Saturday 12 September 2020

Favourite Things

Talking and walking

I love conversation. Talking and walking is a favourite pairing, especially if the talk is linear and the walk a loop. A tandem cycle-ride is also ideal for a good chat, except on the hills. Talking, eating and drinking work well in any combination – my favourite room in any house is usually the kitchen where all three can be undertaken together. Reading and writing sometimes feel like extensions of this – talking with people not currently with you, some of whom are inconveniently dead. It’s all a big conversation across time and place.

Book research

My books have provided great opportunities for research adventure. After lots of reading I pack a bag and, at some point, do what Antonia Fraser calls “optical research”, going on holiday to follow in my subject’s footsteps. There is nothing more exciting than setting off alone with a mission. I have been lucky to meet many veterans and other witnesses, open up old trunks, read diaries, try on necklaces. You never know what will provide an unexpected insight.

When I was researching The Spy Who Loved, about Polish-born British Second World War special agent Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, I was invited to stay in the Warsaw apartment of the son of one of her lovers. The following morning I opened the front door to find a Wehrmacht division in the street outside. I automatically reeled back, but a second tentative look outside confirmed that not only was the unit really there, but one particularly angry officer was now getting off his motorbike and heading straight for me. He had a kind of hand-held machine gun, and as he shouted at me he started jabbing its perforated barrel towards my neck. I was nearly in tears before someone explained that I had walked into the filming of a Second World War TV series, ruining an otherwise good take. My panic brought home to me the depth of Krystyna’s courage in a way that no archive could. As a British special agent with a Jewish-born mother, serving undercover in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Krystyna had been arrested more than once, yet always kept her cool and talked her way out of trouble. I guess my talking skills still need some work.


I love most food. It is partly the sociable aspect of sharing a meal, but largely the pleasure of eating. Roast potatoes come high on my list, but a good mash, warm potato salad, or an intensely flavoured packet of crisps always go down well too. Perhaps it is a comfort thing. My lovely sister is also a keen potato fan, and even has a portrait of a King Edward on her kitchen wall, so potatoes also remind me of her. Marie Antoinette once wore potato flowers in her hair, but that is just a happy extra.


This I like in all its shades. Nuance is underappreciated, but it is what has drawn me to all my book subjects. Eglantyne Jebb, the subject of my first book, founded Save the Children yet avoided individual children as much as possible. The only two female test pilots in the Third Reich both put their considerable skills at the disposal of the Nazi regime; one was a fanatical Nazi but the other was part-Jewish and secretly in the domestic resistance. Special agent Krystyna Skarbek excelled in the predominately male field of wartime special operations and can only truly be in understood in the context of her country, although it often excluded her. My new book proposal hinges on an incredibly difficult decision that had the potential to change the course of the Second World War but required pitting the truth against victory. Accepting nuance is not only more honest than seeking absolutes, it is also far more interesting.

Old stuff 

I am drawn to anything that carries the traces of time and tide, or otherwise hints at a human story. I like to weigh my grandfather’s cigarette case from the First World War in my hand, knowing he smoked away most of his pay in Gallipoli. I read the inky names inside old books, wondering what caused the smudges, and pause on the curve of worn stone steps, imagining centuries of passing feet. A friend recently knitted me a pair of gloves from a “glove recipe” written down by a great aunt when she was still a teenager. They are heavy and practical, not at all dainty-maiden-aunt type mittens, which pleases me immensely.

A few years ago my mum had wrapped up two small boxes for my birthday. One was so light I wondered whether she had forgotten to fill it; the other was small, square and pleasingly heavy. Inside the first was my grandmother’s hair, two bunches chopped off around 1910 when she graduated to womanhood. It was not in particularly good condition, and my husband expressed his relief that it was not, at least, a severed finger. The second box contained my grandmother’s medal for coming second in the 1912 civil service entry exams. A medal seems a much more sensible thing to keep than a tangle of old hair. Medals are earned rather than grown after all. But it is only when the two things are taken together that you get a real flavour of the woman.


Dancing cannot be combined easily with talking, walking, eating, travelling, nuance or looking at old stuff; nevertheless I love it. Especially a cèilidh or any other dance where someone tells me what to do.

Please note: this article was first published in "Reaction" magazine on the 5th of September, 2020.

Friday 13 September 2019

Eglantyne Jebb bust unveiled

100 years and one day since Eglantyne Jebb and her sister Dorothy Buxton launched Save the Children at a packed public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall, I was very moved to see a new bronze bust of Eglantyne unveiled at the same venue. You can see a short film of the event here. The sculpture was created by the award-winning artist Ian Wolter who donated his time and work for free, mainly because he is a long-standing supporter of the Fund, but also because he is my husband. The cost of the bronze was generously sponsored by Save the Children’s former Chairman, Peter Bennett-Jones, and broadcaster and ambassador for the Fund, Natasha Kaplinsky, kindly did the actual unveiling.

Natasha Kaplinsky and Clare Mulley with Ian Wolter’s bronze bust of Eglantyne Jebb

Eglantyne and Dorothy had arrived at the same hall a century earlier, when the trees across the road were rather shorter and there was less traffic pollution on the building’s beautiful façade. The sisters did, however, have to face some fairly hostile elements among the crowd that had gathered that day. Some had even brought rotten fruit and vegetables to throw at the ‘traitor sisters’ who wanted to ‘give succour to the enemy.’ Eglantyne silenced them all as she called out, ‘Surely it is impossible for us as normal human beings, to watch children starve to death, without making an effort to save them?’ Potatoes went back into bags, purses came out, and a spontaneous collection was taken up around the hall.

The Royal Albert Hall hosting the launch of Save the Children on 19 May 1919

The unveiling of the bronze of Eglantyne Jebb, 20 May 2019

Fortunately, a century later, Save the Children’s CEO Kevin Watkins, and Craig Hassall, CEO of the Royal Albert Hall, had left their rotten veg at home, as had the Fund’s trustees, many committed volunteers and supporters, and quite a few members of the Jebb and Buxton families who joined us.

As her biographer, I was delighted to open the event with the story of Eglantyne’s arrest in Trafalgar Square, the brilliant defence she mounted at her Mansion House court case, and her and Dorothy’s ambitious initiative to capitalise on the blaze of publicity that followed the trial by launching the Fund a few days later. Just before I stepped up to the mic, a lady who looked vaguely familiar introduced herself.

I first met Amanda Richards when I worked at Save the Children in the corporate fundraising team, over twenty years ago. Amanda was one of three guests to join me on the Fund’s first ever programme visit for major corporate supporters. In 1998, we travelled together for two weeks in India.

Amanda Richards (3rd from left), Clare Mulley (in SCF t-shirt) with staff from one of Save the Children’s partner community organisations in India, 1998

Our first stop was to see the mobile crèche set up by the Save the Children for the children of female construction workers on the building site of an international hotel. This was a pilot scheme and, seeing the many benefits to both child welfare and worker productivity, it was soon paid for by the construction company and extended to all their sites, before becoming standard industry practice.

At Save the Children’s mobile crèches project in Delhi, 1989

While we were joining in with some craft activity at the crèche, one of the children gave me a card she had made with a drawing of a flower. When Amanda left a week later, having seen a range of projects looking at child health, education through night schools, the supply of safe water, and a women’s collective making clothes, she took the card with her. Inside I had written a note for another Save the Children business supporter, a man who she would be meeting back in London. I don’t think I had seen Amanda again since then. She is now a Vice President of the Fund, among other activities acting as long-standing chair of the ‘Summer in the City’ ball that annually raises around £200,000.

A couple of weeks after the Royal Albert Hall event, Amanda and I arranged to meet again. Now she told me that her visit to India had stayed in her heart, and on her mind, ever since. She had expected to be moved and impressed, but she had not anticipated the impact of the work being either so wide or so deep. Staff explained how cycles of social exploitation and deprivation had been broken; companies had permanently changed their business models to align with children’s rights; and children had told her that they hoped to become teachers, doctors and even development workers!

Amanda Richards with Clare Mulley, 2019

Amanda had since read my biography of Eglantyne, The Woman Who Saved the Children, and I was delighted to sign some copies of the book that had been donated for guests at her centenary summer fundraising event. She was thrilled in turn that all the book’s royalties are donated to the Fund, so that every copy raises money as well as awareness.

When the book was republished this year, to mark the centenary, the arrest and trial chapters inspired scriptwriter and Save the Children supporter Charlotte Bogard McLeod to write a short play. This was then performed with Joely Richardson as Eglantyne, and Helena Bonham Carter as the judge, at Save the Children’s centenary gala in London’s Roundhouse. During rehearsals both actresses told me how inspired they were by Eglantyne, and how they hoped this play might go further… fingers crossed everyone please!

Helena Bonham Carter in judge’s wig, author and historian Clare Mulley, and Joely Richardson as Eglantyne Jebb.


The Roundhouse, London, May 2019

Other Eglantyne events this year have included a series of talks in and around Ellesmere in Shropshire, a town which now has new street signs welcoming people to ‘The Birthplace of Eglantyne Jebb’, and an event at Cambridge University where I spoke with Dr Peta Dunstan whose biography of Eglantyne’s sister Dorothy, Campaigning for Life, has just been published. There has also been a new blue plaque to Eglantyne put up in Marlborough, where she once taught in the local school, and Anne Chamberlain has performed her excellent one-woman show, Eglantyne, all round Britain and in Switzerland, Lebanon and Tanzania!

                                                       Clare with the new Ellesmere town signs

With Dr Peta Dunstan, biographer of Dorothy Buxton

Flier for Anne Chamberlain’s one-woman play Eglantyne

Back home I have been interviewed about Eglantyne for national and regional press, for BBC TV World News, and on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme with Evan Davis. I’ve recorded podcasts for the Spectator and Dan Snow’s History Hit; and spoken at countless history and literary festivals and other events. ‘We have to devise means of making known the facts in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world,’ Eglantyne once said, not knowing what an impact her own life story might have.

Clare discussing Eglantyne Jebb with Matthew Amroliwala, BBC World News

The Woman Who Saved the Children has now been translated into Spanish and Korean, and recently I was pleased to talk about Eglantyne to members of the International Save the Children Alliance at their centenary conference in Lady Margaret Hall – Eglantyne’s own former Oxford college. This is where the bronze bust of her now lives, where it has already inspired plans for an annual Eglantyne Jebb lecture. Meanwhile a plaster edition of the bust, with a bronze patina, has been given a permanent home in Save the Children UK’s Farringdon head office, where everyone can see her.

International copies of The Woman Who Saved The Children

Finally, following my introduction to the Jebb family, this autumn the National Portrait Gallery will be including an original image of Eglantyne in the national collection. Perhaps it might be this one, below, showing her striding into action, apparently not noticing that her shoe-laces are undone and she is losing papers from her file. This is my favourite of all Eglantyne’s scratchy self-portraits, although I also very much love a set showing show her frightening a herd of sheep as she falls off her bicycle before getting back on again with true blue-stocking determination…

Eglantyne Jebb self-portrait, c.1901

These updates were all very good, but what Amanda wanted to know was what happened to the lovely corporate supporter to whom she had brought my flower-card from India. Readers, I married him… Watch out people, it is amazing how much the story of one brilliant, courageous, passionate and compassionate woman, can change your life!

Sculptor Ian Wolter with his bronze of Eglantyne Jebb, and author Clare Mulley

Clare Mulley’s first book, The Woman Who Saved the Children, won the Daily Mail Biographers’ Club Prize. The Spy Who Loved, now optioned by Universal Studios, led to Clare being decorated with Poland’s national honour, the Bene Merito. Clare’s third book, The Women Who Flew for Hitler, tells the extraordinary story of two women at the heart of Nazi Germany, whose choices put them on opposite sides of history. 

Text and photos copyright Clare Mulley, with the exception of Eglantyne Jebb’s self-portrait and the Royal Albert Hall in 1919, which belong to the Jebb family and Save the Children.

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:

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.