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  • 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.

  • Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace by Brian Izzard

    There have been so many books on Victoria Cross heroes that the London auction house Spink actually published a bibliography. Most of the books follow a similar path, focusing on the heroism. But after researching many of the stories I came to realise that there was another dimension.

    As the blurb to my book points out, ‘. . . this is the first one to explore the lives of those for whom the greatest accolade did not bring contentment, happiness or lasting fame’.

    In Victorian times men who upset authority were often treated harshly and Victoria Cross holders who transgressed were no exception.

    After leaving the army Ravenhill, with his family, ended up in their local workhouse. (Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the saddest cases is that of George Ravenhill, who joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers at the age of 17. When the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, his battalion sailed to South Africa. In a famous action at Colenso, Ravenhill was one of the soldiers who tried to save the guns of the Royal Horse Artillery after a blunder led to them becoming trapped in a Boer ambush. Seven men, including Ravenhill, who was wounded, were awarded the VC.

    After his discharge from the army he struggled to provide for his wife and three children, two sons and a daughter. They ended up in their local workhouse, Erdington, Birmingham. In 1908 Ravenhill’s plight came to the attention of Liberal MP Cecil Harmsworth, who raised the case with the Secretary of State for War, Richard Haldane [later Viscount Haldane], in the House of Commons. Haldane replied: ‘This is the first intimation we have received on this matter. The case is being investigated.’

    No help came and Ravenhill, whose wife had given birth to another child, a girl, resorted to stealing some iron worth six shillings to raise money to feed his family. He was arrested and jailed.

    It is to Ravenhill’s credit that despite his financial misery he had refused to pawn or sell his Victoria Cross. But if War Office bureaucracy had moved slowly to help him, especially with regard to a pension claim, it acted swiftly to dishonour him. His decoration and two campaign medals for South Africa were confiscated, and his name was removed from the Victoria Cross Register.

    According to the 1911 census, Ravenhill and his wife and children were still in the workhouse. Another child had been born, but such were the family’s dire circumstances that three children were sent to Canada for fostering by wealthy families. The ex-soldier would never see them again. In 1921, aged 49, he died at his home, one room in a squalid tenement building. The hero of Colenso was buried in a plot marked only ‘36’. There were no funds for a plaque.

    Rushing forward on his own, Michael O'Leary of the Irish Guards took out two German positions before machine-gun fire could be directed at his comrades. Another soldier would later say: 'O'Leary was extremely modest over what he had done, but his comrades knew that he had probably saved the lives of a whole company.' (Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace, Amberley Publishing)

    The unfortunate distinction of being the first army recipient to forfeit the Victoria Cross fell to James McGuire. Bizarrely, a cow led to his downfall.

    For many Irishmen in the 19th century the British army offered an escape from poverty and the misery of the country's potato famine. At Enniskillen in 1849 the East India Company was recruiting for its regiments, and McGuire, then a labourer aged 21 or 22, signed on for 10 years, sailing to India to join the 1st Bengal European Fusiliers. He was awarded the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny after throwing a ‘burning mass’ of ammunition boxes over a Delhi parapet and saving many lives.

    After completing his service Sergeant McGuire was discharged in 1859 with a pension of one shilling a day. As the holder of the Victoria Cross he was also entitled to an annual payment of £10. McGuire returned to Ireland and at some stage went to live with an uncle, who had a small farm near Enniskillen. The ex-soldier was persuaded to loan the family £6 but the debt was never fully repaid.

    McGuire, a ‘simple, quiet man and not up with the ways of the world’, took a cow belonging to his uncle as payment. He was arrested on his way to a fair, presumably to sell the animal, and a court sentenced him to nine months’ hard labour.

    McGuire reportedly died a few months later. But there is speculation that he may have taken on a new identity, perhaps joining the army again, an easy thing to do in those days.

    As the Victoria Cross winner Michael O’Leary observed: ‘No nation ever did bother much about its old soldiers, and why should they bother about me?’

    The army veteran had been reduced to working as a doorman at a hotel near Park Lane, London, earning ‘a scant living holding umbrellas over the heads of painted actresses, crippled old ladies and richly-clad members of the plutocracy’. The hotel did not pay him a wage and he relied entirely on tips, ‘but only one person out of ten ever gives me a tip’.

    In 1915 O’Leary of the Irish Guards had caught the imagination of the British public after single-handedly storming two German positions and saving many of his comrades from deadly machine-gun fire in northern France. After the war he went to Canada to start a new life but was later dogged by smuggling and bootlegging scandals.

    Brian Izzard's new book Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace is available for purchase now.

  • SOE Heroines by Bernard O'Connor

    The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents

    A 1944 aerial shot of RAF Tempsford, the airfield from which most women agents were flown. (Courtesy of the East Englian Aviation Society, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    It was not until the last few decades of the 20th century that history books and media coverage of the Second World War began to change their focus from men’s roles to include the experiences of women and girls. It was the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, the introduction of women’s studies in universities and changes in examination syllabi that ensured young people began to get a more balanced view of history.

    Researchers began to investigate what life was like for women and girls during the war years. Instead of their traditional portrayal in wartime films and books in secondary, subservient roles or included only for a love interest, the importance of many women’s roles in the Second World War, including in the secretive world of the Intelligence Services, has begun to be told.

    Academics and authors like Juliette Pattinson, Kate Vigurs, Penny Starns, Margaret Collins-Weitz, Clare Mulley, Susan Heim and others, have brought their stories into the public eye. While Gillian Armstrong’s 2001 film Charlotte Gray portrayed the life of a woman secret agent in France, a more realistic portrayal was Jean-Paul Salomé’s 2008 film Les Femmes de l’Ombre (Women Agents).

    An agent receiving her last kiss before boarding the plane to the Continent. (Courtesy of Pierre Tillet, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    Living near RAF Tempsford, a Second World War airfield about 80km north of London and about half way between Cambridge and Bedford, I have spent several decades researching its role in supplying the resistance movements across Western Europe. It was from there that agents of the British, American, Soviet, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Belgian and French intelligence services were infiltrated into occupied Europe as organisers, couriers, wireless operators, weapons instructors, saboteurs and assassins. It was also involved in exfiltrating downed pilots and aircrew, escaped prisoners-of-war, politicians, diplomats, military personnel, resistance leaders and others who were evading capture by the authorities. In 1946, the RAF Film unit produced School for Danger, later renamed Now the Story can be Told which told the story of Jacqueline Nearne and Harry Rée, British agents who parachuted into France on a secret mission and successfully returned. Over the last few decades I have published some books on the airfield, the early ones entitled RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield and Churchill’s MOST SECRET Airfield.

    Andree Borrel parachuted near St Laurent Nouan (Loir-et-Cher), on 24/25 September 1942. (Courtesy of the National Archives, TNA HS9/183, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    I found that most of the more than 2,000 personnel, both men and women based on the airfield, had signed the Official Secrets Act and were unprepared to talk or write about their experiences. Some who had been awarded medals after the war, under pressure from reporters keen to tell the stories, had their experiences printed in newspapers. However, the British, and I imagine the French government, vetted such articles to ensure no sensitive information was revealed like the names of members of the intelligence services or of people who were still alive. Names of people and places had to be changed.

    However, biographies of pilots and secret agents were published after the war; films and TV documentaries were produced and eventually autobiographies appeared. While most books have been about the men, there is an increasing number about the women, notably Violette Szabó, Nancy Wake, Odette Churchill/Sansom, Christine Granville, Noor Inayat Khan and Diane Rowden.

    The Government restriction on the release of sensitive documents to The National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office in Kew, has meant that formerly top-secret documents are only gradually becoming available. The introduction of the British Freedom of Information Act in 2000 has released thousands of files into the public domain. The National Archives online discovery catalogue allows anyone to locate and occasionally download personnel files, mission reports and other secret government documents related to RAF Tempsford and the wartime intelligence services and has encouraged an increasing number of people to publish their memoirs and historians to reveal their secrets. The Imperial War Museum also has taped interviews with individuals who had a connection with Tempsford and the intelligence services.

    The women of the SOE were not the only ones to help in the liberation of France; pictured is Simone Segouin, a member of the French Resistance who was reported to have captured 25 Nazis in the Chartres area, in addition to killing others. (Courtesy of the US National Archives and Records Administration, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    As I gave talks to local history societies, women’s institutes, town women’s guilds, church and other groups, there were numerous questions from women asking for details of what their father, grandfather, husband, uncle, brother or cousin were doing during the war as they had never talked about it. They had kept their promise having signed the Official Secrets Act. Based on my research, I was able to tell them as much as I had learned.

    Focussing on the women’s stories, I published The Courier, a historical faction, in 2010, The Women of RAF Tempsford: Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield in 2011 which covered not just accounts of the women agents but also the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry and the catering staff. Return to Holland and Return to Belgium, also published in 2011, tell the stories of women agents infiltrated into the Low Countries. Churchill’s Angels, a revised and updated account of the British women agents was published in 2012; Elzbieta Zawacka: Polish soldier and courier during World War Two in 2014, Agent Rose: The True Spy Story of Eileen Nearne, Britain's Forgotten Wartime Heroine; Designer: The true spy story of Jacqueline Nearne, a courier sent on a top secret mission to France during World War Two in 2014 and Agent Fifi and the Wartime Honey Trap Spies in 2015.

    Royal Victorian Patriotic School, Wandsworth, London, where, from January 1941, MI5 interviewed refugees to determine if they were enemy agents and gain intelligence about conditions overseas. (Courtesy of Mike T under Creative Commons 2.0, SOE Heroines, Amberley Publishing)

    Having been a Trustee of the Tempsford Memorial, unveiled by Prince Charles in 2013 to commemorate women agents infiltrated behind enemy lines, mostly from RAF Tempsford, I had a tentative list of over eighty women, many whose stories had yet to be told. I decided therefore to focus on the many Frenchwomen who were parachuted, landed by plane or boat into remote parts of France on moonlit nights between 1942 and 1944. SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive French Section and Free French Women Agents tells the stories of 36 brave women. Most were trained in paramilitary warfare, fieldcraft, the use of weapons and explosives, sabotage, silent killing, parachuting, codes and cyphers, wireless transmission and receiving, and general spycraft. The youngest was 19 and the oldest 53. Of the twelve who were captured, only two survived; the others were executed, some after being tortured by the sadistic officers of the Gestapo.

    In recognition of their contribution to the liberation of France, the British, French and American governments honoured these 36 women with 49 awards including 11 Croix de Guerre, four with palms, nine Medaille de la Resistance, five Companion de Legion d’Honneur, four King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct, four Member of the British Empire Medals, three Chevallier de Legion d’Honneur, two Order of the British Empire Medals, two Certificates of Commendation, two Sussex Medals, one Commander of Legion d’Honneur, King’s Medal of Commendation, one Medaille de Republique Française, one Military Cross, one Mentioned in Dispatches, one US Distinguished Service Cross, one US Bronze Star and one George Cross.

    Bernard O'Connor's new book SOE Heroines: The Special Operations Executive's French Section and Free French Women Agents is available for purchase now.

  • Jet Flying Boats by David Oliver

    The magic of water-borne flight

    Technicians checking the complex Bristol Proteus turboprop engines in preparation for the first flight of the Princess give scale to its immense size. (Richard Riding Collection, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was fifty years ago that I landed on the calm blue waters of Catalina Island’s Avalon Bay, lying 50 miles off the coast of southern California, in a 30-year-old Grumman amphibian, the Goose. As the veteran flying boat settle in a flurry of green water that covered the windows for a few seconds, it seemed that I had experienced the last of a dying breed of aviation. I had flown from London to Los Angeles a few days earlier on one of Pan Am’s first ‘Jumbo Jets’ and the elderly six-seater Goose, which still flew hourly shuttles for tourists between Long Beach Harbor and Catalina, seemed to have little or no relevance to international air travel in the modern world.

    However, this flight would inspire a life-long interest in water-borne aircraft during which I have been fortunate enough to experience many aerial voyages that stay in the memory. These include flying a Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol from Prince Rupert Island, British Columbia in another Grumman Goose, and scheduled flights from Miami’s Watson Island terminal to the Bahamas on Grumman Mallards and Turbo Mallard amphibians belonging to Chalks International, then the world’s oldest airline.

    An R3Y-1, the long-range troop transport variant of the Convair Tradewind, taxies into San Diego Bay during the early trials. (Convair, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    It was a long way from a flooded gravel pit in Rye, Sussex, to the Nass and Kinsault Rivers in northern British Columbia, and Lake Coeur d’Alene, Spokane in Washington State, but they were all places where I flew from in floatplanes. From the Rye gravel pit I flew in the only UK-registered Tiger Moth on floats and a Super Cub floatplane, piloted by a former Pan Am Boeing 314 Clipper flying boat, the ‘Jumbo Jet’ of the 1940s, Roger Sherron, while it was Cessna C180s in Canada and a DH Beaver in the United States.

    Having obtained a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), I tried my hand at learning to pilot a flying boat in the 1980s. The American Lake LA-200 Buccaneer is a small single-engine amphibious flying boat which I flew from Headcorn Aerodrome in Kent to the River Medway where I attempted to master the challenging skill of landing and taking-off an aircraft from water. My instructor was one of the most experienced post-war flying boat pilots, Keith Sissons.

    In 2016, Be-12PS Yellow 20 was returned to Russian Navy service following a comprehensive rebuild at Beriev's Taganrog facility on the Sea of Azov. (Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    My all too short time spent at the controls of the Buccaneer gave me a lasting respect for the likes of Keith Sissons and Roger Sherron who had to combine the dexterity of sailing a ship and flying an aeroplane.

    Although the flying boat fell out of fashion after the Second World War as a commercial transport aircraft, after being the symbol of luxurious and sophisticated international travel in the 1930s, new and more practical roles would virtually save the large amphibious flying boat from extinction, one of which was aerial fire-fighting. I was lucky enough to make several flights in a French Canadair CL-215 which included scooping and dropping six-ton water bombs. The exhilaration of skimming across a lake in what is then essentially a 4,000hp speedboat at 82 miles per hour, as is scooped 1,200 gallons of water, can be imagined. When the water was dropped, the Canadair bucked in the air relieved of its load.

    With twenty-two in service, Italy's Protezione Civile operates the largest fleet of CL-415 water bombers outside of Canada. (Martin Visser, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

    The only company that has continued to design and built flying boats since 1945 is Russia’s Beriev. I was one of the first Western journalists to visit the previous closed Beriev factory at Taganrog on the Sea of Azov after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and get to fly in a Be-12 amphibian. Beriev had built more than 200 turboprop-powered anti-submarine warfare Be-12s for the Soviet Navy during the Cold War and developed its advanced jet-powered replacement, the A-40 Albatross, under wraps.

    Built like a tank with ladders between the two decks, the Be-12 had numerous astrodomes, portholes and an extensively glazed nose which provided an excellent camera platform from which to photograph the A-40 that was flying in formation.

    A Beriev Be-200 gives a patriotic demonstration of the amphibian's sequential drop capability using different coloured liquids. (Beriev, Jet Flying Boats, Amberley Publishing)

     

     

     

    During the same visit I saw the prototype of the Be-200, the world’s only jet-powered fire-fighting amphibian, and have kept in touch with Beriev and followed growing success in a niche market to this day.

    When Amberley asked me to write a book on Jet-Powered Flying Boats, I rediscovered the many failures due mainly to the fact that they were too far advanced for the technologies, especially engine development, of the time, and the cost of their development which was considerably higher than those of contemporary landplanes.

    However, it is reassuring to know that Russia and Japan is still producing technically advanced amphibious flying boasts albeit in small number, and that they are soon to be joined by Germany and China which are developing state-of-the-art water-borne aircraft for the future.

    David Oliver's new book Jet Flying Boats is available for purchase now.

  • Shropshire's Military Heritage by John Shipley

    Portrait of an officer of the 53rd Regiment of Foot. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Researching and writing “Shropshire's Military Heritage” has been a marvellous and enlightening experience; it is one heck of a subject. Soldiers from Shropshire have been involved in many historic events that have defined our nation. Particularly men from Shropshire's two main regular regiments of the British Army, the 53rd and the 85th Regiments of Foot. These guys fought alongside Sir Arthur Wellesley, better known later as the Duke of Wellington, one of Great Britain's greatest heroes. Through the perilous terrain of Portugal and Spain as the forces of that evil dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte were pushed from the Iberian Peninsula back to France where they came from, and in doing so, playing an integral part in his downfall.

    Although no Shropshire regiments fought at the famous Battle of Waterloo, the 53rd were subsequently assigned the task of guarding the fallen emperor during his exile on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

    Whilst the 53rd were babysitting Napoleon Bonaparte, the 85th were in America, part of the invasion force that sacked the USA's new capital, Washington, and burnt the half-completed White House.

    But of course, Shropshire's military history goes back much further in time than the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars. The history of the county is intrinsically linked with Britain's royalty connections, and of course Shropshire's strategic location on England's border with Wales has frequently resulted in conflict. Many historic Welsh leaders crossed the border to lay siege to Shropshire's numerous border castles. Men such as Prince Llewellyn, Prince Rhys, and probably the most famous of all Owain Glyn Dwr (Owain Glendower), to name just three.

    Regimental medal of merit awarded to Major Aeneas M'Intosh, 85th, for his gallantry at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro and the storming of Badajoz. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Not all conflicts were against the Welsh, Shropshire's rebellious Barons frequently took up arms against unjust and tyrannical kings, in bloody conflicts, such as those against King John, and the Harry Hotspur rebellion that led to the Battle of Shrewsbury on 21st July 1403.

    My search for knowledge inevitably took me to Shropshire's Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle, where I was treated magnificently and allowed to take photographs of the exhibits. My sincere thanks go to Museum Curator Christine Bernáth and her team, their help was much appreciated.

    Shropshire is one of the UK's most beautiful counties with such diverse scenery, from its numerous ranges of high hills, none quite making the status of being classified a mountain, although some come mighty close, fertile valleys and of course Shropshire has its own Lake District around Ellesmere. Check out my next books for Amberley “50 Gems of Shropshire” publication scheduled for later in 2018, and “Secret Shropshire” which follows that.

    Replica unifrom of a soldier of the 53rd during the American Revolutionary War 1755-83. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Moving back to the subject of Shropshire's history and the county's royal connections, we have major historical events, such as the first English Parliament in which commoners were invited to participate, seen as the first steps to democracy. This was at Shrewsbury Abbey and Acton Burnell in 1283 (some claim it was 1285), when King Edward I gathered a parliament together; he needed money for his quest to subjugate the Welsh, and to impeach Prince Daffydd ap Gruffydd, the last independent ruler of Wales. The poor chap suffered the grisly fate of being hanged, drawn and quartered, the first person of noble birth to be executed in this manner. King Richard III also held a “Great Parliament” at Shrewsbury.

    Of course pretty much all of Shropshire's castles have connections to some significant historic event, and Ludlow Castle has seen it fair share. The castle came into the control of Yorkist Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, through marriage, before the commencement of the hostilities that later became known as the Wars of the Roses. He was the father of two kings: Edward IV and Richard III (remember the body in the Leicester car park). Edward IVs eldest son was born in Westminster, but his younger son, was born in Shrewsbury at the Dominican Friary, their names were: Edward, Prince of Wales (later and briefly King Edward V), and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, however history knows these two boys better as the Princes in the Tower. Young Edward was at Ludlow when news of his father's death set off the chain of events that saw his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, accept the throne. Richard III ruled for only two years until he was deposed by the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, crowned King Henry VII following his victory at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

    Officer's shako plate, 53rd Regiment of Foot, 1844-45. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Ludlow was also where Henry VIIs eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, held court as Lord of the Marches. He also resided in Bewdley at the royal manor of Tickenhill Palace. Prince Arthur Tudor (20 September 1486 - 2 April 1502), subsequently died at Ludlow Castle six months short of his sixteenth birthday. He and his new wife, Catherine of Aragon contracted what was described as “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air” - the sweating sickness, (possibly tuberculosis). Catherine recovered, but her teenage husband didn't. His heart is buried in a silver casket beneath the chancel of St. Laurence Church, Ludlow. The rest of him is buried in Worcester Cathedral. Arthur's tragic death raised King Henry's second son, Henry (later Henry VIII) as heir to the throne. For those of you who like a conspiracy theory there is one surrounding Prince Arthur's death, put forward by Paul Vaughan, as reported in November 2002 in the Worcester News.

    There are absolutely piles of questions with no answers, such as:

    Was Arthur a sickly youth? If he was, did his father King Henry VII, a man with pretty much no real claim to the English throne, favour Arthur's brother, the handsome, lusty, and long of limb brother Henry as his successor to better continue his extremely tenuous royal Tudor dynasty?

    Lock of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Why was Arthur sent back in winter to cold Ludlow where sickness abounded with only one physician? (Wouldn't a royal prince have an entourage of doctors to attend him? And why not keep him in London where the best medical men were?).

    Was Arthur allowed to die, or, was he poisoned? And there's more: Why was his body kept at Ludlow for around three weeks after his death?

    Why didn't the king order his body to be conveyed to London for a state funeral, possibly in Westminster Abbey?

    Why bury Arthur in Worcester Cathedral, part of a remote monastery? Why didn't the king and queen attend their son's funeral? (Only the Earls of Shrewsbury, Kent, and Surrey, plus other lords attended).

    Why didn't Arthur lie in state, to attract pilgrims and therefore revenue to the Cathedral, as was the custom? His body appears to have been buried straight away upon arrival at Worcester Cathedral.

    Why is Arthur's Chantry not as grandly ornate as experts believe it should be, and why is his body not inside it? (His remains are believed to be buried in front of the High Altar).

    I love a good conspiracy, and this is a corker. Of course, it could be a load of something else!

     

    Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shrewsbury Castle. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Here are a couple of other interesting royal connections with Shropshire:

    Bessie Blount, or more correctly Elizabeth Blount, became famous as the mistress of King Henry VIII. Bessie as she was known during her lifetime was born at Kinlet, Shropshire, sometime between 1498, and 1502; her parents were Sir John Blount of Knightley and Kinlet, and Catherine, nee Pershall. Little has been previously recorded of Bessie’s early life, but we do know that she was blessed with a rare beauty, but sadly there is no known portrait of her in existence. The Blount’s manor at Kinlet was near young Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales's court at Tickenhill Manor, Bewdley.

    Bessie Blount travelled to court in spring 1512, becoming a maid-of-honour to King Henry VIIIs Queen, Catherine of Aragon. Bessie learned Latin and French, and played the virginal (a smaller keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family). She also excelled at dancing and singing. The teenage Bessie was described as an eloquent, graceful, blonde haired beauty, with a flawless complexion, and as an accomplished and most interesting person. A couple of years after arriving at court, Bessie caught Henry VIIIs famous roving eye, becoming his mistress around 1514/1515. Thought to be the first of Henry's mistresses, remaining so for around eight years unlike many of his other flings which usually did not last very long, although she was never afforded the title of Maitresse en Tire. Her union with Henry produced a son on the 15th June 1519, whom they named Henry Fitzroy (Henry, Fitz or son of the Roy or king, using the old Norman method of naming a son). He was the only illegitimate child acknowledged by Henry VIII as his own. Henry Fitzroy had the titles of Duke of Richmond and Somerset, and Earl of Nottingham conferred upon him. Unfortunately for Bessie, Henry moved on to the 'other Boleyn sister’, Mary Boleyn, and subsequently the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In 1522, Bessie married Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron of Kyme.

    Floral war memorial, 1914-18, in the grounds of Shrewsbury castle. (Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Bessie’s husband Gilbert died in 1530, leaving her extremely well off, and although she was pursued by a number of suitors including Leonard Gray, she chose to marry Edward Clinton, 9th Baron Clinton. Bessie died on 1 January 1540.

    This next royal connection is rather more bizarre:

    Shropshire born, Anthony William Hall (1898–1947), made an audacious claim in 1931 in which he insisted that he was the direct descendant of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, through the royal male line, (although the birth of Hall's ancestor was prior to the marriage between Henry and Anne). This made him the direct descendant of the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII.

    Mr Hall, a police inspector in Shropshire, thus attempted to claim the throne of England. He set out details of his claim in an open letter to the then King, George V. William Hall also made many speeches to anyone who would listen, including one in Birmingham, in which he detailed his credentials and how he was the rightful King of England. This audacious man even challenged the King to a duel, with the loser to be beheaded. Hall was arrested numerous times for using "scandalous language," and was arraigned in court, fined and bound over to keep the peace. John Harrison's 1999 novel “Heir Unapparent” used the notion that Anthony Hall was a descendant of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn for its plot.

    KSLI memorial tableau, National Memorial Arboretum NMA, Alrewas, Staffordshire. (Courtesy of the NMA, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Moving on in time, I'd like to mention Shropshire's role in “Operation Sea Lion”, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany's code name for the planned invasion of Great Britain during the Second World War. In 1945 a soldier discovered a 446 page dossier for an invasion in 1940, scuppered of course by the RAF's victory in the Battle of Britain. Documents dated 1941 indicate Hitler's continued belief in the invasion of our Sceptred Isle. Hitler's headquarters were outlined for Apley Hall near Bridgnorth, and Ludlow was also mentioned, making these two Shropshire towns the centre of Nazi power in the UK. The dossier resurfaced in 2005 and was sold at auction.

    I'll end this blog as I began, with a note of what happened to Shropshire's two regular regiments. In 1881, the 53rd and the 85th Regiments of Foot amalgamated to form the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, the KSLI, whose soldiers, together with the Shropshire Yeomanry, served with great distinction through the two World Wars, and the Korean War, as well as in other international conflicts. The KSLI became the 3rd Battalion, the Light Infantry Regiment in 1968, and today as part of the Rifles, the KSLI continues to help keep us safe.

    John Shipley's new book Shropshire's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

  • Warhorses of Germany by Paul Garson

    The Myth of the Mechanised Blitzkrieg

    Nap - A corporal, his rifle clutched against his shoulder and the mule’s reins held in his hand, sleeps sitting on his backpack on a muddy Russian road as his charges eye the cameraman. (Warhorses of Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    The love of the horse runs long and deep in the German culture having arisen from the concept of “blood and soil” percolating up through the rural farmlands of the country, its people traditionally sharing close company with their equine work companions that also served as routine transportation and leisure enjoyment as well as an implement of war as called upon by centuries of conflict within and without its borders.

    German military planners learned from their mistakes of the First World War, realizing that in part they did not have enough horses for the work needed. In preparation for the next conflict Germany began buying up large quantities of horses, in fact, many from Britain where its military planners saw no need for horses as they were certain the next battles would be fought exclusively by machine and thus the English military establishment totally scrapped its cavalry components. Between 1935 and 1940 Germany’s military horse resources swelled from 35,000 to 100,000, and that just the first of millions of hoof beats.

    The various regions of Germany also produced several types of large draft horses, for example, The Black Forest Horse (Schwarzwaelder Fuchs). While strong, durable, healthy, long-living and good natured, many such horses were taken from their farm work to the Front where they encountered conditions for which they were ill-prepared.

    Hooved vs. Tracked - Two cavalry mounts are dwarfed by the formidable Tiger tank. Contrary to the Third Reich’s own massive propaganda programs and decades of post-WWII movies that propagated the image of German fully motorized warfare, horses far outnumbered tanks and other mechanized weapons of the Third Reich. (Warhorses of Germany, Amberley Publishing)

     

    In reality the Wehrmacht was the least modernized of European armies with Third Reich propaganda creating a distorted image of the true state of affairs. 1930s Germany was not supported by a strong motor vehicle or even farm tractor infrastructure that could be militarized for war production, nor were its people “automobilized” to any great extent. By contrast, in 1935 America, there was one car per five people while in German the number was only one car per 89 people.

    The Wehrmacht attempted to augment its mechanization efforts during the war by utilizing Czech and French machines, but there was a language problem when dealing with manuals for the former and a lack of reliability with the latter, especially when facing the demands of the Eastern Front. Some 2,000 different kinds of vehicles eventually took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, the complexity and variation creating a maintenance nightmare. The logistics requirements projected the demand for an additional 2,700 trucks which could not be supplied, thus horses again making up for the shortage. For example, the 9,000 captured French horses proved more enduring than its vehicles. In the final analysis, only some 25% of the Germany army was mechanized while 75% was composed of marching infantry with 70% of all transport and supply including heavy artillery during the war was horse-drawn. Due to their size and the fact they were often tethered to heavy transport wagons and field artillery, horses were left to take the brunt of air attacks while their human counterparts sought cover. In addition the effects of bullet, bomb and fire, the rigors of traversing vast distances thereby suffering the results of climate, disease and food deprivation, those horses deemed no longer suitable for work, were either sold as food or slaughtered on the spot to feed starving troops.

    War on the Eastern Front -March 24, 1942 – Deutsche Illustrated – Berlin - 'Soon Winter in the East will also be Overcome!' reads the caption accompanying the image of Waffen-SS troops who are grinning for the camera despite being caught in the frozen grip of Russia’s lethal 'General Christmas', which is reality was not overcome but overwhelming. (Warhorses of Germany, Amberley Publishing)

    Preparing for war in 1939 the German military counted some 2,740,000 men in uniform, 183,000 motor vehicles, 94,000 motorcycles and 514,000 horses.

    Soldiers rode on horseback in cavalry units and also engaged horses as draft (draught) animals hauling light, medium and heavy wagons transporting ammunition, food supplies, mobile kitchens, medical units, fuel, and heavy artillery, even the horses’ own fodder.

    Horse-mounted troops served principal roles including frontline combat, reconnaissance and anti-partisan warfare as they were often able to traverse topography inaccessible to mechanized forces.

    The number of horses and mules used by the German military eventually amounted to 2,750,000. Of them, an estimated 750,000 died during the war. The number of Russian animals that perished is unknown but estimate as equally massive.

    Behind the Scenes

    Author Paul Garson, a Los Angeles based journalist for some 30 years writing about a variety of subjects, his articles often including his own photography, developed a focus on original Second World War original photos 15 years ago after chancing upon one image. It would lead to the viewing of over one million photos from a dozen countries eventually forming his personal collection of some 3,000 in addition to several hundred research books, documents, artifacts and other items from which to conduct his research. To date, five books relating to the subject have been published, several more in the works, all providing readers with a previous unseen vantage point of the war in Europe including the volume seen here.

    Says Garson, “For years I often spent 12-14 hours, seven days a week searching for the most compelling images, then hours more repairing via digital enhancement those decades old photos, some barely two inches square. Then hours more exploring the image itself as well as relating it to a specific date and location in order to place it within the historical context, all in order to cast some light onto those darkest of times. In this case, I was compelled to write, and show, the fate that befell the millions of horses that were leashed and lashed into the catastrophic war, one whose violence and cruelty spared no living thing …the goal perhaps to offer a visual warning that strips away the “glamour” that war films had often created and to show its true nature …and the pain suffered by non-human combatants who had no voice to share their suffering.”

    Paul Garson's new book Warhorses of Germany: The Myth of the Mechanised Blitzkrieg is available for purchase now.

  • Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing by Bill Simpson

    USS Wasp in British waters in 1942. It is likely that it is in the Firth of Clyde. (c. IWM Image A 9483, Reproduced with the permission of the Imperial War Museum, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Having written in the past about our local squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force here in Edinburgh, 603, I was both intrigued and uncomfortable about allegations made against the young American NCO pilot, ‘Bud’ Walcott, who was posted to the squadron in early 1942. At that time, Malta had been under siege by German and Italian forces based in Sicily since the summer of 1940 and things were grim. The island, in the middle of the Mediterranean was vital to the British campaign in North Africa and they were desperate to stop it falling into Axis hands.

    Axis aircraft based in Sicily 60 miles away were bombing Malta constantly and the British were struggling to keep them at bay with the limited fighter aircraft they could get through. In early 1942, it was decided that Spitfires were needed and 47 pilots (without the ground crews) of two auxiliary squadrons – 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 601 (County of London) Squadrons – with brand new Spitfires were discreetly taken into the western Mediterranean in the American carrier USS Wasp and in the early hours of 20 April 1942, they made a difficult take-off from the deck of the carrier to fly the 400 odd miles to Malta.

    An elevation of one of the Spitfire VCs flown by 603 Squadron to Malta. This one was flown by Bill Douglas. (c. Reproduced with the kind permisson of Richard Caruana, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    But only 46 arrived. Bud Walcott did not and it was immediately assumed that he had chosen to ‘desert’ to the enemy because he was frightened of flying in the Malta battle – said by some to be more intense and dangerous than the Battle of Britain. A signal from the Air Officer Commanding Malta to the Air Ministry in London stated that Walcott had ‘intended to desert’, that he had no intention of going to Malta and had previously landed in the Irish republic in an attempt to be interned and returned to the USA. It was subsequently suggested that having crash landed in ‘neutral’ Vichy French North Africa, he had made his way to the office of an American consul and been repatriated to his home country. It was also suggested that he had been seen in an internment camp but essentially, after taking off from Wasp, he was never seen again.

    Having been made, the allegation has been repeated in several works about the air fighting in Malta including, sadly, one of my own – although I did soften it because of the circumstances that Walcott found himself in. He was an American in a foreign air force, in a squadron in which he was disliked, about to be sent to some of the most vicious air fighting of the Second World War with no operational experience and finding himself in the more comfortable and familiar environment of an American warship.

    603 Squadron pilots on the deck of the USS Wasp, Walcott is in the back row, bareheaded. (c. Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    Could he be blamed for having second thoughts?

    I very quickly became concerned at the lack of evidence to justify the allegations made against him and together with a fellow writer and historian, Squadron Leader Bruce Blanche, tried to find out what evidence there was and if possible, establish just what did happen to Walcott. What we discovered was that Walcott’s life was buffeted by national factors out of his control – the Second World War and the Cold War and, intriguingly, that the decisions about what should happen to him when he landed in Dublin may have involved the head of the Irish government Éamonn De Valera and have been influenced by relations between neutral Eire and the United States. I suspect too, that some of the social attitudes within 603 and the auxiliaries who did not take kindly to the lively, almost brash young ‘Yank’ who arrived in the unit contributed.

    Walcott volunteered to fight for the British in the Second World War by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force – an act which could have cost him his US citizenship but he is given little credit for this. He was also involved in a frightening mid-air collision with another 603 Squadron Spitfire in which the other pilot was killed and this seems to have raised strong feelings of dislike for him in the unit. And these became to be expressed in the allegations against him all of which emanated from the squadron.

    603 Bill Douglas preparing his aircraft below deck for launching to Malta on 20 April 1942. Note the crude application of the blue paint particularly noticeable around the serial number. (c.Official US Navy photo, Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing, Amberley Publishing)

    From the research we have carried out, I have been able to draw conclusions as to the quality of the evidence to support the allegations made and have found out just what did happen to Walcott both with regards to Malta and the rest of his life which came to a premature and rather tragic end in the early 1960s.

    I have to give my profound thanks to Squadron Leader Blanche for all of his help and encouragement without which this book would not have been written.

    The auxiliary squadrons were different to the regular RAF units. They drew their members from local areas and before the war, many of them were seen as gentlemens’ flying clubs for the wealthy young officers who joined as pilots and who – it has to be said – fought and died with great courage when war broke out. But many came from a privileged background – the nobility and the landed and professional classes. 601 was known as ‘the millionaires’ squadron’. The ground crews were also drawn from the local areas but tended to remain intact whilst the war progressed and the aircrews were killed, injured or posted on elsewhere to be replaced by non-auxiliary airmen. The essential spirit of the auxiliary squadrons resided with the ground crews who in some cases did not even regard some of the British pilots posted to the squadrons as real members of the squadrons because they were not auxiliaries.

    As an American, Walcott ‘ticked’ the wrong boxes and in my view paid the price.

    Bill Simpson's new book Spitfire Deserter? The American Pilot Who Went Missing is available for purchase now.

  • The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45 by Martin Watts

    HMS Glory pictured in 1946. (The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45, Amberley Publishing)

    As an academic historian and lecturer this is the first time that I have written for a general readership as well as a specialist audience. History, in popular culture and media, has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past twenty five years, and I think this is mainly due to research of lived experiences, often referred to as history from the bottom up. One of the effects of this approach is to bring to life both collective and individual experiences, so that readers can appreciate the consequences of the actions and behaviours of states, organisations and those in power, upon the ordinary and not so ordinary person. This allows for a more balanced and nuanced interpretation of the past and, by invoking the human condition, takes public discourse in history to a more engaging and per4sonally involved level.

    Sergeant Major Nobby Elliott (The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45, Amberley Publishing)

    In this book I have sought to combine history from the top down, using primary sources to analyse strategy and the design and function of ships, with history from the bottom up, whereby the wartime career of a great uncle has been used to provide a spine for the history I have to tell. My great uncle Nobby Elliott served in the Royal Marines 1924-50 and spent 5 years at sea, as a gunlayer, during the Second World War, serving in 3 types of warship and in all maritime theatres of war. My hope, supported by the extremely helpful team at Amberley, is that this combination will add to public knowledge and understanding of the prolonged and desperate war fought at sea, in the face of two foes - the opposition and the unforgiving waters that threatened the very survival of friend and foe alike.

    Over 70 years have passed since the end of the war, and it seems to me (as a former merchant seaman) that public awareness of Britain's dependence upon the sea and ships is not what it used to be, and I hope this book will go some way to restoring the balance and acknowledging the debt that is owed to those who lost their lives in the ocean wastes.

    Martin Watts new book The Royal Marines and the War at Sea 1939-45 is available for purchase now.

  • The Natal Campaign - 'Humanitarian aid from Africa to Britain' and 'Slavery' by Hugh Rethman

    The Natal Campaign - map Seige of Ladysmith (The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed, Amberley Publishing)

    Humanitarian aid from Africa to Britain

    Did you know that there was a time when Africa donated financial humanitarian aid to Britain?

    At the beginning of 1900 Ladysmith was besieged and the relieving British and Colonial force was struggling to break the siege. Aware of the suffering being inflicted on the Army and the residents of Natal by the invaders, the black people, without being asked, collected money to help. Included among the donations was one from the Amangwane people, whose land lay close to the Free State. They donated the sum of £359 [1], which today would be worth more than one hundred times that amount.

    However the importance lies not in the amounts given, but in the concern, kindness and support displayed.

    Slavery

    Long before President Abe Lincoln made his famous address at Gettysburg, British settlers in Natal sent a petition to the British parliament which stated.

    British administration at Port Natal would be ‘…. a powerful aid towards abolishing the East African slave trade’ and ‘a colony based upon sound principals of political and social liberty, guaranteed to all denominations of men, and properly guarded against abuse and licence…. will lead to a profitable investment of money, and obtain for free laborers of all classes and colors ample remuneration, with the prospect of steadily bettering their conditions.’

    Extract from this petition, dated 22 March 1838, by the Merchants of Port Natal to the House of Commons requesting that Britain establish an administration at Port Natal.

    The full text of the petition is to be found in Appendix 4 of ‘The Natal Campaign, A Sacrifice Betrayed’ by Hugh Rethman also in ‘The Natal Papers ed. John Centlivres Chase, R. Godlonton, Grahamstown, 1845.

    9781445664217

    Hugh Rethman's new book The Natal Campaign: A Sacrifice Betrayed is available for purchase now.


    [1] The Natal Campaign, A Sacrifice Betrayed by Hugh Rethman pp 311/312 and UKNA, CO179/212.

  • Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain by Bernard O'Connor

    Most people have no idea that in the 1930s and early-1940s there was what has been called a ‘spy-psychosis’ or ‘Fifth Column neurosis’ in Britain. Many of the most popular films were spy thrillers. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Night Train to Munich (1940) were all box-office hits.

    Films released in 1939 included Spy for a Day, The Spy in Black, Spies of the Air and Traitor Spy. Beloved familiar characters of the time such as Inspector Hornleigh got in on the act by capturing spies on an express train in Inspector Hornleigh Goes to It (1940). Cottage to Let (1941) included fifth columnists and secret inventions. In low-budget comedies, Arthur Askey and George Formby would foil the plots of swarms of German spies as well as unmask quislings and traitors, and everything would turn out nice again. All these films reinforced the Government-endorsed message that not only did careless talk cost lives; anyone could be a spy and a traitor.(1)

    Camp 020, Latchmere House near Richmond, where 480 enemy personnel were interrogated during the war, including most of the saboteurs sent to Britain. (Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    There were rumours of Nazi agents disguised as nuns operating from a disused London Underground station. The population was encouraged to report any suspicious activity, especially by foreigners, to the police. Lt General Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, claimed to be able to identify German agents from the way they walked, but only from behind. General Sir Walter Kirke, Head of the Home Forces, claimed that ‘the gentlemen who are the best behaved and the most sleek are the stinkers who are doing the work and we cannot be too sure of anybody.’(2) There was a fear that enemy agents were using carrier pigeons to send their messages.

    In January 1939, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) issued an ultimatum to the British government to withdraw all their troops from Ireland or they would launch a sabotage campaign against Britain. When their ultimatum was ignored, the IRA started attacking targets in London and other major British cities.

    What was not realised at the time was that the Nazis were providing financial and technical support to the IRA, promising them independence for Ireland in return for helping their plans for a British invasion. German saboteurs were involved in the campaign with their bomb attacks being attributed to the IRA. These attacks continued throughout 1939 and after war broke out in September, the Security Forces started finding evidence of Nazi involvement. The British Government began to be seriously worried that the Nazis were supporting the IRA and planning to sabotage important military, industrial and communication targets before invading Britain.

    Waterpiplines leading to HEP station at Fort William. Target for James Walsh, Irish agent. (Courtesy of Martin Briscoe, Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Government initiated a widespread counter-sabotage programme. You may well have read books or watched films about the sabotage attacks undertaken by British or British-trained agents in enemy-occupied Europe; how they destroyed aeroplanes, trucks and trains with plastic explosives; how they blew up canal lock gates, railway lines, electricity power stations, bridges, viaducts, aqueducts and tunnels; how they sank ships with limpet bombs and halted production at mines, engineering works and factories; how they brought down pylons, telegraph poles and cut cables with strategically placed and often cleverly camouflaged explosive devices. But where are the stories of the IRA’s sabotage attacks? Where are the stories of the German-trained agents infiltrated into Britain to attack important targets? Where are the documentaries? Where are the films?

    I researched Station 17, Brickendonbury Manor, the requisitioned country house outside Hertford, Hertfordshire, where overseas ‘students’ were trained as secret agents for my book Churchill’s School for Saboteurs. Later the house was used to provide agents with specialist courses in industrial sabotage before being infiltrated to undertake attacks on targets across Europe. Before researching sabotage in Poland and Italy, I got waylaid by writing an account of the women involved in deception schemes during the war.

    I spent several years poring over and transcribing secret agents’ personnel files and mission papers from the National Archives in Kew, downloading files from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s website, trawling the Internet for details, reading biographies, autobiographies, newspapers, history books and journals, and writing numerous accounts of top-secret sabotage operations during the Second World War. I discovered that the IRA and the Nazis made numerous attempts to sabotage targets in Britain and that the British Intelligence Services made concerted efforts to stop them. This book provides a detailed account of their successes and failures.

    Ronnie Reed, ZIGZAG's case officer in front of the transformer house at de Havilland Factory, camouflaged to look as if it has been sabotaged. (TNA KV 2/458, Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    I have to acknowledge the research done by Rupert Allason, Mary Berbier, John Bowyer-Bell, Giles Colchester, Terry Crowdy, T. Ryle Dwyer, Bryce Evans, Lalislas Farago, Thomas Hennessey, Mark Hull, John Humphries, Tommy Jonason, David Johnson, Ben Macintyre, John Masterman, David O’Donoghue, Eunan O’Haplin, Simon Olsson, Terence O’Reilly, Adrian O’Sullivan, Frank Owen, Günther Peis, Lee Richards, Mike Scoble, Adrian Searle, Claire Thomas, Des Turner and Charles Wighton.

    The staff at the National Archives in Kew and the CIA online archives need especial thanks for generating a searchable catalogue and allowing many of the documents I found to be downloaded. The staff of the Lancashire Archives also helped provide access to their files. Steven Kippax, Phil Tomaselli, Stephen Tyas and fellow members of the Special Operations Executive Yahoo user group have been particularly helpful in providing files and answering my many queries.

    Martin Briscoe kindly provided photographs of the Fort Willliam hydroelectric power station, Mal Durbin the photograph of Cray Reservoir and David Howard the photograph of 35 Crespigny Road. I acknowledge with gratitude a number of websites on which I found other illustrations.

    Trying to provide a detailed account of what were considered at the time to be top secret activities over a six-year period has been a challenge, based as it is on often redacted transcripts of interviews, memoranda and correspondence. There may be gaps; there may be errors, but this book is more the work of an archaeologist than a historian. It is an attempt to piece together bits of information so that they tell a human story, one which I hope will not only give you fascinating details about little-known aspects of British wartime history but also an insight into the mind-set of the people involved in the British and German Intelligence Services, the saboteurs and the counter-saboteurs.

    Bernard O'Connor's new book Operation Lena and Hitler's Plots to Blow Up Britain is available for purchase now.


    1. http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A87786102
    2. TNA INF 1/264-8

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