Tag Archives: England

The worst journey in the world – the Arctic Convoys of World War 2

On 23rd August 1939, just days before Germany invaded Poland in the opening moves of the Second World War, the world was surprised to see two sworn enemies – Germany and Russia – sign a Non-aggression Pact in which they agreed not to go to war against each other for the next ten years. For Stalin the treaty meant that Russia could stay on peaceful terms with Germany whilst building up her own military strength; for Hitler it meant that he would be able to invade Poland unopposed. In September Hitler attacked Poland and the country was soon under Nazi control, this meant that Hitler had got what he wanted from the Pact so in June 1941, much to the anger of Stalin, Germany invade Russia with more than 3 million troops. This was the largest invasion in history (in comparison the D Day landings in Normandy saw 156,000 Allied soldiers come ashore). Operation Barbarossa (the attack on Russia) was initially a success with the Russians losing 4,500 planes in just nine days, a number which constituted half of their air force, within six months the Russian army had lost 20,000 tanks. By the end of the year the Germans were within 15 miles of Red Square in the centre of Moscow and a desperate Stalin begged Churchill to send Russia tanks, planes and guns to halt the German progress.

Operation Barbarossa © IWM (HU 111387)

Churchill didn’t like either communism or Stalin, but he knew that Britain would not be able to defeat Hitler alone. So far America was only sending supplies to Europe not troops and so Churchill had no real alternative but to help Stalin in an effort to keep a large part of Germany’s troops occupied in the east rather than freeing them up for an invasion of the British Isles. Churchill knew that to defeat Hitler in Russia would be a colossal undertaking and so he promised Stalin that there would be deliveries of supplies every 10 days. But how would they get there? They could be sent across the Pacific from America and then by train across Russia, or they could go around Africa and then overland from India, but both of these routes would take weeks, if not months. The only realistic route to deliver supplies quickly and regularly would be to go the north of Norway to the Russian ports of Murmansk and Archangel; the problem with that route was that Germany already held Norway so the convoys would have to run the gauntlet of German ships, submarines and planes as well as struggling with the treacherous conditions of the Arctic Ocean. As Churchill said, it should take about 10 days but it would be the worst journey in the world.

ARCTIC CONVOY. ON BOARD HMS INGLEFIELD , 14 FEBRUARY TO 13 MARCH 1943, DURING CONVOY DUTY IN ARCTIC WATERS. © IWM (A 15400)

The Merchant Navy was delegated to man the convoys. Before the war merchant vessels had brought trade goods to Britain from all parts of the world, but the experienced sailors who served in the Merchant Navy had never signed up for active service during a war. As a non-military fighting force these men – aged from 14 to 70 – were ill-equipped with little more than a long coat, leather boots and balaclava. One of their main jobs whilst the ships were on the arctic run was to clear the ice from the decks so that it didn’t jam up the winches and guns, or build up until the ship became so top-heavy that it would capsize. Most of the ships in the Merchant Navy were old and slow, many dating from the First World War, and they had certainly not been designed for the harsh Arctic Ocean. The brave merchant seamen who took on this task were paid as little as £10 a month, and it was the rule that a sailor’s pay would be stopped the moment his ship sank!

Ice forms on a 20-inch signal projector on the cruiser HMS Sheffield while she is helping to escort an Arctic convoy to Russia

Only 1 of the 103 ships which sailed in the first 12 convoys to Russia was lost and so huge numbers of supplies reached their destination, so much so that in the Battle of Moscow at the end of 1941 75% of the tanks used by the Russians were British made and had arrived via the convoys. As well as tanks the ships cargos included fighter planes, fuel, ammunition, raw materials, and food. Ships would return to Britain either with ballast or some passengers who were mainly survivors of sunken merchant ships, British servicemen and Russian diplomats.

The convoys were co-ordinated by a control centre in Liverpool. At the heart of the convoy were the merchant ships with the supplies, usually travelling in rows eight abreast. Surrounding these were the warships which offered close protection – destroyers, armed trawlers and anti-aircraft ships. The distant protection was provided by heavy cruisers which would be 30 or 40 miles further out to combat any threat from German surface ships – the German ship Tirptz in particular was in Norwegian waters and considered a constant threat. Sometimes there were also one or two submarines offering protection to the convoy. In the summer months as the ice retreated the convoys would take the route from Iceland (usually off Hvalfjörður) north of Jan Mayen Island to Archangel, but as winter approached and the pack ice increased the convoys would take a more southerly route to Murmansk. From February1942 convoys also assembled and sailed from Loch Ewe* in Scotland.

Loch Ewe during the war

As if the threat of German attacks wasn’t enough the merchant convoys also had to contend with the severe weather conditions of the Arctic Ocean – fog, freezing temperatures which went down to -60, gales with winds of up to 100mph, mountainous waves, strong currents, drift ice, and the difficulties of navigating so close to the North Pole all meant that the loss rate for ships was higher than any other Allied convoy route. The journey meant days of heightened tension for the sailors, a particular fear was that your ship might sink because if it did there was little hope of rescue as you would only be able to survive for minutes in the freezing waters and the other ships in the convoy needed to keep moving as a unit and so often couldn’t stop to help.

The most infamous convoy was PQ17 which had the distinction of being the first significant joint Anglo-American operation of the war, was the largest arctic convoy to sail, and was also one of the biggest naval disasters of the 20th century.

The convoy of 35 ships in PQ17 assembled at Hvalfjord, Iceland, at the end of June 1942.  One ship grounded when leaving harbour and another was damaged by floating ice and had to withdraw, but the remaining 33 merchant ships headed east for Russia on 27th June. The 33 British and American merchant ships were carrying enough tanks and munitions to equip an army of 50,000 men. By this time Germany had realised that the convoys had to be stopped if they were ever to defeat Russia and so Hitler had increased the number of planes, ships and submarines in Norway. British command recognised the danger and gave PQ17 a massive armed escort – a close escort of 19 ships and a cruiser force of 7 further out. The British were also put in charge of this joint Anglo-American force as they were the only ones with the experience of Arctic convoys. The ships set out at their top speed on a voyage that was expected to take about 10 days, and for the first 7 days there were no major incidents as any U-boats that came close were driven away by the destroyers, and the anti-aircraft ships saw off any German planes. (Film star Douglas Fairbanks Jr served onboard one of the escort ships for PQ17).

USS Wainright

But the massive convoy’s luck did not hold out and disaster struck on 4th July at 8.20 pm when the Germans launched a full assault. The first wave of the attack came from a flight of Heinkel 111 torpedo bombers. The USS Wainright broke ranks, turned away from the convoy and headed off alone to try to shoot down the planes; the heavy fire they gave caused most of the German planes to drop their torpedoes too early or turn back. After this initial success another more persistent wave of bombers came and within a short time 3 merchant ships had been hit with a loss of just 3 German planes. At the same time Naval HQ in London received news from Swedish intelligence that German surface ships had left Norway and were heading for PQ17, they reported that the Tirpitz was with them. The Tirpitz was the most advanced warship in the world with massive armour yet it was fast and had a huge number of colossal guns. The ships protecting the convoy could fire their shells a distance of 16 miles, but the Tirpitz’s guns could hit them from 22 miles away. The convoy stood no chance against such a ship.

Tirpitz

First Sea Lord Sir Dudley Pound (who was suffering with a brain tumour) had to make a decision – should he order PQ17 to turn back? If he did so it was possible that without the supplies Russia could lose the war, but if he ordered the convoy to continue it was likely to be destroyed and Russia could still lose the war. Pound decided that the Cruiser escort should turn around and return to Britain because they couldn’t take on the Tirpitz and the British could not afford to lose so many ships. The convoy itself should be ordered to disperse and head for Russian ports on their own. His theory was that if the merchantmen remained together the Tirpitz would be able to sink them all, but if they scattered at least some of them should get through. The messages from London created a sense of panic amongst the convoy who were not sure what to do. When the cruiser escort turned around Captain Broome was left in charge of the close escort and took overall control of the convoy, but with the merchant ships scattering in all directions he believed that it would be impossible to protect them so he turned around too, thinking that he could perhaps help the cruisers fight the Tirpitz. The merchant ships were left alone with no protection and 800 miles still to go.

Sir Dudley Pound

The Germans began their main attack on PQ17 with a force of 133 bombers, 12 torpedo planes and 12 U-boats; the unprotected ships were sitting ducks and it was a disaster for the convoy. The attack continued for 2 days with 12 merchant ships lost in the first 24 hours; and during that time there was still no sign of the Tirpitz. First Sea Lord Pound was eventually informed that the Tirpitz was still at anchor in Norwegian waters, there had been no need to abandon the convoy after all.** This is when the most puzzling decision of all was made, rather than bring the convoy back together Pound, for some unknown reason, said it must remain scattered. That order meant the effective end of PQ17.

It was at this point that the hero of Convoy PQ17 appeared. Captain Gradwell was a volunteer sailor who had been a barrister before the war but was now in command of a trawler which had been converted with a couple of guns and depth charges, and whose crew was mainly fishermen. Gradwell decided that the order to abandon the convoy was so bad that he would disobey it and stay with the scattered merchant ships. He found 3 US merchantmen whose officers agreed to follow his trawler as he led them as far north as possible, intending to hide amongst the ice until the attack was over and then head for Archangel. Gradwell didn’t have the charts he needed for the area and so was using a Times Handy Atlas! And he only had a certificate to captain a leisure cruiser in coastal waters! Gradwell took the ships as far north as he could, only stopping when the ice was too thick to go further, then he ordered the crews to paint the ships white and cover the decks with white sheets and tablecloths. At least one German plane flew over but didn’t see the camouflaged ships against the ice. Gradwell then ordered the tanks on deck to be loaded and pointed south to where any enemy would come from. And there the ships waited whilst chaos reigned in the south. When a fog came down Gradwell decided that it was time to try to escape and led the ships back south. On the morning of 25th July, two weeks overdue, Gradwell and the three ships he was escorting arrived in Archangel. Only 11 out of 33 of the convoy’s ships reached the Soviet Union, and 153 men lost their lives on those that were sunk. Captain Gradwell was awarded the DSC for his actions on Convoy PQ17.

Arctic convoys continued to the end of the war and the mistake of scattering the ships in the face of a German attack was never made again; but PQ17 was not the only one of the 78 arctic convoy missions to suffer losses. A total of 104 Allied merchant ships and 18 warships were sunk with the arctic convoys; over 3,000 personnel were killed. Russia also lost 30 merchant ships and an unknown number of personnel. Germany lost 5 surface warships, 31 submarines, and an unknown number of aircraft in her attacks on the convoys.
Over four million tons of supplies were delivered to the Russians by the Arctic convoys including tanks, aircraft, trucks, tractors, telephone wire, railway engines, sheet metal, food, and boots. The supplies were not as vital towards the end of the war but the convoys continued as a symbolic show of unity amongst the Allies.

The role which the convoys played in keeping Russia in the war cannot be overstated, but because they were Merchant Navy those who crewed the merchant ships did not receive a medal at the end of the war. It wasn’t until March 2013 that the role they played was finally recognised and they were awarded the Arctic Star.

*RUSSIAN ARCTIC CONVOY MUSEUM  near Loch Ewe in Scotland. Please take a look at their website, and call in if you are ever in the area – it is a fascinating museum.   There is some interesting video of Loch Ewe here (filmed in 2012 so some information about the museum and medal is out of date).

**Aside from an abortive attempt to intercept PQ12 in March 1942 and a raid on Spitsbergen in September 1943, the Tirpitz spent most of the war in the Norwegian fjords. She was repeatedly attacked by Allied forces and was finally sunk in Tromsø fjord on 12th November 1944 by the RAF.

 

Recommended Read – The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

An empowering, thought-provoking feminist novel that will change the way you see the world. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Day, Claire Fuller and Joanna Cannon.

1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.

The Woman in the Photograph takes the reader on a journey exploring the development of feminism in the UK from the 1960’s to the present day. It is innovative, thought-provoking, imaginative and moving. By following the career of Veronica we live fifty years of social history, charting the changing roles of women and discovering how far they have come yet how far they still have to go. The ‘descriptions’ of photographs that Veronica takes at key moments in feminist history give a real snapshot (pun intended!) of a particular time and place and are a testament to the authors descriptive writing and the clarity of her well-drawn characters.

Ms Butland has conducted in depth research for this novel which is crammed with information yet is never wordy or didactic, instead the reader experiences those years through the eyes of three very different women – Veronica, Leonie, and Erica – and is drawn into their lives and loves, their hopes and fears, their successes and failures. The Woman in the Photograph is unapologetic in this focus on the individual in the feminist movement but should not be seen as a simple history, it is so much more than that. This novel is also about the human heart with love and loss at its centre.

I must admit that when I first picked up The Woman in the Photograph I was not sure if it was for me, fearing that it might attempt be too moralistic and push feminism on the reader, but that is not the case. If you take the trouble to pick up this book you will certainly learn about the history of feminism but also enjoy a jolly good read.

The Woman in the Photograph is available on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Canvey Island by James Runcie

canvey islandIt is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.

Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.

Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.

This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.

Canvey Island can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II was a teenager during the Second World War and life for her was, in many ways, not dissimilar to that of other teenagers. Her father, King George, insisted that the royal family should not have any special treatment, they had the same rations as everyone else and even applied this to visitors to Buckingham Palace – including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President!

Princess Elizabeth was 14 years old when Britain declared war on Germany and her safety as heir to the throne was of great concern to many people. Viscount Hailsham, a well respected former Conservative politician, spoke for many when he suggested that Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, should be evacuated to Canada for the duration of the war. The Queen, however, was adamant that this should not happen and told the Viscount that ‘The children won’t go without me, I won’t leave without the King, and the King will never leave.’ This was a very public statement that the royal family intended to stay in the United Kingdom but, in private, King George VI made plans for the two princesses to be evacuated if, and only if, a German army landed in England and there was a real threat that the royal family might be taken prisoner. (see article on George VI) Although his children would be taken abroad to safety King George intended to stay after any invasion to help with the resistance.  This plan was kept secret in order to keep up the morale of the British people and, thankfully, there was never any need to put it into action. During the first winter of the war Elizabeth and Margaret stayed at the Balmoral estate in Scotland, moving to Sandringham after Christmas 1939 and then back to Windsor where they lived for the remainder of the war. Each year they ‘did their bit’ by putting on a pantomime to raise money for the Queen’s wool fund to buy wool for the manufacture of military clothing.

The relentless bombing of British cities in the Blitz meant that many children were evacuated to the countryside and, in October 1940, Princess Elizabeth broadcast a radio message to them on the popular Children’s Hour programme. Her message offered thanks to the host families and support for the children who were living with strangers in a strange environment. The core of her message was that the children should stay strong, and face the war with courage, determination, and hope. She said that ‘We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.  When peace comes,” she said, “remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.’ (Princess Elizabeth’s broadcast)

Although Elizabeth felt an affinity for the children of the United Kingdom her position as heir to the throne meant that she would have a unique role and responsibilities. In 1941, at the age of 15, she was appointed Colonel-In-Chief of the Grenadier Guards, and her first public appearance alone was a visit to inspect the regiment when she was 16. Yet she could sympathise with those who had lost family members in the war for she, too, lost her beloved uncle Prince George, Duke of Kent, who was the first member of the royal family to be killed on active service for 500 years. Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of his death; Prince George was an RAF pilot and set out alone on a secret mission, when his body was recovered from the hillside in Caithness where his plane had crashed he was found with a bag containing a large number of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to his wrist.

In 1944 Parliament changed the law to allow Princess Elizabeth to act as one of the five Counsellors of State who were senior members of the royal family who would effectively take over the role of the monarch should the King be incapacitated or out of the country. She performed this role when George VI went to Europe to visit the troops after the D Day landings. (see article on George VI)

When she was 18 Elizabeth wanted to join the ATS but this was opposed by the King; it was not until February 1945 that he finally agreed and the princess signed up as an honorary Second Subaltern with the service number 230873. After five months of training as a mechanic and military truck driver in Camberley the future queen was promoted to the rank of honorary Junior Commander (the equivalent of a Captain in the army). Throughout her training Elizabeth worked for seven hours a day before returning to Windsor Castle at night; she appears to have taken her duties very seriously and, although some people were excited by her presence, it is reported that she was hard working and humble during the time she served in the ATS. The Queen is the only female member of the British royal family to have served in the armed forces. The ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) was the women’s branch of the army during the Second World War, but although the women had full military status they were only paid two-thirds of the wage of a man of the same rank even when serving overseas. Women in the ATS served in a number of roles from the mundane clerical to the most dangerous, including manning anti-aircraft guns (Mary, the daughter of Winston Churchill, served on anti-aircraft batteries for the duration of the war).

Watch a Pathe News report of the King, Queen and Princess Margaret visiting Princess Elizabeth on a driving course at a training centre.

There were great celebrations when the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe. On VE Day, 8th May 1945, the royal family made numerous appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the cheers of massive crowds. The princesses Elizabeth and Margaret looked down to the joyful celebrations and wanted to join in; surprisingly, the King gave his permission for the sisters to go into the streets incognito. So the heir to the throne strolled down Whitehall arm in arm with her sister, possibly the only time that she has been able to be just one of the crowd, as she later described it ‘We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised … I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.’

Although the Second World War ended in 1945 rationing was only phased out gradually and did not finally end until 1954. The royal family continued to follow the restrictions and Princess Elizabeth even saved up ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress in 1947.

Queen Elizabeth II is the only remaining living head of state in the world who served during the Second World War and remains the only female member of the royal family to have served in the armed forces.

 

A wartime Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

© IWM (D 23296)

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

© IWM (EA 10182)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A life on the line – SOE radio operators in the Second World War

England. June 1940. Things looked bleak for the Allies after the fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk, Britain was on the defensive and most people believed that the invasion of England would soon begin. In an effort to take some of the fight to the enemy Winston Churchill authorised Hugh Dalton, the Minister of Economic Warfare, to set up a clandestine organization to help form, supply and run resistance movements in occupied countries. This new Special Operations Executive (SEO) was to be responsible for recruiting and training agents who would then be sent behind enemy lines. (The work of the SOE). One of the most difficult roles which members of the SOE undertook was that of wireless operator.

The early equipment needed by radio operators was cumbersome – a short-wave morse transceiver (capable of both sending and receiving messages) weighing a hefty 30 pounds along with a flexible aerial 70 feet long – all of which had to be concealed in a suitcase 2 feet long. It was hard to be inconspicuous and not act suspiciously whilst carrying such incriminating equipment in enemy held territory. The SOE realised how important the correct equipment would be for the survival of their agents and began to design their own lighter and more portable sets. The culmination of this work was the Paraset, a major improvement as it weighed just 9 pounds and was small enough to carry in a small attache case yet powerful enough to send and receive messages over distances in excess of 500 miles.

Type 3 Mark II (B2),

Type 3 Mark II (B2),used when longer range was required

An SOE wireless operator had to know the area they worked in intimately. It was vital that they transmit from a different place, and only very briefly, each time they made contact with base as it was estimated that, in an urban environment, the Germans were able to track down a transmitter in around half an hour. Agents also had to create schedules for their transmissions which did not involve making contact on the same day of the week or at the same time of day, as any sort of pattern which could be identified by the Germans would be disasterous. The ideal for an agent was to set up, transmit, dismantle and get away within a maximum of 20 minutes to avoid capture and torture. To be found transmitting would almost certainly mean death to the operator, but it could also be devastating to the resistance group they worked with. If the enemy captured a transceiver and code books they would try to use them to trap the rest of the grouup. To try to prevent such deceptions each wireless operator was instructed to spell certain words incorrectly – if a transmission was made with the word spelt correctly the handler back in England would know that the operator had been compromised and, hopefully, have time to warn field agents in time for them to make good their escape.

Noor Inayat Khan, a member of the SOE who was executed by the Germans

The majority of radio operators sent behind enemy lines by the SOE were women as it as believed that they would be able to move around with their equipment without drawing as much attention to themselves as a man would. After all, it was quite common for women to be out shopping with a bag during the day whilst a man in a similar situation would be much more conspicuous. The women who signed up to do this work were under no illusions as to the importance, and the danger, of what they were committing to – the life expectancy of as SOE wireless operator working in Occupied France was just six weeks. (The Women Who Spied For Britain)

Some resistance groups were set up by the SOE whilst others were formed by locals with SOE support, yet regardless of how they began all groups received their instructions directly from England (or one of the subsidiary bases in other theatres of war, such as Cairo). The wireless operator in the ‘circuit’ lived in isolation with only brief contact with a single member of the group. It was a lonely existence in order to protect the remainder of the group. A wireless operator would not take part in operations such as sabotage, their only role was to be responsible for transmitting orders, or arranging the transport of agents and drops of supplies. In the early days all transmissions went through the radio station at Bletchley Park but the SOE later had its own stations at Poundon and Grendon Underwood – messages from the field would come in there to be forwarded to SOE HQ in London by teleprinter.

Security was vital in this clandestine world, both for the agent in the field and the information being transmitted. One way of ensuring security was by having an agent who knew how to transmit safely and securely, but the use of codes was also incredibly important. To begin with insecure poem codes were used, but these led to a number of disasters and so Leo Marks was made chief cryptographer. As part of his role Marks helped to develop single use ciphers printed on silk in an effort to save agents lives. The reason for such an expensive material was simple – it didn’t make a rustling sound like paper so, once concealed in the lining of clothing, it would not be detectable during a casual search.

Wireless operators who served behind enemy lines played an incredibly important role during the Second World War, particularly in the weeks leading up to the D Day landings in June 1944. Without their courage and sacrifice the war could have dragged on for months longer, and many more lives been lost. In my novel, Heronfield, one of the characters is a young woman who places her life on the line to be an SOE wireless operative in St Nazaire. My creation is an amalgamation of many women who served, and is my tribute to them all.

 

What’s in a name? – The ‘Union Flag’ or the ‘Union Jack’?

I was recently puzzling over a question whilst writing my next novel. Should I refer to the British flag as the ‘Union Jack’ or the ‘Union Flag’? Many people have different opinions on this so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the history of the flag; after all, this is not just a symbol for the United Kingdom but for many other countries too*, an expression of the wide influence which Great Britain has had in the history and development of those countries.

So what is the history of the Union Jack?

The Union Jack actually incorporates the national flags of three countries – England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Its name even emphasises the fact that Great Britain is a union of nations, the full title of our country being ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. As I said earlier, the flag is also called the ‘Union Flag’, and this emphasises the way that the union of our countries can change over time but we still hold together. The fact that some powers have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in recognition of their different national identities and needs does not detract from the essential unity of Great Britain. (Although Scotland has held a referendum to see if the country supports independence so far the majority of that country wish to remain in the Union).

The flag itself is an intricate design marrying together three different national flags, each one representing the patron saint of that country:

St George’s cross, the flag of England
St Andrew’s cross, the flag of Scotland
St Patrick’s cross, the flag of Northern Ireland

So where is the flag of St David of Wales? you may ask. Well, the first Union Flag was designed in 1606, and as Wales had already been united with England for centuries by that time the flag of St George was used to represent both. The Welsh still do have their own flag though, a red dragon, and this can often be seen being waved at sporting events by proudly nationalistic Welsh people.

The Welsh dragon

When King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne on the death of Queen Elizabeth I (see my article ‘A British Game Of Thrones’) it was decided to create a new flag to celebrate this union. The final design had a blue background with the red cross of St George superimposed over the white cross of St Andrew. This became known as the Union Flag.

Although James was king of both England and Scotland these were still two separate countries and so the new Union Flag was only flown at sea until England and Scotland were finally united in 1707 under Queen Anne. While at sea the flag was flown from the jack staff at the bow of the ship, and this is probably where the name ‘Union Jack’ comes from.

Ireland didn’t join the Union until 1801, at which time it was felt that the Irish identity should also be represented in the Union Flag. This is when the cross of St Patrick was added and the flag became what we know it to be today, with the ‘Union Jack’ receiving Parliamentary approval as the national flag in 1908.

So that is how the flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into existence. But does this help me in deciding what to call the flag in my novel? The official name is the Union Flag, but it is rarely called that and we British know and love it as the Union Jack. The characters in my novel would not be bothered about history or technicalities but would use the name that was known to everyone. So I have decided to go with the common usage of the time and refer to the Union Jack. I do hope no historians or vexillologists will be too offended by that!

*Flags which feature the Union Jack:

Commonwealth nations – Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Tuvalu, United Kingdom

Overseas Territories – Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Anguilla, Ascension Island, Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Falkland Islands, Niue, Montserrat, Pitcairn Islands, Ross Dependency, Saint Helena, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Tristan da Cunha, Turks and Caicos Islands

Federal, Provinces, Territories and States – British Columbia, Hawaii, Manitoba, New South Wales, Ontario, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, Western Australia

Flags which used to feature the Union Jack:

Canada, South Africa, Australia, Newfoundland

Please let me know if I’ve missed any!