Thursday, 21 June 2018

Meeting the Nazi test-pilot Hanna Reitsch

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 jewelry 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!   

A New Perspective on The Children of Calais

‘The Children of Calais’ is an unusual piece of public art in a country that tends to memorialize heroes, royals and victories. Britain has a lot of men on horses, columns and pedestals, and quite a few Queen Victorias gazing across towns and parks. But things are slowly changing. April this year saw the first statue to a woman in Parliament Square, Millicent Fawcett. ‘The Children of Calais’, unveiled by Alf Dubs in June, is something different again. The six life-sized, bronze figures, three girls, three boys, that compose the piece are designed to provoke debate about the inhumanity of our response to the children – those most vulnerable to neglect and abuse – caught up  in the ongoing refugee crisis.


Award-winning sculptor and conceptual artist Ian Wolter was inspired by Rodin’s famous ‘The Burghers of Calais’, an edition of which lives in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. Rodin was commissioned by the City of Calais to commemorate the six burghers of their city who, in the fourteenth century, were prepared to sacrifice themselves to the English king, in order to save their citizens from starvation under siege. The six men are portrayed at the moment they walked out of Calais to their certain death, one carrying the key to the city in an act of silent surrender. Every figure subtly portrays desperation in a different way. Although they are standing close enough to touch one another, each is lost and alone in their misery. Yet as well as expressing sorrow and defeat, they also capture heroic self-sacrifice and human dignity.

On the left,  Auguste Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais,  and,  on the right,   Ian Wolter’s The Children of Calais.

‘My six figures are English children,’ Ian explains, ‘children I know, in contemporary clothes, but in poses echoing Rodin’s burghers, with the tallest child holding a life-jacket in place of the Calais city key. Refugee children are simply children at the end of the day, forced from their homes and at the mercy of strangers whose language they may not even speak. When children are portrayed in the way Rodin approached his sculpture, the loneliness and desperation is overlaid with their need for adult care and protection.’
Refugees are not just a contemporary phenomenon. Starvation, war and disease have driven people from their homes for centuries. Labour peer Alf Dubs, who travelled up from London to unveil the sculpture in the North Essex market town of Saffron Walden, is a former child refugee himself.

Alf Dubs and Ian Wolter unveil ‘The Children of Calais’
Just six years old when he left Czechoslovakia, he carried not a key or life-jacket but a simple packed lunch for his journey across Europe on the eve of the Second World War. So terrified was he of wasting his precious meal, that he did not eat at all for two days, until he arrived at London’s Liverpool Street Station. Alf was one of 669 children rescued though Nicholas Winton’s Czech Kindertransport initiative. In 1939, Winton forged Home Office paperwork; in 2003 he was knighted for his ‘services to humanity’, and there is now a plaque to commemorate the rescue in the House of Commons.
“I am emotionally involved’ with the issue of child refugees, Alf made clear at the ‘Children of Calais’ unveiling, but ‘not just because of my background. I believe that most people, if not all in the country, think that we can do more for child refugees… I have never said that Britain should take them all. We should simply take our share.’

It was Save the Children that first informed Alf that there were 95,000 unaccompanied child refugees in camps in Europe, who fell outside of EU law giving families the right to live together. This inspired his ‘Dubs Amendment’, a proposal that Britain should take some 3,000 of these children to live in safety in the UK, even though they had no family link here. Alf already knew the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, because, as Maidenhead locals, they had met at Nicolas Winton’s 100th birthday party. May, however, asked Dubs to withdraw his amendment, a suggestion he rejected.
After returning to the Lords, the Dubs Amendment was finally passed, though later scrapped after only 350 unaccompanied children had been brought to safety in Britain. In 2017 Britain’s inappropriately named Immigration Minister, Robert Goodwill, announced that we had done our bit and ‘met the spirit of the amendment’. Now the issue is being debated again. ‘It is important to recognise that campaigning is not the perogative of any one political party’, Alf made clear, with a quick look at the Conservative MP of Saffron Walden, Kemi Badenoch, who attended the reception after the unveiling of the Children of Calais sculpture. Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons home affairs committee, described the government’s approach as ‘completely inadequate’ just days later, but Alf insists ‘we’re getting there – it just takes persistence.’

Saffron Walden residents inspect the new sculpture.

‘What communities choose to commemorate in their public spaces is an expression of what is important to them’ sculptor Ian Wolter said. ‘The people who came to the unveiling of my piece donated over £600 to Safe Passage, there has been huge press interest, and if also some criticism on social media it can only be good if art provokes debate.’

The lives of the six Burghers of Calais, as represented by Rodin, were eventually spared in an act of mercy by the English king’s pregnant wife. ‘I liked that element of the fourteenth century story,’ Ian adds, ‘because in my work it suggests the possibility of a happy ending for child refugees. That in the end, humanity may hold sway.’

First published by the City of Sanctuary here

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Historia Interviews: Michael Morpurgo

Clare Mulley talks to HWA Honorary Patron, Michael Morpurgo, about the extraordinary family history that inspired his latest book.
On 17 August 1944, Michael Morpurgo’s uncle, Francis Cammaerts, was scheduled to be executed. He and two colleagues had been arrested by the Nazi German occupying forces in southern France, who rightly suspected that they were special agents, sent in to arm and organise the French resistance. Having had ‘an ominously good meal’ of vegetable soup, that evening the three men were marched across the prison courtyard towards the football ground, the place used for executions by firing squad. As the sky darkened with a summer storm, they were surprised to suddenly be herded the other way and into a waiting Citro├źn. Once round the first bend, the car stopped to collect a solitary figure, standing silhouetted against the white wall of an isolated farm building. It was Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the Polish-born female special agent who worked with Francis in the field. Unknown to him and the other men, a few days earlier Christine had begged the local resistance to rescue them. After their refusal, she had cycled the 20 kilometers over to the prison, planned, and pulled off the apparently impossible rescue on her own…
A few years ago, not long after my biography of Christine, The Spy Who Loved, had been published, I met Michael Morpurgo at the Harrogate History Festival where he was talking in his capacity as the Honorary Patron of the Historical Writers Association. I asked him whether he might ever write the story of Francis and Christine, their love affair, resistance work, and Christine’s dramatic rescue of the men. Michael told me that he had published almost 800 stories, but this one was too close to him. Last month I went to the launch of In the Mouth of the Wolf, Michael’s latest book, which finally tells the story of Francis, his brother Pieter, and Christine. We met again, a few days ago at Ognisko Polskie, London’s Polish Hearth Club, to talk about why Michael finally chose to share this tale.
‘This story has been at the back of my mind all my life,’ Michael told me, at least ‘since I was six years old.’ Michael was about seven when he first met Francis. Knowing only that his uncle was a great war-hero, and finding him ‘immensely tall’, Michael found him very daunting. ‘Francis was a one-off, very strange. He did not behave like other uncles. He commanded a room whenever he came in. Very handsome. Very impressive. Difficult to talk to’.
Despite this, Michael was deeply inspired by both of his uncles; Francis and his younger brother Pieter, who had joined the RAF and was killed in action early on in the war. When he left school Michael even joined the army, ‘because the story of these brothers was so strong in my head. I was not a very deep-thinking eighteen year old’, he laughs, and he left again pretty swiftly, ‘never having had to go to war, thank god.’ His change of mind about his vocation came during winter training exercises in 1962. Michael tells even this like a story waiting to be written. ‘It was freezing’, he begins, ‘there was snow on the ground and in the trenches, and the enemy’ – in fact some Argyll Highlanders – ‘would cheerfully have killed and eaten us Sandhurst cadets. They shouted at us all night, and in the morning I had an epiphany… I suddenly realised that what I wanted to do was talk to people, not shoot at them. So I left the army.’ Nonetheless, his time as a cadet gave him an understanding of the military that he would later find very useful in his writing.
Like Francis before him, Michael then became a teacher, and the two men found each other again, discussing education. Over time Francis spoke more about his own life. It was his knowledge of the courage of the French people who hid and supported members of the resistance during the war that enabled Michael to write his book about the French occupation, Waiting for Anya, with real integrity.
Francis now also spoke about working with Christine. She had been parachuted in to serve as the courier with his resistance circuit in the south east of France in the summer of 1944. The previous courier, Cecily Lefort, had been arrested some weeks before, and would eventually be killed in the gas chambers. Christine was the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent in the war, and had already operated behind enemy lines in two different theatres of the conflict; in Eastern Europe; and Egypt and the Middle East. She had a reputation both for courage and for getting results. Francis immediately knew that he could trust her, and simply told Michael that it was Christine ‘who made it work.’ What he did not talk about was their love affair. ‘They fell in love extraordinarily quickly’, Michael told me. But Francis was married, and all he would later say was that ‘it is possible to love two women at the same time’.
Michael says he feels indebted to his uncles for many things, not least for having given him the debate of his life, ‘do you or don’t you do what they did, serve and fight?’ Michael believes he would have made the same choices at Pieter, the uncle he never knew. Francis started the war as a conscientious objector, and it was these differences that gave Michael his way into the story. He only dared to write the book after Francis had died, involving his family all the way, sending them drafts. Luckily, he says, ‘they are broadminded’.
In the end, the story of Francis and Christine was one that Michael felt he had to write. ‘History is the most important subject in the world, and the most ignored,’ he told me. ‘There is very little curriculum interest in it. Children are not being taught the story of the story, the development of history. You can start wherever you like, that doesn’t matter at all.’ Michael has told tales from all over the world, and across time, but ultimately, he says, ‘this is the story that I am connected to the most. I grew up during the Second World War. I played in the ruins, and there really was an old soldier with one leg at the end of the street. It was a dark and gloomy London, full of sadness. It was like some monster had come… This war had not just knocked down houses, burnt bodies and taken off flesh, it had also affected my own family.’
Michael and I had chosen to meet in the Polish Hearth Club in London, because last year the club commissioned a bronze bust of Christine, which now lives there on public display. The portrait was sculpted by my husband, Ian Wolter, an award-winning artist, using every photograph of her that I could find, including crime scene pictures released to me under the Freedom of Information Act. At the foundry, we added a handful of Polish and British earth to the bronze, so Christine is literally cast with the soil of her native and adoptive countries. What was it like to finally come face-to-face with Christine, I asked Michael. ‘Very strange,’ he hesitated, ‘to see the face that meant so much to Francis, but who none of us were ever able to meet’.
This is not the place to let you know what made Francis change his mind and fight in the Second World War, or even how Christine saved him and his colleagues-in-arms in a French field in the late summer of 1944. There are books out there for that. As a piece for Historia, I will simply pass on Michael’s passionate belief that, whatever the subject, you ‘have to tell a story that matters to you. If you are not really passionate about the subject then don’t tell it. If it hurts, it hurts. If it’s about war, it will hurt. You look people in the eye when you tell a story… just write.’

Michael Morpurgo’s In the Mouth of the Wolf, illustrated by the brilliant French artist Barroux, is published by Egmont.
Clare Mulley’s The Spy Who Loved, the Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, is published by Macmillan and has been optioned by Universal Studios.
  1. Clare Mulley with Michael Morpurgo at Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club in London, 2018. Photo © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
  2. Francis Cammaerts & Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville
  3. Clare Mulley with Michael Morpurgo at Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club in London, 2018. Photo © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
  4. The stories of Francis; In the Mouth of the Wolf, & Christine; The Spy Who Loved
  5. Ian Wolter’s sculpture of Christine at Ognisko Polskie. © Ania Mochlinska, Ognisko Polskie.
Article originally published on the Historia Website here

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

How to Knit Gloves

‘How to Knit Gloves’ (for the Edwardian James Bond), 1911

‘Gloves are not very difficult to knit’, my grandmother wrote in 1911. A rather proud sixteen-year-old, who had probably just finished her first good pair, she prudently remarked that hers were ‘very useful as new finger-tips can be knitted when the first wear out.’

I am not a knitter, but I love the idea of knitting new finger tips for old, rather like Bond replacing his finger-prints to enable him to have a whisky while avoiding leaving identifying marks on a glass. Bond could, of course, have just worn gloves, but perhaps Q did not have the beautiful instructions that my grandmother had written out for knitting such a ‘useful’ pair.

There are long generations on my mother’s side of the family. I was 38 when I had my last daughter, and my mother and her mother were about the same age when they had theirs. So, generationally, it only takes us two hops to get back to 1911 when my grandmother, Mary McCombie, was sixteen, the same age as my eldest today. Mary was the first of four siblings, who filled their spare time with reading and radio, tennis and parties, and – Mary at least on one slow afternoon – knitting.

Hoping to gain some insight into my teenage grandma, I emailed her gloves recipe to my brilliant-knitting friend, Emma to see what she would make of it. Emma immediately plunged into the challenge of knitting Edwardian gloves…

‘These needles arrived today.’ Emma emailed back a week later, with the first of a series of photos. Mary had recommended using ‘4 steel needles’, which is a traditional way of knitting in the round. Today there are bendy needles that flex in the middle, like bendy-busses making life easier for going round corners. They make it ‘less like hedgehog wrestling’ Emma wrote, which seems a perfect way to describe knitting with traditional straights.

Mary had recommended 3 ply yarn for men’s gloves, 2 ply for ladies, but Emma soon saw that this would only produce a tiny and rather lacy, decorative glove, so she moved up a size, fortunately announcing, ‘I'm loving this!!!!!’

Unlike me, Emma understood Mary’s knitting language and was soon setting off on two rounds of purl (garter stitch), 8 rounds of plain (stocking stitch) and 2 rows purl. The first cuff appeared. #intertextualknittingphotography

‘Looking good,’ I wrote back, and love that tattoo!

Three more photos followed in rapid succession. ‘I can't help but smile at how your gran begins with "gloves are easy to knit”’, Emma wrote. Mary had chosen moss stitch - achieved by doing a knit one, purl one sequence, reversing on the next row.  ‘This gives the lovely bumpy effect you can see in the second picture. It's used if you want a robust garment, but it’s a bit of a fancy stitch that someone may use to show off.’ So either Mary wanted robust gloves or she was quietly parading her knitting proficiency.

Emma was knitting with the TV on. Despite using coloured wool threads as markers, as instructed, she lost count, but pressed on following her mother-in-law’s excellent philosophy that ‘flaws add character’. ‘Amazing work,’ I told her. ‘You are having a conversation with my grandma that I could never have understood, and it tells you a bit about her, her confidence and perhaps showy-offness, that I love.’ I sent her a photo of Mary aged about 16. Unlikely she had any tattoos, and certainly no Netflix.

The gloves were starting to look a bit mittenish, but Emma was soon ready to knit fingers. Mary’s pattern suggested 7 stitches per finger with 4 stitches added each side to ensure no gaps, but got a little vague in parts so Emma worked it out as she went along, sticking with the moss stitch.

Suddenly the first was done! ‘Now to make sure the second matches!’ Emma wrote as proud as Mary had ever been…

The result was a mossy, grey, 1911 work of genius, which Emma generously presented to me one evening a week later! I love them.

The grandma I remembered was an old lady (that’s the downside of long generations), but she was kind, and loving, and delighted at cheating at cards. I hadn’t put it past her to cheat with her gloves instructions too, but it seems she was rightly proud of her endeavours.

No doubt when the First World War started, just three years after Mary wrote out her knitting instructions, she again put her skills to good use. It is unlikely that her future husband, Alfred Smith, ever wore her wartime creations. He was posted to Turkey and served at Gallipoli, before being transferred to Egypt, but the nights did get very cold so you never know. I like to think that when they met after the war, and he was back in chilly England, she might have picked up her four steel needles again for him.

With thanks to Emma Dobson and Mary McCombie.

Emma Dobson

Mary McCombie

Mary McCombie’s ‘How to Knit Gloves’ full instructions

Pilots and Spies, Enablers and Resisters

Article written for the Chalke Valley History Festival

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were the only two women to serve as test pilots for the Nazi regime. Truly remarkable women, both were made Honorary Flight Captains and both were awarded the Iron Cross… yet they ended their lives on opposite sides of history. I am delighted to be talking about their beliefs, decisions and actions as told in my new book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, when I return to the Chalke Valley History Festival this June.

I was last at the festival in 2013, speaking about The Spy Who Loved, my biography of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the first woman to serve Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. You can hear a recording of that talk here. These days the questions that I am most often asked are; why the focus on women in conflict; and why the shift in perspective from the story of an Allied heroine, to that of two women serving the Nazi regime…

For a historian, the seismic upheaval of war brings fascinating stories not only of honour, courage and duty, betrayal, sacrifice and horror, but also of shifting priorities and perspectives. For women in Britain, the Second World War brought an end to many hopes and dreams but also new opportunities, notably in the workplace. For some, the conflict also brought the chance to serve both at home, and behind enemy lines. It was of course preconceptions about gender that made female special agents so unexpected and inconspicuous in the field, and therefore so effective when they were trained, armed, and sent to work in Nazi-occupied Europe alongside their male counterparts.

The well-connected daughter of a Polish count and Jewish banking heiress, before the war Krystyna Skarbek got her thrills from smuggling cigarettes by skiing across her country’s mountainous borders. Arriving in London towards the close of 1939, she was desperate to put her skills and experience to good use in the fight against Nazism. Being British and male were then the fundamental requirements of the Secret Intelligence Services, but Krystyna offered a unique opportunity to see how the enemy was organizing in an occupied territory. Deployed before the year was out, she became Britain’s first – and longest serving – female special agent, and was ultimately awarded the OBE, George Medal and French Croix de Guerre for her service in three different theatres of the conflict.

Krystyna’s principle motivation was her deep sense of patriotism. The conflict had enabled her to live a life of freedom, action and significance, but it had also left six million of her compatriots dead, and her ravaged country under the control of a Soviet-backed Communist regime. For her, surviving the ‘terrible peace’ that followed the war was harder than responding to the call to action.

Pioneering German aviators Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg not only made their names in the male-dominated field of flight in the 1930s but, with the onset of the war, also became test-pilots for the Nazi regime. They, too, were motivated by both their sense of honour, duty and patriotism, and their love for personal freedom. Their understandings of what these words meant, however, were very different not only from Krystyna Skarbek’s conception, but also from each other’s.

With her blond curls and blue-eyes, Hanna looked the perfect ‘Aryan’ woman, which suited both her inclinations and her ambitions. Firmly aligning herself with what she considered to be the dynamic Nazi regime, when war came she proudly put her life on the line to test prototypes including the vast Gigant troop-carrying glider, the Me163 rocket-powered Komet, and even a manned-version of the V1 flying bomb or doodlebug. As a brilliant aeronautical engineer, Melitta, helped develop the Stuka dive-bombers, even insisting on testing her own innovations. She knew that it was only by making herself uniquely valuable to the regime that she might protect herself and her family – her father had been born Jewish. On 20 July 1944 Melitta supported the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life. Conversely in the last days of the war, Hanna flew into Berlin under siege and begged Hitler to let her fly him to safety.

The Nazi regime and its enormously powerful armed forces led to the suffering and death of millions of people, Jews of all nations, Poles of all religions, Russians, British, French, American, the list goes on. The Women Who Flew for Hitler searches for the truth about two female pilots, asking why they were so successful and how they felt about serving the Nazi regime. I hope that what it reveals – the good and the bad – will contribute to a better understanding of the ways in which Hitler was able to harness the resources of his country for his terrible purposes. It is no less important that we seek to understand these questions, as that we remember the courage, achievements and sacrifices of the brave men and women whose service in so many fields helped to defeat that threat.

Clare is due to give a talk at the Chalke Valley History Festival this summer,  if you are interested in tickets please go to this link.

First published for the Chalke Valley History Festival here

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Pioneers of flight: Hitler's forgotten Valkyries

First published by Pan Macmillan on 28th June 2017

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented and record-breaking women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. In her new book, The Women Who Flew For Hitler, acclaimed biographer and author Clare Mulley tells the real story of Hanna and Melitta. Here, Clare explains why she was drawn to write about these two fascinating women. 

Among the women who were awarded the Iron Cross during the Second World War, for me, two stand out. Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were both brilliant pilots whose skill and conviction placed them firmly at the heart of the Third Reich. Hanna with her dazzling smile, blonde curls and blue eyes, was an enthusiastic supporter of Hitler’s new regime, happily lending her image to a series of publicity articles and collectable cigarette cards. She also test-flew the most pioneering designs from the Nazi aircraft development programme. The darker, more serious and seemingly shy Melitta had a more conflicted relationship with the regime. Although one of their most senior aeronautical engineers and the lead Stuka dive-bomber test-pilot, she would never accept many of the policies and practices of National Socialism.

As young women, Hanna and Melitta had learnt to fly fragile wood and canvas gliders over the same green slopes. With engine-powered flight prohibited under the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, gliding became the focus for German national pride after the First World War. Although girls were only expected to watch, the women who dared to take to the skies quickly became icons in this golden age of flight.

In 1936 both Hanna and Melitta would wow the crowds flying at events during the Olympic Games. Two years later Hanna became the first women to fly a helicopter, and the first person ever to fly one inside a building, blowing all the gentlemen’s hats off as she circuited the Deutschlandhalle. When war came she tested the design of wing blades developed to cut through British barrage balloon cables, practised deck landings, and eventually crash-landed in a prototype of the famous Me163 rocket plane, destroying much of her face. Hitler awarded her the Iron Cross for her courage and commitment to duty, making her the first woman to receive the Iron Cross during the war.

In contrast, Melitta Schiller had quietly built her career further away from the limelight. A brilliant aeronautical engineer as well as a test pilot, Melitta’s work was fundamental in developing the accuracy of Stuka dive-bombers. Sometimes she would pass out during tests, regaining consciousness just in time to pull out before impact. She knew she had to work at the limits of the possible; it was through becoming uniquely valuable that she hoped to help protect herself and her siblings – all of whom had been defined as Jewish ‘Mischling’ in 1937. By 1944 Melitta had been reclassified as ‘Equal to Aryan’, her family were safe, she too had received the Iron Cross, and she was heading up her own military flight institute; an unheard of position for a woman, let alone one with Jewish ancestry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, although they knew each other well and often met before and during the war, Hanna and Melitta had a difficult relationship.

As the tide of the war turned against Nazi Germany, Hanna and Melitta both looked for radical ways to bring an earlier but very different end to the conflict. Their beliefs, decisions, determination, courage and dramatic actions would put them powerfully on opposite sides of history. Yet later, when Hanna was infamous, revered and abhorred in almost equal measure, Melitta simply faded from the record. Uncovering her story has shed extraordinary new light not just on both these women’s lives, but on life more generally inside Germany under the Nazi regime, the limited options open to some, and the courage it took to face realities and act on truths under the perverting conditions of dictatorship and war.

Friday, 19 May 2017

My Weapon is My Writing: Olga Tokarczuk at the London Book Fair.

First published by English PEN, 12 May 2017

‘I treat language like a tool, like a fork and knife when you have to eat reality’, the multi-award winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk told her audience at the English PEN literary salon at this year’s London Book Fair, causing quite a stir. Verbal cutlery or not, Polish is now the second most spoken language in England and Wales, and Poland was this year’s ‘market focus’ at the fair. Visitors were buzzing round the stands showcasing the country’s long and vibrant literary heritage through the work of novelists, poets, non-fiction and children’s authors, as well as Poland’s five Nobel prize winners for literature. Tokarczuk, Poland’s most famous female writer and more than once on the Nobel long-list herself, was one of several international authors attracting the crowds to PEN’s salon.

Perhaps it is ironic then that in recent years the Polish domestic budget to help promote challenging literary authors such as Tokarczuk has been considerably reduced or reallocated. This is partly why PEN America awarded a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to Jennifer Croft for Tokarczuk’s award-winning The Books of Jacob, to help bring it to an English-speaking readership. ‘Promoting free speech, giving someone a voice, is the most important job in the world’, English PEN’s Robert Sharp says, ‘especially when there is so much need for empathy and understanding in the world.’

I have a particular interest in Polish history and the Polish book market. My last book, The Spy Who Loved, was a biography of Polish-born Krystyna Skarbek, a.k.a. Christine Granville, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent in the Second World War. One of my hopes for the book is that as well as telling the story of this remarkable war hero, it might draw attention to some of the key roles played both by women, and by Poles, during the war. I was delighted when The Spy Who Loved was translated into Polish and published under the title Kobieta Szpieg, or ‘Female Spy’. Unable to return to Poland under the Soviet-backed Communist regime after the war, Krystyna Skarbek spent the rest of her all-too short life in London, and is buried in Kensal Green. At first I felt she would have been delighted to be, in some sense at least, finally returning home. But of course she has never been forgotten in the country of her birth where she is already the subject of a number of studies and one fascinating work of fiction by the novelist Maria Nurowska, who met me in Poland during my research for the book to share her insights. Sadly none of Nurowska’s books have yet been translated into English and, even the prolific Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob will be only her third novel published in English.

Tokarczuk was a professional psychologist until, she says, she realised she was ‘much more neurotic than my clients’. She now claims she could not live without writing: ‘the truth is, I cannot do anything else’. In conversation with Rosie Goldsmith at the English PEN literary salon, she spoke powerfully about the responsibility that, she believes, comes with writing, and which she sometimes feels weighing on her back ‘like luggage’. ‘Proud to be a feminist writer’, one of her key concerns is to consider reality from diverse points of view. As a young girl she used to sit, out of sight, under tables, ‘looking at shoes, legs, and the entire theatre’ as she listened in to other people’s conversations. Growing up she felt the rich presence of Jewish culture everywhere, among other influences, and began to relish how deeply literature was connected to culture. Her own writing reflects the traditional multiculturalism of Poland that existed before the war and the homogeneity promoted by post-war Communism. But it also addresses more negative issues, such as Polish anti-Semitism. Her books are ‘the best advertisement you could think of for Poland’, fellow author Jacek Dehnel argues, ‘but they show the history of Poland from a non-national point of view, giving voice to various minorities’. When pushed to define her writing identity, Tokarczuk says she feels like ‘a Central European writer, writing in Polish’.

Today Polish identity is principally, but not exclusively, Roman Catholic, and with the country’s current, socially conservative, ‘Law and Justice’ party in office, there is once again less celebration of the nation’s traditional diversity, and less promotion of alternative voices. For some, ‘social life in Poland is focused on demos’ Tokarczuk laughs, but for her, ‘my weapon is writing’. ‘Poles don’t want to know the truth about our history’, Maria Nurowska adds. ‘The role of the writer is to overthrow, and this is what Olga [Tokarczuk] does.’ As tool, knife and fork, or weapon, Tokarczuk and her compatriots know how to deploy words to good effect. What is needed now is the support to help them reach greater audiences both domestically and across international borders.