Tuesday, 23 April 2019


It is hard to imagine someone who was more engaged in the business of life than my friend Lyra McKee. Recognised by Forbes magazine as ‘one to watch’ in 2016, her career as both a journalist and an author had since taken off, crowned by a two book deal with Faber last year. At the same time, she had found love. Amazed at her own happiness, she radiated joy – partly because she could not help it, but also deliberately sharing her delight, because what is not to celebrate when you eventually find the love of your life? It still seems impossible that Lyra was shot dead on Thursday night, while reporting on the riots in Derry, as she called that city. There was such a force of energy with her; so much forward motion, and there were all these unfinished sentences, books, conversations and relationships. Everything was still in play.

Lyra first made public waves with her blog on her experiences of growing up gay in Belfast, which was made into a short film. Her Belfast roots were, for better and worse, a huge part of her identity. Knowing from experience that love could be both complex and critical, she made the city, its history, faiths and residents, the focus on her intellectual curiosity and the subject of her writing. ‘The past is not dead, it is not even past’, she wrote, as she drew connections between enduring poverty, prejudice, social exclusion, corruption and cycles of violence. She sent me a draft of her second book, which raised questions around the Bradford case - the unresolved disappearance of some young men during ‘the troubles.’ It was a powerful but very personal call to find out the truth, and promote justice and social reconciliation. Essentially her writing, like her life, was about asking difficult questions and starting conversations.

I only knew Lyra for 18 months. We first met in November 2017, when we were both invited to give a TEDx talk at Stormont. Whether ironically or intentionally, given that the meetings of the Northern Ireland Assembly had been suspended since that January, the theme of the TEDx event was ‘Bridges.’ Invited as a historian and biographer, I spoke about history books as bridges to the past, and biographies as footbridges, which you can cross but only as a tourist, bringing your baggage with you. Lyra spoke about building bridges in the present, making an eloquent call for mutual tolerance and respect. She wanted to reach out to those who rejected her very identity, as an openly gay woman, from a religious viewpoint. She meant this as a paradigm of all the conversations we need to undertake with people with whom we feel fundamentally in disagreement. Hers was the outstanding talk of the evening, the one that stayed with people afterwards.

As I was staying on in Belfast, Lyra and I spent much of the next few days together. She was interested that I was giving a series of talks for a community project supported by the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, which hoped to improve relations between the Belfast Protestant, and largely-Catholic Polish, communities. We met up again when I returned for a second tour of Orange Lodges in and around Belfast, where I was sometimes told I was the first woman to be invited to speak; a local young offender’s institute; and the Intelligence Corps club. ‘Perhaps all places where I’ll be invited to talk in a year or so,’ Lyra laughed. In the evenings, we went out to various bars and Chinese restaurants, discussing love, the troubles, writing, Harry Potter, our families, Brexit, and generally setting the world to rights. We stayed in touch by email, I sent comments on her manuscript, we met in Belfast on my next visit, and tried and failed to meet in London.

Then a mutual friend emailed me on Friday morning with the shocking news that Lyra had been killed. The second city of Northern Ireland, Derry or Londonderry, was heavily militarised in the 1970s and, despite ceasefires, remains a site of great hardship and civil unrest. Lyra had moved there from Belfast only recently, to live with her partner, a nurse at the city’s hospital. On Thursday evening, police had searched certain properties with the aim of confiscating arms and averting violent protest during the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising. Several cars were set alight later that evening. Lyra had gone over to cover the rapidly escalating situation. Her last tweet said simply, ‘Derry tonight. Absolute madness.’ Then she was shot dead by a man in a balaclava, firing towards police vehicles. The ‘New IRA’, officially an amalgam of armed groups opposed to the peace process, and closely tied to drugs movement and other criminal activity, has since admitted responsibility.

Still in shock, that day I watched as Lyra’s name rightly made national headlines. Theresa May said something fairly non-descript. DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald came to mark their respect in the city where Lyra had last lived and died, and Foster was applauded for her words here, about everyone standing together, and the importance of getting Stormont functioning and democracy working again in Northern Ireland. An immense crowd gathered to remember Lyra, at which her partner paid moving tribute, calling for her death not to be in vain as ‘her life was a shining light.’ Could Lyra’s legacy yet guide Northern Ireland to peace?

Then things became surreal. Bill Clinton tweeted that he was heartbroken by Lyra’s murder. Lyra would have been astounded, if only she could have known. She had a soft spot for a bit of celebrity. She had loved the fact that Ana Matronic had been on the TEDx programme with us and was fabulously friendly in the bar afterwards. Later she told me how J.K. Rowling, another of her heroines, had once replied to one of her tweets. I imagined Lyra laughing, wide-eyed, at her own sudden celebrity, before brushing it off with some modest remark.

Then my facebook thread filled up with wonderful personal tributes to Lyra, most with photos of her goofing about in the bars or streets of her favourite city. She was so sociable, so much fun, so engaging, that she had hundreds of friends in different places, and parts, of her life. Not just the depth, but the reach of the woman was phenomenal, even without the headlines.

Inevitably, the story of Lyra’s death has now sunk down the news columns. As strange and awful as it was seeing Lyra’s face in the papers, seemingly so out of context, I also feel ridiculously angry that her death is now no longer news, that the world has refused to ‘stop the clocks.’ But I also know that Lyra has made a difference. Her life and death have changed things. The Real IRA has been exposed as unprincipled and criminal in their violence, prepared to shoot to kill into a crowd, and the support that was growing for them has haemorrhaged away. The famous ‘Free Derry Corner’ landmark - a blank house wall painted ‘You are now entering Free Derry’, now has graffiti below in letters just as high, ‘#NotInOurName R.I.P. Lyra.’ The overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland seek a better future, one built by two communities who wish to live in peace. Stormont’s politicians have been brought together to talk about rebuilding the democratic process. No one can now say that the Irish border issue is simple or insignificant, or take for granted the priceless peace we have seen for the last few decades.

With Lyra’s death, not just Northern Ireland, but all of us, have all lost an outstanding voice: warm, brave, honest. We must not now lose the momentum with the conversation that Lyra started about tolerance, respect, and sincere engagement with those with whom we most disagree.

Watch Lyra’s TEDx Stormont talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ymU-5Y3rkY

Monday, 11 March 2019

Perhaps this International Women’s Day, we might consider judging women for their agency!

Article originally published on the Andante Travel Website as an interview with Clare

The women of the Special Operations Executive, or SOE, were special agents, recruited, trained, armed and sent to serve behind enemy lines coordinating, training and arming resistance circuits in Nazi-occupied countries alongside their male colleagues. The SOE was established in July 1940, following Winston Churchill’s injunction to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Yet the first female agent of the war, the Polish-born Countess Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, had demanded to be taken on by the British secret services six months earlier, and was in post before the end of 1939! Her achievements in three different theatres of the war showed how valuable female agents could be. Later more women were recruited as they were considered less likely to be stopped and searched than able-bodied men travelling around enemy-occupied countries. Around 39 women were sent into occupied France alone, to act as clandestine couriers and wireless transmitters - work for which they were told they could expect to be arrested, interrogated and executed within six weeks. Many stepped up to undertake sabotage and armed combat, and several became circuit leaders, organising armies of several hundred men. Thirteen would not return.

The women who were involved in this project, what would have given them the ‘edge’ to apply (or be recruited, if that was the case)?

Krystyna Skarbek was unusual in that she approached MI6 to be given a role. Women were usually recruited from other branches of the services when they were discovered to have valuable skills. All the female agents were great patriots with a strong sense of honour and duty. They were determined, ready to endure both stress and loneliness, and each was also incredibly brave. They shared certain skills too; the ability to think quickly and creatively under pressure, languages skills, physical fitness; and the ability to win support and generate loyalty. Yet there was no single ‘type’ of woman that made a good agent. They came from many different countries and faiths, some were young women, others mothers or grandmothers, one had an artificial leg. Beauty could be both a help and hindrance, as an attractive face might charm but was also more memorable. The popular idea that the female agents’ most important role was as a ‘honey-trap’, seducing the enemy into revealing their secrets, is mistaken. Although some did employ their charms to good effect, their most vital attribute was simply that they might be overlooked while getting on with a range of tasks from gathering intelligence to smuggling, and sabotage to transmitting radio communications.

What can guests on Historical Trips’ Women of the SOE tour expect from the experience?

This is a very special and personal tour that follows in the footsteps of several of the female special agents, some of whom did not return, but all of whom made a significant contribution to the Allied war-effort. As well as visiting a couple of small museums, and several public and some quite hidden memorials, family members of several of the special agents have supported the tour, opening up their homes, giving talks, and sharing their knowledge. I feel strongly that the contribution made by the women should be remembered respectfully, and their service honoured.

What do you think is important to consider, discuss or celebrate on International Women’s Day 2019?

I am often asked why I mainly write about women. While I would be delighted to write about the lives of interesting men, the fact is that there is still a rich seam of women’s stories waiting to be told, and plenty of information to be found that has been misfiled under ‘domestic’! Furthermore, all too often female special agents, in particular, are still presented primarily as beautiful and brave, rather than as effective. Perhaps this International Women’s Day, we might consider judging women for their agency!

What interests you so much about women involved in war?

Conflict requires societies to give of their all, even if this means defying previous societal norms. As a result, wars have provided many women with new opportunities, be it working on farms or in factories, as drivers or pilots, or behind enemy lines as special agents. My three books look at the responses of four very different women to conflict. The remarkable Eglantyne Jebb, who distributed aid in the Balkan conflict that turned into the First World War, later defied the law to set up Save the Children, and developed the pioneering concept of children’s human rights - permanently changing the way the world regards and treats children. Krystyna Skarbek was not only the first female agent of the Second World War, but also the longest-serving agent male or female. Brought up to marry well, she yearned for freedom, and was extremely effective when she had the chance to fight for it. Most recently, I have written about the only two women to serve as test-pilots for the Third Reich, one a fanatical Nazi, the other secretly in the German resistance. Their perspectives, choices and actions meant that they would end their lives on opposite sides of history. Perhaps paradoxically, in overturning established special norms conflict can be an enabler, as well as a force of destruction.

You must have experienced some really memorable moments over the years, thanks to your work as an author along with your various lectures and television/radio appearances, could you please share some with us?

I love my job. I am naturally nosy, and being a biographer gives me license to read private letters and diaries, and interview witnesses of the most extraordinary events from the past. My research has led me to sleep in my subjects' bedrooms, and eat from their dishes - how good is washing up, could there be any DNA left on a plate? I have flown a glider in France, eaten breakfast with an assassin’s son in Germany, and in Poland I was once nearly arrested by the Gestapo… honestly, you will have to ask me when you see me!

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

Published by the Alderney Literary Festival where Clare will be speaking in March 2019

One of the great joys of researching my two books about special agents and pilots in the Second World War has been interviewing veterans and witnesses to that conflict, and others who knew or met those who served in it. As the human coast erodes, as it were, it feels ever more important to capture these stories.

Occasionally after a book has been published, people get in touch with stories that I would love to have included in my books. With The Women Who Flew for Hitler, which tells the dramatic and still little-known story of Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg, the only women to serve the Nazi regime as test pilots in the Second World War, but who ended their lives on opposites sides of history, I have been lucky enough to meet two people who knew Hanna.  

Former diplomat, Treasury official and President of the European Investment Bank, Brian Unwin, met Hanna in the 1960s when he was serving the British High Commission in Accra, Ghana. He got in touch having been astounded by the very different picture he had gained of Hanna from reading my book. Over lunch at the Reform Club, Brian told me how he had been sent to deliver a diplomatic gift of books to the head of the Ghanaian gliding school outside Accra in ‘the dying days of Kwame Nkrumah’s totalitarian regime’. He remembered a few white buildings around the field, a crowd, the hot sun, and his giving a ‘stock speech’. Afterwards the ‘attractive silver-haired director of the school, in her 50s’ offered to take him up in a glider. Slightly nervous, Brian checked that she was qualified to do so. After her reassurances she took him up for a short flight. Only when he returned to the High Commission did he learn that she was Hanna Reitsch, ‘Hitler’s pilot’. 

Brian said that he had been rather proud to include this story in his memoirs, and to think that he was probably the last Englishman alive to have been flown by Hanna Reitsch. Having read my book, however, and learned ‘how unreconstructed’ Hanna was, he has reviewed his perspective. 

Last week, after I gave a talk at the Wimborne Literary Festival, John Batchelor, MBE, introduced himself. John is a military artist and technical illustrator who met Hanna at Edwards Air Force Base in California, around 1977. Hanna had got out of her Mercedes car, John told me, and soon had a crowd of people around her. Curious as to who she might be, John identified her by the two pieces of jewelry she was wearing. One was a senior gliding award with diamonds, the other a round brooch with a border of precious stones and a swastika at its centre. The woman could only be Hanna Reitsch and the second brooch her gift from Hitler, which she said she would wear for the rest of her life – even though it was now illegal to wear the swastika in Germany.

John introduced himself to Hanna, and found her ‘very helpful’ when he asked her about her war-time test flights. Fascinatingly, she told him that the one aircraft she would not fly under power was the Me163. This confirmed my belief that although she was happy to tell the BBC in an interview that flying the Me163 was ‘like riding on a cannon ball,’ her own flights with it had been when she was towed up to test the gliding landings. 

Hanna did not discuss the Nazi regime or politics with John, but when he mentioned her jewellery she told him that she had also kept her Iron Cross but did not wear it ‘every day’. It seems to confirm that Hanna was, as the brilliant British Royal Naval pilot Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown had told me during my research, ‘a fanatical Nazi’ to the end. 

John was amused, however, when he left Hanna or, as he put it, ‘got rid of her into her waiting Mercedes’. A group of young aviation people, editors and writers, who were waiting nearby, asked, ‘Who was that old woman you were trying to date’, only to be astounded to learn that it was Hanna Reitsch!

Twice during my research for The Women Who Flew for Hitler I was told that I was just ‘two handshakes away from Hitler’; once by Eric Brown, who had shaken Hanna’s hand, and once by Major General Berthold von Stauffenberg, whose father Claus von Stauffenberg had led the most famous assassination attempt on Hitler; the 20 July 1944 Valkyrie bomb plot. It was an honour, as well as a great pleasure, to interview all these men, and it is always wonderful to meet other people who are willing to generously share their memories to help me gain the most accurate picture I can of my subjects. Perhaps, if I get the chance to have a new edition of The Women Who Flew For Hitler, I can add some further nuance to their stories!   

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Ford Maddox Ford argued that if you open a book at page 99, "the quality of the whole will be revealed to you". Here Clare applies the Page 99 Test to The Women Who Flew for Hitler

Blogpost written for the Campaign for the American Reader.

Clare Mulley applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Women Who Flew for Hitler and reported the following:

Melitta posed for British press photographers “where the huge ‘D’ for Deutsche was painted, rather than beside the swastika on the tail” of her light aircraft, page 99 of The Women Who Flew for Hitler opens. In a way, this gets right to the heart of things.

This is a book about the only two women to serve the Third Reich as test pilots during the Second World War. That they were both brilliant pilots is a given; the Nazis would not have let any women near an aircraft if they did not need their skills. As the only female Flight Captains in Nazi Germany, and recipients of the Iron Cross, Melitta von Stauffenberg and Hanna Reitsch were also great patriots and shared a strong sense of honor and duty. Their concepts of ‘patriotism’, however, were very different. Hannah was a fanatical Nazi. Melitta was secretly Jewish and loyal to an older, pre-Nazi Germany. In 1944 she would become closely involved in her brother-in-law Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Hitler.

Back in 1938, where page 99 finds us, Melitta had been sent to England to show the British what German female pilots were made of. As it happened, her visit coincided with Chamberlain’s trip to Munich. British journalists were on standby for major news, and rather frustrated to be reporting on “two pretty young German pilots in cotton skirts and light woolen cardigans”. So when Melitta was suddenly ordered to report to her Embassy without delay, it caused something of a media frenzy.

“Nervous excitement grew around the possibility of being the first to hear the news, and break the story, that the whole country was dreading…”

By the end of the page, however, we know that the intriguing urgent call to the Embassy has come from Melitta’s husband, unexpectedly on business in London and hoping to arrange a dinner date with his wife. “We trust that the dinner went off satisfactorily”, the British papers dryly concluded their reports.

This is a book full of high drama in the skies, and collaboration but also courage and defiance down below. There is also plenty of humor and humanity in the small details of life. Above all, this is the true story of two real women with soaring ambitions and a searing rivalry, making seemingly impossible choices under the perverting conditions of war and dictatorship. While Melitta chose to position herself by the ‘D’ for Deutschland, Hanna would always stand by the Nazi swastika. They would end their lives on opposite sides of history.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

10 books in 10 days, ‘no explanations’

Clare Mulley, September 2018

I have just been nominated to post ‘10 books in 10 days, no explanation’ on Facebook. To choose only 10 books was hard enough, but ‘no explanation’ was almost worse… so here is the post-posts blog to explain things a little…

1. BB, Lord of the Forest

It is very difficult to single out one childhood book. I think I was very struck by Ian Serraillier, The Silver Sword and Jill Paton Walsh, The Dolphin Crossing, but as I have now written quite a bit about the Second World War, in which both these are set, I wonder if I have self-selected retrospectively. I also loved Gerald Durrell, Ursula Le Guin and C.S. Lewis. The Lord of the Forest is the book that really stuck with me though. I had no idea who BB was, but liked the anonymity (to me) of the author, and simply loved looking at history through the life of an oak tree. That is right – it is, in effect, the biography of a tree.

2. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


Cliché choice, but I do love this book. Read it as a teenager, loved it then, loved it ever since. Now my two eldest daughters love it, often quote it, and the middle one is dressing up as Lizzie Bennet for her school library open day next week... so it is a love shared as well. My photo shows quite an ugly compendium of Jane Austen’s novels, but it was presented to me for winning my school art prize in 1984… I started reading addictively, and have never stopped.

3. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

When I went to university, my mum gave me a small pocket dictionary that had been hers before she married, but while lovely and quite useful it didn’t have enough words. My eye was always on this two-volume dictionary of my dad’s. (No internet then of course.) I now love both, and also many other dictionaries including Johnson’s and Flaubert’s, Brewers Dictionary of Phrases and Fables, and of course the ever evolving Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

4. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Another university read. In 1792 this book pioneered the idea that women are ‘human creatures… rational creatures’, deserving the same fundamental rights and opportunities as men. It is hard to argue against her basic position, ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men, but over themselves’, but unfortunately many of her concerns are still relevant today.

5. Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

A wonderful novel, full of history, humour, politics and a love of words and language both evoking and transcending time and place. While in different countries, my mother, sister and I each read a copy when it came out, and our talk about the book formed a strata through our letters. We each agreed it was obvious who Lata should marry and only later discovered we had each favoured a different contender. I do love books to escape with. Lots of them. Here I also have to mention Adaf Soueif’s very romantic The Map of Love… but there are so many!

6. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

I have a love/hate relationship with Julian Barnes’ writing, but this is a brilliant book. It is not only about a subject that fascinates me - biography - it also inhabits, explores, debunks and celebrates the very idea of biography. At times I have become obsessed with the ethics of biography, biographical techniques and structures, the balance of factual granite to creative rainbow, the nature of truth, the lenses we peer through, biographies as mirrors as much as windows etc. Wonderful genre-bending ‘biographies’ that have played with these issues include Samuel Johnson’s Life of Savage, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, A.J.A. Symons’ Quest for Corvo, Richard Holmes’ Footsteps, Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, and many others including this book, here to represent them all, Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot.

7. Sei Shõnagon, The Pillow Book

One of the things I love about researching a biography is the sense I sometimes get of joining a conversation across history. Reading diaries and letters, or even less intimate material, can bring moments of profound empathy and a frequent sense of a meeting of minds (although also sometimes the sudden shock of finding inexplicable prejudice or worse.) Of course you can feel this sense of communication across time and place whenever you read a book, fiction or non-fiction, but it first really struck me when I read the daily thoughts and observations of the tenth century Japanese courtier, Sei Shõnagon. Perhaps most famously, because of its resonance, one day she noted ‘a man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random, as if he knew everything.’ At times I looked up almost surprised she wasn’t with me. 

8. Alexander Masters, Stuart: A Life Backwards

There are many brilliant biographies on my shelves, but to me this one takes the cookie, or in this case ill-cooked filthy chicken curry. Apparently it was the book’s subject, Stuart Shorter, whose stroke of genius it was to tell his story grave-to-cradle, unpeeling him layer-by-layer, Shorter and shorter, from chaotic addict until he is the blank human potential of any newborn child. It is Alexander Master’s genius that staples Stuart to the page however. Completely brilliant.

9. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

A book that completely absorbed me, then wrung me out and left me bereft. I immediately dived back in and am always reluctant to leave it.

10. Leo Marks, Between Silk and Cyanide & Anonymous, A Woman in Berlin

Cheating I know, but I needed both. Recently I have read a lot of excellent Second World War books. Robert Harris’ alternative Fatherland will always be up there, but I’m mostly drawn to memoirs and histories. These two were among those that have really stayed with me. Leo Marks became the head of coding for Britain’s Special Operations Executive during the war. Brilliantly witty, mainly moral, very human, he was, I imagine, a difficult man who tells a terrible, wonderful story. But I can’t help but book-end my selection here with another ‘anonymous’ book; the memoirs of a woman in Berlin during the terrible days at the close of the Second World War and subsequent Red Army occupation. Recently I have also loved François Frenkel’s memoir No Place to Lay One’s Head, which is also about a word-loving woman, this time a Polish Jew escaping the Nazi advance through France. I have picked A Woman in Berlin because, although now attributed to the journalist Marta Hillers, when I first read it I did not know who the author was – an unknown woman, so representing all.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

"The Women Who Flew For Hitler".....a dreamcast of a movie adaptation

Clare Mulley,  September 2018

‘Blog post written for The Campaign for the American Reader’.

What could be more filmic? Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg both learnt to fly over the same green slopes of north-east Germany in the 1930s. This was the glamorous age of flight, when Amelia Earhart had her own fashion line and En Avion was the perfume of choice. Female pilots anywhere were considered courageous, but nowhere were they considered more extraordinary than in Nazi Germany, which promoted the idea that women’s real place was in church, the kitchen and the nursery. Hanna and Melitta were exceptional, and with the war they became the only women to serve the regime as test pilots, the only two female Flight Captains in Nazi Germany, and both recipients of the Iron Cross.

You might have thought, then, that Hanna and Melitta would have supported one another, but in fact there was no love lost between them. With her bubbly personality, blond hair and blue-eyes, Hanna seemed the perfect example of Aryan maidenhood, and she was soon an ardent supporter of what she considered to be the dynamic new Nazi regime. Melitta, by contrast, was dark, serious and seemingly shy. Her father had been born Jewish and she was officially categorised as ‘Mischling’, or half-blood, by the regime, but her skills were so valuable to them that they gave her ‘Equal to Aryan’ status. In July 1944, Melitta would support the most famous attempt to assassinate Hitler.

There could hardly be more perfect roles for two actresses today; both at the heart of the Third Reich’s war effort, risking their lives daily in the macho world of Nazi aviation. How about Emma Stone or Jennifer Lawrence for the blond Hanna, who once starred in UFA films for the Nazi the regime. Rachel Weiss or perhaps Gal Gadot could excel as her nemesis, whose quiet determination and moral courage drive the story forward.

There are plenty of supporting roles for the men here too. Hitler is hard to cast, although Bruno Ganz was excellent in Downfall. (The terrifying map room scene when Hitler/Ganz screams at his generals is one of the most adapted clips on YouTube.) Tom Cruise has already played Claus von Stauffenberg, Melitta’s brother-in-law, in the film Valkyrie, but perhaps he could be persuaded to reprise the role among the supporting cast?

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Humour and Humanity: A day with 100 RAF veterans at Project Propeller

Clare Mulley,  July 2018

Mary Ellis as a Second World War ATA pilot, & with me at Project Propeller 2017

‘When women pilots cease to become news, the battle of equality will have been won’, the British ATA pilot Mary Ellis wrote in her memoirs, published last year.i Mary died in late July, aged 101, the last female Spitfire pilot who flew in the Second World War. I was among those honouring her, talking to Sky News, as her name rightly made headlines once again. I had had the privilege to meet Mary at the Project Propeller annual air veterans’ reunion last year where she told me stories of having been shot at twice in one day by anti-aircraft guns mistaking her for an enemy bomber, and of once being ‘stalked’ through the air by a Luftwaffe pilot who cheekily waved to her before ‘suddenly he was gone’. It was ‘all part of the job’ she told me in her matter of fact way, before striding over to chat with her fellow former ATA pilot Joyce Lofthouse and some of the male veterans at the reunion.

Mary had joined the women’s section of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1941, the same year that C.G. Grey, editor of Aeroplane magazine wrote that ‘the menace is the woman who thinks she ought to be flying a high-speed bomber when really she has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly’. In those early days the ATA women earned 20% less than the men and were expected to fly in skirts, even in freezing conditions. By the end of the war 166 women had enrolled, working alongside 1,152 men on equal pay and in uniform trousers. Last year the RAF became the first branch of the British military to accept women for service in any role, including close combat. The battle for equality is still being fought, but it is worth both remembering that we have come a long way, and the pioneers like Mary and Joyce who helped make the diversity of today’s RAF possible.

Joyce passed away last year, and Spitfire pilots Tom Neil and Geoffrey Wellum both died just a few weeks before Mary this July. As we remember these extraordinary men and women, wish them ‘blue skies’ and imagine a wonderful reunion in the clouds, we must also pay attention to those veterans still with us, keeping the Second World War within living memory.

Project Propeller 2018, Halfpenny Green

This year’s Project Propeller reunion was held at Halfpenny Green, Wolverhampton. Although most World War Two veterans are now in their early 90s, guest numbers have been rising as word of the annual event spreads. It now takes a team of volunteers to not only liaise with the host airfields and ATC cadets, make cakes and sandwiches and book the 1940s singers, but also coordinate a growing crew of volunteer light-aircraft pilots who fly the veterans over from their nearest airfield. This year I arrived in a little Cirrus SR20 piloted by Mark Williams and Nick Snow. Setting off from North Weald, we went first to Elstree to collect veteran Spitfire pilot Geoff Hulett

Geoff Hulett with me, and Cirrus pilots Mark Williams and Nick Snow

Geoff was waiting for us in Elstree airfield’s Wings Café, wearing his RAF tie, good aviation sunglasses, and only a slight air of impatience. At ninety-five, he was up on the wing and kindly offering me his hand before I had time to turn around. A quick evaluation of the relative merits of the Spitfire and Cirrus ensued… The Cirrus won on comfort. Geoff, a recipient of the Burma Cross, had been a ferry pilot, delivering Spitfires, Hurricanes and P-47 Thunderbolts in Egypt and the Far East. He remembered his machines getting so hot that when he stopped to refuel he could barely touch the metal harness to lock himself back in, and sometimes oil would slip out onto the floor adding hot fumes to the already heavy air in the cockpit. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly however, the Spitfire cleaned up in other respects. ‘We didn’t have this problem’, Geoff told me cheerfully when the warm engine of our Cirrus had second thoughts about firing as we waited to take off from Elstree. ‘If there were two aircraft, we would park one in front of the other, so that the slip-stream of one would keep the other cool, then reverse the order. That would keep them going.’ Then, once we were up in the air and Nick showed off his GPS navigation systems, Geoff simply pointed out the window saying, ‘that’s the best way actually.’ In Burma he had had no radar to guide him, only maps and a compass. ‘Monsoon season was awkward’, he admitted, ‘though low-flying on clouds is always fun’. Two minutes later Geoff had taken the controls, and we were ‘cloud surfing’ over to Wolverhampton in the very safe hands of a Second World War Spitfire pilot.

Spitfire pilot Geoff Hulett at the controls

Geoff disappeared as soon as we landed at Halfpenny Green. Many of the veterans I spoke with were keen to meet up with old friends, and I was also glad to see a number of familiar faces such as RAF Flying Officer John Alan Ottewell who advised me on my research for my last book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler.

With Flying Officer John Alan Ottewell

Like most of the veterans I spoke with this summer, John had flown with Bomber Command. Every one of these men had an incredible story to tell. 

Only eleven at the start of the war, Ron Applegate joined the ATC in 1942. Although he flew with trainee pilots doing what he called ‘circuits and bumps’, one of his most vivid memories was when he was out blackberrying with his brother. ‘All of a sudden there was a tremendous roar. It was Lancasters, flying at rooftop level… coming at us!’ Only later did Ron learn that they were practising low-level flying and flights over water in preparation for dropping the ‘bouncing bomb’, designed to destroy German dams. 

Radar specialist Stan Forsyth flew with heavy radar equipment, locating enemy radar stations to be bombed, and sometimes accompanying raids up above the bombers, trying to catch the frequency of enemy fighters to warn the crews below. In 1944 Stan was given a different target to locate: the German Navy's mighty 42,900 ton battleship, the Tirpitz. ‘Five aircraft went out, and I found it in the fjords’, Stan told me with understandable pride. ‘I didn’t see it, except on the radar, but I knew it was him. They sent the bombers in, and I got the DFC for finding it.’

Pilot and Warrant Officer Peter Holloway flew over 150 operations in Burma in what he called ‘Hurricanes and Hurribombers.’ Some ops only lasted ten minutes, he told me, as his airfield was right at the edge of the Japanese lines. ‘We were so close you just took off, lifted the wheels, dropped the bombs, and landed again.’

John Whitworth remembered being exhausted, flying a Mosquito back from a Hamburg bombing raid, when suddenly he felt his unflappable navigator, Canadian Bill Tulloch, nudging him hard with his elbow. ‘We were doing 400mph, and I was asleep!’ 

Several of the crew flying on long distance raids had been shot down. Wireless Operator and Gunner Fred Hooker’s first operation was on 3 September 1944, a bombing raid over Venlo in Holland. Bad weather forced them to land away from their base and they only returned on 10 September. The following night they flew to the Ruhr ‘which was hell’. On 12 September their aircraft was shot down on an operation to Munster. 

‘We were on a bombing run, when suddenly I was sitting in fresh air,’ Fred remembered. ‘No Perspex. No guns. In fact the guns were hanging from the tower turret.’ With no intercom, Fred moved down into the damaged aircraft. ‘The rear was full of flames, and in the portside was a bloody large hole.’ Seeing one of the crew bail out of the front hatch spurred him into action but the parachute he grabbed was already on fire. The last thing Fred saw before blacking out was the flight engineer who strode over, picked up a chute, put his arm round Fred, clipped on and pushed him out. 

Fred’s pilot and the tail gunner both lost their lives in the burning bomber, but the rest of the crew landed in a field of sugar-beet near Munster. Immediately caught, they were searched and put on a truck into the city. Walking past burning houses in the streets they had been bombing just an hour earlier was sobering. Some civilians tried to attack them and Fred believes his life was saved a second time that night, but this time by their two German guards. 

Like several of the veterans at the reunion, Fred had brought along some papers. Among them was his German prisoner-of-war ID card, with photo showing a ruggedly handsome but stoney-faced young man. When I asked what was in his mind when it was taken, he laughed, ‘Blue murder… I hadn’t had a wash for two weeks!’ He would spend most of the rest of the war as a POW, long months whose progress he recorded in pencil on brown paper ripped from a Red Cross parcel. 

Wireless operator and gunner Fred Hooker with his papers

Welshman Harry Winter was also shot down over Germany. Harry flew Wellingtons and Halifaxes with the 427 Royal Canadian Air Force, known as the ‘Lion Squadron’ and adopted by MGM because of their rampant lion insignia. In October 1943 Harry was in the second wave of the bombing run over Kassell, when German flares lit up the sky until it was like ‘going down a high street with the lights on’. Night-fighters proceeded to shoot down twenty-five bombers within five miles. 

Having been caught with his parachute still attached after baling out, Harry was taken to Luft 7. Later he would join the forced march to Stalag IIIA, south of Berlin, a camp that was eventually liberated by the Russians. Even then Harry was detained for a POW swap. Allowed to walk under guard into East Berlin, he knocked on doors asking for food. ‘Two girls saw my uniform was different and, when they found out I was British, they asked me to stay and protect them’, he told me. The women feared being raped by Russian soldiers. Harry was more than happy to swap the hard floor at the camp for a settee in Berlin, and eventually managed to flag down a US army truck and get sent home. When he finally got back to Cardiff, Harry found that his girlfriend had married another chap. ‘It was ok, I had disappeared I guess,’ he told me wistfully, before his eyes lit up again. ‘I got a London girl.’

All the veterans I spoke with this summer were pleased to share their time and memories, and some have published their memoirs, listed below. Ivan ‘Lucky’ Potter even signed a copy of his for me. None glorified war in any way, although most spoke warmly about the comradeship they found, and lit up at recalling their better memories. 

‘We were flying with a full bomb load, a Lancaster UMH2, and there was a thundercloud directly on track’, Rear Gunner Peter Potter told me, a large grin raising the curled ends of his glorious moustache. ‘It was too massive to go around, so we went up 24,000 feet to go over it.’ Soon they were caught in the turbulent centre of the dark cloud, then suddenly sucked out of it and falling 20,000 feet. The air was howling over the aircraft’s fuselage and the control panel shook so much it was hard to read the dials as they plummeted down, but somehow Peter’s pilot managed to pull the Lancaster out of their unintended dive. They had just enough power to limp back to base. ‘It tore the rivets out, its body was all twisted’, he added rather proudly. Later he got a letter from Lancaster design engineer Roy Chadwick, who had inspected the broken aircraft. ‘To have incurred this damage,’ Chadwick wrote, ‘you had to have been going at 520mph. Ps, You have probably flown the fastest bomber in the war’.

At Project Propeller 2018 with Lancaster Rear Gunner Peter Potter. Photo c. Nigel Whitmore.

There was also much moving talk about losing friends and colleagues however, the less fortunate who are also always remembered at Project Propeller reunions. ‘The worst was when we bombed Nuremberg,’ Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner Reginald Payne, now 95, recalled. ‘I have still my log-book. I did the ops without any real problems… the ground-crew found damage to the aircraft that showed we had been hit by enemy flak, but we were not aware of it… But we lost 94 airmen. We lost men in our hut. We lost a lot of friends. At night you would sleep next to another man, and you always said goodnight. Then they were gone. You would see all the empty beds, and a few days later “sprog” [newer recruits] airmen would come in.’ 

Wireless Operator and Rear Gunner Reginald Payne

Mary Ellis had shared similar memories with me the year before. Once, delivering a Wellington bomber, she had had to stay over at a Bomber Command airfield & enjoyed a fine meal in the mess with ‘all these lovely air crew.’ ‘The place was full of laughter and they were all such decent chaps’, she told me. The next morning there were only two or three men at breakfast, ‘solemnly drinking tea’. The others had not returned from their missions that night.

Other veterans spoke about the civilian casualties of their bombing raids. ‘At age 18/19 you don’t think’, Lawrence Rogers, now 96, told me. ‘Dropping bombs. It was our duty but so many innocent people were killed. Women and children.’ 

Most of the men were quick to tell me that their best moment was, in Reginald Payne’s words, ‘landing back at base after the last op.’ Reginald and his crew celebrated by going into Lincoln to have ‘a good old round of drinks, but not too much - you never knew whether, for certain, they wouldn’t want you again the next day.’ Between them, the veterans I met saw the end of the war on different dates in London, Lincoln, Berlin and Shanghai.

Pilot Eric Carter

At 98 ‘and getting on a bit’, Eric Carter, who had wangled his way into the RAF having originally been called up for the army, only to serve a gruelling year in Russia followed by postings in Egypt and the Far East, was the least sentimental about his war. ‘The best moment? I don’t think there were many… It was bloody dangerous, and it was awful.’ Like many, he had a clear message for the next generation: ‘Learn as much as you can from this period. It was not a party, not something to happen again. Make sure it does NOT happen again. Watch these politicians.’

Navigator Jim Wright greets the Lancaster bomber salute at Project Propeller 2018

A moment later our conversation was drowned out by the sound of rapidly approaching Rolls Royce Merlin engines. Eric automatically lifted his gaze, while Jim Wright in a chair beside us, a navigator who flew on 43 missions during the war, raised his hand in greeting. A Lancaster was flying low overhead in tribute to the service that these men and their colleagues, male and female, British, Poles, Czech and others, had given during the conflict. 

For my daughters, the Second World War is part of the history curriculum. I felt the same at their age, but almost as much time has passed since I was at school, as between the war and my classes. My children are probably the last generation who may have the chance to talk with people who served in the conflict, men and women like Mary Ellis, Geoff Hulett, Fred Hooker and Eric Carter, whose lives were shaped not only by their service, but by the absence of those dear to them who lost their lives. Once female pilots made headlines by dint of their gender; these days the names of both male and female Second World War pilots are all too often in the papers as they leave us. Project Propeller provides a unique opportunity for many of those still with us to meet again, share their news, and retell their stories. Each passing year it feels ever more important to listen to their voices, remember the debt that we owe, and learn from their memories and insights, their humour and their humanity. 

Clare with Cirrus pilot Mark Williams, Flight Engineer Harold Kirby, and Pilot Geoff Hullet.

Project Propeller depends on donations of both time and money to keep going. If you would like to contribute, or are a private light aircraft pilot who would be interested in offering to fly veterans to next year’s reunion, please get in touch through the website: http://www.projectpropeller.org/PP/index.asp