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  • 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.

  • My favourite agents by Robyn Walker

    Even before my book The Women Who Spied for Britain was published, almost everyone with whom I shared the manuscript with would ask me which one of the secret agents was my favourite. The questions continued after the book was published... interviewers and fans alike all seemed to want to know which agent I enjoyed researching and writing about most. It almost seems disrespectful to pick one above the others (I suppose with the exception of Mathilde Carré, whose treachery should make her ultimately unlikeable), since they all put their lives on the line in defense of their country. How do you quantify which one was best, which one was most heroic?

    Then I realized that I was not being asked to provide a value judgement, people were simply interested in which secret agent I found most interesting. And after talking to several people who had read my book, I was amazed to discover that when I asked them about THEIR favorite agent in the book, their answers and reasons were both varied and fascinating. People connect with stories and individuals in so many different ways, and I was intrigued by the reasons readers connected with different agents and their missions. This forced me to do a little self-reflection about the subjects of my book, and I was amazed at what I ultimately discovered regarding my own feelings about the women who spied for Britain!

    Agents - Noor Inayat Khan Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine)

    Noor Inayat Khan (Madeleine) has a special place in my heart since it was her story that first got me interested in the female secret agents of WW2. I first ‘discovered’ her when I was 10, after watching the miniseries A Man Called Intrepid. I thought her story was incredible and immediately begged my dad to buy me the book. Book in hand I went immediately to the index and proceeded to selectively read all parts of the book that dealt with the intriguing Madeleine. For years (well before the age of the internet) she represented all I really knew about female agents of the Second World War, and her story made thirst for more. Khan truly was my starting point, and because of that I found this chapter quite enjoyable to write.

    Agents - Odette Sansom Odette Sansom

    Odette Sansom was another agent I discovered through A Man Called Intrepid. Sadly, for me, she was simply a one name reference in the index (p. 254), and I learned only that she was a “young mother who left her children in Kensington to wind up in a Gestapo torture chamber”. I had no idea of her last name, let alone what her full story was. The name Odette seemed incredibly fierce and dramatic, and I spent many hours creating my own stories of Odette’s missions. When I finally learned her true story, I have to admit my imaginings weren’t anywhere close to accurate. Still, her chapter was an absolute delight to write. I think, in part, it was because after so many years of imagining her story that I finally found the truth. There’s also a plethora of material available about Odette which made this chapter ‘easier’ to write than some of the others. And finally, I absolutely LOVE the anecdote at the end of the chapter where the thief who stole Odette’s medals returns them via the post. I laugh every time I read his apology!

    Agents - Diana Rowden Diana Rowden

    I loved writing the Diana Rowden chapter. It was by far the most difficult since there has been far less written about her than the other agents. Yet I found writing her chapter incredibly rewarding. As I learned more about her I definitely got the feeling that she and I could have been friends and it really bothered me that her story had been somewhat overlooked. There’s no way to know why this is, but I couldn’t shake the sense that it had something to do with the fact that she lacked the ‘glamour’ or physical appeal of the other agents. Certainly her bravery, contribution to the war effort and her tragic death were all compelling enough to make for interesting reading, so it really puzzled me that her story was not better known. Her chapter became my personal mission and it was incredibly exciting to discover the little facts about her life.

    Agents - Nancy Wake Nancy Wake

    Ahh, Nancy Wake. The whole time I was writing about her I was both in awe and doubled over with laughter. She seemed incredible and fearless and almost, in my opinion, like some sort of super hero. Her story has it all, running away from home, love affairs, secret agent school, narrow escapes, gun battles, attempted assassinations and... a relatively happy ending. If her life story isn’t perfect for a big screen movie I don’t know what is. This chapter was fun, fun, fun from start to finish!

    Agents - Violette Szabo Violette Szabo

    The chapter on Violette Szabo was the very first one I completed. She was so beautiful, it was hard not to be intrigued by her. I had trouble with this chapter in the beginning, since so many of the secondary sources I read offered vastly different accounts of what actually happened to her. My search for the truth led to my interview with Robert Maloubier, who served with Szabo. It was incredible hearing the REAL story from someone who had actually been there. His eyewitness account made the story really come alive, and added a special dimension to this chapter. The Szabo chapter also resulted in my making a new friend, the wonderful author Susan Ottaway, who had written an absolutely fantastic biography of Szabo. This was a chapter of interesting research and new friends!

    Agents - Christine Granville Christine Granville

    Was there a chapter I enjoyed least? Yup. Christine Granville. Not that her story isn’t compelling. There’s just so much to it, combined with confusing Polish place names and given names the spelling of which seemed to change with every source I read. This chapter was very challenging, since her career as an agent was so long and she served in so many different locations. Granville’s sad end was also incredibly depressing for me for some reason. The complexity of Granville’s story and the overall feeling of gloom as a result of her murder took away from my overall enjoyment of writing this chapter, yet my mum informs that this was her favourite one to read!

    Agents - Mathilde Carre Mathilde Carré

    I admit to feeling a sense of guilt when I confess that I liked writing about Mathilde Carré. She really was quite an awful person, and yet there was something about her self-centred awfulness that I really understood. Perhaps knowing that there are people as flawed as she was what made me feel better about my own short comings. Or perhaps I just know enough about myself to understand that if I was faced with the choices she was faced with, I might have done the same thing. So, she was not noble, there will be no plaques commemorating her role in the war, but her story is darn interesting and I really believe there is a little bit of Mathilde in all of us. Just hopefully not too much : )

    Agents - Sonya 1 Sonia Butt

    My favourite, hands down, was the Sonia Butt chapter! Her story had all of ‘cool’ elements (like Nancy Wake’s), her family was incredibly generous in sharing their memories and photographs, she had a Canadian connection (cool for me) AND she had the glamour factor. All of these are compelling reasons for me to have loved this chapter best but... the real reason is, Sonia was exactly who I would have wanted to be! I connected with her on a deep level, and I have convinced myself, that had I lived during WW2 I would have been just like Sonia. I saw so much of myself in Sonia that every minute of writing her story was like living it myself. I’ve had to update my book to include Sonia’s death, this past Christmas, and it left such a strange and hollow feeling inside me. It was like saying good bye to an old friend.

    Agents - 9781445645841

    Robyn Walkers paperback edition of The Women Who Spied for Britain is available for purchase now.

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