Tag Archives: history

The teacher who hid children in baskets – the story of Johan van Hulst

Johan Willem van Hulst

On Holocaust Remembrance Day this year I would like to commemorate the life and work of Johan Willem van Hulst who was just an ordinary school Director in the Netherlands before the outbreak of the Second World War, but what he saw happening there led him to help in the saving of over 600 Jewish children destined for Nazi concentration camps.

In 1943 Johan was working as Director of a Calvinist teacher training college opposite the Hollandse Schouwberg theatre in Amsterdam. The theatre was the main clearing site for Jews who had received deportation notices from the Nazi government, whilst just two doors down from the college was a crèche for Jewish children.

Walter Süskind

Many of the records of those who were detained in Hollandse Schouwberg have been lost, but it is estimated that about 46,000 were deported from there to the death camps in the 18 months from mid-1942 to the end of 1943 (the majority going to Westerbork, Auschwitz and Sobibor). The deportation centre was run by a German Jew, Walter Süskind, who had links with the SS and so his Jewish heritage was overlooked; but Süskind had an ulterior motive to working at the centre. Soon after taking over as Administrator he began to falsify the number of arrivals, perhaps saying that 65 had arrived rather than 80 and so allowing 15 people to escape

In early 1943 the Nazis appropriated the crèche across the road and Süskind began to place children there to await deportation. Within days of taking over he was working with the head of the crèche, Henriëtte Pimentel, to sneak children to safety when a tram passed in front of the building, shielding their activities from the Germans in the theatre. Staff at the crèche began to smuggle out as many of the children as they could and placed them with families in Amsterdam and the nearby countryside who were willing to hide them, but it was a slow and dangerous way to save the children so Süskind approached Johan van Hulst to ask for his help.

Henriëtte Pimentel

Johan offered the use of his college as a transit point for the children who were passed over the fence which bordered the gardens of both properties and then hidden in one of the classrooms until picked up by members of the rescue organization; he also helped to find families who were willing to risk their lives to shelter these children. Süskind ensured that none of the Jewish children whose parents agreed to the subterfuge were registered at the deportation centre and so their disappearances were never noticed. It was heartbreaking for the parents who gave up their children, yet they believed it was the best chance they had to survive the war.

The college and creche

The children who were rescued varied in age from babes-in-arms to 12-year-olds. Süskind canvassed families who were willing to take them in, asking them for physical descriptions of themselves and their own children so that he could place the rescued children where they would best fit in. Once a safe house had been arranged the children were smuggled out in bags or laundry baskets, often with the help of the students from the training college, or perhaps openly on a bicycle by a member of the Resistance pretending that the child was their own.

In order to prevent suspicion only a handful of children were rescued at a time, and van Hulst later said that this was one of the most difficult parts of the work he did during the Occupation, knowing that for every child he saved many more could not be helped. “Everyone understood that if 30 children were brought, we could not save 30 children. We had to make a choice, and one of the most horrible things was to make a choice.”

As well as making difficult choices the group of rescuers also had to keep on good terms with the Nazis; Süskind and the staff at the crèche had to continue their jobs as though supporting the deportations whilst Hulst would often behave as if he was on the side of the German occupiers. He would frequently tell his students off for watching the SS guards and tell the to ‘Let these people do their jobs, it is none of your business’ whilst winking at the guards to try to gain their trust and confidence, an act of theatre which seemed to work.

van Hulst 1969

Things did not always run smoothly and there was one occasion in 1943 when a Dutch education Ministry official discovered several Jewish children hiding in the college and asked van Hulst to explain what they were doing there. After a long silence he replied ‘you don’t really expect me to answer that, do you?’ The official wrote up his report with no mention of the children. On another occasion a government inspector visited the college unexpectedly and heard babies crying; by an incredible stroke of luck the inspector was a member of the Resistance and joined in Johan’s work of saving the children. These incidents convinced van Hulst, who was married with two children of his own, that he must say nothing to his wife so that she would not have any compromising information if he was caught and arrested.

Henriëtte Pimentel

The rescue of Jewish children had been running for many months, but it all came to an abrupt end in July 1943 when Henriëtte Pimentel was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died that September.* 100 children from the crèche were sent with her and suffered the same fate. On the day of Henriëtte’s arrest van Hulst was able to save one last group of children which turned out to be one of the most harrowing experiences of the war for him as he tried to decide just how many he could save without the Nazis noticing. As he said many years later, ‘Now try to imagine 80, 90, perhaps 70 or 100 children standing there, and you have to decide which children to take with you… That was the most difficult day of my life… You know for a fact that the children you leave behind are going to die. I took 12 with me. Later on I asked myself: “Why not 13?”’

Walter Süskind and his daughter

In 1944 Walter Süskind was sent to Westerbork concentration camp with his wife and daughter. None of them survived the war. **

It was at this point that the creche and the deportation centre at the theatre were closed, but that did not stop Johan van Hulst who continued to help people in hiding as well as defying attempts to conscript his students into the German army. Three weeks before liberation Johan received a tip-off that the Germans were coming for him; he managed to escape just minutes before they arrived and was forced to spend the next weeks in hiding until the Allies arrived.

In his later life, Johan van Hulst spent 25 years as a Dutch senator and was a Member of the European Parliament from 1961 to 1968. His old school now houses the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands, and the joint wall which played such a crucial part in the saving of so many lives carries a permanent exhibition in van Hulst’s honour.

In 1973, Johan van Hulst was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations, a title given by the state of Israel to Gentiles who helped Jews during the Second World War. Later on, in 2015, he met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who told van Hulst that ‘We say: those who save one life saves a universe. You saved hundreds of universes.’

van Hulst and Netanyahu

Johan van Hulst died on 22 March 2018 at the age of 107. A bridge in Amsterdam close to the college where he carried out his rescue of Jewish children has been renamed The Johan van Hulstbrug. But this brave man was only one of many who risked their lives to help the Jewish population of the Netherlands at a truly horrific time – the Netherlands has 5,851 Righteous Gentiles, the world’s highest number after Poland.

“I only think about what I have not been able to do, about those few thousand children that I could not save.” Johan van Hulst.

* Henriëtte Pimentel has not been formally recognised for her role and her sacrifice by Yad Vashem

** As a Jew Süskind was not recognised as Righteous Among the Nations as this honour is reserved for Gentiles.

The Second Great Fire of London

Balham. October 1940

During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.

The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.

Air raid shelter in Aldwych underground station © IWM HU 44272
1kg incendiary bomb © IWM (MUN 3291)

Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.

Ludgate

As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.

Firemen at work on Ave Maria Lane on the night of 29th December 1940.

Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.

Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.

While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.

The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.

Bomb damage viewed from St Pauls 1940

It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’

The cover of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung

But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.

Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.

Recommended Read – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja falls pregnant by a married yakuza, the family face ruin. But then Isak, a Christian minister, offers her a chance of salvation: a new life in Japan as his wife.

Following a man she barely knows to a hostile country in which she has no friends, no home, and whose language she cannot speak, Sunja’s salvation is just the beginning of her story.

Through eight decades and four generations, Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.

Pachinko is a classic family saga set in a place and period of history about which I know (or knew) very little. The Japanese occupation  of Korea during the first half of the 20th century led to many Koreans moving to Japan to escape poverty only to be faced with discrimination, and even when the story ends in 1989 their grand-children and great-grandchildren who were born in Japan are treated as immigrants with less rights than those of native born Japanese.

Ms Min Jin Lee has created a compelling story which encompasses the legacy of the occupation, the Second World War, the division of Korea into two countries during a bitter civil war. But it is not merely a novel about history, Asian peoples have a deep spirituality which also shapes them and the way they live their lives so Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity underpin the actions of a well-crafted cast of characters who bring Pachinko to life. The story-arc is complex, weaving the lives of a number of families together, and it is easy to become attached to them as you sympathise with the troubles they face, the lives they are forced to live and the heartbreak which follows them.

Ms Min Jin Lee has an eye for detail and brings to life the living conditions, food and work place of her characters; life in the city and life in the countryside are equally well portrayed as are the trials and tribulations of an immigrant community where people struggle with a sense of dual identity. There is much in this novel which will speak to people today about their place in society – how welcoming they are to others, how much others strive to fit in. But above all it will speak to people on a human level as Sunja and her family struggle with friendship and duty, pain and loss, and above all love, in a way which affects all people no matter what age or nationality.

Pachinko is absorbing, distressing and yet heart-warming in almost equal measure. Yes, it is a family sage, but it is also much more than that. It is a story of resilience and compassion as four generations of Koreans struggle to find their identity and place in a world which does not want them. A powerful novel which I heartily recommend.

Pachinko can be found on Amazon

You can find our more about Min Jin Lee here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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.