In the uneasy post-war peace of occupied Germany, a British soldier is billeted to a bombed Hamburg hotel. Alex’s days are spent investigating Nazi war criminals, but it is a chance meeting with a German university professor in a shabby back-street bookshop that changes his life. Having befriended the professor and his wife, Alex falls in love with their only daughter, Lisa, only to discover that the professor may not be as innocent as he first appeared. The stale aftermath of a long and hideous war has left the old society in ruins. There are still many secrets to uncover and Alex has to ask himself what is more important – love or truth? As he digs deeper into the professor’s past Alex is forced to recognise that he cannot have both.
This is an absorbing novel in more ways than one. We follow Alex as his life moves from war to peace, from seeing the Germans as enemies to trying to help them on the road to recovery. When he finally leaves the armed forces Alex, like so many men who served in the Second World War, has to re-adjust to civilian life. The Lincolnshire farm where he grew up seems confining, he feels rootless and unable to find his way. In this sense ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a tale of lost youth. Interwoven with this is a love story, an English soldier falling in love with a young German woman at a time when ‘fraternisation’ was still frowned on; how would her family, and his colleagues, react? If this were not enough, a photograph from Auschwitz places Alex in an impossible situation. What should he do? Should he put his love for Lisa before justice for those who suffered and died in the war? Should he follow his heart or do his duty?
‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a well written novel, peopled with many facetted characters who struggle to do right in a world which is never simply black and white. The dialogue is engaging and believable, helping to bring the characters to life. The descriptions of bomb-damaged Berlin, the Russian sector, the drab people struggling to come to terms with defeat, all combine to give an insight into a fascinating period of history. ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is not a dry history book, although through its pages we achieve a greater understanding of the years immediately following the Second World War, the true destructiveness of conflict, and the loss of innocence which it brings. This is a great piece of historical fiction which I heartily recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, the Second World War, morality, human nature and love.
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),
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.