People often ask me if I find the research needed to write good historical fiction is hard work. My answer is always the same – if you love finding out about the past as much as I do then research doesn’t feel like work at all!
I often find out something unusual when reading about life in the past, and delving into the impact that the English Civil War had on Oxford is no exception. I’m no geographer but I’ve often wondered why North Parade in Oxford is actually south of South Parade; it doesn’t make any sense. But when you look at what was going on there in the seventeenth century it all becomes perfectly clear. King Charles I had his headquarters in the area around Oxford University whilst the Parliamentarians held north Oxford. So the Royalist front line was to their north and was situated roughly where North Parade is today. The Roundhead’s frontline was to their south, hence South Parade. So there is a logical historical explanation for a strange looking geographical anomaly!
One of my aims in writing novels is to educate my readers through fiction. I hope that those who read ‘The Cavalier Historian’ will get a broader understanding of the English Civil War whilst enjoying a good book. If you want to pre-order your copy it is available on Amazon now.
‘Captivate, kill or destroy the whole force of the enemy’ was the order given to the American soldiers in the summer 1779.
Seven hundred and fifty British soldiers and three small ships of the Royal Navy. Their orders: to build a fort above a harbour to create a base from which to control the New England seaboard.
Forty-one American ships and over nine hundred men. Their orders: to expel the British.
The battle that followed was a classic example of how the best-laid plans can be disrupted by personality and politics, and of how warfare can bring out both the best and worst in men. It is a timeless tale of men at war.
The Fort tells the story of the military action which took place at Penobscot Bay where General McLean of the British Army was sent to set up a garrison to control the New England seaboard and offer a place of refuge for loyalists fleeing from the American War of Independence. The American rebels in their turn planned to oust the British in a show of strength. The novel is told from four perspectives – both the British and American, and for each side descriptions of the action on land and at sea. This gives the reader a feel for the complexity of what was going on and also the rivalries which can cause problems for military expeditions. One problem I initially had with this approach though is that some of the sections, particularly at the beginning of the book, were quite short and I had to stop to remind myself which side I was reading about; but as the story progressed this became less of a distraction. I found myself becoming increasingly engrossed in the story and eager to find out what happened next.
The American War of Independence is not something I have studied in any great depth so the story of Fort George was completely new to me. As with all of his novels Mr Cornwell has obviously spent a great deal of time researching this period, and this action in particular, and has conveyed a real feel for warfare at the time. I was particularly impressed with his descriptions of the navel engagements from both a tactical point of few and from the perspective of the sailors. Such battles must have been truly terrifying for the participants.
Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ novels may be surprised by this book; it has a very accurate historical focus but less attention is given to the personal lives and romantic relationships of the characters. Having said that, most of the people who appear in this novel are real historical figures and much of their conversation and actions is based on authentic documents. This gives the novel a real feeling of authenticity, placing the reader in the midst of the conflict and eliciting feelings of anger and frustration towards some of the people (I have completely changed my view of Paul Revere!) whilst leaving me wanting to know more about others (in particular Lieutenant John Moore who went on help reform and develop the British Army and who appears to have been a fascinating character).
The Fort is not a novel for those who like historical stories where the main protagonist is in a fight of ‘good and evil’ against an opponent who holds some sort of a grudge against them, and where the hero then goes on to win the day pretty much all by himself. But if you like a well-researched, accurate account of a little known event in history then I would recommend that you take the time to read and appreciate The Fort.
Summer 1942. When Bernie Gunther is ordered to speak at an international police conference, an old acquaintance has a favour to ask. Little does Bernie suspect what this simple surveillance task will provoke . . .
One year later, resurfacing from the hell of the Eastern Front, a superior gives him another task that seems straightforward: locating the father of Dalia Dresner, the rising star of German cinema. Bernie accepts the job. Not that he has much choice – the superior is Goebbels himself.
But Dresner’s father hails from Yugoslavia, a country so riven by sectarian horrors that even Bernie’s stomach is turned. Yet even with monsters at home and abroad, one thing alone drives him on from Berlin to Zagreb to Zurich: Bernie Gunther has fallen in love.
‘The Lady From Zagreb’ is the tenth in a series of novels by Philip Kerr about German detective Bernie Gunther. These novels have well-constructed plots and are a pleasure to read for anyone who is a fan of detective novels. What makes them unique, however, is the historical setting. Bernie is a detective in Germany during the Second World War and the story gives us a different perspective on the conflict – from the point of view of a German who does not support the Nazis but has to try to survive to the end of the war. Disillusioned and cynical he often hides his feelings with a defensive blanket of sarcasm and dry humour, yet this detective is intelligent and persuasive with a belief in truth, justice and honour which is at odds with Nazi Germany.
Mr Kerr’s knowledge of Germany during the war years is extensive, and he expertly weaves the plot of his novel into the historical timeline – an international criminal conference in 1942 held at the villa where the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish question was decided; harrowing descriptions of the brutality of war in Yugoslavia; the Swiss plan to blow up key mountain passes if Germany tried to invade; these are just a few of the historic details which bring this novel to life. The author also expertly weaves real historical characters into ‘The Lady From Zagreb’, from Walter Schellenberg to Goebbels, Kurt Waldheim to Paul Meyer-Schwerendbach. Some of these names are familiar, others less so, but together they give this novel a real feel for time and place both descriptively and historically.
‘The Lady From Zagreb’ is an atmospheric novel which will draw a complex mix of emotions from the reader – anger, horror, sympathy, surprise, empathy to name just a few. It is a novel which will keep you turning the pages as you tread with Bernie Gunther the treacherous path between obedience, honour and survival.
In this novel Mr Kerr has expertly woven together the murder of a man by being struck over the head with a bust of Hitler, a missing priest and a mysterious body in a lake. Add to that a twist in the tale to equal any good detective story and you have a book which will appeal to anyone who loves the intricacies of a good crime story as well as historical fiction. I heartily recommend ‘The Lady From Zagreb’, and all of Mr Kerr’s novels about the cynical idealist Bernie Gunther.
‘Winter Of The World’ is the second part of Ken Follett’s trilogy about the twentieth century. It is an ambitious novel, taking readers from 1933 through the Second World War to 1949. The plotting is complex with characters in the US, England, Germany and Russia who experience some of the key points of this period of history – the rise of Hitler, the Nazi euthanasia programme, the war in Europe, Pearl Harbour, war in the Pacific, the development of the atom bomb, the aftermath of war in Germany – the list could go on and on. The raft of characters and wide ranging storylines does mean that some important parts of this period of history are missed or skimmed over, but that is perfectly understandable.
The historical information in this book creates a believable backdrop for the lives and loves of the fictional characters, and is testament to the in depth research which Mr Follett must have carried out. The characters are quite well rounded and believable of themselves, although the fact that they are almost all upper class or wealthy does give a certain bias to the book; even the family which comes from a Welsh mining village is involved in politics and has MP’s amongst them. I realise that Mr Follett does this to move the plot on, but I would have preferred to read about a few more ‘ordinary’ people.
Mr Follett has a way with words which brings scenes to life; he also writes in a way which keeps the story moving at a good pace and so draws the reader into his world. The first novel in the series, ‘Fall of Giants’, which deals with the first thirty years of the last century, should be read before this novel to give an understanding of who the main characters are and where they came from, but as that is an equally well researched and well written novel reading it will be no hardship!
‘Winter Of The World’ is a novel which will be enjoyed by people with an interest in twentieth century history, and also fans of Mr Follett’s previous books. I heartily recommend it.
I would like to thank Jodie at Whispering Stories for her lovely review of Heronfield. As an author it means a great deal to me to know that my work has touched someone in this way. Here’s what Jodie said:
Set in Europe during the Second World War, Heronfield takes us on a six year journey of war, friendship, love, sadness, and hope. We meet many different characters, a few of whom are taken right into our heart.
I became strongly attached to one of the main characters, Tony. A young man hardly in his twenties, he is secretly recruited as a British agent in the efforts to foil Hitler’s war. I found myself feeling sorry for him when certain members of his family turned against him for shirking his duties when in fact, unbeknown to them, he was doing the exact opposite, but was duty bound not to tell them.
I felt the turmoil and heartache he was going through. He showed a tremendous amount of strength and courage throughout the story – all borne by his passion to defeat Hitler, to prove to his father that he was indeed fighting in the war, and most of all, the driving force to keep going – his love for a woman.
Another character I enjoyed reading about was Sarah, a volunteer nurse. She gets stationed at Heronfield, a family home turned war hospital. She has plenty of heartache along the way but it makes her stronger over the years. As the story progresses and I found myself rooting for her all the way.
Some characters are constant, and others are fleeting, but memorable all the same. We come across a German soldier who makes us realise that they are not just the enemy. They are human too.
The German soldier does a selfless and heartfelt deed. We meet him again later on in the story and he has the opportunity to end a life. Instead he chooses to back down and explains that he doesn’t agree with Hitler, but if he doesn’t fight under the regime then he’s as good as dead anyway. It’s a touching scene and puts a different spin on the people behind the enemy faces.
The story grabbed me from the opening pages, with the graphic descriptions of the attacks on innocent civilians by the Germans. It’s harrowing but draws you right in, and you get a real sense of what actually went on during the war.
I liked the mini segments that gave real life time lines of what was happening during the war in various locations. It gave a sense of where the story would head next, and the progress of the war. They were superbly detailed without being boring.
The author has expertly carried out her research. The environment descriptions, the horrors of war, the abhorrent conditions of concentration camps, torture methods meted out, and many more besides are so wonderfully detailed that I found myself there. I winced at the persecution of innocents, gasped and grimaced at the torture methods bestowed on one of the characters, and I shed quite a few tears along the way.
My heart was in my mouth many times and the raw emotion grabbed at me and didn’t let go, even after finishing the book. I’ve never read a story that’s taken me by the soul and stayed with me quite the way Heronfield has done, and that’s a really good and beautiful thing – and a sure sign of a brilliantly well-written story.
Sadly I can only give this book five stars. I wish I could give it more but five is the maximum! An absolutely amazing story that needs to be read.
If Jodie’s review has intrigued you why not read Heronfield yourself and see if you agree?
If you have already read Heronfield, then have you thought of leaving a review? I love to hear what my readers think.
‘The Nightingale’ is a novel which will grip you from start to finish with its portrayal of life for two sisters in France during the Second World War. Vianne’s husband is taken by the Germans to a labour camp. Having a daughter makes Vianne cautious, intent on ensuring that they both survive the war. Her sister, Isabelle, is younger, more daring; a girl who has felt unloved for most of her life and feels she needs to do something, anything, to give meaning to her existence. Yet as the years progress, as hunger and lack of all luxuries set in, so the characters change to meet their changing circumstances. Small changes at first, but for each action there is a consequence leading, almost inevitable, to more dangerous actions. This is real life in the sense that it is moral choices that people make which mould them, choices which they sometimes wish they didn’t have to make but which cannot be avoided.
‘The Nightingale’ covers many aspects of life in occupied France – living with German officers who are billeted in your home, whether you like it or not; the treatment of Jews; the harsh realities of Occupation; the French Resistance; escape routes for Allied pilots across the mountains into Spain. Unusually, this novel’s two central characters are women, giving us a deeper understanding of what life was like away from the battlefields of the war, and helps us to realise that there are more battles to be fought than those involving guns and bombs.
The relationship between the two sisters changes dramatically during the novel as they finally come to realise the strengths and weaknesses which they each have, both different yet both equally brave and selfless in their attempts to help the lost and vulnerable under Nazi occupation.
This novel is well-paced, the plot developments work well, the characters are believable and many faceted, the dialogue realistic. The novel begins in America in 1995 with a French immigrant receiving an invitation to a ceremony in France to honour a heroine of the Second World War. Part of the suspense of the novel is wondering which of the sisters it is to honour, and which is the one who received the invitation. Did they both survive the war?
‘The Nightingale’ is fiction but is based on the lives of real people who put their lives on the line to help others during the German occupation of France. Many of these people made the ultimate sacrifice, but those who did survive rarely spoke of their experiences, sometimes because their memories were just too painful, or maybe because they felt that they had done nothing more than others. In ‘The Nightingale’ Kristin Hannah pays tribute to these people in a story full of pain and fear, yet also humanity and courage. It is a novel which I can heartily recommend to you.
I am currently working on the first of a series of books about a war correspondent.
‘One Night In Berlin’ introduces Jenny McLeod and explains a little of how and why she became a correspondent. This novella is not for sale, but free exclusively to anyone who signs up for my newsletter.
Two weeks before D-Day, the French Resistance attacks a chateau containing a telephone exchange vital to German communications – but the building is heavily guarded and the attack fails disastrously.
Flick Clairet, a young British secret agent, proposes a daring new plan: she will parachute into France with an all-woman team known as the ‘Jackdaws’ and they will penetrate the chateau in disguise. But, unknown to Flick, Rommel has assigned a brilliant, ruthless intelligence colonel, Dieter Franck, to crush the Resistance. And Dieter is on Flick’s trail…
Mr Follett is an historical novelist whose writings have ranged across the centuries; with ‘Jackdaws’ he returns to World War II in the days leading up to D Day. After an unsuccessful attempt to destroy an important communications exchange female SOE operative, Flick Clairet, heads an all-female operation to enter the complex in disguise and cause enough damage to disrupt German communications during the Allied invasion.
The plot of ‘Jackdaws’ is realistic; many women served in the SOE during the war, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. Details of how agents were trained, how they reached their destinations in France, and the types of attacks they carried out alongside the French Resistance are accurate. Through this we are able to see the fear and horror facing those who worked behind enemy lines, yet also their courage and resourcefulness, and in this respect I can highly recommend this novel.
On the other hand, I did find some aspects of ‘Jackdaws’ a little too far-fetched. It would have been possible to put together an all-female group, but no agents would have been sent out with the limited training that the characters in this novel received. Also, some of the characters were incredibly blasé about the dangers facing them, behaving almost as though they were on holiday rather than on a secret mission behind enemy lines. Having said that, this is historical fiction and so one can suspend belief a little in exchange for a good story. And ‘Jackdaws’ is that. The plotting is clear, the action almost constant, the suspense engaging.
Alongside the story of Flick and her group we also have the story of Dieter Franck, a German Intelligence officer whose character is full of contradictions – willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve his aims, yet feeling the guilt at what those actions entail; a loving husband, yet a man who also loves his mistress; a man who upholds the German ideal yet has feelings for a Jew. With Franck, and the other main characters in this novel, Mr Follett explores human psychology showing us the complexity of human relationships and how our feelings for others can colour our actions.
All in all, ‘Jackdaws’ is a good war-time thriller. Anyone who enjoys a fast-paced story set during the Second World War will enjoy this novel.
I have always loved a good comedy, Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo included. No one, for even one moment, thought that the French Resistance was in anyway like the ‘adventures’ of Rene, yet many people seem to think that the bumblings of Captain Mainwaring and his men somehow epitomised the Home Guard during the Second World War. So, who were these men really?
It was on 14th May 1940 that Anthony Eden, in his first speech as Secretary of State for War, asked for volunteers to join a Local Defence Volunteer force (LDV) with the aim of fighting the Germans if they should successfully land on British shores. In his speech he said ‘We want large numbers of such men in Great Britain who are British subjects, between the ages of seventeen and sixty-five, to come forward now and offer their services in order to make assurance [that an invasion would be repelled] doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers. This name describes its duties in three words. You will not be paid, but you will receive uniforms and will be armed. In order to volunteer, what you have to do is give your name at your local police station, and then, when we want you, we will let you know…’ Later in the year Winston Churchill changed the name of the volunteers to the Home Guard, saying “Such a force is of the highest value and importance. A country where every street and every village bristles with resolute, armed men is a country against which the tactics that destroyed the Dutch will not succeed…a country so defended would not be liable to be overthrown’
Early 1940 found most of the British public expecting an invasion. Many men had already been called up to serve their country. Some who wanted to fight were either too old, too young, not fit enough or serving in reserved occupations which were vital to the war effort. These men all wanted to do their bit too, to defend their homes and families from the Nazi invaders. They saw the LDV as just the place for them.
The numbers of men who wanted to serve caught the government off guard. They expected around 150,000 volunteers in total yet, just twenty four hours after Eden made his broadcast, 250,000 men had signed up and, by the end of June, there were just under one and a half million men in the LDV. Numbers did not fall below one million until the Home Guard was stood down in December 1944. In the first wave of volunteers, approximately 40% had served in the First World War. The age limit for joining the LDV was from 17 to 65, although these limits were often quietly ignored. For example, P. D. Willeringhaus, aged just 16, was mentioned in dispatches for brave conduct; and Alexander Taylor, who signed up when in his eighties, had previous served in the Sudan in 1884. (I wonder if these men were the inspiration for Pike, Godfrey and Jones in Dad’s Army?)
Initially all members of the Home guard were volunteers, but as 18 was the conscription age for the army, it was decided towards the end of the war that conscripting 17 year olds into the Home Guard would give them training and acclimatise them to the military life before being called up to serve in the regular army.
We are used to seeing the Home Guard portrayed as infantry units, but this was not the whole picture. There were mounted units and waterborne units such as the Upper Thames Patrol, there were factory units formed by workers to protect their factory during an emergency, there were coastal defence units and anti-aircraft units, motor transport and bomb disposal.
Over 1,600 members of the Home Guards died whilst on duty, four of whom were decorated posthumously.* Approximately 1,000 other medals and commendations were awarded to men serving in the Home Guard. Anyone who had served in the Home Guard for three years was entitled to receive the Defence Medal, other medals for service during World War 2 were not available to them as they had not served overseas. If a man had served less than three years but was killed on duty, or left the Home Guard because of wounds received on duty due to enemy action, he would also received the Defence Medal.
Whilst some aspects of the TV series Dad’s Army are highly fictionalised, there are others that are accurate. When first formed, the volunteers had whatever weapons they could find – shotguns and air rifles, pitchforks and scythes, knives and bayonets tied to the end of pieces of wood – before eventually being issued with real weapons. These ‘new weapons’ were, however, mostly relics from the First World War and hardly the best choice to hold back an invading army. Volunteers trained in the evening in unarmed combat, basic sabotage and weapons handling. Training was amateur and ad hoc, leading to many accidents, and it was not long before the government saw the need for more formal training. The first guerrilla warfare school for members of the Home Guard was set up at Osterley Park in London; three mores such schools were soon to follow.
Home Guard duties were varied, ranging from acting as sentries to checking identity papers, from questioning strangers in their local area to removing road signs to confuse the enemy if they should invade. In the spring of 1944, around 100,000 men from the Home Guard were working on anti-aircraft batteries, mainly aiming to down V1 rockets before they reached populated areas.
The “Home Guard Handbook” published in 1940 stated that the main duties of the Home Guard were:
Guarding important points
Observation and reporting – prompt and precise.
Immediate attack against small, lightly armed parties of the enemy.
The defence of roads, villages, factories and vital points in towns to block enemy movement.
Every member of the Home Guard was expected to know:
The whole of the ground in his own district.
The personnel of his own detachment.
The headquarters of his detachment and where he is to report for duty in the event of an alarm.
What the alarm signal is.
The form of reports concerning enemy landings or approaches, what the reports should contain, and to whom they should be sent.
By the end of 1944 the tide of the war had changed. The Allies were on mainland Europe and pushing towards the German homeland and a ‘Home Gard’ was no longer needed to repel an invasion. Therefore, on 3rd December 1944, the Home Guard was stood down and became an inactive reserve unit. They were finally disbanded on the last day of the year 1945, and the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, ceased to exist.
As recognition of their role, the Home Guard were asked on the first anniversary of their formation, and again on their fourth, to the mount the guard at Buckingham Palace. This is an honour which many regiments have not held in the centuries of their existence, and goes to show just how important and well respected these volunteers were.
In my novel, Heronfield, I wanted to show that it was not just soldiers, sailors and airmen who served during the war, but that everyone had a role to play. That is why I created the character of Joe, a young man who tried to join the army but was found unfit so he joined the LDV the day after Eden’s speech, protecting the aircraft factory in which he worked. The description of what Joe experienced during the bombing raid on Coventry on 14th November 1940 is an amalgamation of some of the work done by members of the Home Guard, and is my tribute to them.
*Posthumous decorations for Home Guard members
Section Commander G. W. INWOOD – George Cross
“Immediately following an intense air raid on the night of 15th/16th October 1940, Section Commander Inwood was called upon by the police to assist in rescue duty in Bishop Street, Birmingham. Taking charge of a party of six volunteers, he found that several people were imprisoned in a gas-filled cellar. A small hole was made and Section Commander Inwood was lowered into the cavity. With great bravery he succeeded in bringing up two males alive. Although nearly exhausted, he entered the cavern a third time and was overcome by fumes. He was dragged out by one of his comrades, but despite the attention of a doctor and nurse, it was impossible to revive him. He showed the highest form of cool courage and self-sacrifice for others.”
Section Commander Inwood died on 16th October 1940 and is buried in Yardley Cemetery, Birmingham. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 10th October 1941.
Lieutenant W. FOSTER, M.C., D.C.M. – George Cross
“When Lieutenant Foster was instructing a class in throwing live grenades a Mills bomb rebounded to the firing position. Without hesitation Lieutenant Foster threw himself on the bomb one second before it exploded, thus saving the lives of his comrades nearby. This officer’s gallant action was not carried out in the heat of battle, but deliberately in cold blood, and with full knowledge of the consequences. As a result of this action Lieutenant Foster lost his life.”
The incident in which Lieutenant Foster was killed took place on 13th September 1942. He is buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard, Alderbury, Wiltshire. His widow received his George Cross at an investiture on 2nd March 1943.
2nd Lieutenant W. COOK – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct
“On 3rd April 1943 2nd Lieutenant Cook was instructing in the throwing of live No. 36 grenades set with four second fuses. One grenade fell short, struck the parapet and dropped back into the bay at the feet of the thrower, who stooped to retrieve it. 2nd Lieutenant Cook, realising the danger of delay, dashed into the bay, pushed the man to safety, and himself seized the grenade but before he was able to throw it from the trench it exploded. He was mortally wounded and died three hours later. By his unhesitating action this very gallant officer, at the cost of his own life, undoubtedly saved that of one of his men.”
2nd Lieutenant Cook, who died on 3rd April 1943, is buried in North Merchiston Cemetery, Edinburgh.
Lieutenant L. B. BRUDENELL – King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct
“For bravery and devotion to duty in saving life at the cost of his own during live grenade practice.”
Lieutenant Brudenell died on 28th February 1943 and is buried in Porchester (St. Mary) Churchyard, Fareham, Hampshire.