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Tag Archives: Memoirs

  • School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain by Alastair Goodrum

    My latest book, School of Aces (Amberley; 2019), tells the story of how RAF Fighter Command prepared for battle. It takes an in-depth view of the creation and development of its premier fighter pilot and air gunnery school, located at RAF Sutton Bridge. This station is where, for example, the RAF prepared for the air Battles of France and Britain, a decade before they were actually fought. The story that unfolds throughout my book is nothing, of course, without the pilots themselves. Who were they? Where did they come from? What happened to them? These are a few of the questions the book addresses. It is interesting to discover, too, that by the time the Second World War was into its stride, RAF Sutton Bridge was training pilots of every nationality that served in the RAF. This first blog post uses the story of nineteen-year old Plt Off Denis Wissler, from Greenwich, England, to illustrate just what these young men – fresh from No.6 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge – were asked to do.

    Plt Off Denis Wissler Hurricane 1940. (School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Together with sixteen companions, Denis learned to fly the Hawker Hurricane on the first course run at RAF Sutton Bridge. That course lasted six weeks but the deteriorating situation in France cut subsequent courses to a mere three weeks duration. Denis was posted to 85 Squadron on Lille-Seclin airfield in France on 27 April 1940 but, recognising his lack of experience, his CO, Sqn Ldr John Oliver, ordered him to fly only to get himself accustomed to the local area. The CO considered there was no pressing need at the moment for Wissler to go on operational patrols and he would be much better occupied putting in some more hours on the Hurricane; familiarising himself with squadron routine and generally making himself useful on the ground.

     

     

     

    Plt Pff Denis Wissler, 17 Sqn, 1970. (Courtesy B. B. M. London, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    When the Germans rolled into France on the morning of 10 May 1940, Seclin was bombed, causing many casualties on the ground but fortunately most of the pilots were already in the air on patrol. Left behind, Denis Wissler literally had to run for his life for a slit trench when the bombing started and soon found out what war looked like when he helped to rescue the casualties afterwards. With mounting pilot casualties, too, his CO had no option but to commit Plt Off Wissler to combat operations and Denis took his place alongside his comrades in the air – and managed to survive. During his first patrol on 12 May, Denis became separated from his flight and got lost. Landing on what – fortunately – turned out to be a French Air Force aerodrome he had to ask for directions back to his own base. No sooner had he returned than he was airborne again for another patrol. That night Denis wrote in his diary: ‘I now have had just six hours sleep in the last forty-eight hours and have not washed for over thirty-six hours. My God, I’m so tired, and I am up again at 3 am tomorrow.’ Next day, 13th, he was indeed up at the crack of dawn for a patrol from which he returned safely. His second sortie of the day was part of a flight led by Sqn Ldr Oliver. They were jumped by enemy Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters and John Oliver was shot down. Denis Wissler made a bee-line for the cover of clouds and emerging cautiously, found himself alone and unsure of his whereabouts – again. Landing on another French airfield, this time Cambrai, it was pointed out to him that his Hurricane was leaking oil badly. For once, he was able to sleep soundly in the French officers’ mess while RAF ground-crew were sent to fix his aeroplane. Just four days had elapsed in which Denis had to try to learn to do all the things needed to simply get himself airborne from a bombed airfield; fly his Hurricane in combat; avoid being shot down and – as if that wasn't enough – then find home when he had spent most of his time pulling such tight turns that he hardly knew which way was up. Tired he was – weren’t they all? – but he survived until the squadron was withdrawn to England (RAF Debden) on 22 May. But Denis was not quite done with France yet. At Debden he was posted to 17 Squadron on 8 June and it was still operating in France, covering the British withdrawal while flying from Le Mans airfield. He flew out to join the squadron on 9 June and survived the final days of the RAF campaign in France, finally withdrawing via Dinard and Jersey once more to Debden airfield on 19 June.

    Hurricane Is of 111 Squadron up from Northolt, in July 1938. (Courtesy ww2images.com, School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Denis Wissler remained with 17 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, scoring his first success on 29 July when he shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111 bomber. By September he was now considered an experienced fighter pilot but, in combat with Bf 109s over the Thames estuary on 24 September, after shooting at one ’109, he went for a gaggle of four more and in the ensuing scrap, his Hurricane took a cannon shell hit in the port wing. The explosion damaged the flaps on that side and a shell fragment wounded him in the left arm. Denis dived hard to escape the fight and flew back to Debden where he made a flap-less landing. His Hurricane ran into a pile of rubble which added to his woes by causing cuts and bruises to his face. After a couple of weeks in Saffron Walden hospital he returned to flying duties on 10 October. It was in the closing stage of the Battle of Britain, when 17 Squadron moved to RAF Martlesham Heath, that Fate finally caught up with Denis. On 11 November 1940, while leading a section of his squadron into action, he was shot down and posted as missing in action during an engagement off the Essex coast near Burnham-on-Crouch.

    Alastair Goodrum's new book School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Women's Experiences in the Holocaust by Agnes Grunwald-Spier

    Why I wrote my three books in my pensioner years

    One morning in Budapest during the autumn of 1944, an unknown official in charge of deporting Hungarian Jews sent back all the women accompanied by children. My Mother, Leona Grunwald, was one of those women and I was a tiny baby in her arms.

    I have no means of knowing who that official was and what his motives were for what he did. I cannot know his name or his fate, but it is chilling to think that but for his actions I might have been murdered before I was aware of life. I would have become one of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust – what lives would they have had and what could those children have achieved?

    Leona and Philipp Grunwald with the author in Budapest, January 1946. (Women's Experiences in the Holocaust, Amberley Publishing)

    My Father, Philipp Grunwald, was taken away by the Hungarian Fascists in 1943 and like all the other Hungarian Jewish men sent to the Russian front had a truly dreadful time. Unlike many, he came back to Budapest in March 1945 and saw me for the first time – I was nine months old. My parents managed to leave Hungary in 1946 and we arrived in England in May 1947. My Father was very embittered and wouldn’t have more children – he said it wasn’t a world to bring children into. In 1955 when his business failed, he committed suicide – I was 10.

    I have lived with these facts all my adult life and knowing the impact of the Holocaust on our lives I tended to avoid the subject. If something came up on the TV I turned it off and I deliberately avoided reading about it. The only time I deviated was during the Eichmann Trial in 1961 when I was 17. I came home from school every day to read the detailed reports in the newspaper. However, I have no recollection of discussing it with my Mother, but we may have done.

     

    This continued until 1995 when Sheffield City Council brought the Anne Frank Exhibition to Sheffield. I volunteered to represent the Jewish community on the committee and as a result of my new contacts heard that an MA in Holocaust Studies was being set up at Sheffield University. After some thought I decided to do it and signed up in September 1996. One of my reasons was my three sons who were then 17, 14 and 11. I wanted them to know my history because it was their’s too and I needed to be able to answer their questions. They appeared to be ordinary Englishmen but, of course, they were not.

    I wrote a dissertation about the rescuer Varian Fry. He was not the stuff of which heroes are traditionally made. Yet he was for many years the only American recognised as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – he chose to involve himself in another continent’s woes. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean to become embroiled in Europe’s horrors. He was an unassuming man who after the fall of France in June 1940, offered to go to Vichy France, to rescue refugees for the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC). He only offered to go if nobody else could be found, and he went because nobody else was found. He was meant to rescue 200 artists and writers on a list produced by the ERC, using visas obtained by President Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor. In the end he probably saved about 4,000 refugees.

    This research left me with a keen interest in the motivation of rescuers and why they took considerable risks to save people they often did not know.

    As George Eliot wrote in the final sentence of Middlemarch:

    For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.[1]

    Edith Erbrich (right) and author, 6 October 2017, in Edith’s flat. (Women's Experiences in the Holocaust, Amberley Publishing)

    I wanted to ensure that some of those in unvisited tombs became well known and their occupants were honoured for their courage – that’s why I wrote my book The Other Schindlers. It was published in 2010 when I was 65 and did remarkably well selling 13,000+ copies world-wide.

    A year or two later I discovered I really missed both the research and the writing. I had done research before and knew I liked it, however I had not expected to enjoy the process of writing so much. So I started looking at the people who had betrayed the Jews – there was no shortage of material. Four years later I had produced a 640 page volume which was published in January 2016 and is now available in paperback in the US.

    I had long thought about women’s experiences in the Holocaust particularly in the light of my mother’s struggles having me during the Holocaust. A new publisher wanted to commission a book and when I suggested this, they were very keen. We agreed that I would use women’s own diaries, letters, memoirs, books and also some interviews. I found some amazing women with remarkable stories. Unfortunately, again I had too much material so some women had to be left out. This book was published in the UK in January 2018 and is now available in the US too.

    I haven’t made my fortune from these books (well not yet) but I didn’t write them for the money. However I received an MBE from the Queen for being a Trustee for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and my work on ‘Holocaust awareness’ in 2016. On 12 January 2018 I received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Sheffield University for my work on the Holocaust and received an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Oxford Brookes University on 22 June 2018. However my real reward is knowing that I am telling people the truth about the horrors of the Holocaust.

    Agnes Grunwald-Spier's new paperback edition of Women's Experiences in the Holocaust is available for purchase now.


    [1]  George Eliot, Middlemarch, (London: Penguin, 1994) p.838.

  • The Bravest Little Street in England by Karen Cliff, Trafford Local Studies and The First World War Volunteers

    The view of a volunteer by Richard Nelson

    The original telegram from George V, 1919. (c. George Cogswell, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

    Chapel Street has long signified the fighting spirit of the ordinary residents of Altrincham. It is regarded locally as a shining example of what can be achieved by such people in times of the nation's greatest need. Many families in the area have strong memories passed on by word of mouth about the individuals who lived in the street and they share pride in its achievement in sending so many men to fight in the First World War. After the conclusion of the fighting a group of residents formed a committee to commemorate those who had served in the conflict, many of whom were of Irish descent. In 1919 this committee succeeded in erecting a street shrine, the Chapel Street Memorial, at the end of the street.

    In 2014 a decision was made by Trafford Local Studies to research for a book that would chronicle the lives of as many of the individuals on the memorial as could be located and document them in the social context and history of the street. The big question was how to go about producing a book which would do the subject justice.

    Celebrations on Chapel Street on 5 April 1919. The Chapel Street Roll of Honour is visible on the right of the image. (c. Trafford Council, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

    The work force was already in place. An advertisement in July 2013 for volunteers to work on a First World War research project produced a small team with wide and varied experience and expertise. Local Studies staff set us to work on extracting information about the war from resources in the collection, primarily newspapers and local council minute books. Each item was recorded on record cards and transferred to a database.

    It soon became obvious that there was a vast amount of material to consider. Labouring through the newspapers produced hundreds of references to Chapel Street from the war years and more from the pre-war and post war years. This research had to be done in short bursts as each edition contained so much information and the small print was hard to read. It took over four years to extract the data and additional material was still emerging up to the final stages of producing the book.

    The reward was that the names on the memorial became real people as so many interesting stories about the residents were discovered, especially from the reports of the Petty Sessions. The street contained large families and several lodging houses and were full of colourful characters. Cases of drunkenness, fighting, domestic violence, poaching, and theft, highlighted the extreme poverty in which many residents lived. Some were sad stories, others were amusing, as the case of two of the soldiers who, when they were boys, stole a horse, cart and harness, intending to go to Macclesfield to look for rags and bones.

    Private Harry Johnson. (c. Harry Johnson, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

    One volunteer used his expertise to record the history and the development of Chapel Street from the earliest evidence to its demolition. Reports and minutes for the local Board of Health provided much detail about housing conditions. Other volunteers used family history programmes and other search engines to research individual lives. The records of birth, marriage and death, parish records, the censuses, the 1939 Register, street directories, army service records, electoral rolls and absent voters' lists were our main sources. Contact with surviving family members produced more information.

    Voluntary work already undertaken to locate and document the lives of Trafford men who had been awarded medals for gallantry had given me experience of interpreting First World War military records. I used this to develop a spreadsheet to record key facts on each soldier so that some statistical analysis could be undertaken once the research had been completed. This work formed the basis of one of the chapters of the book.

    Some information was located by pure serendipity. It was proving difficult to identify Harry Johnson. Elimination of Cheshire Regiment soldiers of that name had narrowed the field down to one, but there was no conclusive proof. A chance discovery on Facebook of a slide-show of images of the street, with a comment by a friend that her grandfather, Harry Johnson, had lived in Chapel Street, provided the evidence. Her relatives provided a picture of Harry, an honourable discharge certificate, medals and family stories. The medals and certificate confirmed him as the soldier suspected, his obituary was located and it was now possible to write a much less speculative piece about him.

    The Altrincham Boer War Memorial. (c. Trafford Council, The Bravest Little Street in England, Amberley Publishing)

    During the course of the research there were discoveries which surprised all who worked on the project. These included evidence that the street had a lengthy history of being an important source of recruits to the British armed services which predated the Boer War. Strong proof was located that the memorial did not include the names of all the men from the street who had taken part in the conflict. More will be revealed by reading the book.

    The project was expertly managed to ensure consistency. Regular monthly meetings determined the direction of the project and kept us all on track. Folders were created for storing the evidence for each soldier on the memorial. Standardised templates were completed by the team to ensure that all available evidence was collated. These were scrutinised two or three times by different researchers to check the evidence and fill in any gaps. Guidance on style and use of terms, accompanied by model examples, was produced to assist volunteers in writing up the soldiers in a standard format. The resulting biographies were checked to ensure that there was evidence for each conclusion drawn and checked again for consistency in language and format. As each soldier was completed his details were transferred to the fledgling book which rapidly started to grow. Photographs were chosen from the fine Local Studies collection, captions produced and additional chapters written and inserted and, hey presto, the book was completed!

    The writing of “The Bravest Little Street in England” has been a most rewarding experience and a fine example of how, with expert direction, volunteers can work together effectively to meet the rigours of publication.

    Karen Cliff, Trafford Local Studies and The First World War Volunteers new book The Bravest Little Street in England is available for purchase now.

  • Anfield Voices by David Paul

    Jubilant fans after the 1977 European Cup Final. (Anfield Voices, Amberley Publishing)

    Just as there are many thousands of supporters of Liverpool Football Club from many different walks of life, there is at least an equal number of tales told by those supporters – some happy, some funny, others quite simply bizarre, and, regrettably, some very sad. The volume of statistics goes back as far as 1892, when the club was founded, and it would be a brave person who tried to write a definitive history of Liverpool Football Club. This book is in no way an attempt to do that, instead it is the ordinary fans and their stories that feature in the following pages. Some stories are about players, some about exciting games and some about the weird and wonderful ways in which fans overcame seemingly insurmountable problems to see their glorious team.

    Tales of travelling to European ties are in amongst these pages, as are many personal anecdotes from fans who tell how Liverpool Football Club has played a part in their lives. And, because so many people just had to talk about him, a whole chapter is devoted to stories about the great Bill Shankly.

    Merseyside has a proud sporting heritage, with football taking pride of place. On any day of the week, conversation in pubs and clubs invariably gets around to football once politics has been cleared out of the way! Liverpudlians have a deep love of the game and many claim to have grown up in either a mixed family or a mixed marriage. This statement doesn’t relate to race or religion, but to peoples’ allegiance to the Merseyside football teams. Having said that, there is often heard around the city the words of that most famous of all football managers, ‘There’s two great sides in Liverpool – Liverpool and, er ... Liverpool Reserves’.

    I had to tell my Scouse friend that it wasn't the Germans who were responsible for the Coluseum looking like this! (Anfield Voices, Amberley Publishing)

    All of the photographs and other items of memorabilia in this book have been loaned by the fans themselves. The all-pervading theme of this oral history is the passion and loyalty which Liverpool fans have for their team. Many of the older supporters can no longer attend the games, but their love for Liverpool is just as strong and vivid as when they were young boys standing on the Kop.

    The Kop itself is now very different from the way it used to be and the Centenary and Anfield Road Stands have also seen extensive re-development, and no doubt there are more changes planned for the future. Amid all of these changes however, one aspect remains constant – and always will – the indefatigable spirit of the club and its supporters.

    How Did the Coliseum End Up Like This?

    In 1977 we flew out to Rome to see Liverpool play Borussia Mönchengladbach in the final of the European Cup. On the way out we met some Scousers who were based in Germany. The Aer Lingus jet that we flew out on was called the Saint Patrick. The whole experience was so amazing I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. We went along to see the sights of the ruins of the Coliseum. These two Scousers tagged along with us. It was clear that they’d never ventured much further than the outskirts of town. When they saw the Coliseum they were outraged and asked if it was the Germans who had done the damage during the war!

    June Titherington

    The official UEFA souvenir programme for the Europen Cup Final held in Rome on Wednesday 30 May 1984. (Anfield Voices, Amberley Publishing)

    £99 For the Trip of a Lifetime

    My daughter got these tickets, £99 for each of us, that included the price of £3 for the game itself. We started off from Skelhorne Street, five National coaches, and there was a real sense of excitement and almost triumph - people were waving us off and cheering as the buses pulled out of the coach station. We were sleeping out of suitcases, but nobody seemed to mind. On the first night we stayed in France and the next morning we set off early to Switzerland. The following day we were aiming for Florence. It was a five-day tour, so we covered some miles during that time. On the day we got to Florence, we didn’t stay that long, as we then had to set off for Rome. We arrived early in the morning. It was absolutely magnificent. All the German supporters were there, arriving in their super-deluxe coaches, and we were in our somewhat less-grand National coaches, but that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. Anyway, there was much banter between the rival fans, but it was all very good-natured. We went to the Trevi Fountains, and many fans were splashing around, taking the opportunity of cooling themselves down. A German came over to me, and we got into quite a long conversation. He assured me that his team was going to win. I didn’t share this view.  He suggested that, irrespective of the outcome, we should have a drink after the game. We went our separate ways, he to his end of the ground and us to the other. We walked along as a group and, right in the middle of the group, was Bill Shankly himself. He was just like one of us. One of the supporters had lost his money. When Shanks heard this he gave him a few bob for himself. It was a little intimidating in the ground. At our end there were soldiers and police with guns. There were also several very large dogs, to say nothing of the heavy mesh wire which penned us in - almost like wild animals. There was just no need for it. Anyway, the game kicked-off, and it was very exciting game. It was just unbelievable! When we finally left the ground, it was decided that, instead of staying in Rome, we should make our way to Switzerland and do our celebrating there. We had a ball that night. We were one big happy family. From what I can gather, people who travelled either by train or jet didn’t have such a good time as we did.

    Ivy May

    David Paul's book Anfield Voices is available for purchase now.

  • Nursing Churchill by Jill Rose

    Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse

    Doris receives her Gold Medal for Excellence in Nursing from Miss Ruth Derbyshire, Head of the British Rad Cross and a former Matron of St Mary's Hospital, while the current Matron, Miss Mary Milne, looks. on. (Courtesy of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust Archives, Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    My mother, Doris Miles, was a nurse at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington during the war.  In February 1943, at a critical time in the conflict, the 68-year-old Prime Minister Winston Churchill was stricken with pneumonia. His personal physician Sir Charles Wilson, Dean of St Mary's Hospital Medical School, asked the hospital to send their very best nurse to take care of his illustrious patient. Doris was the recent winner of the prestigious Gold Medal for Excellence in Nursing and the daughter of a former Dean who had been once Sir Charles's mentor, so she was the obvious choice.

    I've lived abroad almost all of my adult life, and 'What did you do in the war?' was seldom a topic of conversation on my visits home. It wasn't until 2001 that I discovered that Mum still had in her possession a cache of letters that she had written to her husband Roger (my father-to-be) while he was serving as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Navy during the war. The correspondence covers her time nursing Churchill, as well as her life in London in the preceding months and immediately afterwards, and forms the core of my book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse.

    Doris was on night duty, and she and Churchill would talk in the wee hours. On February 23rd she wrote to Roger:

    Been having a long chat with the old boy, he’s been telling me his daily habits, did you know that he stays in bed until 12, sleeps from 3 to 5, never goes anywhere before 5, and never goes to bed before 2. What a man. He also tells me that he hates cigars, and never smokes more than a quarter of one! (Believe that or not). We have also discussed the progress of the war and the Beveridge Report, give me a little time and he’ll get my views on the Rushcliffe Report on Nursing! 

    The signed photography that Winston Churchill gave to Doris, March 1943. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    During the PM's convalescence at Chequers in March, Doris had to cajole him to take his medicine or do his breathing exercises, matching her own strong will against his. At 1 a.m. she wrote,

    'I’m just pushing back hot coffee and biscuits, while waiting for the Patient to finish his whiskey and come and do his exercises before going to bed. There’s going to be trouble over the said exercises I foresee!  As I was away this afternoon he’s only done one lot today, and he will argue – quite rightly – that 1:30 a.m. is not the time to be doing exercises. I wonder who will win – somehow I don’t feel much like arguing tonight'.

    Her letter continues a few hours later: 'Well I won the argument and the exercises were duly performed. As a matter of fact it wasn’t an argument at all, I just said, “you’ve got to do some more exercises”, and he said, “no I won’t, I’m too tired”. So I said no more, and in about five minutes, during which time I did my best to look reproachful, he said, “Oh well, if you want to we’d better do them”. If I wanted to!!  Anyway they were done'.

    Doris and the others in his medical team saw the Prime Minister in a uniquely intimate and vulnerable position. She became very fond of him, despite his many idiosyncrasies. She had been told by Sir Charles at the outset, 'I must warn you, Nurse, the Prime Minister doesn't wear pyjamas', and indeed he didn't, preferring a natty little silk vest which barely covered his bottom,  a velvet jacket with a diamond V on the lapel, and slippers of velvet with 'PM' embroidered on the front.

    Doris and Roger at St. Peter's Church, Vere Street, 8 January 1942. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    As well as the perceptive and amusing descriptions of her time with the ailing Prime Minister, the letters paint a vivid picture of wartime life in a major London hospital. And it's also a poignant love story; Doris and Roger had been married just a few weeks when he went to sea in early 1942, and their relationship grew through their correspondence.

    As I transcribed my mother's letters in 2001, I would ask her about the people and events she had written about, although she was 85 by then and her memory was fading. My father had died of Parkinson's disease in 1990 so there was no one else to ask. There were no letters from Dad, and I wondered what had happened to his replies. Mum couldn't remember when they had disappeared; they must have been cleared out during one of the family's several post-war moves, she said with obvious regret.

    I put the letters away for the next 15 years, and didn't think much more about them until after my mother's death in November 2016, at the age of 100. Re-reading them in the spring of 2017, I was struck again by what a great story this was, and I felt sure that there would be considerable interest in a book.

    Fortunately the editors at Amberley Publishing agreed. I contracted to write an additional 50,000 words about the war, Churchill and my family to put the letters into their historical context.

    My sister still has my mother's old photo albums and quite a lot of parental memorabilia, as well as the original letters. However, once I got started on the book, I realised that there is so much more that I could have and should have asked my parents. I wish I had talked more to Mum about her letters when I first came across them. Dad rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but I think he would have elaborated if only I had shown more interest. When I was a teenager my Granny told me many stories about her eventful life, but I was young and, like all teens, very much wrapped up in my own concerns, so I didn't take much of it in and now only a few tattered, tantalising scraps of memories remain.

    Winston and Clementine Churchill returning to 10 Downing Street, June 1943. (Nursing Churchill, Amberley Publishing)

    I had a pretty clear idea in my head of what I needed to write the book. To fill in the details and the gaps in my research I contacted several experts, and I was touched by their enthusiasm for my project and their willingness to share their time and expertise with me. The well-known historian Andrew Roberts wrote a very complimentary endorsement. I sent a copy of the manuscript to Emma Soames, and she contributed a lovely Foreword, way beyond my expectations. I'm so grateful for the generosity of these kind and helpful people.

    Doris writes about colleagues and friends at St Mary's, several of whom remained life-long friends, and I had great pleasure making contact with the children of some of them, including John and David Suchet, and pooling our recollections of our parents.

    I spent hours hunched over my computer digging around in the historical records, and found lots of information about my grandparents and great-grandparents. Not all of my research is directly included in the text, of course. However, all of it has added to the richness of the back-story and I believe my book is the better for it. Everything that I have learned and discovered has greatly enhanced my knowledge of my family, the circumstances into which I was born, and contributed to my personal journey.

    Doris was on duty at St Mary's Hospital during the terrible nights of the Blitz in the Fall of 1940 as the victims of the bombing were brought into the operating theatre. Working alongside her was the handsome Casualty Officer Roger Miles. They fell in love and were married on January 8, 1942.  It was just over a year later that Doris received the fateful summons from Sir Charles Wilson to attend the Prime Minister.

    Nursing Winston Churchill in February and March of 1943 was a defining experience in my mother's long life. She lived to be a hundred years old, and by the end of her life she could remember very little of her past, but she still knew that she had once been Churchill's nurse.

    Jill Rose's new book Nursing Churchill: Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill's Nurse is available for purchase now.

  • Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 by Colin Brown

    Elizabeth, 'Lady M', etching by Braun Clement after John Hoppner. (c. National Portrait Gallery, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth Lamb was sexy, shrewd and presided over a salon for the fashionable Whig set for three decades but in writing her biography I found fresh evidence that Elizabeth Lamb, the Viscountess of Melbourne was as scheming and ruthless as Marquess de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

     She was almost proud of her reputation for intrigue. When she commissioned an artist to do a group portrait of herself and her two closest friends, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, and Anne Damer, a sculptor, she arranged it so they were portrayed as the three witches in Macbeth, casting spells on those around her. Not that she regarded herself as a wicked witch, but others did, and today she might be regarded as a monster who would do anything for her ambition to rise to the top of Georgian society.

    She lived by a rule that provided a woman had done her duty in producing an heir for her husband, she should be free to have as many lovers as she liked. Before the age of contraception this led to the birth of many illegitimate offspring but such were the different moral codes before the Victorians, a Georgian man invariably accepted his wife’s infidelities and her children as his own. Lady Melbourne had six surviving children but only the first, Peniston, was by her husband, Peniston Lamb. Her second son, William – who later became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister – was almost certainly sired by George Wyndham, the third earl of Egremont, Elizabeth’s long-term lover who owned Petworth house in Sussex. Her fourth son, George, was widely assumed to be the result of Elizabeth’s brief sexual encounters with the young, plump Prince of Wales when she visited Eton to see Peniston.

    Elizabeth had been born Elizabeth Milbanke in 1751 in the Yorkshire Dales at Halnaby Hall – now only the stables survive – but she managed to rise from being a squire’s daughter to one of the leading ladies of Georgian society. Her marriage to Peniston was a marriage of convenience for both parties. He wanted the respectability of the Milbanke’s. She wanted Peniston’s fortune – he had inherited £1 million from his father, with two country houses, Melbourne Hall in Derbyshire, and Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, with a comfortable house in Sackville Street, just off Piccadilly.

    Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire - Elizabeth took a keen interest in agriculture. (Author's collection, Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    She discovered soon after she had married Peniston while she was pregnant with his son that her husband had taken up with a celebrated courtesan called Sophia Baddeley, whose friend humiliated Elizabeth by writing her kiss and tell memoirs which claimed Peniston had promised Sophia lavish sums of money providing she would only have sex with him. Elizabeth had her revenge by having a string of lovers and spending Peniston’s fortune firstly on a splendid London house – now converted into flats called the Albany, still one of the most prestigious addresses in Piccadilly.

    Georgiana came under Lady Melbourne’s spell, which infuriated Georgiana’s mother, Lady Spencer who repeatedly ordered her daughter to break off her friendship with Lady Melbourne, to no avail. It was almost as though Georgiana was afraid of Lady Melbourne and wrote many letters (now in Lamb archive at the British Library) pleading with Lady Melbourne not to be angry with her. Lady Mary Coke complained the Duchess ‘cannot walk into a room; she must come in with a hop and a jump’. I found that was not Elizabeth’s style. Where the Duchess was gushing and gauche, Elizabeth was calculating, scheming, politically shrewd. Her advice was to prove disastrous for her intimate friend Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, (1757-1806), however.

    Georgiana spent years trying to produce an heir for the Duke and when she did, she then took Lady Melbourne’s lead by taking a couple of lovers. However, where Lady Melbourne insisted on absolute secrecy about her affairs, Georgiana fell pregnant to a rising Whig politician, Charles Grey and she was quickly confronted by the Duke who insisted on her having the child in exile in France to limit the scandal – and the potential problems of inheritance. Unlike Lady Melbourne, she was forced to give up the child, a girl, who was brought up in the country by Grey’s parents.

    York House, Whitehall, as it looked when it was exchanged by the Duke of York with the Melbournes. (Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818, Amberley Publishing)

    Elizabeth’s intrigues reached a climax in her middle age when the poet Lord Byron literally stumbled into their lives. The Melbourne’s had done a house swop with the Duke of York and moved from Piccadilly to the Duke’s house in Whitehall, now Dover House, the Scotland Office, jammed between Horse Guards and the Cabinet Office. William Lamb’s wife, Caroline Lamb, was holding dancing parties and had invited the young poet who had burst onto the scene like a pop star with his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage. He had one leg shorter than the other, and tripped on the staircase at Melbourne House. He commented to a friend: ‘It is a bad omen’. He was right. Caroline fell head over heels in love with the dashing poet and for a hot summer in 1812 they became passionate lovers. Caroline’s ‘crime’ in Lady Melbourne’s eyes was not that she had cuckolded her son; it was that she conducted her affair in public. After an earlier affair, she wrote an excoriating letter to her daughter-in-law saying: ‘When one braves the opinion of the World sooner or later they will feel the consequences of it.’

    Lady Caroline Lamb today would be regarded as a wild child, a celebrity starlet, the darling of the gossip columns. Byron tired of Caroline’s attentions – she dressed up as a page to get into his rooms and slashed her wrists at a ball – and tried to drop her. Astonishingly, her mother-in-law set about helping Byron to extricate himself from Caroline’s desperate clutches. And she did so by helping to engineer a marriage between Byron and her niece, Annabella Milbanke. The marriage was a disaster but I found evidence that Lady Melbourne was keen to promote it – even after she discovered that Byron had had an affair with his half-sister, and had a child with her. Byron and Lady Melbourne exchanged rings and letters like lovers. There were claims that she had become Byron’s lover. She was sixty one and he was twenty four. It may seem unlikely but she was such an extraordinary woman, no-one would say it never happened.

    Colin Brown's new book Lady M: The Life and Loves of Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne 1751-1818 is available for purchase now.

  • 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain by Laurence Fenton

    Frederick Douglass in Bristol: Time for the African-American Abolitionist’s Visit to the City to be Commemorated with a Blue Heritage Plaque?

    Eliza Wigham, Mary Estlin and Jane Wigham, the Bristol- and Edinburgh-based abolitionists who worked closely with Douglass during his first tour of the British Isles. ('Eliza Wigham, Mary A. Estlin and Jane Wigham', CabG.3.118, unkown photographer, Print Department, Boston Public Library, 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    While actions from the naming of Pero’s Bridge after a Caribbean slave almost twenty years ago to the unveiling of plaques commemorating the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s stay in Bristol are marks of a city attempting to acknowledge and learn from its slave-trading past, the on-going controversy surrounding the renaming of Colston Hall shows how fraught the process remains. This year’s bicentenary of the birth of the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, however, presents an opportunity to recall another side to Bristol’s engagement with the issue of slavery, the famous escaped slave receiving tremendous support from the city when he visited during a lecture tour in the 1840s.

    Douglass had crossed the Atlantic after being advised to leave America until the furore over his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, died down. He arrived in Bristol in late August 1846, the rail journey from London taking him through rolling West Country hills dappled with fabulous mansions built from the proceeds of slavery, Bristol having long served as the hub of the powerful West India planter interests. Met off the train by John Bishop Estlin, the 28-year-old slave was conveyed by horse-drawn carriage to the spacious 47 Park Street home the eye surgeon shared with his 25-year-old daughter Mary. The elder Estlin, the son of the highly-regarded Unitarian minister John Prior Estlin, was one of Bristol’s most respected citizens, combining a lucrative medical career with a lifetime’s dedication to philanthropic causes such as the education of the poor and the abolition of slavery. Mary was even more involved in the anti-slavery scene, becoming a leading member of the Bristol and Clifton Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.

    While Douglass spent his first night in Bristol at the home of John Estlin’s Quaker friend George Thomas, the founder of Bristol General Hospital, he was back at Park Street the next morning for a busy breakfast with dozens of the ophthalmologist’s friends before Mary Estlin escorted him to the nearby Blind Asylum, where visually impaired people were trained for employment in crafts such as basket- and mat-making. The ‘pupils’ there, ‘about 60 men, women & children’, had already had his Narrative read aloud to them. ‘Their delight was extreme to feel him & question him. I think F.D. will never forget the scene,’ John Estlin wrote, the underlining of ‘feel’ suggesting they actually placed their hands on Douglass’s striking face and features.

    From the Blind Asylum, Douglass made his way to an afternoon meeting at the Victoria Rooms, a handsome Greek revival-style building that had opened in 1842 – the foundation stone having been laid on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1838 – and that now houses the University of Bristol’s Department of Music. John K. Haberfield, the popular mayor, chaired the meeting, noting Douglass’s Narrative had been ‘extensively read in this city’. He also filled a glass of water for Douglass at one point, leading a local paper to declare in mock outrage: ‘What! A white man – a mayor – a man in authority – hand a glass of water to a Negro! Incredible!’

    'Frederick Douglass appealing to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist Negroes,' mural by William Edouard Scott, at the Recorder of Deeds building, Washington, DC, built in 1943. (Photographer: Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress, 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    When Douglass took to the stage, he acknowledged it was difficult for many in Britain to believe what he said about the horrors of slavery, because they ‘had heard of America, 3000 miles off, as the land of the free and the home of the brave’. The truth, however, was that despite all the loud talk of all men being equal, the constant sound in the South was of the ‘clank of the fetters and the rattling of the chains which bound their miserable slaves together, to be driven by the lash of their driver on board the ships for New Orleans, there to be sold in the market like brutes’. His well-honed ability to engage audiences to the fore, he then pointed to a child near the front of the crowd as he exclaimed: ‘And was he not a vagabond – when he would, without remorse, steal yon bright-eyed boy … tear him from his mother’s arms … doom him to slavery … and force him to drag his chains and fetters under the degrading torture of the lash?’ The boy was white, but the point was made. And besides, Douglass suggested to the crowd, the slaveholder ‘would steal white men as readily as a man who stole a black horse would not scruple to steal a white horse’.

    Douglass sat down to ‘long-continued cheering’, wrote the local press. Mary Carpenter, a friend of the Estlins and a famous social reformer in her own right, could not remember a speech of such ‘powerful reasoning … touching appeals, keen sarcasm & graphic description’.

    After a drive out to the countryside in Estlin’s carriage, Douglass returned to 47 Park Street that evening for another private gathering, the forty or so guests comprised in the main of ‘ministers, lawyers and merchants’. The following day he was back on a public stage, speaking to a 1,000-strong audience of ‘a more popular cast’, the 6d cost of the tickets doing little to temper the eagerness of the crowd, many of whom were forced to stand in the aisles throughout, to listen to his eloquent denunciations of slavery.

    Thrilled with the response to his talks and with the friendship of the Estlins and others, Douglass would return to Bristol several times during his ‘liberating sojourn’ in Britain, finally travelling back to America in the spring of 1847 as not only a free man – his manumission purchased by a group of British supporters – but a celebrity and icon of international standing. He would go on to advise President Abraham Lincoln in the White House during the American Civil and is now widely regarded as the most influential African-American of the nineteenth century.

    The Estlins remained committed to the anti-slavery cause, John Estlin actually passing away in 1855 in the midst of an anti-slavery meeting being held in his home. Mary Estlin, meanwhile, would campaign for the advancement of African-Americans until her death in 1902, by which time she had moved to the leafy surrounds of 36 Upper Belgrave Road in Clifton. Perhaps it is time they were remembered more formally in their much-loved city? A blue heritage plaque commemorating Douglass’s visit could also serve as a more positive counterpoint to the myriad reminders of the slave-trading Edward Colston throughout the city. The Victoria Rooms, where Douglass spoke so passionately, seem an obvious location.

    www.laurencefentonbooks.com

    Laurence Fenton's book 'I Was Transformed' Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain is available for purchase now.

  • Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War by Sally White

    Belgian refugees arriving in the Netherlands, 1914. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the joys of being a museum curator is all the odd bits of information that come your way.  I worked in Worthing Museum for almost 20 years and relished the salmagundi of snippets that I picked up.  One day I was leafing through an album of old press cuttings when I spotted one from 1920 that reported Worthing’s decision to adopt a town in France under the auspices of the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France. Like most people, I had never heard of this organisation and had no idea what they did.  Information was very thin on the ground in those pre-internet days but I set out to investigate.

    My research regularly encroached on my holidays and when I was in France I did a detour to Richebourg l’Avoué, the town that Worthing adopted.  I called on the Mayor and was delighted to find that his wife was the granddaughter of the man who had been Mayor in 1920 and whose visit to Worthing had been reported in the local papers.  They whisked me off in their car to visit a nonagenarian clog maker, Monsieur Sénéchal, who was happy to share his memories of the adoption with me, mentioning a number of the gifts that had been sent over to help the local people rebuild their lives and their town. He also enthused about the height of the Bengal Lancers and seeing The Prince of Wales at the opening of a local war cemetery. I visited a number of other towns that been adopted and helped in the aftermath of the First World War.

    The sheer scale of the effort needed to care for the refugees is illustrated by this photograph of 600 refugee children being given tea at Earl's Court London. (c. Imperial War Museum, ref. HU88813, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    After a while I felt I had gone as far as I could with my research, wrote an article about the adoption scheme, presented a paper at a conference, and put it all aside.  Some years later I was made redundant and dug out my notes. I broadened my research to include other civilian-run schemes that helped people here and abroad during and just after the war.  I soon realised the enormous scale of the contribution made by civilians, often acting on their own initiative and with great bravery and imagination.

    In 1929 a journalist called Mrs C. S. Peel wrote that one day someone could write a book about all the work civilians did to support the war effort.  I was amazed to find that nobody had ever tackled this subject and that most books about the war limited their references to civilian volunteers to enthusing about the efforts of VADs on the Western Front and to disparaging the efforts of those who busily knitted socks and mufflers for soldiers. The further I went with my research the more determined I became to write a book giving readers an insight into what hundreds of thousands of civilians achieved here and abroad.

    Having got an excruciating job with the local council to pay the bills I had to research, write, and give talks in my ‘spare time’.  In practice this meant getting up at 5.30 am so that I could get an hour’s work in each day before starting my main job, carrying on in the evenings, heading off to archives or the university library at weekends and using much of my annual leave to visit archive offices and museums.  I loved it and it kept me sane when the day job was at its worst. New areas of interest kept opening up.

    I had been unaware that 250,000 Belgian refugees fled to Britain in the early weeks of the war and had to be welcomed fed, housed and generally cared for.  Many of them stayed for the duration of the war and the volunteers who looked after them soon struggled to collect enough money to support them. I spent months engrossed in reading about the refugees and how hosts in different areas looked after their guests.  The committee in Cambridge produced a very useful booklet for the refugees to help them find their feet in England.  However, I suspect that recipes for dishes that included Toad in the Hole and Shepherd’s Pie may have seemed bewildering.

    Weaving was one of the crafts that the Quakers established at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man to help occupy the internees and enable them to earn a small income. (c. Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Hospital units not only worked in France and Belgium but went off to Serbia and Russia where the volunteers battled extremes of weather, isolation, epidemics, being taken prisoner, working through the Russian Revolution and joining the Serbian Army on the Great Retreat over the mountains of Montenegro in the cruel depths of winter in addition to helping thousands of wounded soldiers in incredibly primitive conditions.

    The Quakers took on various roles that nobody else recognised.  During the war groups went out to France to help civilians living close to the Front.  They built simple wooden houses, provided furniture, clothes and other goods, ran a maternity hospital and an orphanage and helped on farms.  When the rebuilt villages were shelled the Quakers set about restoring them again.  They helped support refugees in camps in the Netherlands and set up feeding programmes to help starving people in Germany and Austria after the Armistice. Some of their workers were vilified when they realised that enemy aliens interned in camps on the Isle of Man and on mainland Britain were in desperate need of help.  They helped the internees’ families and set up craft workshops in the camps, reducing the incidence of mental health problems among the internees.

    A poster advertising the need for recruits to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Groups set out onto the midge infested moors of Britain to collect sphagnum moss to be made into highly absorbent dressings and the Prince of Wales set up a centre for this work on Dartmoor. John Penoyre collected cricket sweaters from his friends and colleagues, which he dyed khaki and sent out to troops, when uniforms were in short supply.  Lady Smith-Dorrien recruited women to make thousands of cotton bags to hold the personal belongings of men in hospital. Other volunteers made unimaginable numbers of sandbags, knitted, sewed, rolled bandages, invented appliances to help amputees and men with other wounds, collected unwanted silver to raise money to buy ambulances, collected eggs and cigarettes for the sick and wounded, sent parcels to prisoners of war and were available to apply their ingenuity and adaptability to any other area where they could be of use.

    Many of the women who volunteered to work overseas were brave, indomitable mavericks who longed for adventure and who relished many of their experiences.  Over time stress took its toll on them. Some died, either through illness or injury. Some came home when they could no longer cope. It is no wonder that many of them found adapting to normal life difficult after the end of the war and a number stayed away, working in hospitals and orphanages in the countries they had come to love.

    Like many writers I could have gone on researching indefinitely but had to recognise when the time had come to start writing.  It is a strange feeling when you are no longer immersed in a particular subject and I am happy to be able to give talks about various aspects of the work these civilians did.  Now I have to turn to the subject for my next book.

    Sally White's new book Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War is available for purchase now.

  • Who Betrayed the Jews? The realities of Nazi persecution in the Holocaust by Agnes Grunwald-Spier

    Who Betrayed the Jews 1 Author’s mother (far right) with her parents, Rosa and Armin Klein, and sisters, 1932. The photograph was taken to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary. (Author’s collection, Who Betrayed the Jews? The realities of Nazi persecution in the Holocaust, Amberley Publishing)

    When I was writing about Holocaust Rescuers I was overwhelmed by the courage and generosity of spirit of the rescuers. However, there was one person who really shocked me and that was a Belgian traitor called Prosper de Zitter who betrayed members of the resistance and allied airmen trying to get home. I wondered how he could deliberately lead someone into a Gestapo trap knowing he was leading them to their probable death. I began to ponder the meaning of betrayal and treachery.

    I thought about my maternal grandfather, Armin Klein, who refused to leave Hungary. He asked my Mother: ‘Why should I leave my native land?’ He had a misplaced faith that his native land would be safe. The answer which only came later – was that ‘you are a Jew and you will die in Auschwitz in 1944 without even a chance to know your fate and say goodbye to your family. You will die around the time your first grandchild is born – the birth you were so excited about.’ Armin was sitting on a bus in Budapest in mid-1944 when it was stopped and all the Jews were taken off and sent to Auschwitz, where he is believed to have died almost immediately.

    Who Betrayed the Jews 2 Valuables from Berlin in sacks found in Merkers Salt mine. (USHMM, Who Betrayed the Jews? The realities of Nazi persecution in the Holocaust, Amberley Publishing)

    As I, that first grandchild, investigated the field I was shocked by what I found. I have lived with the Holocaust all my life, 73 years, but I was unaware of the economic aspects of the Holocaust. An exhibition organized by the Leipzig City Museum in 2009 was entitled “‘Aryanization’ in Leipzig. Driven out. Robbed. Murdered”. How true that was because the Jews were robbed before they were killed. The variety of ways devised by the Nazis to do this were numerous and innovative.

    This book is not intended to be, nor can it be, a comprehensive narrative of the Holocaust. It’s almost a scrapbook of the Holocaust. Its intention is to give readers an insight into the horrors of the Holocaust – by looking at the different forms of betrayal that took place – how the noose was tightened round the neck of the poor trapped Jews. The physical and economic strangulation took place over the years and finally those that survived to get to the camps were de-personalized and starved, tortured and worked to death.

     

    Who Betrayed the Jews 3 Offenbach book depot. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem, Who Betrayed the Jews? The realities of Nazi persecution in the Holocaust, Amberley Publishing)

    There is no shortage of information and I was snowed under with it all. However some people even, at this late stage chose not to divulge their stories, which is sad because if not recorded they will be lost – less ammunition against the Holocaust deniers. Some stories I received were very brief – from child survivors who knew very little. A lifetime’s tragedy in half a sentence – and no one else left to ask. My friend Renée Fink from America told me ‘My parents were hiding in Holland and were betrayed’. The only information she had was that they were living on a boat on the Loosdrechtse Plasse in 1942. Their names were Edit and Fritz Laser and they had come to Holland from Germany in 1933. 1 Fritz was born in Königsberg on 30 May 1896 and Edit in Breslau on 15 July 1911. Edith was sent to Auschwitz via Westerbork where she was killed on 19 May 1943 aged 32. Fritz died on 31 March 1944 but the town where he died is not known.2 Fortunately they were farsighted and brave enough to hand their precious daughter over to the Dutch Underground. ‘I was placed with a Catholic family of eight children (I made the ninth).  They took me for the duration of the war, sharing what little they had with me and endangering every one of them each and every day for hiding me.  I loved them all and wanted to stay.  And you know I’m sure they would have continued to make a home for me.’3

    I am not an academic. I am at 73 one of the youngest Holocaust survivors. I embarked on this book because I am horrified by what I see around me today – those that deny the Holocaust ever happened or those that denigrate what it actually was; those who have no idea of the intricacies of its conception or implementation. I was first awoken to this detail in the 1990s by my dear mentor, Professor Aubrey Newman, who spoke at a conference about men in suits looking at plans for the crematoria and calculating the throughput to be processed per day. Not counting boxes of baked beans or packets of rice, but gassed Jews whose bodies were to be burnt leaving only the ashes of whole communities. This book is meant for those that compare the Holocaust to relatively trivial events, which bear no comparison – because no other genocide bears comparison.

    9781445671185

    Agnes Grunwald-Spier's new book Who Betrayed the Jews? The realities of Nazi persecution in the Holocaust is available for purchase now.


     

    1 Renée Fink, e mails to author 3 and 4 January 2013.

    2 Dutch Jewish records, accessed 24 March 2014, http://www.joodsmonument.nl/person/473082/en?lang=en

    3 Renee Fink, e mail to author, 23 March 2014.

  • Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS – The final testament of the Oostfronters by Jonathan Trigg

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS - Coolens Dries - Karel Goeman (JM) Flemish volunteers in the Sturmbrigade Langemarck. Dries Coolens, fourth from the left, stands with his best friend on his right – Karel Goeman. Coolens would be the only one from the photo to survive the fighting in the Ukraine. (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    Our fascination with the Second World War is as strong as ever, and it remains the most popular historical period for authors and readers alike. That fascination has partly been fed by the living reminders of the war that walk around with us every day – the veterans themselves – men and women for whom the war was the defining aspect of their young lives and who played a part, however large or small, in it. But the ranks of veterans are thinning. No-one lives forever and the survivors are now nonagenarians or centenarians.

    For example, over 16 million Americans served in their armed forces during the war, and by 2014 only one million of them were still alive. In ten years that number will be fewer than a hundred thousand. But as one of those self-same US veterans once wrote: No war is really over until the last veteran is dead.”

    If that is the case with the leviathan that is the United States then what of far smaller nations, and their combatants? Flanders – the northern Dutch-speaking half of Belgium – is today one of the most highly developed and densely populated parts of modern Europe. It is a prosperous place, with its own culture and traditions, and this history fuels a deep-seated sense of belonging that nurtures a powerful independence movement that wants to break away from their French-speaking southern neighbours in Walloonia and establish their own country.

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS 2 Some of the Flemish veterans group in the summer of 2016, from left to right; Theo D’Oosterlinck (sitting), Oswald Van Ooteghem (standing), Lucie Lefever (sitting) and Herman Van Gyseghem (standing). (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    Back in the early summer of 1940, after the victorious Wehrmacht had invaded and occupied Belgium, the Nazis sought to take advantage of both the Flemings nationalism and their strident anti-communism and use it for their own ends. A new military unit was formed by the Waffen-SS – the Nazis own private army – called the Legion Flandern. Thousands of young men volunteered, and began a process that would see Flemish Waffen-SS men fight and die across the Eastern Front in some of the most savage battles of that most savage campaign; the siege of Leningrad, the Volkhov Pocket, Krasny Bor, Narva. The end of the war would find them on the losing side, and many would spend years in Belgian prisons convicted of collaboration. Finally released back into society, most would find it very hard to rebuild their lives, the authorities and their own neighbours often unwilling to accept them and viewing them with suspicion and mistrust.

    Most have never told their story – preferring to look forward rather than back, and get on with their lives; marry, raise and provide for their family and then retire and play with their grandchildren.

    Capturing their memories, recording their voices before it’s too late, is like finding an old treasure map and following it to a treasure trove– a veritable El Dorado of stories and experiences from the war.

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS 3 Dries Coolens in his nineties at home in his retirement flat in Metzingen, Germany. Coolens’s flat is full of memorabilia from his Waffen-SS service, including the berkenkruis (birch cross) symbol above the wardrobe behind him. The Legion Flandern illustration he is holding is by the celebrated Flemish artist, Frans Van Immerseel. (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    One such Oostfronter – the collective name they are known by in Flanders – is Oswald Van Ooteghem. Now a 93-year-old pensioner, back in 1941 he was a bright-eyed 16-year-old from a strongly nationalist family. He was one of the very first to step forward for the Legion, and was joined by others including Albert Olbrechts, Dries Coolens and Theo D’Oosterlinck. Their initial enthusiasm was soon dampened by a chauvinist German training machine that viewed them as inferior, and they were then shuffled off to the grinding trench warfare that was the siege of Leningrad in late 1941, early 1942. Unglamorous though that sector was, neither was it easy, and casualties were high. Battling the bitter cold, the miserable conditions as well as the Red Army, the survivors had their eyes opened to the often-dreadful realities of war. All were wounded at some point – most more than once – and the effect of the war on all of them was profound.

    Olbrechts, invalided back home after severe illness, saw first-hand the brutality of Nazi rule in Belgium as his best friend was shot for helping shot-down British airmen try and escape home. Dries Coolens became a hard-bitten NCO, wounded multiple times, as he somehow survived the likes of the Battle of Narva in the summer of 1944. Van Ooteghem was also wounded in action, and became a war reporter, photographing his comrades and building up a unique record of the Flemish Waffen-SS. New recruits continued to join-up, and not just as infantrymen. Herman Van Gyseghem became a panzer signaller in 1943, and the young Lucie Lefever enlisted as a Red Cross nurse to treat wounded Flemings.

    Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS 4 Albert Olbrechts, aged 101 years old, at home in Karlsruhe, Germany. (Author's collection, Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS, Amberley Publishing)

    As the war came towards its end, a previously-wounded D’Oosterlinck returned to his company to find no-one he knew still survived in the unit, while Van Ooteghem was ordered to lead teenaged Flemish Hitler Youth youngsters into a final, pointless stand. But undoubtedly the worst fate was reserved for Lefever, who was caught up in the Soviet siege of Breslau and then raped by Red Army soldiers.

    This book is built on in-depth interviews with these veterans and others, and gives an insight into their lives, and what the war was like from a human angle. That angle includes the very real horror of the Holocaust and the evils of Nazism. This is the conundrum that sits at the very heart of interviewing the Flemish veterans. These old men and women, so friendly, so polite, often funny and enthralling – may not have been Nazis themselves, but they still fought for a régime that was one of the blackest in all human history, how could that be? It is a tremendously difficult question to answer, and not one I have ever received a satisfactory answer to, however, one author put it very well when he wrote of both sides on the Russian Front - “…there were brave and extraordinary soldiers on both sides, but it is a sad truth of military history that some of the most remarkable warriors have fought for some very shabby causes.”

    9781445666365

    Jonathan Trigg's new book Voices of the Flemish Waffen-SS – The final testament of the Oostfronters is available for purchase now.

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