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Tag Archives: WWII

  • Der Kapitan: U-Boat Ace Hans Rose by Markus F. Robinson

    Kapitan Leutnant Hans Rose Propaganda postcard annotated 'Commander of the German Undersea-boat U 53 from Wilhelmshaven to New York'. (c. Author's Archive, Der Kapitan: U-Boat Ace Hans Rose, Amberley Publishing)

    History and “Fake” History - Beware of Secondary Sources

    Winston Churchill wrote ‘history is written by the victors.’ His statement succinctly captures the reality that all history is reported from a given perspective. As readers of history it is important we acknowledge this truism. As writers of history it is even more important we understand and acknowledge our own biases, and we critically assess the work of our colleagues, particularly when we rely on them.

    The other day a German historian I’ve been collaborating with showed me a new book written about shipwrecked seamen. It’s a gorgeous book, beautifully produced, that enumerates vessels attacked and sunk off Ireland. So naturally it includes materials about all the vessels that Hans Rose, at the helm of the U 53, attacked around the Emerald Isle. I checked the index, found the page references for U 53, and proceeded to review them.

    The author performed a huge amount of work to track down each boat sunk off Ireland and then meticulously compile data about the wrecks and their seamen. Mostly it’s pretty raw stuff: dates, boat specifics, number of crewmen rescued and lost, and the occasional exciting account of a rough seas rescue. Not really a page turner, it is more like a scholarly data compendium. Perhaps to make it more readable the author provides “context”, placing each wreck in its historical waters.

    U 53's morning Watch 1917 by Claus Bergen. (c. Rose Family Archives, Der Kapitan: U-Boat Ace Hans Rose, Amberley Publishing)

    That’s when my blood began to boil. Because at least for Hans Rose, the author appears to be uncritically relying on secondary sources for his filler. So when those secondary sources get it wrong, he unwittingly plays the role of loudspeaker, amplifying the effect of their erroneous description of history.

    It didn’t take long to spot his first error; an account of Hans Rose tracking the British Grand fleet on August 19, 1916. According to the Irish shipwrecks author Hans Rose provided critical intelligence that allowed German Admiral Scheer to determine that the Grand Fleet bearing down upon him was numerically superior, allowing him to break off the encounter and so save the fleet. The facts are exactly the opposite of those regurgitated by that author. In fact, Rose sent Scheer precise Intel about the Grand Fleet’s strength, but the admiral, relying upon a seriously exaggerated portrayal of Grand Fleet strength provided by a Zeppelin chose to withdraw from an encounter where Germany had substantial naval superiority. Rose recalled:

    “The most exciting day was August 19th, 1916. From dawn to late afternoon the boat had made contact with part of the Grand Fleet and continuously sent messages to the German head of the navy. It was one of those rare occasions in which the entire German High Seas fleet, because it was on a Western course near Dogger Bank, could have caught a small segment of the Grand Fleet. Could have - yes - had not the German Airfleet sent erroneous reports about the movements of the enemy.” Continuing, Rose recalled Admiral Scheertold him after the war “Well, Rose, had I only put more trust in your reports than those of the Airfleet!”

    Historians all rely upon secondary sources to provide us with the larger picture. How do we determine which secondary sources and opinion deserve our respect? Obviously a key way is to validate them against primary sources. Another method is to assess the reputation of the reporting historian. Cross-referencing interpretations is a third.

    U 53 Trails a Sailing Ship by Claus Bergen. (c. Author's Archive, Der Kapitan: U-Boat Ace Hans Rose, Amberley Publishing)

    The biography, Der Kapitän - U-boat Ace Hans Rose, (Robinson & Robinson, Amberley Press) chronicles how Rose served Germany with distinction in both World Wars. As captain of the U 53, he became internationally renowned for his unprecedented 1916 round-trip to the United States, more than doubling the longest solo submarine voyage hitherto accomplished. Later his extraordinary choice to send his enemies the coordinates of American sailors adrift at sea demonstrated that Rose would become Germany's fifth most successful U-boat Ace, and her most successful Ace during the convoy period, without sacrificing his sense of chivalry.

    Rose’s remarkable military career included duty at the court of the Ottoman Sultan at the turn of the 20th century, exploits as commander of a destroyer and then command of U 53until the end of WWI.

     

    Contextualizing Rose's WWI achievements, the biography includes a short primer about submarine technology, U-boat operational realities at the start of the Great War, and a discussion of how the introduction of convoys changed the naval battlefield on which Rose fought.

    U 52 in Drydock viewed from below the stern, her rudder, and dual sets of port and starboard diving fins, props, large rounded flutes and aft torpedo-tubes are visible. The port side of the boat's whaleback is prominently discernible. Above deck, her long-range wireless aerials are raised. (c. Author's Archive, Der Kapitan: U-Boat Ace Hans Rose, Amberley Publishing)

    Through the end of WWI, Rose's story is straight forward and gripping, as are his travails during the 1920s. On one occasion, following a confrontation during the occupation of the Ruhr, Rose’s stature as a national hero and his international reputation saved him from a long prison term at the hands of the occupiers.

    Rose’s role during the Nazi era is more complex. Thus, careful emphasis is placed upon a study of the interwar period that saw the occupation of his homeland, economic collapse, and the rise of the totalitarian Nazi regime. His renown made Rose a figure courted by the Nazi party, and caused him to cross paths with Adolf Hitler several times.

    Rose considered himself “a German knight.” After exploring the realities of resistance in a time of police state, the biography documents Rose's courage in facing down the Nazis during the 1930s when he felt he had to. Then, compared to the Gestapo and the SS operating in the same theatres of war, it chronicles his opinion of them and the stark difference in the way Rose conducted himself as a warrior during WWII.

    Between these two great conflagrations and in their aftermaths, Rose and his family shared the trials, tribulations, and very personal disasters faced by the German people as a whole.

    This well researched biography, over a decade in preparation, is designed to satisfy both the general reader and domain experts demanding a rigorous analysis of naval history and the political realities of the German interwar period.

    Markus F. Robinson and Gertrude J. Robinson's new book Der Kapitan: U-Boat Ace Hans Rose is available for purchase now.

  • Evesham's Military Heritage by Stan Brotherton

    Miniature manuscript illumination of a battle believed to be the Battle of Evesham. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Evesham’s Military Heritage? An interesting title and a fascinating subject; but how to write such a book?

    The challenge wasn’t the lack of material. Indeed, the opposite is true: there’s far too much. After all, entire books have been dedicated just to Simon de Montfort (Earl of Leicester) and the Battle of Evesham (4th August 1265); its context, characters, impact and implications. Instead, the challenge was to make the book relevant to a modern reader. After all an account of old battles, however interesting in itself, can hardly be considered pertinent to the current day.

    For me, the key to unlocking this puzzle was the word “heritage” and the related idea of “inheritance” (that is, something valuable handed down through generations). This simple thought allowed me to connect old events with modern times. I found this such a valuable angle that early drafts included the subtitle: “A local history of war and remembrance”.

    What to include? A mass of notes was narrowed down to four main topics: the Battle of Evesham (1265), the English Civil Wars, WWI and WWII. The first two were obvious candidates as Evesham had been the scene of major conflicts and suffered significantly. The latter two made good sense as they were significant events, closely felt, which are still actively remembered. Scattered throughout were shorter chapters on the contemporary remembrance of past events.

    Map of the Battle of Evesham, 4 August 1265. Godescroft is believed to be where Simon de Montfort was slain. (c. David Cox, Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    But why should a reader care? I thought there were three reasons. First, in the history of Evesham there are some compelling personal stories; including the death of Earl Simon (1265) and the extraordinary public service of Mrs Haynes-Rudge (1914-18). Second, studying Evesham’s military heritage provides a richer understanding of the town (including, most obviously, its street names). Third, the book sets out some of the (local) present uses of the past: how history has been routinely reclaimed and recycled to suit contemporary needs.

    Stained-glass windows in the Lichfield Chapel, All Saints', made by Powell & Sons (1882-83). On the left, Prince Edward is shown wearing robes (not armour), no shield, hands crossed, and his right hand lightly touching the hilt of a (mostly) concealed sword. To the right, Earl Simon is shown as a belligerent figure in full armour with sword drawn. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    Interestingly, Evesham’s remembrance of its own military past has changed dramatically over time. The clearest example is with the Battle of Evesham (1265). The battle itself was brutal and horrific. Indeed, Robert of Gloucester (fl 1260-1300) described it as “the murder of Evesham for battle it was none”. Soldiers fleeing the battlefield were pursued and slaughtered. Local tradition tells us that Welshmen (from Earl Simon’s army) who fled towards Twyford were cut down at a place known as “Dead Man’s Ait”. Those fleeing back into the town were pursued and killed. Those who sought sanctuary in the parish churches, and Evesham Abbey, were followed and slain. Blood from the slaughter stained the very centre of the abbey (between the transepts, under the tower).

    For some twenty years (or so) after his violent death, Earl Simon remained a popular even populist figure. Indeed, there was a vigorous local “cult” dedicated to Earl Simon with prayers invoking him as intercessor. Inevitably this was soon suppressed by the king (after all Earl Simon was a traitor and had been excommunicated) and Earl Simon’s fame afterwards faded.

    The Simon de Montfort Memorial, 2010, set by red and white blooms ( the colours of his blazon). The inscription states: 'Here were buried the remains of Simon de Montfort.' This is most unlikely, thought his grave is probably quite close by. (Evesham's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

    In the early Victorian age Earl Simon’s reputation was, perhaps unexpectedly, powerfully revived. Wrapped up with a powerful move for parliamentary reform was a search for early champions of democracy. Earl Simon, who summoned a parliament in January 1265 to bolster his own power, was soon adopted and duly transformed into a heroic figure fighting for liberty. In Evesham in the 1840s, this new view was reflected in new local memorials; including an obelisk and church stained glass. At Evesham, in 1965, Earl Simon’s status as democratic hero received full official recognition. The Archbishop of Canterbury, supported by dignitaries including the Speaker of the House of Commons, dedicated the Simon de Montfort Memorial in Upper Abbey Park.

    Today, of course, things have changed again. The 750th anniversary of the Battle of Evesham (2015) was particularly marked by a large-scale re-enactment on the Crown Meadow. The original slaughter, transformed through time, has become the occasion for public entertainment and an excellent day out.

    The book Evesham’s Military Heritage embodies many levels of remembrance. Most obviously, the book considers how the military past has been remembered locally and, for the English Civil Wars, largely ignored. For WWI and WWII I made significant use of local memories, reports of local experiences, local poems, and most importantly excerpts from Eva Beck’s wonderful autobiographies. Additionally, the book is dedicated “in memoriam” to two local historians now sadly deceased (Mike Edwards and Gordon Alcock). I also included memories from my grandfather (who served in WWI) plus pictures from my father. In this way, the book not only discusses remembrance (and the way it has changed) but is also itself an act of remembrance.

    Stan Brotherton's new book Evesham's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.

  • Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE by Greg Lewis

    World War II was the war in which old gender rules changed, as intelligence agencies created specific training and roles for women. Women were trained to work as undercover combatants armed with Sten guns and grenades, cut telecommunication wires, lay mines in roadways, and organize bombing raids.

    Their work contributed greatly to the success of the D-Day invasion and the eventual Allied victory over Hitler.

    Below, Greg Lewis, co-author of Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE highlights the boldest female spies of the era.

     

    THE AGENT WITH THE FALSE LEG CALLED CUTHBERT

    Virginia Hall spied for both SOE and OSS in Occupied France, despite having only one leg. (Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Despite having only one leg, Baltimore-born Virginia Hall carried out missions for both the highly-secretive British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Hall had lost part of her left leg in a pre-war hunting accident. She was fitted with a false leg which she nicknamed “Cuthbert.”

    Hall worked for SOE in Occupied France early in the war, while posing as a journalist for the New York Post. After the US joined the war, she returned to France for the OSS. Disguising herself as an old lady, she gathered intelligence to aid the D-Day landings. The Gestapo became aware of her and put her on its most wanted list. They referred to her as the “limping lady.”

    She survived the war and later served in the CIA.

     

    THE AGENT WHO GOT HER SECRETS IN BED

    Betty Pack worked for Britain’s MI6 in Poland before the war, sleeping with a Polish diplomat in order to find out what the Poles knew about the German Enigma code-making machine.

    Moving to an MI6 department working in the United States, Betty was asked to plan a mission to copy vital naval codes kept inside the Vichy French embassy in Washington.

    She seduced a man who worked there, and brought him in on the operation. They broke into a safe and passed the codes out to another man to be copied overnight.

    When they were disturbed by a guard Betty jumped naked into her male accomplice’s arms and pretended to have sex with him. The embarrassed guard left them alone for the rest of the night.

    The codes she copied proved vital in the American and British invasion of French North Africa in November 1942.

     

    “A NICE GIRL WHO DARNED SOCKS”

    Yolande Beekman hid in a freezing cold attic to send wireless messages to London requesting arms and supplies for the Resistance. (Courtesy: specialforcesroh.com, Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Female agents often faced sexism and even derision from their SOE instructors. Yolande Beekman was dismissed by one SOE instructor as, “A nice girl, darned the men’s socks, would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man, but not much more than that.”

    Beekman landed in France by Lysander in September 1943 and headed to the town of Saint-Quentin, where she became wireless operator for a resistance network dedicated to blowing up canal and railway infrastructure in the area. She was so successful that the Gestapo brought in teams of radio detector vans to track her down.

    She was arrested in a canal-side café and transported to Dachau concentration camp where she was executed.

     

    THE WOMAN WHO BLUFFED HER WAY OUT OF ARREST

    Irish-born Paddy O’Sullivan had been brought up by a Belgian aunt and began the war as a nurse. Her language skills attracted her to SOE.

    She parachuted into France in March 1944 and was almost killed straight away.

    In terrible weather, the cords of her parachute became entangled. By the time she had righted them she was very low and she hit the ground very hard.

    Severely concussed, her life had been saved by the two million francs in bank notes which were stuffed into her backpack. The money was for the French resistance.

    A woman of tremendous courage and gall, she would flirt with German soldiers if she found herself in a tight spot.

    Once, while carrying her wireless in a suitcase, she was challenged at a checkpoint.

    When a soldier asked her what was in the suitcase, she laughed and said “A wireless, of course!”

    The guard thought she was joking and he sent her on her way.

    O’Sullivan risked her life to send more than 300 messages by radio to London. Like the other women, she received a number of medals after the war.

     

    THE WHITE MOUSE WHO LED AN ATTACK ON A GESTAPO HQ

    Nancy Wakes was almost thrown out of SOE but returned to lead a deadly attack on a Gestapo headquarters. (Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Gun-toting Nancy Wake planned and led a raid on Gestapo headquarters which left almost 30 Germans dead or dying. The New Zealand-born journalist was living in France at the outbreak of war and quickly became involved in resistance activity. Dubbed the “White Mouse” by the Gestapo, she fled over the Pyrenees into Spain, and trained with SOE in Britain. Wild and gregarious, Wake parachuted into Occupied France in April 1944, while suffering a raging hangover from a party the night before.

    In late July 1944, while senior Gestapo officers in the old town hall in Montluçon were enjoying a glass of schnapps before lunch, Wake led a group of armed men into the building and started shooting. On reaching the local chief’s office, she opened the door and threw in two hand grenades.
    As she said later: “I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”

     

    THE WAR HERO WHO WAS MURDERED DURING PEACETIME

    Christine Granville planned and led a daring mission to rescue a fellow SOE agent. (Courtesy: SpyMuseum.com, Shadow Warriors, Amberley Publishing)

    Polish-born Christine Granville had already worked undercover for MI6 in Poland and Hungary when she was recruited by SOE.

    Described by the legendary SOE intelligence officer, Vera Atkins, as a “beautiful animal with a great appetite for love and laughter”, Granville spent months in Egypt and Palestine waiting for a mission and lost patience with SOE chiefs.

    One evening, having been introduced to a local general, she took him for a walk behind a desert sand dune. When he returned he was “knocking at the knees” and he instructed his officers to find Granville a mission immediately.

    In France, she masterminded the escape of senior SOE agent, Francis Cammaerts, by blackmailing and bribing an officer from the French Nazi police force, the Milice.

    She told the Nazi that unless he released her friend he would be handed over to the mob once the liberating forces arrived in the area.

    On delivering Cammaerts to Granville, the Nazi said: “What a wonderful woman you have.”

    Cammaerts had been due to be executed on the morning of his escape.

    Despite her wonderful war record, Granville struggled to find personal happiness after the war. She was murdered in London by a deranged man who had become obsessed with her.

    Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis new paperback edition of Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The Second World War in 100 Facts by Clive Pearson

    I was delighted when Amberley Publishing asked me to write a book on the Second World War for their 100 Facts series. I had already completed a manuscript for a book about Britain at war in 1939-45 and so I was able to include points from my research on this as well as from an article published previously about the Soviet Union in this period.

    Quite a lot of the book includes facts about Britain in the war. This was inevitable as Britain had a large part to play in all stages of the war as well as fighting on three continents. This was due, of course, to the fact that Britain had a huge sprawling empire. Added to this, British readers would want to know about how their country participated in the conflict and about the iconic moments such as Dunkirk and D-Day.

    Beyond this I was keen to introduce readers to what I consider to be two forgotten wars. The first ‘forgotten war’ was the British struggle against the Japanese in the Far East. From the film ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ many readers might perhaps be familiar with the idea that there was another war going on there and that life was horrendous for British and Commonwealth prisoners. But how many people know about the epic British march all the way from Burma to India and which ranks as the longest retreat in British military history. Following on this, mainly British and Indian troops managed to turn the situation around by forcing the enemy back from the gates of India and reinvading Burma. Taking the Japanese on in their favourite terrain (the jungle) proved to be crucial. The unsung hero in all this was Major-General Bill Slim who inspired his troops and engineered a winning strategy. He was one of the finest commanders of the war but few know of him. At the time British people were naturally preoccupied with the conflict on their doorstep and it fell to Churchill on VE Day to remind everybody that the war was not over and that the struggle against the Japanese continued.

    The second ‘forgotten war’ was the one between Nazi Germany and Russia in Eastern Europe. Brits generally do not understand how vast and cruel the conflict there was. Perhaps this is because of the secretive nature of the Soviet regime. When the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991 the archives could at last be opened up and historians such as Richard Overy in his book Russia’s War and Catherine Merridale in her work Ivan’s War were able to reveal the true horror of the conflict.

    The immensity of the war was not just due to the size of the theatre of operations but also because the Nazi regime had turned a huge part of its military machine into the project of knocking out and occupying this enormous country. In total four million German and other Axis forces crossed the frontier into the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was to be an ideological war and Hitler gave his armies a free hand to carry out a campaign of barbaric cruelty not experienced in the west. Jews and Communists were to be rounded up and liquidated and the rest of the population were ultimately to be enslaved. Evidence of the horrific treatment endured there is the fact that a large percentage of the millions of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner were simply left to suffer a long lingering death through starvation. Others were used as slave labour. This was a very different story from that of British prisoners and based on the idea that they were fellow Aryans (and therefore received kinder treatment).

    The German invader did not have it all his own way, of course. The winters were terrible with the thermometer at times hitting -400 C leaving hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared German troops literally freezing to death or suffering from frostbite. In addition, Russian forces also committed atrocities on their enemy.

    Unfortunately for Soviet troops their own government was not above meting out horrific cruelty on its own people. An example of this is the ‘penal battalions’ which were composed of political prisoners and criminals who could be driven forward to clear minefields willy-nilly, without protection and without concern for losses. Indeed, the whole Soviet command was less concerned about casualties than with winning the war. No wonder, then, that in every battle fought on the Eastern front, even including Berlin, Soviet losses were always more than the enemy. The total cost of the conflict for the Soviet people was 27 million dead and Belarus lost a third of its population. German losses for the whole war were roughly five million.

    In the end the Fascist powers were defeated because they were out-manned and out-gunned. As pointed out in the book America’s production figures alone dwarfed that of the enemy countries combined. One big surprise is the total inefficiency of German armaments production. For example, only 2200 tanks were produced in 1940 (and plane production was a similar story) and it wasn’t until 1943 after the defeat at Stalingrad that full production really got going by which time it was too late. At the end of the day no matter how fearsome or valiant your soldiers are (and the German and Japanese soldiers were certainly this) it is of relatively little consequence if your enemy has countless manpower available and seemingly endless numbers of planes and tanks to throw at you. To have any chance the Germans and Japanese had to achieve some kind of knock-out blow in the early stages of the war and this they singularly failed to do.

    9781445653532

    Clive Pearson's new book The Second World War in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden by Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell

    Many people have asked me what prompted me as a New Zealander living many thousands of miles from the UK to write this book – a book about a lone English woman, an agent and courier for the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

    The story of how I began to write this biography began around the year 2004 when a friend of my mother’s, Don Miles who had himself been a member of SOE, asked me if I had heard of a woman agent named Diana Rowden. Did I know what had happened to her and why was there so little written about her? We discussed this, and I had to admit, even though I was a war historian and familiar with the SOE I could not enlighten him on Diana. Eventually I started to research her, finding her name mentioned on the odd occasion in books about women agents of SOE.

    Her Finest Hour 2 Diana in uniform. (Courtesy of Paul McCue - Her Finest Hour, Amberley Publishing)

    And then, out of the blue I remembered a documentary I had seen on television one night during the 1980s. Images … women dressed in the style and fashion of the 1940s … their heads bowed to the ground, two with dark hair, another with died blond hair, and a fair women, a ribbon in her hair, walking down some steps, a guard tower, Germans with rifles, a door leading into a building like a crematorium … the camera walking them back up the stairs and then down again, a woman with grey hair speaking English slowly, deliberately, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Was this documentary something to do with Diana Rowden … had she been one of these women?

    The months passed and I continued my research into Diana’s life. She had worked in the Jura region of France, a particularly dangerous area as the Germans knew agents were in the zone, and with the Allies on the offensive that the end of the war was in sight. The Jura was an area riddled with Nazis double and even triple agents, spies in the pay of the German Gestapo, thieves and murderers – people only too happy to throw in their lot with the occupying forces. And then her disastrous arrest with her radio operator, John Young. Through no fault of her own Diana was arrested by a double agent and in the company of three other women agents was executed in a camp called Natzweiler in the Vosges Mountains.

    Natzweiler … the memory now makes me shiver. I will come back to this.

    Over a period of time two books were recommended to me – ‘Death Be Not Proud’ by Elisabeth Nicholas and ‘Flames in the Field’ by Rita Kramer. They were of immense help and made me even more determined to write Diana’ full biography. An idea began to grow – I would go to Alsace and visit the camp where Diana had died.

    Her Finest Hour 3 Natzweiler entrance. (Author’s collection - Her Finest Hour, Amberley Publishing)

    In 2005 in the company of my sister we made the long journey from Auckland to Alsace. It was a grey day when we visited. The first thing we noticed was the absence of birds and other wild life, just an eerie and deathly silence which hung over the deserted camp.  A huge white monument to the fallen stood near the entrance, while steps led down to the buildings used to house the prisoners far below. Everything was as it had been: the crematorium, the prisoners’ cells, the guard houses. A lone shoe lay at the entrance to the crematorium, old and shabby as if somebody had carelessly thrown it to one side. The oven was so small I wondered how a human body was able to fit in to its narrow cavity. I walked outside into the fresh alpine air and read the inscription on the plaque dedicated to the four SOE women agents.

    Natzweiler was a camp of hell; a men’s camp. The men were beaten by guards, starved and forced to work in a quarry all day regardless of their health. Most were suffering from disease, malnutrition and many collapsed and died on the spot. Some of the prisoners were classified Nacht und Nebel – those deemed to disappear into the night and fog.

    This was the environment which the four young women found themselves in July 1944 after being arrested and interned in France. But it was Diana’s story which kept me awake at night. I came away from my trip to Alsace with one thought only … I knew very clearly what I wanted to do and nothing would defer me from the task: I would write Diana’s story and tell the world what she had done.  Never again would she be the unknown agent.

    9781445661643

    Gabrielle McDonald-Rothwell's new book Her Finest Hour: The Heroic Life of Diana Rowden, Wartime Secret Agent is available for purchase now

  • A Spitfire Pilot's Story - Pat Hughes by Dennis Newton

    THEY CALLED IT A ‘STUFFY SPREAD’

    Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Stuffy’ Dowding not only commanded RAF Fighter Command, he was its chief architect from the very beginning when it was created in 1936. He built it into the formidable weapon it became just in time for its ‘finest hour’ saving Britain in the violent, dark days of crisis in 1940. He set down the rules, chose the aircraft, built up the squadrons and developed their techniques, looking into every detail – but he wasn’t always right.

    Before WW2, he ordered that the guns of all RAF fighters were to be harmonised to create a widely spaced pattern of bullets at a range of 400 yards. This spread of bullets was intended specifically to combat bombers as it seemed most likely that any air attack on Britain from Germany would be by unescorted bombers. Because of the distances involved Luftwaffe fighters simply would not be able to take part. Because of ‘Stuffy’ Dowding’s nickname, this widely spaced pattern became unofficially known as the ‘Stuffy Spread’.

    While the method gave an average pilot a greater chance of scoring some hits on his target, early engagements revealed it was unlikely to cause enough damage to bring an enemy plane down! Experience during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939/40 and the Battle for France and the Low Countries in 1940 showed a concentrated, accurate burst of fire achieved far better results.

    Although Dowding’s order to spread the field of fire was still regarded as standard procedure, squadrons with combat experience were harmonising their guns on a single point 250 yards in front of their aircraft.

    a-spitfire-pilots-story-17-pat-hughes-in-front-of-tent-1 Flight Lieutenant Paterson Clarence Hughes of No.234 Squadron RAF. (Credit Bill Hughes, A Spitfire Pilot's Story, Amberley Publishing)

    Going in close seemed to be another way of preventing the ‘Stuffy Spread’ from scattering too many bullets far and wide. Obviously, the closer a fighter could be positioned behind its target, the closer together the pattern would be and the more certainty there was of making a kill. Effective though it might be, it was obviously dangerous - but wasn’t war dangerous anyway?

    Before the Battle of Britain intensified, one nervous new pilot reportedly asked his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Paterson Clarence Hughes, ‘What do I do if I miss?’

    ‘What do you do if you miss?’ Pat Hughes’ deliberate reply came back, ‘Listen mate… you get as close as you can and you can’t miss!’

    *

    No.234 Squadron RAF claimed its first victories during July 1940, three Ju88s destroyed in three weeks and Pat Hughes led all three attacks.

    He had gone in close. For him, that was definitely the answer.

    One of his wingmen, Sergeant George Bailey, would recall years later, ‘...Amongst some of his [Pat’s] efforts towards the war effort – frowned upon and stopped by higher authority – painting of the spinners of our Spitfires bright colours in competition to the yellow nosed 109’s. Use of incendiary bullets in all guns and bringing the concentration of fire power from the eight guns down to the minimum distance that could be obtained from the mountings... about 50 yards less than that recommended by the A.M. (Air Ministry)’

    In his three attacks, return fire had struck Pat’s Spitfire on two separate occasions – one bullet each time. Pat would go in close again and again...

    What followed was dramatic by any measure. During just over three weeks of spectacular action, Pat’s tally of enemy aircraft destroyed climbed to more than 14 victories.

    Then came 7 September 1940 and the first huge daylight attack on London. At first caught by surprise by the change in German tactics, Dowding’s fighters pounced after the withdrawing Luftwaffe bombers like angry hornets. They had to make them pay.

    a-spitfire-pilots-story-45-spitfire-attacking-do17 A Spitfire breaks away from an attack on a Dornier Do17. (Credit ww2image.com, A Spitfire Pilot's Story, Amberley Publishing)

    South-east of Folkestone, 234 Squadron ran into an estimated sixty German aircraft consisting of Dornier Do 17s and escorting Messerschmitt 109s. Initially instructed to patrol over the airfields at Kenley and Biggin Hill at ‘Angels Ten’, Squadron Leader ‘Spike’ O’Brien had taken his twelve Spitfires up to twice that height until they were above hoards of bandits all heading south on their way home. They were being harried as they went by furious, stinging Hurricanes and Spitfires.

    Pat Hughes in Spitfire X4009 as usual was leading the three Spitfires of Blue Section. O’Brien told Pat to go after the bombers while his flight covered the 109s. Ordering his wingmen to follow suit, Pat plunged after the bombers. He was well ahead of the others as he closed in on a straggling Dornier.

    Blue Two, Pilot Officer Keith Lawrence, followed the Australian down and saw him make a quarter attack on the German machine. Large pieces flew off the enemy plane, then a wing crumpled and it went down spinning. Lawrence glanced away for a target but when he looked back an instant later, he saw a Spitfire spinning down with about a third of its wing broken off... a collision?

    *

    It was late in the afternoon a few miles from Andover when Kay Hughes, Pat’s bride of just six weeks, stopped her car and phoned 234 Squadron’s Mess at Middle Wallop. She asked for Pat. Instead, F/O E. C. ‘Bish’ Owens, the fatherly squadron Adjutant, came to the phone. ‘Come right over’, he said, ‘I’ll meet you at the gate.’

    For a second she wondered why? Then, instinctively she knew. She clutched the gold charm bracelet Pat had given her. She knew...

    True to his word, ‘Bish’ and some of Pat’s boys met her at the gate. They told her that Pat was missing - there was some hope but the chances were not good. Then they took her to the White Hart where a room had been booked. ‘I’ve got your double,’ the landlord said greeting her with a wide smile. That was before he realised something was wrong...

    ‘Bish’ took him to one side and told him.

    Paterson Clarence Hughes had become the highest-scoring Australian pilot of the Battle of Britain - a ‘Top Gun’. His full story is told in Dennis Newton’s A Spitfire Pilot’s Story published by Amberley.

    9781445654140

    Dennis Newton's new book A Spitfire Pilot's Story - Pat Hughes, Battle of Britain Top Gun is available for purchase now.

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