Tag Archives: England

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!

The women who spied for Britain

The Invasion of France at the beginning of the Second World War is known as the Blitzkrieg – Lightning War – and it really was like lightning. It was just six short weeks from the start of the invasion on 10th May 1940 to the French signing an armistice with Germany on 22nd June. Yet although Germany had defeated the French army many French citizens were not ready to submit to the conquerors and so the British government set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its instructions from Churchill were to ‘set Europe ablaze’ by helping to fight the Germans behind enemy lines.

German soldiers in Paris

Recruits to the SOE underwent commando training as well as learning how to use guns and explosives, to effectively sabotage enemy installations and transport, to use wireless radios, to be proficient in silent killing and unarmed combat. They also had to learn how to blend in and live in secret in occupied territory, sometimes for weeks or months at a time.

Many may find it surprising to know that women were members of the SOE right from the start. At first their role was only to work in the offices producing forged papers for the men who would be going into action (ration cards, passports etc.), or perhaps coding or de-coding messages from agents as well as transmitting these messages via wireless. It wasn’t until April 1942 that Churchill finally gave his approval for women to be sent as agents into Europe. Part of the reasoning for this was that women would be less conspicuous as they were always out and about – shopping or taking children to school etc. – men who were seen on the streets too frequently soon came to the notice of the Gestapo. So the SOE recruited women as wireless operators and couriers and, like the men, these women had to be proficient in the language of the country they were going to, know it’s customs etc. The ideal recruit would have spent some of their formative years in the target country and so would know how to ‘blend in’. In all 431 men and 39 women were sent as SOE agents to France during the Second World War, as well as agents sent to other occupied countries.

Paraset Mk II, 1943

It would be impossible to describe the ‘average’ female SOE agent as there was really no such thing. A recruit could come from an aristocratic background or be working-class, she might have only just left school or be a mature and experienced mother, she might be demure or a little wild; the one unifying factor was that they were prepared to go behind enemy lines as the only women to bear arms during the war. They knew what they were signing up for, the chances that they could be captured and tortured, sent to concentration camps or executed, but that didn’t stop them.

One of the first women to work for SOE was actually an American called Virginia Hall who was living in France when the Germans invaded. Although she was disabled (she had an artificial foot) she managed to escape to England where she was signed up by the SOE and went back to France as a ‘correspondent for the New York Post’ (America had not yet entered the war at this time and so was considered neutral). After some time the Gestapo became too interested in Virginia so she escaped over the Pyrenean mountains to Spain (which could not have been easy with her disability). When she got back to England Virginia joined the newly formed US equivalent of SOE, went back to France prior to D Day and, after the war, served in the CIA.

Virgina Hall

Another famous SOE agent was Noor Inayat Khan who was born in Russia, the daughter of an Indian prince and American. Noor grew up in Paris where she became known as a writer and musician, but when her family fled to England to escape the Germans she trained as a wireless operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The SOE couldn’t ignore someone who spoke fluent French and could handle a wireless so they recruited Noor and she was sent to France in 1943. The network which she worked for was infiltrated and her colleagues arrested. Life was hard for Noor as she was forced to keep moving, finding a new place to stay every day in an effort to evade the Germans, carrying the all too conspicuous wireless with her. Noor continued to send reports to the SOE but her luck eventually ran out when she was betrayed and captured in October 1943. After spending months in solitary confinement Noor was sent to Dachau with three other female SOE agents where she was executed. Witnesses say that Noor spoke just one word at the end – liberté.

Noor Inayat Khan

Violette Szabo came from a very different background to Noor Inayat Kahn, a cockney working-class girl who had spent some time growing up in France and spoke the language well. She was married to a member of the French Foreign Legion, Etienne Szabo, who died at El Alamein. Violette had a one year old daughter but didn’t hesitate when the SOE came knocking at her door and immediately agreed to be sent to France, knowing the risks involved. Like Inayat Khan, Violette Szabo was captured and executed (at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945).

Violette Szabo

Although 13 of the women who were sent to France by the SOE were executed by the Germans and 2 others died of natural causes the other 24 survived until the end of the war. One of these was Odette Strugo Garay. Odette had a Czech father and a French mother. She was recruited by the SOE in 1944 after her husband, who was a Finnish RAF pilot, was killed in an accident. After undergoing her training, including four parachute jumps, Odette was sent to France, (she didn’t receive her RAF wings as she had not completed five qualifying jumps). After a time in France Odette returned to England via the route through Spain and on the way met the head of the escape network, Santiago Strugo Garay, who was later to become her husband. After the war Odette and  Santiago moved to Buenos Aires and it was there that she met the Air Attaché Wing Commander Dowling. During conversation she mentioned that although she had worked for the SOE and parachuted into France she had never received her RAF wings. He argued that her jump into France should count as a qualifying fifth jump and  Odette finally received her wings in 2007. She wore the badge every day until her death in 2015, proud of the contribution she had made to the work of the SOE in France.

Monument remembering all women who played a part in winninng the Second World War

The 39 female SOE agents who served in  France were ordinary women who did extraordinary things and, like their male counterparts, those who survived the war never sought the limelight but slipped back into civilian life as though their experiences during the war had never happened. They all felt that they were just doing their duty, no more than any other soldier who fought the Nazis. The women who went into enemy territory as agents of the SOE were pioneers – back at home women were working in the factories, taking over the roles of men who were away at the front, but the women of the SOE showed that not only could women do the work on the Home Front which had been done by men but that they could also fight like the men too. In my novel Heronfield Angeline is a radio operator who is parachuted into France by the SOE, her story is my tribute to the bravery of all women of any nationality who were prepared to put their lives on the line to preserve the freedom of others.

A British Game Of Thrones

Imagine the scenario:
There was once a king of a northern country who had a distant claim to the throne of a country in the south. When the ruler of the southern land died childless the King of the North also became King of the South, and although there was one king to rule them both the two realms remained separate and continued with their longstanding enmities. When the king died his son came to sit on the thrones of both countries but the lords of the southern lands were not happy with how he ruled and so went to war against him. The land in the north supported the southern nobles for a time, then their support moved to the king, then shifted back to the nobles once more. Power ebbed and flowed until the king was finally captured and executed. What would happen now? Who would rule? Would the lands be united at last or continue divided and at war?

Sounds like the plot to a book in the style of A Game Of Thrones, doesn’t it? Yet this is real history. The history of Scotland and England. It is a history I had to grasp to enable me to write my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’, and it is a part of the story which many people find fascinating. So, what was the situation between the two nations in the seventeenth century and how did that impact on the English Civil War?

James I

Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII, died childless. The next in line to the throne was James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots and great great grandson of Henry VII. James VI and I (as he is sometimes known) moved from Edinburgh to London; England and Scotland were now united under one monarch BUT this was a dynastic union only, the Stuarts reigned over two separate and distinct countries even though King James wanted them to be united as one.

Part of the problem which James I faced was that the Scottish Church would not accept the High Anglican Church of England. When his son, Charles I, succeeded him he introduced a Scottish version of the English Prayer Book in 1637. The Scots responded with anger and rioting, culminating in a meeting of the National Covenant in 1638 which overwhelmingly objected to the prayer book; and when the General Assembly met in November 1638 all bishops were expelled from the Scottish Church which became fully Presbyterian. Charles put together a military force to bring the Scottish to heel, but didn’t like using soldiers from his southern kingdom to invade his northern one, so a settlement was reached under the ‘Pacification of Berwick’. The peace didn’t last for long, hostilities broke out again and Charles’s English forces were defeated by the Scots at the Battle of Newburn.

Charles I

This was how Charles I found himself to be the king of two kingdoms with a history of dislike for each other and widely differing views on religion. Once civil war broke out in England, with parliament looking to exercise more control over the king, his taxes, and the religion of the country, things got even more complicated. The English Parliament entered into a ‘Solemn League And Covenant’ with the Scottish Church and Scottish troops played an important role in the defeat of Charles I, constantly playing one side against the other from the outbreak of war:

22nd August 1643 Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham, formally declaring war on Parliament.

August 1643 The Solemn League And Covenant promised to preserve the Scottish Church and reform religion in England and Ireland in return for Scottish help against the king.

6th May 1646 Charles I surrendered to the Scots in the hope that they would support him as their king against the old enemy, England. At the same time he was trying to negotiate with the English Parliament – unaware that the Scots were doing the same!

30th January 1647 The Scots handed Charles over to the English Parliament and he was imprisoned at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.

November 1647 The king escaped but was soon re-captured. From his prison Charles I carried out secret negotiations with the Scots, hoping for uprisings in England to coincide with an invasion from Scotland which would free him and put him back on the throne.

28th December 1647 An ‘Engagement’ was signed, with the Scots agreeing to support the king as long as he imposed the Presbyterian Church on England for three years.

Spring 1648 The uprising began in Wales and England, but the Scottish forces were delayed which enabled Cromwell to put down the Royalist forces throughout most of the country although the king’s forces held out under a long siege in Colchester. When the Scots finally invaded they were defeated at the Battle of Preston on 17th – 19th August 1649. This effectively brought the Second English Civil War to an end.

Charles I was in prison in England throughout this second war, and at the defeat of his forces was put on trial for treason, and executed. With the death of Charles I Cromwell invaded Scotland and brought it into his Commonwealth, but after his death Charles II became king and Scotland became an independent country once more. It wasn’t until 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, that the ‘Acts of Union’ were signed in England and Scotland in which the two separate states with their different legislatures but with the same ruling monarch were ‘United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain’.

Union Flag

With such complex relationships between Scotland and England, as well as divisive politics and religion within England itself, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be conflict under Charles I. It is a period of history which makes for a great story and I thoroughly enjoyed the research I conducted for my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’. I hope my readers will find the novel equally enjoyable!

Hitler’s guidebook – The Baedeker Raids

Have you ever used a Baedeker Guidebook when on holiday? The first of these travel guides was published in the 1820’s and were a ‘must have’ for travellers. But did you know that there was a series of air raids on England during the Second World War which got their name from these guidebooks? So why did the Germans use these books to target historic towns and cities in Britain during the spring of 1942?

guide-book

The intensive bombing of the German blitz ended in May 1941 when Hitler re-targeted his resources on his invasion of Russia; this meant that attacks on Britain were confined to hit-and-run raids on coastal towns. At the same time night bombing by the RAF was being scaled down as it was felt that the type of raids which targeted individual factories or military bases were ineffective. It was not until March 1942 that the RAF resumed their raids with new heavy bombers, improved navigation, new tactics, and a new commander, all of which helped to make these attacks much more devastating than those carried out earlier in the war. Instead of the previous attempts at precision bombing of factories and power stations the focus was now on area bombing. Planes would target a single area where there was not only the possibility of destroying military targets and factories but also affecting the morale of the civilian population. On 28th March 1942 the RAF bombed the city of Lűbeck in northern Germany. The historic centre of the city, known as the ‘Old Town’, consisted mostly of wooden buildings and was almost totally destroyed; over 1,000 people were killed.

Mass grave for the victims of the bombing of Lubeck
Mass grave for the victims of the bombing of Lubeck

Nearby Rostock was bombed a month after the destruction of Lübeck. The two attacks shocked the Nazi leadership, and also the civilian population of Germany who had suffered little under previous RAF raids. The change of British tactics was very effective; Goebbels said that “the damage was really enormous” and “it is horrible… the English air raids have increased in scope and importance; if they can be continued for weeks on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralizing effect on the population.” He described the raid on Rostock as more devastating than those before, saying “Community life there is practically at an end… the situation is in some sections catastrophic… seven tenths of the city have been destroyed… more than 100,000 people had to be evacuated… there was, in fact, panic.” Hitler was furious and determined that the Luftwaffe would retaliate in kind. On 14th April he ordered that “the air war against England be given a more aggressive stamp. Accordingly when targets are being selected, preference is to be given to those where attacks are likely to have the greatest possible effect on civilian life. Besides raids on ports and industry, terror attacks of a retaliatory nature are to be carried out on towns other than London.” Hitler’s aim was twofold, as well as revenge for the RAF raids he hoped that such attacks would break the morale of the British people and lead to a swifter end to the war.

Exeter after the bombing
Exeter after the bombing

The first retaliatory raid took place on Exeter on 23rd April. Much of the city was damaged and around 80 people were killed and 55 wounded. The next day Baron von Sturm (a spokesman for the German Foreign Office) said “’We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” von Strum’s comments led to the raids being called the ‘Baedeker Raids’ by both the Germans and the Allies. Although Goebbels agreed with the tactic he was furious with von Strum for his thoughtless, off-the-cuff comment. Goebbels  had wanted to take the moral high ground, describing the British attacks as ‘terror bombing’, but now von Strum had effectively admitted that the Germans were deliberately targeting cultural and historical sites. Exeter was bombed again within hours of von  Strum’s statement. A third raid on Exeter took place on 3rd May when high explosives, incendiaries and parachute mines were dropped by 90 planes, devastating the city’s shopping centre. 163 people were killed and 131 seriously injured in the attacks on the town which was poorly prepared for such raids, as were the other locations chosen from the guidebook. (Intersetingly, Hitler forbade any bombing of the beautiful Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire as it was the place where Churchill had been born; Hitler was determined to live  there after he had invaded and subdued the UK).

Goebbels in 1942
Goebbels in 1942

Each of the Baedeker raids involved between 30 and 40 bombers which flew two sorties each night. This meant that each raid would begin with a period of bombing lasting one and a half to two hours. There would then be a lull of two to three hours while the Germans returned to base to re-arm and re-fuel. Finally, another bombing run like the first.

Exeter was not the only city to be targeted. 400 people were killed in raids on Bath on two consecutive nights (25th + 26th April), during the raid the railway station was put out of action and communications severely affected. After the raids on Bath Goebbels reported that Hitler intended to “repeat these raids night after night until the English are sick and tired of terror attacks” and that he “shared [Goebbels’] opinion absolutely that cultural centres, health resorts and civilian centres must be attacked… there is no other way of bringing the English to their senses. They belong to a class of human beings with whom you can only talk after you have first knocked out their teeth.”

Bath after the raid
Bath after the raid

The 27th of April saw 90 tons of bombs dropped on Norwich; the city was attacked again on the 29th. In all, 222 people died during these raids on Norwich. It was the turn of York on 28th April when high explosive bombs and incendiaries caused a huge amount of damage, including the destruction of the medieval Guildhall. In May there were more raids on Cowes, Norwich, Hull, Poole, Grimsby and Canterbury. The RAF responded by sending 1,000 bombers in a massive raid on Cologne.

The German raids on historic cities in England during April and May 1942 were responsible for 1,637 civilian deaths and left another 1,760 injured. Over 50,000 homes were destroyed along with some important buildings such as the Bath Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall in York. But the raids did not cause as much damage as Hitler had hoped, and rather than breaking the morale of the British people it strengthened their resolve to defeat the enemy at all costs. German bomber losses were high and this, coupled with the need for Hitler to reinforce his troops in North Africa and Russia, resulted in a scaling back of attacks to hit-and-run raids on the coast. The Luftwaffe did occasionally raid towns and cities of historic and cultural importance in the months that followed (Ipswich, Poole, Norwich, Bristol, Swansea and Colchester), but these raids were much smaller (about 20 aircraft instead of 40+) and the damage was more limited; even so, by the end of the year over 3,230 people had been killed and 4,150 injured in German air raids on Britain. There were some attacks on towns of no military or strategic value in 1943, but by 1944 the Germans gave up their ‘Baedeker Raids’ as they were ineffective and the losses to the Luftwaffe were unsustainable. London once again became the target, along with the ports which Hitler believed would be used for the Allied invasion of Europe.

cologne
Cologne

In my novel, Heronfield, Bath holds a special significance for two of the main characters, and it is through the eyes of Sarah that we see the significance of the bombings, and the resilience of the civilians whose resolve was strengthened rather than broken by the Baedeker Raids.

Heronfield

Grayling, A. C.  Among the dead cities

Price, A. Blitz on Britain 1939–1945

Terraine, John The Right of the Line