supplies and reinforcements (one reason that supplies were running short for the Italians was that vital supplies had been diverted from North Africa for the invasion of Yugoslavia). In their initial push into Egypt the Italians lost almost 3,000 men with another 700 taken prisoner as well as 150 vehicles being destroyed, resources which the Italians could ill afford to lose so reconsolidation was vital if they were to defeat the British.

Mersa Matruh
Mersah Matruh

General Wavell was in command of the British troops and ordered a limited operation to push the Italians back. This push was planned to last for five days although he insisted that Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson should be ready to exploit any advantage that Operation Compass might give saying, ‘I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.’

map

Wavell’s plan was to take Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, but the Italians had not been idle during their 3 months setting up camps – they had an estimated 75,000 men in the area with around 120 tanks and 200 big guns. In opposition the British had around 25,000 men and 275 light tanks. The plan was for part of the British troops to take advantage of a 20 mile wide gap in the Italian ring of fortified camps and move west where they would then be able to turn north and south to outflank the enemy. The attacking troops rehearsed these moves on 25th – 26th November 1940 although they didn’t know that the ‘training grounds’ marked out in the desert were exact replicas of their targets at Nibeiwa and Tummar. Orders came for a second exercise and it wasn’t until the troops arrived at the proposed site that they found this was no exercise but the jumping off point for a major Operation. On the night of 7th December the Western Desert Force advanced 70 miles west to their designated start line whilst the RAF attacked Italian airfields and dummy tanks were set up at strategic points to confuse the enemy.

aroured cars
Armoured cars in North Africa

The attack proper began at 5am on 9th December with British artillery firing on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa. By 8.30am the camp had fallen with over 800 Italian and Libyan soldiers dead, 1,300 wounded and 2,000 captured as well as large quantities of supplies being taken by the British forces who only had 56 casualties. With spirits high British troops moved on from Nibeiwa towards the camps at East and West Tummar. A huge sandstorm during the day slowed the British advance but as the weather cleared Indian and New Zealand forces pushed on with the attack just before 2pm. By 4pm most of the camp at Tummar West was in British hands with East Tummar falling by dark. As the Allies continued to push west enemy positions continued to fall like dominoes. The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded and all survivors being taken prisoner.

At Maktila the enemy were forced into sand dunes where they were overrun by British Cruiser tanks. The remaining Italians regrouped at Sidi Barrani where the British attacked in the late afternoon of 10th with the position falling by nightfall. Wavell’s forces continued to push west causing mass surrenders of the defending troops, so much so that the number of prisoners began to slow the advance of the British who were totally unprepared for such high numbers.

matildas
British ‘Matilda’ tanks

The shocked Italian army was in full retreat with the British harrying them every step of the way. By the time the Italians had been pushed out of Egypt on 15th December (less than a week into Operation Compass) 38,300 of their men had been taken prisoner and huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned including 237 pieces of artillery and 73 tanks while the British losses consisted of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British halted for a time to bring up supplies and await Australian reinforcements before attacking the enemy at Bardia (on the Egyptian coast about half way between Sid Barrini and Tobruk) which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns and tanks; Bardia was also surrounded by 18 miles of double barbed wire fencing with a four foot anti-tank ditch, minefields and machine gun positions. Whilst forces were amassing the British continued to attack in other sectors – Sidi Omar was taken on 16th December in a battle which lasted just 10 minutes leaving 50 Italians dead and 900 taken prisoner!

Italian_soldiers_taken_prisoner_during_Operation_Compass
Italian and Libyan Prisoners Of War

With new supplies and a new year the British resumed the attack again on 3rd January 1941 after a night of heavy bombing and bombardment of Bardia. The 6th Australian Division had air and naval support as they began the attack, blowing gaps in the barbed wire and filling in the anti-tank ditches by hand. Once they had breached the outer defences other Australian forces pushed through the gap, broke through the secondary defences and cut the city in two. Bardia finally fell after 3 days of fighting. The Italian forces were in such disarray that the commander of one British tank found himself in charge of 1,500 Italian prisoners! In all more than 25,000 Italians were captured whilst the Australians lost 130 killed and 326 wounded. The disheartened Italians regrouped at Tobruk with its vital harbour and garrison of over 25,000 within the two rings of defences (the inner 19 miles long, the outer 30 miles). The British halted their push to bring up supplies and carry out maintenance on the tanks which had covered too many miles without any repair or replacement of tracks.

australian tanks
Australian tanks

The attack on Tobruk began at 5.40am on 21st January 1941 with the British advancing an impressive 1 mile during the first hour. The Italians put up a fierce fight but by early evening the British had taken half of the port with the help of air support from the RAF. Sensing inevitable defeat the Italians began to destroy the port before finally surrendering the following morning. Within 36 hours of the initial attack the British had taken 27,000 prisoners, 230 guns and 200 vehicles with the loss of only 400 men, 355 of whom were Australians. Although they had destroyed many stores the Italians had not had enough time to destroy all of the port facilities and the British were soon able to use it for their own re-supply. Two captured water distilleries also helped to reduce the problems of supply for the attacking army which continued to push steadily westward.

Australian troops at Tobruk
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The Italian reserve forces were not ready for battle but feared that they might be surrounded by the British and so began a counter-attack on 23rd January. Their push was initially successful before they were caught against the skyline on the top of a ridge and their tanks destroyed. The Italians were now desperate and slowed the British advance with mines, booby-traps and ambushes, but the British still took Derna on 29th January before pursuing the enemy along the coast road as well as moving through the mountains in order to cut of their retreat from behind. The encircling forces arrived just 30 minutes before the fleeing Italians on the 5th February. The Italians attacked the next day and fought for over 24 hours, but with more British troops arriving to surround them they surrendered on 7th February with 25,000 taken prisoner and the loss of 107 tanks and 93 guns.

This surrender of the fleeing Italians marked the end of Operation Compass, a holding exercise originally planned to last for just five days but in which two Divisions (one new to the dessert and one short on tanks) decimated an army more than 10 times its size. Wavell was able to garrison Tobruk with the aim of continuing to push the Italians westwards and out of North Africa for good. Operation Compass was a massive victory for the British and it looked as though the whole of North Africa would soon be in their hands.

The British had yet to hear of Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps.

Some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England – cemeteries of the First World War

7a185080f8d2876c58cfd766d74f102e4796ccf5As we commemorate the ending of the First World War it is fitting that we remember all those who paid the ultimate price. We are all aware of cemeteries around the world which contain the graves of soldiers who died far from home, and if you have ever visited one you will have been impressed by the standard of care which is taken to keep these places of remembrance at their best. This work is carried out by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) which was the brainchild of Sir Fabian Ware. The CWGC builds and maintains cemeteries and memorials in more than 150 countries and territories and also creates and preserves archives with extensive records of the fallen. Ware was 45 when war broke out and so too old to fight but he was determined to play his part so became the commander of a mobile unit in the British Red Cross. Arriving in France in 1914 he was appalled and saddened at the huge loss of life he saw, and also by the fact that there was no official way of documenting and recording the graves. Determined that none of the fallen would be forgotten he organised for his unit to begin recording and caring for all the graves they could find. Municipal cemeteries were soon full and Ware negotiated for France to grant land in perpetuity to Britain which would become responsible for the management and maintenance of the graves there. People heard about Ware’s work and he began to get letters from people asking for photographs of the graves of their loved ones. By 1917 17,000 photos had been sent. At the same time graves were being recorded in Egypt, Greece and Mesopotamia as well as France.

1 Canadian_Corps_-_Canadian_war_graves
These soldiers were all members of the Canadian 14th Battalion, killed over several days in May 1916 and buried near the advanced dressing station

Many people were impressed with this work which was officially recognised by the War Office when the unit was incorporated into the British Army in 1915 and became known as the Graves Registration Commission. Ware wanted his Commission to show the same Imperial cooperation that could be seen in the armed forces so he approached the Imperial War Conference for their help and advice. With the support of the Prince of Wales the Imperial War Graves Commission was founded by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917; Ware was Vice-Chairman and the Prince of Wales was the first President.

NPG x85421; Sir Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware by Bassano
Sir Fabian Ware

When the war ended in November 1918 land was found for the new cemeteries and memorials and the terrible task of recovering and re-interring the bodies of the dead began. Conscripted soldiers undertook this work which must have been very difficult and resulted in emotional and mental problems for many as they recovered thousands of bodies, some four or more years old. Using Ware’s existing records as a foundation around 587,000 graves had been identified by the end of 1918, and the register of those having no known grave had reached 559,000. It was decided that the bodies should not be repatriated but lie beside their brothers in arms, it was also decided that all of the graves would be identical so that men of all ranks would be treated equally.

The Commission were determined that the work they had undertaken would be carried out to the highest of standards and so they employed three of the most important architects of the time – Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield – to design and build the memorials and cemeteries; Rudyard Kipling (who lost his son in the war) was asked to help with the inscriptions. The garden designer, Gertrude Jekyll, helped the architects to created a walled cemetery with a garden. This became the template for all other cemeteries which were ready to receive the dead by 1921, and between 1920 and 1923 4,000 headstones were being shipped to France every week. By 1927 the majority of the work had been completed with over 500 cemeteries built and over 400,000 headstones in place; in addition 1,000 ‘Crosses of Sacrifice’ designed by Blomfield and 400 ‘Stones of Remembrance’ designed by Lutyens were also in place.

5 cross of sacrifice
Cross of Sacrifice

When the war ended the British Army was responsible for the exhumation of remains, by September 1921 the 12-man teams had exhumed and reburied 204,695 bodies. No more searches were conducted after that, but bodies continued to be discovered (in the following 3 years alone the remains of another 38,000 soldiers were found). In the mid-1920’s 20 to 30 bodies were being discovered every week, and even today around 30 bodies are found every year.

Some of the latest bodies of First World War soldiers to be recovered include:

  • In 2006 eight bodies of Canadian soldiers from the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), CEF were discovered in a backyard in Hallu, France.
  • The remains of four British soldiers discovered by a French farmer clearing land with a metal detector in 2009 were re-interred at H.A.C. Cemetery near Arras, France in April 2013.
  • In March 2014, the remains of 20 Commonwealth and 30 German soldiers were discovered at Vendin-le-Vieil, France. The Commonwealth soldiers were reburied at Loos British Cemetery.

When the remains of a Commonwealth soldier from the First or Second World War are discovered the Commission is notified, and a burial officer collects any artefacts found with the body which might help to identify the individual. The details of the find are then registered and archived at the Commission’s headquarters.

All of the cemeteries created and cared for by the Commission have a similar design. They are usually enclosed by a low hedge or wall with a wrought-iron entrance gate. Inside all but the very smallest of the cemeteries you will find a plan of the site and register of all the burials there, this is kept in a metal cupboard which can be accessed by anyone searching for a particular soldier. The cemeteries are laid to grass with no pathways, and each headstone has flowers planted beside it (except in very dry countries). The flowers are often native species which closely resemble flowers of England. If there are a lot of cemeteries in an area (e.g. along the Western Front or in Gallipoli) a team of local gardeners will care for them, in large cemeteries there will be a dedicated staff whilst small ones may just have one gardener who works part-time.

If a cemetery has more than 40 graves it will also have a Cross Of Remembrance designed by Reginald Blomfield, which is a free-standing cross (usually carved from limestone) with a bronze medieval longsword embedded in its face. The cross is intended to represent the faith of the majority of the dead whilst the sword is an expression of the Christian concept of self-sacrifice. The larger cemeteries (those with more than 1,000 burials) also have a Stone of Remembrance designed by Edwin Lutyens; this stone is inscribed with the words ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’. Unlike the Cross Of Remembrance, the Stone deliberately avoids reference to any particular religion.

6 Stone_of_Remembrance,_Tyne_Cot_Cemetery
Stone of Remembrance, Tyne Cot

Every grave is marked with a headstone which contains the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty carved above an appropriate religious symbol, sometimes it will also have a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. If the cemetery is in an area which may be at risk of earthquakes a memorial plaque is placed at ground level rather than using a headstone which might fall. If the person who had died had been awarded wither the Victoria Cross or the George Cross and image of this will also be engraved on the headstone. There are, sadly, many graves where the casualty has not been able to be identified, in such cases the words ‘A Soldier of the Great War known unto God’ will be used in place of a name.

2 CWGC_-_Headstone_carving
Headstones were carved by hand and would need at least a week to complete

Unfortunately, the First World War did not prove to be ‘the war to end all wars’ and the Commission was called upon to continue its work during the Second World War and other conflicts which have followed. Winston Churchill recognised that civilians were paying an increasingly heavy price in war and so the Commission was given the task of recording the names of civilians who had died due to enemy action during the Second World War. The Civilian War Dead Roll of Honour is housed in Saint George’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
In 1960 the name of the Imperial War Graves Commission was changed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The work of remembrance continues; in 2008 mass graves were discovered on the edge of Pheasant Wood near Fromelles. Two-hundred and fifty British and Australian bodies were recovered and re-interred in a new cemetery, the first to be opened in more than fifty years.

4 Fromelles Pheasant Wood
Pheasant Wood, Fromelles

Since its creation the CWGC has created 2,500 war cemeteries, but there are many fallen soldiers who have no known grave – there were 315,000 in France and Belgium alone – and their names are written on permanent memorials. Reginald Blomfield designed the Menin Gate which was the first of the large memorials to be completed and was unveiled on 24th July 1927. Despite its size there was not enough space to list all of the names as had been planned and so Herbert Baker designed Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing which recorded a further 34,984 names. Other large memorial for those with no known grave are:

the Helles Memorial in Gallipoli

the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme

the Arras Memorial

Basra Memorial in Iraq

neuve-chapelle-indian-gj12_orig
Cemetery of Indian soldiers at Neuve-Chapelle

The Dominions and India also erected memorials on which they commemorated their missing:

the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial for the forces of India

the Vimy Memorial by Canada

the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial by Australia

the Delville Wood Memorial by South Africa

the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial by Newfoundland

So, as we commemorate the end of the First World War and all those who have given so much in service of their country let us take a few moments to pause and reflect on the sacrifices they have made.

The Soldier by Rupert Brooke 1887 – 1915

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

3 menin-gate-cbart-vandenbroucke_tcm13-8856
The Menin Gate

 

 

 

The General by C S Forester

The most vivid, moving – and devastating – word-portrait of a World War One British commander ever written.

C.S. Forester’s 1936 masterpiece follows Lt General Herbert Curzon, who fumbled a fortuitous early step on the path to glory in the Boer War. 1914 finds him an honourable, decent, brave and wholly unimaginative colonel. Survival through the early slaughters in which so many fellow-officers perished then brings him rapid promotion. By 1916, he is a general in command of 100,000 British soldiers, whom he leads through the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele, a position for which he is entirely unsuited and intellectually unprepared.

Wonderfully human with Forester’s droll relish for human folly on full display, this is the story of a man of his time who is anything but wicked, yet presides over appalling sacrifice and tragedy. In his awkwardness and his marriage to a Duke’s unlovely, unhappy daughter, Curzon embodies Forester’s full powers as a storyteller. His half-hero is patriotic, diligent, even courageous, driven by his sense of duty and refusal to yield to difficulties. But also powerfully damned is the same spirit which caused a hundred real-life British generals to serve as high priests at the bloodiest human sacrifice in the nation’s history. A masterful and insightful study about the perils of hubris and unquestioning duty in leadership, The General is a fable for our times.

The British generals who served during the First World War have a reputation for incompetence and a callous disregard for human life, yet until the late 1920’s they were recognised as heroes – 1 million people went to London to pay their respects at the funeral of General Haig in 1928. It was not until the late 1920’s that novels began to appear criticising the war and those who led it, and it was in this climate that C S Forester wrote ‘The General’ in an attempt to explain what made men launch such catastrophic attacks against the enemy time and time again.

This is a story of human nature rather than military strategy, revealing the thought processes and perceived obligations of an officer during the First World War with such clarity that it reads more like a biography than fiction. Mr Forester has written a well-researched revelation of life on the front line, getting to the heart of the conversations of soldiers and the planning of the disastrous attacks which killed so many. The development of tactics and arms from the end of the use of cavalry through the introduction of machine guns, reconnaissance planes, and tanks is shown through the perfectly normal feelings of scepticism which always accompany new ideas and inventions. ‘The General’, which takes Curzon from South Africa to northern Europe, gives the reader some understanding of how difficult it would have been for officers of the ‘old school’ who had last fought during the Boer War to face the nightmare of trench warfare which the author describes in word pictures which are all the more real for their simplicity.

The character of Curzon is rather awkward, socially limited and lacking in imagination, yet he is single-minded in his loyalty to his men and his desire to be the best officer possible. He is respected and admired by his men, a dedicated and hard-working professional, but his tragedy is that he is unable to grasp the changing nature of warfare and use it to his advantage even though he does take the unusual step of appointing civilian conscripts rather than the traditional officer class to carry out new roles in logistics, chemistry, train scheduling etc.

This novel criticises the lack of imagination in the planning of the war – if an attack fails then just do the same thing again but with more men and more guns. Curzon sees the tragic and appalling loss of life as indispensable to victory and so accepts them in a way which  may seem callous to us but which is perhaps intended to show how each aspect of the General’s role was compartmentalised as he focused on final victory, he buries his reaction to the death of his men in order to carry out his duty and ‘finish the job’. The reader has to face the same dilemmas as the General himself – should Curzon have surrendered positions to save lives? Would defeat have been better?

The General shows that the perception of cowardly generals leading from behind the lines is unjust. In fact most generals visited the front lines regularly, for some it was almost every day, and more than 200 generals were killed, wounded or captured during the course of the war. A General serving during the First World War would have been considerably closer to the action than generals are today. (About 12% of ordinary soldiers in the British army were killed during World War 1 as opposed to 17% of its officers).

The General paints a portrait of a man who was not wicked or incompetent and who elicits some sympathy from the reader. It is not really possible to love Curzon, but he can be seen as a tragic figure who did the best he could for his country in a particular time and place. As we are currently commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War in November 1918 it is perhaps a fitting time to read this novel and reflect.

‘The General’ can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Czech pilots of the RAF

In my last article I explained how the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement with Hitler in September 1938, an agreement which resulted in Germany annexing the Sudetenland and eventually taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia. There were many brave Czechs who wanted to fight against the Nazis but could not do so once their country had fallen; this article explains what happened to some of them.

In the weeks after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia thousands of soldiers and airmen managed to escape the county and joined the French Foreign Legion until the Second World War finally began in September 1939. Czech airmen then transferred to the Armée de l’Air and fought in the Battle of France. After the German Blitzkrieg and the rapid defeat of France around 4,000 Czech military personnel sailed to Britain and offered their services to the besieged island kingdom.

Blitzkrieg

On 2nd July 1940 Benes, the Czech Prime Minister in exile, asked the British Government to allow Czech airmen to help defend Britain; within a month a Czech fighter squadron and a Czech bomber squadron had been formed. The Czech pilots were an asset as they already had combat experience and nurtured a deep hatred of the Germans, whilst the British needed every pilot they could get to fight off the expected invasion by Hitler. By the end of August a second Czech fighter squadron was operating in the skies above south-east England. Many people are unaware that almost 20% of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. The foreign forces consisted of 147 Poles, 101 New Zealanders, 94 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 14 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, and 1 Palestinian. The Czech pilots soon gained a reputation for aggressive combat, no doubt fuelled by the loss of their homeland. One of these – Jacob Frantisek – was the third most successful pilot during the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’, and was one of just a few ‘Triple Ace’ pilots (to qualify as an Ace you must have brought down 5 enemy planes). It is interesting to note that out of the top ten fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (all whom shot down at least 14 enemy planes) 50% were not British and included one Czech, one Polish, one Australian and two New Zealanders.

The foreign squadrons had an impressive record against the Luftwaffe and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said that he was not sure that Britain would have won the aerial battle without them. In recognition of their contribution the foreign pilots were visited at their base by King George VI, whilst the Polish and Czech airmen and their exploits were a common feature in the media. One of these pilots was the aforementioned Josef Frantisek who has been credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft in September 1940 alone, and is considered to be one of the top ‘scorers’ of the entire war even though his career as a fighter pilot was short.

Jossef Frantisek

Frantisek was born just before the outbreak of the First World War with a spirit of adventure which led to him joining the Czechoslovak Air Force, and which made it hard for him to obey orders when the armed forces were told not to resist the German invasion in 1939. He fled to Poland and served with the air force there, flying low to drop hand grenades on the attacking Germans. When Poland was defeated three weeks later Josef fled to Romania where he was interned before escaping; he travelled through the Balkans until he eventually reached Syria where he embarked for France. Once there he flew against the Germans until France was defeated and he made his way to Britain where he joined the RAF, his fourth air force in little more than a year.

Frantisek was a bit of a ‘Lone Wolf’ who would break away from the rest of his squadron to fight alone, often flying incredibly close to the enemy before opening fire or pursuing them back across the English Channel, and this is what ensured his high number of kills. Many British pilots thought that he was reckless, but it may simply have been that Josef Frantisek felt that he had nothing to lose, he had watched the German war machine roll over Europe and believed that winning the battle in the skies over Britain was the last hope of defeating Hitler. In one of his own reports Frantisek described how swarms of Messerschmitt 109s attacked so he played hide and seek with them in the clouds, during the engagement he almost collided with a German bomber and then shot down two enemy planes in a few minutes before he was hit, he ended the sortie in a cabbage field north of Brighton where he said he ‘made an excellent landing’. Josef’s short but highly successful career with the RAF ended on 8th October 1940, the day after his 27th birthday, when he crash-landed in a field in Surrey; his plane flipped over and he died instantly. No one is quite sure what happened – whether it was a lack of fuel or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – but the Allies lost a truly great pilot that day. Not long after Frantisek’s death Hitler felt that his Luftwaffe could not gain control of the skies above Britain and his invasion was postponed.

Karel Kuttelwascher

With the Battle of Britain won the foreign pilots continued to fly with the RAF against the Germans. Another Czech hero was Karel Kuttelwascher who joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and had already done 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Three months after the invasion he escaped to Poland hidden in a coal train, then to France where he helped the fight against the Germans before escaping to Morocco where he got a ship to England and joined the RAF. He flew for two years with No. 1 Squadron in which time he shot down enemy planes and took part in attacks against the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. From mid-1942 Kuttelwascher flew night intrusion missions in which he flew a long-range Hurricane over enemy bases to take out German bombers as they were taking off or landing, a time when they were low and slow so vulnerable to his cannon. His ‘Night Reaper’ plane was very successful as he destroyed 15 bombers and badly damaged 5 more in just three months. On one memorable sortie he shot down three Heinkel bombers in just four minutes; Kuttelwascher was so successful that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in just 42 days. The media idolised successful pilots like Kuttelwascher and they began to call him ‘The Czech Night Hawk’; with18 kills he was the top-scoring Czech pilot of the Second World War.

Josef Koukal

Czechoslovak airmen did not only serve as pilots, they were also involved in Transport Command, Ferry Command, photo reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, and in dropping agents into enemy territory, including their homeland. 480 Czechs paid the ultimate price and did not live to see the peace – 273 of these deaths came from the bomber crews of 311 Squadron which suffered incredible losses. There were 1,500 Czechs still serving in the RAF at the end of the war, but these heroes did not receive the welcome they deserved when they returned home.

The Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and it was the belief of the new authorities that anyone who had fought for the western allies was suspect, probably a traitor; many of the former pilots were arrested, and Karel Janoušek, who had been head of the RAF Czech Inspectorate during the war, was imprisoned for 15 years. Many other airmen were dismissed from the forces and all of them were victimised, their wartime heroics forgotten. One example of how these Czech heroes were treated is Josef Koukal who, like Frantisek and Kuttelwascher, had made his way to the RAF via the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. In September 1940 he was shot down over the Isle of Sheppey, and although he was thrown clear of his plane in an explosion his clothes caught fire and he suffered burns to 72% of his body. Over the next two years Koukal underwent 22 operations at ‘The Guinea Pig Club’, the specialist burns unit at The Queen Victoria Hospital. Despite his extensive burns and two pieces of shrapnel in his right eye (which remained there for the rest of his life) Koukal was determined to fly again, his doctors could not dissuade him and he resumed operational flying in May 1943. Koukal returned to his homeland after the war, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 he was persecuted by the State Security Police. Koukal refused to be provoked so they could not arrest him but he, his wife, and their two sons were restricted to living in a single room without running water or a toilet for the next 14 years. Koukal died of a heart attack in 1980 and it was not until November 1989, after the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’, that he finally received recognition from his homeland for the part he played in fighting to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi German control. Koukal was ‘politically and morally rehabilitated’ by the new non-Communist regime and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force; at the same time the other men who had flown with the RAF were finally officially recognised. Many had already died but those who still survived and were now in their 70’s and 80’s were overnight celebrities who were finally able to show their uniforms and medals with pride, and spent as much time as possible visiting schools and clubs so that their story could finally be told.

You can find out more about these brave Czech pilots on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force webpage

Josef Koukal

Recommended Read – The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden Of Evening Mists“On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.”

Teoh Yun Ling was seventeen years old when she first heard about him, but a war would come, and a decade would pass before she travels up to the Garden of Evening Mists to see him, in 1951. A survivor of a brutal Japanese camp, she has spent the last few years helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, she asks the gardener, Nakamura Aritomo, to create a memorial garden for her sister who died in the camp. He refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon’ so she can design a garden herself.

Staying at the home of Magnus Pretorius, the owner of Majuba Tea Estate and a veteran of the Boer War, Yun Ling begins working in the Garden of Evening Mists. But outside in the surrounding jungles another war is raging. The Malayan Emergency is entering its darkest days, the communist-terrorists murdering planters and miners and their families, seeking to take over the country by any means, while the Malayan nationalists are fighting for independence from centuries of British colonial rule.

But who is Nakamura Aritomo, and how did he come to be exiled from his homeland? And is the true reason how Yun Ling survived the Japanese camp connected to Aritomo and the Garden of Evening Mists?

This is a novel which appears, on the surface, to have a rather simple storyline, but as the reader journeys through it page by page a subtle complexity is revealed. Through a strong description of time and place the author uncovers the history of Malaya in three distinct time periods – during the Second world War, ten years after the war, and thirty years later. The novel switches between time periods without any indication in chapter headings etc. and, at first, this is a little disconcerting; but as you move further through the book it is easy to slip from one time to another which subtly mirrors the way Yun Ling’ thoughts and memories move as she attempts to come to terms with an illness which leads to loss of memory, although sometimes there are things she deliberately chooses to try to forget and these are, paradoxically, the ones which seem to remain.

As Yun Ling thinks back over her experiences, both as a prisoner of the Japanese during the war and during the Emergency which followed, the relationships between the characters and the consequences of their actions are revealed. These individual relationships mirror those of the nations involved in the conflict – no one person or nationality is wholly good or wholly bad and Yun Ling has to struggle to accept the complex characters of the people around her, particularly the Japanese.

Tan Twan Eng has drawn on his own experiences to describe Malaya in a way which is totally believable, one can almost feel the heat, smell the vegetation, luxuriate in the cooling rain. This is seen most clearly in the Japanese garden which is slowly created and is a central feature to the story, its development mirrored in the unfolding of Yun Ling’s story, her understanding and final acceptance of all that she has experienced. The subtlety of a traditional Japanese garden presenting constantly changing vistas as you move through it is used as a perfect metaphor for the journey of Yun Ling, and our own journey, through life. The layered depths of the story are beautifully described in elegant prose which leads to an absorbing novel of personal and social transformation. Important issues are hidden beneath surface detail and it is a delight to uncover these in both the people and the land as one reads further, and deeper, into this novel.

The Garden Of Evening Mists is a beautifully written novel in which the loss of honour, dreams, and loved ones in carefully balanced by the beauty of a Japanese tea ceremony, lanterns of hope released into a dark night sky, and a beautiful garden which finally brings peace and closure. This novel will not appeal to all readers. If you like an action-packed book with a clearly defined story arc you may find this a little too much work, but if you enjoy exploring ideas of identity, love and loss, and of the interplay of pleasure and pain in the recalling of your past, then I think you will enjoy this novel. It is an intelligent read in which mysteries are slowly and carefully revealed, yet certain aspects are left deliberately obscure to allow the reader to follow their own inner journey to its conclusion. When the character Yun Ling begins her apprenticeship with Aritomo she observes him carefully and notes ‘He was similar to the boulders…only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest buried deep within, hidden from view.’ A perfect description of this wonderful novel which masterfully allows the reader to uncover those hidden depths for themselves.

The Garden Of Evening Mists can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Tan Twan Eng here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

 

‘Peace for our time’ – the Munich Agreement and the road to war.

80 years ago today Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. History records this as a great act of appeasement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and many people feel that if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler he could possible have prevented the Second World War. But is this true?

The Sudetenland was part of the country of Czechoslovakia which had only been created 20 years earlier with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War. The new independent Czechoslovakia was recognised in the Treaty of Versailles, but the world powers who dictated the treaty failed to realise that there would be problems arising out of three million German speaking people – 24% of the population – being included within the new country. Most Czech Germans lived in an area called the Sudetenland which bordered Austria and Germany, and they resented the fact that they had not been consulted about whether or not they wanted to be a part of Czechoslovakia. The constitution of the new country guaranteed equality for all citizens but, in reality, the Germans did not have fair representation in either the government or the army, and felt that their needs were being ignored. In an attempt to address the concerns of Sudeten Germans Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP) in 1933. While Czech and Slovak citizens voted for a variety of parties Sudeten Germans put all of their focus on the one party which enabled the SdP to become the second largest party in the country by 1935. Even so, life for the Sudeten Germans was becoming increasingly  difficult as the Sudetenland was more industrialised than the rest of Czechoslovakia and relied heavily on exports which resulted in a higher impact on the region from the Great Depression. Although only 24% of people in Czechoslovakia were German they made up 60% of the unemployed in 1936.

sudetenland

Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28th March 1938 to discuss how to improve the situation for the Sudetenland. The Chancellor ordered that Henlein should make impossible demands on Edvard Benes, the President of Czechoslovakia, in order to provoke a ‘crisis’. Hitler had begun the re-armament of Germany in breach of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria in 1938; the taking of Czechoslovakia was to be the next step in his plan to create a ‘Greater German.’ On Hitler’s orders, one of Henlein’s demands was that autonomy should be granted to Sudeten Germans; the Czech government tried to be placatory and said that they would provide more rights for minorities but they would not grant autonomy, which is just what Hitler had hoped for. He used this as an opportunity to support the demands of Germans living in the Sudeten region.

The Czechoslovak government felt under pressure from their belligerent neighbour and hoped that Britain and France would assist them if Germany were to invade, they were therefore disappointed to find that Prime Minister Chamberlain was willing to compromise with Hitler. Chamberlain took this position in part because he felt that many of the Sudeten German grievances were justified, but he also wanted to avoid another war at all costs and so advised the Czech government to give in to Hitler’s demands. Benes, the Czech President, could not agree to this and so on 19th May 1938 he ordered a partial mobilisation to oppose any possible threat of a German invasion.

Bundesarchiv Bild 121-0008, Sudetenland, Besuch Wilhelm Frick
Henlein

Hitler had already drafted a plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, codenamed Operation Green, as well as ordering that U-boat construction should be speeded up, and the completion dates for the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz brought forward in the hope that these preparations for war would deter Britain and France from intervening on behalf of Czechoslovakia. He wanted to move against Czechoslovakia as quickly as possible because the country’s defences were still being improved and so left the Czechs vulnerable; he also felt that British rearmament was behind that of Germany and so Chamberlain would be less likely to intervene on behalf of the Czechs than if Hitler waited until Germany was fully prepared for an extended European war.

To ensure support at home and put pressure on western powers to intercede on his behalf Hitler turned to his propaganda machine. August 1938 saw the German press full of stories of Czech atrocities against Sudeten Germans, whilst at the same time 750,000 German troops were sent on ‘manoeuvres’ to the Czechoslovakian border. Early in September President Benes offered to grant almost all that Henlein had asked for; but Hitler instructed the SdP not to compromise, instead they held demonstrations and provoked the police into arresting two of their members of parliament. This was the perfect excuse for the SdP to make other false allegations of atrocities and call off negotiations. Hitler continued to demand that Sudeten Germans should be re-united with their homeland, and made inflammatory speeches against the Czechoslovakian government, accusing them of violating international law, branding Germans as traitors and forcing them from their homes, and conspiring with France against Germany. War seemed almost inevitable.

Things came to a head on the 12th – 13th September when Hitler encouraged Henlein to rebel against the Czech government and demand that the Sudetenland be reunified with Germany. When Benes refused and declared martial law Hitler threatened to go to war. Chamberlain asked for a personal meeting with Hitler to try to defuse the situation and flew into Germany on 15th September for a meeting at Berchtesgaden. The German leader insisted that Sudeten Germans must be allowed to exercise their right of self-determination and join with Germany. To avoid a possible European war Chamberlain agreed, in principle, that Hitler could claim all parts of Czechoslovakia where Germans made up more than 50% of the population and Britain would not interfere. On his return home Chamberlain persuaded the French (who were allies of Czechoslovakia) to agree to this on condition that Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia. No one consulted the Czechoslovakians who rejected the proposal.

On 16th September the Czechoslovak government dissolved the Ordnersgruppe (which was an organization of ethnic Germans living in the country) because of its link with a number of terrorist attacks. The next day Hitler set up a paramilitary group called the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps to take over from the Ordnersgruppe. The new organization was equipped and trained by German authorities and conducted cross-border raids into Czechoslovak territory provoking yet more unrest.

Bad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung
Bad Godesberg

On 22nd September Chamberlain flew to Germany to present the joint British-French proposal to Hitler at Bad Godesberg. He received a great welcome from the German people who felt that the agreement to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland would ensure peace. Hitler himself, though, was irritated that Chamberlain should think that Germany needed the approval of Britain to further his plans. Hitler put his foot down and told Chamberlain that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be completely broken up with her lands divided between Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Chamberlain was stunned, but Hitler said that it was all because of the atrocities committed by the Czechs since his last meeting with the British Prime Minister. To support this one of Hitler’s aides came into the room (a pre-arranged event) to say that more Germans were being killed in Czechoslovakia. Hitler flew into a rage and vowed to avenge the deaths by destroying Czechoslovakia. For a time it looked like the meeting would fail, but later that day Hitler told Chamberlain that he would accept annexing only the Sudetenland as long as Czechoslovakia began the evacuation of ethnic Czechs from German majority territories by 8am on 1st October; if this happened Germany would have no more claims on Czechoslovak territory and would enter into an agreement to guarantee the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The Czechoslovaks saw this as a provocation and excuse to provoke war, and so ordered a general mobilisation on the 23rd with one million men joining up to defend their country in the first 24 hours. The French also ordered a partial mobilisation on the 24th, whilst on the same day Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum saying that Czechoslovakia must give up the Sudetenland by the 28th or Germany would take it by force. Many people in Britain felt that Hitler’s demands had gone too far and they wanted to stand up to him, even if that meant going to war. On the other side of Europe the Soviet Union said that they would come to the assistance of Czechoslovakia if they could cross Polish and Romanian territory to do so, but both countries refused to allow it.

Czechoslovakia could see that things were looking hopeless and so, on the 25th September, they agreed to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. Instead of accepting this victory however, Hitler now insisted that the demands of ethnic Germans in Hungary and Poland should also be met at the same time. On the 28th, with Germany’s deadline running out, Chamberlain invited Mussolini to join the negotiations in an attempt to get Hitler to delay the implementation of his ultimatum. Mussolini agreed and persuaded Hitler to accept a 24 hour delay (he also promised, in private, that whatever happened he would support Hitler!)

Münchener Abkommen, Chamberlain, Mussolini, Ciano
Chamberlain and Mussolini

To try to prevent war breaking out Chamberlain, Daladier (the French Prime Minister), and Mussolini flew to Munich to meet Hitler on the 29th September. No Czech or Russian representative was invited to the conference, and although Chamberlain asked the Czech ambassador to Berlin to come to Munich as an adviser he was not allowed in the same room as Hitler. The Czechs were presented with a stark choice – to accept the loss of the Sudetenland or face Germany alone. They chose to accept.

Signing the Agreement - Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini
Signing the Agreement – Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini

On the 30th September Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement stating that Germany would complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by the 10th October whilst an international commission would be set up to decide what would happen to other disputed areas. Chamberlain had a separate pact drawn up, based on the Munich Agreement, which would guarantee peace between Germany and Britain, it was signed by the two leaders on the 30th. When Chamberlain arrived back in Britain later that day he waved the paper in his hand, declaring that it guaranteed ‘peace for our time’. At the same time, German troops were marching into the Sudetenland where they were welcomed as heroes.

Chamberlain returns to Britain with 'The Pact'
Chamberlain returns to Britain with ‘The Pact’

Chamberlain was greeted by ecstatic crowds whom he told that he had achieved “…peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”  Winston Churchill immediately criticised Chamberlain by declaring that “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”

The following months seemed to prove Churchill right. Elections in Reichsgau Sudetenland in December 1938 resulted in over 97% of the population voting for the NSDAP. Around 500,000 Sudeten Germans joined the Nazi Party making it the most pro-Nazi region in the Third Reich (17.34% of Sudeten Germans joined the party whilst the average in Germany was 7.85%). Then, in March 1939, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia to become a separate state which was highly supportive of the Nazi Party; Hitler sent his troops into the remainder of Czechoslovakia and occupied it as a protectorate of the Third Reich. Poland was now surrounded by German possessions and people in Britain began to fear that this country would be the next target for Hitler, to prevent this an Anglo-Polish military alliance was signed. Chamberlain felt betrayed by Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. His policy of appeasement had obviously not worked so he now began to mobilise British forces. France did the same. Italy felt threatened by the mobilisations and invaded Albania in April 1939. The final nail in the coffin of ‘peace for our time’ came with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the 1st September 1939. Chamberlain declared war on Germany two days later.

Since 1939 the Munich Agreement has been seen as a classic example of the futility of trying to appease totalitarian states who are set on expansion. Yet was it as simple as all that? Did Chamberlain sacrifice Czechoslovakia on the altar of appeasement, or did he see it as a necessary evil? It is true that after the horrific losses of the First world War he would have done almost anything to avoid the same thing happening again. But is it also possible that he knew that war was inevitable but that Britain was not yet ready to face the rapidly growing German military machine? Could it be that the Munich Agreement and Pact were his attempt to buy time to rearm and prepare for the conflict ahead? Perhaps we will never know.