Saturday, 26 November 2016

Twickenham's Rose and Poppy Gates of Remembrance

Article first published in History Today, 12 April 2016.


‘I shall never play at Twickenham again’, twenty-five year old Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer reportedly sighed as he lay dying at Ypres on 5 May 1915. Hit by a sniper’s bullet less than five weeks after he had been posted to the Western Front, Poulton-Palmer had served his country twice over, once in the trenches, and once as Captain of the English national rugby team. He was one of twenty-seven England international players killed during the First World War. Many more have died serving in later conflicts.

On 29 April 2016, the Rugby Football Union unveiled their stunning new Rose and Poppy Gates at Twickenham stadium, the official Home of England Rugby. Showing the symbolic metamorphosis of the English rose, as worn on the shirts of the national squad, into the remembrance poppy, the gates commemorate the sacrifice of all rugby players who have served and died in conflicts around the world. The annual Army v Navy Rugby Match took place the following day, drawing a crowd of 82,000, including many serving soldiers, veterans and their families.



The RFU’s proud association with the military is already recorded in an exhibition at the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham, which details the stories of those players who went on to serve their country in the forces. Here the 1914 England rugby union team are captured in a photograph, stripy socks pulled up, hair combed down, starched white shirts embroidered with the English rose. This unbeatable side was led by Poulton-Palmer, who scored four tries in the last test match before the war, a 39-13 victory over France. Famous for his glamorous style of play and ‘elusiveness’ on the pitch, Poulton-Palmer was hailed as one of the greatest players in the world. A third of his squad would fall alongside him during the coming conflict.


Lt Francis Oakeley, a scrum-half who won four caps for England, was killed in 1914 when his submarine, the HMS D2, disappeared in the North Sea. He was not quite twenty-four. A few months later surgeon James ‘Bungy’ Watson, who played centre, was one of 500 killed when the Royal Naval warship, HMS Hawke, was torpedoed by a German submarine. Capt. Arthur James Dingle, nick-named ‘Mud’ after the pitches of Country Durham where he learnt to play centre and wing, was exempt from military service as a serving school-master but petitioned to enlist. He died defending a trench during the Battle of Scimitar Hill at Gallipoli in August 1915. His body was never recovered. Debutant forward Robert Pillman volunteered for special duties in the Queens Own in northern France, once carrying a fellow officer who had been gassed 300 yards across no-mans land to safety. In July 1916 he was fatally wounded returning from a night-raid in Armentieres. A survivor of action in Gallipoli, Lt Alfred Maynard, hooker, was killed on the first day of the Battle of Ancre, Britain’s last push in the Somme, in November 1916. At 22, he was the youngest England international player to die in the war. Finally from that 1914 squad, Lt-Cdr Arthur Leyland Harrison was the only England rugby international to have been awarded the VC. Despite suffering severe head wounds, on regaining consciousness Harrison lost his life while leading an attack to disable German machineguns at Zeebrugge harbour in April 1918.



These men and their many colleagues are remembered in various military and sporting memorials in the UK and overseas, as well as with local plaques, benches and parish windows. Arthur Dingle has the distinction of being remembered twice in poems, once by PG Wodehouse in his mischievous English sporting send-up The Great Day, and with more reverence in John Sills The Ballad of Suvla Bay. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates will not cite any individuals by name, they are not intended as a military memorial in that sense, but rather as commemorative sculpture that will gradually come to hold several layers of meaning and association for the players and fans that pass through them.

When artist and sculptor Harry Gray was originally approached for the commission, one idea was to create a large sculpture of an idealized young rugby player symbolically passing his ball to a First World War soldier. Gray specialises in permanent public artworks where the relationship of the work to the site is paramount. Past pieces include the Battle of Britain memorial on the south coast, which shows a young pilot, face turned to the skies, as he waits for the call to action. Seen from above, from a pilot’s perspective, the figure is sitting at the centre of a propeller hewn from the white chalk of the ground, calling to mind how the courage, skill and sacrifice of the pilots has left a permanent mark on our country. For Twickenham, Gray felt the overt memorial feel of the figurative rugby player and soldier might not sit well with a match-day crowd’s mood of exhilaration, or might be open to misinterpretation as a triumphant celebration of patriotic service on the fields of both sport and war. Instead he proposed the Rose and Poppy Gates as a less confrontational, more contemplative way to consider the Rugby Football Union’s wartime sacrifices.




Gray feels that the RFU was brave in supporting this more modern concept, but his initial designs left him dissatisfied. An early maquette looked too floral and sentimental to carry the full meaning of the loss that the gates commemorate. Having rejected the use of thorns or barbed wire in the design, Gray reconsidered the materials involved. The English roses are now produced from ‘gunmetal’ bronze, imported from Germany as Britain no longer produces it, a marker itself of how international relations have changed. Most of the poppies are fashioned from the bases of First World War German shell casements, once fired at British troops during the war, and still bearing their factory date-marks. The firing pin holes serve as the poppy centres. Each one weighs heavily in the hand. Others are simply the iconic poppy shape cut out from the metal pickets, a striking presence in their very absence. In this way German shells are turned into symbols of remembrance, their function subverted while their history is preserved. The very material of the stadium gates encapsulates messages of patriotism, conflict, loss and commemoration.

The gates’ poppy theme inevitably draws comparisons with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British military casualty during the First World War, which flooded the Tower of London moat, marking the centenary of the outbreak of that conflict last year. For many, this was a powerful statement about the size of Britain’s sacrifice, for others, a mawkish display of nationalism. The wonderful Ring of Remembrance Notre Dame de Lorette, an elliptical structure engraved with the names of the dead of all nationalities who fought in northern France, has proved equally controversial, but in this case for recognising the losses among belligerent nations alongside those of the Allies.



Perhaps some controversy is unavoidable. Gray believes that as war is a political act, ‘any artwork which commemorates warfare is by definition political’. For him, such installations exist essentially to provide ‘a social marker in time that uses sculpture or architecture as a holding place for memory’, and he argues that the best commemorative sculpture ‘asks questions, rather than just offering triumphalist solutions or expressions’. A recent inspiration that does just this was Turner Prize winner, and Oscar-winning director, Steve McQueen’s For Queen and Country. Created in response to a visit to Iraq in 2003 as an official war artist for the Imperial War Museum, For Queen and County was McQueen’s proposal for a set of postage stamps featuring the faces of servicemen and women who had lost their lives, with portraits chosen by their families. ‘An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in the defence of our national ideals’, McQueen contended. Collectively they would form ‘an intimate expression of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the every day – every household and every office’. Although facsimiles of the sheets of stamps are kept in the Imperial War Museum, despite the support of the fallen soldiers’ families and the Art Fund, Royal Mail has so far declined to issue the stamps. It seems that the loss presented in this way, without sentiment or compromise, appeared just too real, too great.

Some of the England rugby union players who survived the Great War, as it was once known, later went on to serve again, alongside a younger generation in the Second World War. Cyril Lowe, who was credited with nine victories while serving with the RAF, would subsequently play rugby again for England. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates, though which both home and away teams will pass on match days, speak powerfully both of sporting and national history, and of individual loss. This is site-specific, war memorial art at its finest: beautiful, provocative, reflective, and a working part of the fabric of match life at Twickenham. Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer and his team-mates would have been pleased; Twickenham has chosen to remember well.Perhaps some controversy is unavoidable. Gray believes that as war is a political act, ‘any artwork which commemorates warfare is by definition political’. For him, such installations exist essentially to provide ‘a social marker in time that uses sculpture or architecture as a holding place for memory’, and he argues that the best commemorative sculpture ‘asks questions, rather than just offering triumphalist solutions or expressions’. A recent inspiration that does just this was Turner Prize winner, and Oscar-winning director, Steve McQueen’s For Queen and Country. Created in response to a visit to Iraq in 2003 as an official war artist for the Imperial War Museum, For Queen and County was McQueen’s proposal for a set of postage stamps featuring the faces of servicemen and women who had lost their lives, with portraits chosen by their families. ‘An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in the defence of our national ideals’, McQueen contended. Collectively they would form ‘an intimate expression of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the every day – every household and every office’. Although facsimiles of the sheets of stamps are kept in the Imperial War Museum, despite the support of the fallen soldiers’ families and the Art Fund, Royal Mail has so far declined to issue the stamps. It seems that the loss presented in this way, without sentiment or compromise, appeared just too real, too great.

Some of the England rugby union players who survived the Great War, as it was once known, later went on to serve again, alongside a younger generation in the Second World War. Cyril Lowe, who was credited with nine victories while serving with the RAF, would subsequently play rugby again for England. Twickenham’s new Rose and Poppy Gates, though which both home and away teams will pass on match days, speak powerfully both of sporting and national history, and of individual loss. This is site-specific, war memorial art at its finest: beautiful, provocative, reflective, and a working part of the fabric of match life at Twickenham. Lt Ronald Poulton-Palmer and his team-mates would have been pleased; Twickenham has chosen to remember well.



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Friday, 25 November 2016

In praise of school libraries, and all who pass through them

I have just been delighted to help open a new Learning Centre and library at Saffron Walden County High School, in my voluntary role as the school’s Patron of Reading. It has been brilliant meeting so many of the students over the last year when giving book talks or hosting events by author friends at the school, or helping out on World Book Day and at the annual reading awards. Once I took some sixth formers to our local literary festival to hear the inspiring John McCarthy, the British journalist held captive in Lebanon for over five years, talking - among other things - about the importance of empathy and imagination. I must do more events like that. Just last week however, all past and present British children’s laureates have written a passionate open letter to the Department of Education urging an end to the cost-cutting that has led to the loss of hundreds of school librarians, so opening a new, well supported library now felt like a particular privilege and cause for celebration.


The amazing new space, with four ‘reading pods’ down the middle. 

Having been asked to prepare a few words for the opening event, I was delighted to hear author Frank Cottrell-Boyce talking about the importance of reading on a Radio 4 ‘Open Book’ podcast as I jogged around the park pondering what to say. ‘We’re living at a time when public life is being completely polluted by incredibly over-simplified narratives about who we are and what we can become’, Cottrell-Boyce said, arguing that ‘the more narratives you can have in your head’ the better. I could not agree more. When I was at school I read books to find out about the world beyond my reach, what people did, what they thought, and how they felt. Arguably film, TV and the internet are now the dominant story-telling mediums in our lives. I love all three but there is something essentially passive about the process of watching, when compared to that of reading. Film and television director Ken Loach, among others, has recently criticized the trend for TV nostalgia, and it is certainly true that, there being much more space on shelves than air-time on TV, books will always be able to offer a greater diversity of voices. And Britain’s current children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, has stressed the importance of simply ‘reading for pleasure’, while calling school libraries ‘a vital resource that must be nurtured’.

So I said this at the school, and I talked about how reading can transport you into other countries, times and contexts (the new library does look rather like a spaceship), and even into other people’s minds. As the historical author Manda Scott has said, ‘reading is the best way we have of expanding our sense of self, beyond who we are just now, of seeing who we might be, and seeing who everyone else might be as well’. Reading not only comforts and entertains us, it teaches us about the world, and it teaches us empathy - which made me think of John McCarthy once again.


In the pod with books in hand: School librarians Alex Smith and Ruth Parsons, and former headteacher John Hartley
Behind: me with current headteacher Caroline Derbyshire. Copyright: The Walden Local
The morning after the new Hartley Learning Centre (named after the school’s last headteacher), opened its doors, I ran my usual route around the park. This time I listened to John McCarthy’s fellow-hostage, Brian Keenan, talk through his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1990, not long after his release. I thought I knew what luxury he might request after his eight records. I remember McCarthy saying that occasionally, if required to ask for some ‘luxury’ in his cell, Keenan would never request the possible, such as more food or cigarettes, but always a grand piano. It was a joke and degree of defiance that gave the men more strength than any token from their guards. But when Sue Lawley asked whether there was ‘anything, in those four and a half years, that you really craved?’ and I smiled, anticipating the piano, Keenan answered, ‘the one thing I did crave, and it was driving me to distraction, but they would not give me it, was a pencil. I just wanted to fill those walls that I’d looked at for so long, with something, and just a pencil can take you so far...’

I feel very lucky to write and review books for a living, traveling across time, place and page daily at my desk. I am also delighted to be staying on as Patron of Reading at Saffron Walden County High School for another year. As well as providing a quiet place for reading, the new Learning Centre is going to host many more author talks and events, and a student Book Club at lunchtimes. Children at this school are lucky to have such a fantastic space – yet having a library run by a professional librarian should not be question of luck, but a basic resource for every school, required and supported by the Department of Education. So here’s a shout out for school libraries; librarians, teachers and students; children’s laureates and volunteer Patrons of Reading; multiple narratives and diverse voices; the importance of empathy… and the power of pencils.


Staff and student-volunteer librarians with me, right, at the launch. 

  • If you are a writer interested in becoming a Patron of Reading at a local school, get in touch with the scheme here.
  • To read Chris Riddell’s beautifully illustrated open letter to the Department of Education, click here.
  • I’ve just submitted my latest book manuscript, so if you have a suggestion for a new subject for a historical biography, get in touch with me here!


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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Secrets of a Spy's Jewellery

Secrets of a Spy's Jewellery

As a biographer I hope to get under the skin of my subjects, to trace their emotions, hopes and attitudes, as well as their words and deeds. Often it is the smallest things that provide the most personal insights; a postscript on a letter, the view from a window, or the choice of jewellery worn.

My research into Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, took me to Poland. One afternoon in Warsaw I met Maria, the niece of Krystyna’s one-legged, special agent lover, Andrzej Kowerski. As well as medals, photos and papers, Maria had brought along three pieces of jewellery. The first was a red coral necklace. I imagine it being a gift to Krystyna before the war. As a rather bored countess she would often ski, sometimes smuggling cigarettes for kicks, over the high Zakopane mountains where such coral is traditionally worn. It is easy to imagine her heart pounding beneath these beads.


Then came a beautiful gold and ivory cube that unfolded into a bracelet – a love-token bought for her by Andrzej when they were both posted to Cairo during the war. Having never seen the bracelet in photographs, I wonder whether she kept it, rather like her lover, close to her only when required. The last piece was a simple wooden bangle. ‘Try them all on’, Maria urged. Sadly my wrist was too large for the bangle. For all her great courage and strong will, Krystyna must have been physically very slight.

As the beads and bracelet warmed on my skin, I thought about two other pieces of Krystyna’s jewellery that have not survived. Once, when captured in Nazi-occupied Poland, she broke the thread of a cut-glass necklace, a gift from another lover, to save her life with the precious ‘diamonds’. But the only piece of jewellery she really cared about was her family signet ring, made of gold with a slice of steel embedded in it. This she wore throughout the war, and chose to display in her only known portrait. Appropriately for such an independent, freedom-loving woman, it was not gifts from men, but her own name and honour that she chose to wear proudly. That ring is now lost, but perhaps that is fitting too. I am not sure who else could rightly wear it.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal

Do Bunny Down: when shared war stories can help to heal

When researching biographies I am privileged to meet and exchange letters with many people whose observations, perspectives and actions present new insights into the past, and sometimes into the present. My current work, on two remarkable female pilots from the Second World War, has led to interviews with veterans and other witnesses from several sides of that terrible conflict. As always, many tales have emerged that have no bearing on the story I am telling – but which I cannot bear to let go unrecorded. This is the story of some USAF servicemen who crashed into an enemy field, and the young German boy who was desperate to find them...

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
On 25 March 1945, twenty unescorted US B24 bombers were releasing their lethal load over their target when they were attacked by a set of seven of Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters whose approach had been deliberately concealed by the glare of the sun. These pioneering machines were far faster than any Allied planes, and they were about to show how devastating they could be to heavy bombers. Their first target blew up in mid-air. Only the navigator survived after he was blown free from the nose of his B24. Crew in the other planes saw his boots suddenly jerked from his feet as his chute opened above him. He was taken POW. The lead bomber in the formation was then attacked, and tragically spiralled down into a shoe factory in the town below – loss of life unknown. The three of its crew who managed to bail out were all also captured. A third, badly damaged, bomber made it to the Swedish coastline, only to swing round and ditch into the Baltic Sea to avoid crashing into local housing. Its surviving crew were interned in neutral Sweden. 

The crew of the Do Bunny,
Charles 'Chuck' Blaney is standing, back right.
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Another plane, the Do Bunny, also took extensive damage. Having been caught in a storm of cannon shells, one engine burst into flames and had to be shut down. The attack had left no time to close the bomb-bay doors, and damage now made this impossible. Despite returning fire, the Do Bunny took several more hits, eventually leading to the loss of a second engine - with one of the propeller blades left dangling below. ‘Time seemed to stand still’, the radio operator and top gunner, S/Sgt Charles ‘Chuck’ Blaney, later wrote. ‘The flight engineer was knocked out of his top turret and he dropped to the flight deck. The plexiglass in the rear tunnel shattered in the tail gunner’s face. Fuel and hydraulic liquid from pierced pipelines were pouring and swirling out of the still open bomb bay, which we were never able to close. Do Bunny was in real trouble.’ 

Charles 'Chuck' Blaney
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Suddenly the attack ended. Perhaps the Messerschmitts were out of fuel or ammunition. Either way, forced out of formation, the Do Bunny began a slow descent while its crew threw out ‘everything that was not nailed down’ to lighten their load. When a third engine packed up it was clear that they were not going to make it the last 220 miles to friendly territory. Opting to stay together instead of bailing out, they prepared to make an emergency landing.

Down below, a class of schoolchildren in the German town of Soltau were watching the crippled plane bleeding smoke across the sky. One girl shouted out, and twelve-year-old Gerhard Bracke rushed to the window to look but, by the time he got there, the Do Bunny was already out of sight. Disappointed, Gerhard decided to search for the remains of the plane on his own, as soon as he got the chance. Lt Joachim Grauenhorst, the Wehrmacht officer in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy, had also witnessed the B24’s final descent. Surprised not to hear an explosion soon after it had passed directly over the Academy building, he quickly assembled some soldiers to find the downed plane.

Gerhard Bracke in 1944
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)
Inside the coasting Do Bunny, ‘all went well until a wing dipped into the ground as we lost speed,’ Blaney wrote, ‘and then all hell let loose’. The torn, burnt and battered B24, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes, broke apart on impact. Miraculously five of the nine crew managed to jump to safety. It was not long before they were joined some scared and angry locals, some carrying pitchforks, followed by Grauenhorst and his soldiers who kept the crowd back while they began working to free the last four of the crew still trapped inside the wreckage. Incredibly, despite injuries including a broken leg, none of them had been killed.

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Gerhard Bracke)

The Do Bunny
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)



The prisoners were escorted to the town square. Here two SS officers started building up the growing crowd’s resentment against the Americans as an enemy bomber crew. It was probably only because Grauenhorst had command of several soldiers that, after some tense moments, he was able to take the men back to the Riding Academy under his command. Here they were locked in the stables, partly for their own safety. ‘He probably saved all our lives’ Blaney believes.

Lt Joachim Grauenhorst
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney) 
A passionate member of the Hitler Youth, Gerhard was keen to learn everything about the downed B24 and the enemy soldiers being held at the Academy. After school that afternoon he went exploring until he found the crash site. There he stood in awed fascination, looking at the wreck with its crushed nose, splintered fuselage and open bomb-bay doors which were now cut into the ground. It was a seminal moment for the impressionable boy, and he stayed for a long time.

The next morning the Do Bunny’s crew were driven to an interrogation centre, and started the long journey to a prison camp. They were liberated by the Russians in late May 1945.

Gerhard was still a schoolboy when the Second World War ended. He grew up to become a respected biographer and historian of the war. During our conversations, he not only told me about the downing of the Do Bunny, but of a rather wonderful postscript to the story.

Many years after the war, Gerhard spent some time researching what had happened to the Americans who had so miraculously survived the Luftwaffe attack and their own crash landing. Having tracked down Chuck Blaney and the other surviving crew members, he arranged a 50th anniversary reunion. In 1995 he travelled to Ohio, USA, to join them. With him, Gerhard brought a biography of the Luftwaffe pilot who had shot them down. Fighter pilot Ace Lt Rudolf Rademacher had survived the war only to die in a glider crash in 1953. Gerhard had also found the archived ‘missing crew’ reports from the other B24 bombers in the formation, and old photographs of the destroyed Do Bunny from the Soltau local newspaper. But what touched Chuck Blaney most was the warm personal letter Gerhard brought from Joachim Grauenhorst of the Soltau Riding Academy, along with an invitation from the Mayor of Soltau to a reunion in their town the following year.

Soltau newspaper coverage, 1995
(Courtesy of Chuck Blaney)
Former enemies, Gerhard and Chuck are in touch to this day. 'He is still a best friend forever', Chuck told me touchingly of Gerhard. Both men were pleased that there is continued interest in their story, and that it might now reach a new audience. Sometimes, when certain people find themselves acting for, or representing, one side of history or another, it appears that time, rather than ideologies or national boundaries, is the greatest barrier. How awful it is, among the many terrible tragedies of the war, that a German shoe factory was hit by a downed American bomber, and that so many airmen lost their lives altogether. But how uplifting that one young witness to history was compelled to restore the common bonds of humanity between people once torn apart.

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Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Distinction or Discrimination: Honouring the female special agents of the Second World War

The names of 75 courageous women from 13 nations are etched into a beautiful memorial at RAF Tempsford,   home of the Special Duties Squadrons during the Second World War. These are the female special agents who volunteered for active service behind enemy lines as couriers and wireless operators, running escape lines and leading partisan armies. All were brave, and all deeply committed to the Allied cause, but they had little else in common. Although most were British or French, there were also women from the Soviet Union, Belgium, The Netherlands, Ireland, America, Switzerland, India, Australia and Chile, as well as two from Germany, sent in to support the domestic resistance, and two from Poland, including Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, the subject of my last biography. Some were lucky, others not, many were beautiful which had its own pros and cons, some were plain, and one had a prosthetic leg. Most female agents were effective, at least for a short while, and Skarbek survived in active service for six years. The huge contribution of this diverse group of women came at a high price. 29 were arrested and 16 executed. One more chose suicide with her lethal ‘L’ pill.

Some of the names on the Tempsford Memorial
Today there is increasing interest in these women. Over the last few years there have been many new biographies and anthologies about them and several memorials. Tempsford is important in that it is the only one that pays tribute to all the women by name. Its marble column stands on a granite plinth collectively honouring the two special duties squadrons that flew them into enemy occupied Europe, but there is no reference to the male agents. Perhaps now we need to ask why is it that we still distinguish heroines from heroes. After all, the Special Operations Executive, better known as SOE, was in many ways a great gender leveller. Selected women and men went through the same training, including in the use of guns and explosives, and silent killing, and were armed and sent to work alongside each other in the field.

It was, however, precisely because they were women, that these female agents were so valuable during the war. Unlike able-bodied men, civilian women travelling around France by train or bicycle attracted relatively little attention. This meant they were better-placed to serve as couriers between different resistance circuits or groups of Maquis hiding in the hills. Women transported messages, micro-film and radio codes, as well as heavy equipment such as weapons and wireless transmitters to arrange the delivery of agents and equipment, etc. Some of them, notably Pearl Witherington and Nancy Wake, went much further, commanding resistance armies of 2,000 men, and, among other achievements, Skarbek persuaded a German garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps to defect.

Skarbek, the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent, was employed in December 1939. Eighteen months would pass, during which time she served both across Eastern Europe and in the Middle East, before SOE was even officially established. The first female covert radio operator to be flown into France, Noor Inayat Khan, left England in June 1943. Even at this point, women in the British military were not officially allowed to carry guns or explosives. To circumvent this, SOE enrolled women into the FANYs, which officially operated outside of the Armed Forces but still theoretically offered some protection under the Geneva Convention in the event of capture, and provided pensions should the women become casualties.

Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville,
courtesy of Christine Isabelle Cole, Bill Stanley Moss papers
Churchill had approved the employment of women in SOE, but their role was not made public until some time after the war for fear of a backlash. Meanwhile the women who had survived found their achievements were underplayed and their skills undervalued. While Skarbek’s male colleagues were reassigned to roles overseas, after she turned down a series of secretarial jobs for which she was monumentally unsuited, Skarbek was dismissed as ‘not a very easy person to employ’. Meanwhile the official papers sent to her were accompanied by belittling notes such as ‘Hope you are being a good girl!’ Even the honours the women received were less than their male counterparts, as women did not qualify for British military awards. Many felt bitter about this, but none expressed it as succinctly as Pearl Witherington. After being awarded the MBE (Civil), she famously commented that ‘there was nothing civil’ about the work she had undertaken.

It was only in the 1950s that the women’s stories began to be told. Having signed the official secrets act, many of the women, like the men they served with, refused to talk. Others, such as Odette Hallowes, spoke out, or like both Hallowes and Violette Szabo who had been executed at Ravensbrück, had their stories retold in biographies and films. And so the myth-making began. All too often, female agents and other women in the resistance have been honoured more for their courage and great sacrifice, than for their actual achievements. It has been judged more important that they tried, than that they succeeded. When the women did achieve, they still seem to have been feminised in the retelling, their beauty and sacrifices emphasised and their rough edges smoothed over. In order to be celebrated they have been, in effect, often recast as victims, rather than simply as heroes.

Ironically perhaps, today we need to reconsider the female special agents not only because historically they were marginalised but because, all too often, when given attention they have been judged as women, rather than as individuals doing an extraordinary job. If you have been the business of special operations, it is clearly self-defeating to be elevated as a heroine if at the same time you are diminished as an independent agent.

courtesy of Pawel Komorowski

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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Leonard Mulley: a very civil hero

Sorting through some family papers recently, my mother came across a handsome gentleman’s silver cigarette case. The initials ‘LM’, etched squarely onto the front, stand for Leonard Mulley. Len was my father’s favourite uncle, a working class lad brought up in a two-up, two-down cottage in east Finchley alongside his thirteen surviving brothers and sisters. Cheeky - in the way that only someone who knows they can get away with it - can be, he seems to have been forever putting frogs down his sister’s pinafores when they were young, and later coal dust in their powder compacts. Several of the brothers became local boxing champs, and nearly all were sailors with the Merchant Navy before and during the war. The presents they brought back included a macaw for their mother, who used to enjoy picking out her hairpins, and rope soaked in tobacco and molasses for their father to chew – apparently it smelt absolutely delicious. This elegant silver case is not the sort of object that I had imagined Len owning but it sits well in the hand, feels weighty, and would clearly have been pleasing to own. An inscription inside, dated November 1946, tells a rather lovely story…



The autumn of 1946 was pretty dismal in England. Eighteen months since the end of the war in Europe, the early mood of jubilation was long gone. The country was in recession, reconstruction had not yet started on any significant scale, demobbed former-servicemen were finding it hard to get work, and there was no prospect of the rationing for food and clothing ending anytime soon. Len had served in the navy during the war, delivering essential supplies to Russia on the arctic convoys, and tying up a substantial part of Germany’s Navy and Air Force. On one voyage to Murmansk, his convoy was waylaid by enemy aircraft and u-boats and several ships were sunk. Traumatised, Len was transferred to clearing up London bomb damage but found retrieving civilians' bodies so distressing that he rejoined the merchant marine.

Although he returned to civilian life with few formal qualifications after the war, Len’s strong work ethic and good manner with people secured him a job as a Steward at the rather theatrical Eyot House Club, which sits on its own island on the Thames at Weybridge, in Surrey. 

Eyot House Hotel, circa 1955
Copyright The Francis Frith Collection www.francisfrith.com

Eyot House had been built by D’Oyly Carte, the Victorian music impresario, theatrical producer and hotelier who had already built the Savoy theatre and hotel in the Strand, among many other famous venues. In its heyday the place would have been full of celebrity guests such as WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and writers like JM Barrie, which might explain why D’Oyly Carte once reportedly kept a crocodile on the island. By 1946, when Len worked there, the club was reduced to trading on its former glory, but it still held a certain mystique. There was as yet no footbridge to the island, so guests arrived by boat, or had to pull themselves across on the chain ferry. Once installed however, the wrap-around, Colonial-style veranda provided a strong sense of occasion, along with commanding views down the river.

The sun had set just after four in the afternoon on 24th November 1946. Although the weather had been unseasonably mild, there had been heavy rain for some days and most club members were inside, drinking tea or something stronger, and listening to the London Symphony Orchestra concert at the Royal Albert Hall being broadcast by the BBC Home Service. The setting could hardly have been more Agatha Christie, when suddenly shouts were heard coming from the river.

The Thames below the club house was at full tide and, further swollen by the recent heavy rains, the water was high and moving rapidly. Perhaps Len’s years in the navy meant the water held less fear for him. It is possible that he had helped saved others when his convoy had been torpedoed. However perhaps he had never had the chance, and the water held worse memories for him than for many. What we know for certain is that it would have taken great courage to plunge into the dark, fast-moving river that Sunday evening, but Len did not hesitate. Some time later he managed to swim to the bank, fighting hard to keep his head up, one arm clamped around a half-drowned woman. Who she was, and whether she was in the water through accident or intent, has been swept away by time and tide, but she survived that night because of Len.

The inscription inside Len's cigarette case
These dramatic events are recorded in three very brief accounts. A few lines were reported in the local paper that week. Shortly later Len was presented with his cigarette case by impressed members and staff of the Eyot Club House, ‘in recognition for his outstanding bravery in saving a life from drowning after dark, and with the river in full flood’. The following year the Royal Humane Society presented him with their ‘Honorary Testimonial on Vellum’, awarded when someone has risked their life to save another, and in this case specifically ‘for having gone to the rescue of a woman who was in imminent danger of drowning in the River Thames at Weybridge, and whose life he gallantly saved’.

Len's Royal Humane Society certificate
Sadly nothing more is known, except that the envelope enclosing the Royal Humane Society certificate was addressed to Len not at Weybridge, but at the Norfolk Hotel at Arundel in Sussex, where he was employed as Head Waiter, within a stone’s throw of the River Arun and not far from the coast. It seems that although changing jobs he wanted to stay close to the water. The Eyot House Club closed not long later, having been raided by police who stormed the island by boat late one Saturday night, and arrested a number of people for drinking after hours.

Tragically, Len was later killed on his way to work when he was accidentally knocked off his bicycle by another vehicle. He may not have been highly decorated for his service during the war, no DSO or medals beyond those standard for active service, but Len's story reminds us that heroism is not confined to times of war. Len continued to live by the principles he had fought for during the war, risking his life for the security of others in the peace. He was a truly good man, and a hero.


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Saturday, 29 August 2015

What would my subjects make of their biographies?

I have written biographies of two very different women. The Woman Who Saved the Children (Oneworld Publications, 2009) tells the story of Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the charity The Save the Children Fund and pioneering champion of children’s human rights. A very independent-minded Edwardian lady, the flame-haired Eglantyne was quite a woman. She graduated from Oxford university to illicit romance in Cambridge. After disappointment in love and a dalliance with spiritualism she undertook espionage in Serbia, and endured public arrest in Trafalgar Square before launching Save the Children in London’s Royal Albert Hall after the end of the First World War. Throughout her life she rode horses and bicycles, saw ghosts and climbed mountains. A woman with a very vivid imagination, she wrote poems, romantic novels, and the first ever statement of children’s human rights. Her courage, passion and determination have forever changed the way in which the world treats children.
Eglantyne was not a self-promoting woman, but she was very good at marketing and quite prepared to fly the flag for the Fund at every opportunity. I am relieved to think she would be quite happy to see her story told, and delighted to know that all the author’s royalties are donated to the wonderful charity that she founded.

My second book, The Spy Who Loved (Macmillan, 2012), tells the secrets and lives of Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, a Polish Countess who became the first woman to work for Britain as a special agent during the Second World War. Perhaps not surprisingly, Christine’s story has been rather more concealed than Eglantyne’s. My biography is called The Spy Who Loved, because Christine was a very passionate woman. She loved adrenaline and adventure. She loved men – she had two husbands and numerous lovers who all get a mention in the book. But above all, Christine loved freedom and independence – both for her country, Poland, and for herself personally. It was because of her very passionate nature that, after her early death, a group of six men who had once served with her formed ‘the panel to protect the reputation of Christine Granville’ in an attempt to prevent unauthorised books and articles about her from being published. Like Eglantyne, Christine was a woman ahead of her times and these men felt that the world was not yet ready for their very modern heroine. I believe that Christine would approve of many of the changes in society today, such as the greater opportunities for women, although not all, such as the prejudice still facing many Polish people in Britain. So I think she might be pleased that her story was being told within the context of her country’s war history, to remind people of why there is such a historic bond between our nations.

Taking Isabel’s question a little further, however, I can not now help wondering what these two women would have thought about the content of my books, not just the fact of the books’ existence.

Biographers have a tricky job. I aim for accuracy, and yet I know there are many kinds of truth – the dry truth of fact, but also emotional and moral truths, and often these may be contradictory. A person may tell a story, even their own story, and yet the truth told is often not one corroborated by the ‘facts’ found in archives, buildings or photograph albums. Likewise, I have found that there is character which may be unfulfilled, as well as character acted upon. Are things less true to a person, less telling of their nature, if they remained in the realm of aspiration or desire? And to whom does the biographer owe their allegiance, should a story become controversial or someone reveal their less pleasant nature – to their subject, or their descendants, or to the reader and the record? And can any biography be other than anachronistic, however hard the author tries not to benefit from hindsight?

Perhaps I have been fortunate to have written, thus far, about rather remarkable women, both of whom I have found deeply inspiring. And yet both Eglantyne and Christine are women who lived and loved, fought and feigned in a different age, when social mores and personal morals were quite different than those of today. And both these women defied the expectations of their age on several levels.

Biographies, I feel, should be regarded not just as windows onto the past, but as mirrors of our own concerns and interests. Perhaps that is why there are so many biographies of figures like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Joan of Arc. The people we are interested in are anchored in one point in time, but new books are always being written about them from different perspectives, addressing the questions perhaps more pertinent to the writer and reader than to the subject. Of course Eglantyne and Christine might not have wished to have their love-lives exposed, (actually I think Christine would have laughed, but I doubt Eglantyne would have been happy) but had they been born today, I think both might have campaigned for equality, freedom and the enactment of human rights and decency – and, since hopefully these are what my biographies support through the telling of their lives, I think I might just get away with it!


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