Tag Archives: history

Recommended Read – The Far Pavilions by M M Kaye

The Far Pavilions is the story of an English man – Ashton Pelham-Martyn – brought up as a Hindu. It is the story of his passionate, but dangerous love for Juli, an Indian princess. It is the story of divided loyalties, of friendship that endures till death, of high adventure and of the clash between East and West.

To the burning plains and snow-capped mountains of this great, humming continent, M.M. Kaye brings her exceptional gifts of storytelling and meticulous historical accuracy, plus her insight into the human heart.

The Far Pavilions is a long-time favourite of mine. The sweeping saga covers more than 30 years of British and Indian history which has been meticulously researched and is written in such a way as to portray the politics and social life of both cultures in a realistic way that it draws the reader in. Although at the heart this novel is a love story the attention to detail which is found in the descriptions of camp life and palaces, sunburned plains and snow-capped mountains, monotonous travel by train and horseback etc. is testament to the years which Ms Kaye spent in India and her love for the country and its culture. She has also been able to write about the British army during the Raj with a depth of understanding which comes from having lived in military families in India as the Raj drew to a close, and it is interesting to see the roots of political issues which still face the world today grown out of the time and place which is so beautifully evoked in The Far Pavilions.

From India under ‘The Company’ through the Great Mutiny and on to the Second Afghan War Ms Kaye has woven together the lives of people from all levels of society and a variety of religious faiths with a depth of understanding of human nature and morality with makes the story totally believable and it is easy to feel sympathy towards people from both sides of the divide. The writing is beautifully descriptive, some passages are really artistic canvases painted with words. The characters are totally believable and the dialogue realistic which combine to give real depth to the people who fill the pages of this novel. The descriptions of life for women in India is enlightening, and the device of having Ash as a British boy brought up as a Hindu allows the author to show a confusion of identity which gets to the heart of the problems of colonisation and its impact on the local population.

This is a very long book, a saga in all senses of the word, but well worth reading if you are interested in history and the psychology of Empire which has created so much of the modern world in which we live. The Far Pavilions is classic historical fiction which weaves a carefully crafted plot through the realities of the place and time so that it is sometimes difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. A great adventure story and a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of a stunning landscape, what more could any lover of historical fiction want?

The Far Pavilions can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about M M Kaye here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Lyudmila Pavlichenko – The most successful female sniper in history

“The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey,” Lyudmila Pavlichenko

Lyudmila Belova was born 12th July 1916 in Bila Tserkva in the Ukraine (near Kiev). Her mother was a school teacher and her father a factory worker who worked his way up to a position of responsibility. Unfortunately, that meant that he had to move to a new town every year which in turn meant that Lyudmila had to start again each year at a new school with new friends.

Lyudmila was a tomboy – preferring to play rough and tumble games with the boys rather than with girls. When she was 14 the family moved to Kiev where one boy kept bragging that he could shoot better than anyone else, this annoyed Lyudmila who thought she could do anything that a boy could do so she joined a local shooting club. She had a natural talent and was soon winning medals at competitions.

As a teenager Lyudmila worked at the Kiev arms factory as well as working so hard at her studies that she graduated from college a year earlier than other students of her age. Lyudmila married a doctor, Alexei Pavlichenko, when she was 16 and they had a son called Rostislav. Russian women were expected to marry young and start a family so this was not unusual; it was also a matter of pride for women to work full-time and also look after their young family, not like the ‘stay-at-home-mums’ of other European countries. The Russian idea was that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so everyone helped to look after the children of the community which enabled the women to work.

Lyudmila was not satisfied with working in the armament’s factory – she wanted an education and a career, unfortunately her insistence on this led to her and Alexei getting a divorce. Lyudmila studied for a Bachelor’s degree in history at Kiev University with the aim of becoming a teacher. The young Russian was planning to do a Master’s, but then the Nazi’s invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and her plans were put on hold after the death and destruction she witnessed during the battle of Kiev made her put aside her dreams of becoming a teacher in favour of killing Nazis.

Lyudmila was 24 when she enlisted in the Russian Army, this was a year before women were conscripted but she didn’t want to wait. The authorities felt that as a woman she should become a nurse but Lyudmila had other ideas and when she showed them her shooting medals she was allowed to join an all-male sniper school (a women’s sniper school was not set up until 1942). When she was sent to the front after her training Lyudmila was initially set to digging trenches, it wasn’t until a colleague was too wounded to continue and he handed her his gun that she had a weapon at last. The young woman had been bullied at sniper school and the other snipers still did not accept her fully so they set her a test – to shoot two of the enemy standing in a field, if she couldnd’t do it she would be sent home. Lyudmila surprised everyone by killing both Germans with two very quick headshots and she was accepted in the ranks of the snipers.

On her first day on the battlefield Lyudmila was frozen with fear and couldn’t bring herself to lift her gun and fire on the enemy. Then a young Russian soldier moved beside her but before he could settle in a shot rang out and he was killed. The shock spurred Lyudmila to action as she had liked the ‘nice, happy boy’, and from that moment on there was no stopping her.

During the Siege of Odessa which lasted from 8th August until 16th October 1941, Lyudmila killed 187 of the enemy saying that she was so successful because she hated the enemy too much to fear him. On one occasion Germans had marked her position in a tree and were firing at it. Knowing that it was only a matter of time before they killed her Lyudmila deliberately fell out of the tree and played dead until nightfall when she slipped quietly away. It was at that point that her comrades began to call her ‘Lady Death’.

Lyudmila later took part in the battle of Sevastopol where she killed 70 more Germans (taking her total to 257) and she was assigned to become a counter-sniper – in other words to target and kill enemy snipers. This took great skill and perseverance as she had to sit still and wait until the enemy sniper revealed himself before taking her shot; on average this took 15 – 20 hours. On one occasion Lyudmila had to lay still in her hiding place for 3 days without food or water waiting for the enemy sniper to reveal himself. In all she was sent against 36 enemy snipers and killed them all.

By the time she had killed 309 Germans Lyudmila had become a Lieutenant and fallen in love with Sergeant Major Leonid Kitsenko who was also a sniper; the couple were married but Leonid was killed soon after.

The Germans knew who Lyudmila was and were so afraid of her skill that they tried to persuade her to defect by offering her chocolate and the promise of an officer rank in the German army. Lyudmila was never going to agree so the Germans said that when they caught her they would tear her into 309 pieces. This pleased Lyudmila because it meant that everyone knew her tally!

Lyudmila was shot four times whilst on active service and also suffered numerous shrapnel wounds although these did not stop her and she continued to fight. After being hit in the face by shrapnel from a mortar shell the ace sniper was withdrawn from the battlefield (by submarine from Sevastopol) to spend a month in hospital. Rather than sending her back to the front the Soviet High Command posted Lyudmila to train snipers, she was also given the role of propagandist.

Stalin had been trying to encourage Roosevelt to open a Second Front in Europe without success so in 1942 Stalin sent Lyudmila to America to tell her story. The young Russian woman arrived in Washington where she became the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt asked Lyudmila to accompany her on a tour of the country so that she could tell Americans about her experiences as a woman in combat. Rather than being impressed with Lyudmila reporters on the tour asked why she didn’t wear make-up or style her hair, and what she thought of the military uniform which made her look fat. She replied that “I wear my uniform with honour. It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was very impressed with the young Russian and gave her advice on public speaking. As they travelled through 43 states Lyudmila’s confidence grew and she and the First Lady became very good friends. This boost in confidence became obvious when they reached Chicago and Lyudmila confronted the men in the audience by saying “Gentlemen, I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” She also addressed the subject of equality by saying “Now [in the U.S.] I am looked upon a little as a curiosity, a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”

Lyudmila also visited Canada before traveling to Coventry in England where she accepted donations of £4,516 from local workers to pay for three X-ray units for the Red Army. She also visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral before returning to Russia and continuing to train snipers until the end of the war.

Lyudmila was a national symbol of women in the USSR, she was even featured on a ration postage stamp. After the war Lyudmila returned to Kiev University and finished her Master’s Degree in History, but instead of becoming a teacher she was given a position as a research specialist for the Soviet navy.

In 1957 Eleanor Roosevelt visited Russia and the two women were re-united for an afternoon reminiscing about their tour of America.

Lyudmila died in 1974 aged 58. Her life was commemorated with a second postage stamp.

Awards and honours

  • Hero of the Soviet Union (25 October 1943)
  • Two Order of Lenin (16 July 1942 and 25 October 1943)
  • Two Medals “For Military Merit” (26 April 1942 and 13 June 1952)
  • Campaign medals

Recommended Read – Silence by Shusaku Endo

SilenceBeneath the light of the candle I am sitting with my hands on my knees, staring in front of me. And I keep turning over in my mind the thought that I am at the end of the earth, in a place which you do not know and which your whole lives through you will never visit.

It is 1640 and Father Sebastian Rodrigues, an idealistic Jesuit priest, sets sail for Japan determined to help the brutally oppressed Christians there. He is also desperate to discover the truth about his former mentor, rumoured to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues cannot believe the stories about a man he so revered, but as his journey takes him deeper into Japan and then into the hands of those who would crush his faith, he finds himself forced to make an impossible choice: whether to abandon his flock or his God.

The recipient of the 1966 Tanizaki Prize, Silence is Shusaku Endo’s most highly acclaimed work and has been called one of the twentieth century’s finest novels. As empathetic as it is powerful, it is an astonishing exploration of faith and suffering and an award-winning classic.

Silence is set in what is known as the ‘Christian century’ in Japan – Christian missionaries first arrived there in 1549 and the faith spread rapidly; the writings of these Portuguese missionaries are the source of much of what we know of Japan at that time. After an initial period where the western visitors – both traders and missionaries – were respected, those in power in Japan were increasingly worried by the influence of the foreign missionaries. This led to a time of persecution in which many Christians were executed and the foreign missionaries were banned, if they came to Japan they were forced to give up their faith or face martyrdom. Many Christians were brutally tortured before being burned, drowned, or slowly bleed to death. Despite this, missionaries from Europe continued to sneak into Japan which is where the novel Silence begins.

The story of Rodrigues, a 17th century Portuguese priest, is a mixture of history and theology told through the interweaving lives of a range of believable characters. Shusaku Endo writes of the conflict between east and west – the relationship between Japan and Christianity – in a way which shows that Christianity must adapt if it is to take root in a culture so very different to its Middle Eastern origins and European development. It is a tale of the struggle between faith and belief, a study of martyrdom versus apostasy written in a restrained style which reflects the time period yet with a simplicity which gets to the heart of the pain and suffering of the Europeans who were often placed in an impossible position.

Endo writes with sensitivity about the clash of cultures creating a novel which is moving and disturbing in equal measure. Although Rodrigues is a fictional character his story is based upon a real person, the Italian priest Giuseppe Chiara, and like Chiara Rodrigues takes a physical and theological journey to his own calvary, struggling with the eternal concept of why God is silent in the face of suffering. Silence gives us no clear answer to that question but leaves us with much to ponder on and apply to our own situation.

Endo has created a novel which paints a vivid picture of life in 17th century Japan whilst at the same time being an excellent study of man and faith, a book which is at times delicate and at other times brutal, a sometimes harrowing picture of the mental and physical challenges faced by the missionary. It is a testament to the translator that the reader can feel deeply the ideas and emotions which the author so clearly wished to convey. If you feel that a story about a missionary in Japan is not for you then you will be missing out on a philosophical novel which challenges many fundamental beliefs and morals and is likely to change the way you think about life.

Silence can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Malta – the brave island which was awarded the George Cross

At the beginning of the Second World War Malta was a part of the British Commonwealth and had been at the centre of Britain’s strategic naval planning in the Mediterranean since the early 19th century. In early 1940, it was thought that the island could no longer be the main base for the Mediterranean Fleet because of the threat created by the close proximity of the Italian Air Force. Britain therefore moved their focus to Alexandria in  Egypt and left the defence of the western Mediterranean to the French. This worked well until France surrendered to the Germans at which point Britain set up Force H in Gibraltar to maintain a presence there, and to help with the defence of the island of Malta. With the French out of the war Malta was now the only British held harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria and as such was needed to play a vital role as a base for air and submarine attacks on convoys supplying the Axis forces in North Africa as well as protecting supply convoys to the British forces in Egypt.

THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946
THE BRITISH ARMY ON MALTA 1942 @IWM GM946

Germany recognised the strategic importance of Malta and subjected the island to relentless bombing attacks beginning in earnest in January 1941 with great success. The German plan was to starve the island’s military and civilian populations into submission. By early summer more than 1,500 civilians had been killed and the situation was critical with supply ships regularly being sunk and stocks of food, fuel and anti-aircraft ammunition diminishing rapidly. The situation was becoming critical when the Luftwaffe was re-deployed to Russia in the summer and Malta had a brief respite. British aircraft and submarines based on the island were able to go on the offensive against the Axis supply lines with Malta’s submarines sinking 300,000 tons of Axis shipping in less than three months. In November of 1941 63% of all Axis cargo destined for North Africa was lost which had a huge impact on Rommel’s plans for pushing the British out of North Africa.

Italian_bombing_of_the_Grand_Harbor,_Malta
Italian bombing of the Grand Harbor, Malta

In support of the forces based in Malta Churchill set up Force K with a number of cruisers and destroyers which arrived in Valetta on 21st October 1941. Force K had a huge impact in November when they sank an entire convoy of 7 German merchant ships and one of the escorting destroyers as well as damaging 3 others, in that one action Force K cut the Axis supply line by 50% and Tripoli was virtually blockaded. Things were difficult for the German troops in North Africa as Operation Crusader pushed their troops back, regular supply was essential and so replacement merchant ships were sent but these, too, fell prey to Force K with Germany losing over 60% of it’s shipping in the Mediterranean in November. The Axis forces in North Africa were in danger of running out of fuel and their planes could only fly one sortie a day as Rommel was forced to retreat in order to shorten his supply lines.

Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701
Bomb Damage Valletta Malta @© IWM A 8701

With_a_strong_anti-aircraft_defence,_RAF_fighters_and_rock-hewn_shelters,_the_islanders_of_Malta_do_not_fear_air_raidsThe British success was, however, short lived as the German aircraft returned to Sicily in December and a second siege of Malta began. As 1941 turned to 1942 the convoys carrying supplies to Malta suffered huge losses of ships and crews – between February and June less than 8% of British ships reached port and unloaded their cargo. The bombing of the island was so intense that civilians were forced to seek shelter in caves and tunnels which they dug into the limestone rock despite the lack of suitable equipment or any skilled miners. The demand for shelters was huge and those that were available were frequently overcrowded.  The insanitary conditions inside the shelters led to epidemics of dysentery, typhoid and tuberculosis among an already malnourished population.

In March 1942 a convoy of supply ships made the perilous journey from Alexandria to Malta to try to help the island but only 7,500 tons of the 26,000 tons of supplies which set out actually arrived. During this time Allied air forces were constantly in combat with the Germans losing most of their aircraft – many of them whilst still on the ground. The Germans flew bombing raids against Malta almost every day from 1st January to 24th July (there was only one 24 hour period during that time in which bombs did not fall).

Hoisting_the_red_flag_which,_with_a_siren,_warns_everyone_in_Malta_that_an_air_raid_is_imminent
Hoisting the red flag which, with a siren, warns everyone in Malta that an air raid is imminent

Things were looking bleak for the embattled island until the Luftwaffe was diverted to support Rommel which allowed Malta some breathing space. From a peak of 8,788 sorties flown against the island in April the attacks dropped to 956 in June – in March and April 1942 Axis forces dropped 6,728 tons of bombs on Malta (more than had been dropped on London during the whole of the Blitz), killing 1,493 and wounding 3,764. In recognition of the incredible fight and stoicism of the Maltese people King George VI wrote to the Governor of the island on 15th April 1942 to inform him that he was awarding the George Cross to the island and its people ‘To bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’

 

© IWM (GM 1480)
© IWM (GM 1480)

Things began to look up in early 1942 with the arrival of Air Vice Marshall Sir Keith Park who ordered fighter planes to fly out and intercept incoming raids rather than defending over the island and then chasing the raiders away, but supply convoys continued to be at risk. With the supply situation on Malta becoming critical in August the Royal Navy put together one of the major convoys of the war – Pedestal. The convoy left Gibraltar on the night of 9th August and was under almost constant attack for most of the journey – only 5 of the 14 ships which set out arrived in Valletta, the last being an oil tanker, the SS Ohio which although badly damaged limped into port on 15th August. Although the losses were heavy 55,000 tons of supplies were landed. Thanks to Allied victories, including El Alamein, the enemy threat to shipping was reduced and convoys were also able to sail from Alexandria to Malta, this was a turning point with the Allies regaining control of the sea and air, with the arrival of more convoys in November and December the island had enough supplies to last into the new year and the siege was broken. Yet no one knew if convoys could continue, and an island of more than a quarter of a million people needed constant re-supply so starvation rationing continued into the new year.

With the siege lifted the Allies were able to use Malta as a base to launch landings in North Africa in November 1942, Sicily in July 1943 and mainland Italy in September 1943.

King George VI greets Malta servicemen.
King George VI greets Malta servicemen.

The people of Malta had suffered incredibly during the siege which is why George VI awarded the George Cross* to the island in April 1942 and visited the island himself on 20th June 1943. For security reasons no one was informed that he was coming until 5am on the 20th but that was enough time for crowds to gather to meet his ship. Three hours later the King was standing on a specially built platform so that everyone could see him as the church bells rang out to welcome him.

Guardig the cross one year after it was awarded
Maltese ratings of the Royal Navy mounting guard over the George Cross as it is ceremoniously displayed in Palace Square, Valletta, on the first anniversary of the award

255px-George_Cross_Malta_P1440218

 

 

*The George Cross, which is the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, was instituted by King George VI, on 24 September 1940 to replace the Empire Gallantry Medal. It is intended mainly for civilians but is also awarded to certain fighting services for which purely military honours are not normally given.

 

Recommended Read – The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

An enchanting historical epic of grand passion and adventure, this debut novel tells the captivating story of one of India’s most controversial empresses — a woman whose brilliance and determination trumped myriad obstacles, and whose love shaped the course of the Mughal Empire. Skilfully blending the textures of historical reality with the rich and sensual imaginings of a timeless fairy tale, The Twentieth Wife sweeps readers up in Mehrunnisa’s embattled love with Prince Salim, and in the bedazzling destiny of a woman — a legend in her own time — who was all but lost to history until now.

The Twentieth Wife begins in 1577 with the birth of a refugee child. No one could have guessed that 34 years later that baby would become the twentieth wife of the Mughal Emperor, a woman who was something of a legend in her own time yet has been more or less forgotten by history. Mehrunnisa was no ordinary woman of that era, although for the years before her marriage she was constrained as all women were she had always loved Jahangir and dreamed of being his wife. For his part the Emperor was captivated with her in a way unmatched by all of his other wives and concubines. His love for her was so deep that he granted her a great deal of power after their marriage with Mehrunnisa minting coins in her name and issuing royal firmans as well as being involved with foreign trade and patronizing the arts (some of this is told in the next two parts of the Taj trilogy by Indu Sundaresan).

The Twentieth Wife is a work of fiction which draws heavily on historical documentation of the times to explain the politics, rebellions, court and marriages of this fascinating period of Indian history. Ms Sundaresan accurately describes life in the hareem, the role of women, the food, clothing and dazzling jewellery, the sumptuous buildings and rooms, all of which give a real flavour of 16th century Mughal life and makes the history of that period accessible for those who know little about India’s past. In addition to the historical accuracy of the setting the author has woven the conflicting personal lives of Mehrunnisa’s family into the plot (although I would have liked more depth to some of these family members).

If there is one weakness with this book it is that it tends (in my opinion only) a little too much towards the archetypal ‘historical romance’ type of fiction. Romance is obviously essential to the plotting of The Twentieth Wife as it is at heart a love story but I would have preferred a little more balance between the emotions of Mehrunnisa and the political machinations of Jahangir, but if you are a fan of historical fiction rooted in a real historical story laced with romance then this book is probably for you.

The Twentieth Wife can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Indu Sundaresan here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The day that Churchill sank the French Fleet

On July 3rd 1940 the British Fleet fired on the French Fleet which was at anchor in the North African port of Mers el Kebir, near Oran in Algeria. The attack lasted for only 10 minutes but in that time hundreds of French sailors were killed and their ships crippled. Yet only days before France and Britain had been Allies fighting against Hitler’s Germany, so what went wrong?

The German Blitzkrieg was unexpected and totally devastating in its speed and France fell to the Germans which left the British in a difficult position. Many of the ships in the French Fleet were still at sea or in port and Churchill realised that it was vital to keep these resources out of enemy hands by any means possible.

Many French ships were already in British ports but there was also a large squadron of battleships in the port of Mers el Kebir. The Admiralty were worried that if these ships were to join with the Italian navy in the Mediterranean it would give the Axis powers naval superiority there and possibly make Britain’s position in North Africa untenable. On 23rd June 1940 an armistice was signed between France and Germany, and when the details were announced they confirmed the worst fears of the Admiralty. The agreement said that ‘The French war fleet is to collect in ports…under German and/or Italian control to demobilize.’ The declaration went on to say that ‘The German Government solemnly declares to the French Government that it does not intend to use the French War Fleet which is in harbours under German control for the purposes of the war.’

Germany and France sign an armisgtice © IWM HU 75914

However, the British government did not trust Hitler as he had broken many promises before, which left Churchill afraid that the French Fleet might be used to help an invasion of Britain. He had to make a decision about what to do next and so announced that ‘At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another we must make sure that the navy of France does not fall into the wrong hands.’

Churchill ordered the immediate setting up of Operation Grasp whose aim was to simultaneously seize

  1. all French ships in the UK ports of Plymouth and Portsmouth
  2. all French ships in the port of Alexandria in Egypt
Admiral Somerville. © IWM A 20772

At the same time Operation Catapult under Rear Admiral Somerville was to give an ultimatum to the ships in Mers el Kebir. Somerville had command of a force consisting of Ark Royal, Hood, Valiant, Resolution, 2 cruisers, and 11 destroyers. At Gibraltar Somerville met with Admiral North who was Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, and Captain Holland who spoke fluent French. The three officers had been ordered to present French Admiral Gensoul with 3 options

  1. Join the Royal Navy to fight the Germans
  2. Sail to a British Port where the ships would be taken over and the crews repatriated
  3. Sail to an island in the French Caribbean, disarm, and stay there for the remainder of the war

Churchill had ordered that if Gensoul refused to make a decision he would be told to scuttle his ships. If he refused to do that the last resort would be for the British to fire on the French Fleet and sink it.

Somerville and North both felt that these orders went against what was honourable as the French had so recently been an ally; the Prime Minister understood this but explained his decision by saying that ‘you are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with.’ But, despite that, he was still convinced that this confrontation with Admiral Gensoul was the only way forward.

On the morning of 3rd July the British Fleet arrived off Mers el Kebir and Holland was ferried in by the destroyer HMS Foxhound to conduct negotiations. Gensoul initially refused to allow Holland on board his flagship because he felt insulted that the British had sent a mere Captain to speak with him, as he was an admiral he insisted that talks had to be conducted by an intermediary. Gensoul eventually rejected the British proposals saying that he would scuttle his ships if the Germans tried to take them but would not do so on the orders of the British.

French Fleet at Mersel Kebir

Somerville recalled Holland and gave Gensoul until 3pm to reconsider his decision. Whilst waiting Swordfish aircraft were sent in and dropped magnetic mines across the harbour entrance to prevent the French leaving. At 2.15pm, probably in an attempt to buy more time, Gensoul said that he would finally speak directly to Holland. In acknowledgment of this Somerville extended the deadline to 5.30pm because he did not want to fire and hoped that further talks would lead to a resolution of the situation. However, Gensoul continued to insist that he was not prepared to relocate to the Caribbean or scuttle his ships unless they faced a direct threat from the Germans.

The Admiralty notified Somerville that French re-inforcements were on the way and so his time was up. Holland left the French admiral at 5.25pm whilst Gensoul still thought that the British would not open fire and that they were simply bluffing to put pressure on him to scuttle.

French Cruiser the Strasbourg

At 5.54pm the British battleships Resolution and Valient opened fire on the French Fleet, closely followed by Hood. The French tried to leave anchor to escape but it was too late and the Dunkerque, Gensoul’s flagship, was hit four times killing 181 men and causing a great deal of damage. When the Bretagne was also hit one of her main magazines exploded and the ship capsized, taking 1,079 of her crew with her.

Admiral Gensoul

At this point Somerville ordered a halt to attack to give the French time to abandon their ships so that the British could scuttle them, but the French had no intention of letting the British sink their ships so two destroyers and a battleship broke out of the harbour and returned fire on the British. Gensoul hoped to gain some time to allow these ships to escape so he sent a signal to Somerville to say that he now agreed to the British terms. Somerville, however, knew what was happening and told Gensoul that ‘Unless I see your ships sinking I shall open fire again.’

The French ships which had broken out managed to escape their British pursuers, but there was no hope for those left in Mers el Kebir. A final bombing run was made on the ships a few days later to make sure that none were seaworthy but the battle had, in effect, ended late in the afternoon of the 3rd July.

During the Battle of Mers el Kebir the French lost 1,297 sailors with over 350 wounded. They saw the British attack as an act of treachery, and at the funerals of those who died Gensoul told the remaining French sailors that ‘If there is a stain on a flag today it is certainly not on yours.’

Somerville himself felt that the action he had been ordered to lead was dishonourable and called himself ‘the unskilled butcher of Oran’. He wrote home to his wife and said ‘I just felt so damned angry being called on to do such a lousy job. We all feel dirty and ashamed that the first time we have been in action was an affair like this.’

Churchill however was unrepentant. He had felt that he could not give more time for the negotiators to seek a peaceful solution and believed that ‘Mers el Kebir showed that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing.’

There are a number of theories as to why Churchill ordered his fleet to fire on the French. Some argue that the British Prime Minister was simply ruthless and took this action to show the world, particularly the Americans, that Britain was not beaten and that under his leadership there would be no surrender to the Germans.

Others argue that keeping the peace between Britain and a France which had already been defeated by the Germans was not as important to Churchill as ensuring that the French ships could not be used against the British.

For Churchill making a public statement of British resolve was a major factor in ordering the operation against the French.

So, was the sinking of the French Fleet at Mers el Kabir an unpleasant necessity (Churchill’s view), a dishonourable act (Somerville’s view) or a murderous atrocity (Gensoul’s view)? Or does the answer, as is so often the case during a time of war, lie somewhere in between?

Accident or murder? The mysterious death of Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard was a superstar actor of his day. The son of Jewish immigrants from Hungary he was born in London in 1893 and served during the First World War, he was mustered out of the army a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme began in 1916 as he was suffering from shell shock. It was actually his doctor who suggested acting as a therapy little knowing that Howard would go on to international fame, particularly for his roles in Pygmalion and Gone With The Wind. When the Second World War broke out the English actor gave up his lucrative Hollywood contract (including his share of the box-office takings for Gone With The Wind) and returned home to see what he could do to further the war effort.

Leslie Howard in Gone With The Wind

Howard was not the only Hollywood actor to join up at the first opportunity, Americans Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman and Charles Bronson also served whilst Clark Gable and James Stewart were awarded medals for their bravery; on the other side of the Atlantic British actors Richard Todd, Alec Guinness and Dirk Bogarde all served in the armed forces.

Leslie Howard, however, decided that rather than fighting he would put his acting skills to use and so offered to do whatever he could for the British government. One of the first things he was asked to do was to make broadcasts to the United States which still remained a neutral country with Churchill doing everything he could to get the Americans to join the war as Britain’s allies. Many women in America were isolationists and strongly against the war, it was recognised that their views had a not insubstantial effect on the views of American men so it was thought that a matinee idol such as Howard might go a long way towards making them change their minds. But America was only a part of his focus as Leslie Howard also made programmes for the domestic audience appearing on ‘Britain Speaks’ and making National Savings documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Many of his broadcasts focused on British values which the soldiers at the front were fighting to protect – freedom, tolerance and decency. The propaganda programmes which Howard was involved in were so successful that William Joyce (better known as Lord Haw Haw) singled out Howard as a target in his radio broadcasts from Europe (‘Germany Calling’) saying that he should ‘stick to acting’.

Howard’s work for the government also included directing, co-producing and starring in several war films including 49th Parallel, The First Of The Few (the story of RJ Mitchell, the inventor of the Spitfire) and Pimpernel Smith (based on the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel who rescued aristocrats from Paris during the French Revolution, only this time the plot revolved around an English professor rescuing refugees from the Germans). The work that Howard did was obviously propaganda but he felt that it was justified whilst the country was at war with Hitler, in one broadcast Howard even used what was considered strong language for the 1940’s when he said “To hell with whether what I say is propaganda or not, I’ve never stopped to figure it out and I don’t think it matters anymore.”

On the set of The First of the Few

Howard had met Winston Churchill in 1937 when they had several informal talks where Howard made his anti-Nazi views known. Churchill remembered this and when he became Prime Minister he used Howard and other actors, including Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward, to get access to famous or important people who might be able to help with the war effort. To this end Howard went to Spain and Portugal in May 1943 purportedly to open links between Spanish and British film-makers and present a series of lectures on his films and the role of Hamlet, but it is believed that his real purpose was to try to prevent General Franco from joining the Axis powers. The Iberian peninsula was neutral during the war and so became a magnet for spies from both sides which meant that the actor was closely watched by German agents during his visit.

Pimpernel Smith

Howard left Portugal in June 1943 on a civilian Douglas DC-3 which flew regularly across the Bay of Biscay as there was an informal agreement for both sides to respect the neutrality of civilian planes. On this day, however, the agreement was ignored and six Junkers JU88 fighters shot it down killing all seventeen passengers and crew. The news of the death of incredibly popular Leslie Howard shocked the British people, and the reason for the German action raised many questions which have not been fully answered to this day.

Why was the plane shot down? Was it an accident or deliberate? If deliberate, who was the target?

One thing we do know is that this same plane making its daily Lisbon to London run had been attacked for the first time two weeks earlier, but it was assumed that the aircraft had been hit by mistake and so the flights continued. Now the plane had been fired on again, and this time shot down with a number of people on board who could have been a possible target. There was Arthur Chenhall, Howard’s manager who was travelling with him and who looked a lot like Churchill. There was also Kenneth Stonehouse who was a reporter for Reuters, Wilfred Israel who was a Jew from Berlin whose work with the Kindertransport had been, in part, the inspiration for Pimpernel Smith, Tyrrel Shervington who was the Lisbon manager for the Shell Oil Company, and Ivan Sharp who had been negotiating tungsten and wolfram imports which were important for the British war effort and deals which the Germans would obviously like to prevent. Any one of these men could have been targeted by the Germans although many thought that the clear target was Howard as when Goebbels (the German Propaganda Minister) had seen the film Pimpernel Smith he had taken it as a personal parody of himself and wanted to kill the director and star.

Pimpernel Smith

There is, however, another possibility. On the same day that Howard’s ill-fated plane set off from Portugal Winston Churchill also took off from Gibraltar to return to Britain after a visit to North Africa. The British Prime Minister was to have flown in a similar flying boat and on a similar flight path to the plane which was shot down but, due to bad weather, he decided to take a bomber instead. The German pilots who brought down the plane took photographs of the wreckage before flying back to their base in France. So, was Leslie Howard the target of the German Junkers, or did they mistake the civilian plane for the one carrying the British Prime Minister? What a coup it would have been if they had been able to shoot down and kill the man who was the inspiration for so many of the Allies.

Three days after the plane was shot down the New York Times reported that “It was believed in London that the Nazi raiders had attacked on the outside chance that Prime Minister Winston Churchill might be among the passengers.” When secret files about Ultra (the Allies’ secret Nazi code-breaking capabilities) were finally made public decades after the Second World War it was learned that the British had known in advance that the Germans assumed Churchill was on Flight 777 and so might target the plane. It was obviously vital for the war effort that Ultra could not be compromised and so the intelligence was not passed on to the Portuguese authorities or the airline. When Churchill wrote his history of the war he fed the flames of the mistaken-identity thesis when he referred to Leslie Howard’s death as one of “the inscrutable workings of fate.”

We will never know for certain the true circumstances of the death of Leslie Howard, but JB Priestley spoke for many when he made a broadcast after the actor’s death was announced on the BBC – “The war has claimed another casualty, the stage and screen have lost an unselfish artist, and millions of us have lost a friend.

 

Recommended Read – I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Despised for his weakness and regarded by his family as little more than a stammering fool, the nobleman Claudius quietly survives the intrigues, bloody purges and mounting cruelty of the imperial Roman dynasties. In I, Claudius he watches from the sidelines to record the reigns of its emperors: from the wise Augustus and his villainous wife Livia to the sadistic Tiberius and the insane excesses of Caligula. Written in the form of Claudius’ autobiography, this is the first part of Robert Graves’s brilliant account of the madness and debauchery of ancient Rome, and stands as one of the most celebrated, gripping historical novels ever written.

I, Claudius is an enduring favourite of mine. A fictional autobiography of Claudius based on meticulous research and an incredible depth of knowledge of the Roman Empire places the reader at the heart of events in Rome. The Roman way of life – dress, food, customs, religion etc.– are woven into the story in such a way that the reader comes away from this novel with a deeper understanding of the time and place yet never feeling that they have been educated in any way. Graves’ light touch in this transfer of knowledge is balanced by his deft use of language which, particularly in dialogue, draws out the aspirations, jealousies, fears, hatreds and loves of real historical characters in a way which the source documents never could.

As well as a cleverly plotted novel I, Claudius is also a study of human psychology, to see how Claudius understands and manipulates those around him in order to stay alive is an underlying pleasure of this book. From the relative calm of the rule of Augustus this fictional autobiography details the cruel reign of Tiberius followed by the madness of Caligula all purportedly written from the viewpoint of an historian who likes nothing more than to study the past yet must spend his time balancing the politics of his present in order to stay alive.

It is necessary for Mr Graves to introduce us to a number of generations of the imperial family to tell his story and some readers may find the number of Latin names difficult at first, but I urge you to persevere for it is this richness of connections and understanding of family which underpins the novel and gives it a wholeness which many other historical novels focussing on the Roman  era do not have.

I, Claudius is a classic work of historical fiction telling a story of intrigue, lust, murder and dynastic politics from the point of view of a man who appears such a hapless fool that it is not worth the effort to kill him, yet this supposedly incompetent historian becomes, at the end of the novel, the next Roman Emperor. If you enjoy this read, which I hope you will, then you will be more than happy with its sequel – Claudius the God – which continues Claudius’ autobiography in recounting the reluctant emperor’s surprisingly successful reign.

I, Claudius is a classic in every sense of the word.

I, Claudius can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Graves here

You can  find more of my Recommended reads here

VE DAY – The end of the Second World War in Europe

The long weekend of 8th – 11th May 2020 was supposed to see massive celebrations of the 75th anniversary of VE Day (the ending of the Second World War in Europe) with the British May Bank Holiday being moved for only the second time in history to accommodate this. We are, however, living in unusual times with many countries in lockdown due to the Covid-19 Pandemic so ceremonies and celebrations will not go ahead as planned. I believe it is hoped that these can be postponed until August to coincide with VJ Day (Victory against Japan), but until then we can remember and celebrate online…

(Please read this article for some ideas on how to celebrate VE Day during lockdown).

VE Day in London

VE Day marked the end of six long years of war against Germany which had caused so much suffering and death for many countries. April 1945 saw many of the Allied forces beginning to overrun Germany from the west whilst Russian troops were advancing on the eastern front. The two armies met at the River Elbe on 25th April and it was obvious to everyone that Germany could not win the war.

The inevitable defeat of the Nazi forces had long been anticipated, and with Berlin surrounded by Allied armies Hitler took what many saw as the cowards way out by naming Grand Admiral Donitz as his successor then killing his dog and his new wife, Eva, before committing suicide himself on 30th April 1945.

© IWM (EA 65715) Jodl signs the instrument of surrender at Rheims.

On 4th May Field Marshal Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in northwest Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark at Lunehurg Heath near Hamburg. Three days later The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, accepted the unconditional surrender of all German forces at Reims with General Jodl signing the document on behalf of the German people. The agreement was for the war to officially end the following day on 8th May 1945.

 

The long-awaited end of the war in Europe was announced in a radio broadcast on 7th May and the following day declared a national holiday.

 

 

Building a bonfire to celebrate

 

 

As soon as the news of victory was announced flags and bunting were strung across streets and house fronts, bonfires were built and lit, and the pubs were full as many people did not want to wait one more night to begin their celebrations!

 

 

 

After years of rationing people were told on the morning of the 8th that they could buy bunting without ration coupons, many restaurants quickly put together a ‘victory menu’, there were parades, street parties, and services of thanksgiving – St Paul’s Cathedral in London accommodated 10,000 people in ten services which ran one after the other.

Throughout the war years the British people had been led by Winston Churchill who spoke on the radio in the afternoon of the 8th reminding people that ‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing; but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead.’ He was, of course, referring to the fact that the war in the Far East was still on-going with British soldiers, sailors and airmen still fighting and dying for freedom. Later in the day the Prime Minister stood on the balcony of the Ministry of Health and thousands listened to his speech declaring that ‘This is your victory’ to which the crowd replied ‘No, it’s yours!’

© IWM (H 41849)

As the victory celebrations unfolded huge crowds collected in the Mall and in front of Buckingham Palace to see the royal family. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth went out onto the balcony no less than eight times, once accompanied by the Prime Minister. During their last appearance two young women standing looking up at them were no less than the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret who had been allowed to go out incognito to join the celebrating crowds. Queen Elizabeth later said ‘We stood outside and shouted, “We want the King”… I think it was one of the most memorable nights of my life.’ (see The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II).

© IWM (MH 21835)

It is thought that around 50,000 people were crowded around Piccadilly Circus as the first VE Day came to an end with people dancing and singing in the streets. The joy of victory broke down the famous British reserve as people spoke and danced with complete strangers as pubs and dance halls stayed open until midnight to allow the celebrations to continue.

VE Day in London

Celebrations took place around the world, although there was sadness in America that President Roosevelt who had led the country throughout the war did not live to see the final victory (he died on 12th April 1945). Even so the celebrations were so great that large numbers of police officers were detailed to control the crowds in Times Square. In Paris huge numbers flocked to the Champs Elysees and Place de la Concorde. There were also celebrations in Australia although the war so close to them in the Far East was still ongoing. In Canada where the liquor stores had been closed for the celebrations military personnel in Halifax rioted and led the looting of liquor stores which led to a number of deaths.

Amidst the celebrations for the ending of the war in Europe there was also sadness at the thoughts of those who had died and would never return home to a country at peace, and people were aware that the hard times were not yet over – the war against Japan still had to be won, rationing would no doubt continue and there was a great deal of re-building to be done. But for now, for one day, they celebrated the ending of an era of destruction and a new beginning…

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

On 21 June 1922, Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely. But instead of his usual suite, he must now live in an attic room while Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval.

Can a life without luxury be the richest of all?

A Gentleman in Moscow is a novel full of engaging characters who surround Count Rostov as we are immersed in his life confined in the Metropole Hotel for 32 years. You may wonder how following the day to day life of one man in captivity for such a long period of time can create a storyline varied enough to fill a novel, and perhaps some people have not picked up this book for that reason – if so they have missed a gem. This book has been a favourite of mine since I first read it and was drawn into a country in upheaval, following the dramatic changes within Russia during the first half of the 20th century.

The novel begins with Count Rostov being condemned by a tribunal in Moscow as an unrepentant aristocrat, but because of a poem he wrote in his youth which showed a sentiment for revolutionary change he was not put to death, instead he was sentenced to spend the remainder of his life in his current residence – the Metropole Hotel. As we follow him through the long years of his confinment we come to know the Count as a learned man, a philosopher at heart, who is determined to adapt to his new way of life. Through his friendship with a young girl called Sophie he learns of the rich life behind the scenes of the hotel. Through friends who visit him he is able to follow the turbulent events taking place in his country from both sides – the oppressed and the oppressor. When an unforeseen event changes his life even further Count Rostov becomes a father in all but name and focusses his life on educating and raising a daughter to go out and face a world in which he can no longer partake himself.

This is a book full of humour, pathos, laughter, friendship and love. It is written in an elegant style with beautiful prose and insightful dialogue which subtly explore deep questions about the purpose of our lives and how we can make a difference through many small acts. The characters are well observed, the writing sophisticated, the humour at times gentle and at others farcical. It is a rich, multi-layered novel with much to offer even the most discerning of readers.

As Count Rostov muses towards the end of the novel ‘it was, without question, the smallest room that he had occupied in his life; yet somehow, within those four walls the world had come and gone’. I urge you to join him within the four walls of his attic room and experience the rich delights of this novel

A Gentleman In  Moscow can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Amor Towles here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here