Monday 28 July 2014

D Day + some

This 6th June was the 70th anniversary of D Day, the day when Allied troops landed in Normandy to start the liberation of Nazi German-occupied western Europe. Despite the moving coverage given to this anniversary, it is hard to imagine the courage of those who took part, or to quantify the terrible losses of that day. As this summer progresses we should also remember the heroism of others who were called to action for the liberation of Europe.

On 5th June I went to the launch of Paddy Ashdown’s new book, The Cruel Victory: The French Resistance and the Battle for the Vercors, 1944, which tells the story of the French maquis who rose up to challenge the Nazi occupiers of their country, declare an area of free France, and tie-up battle-ready Wehrmacht troops who might otherwise be deployed north.

The Vercors rising was one of the largest resistance actions of the war and, although brutally suppressed, Ashdown argues that ultimately it was nevertheless a ‘cruel victory’. Although I take some issue with this conclusion, that does not diminish the importance of the action in the Vercors, or of this book in assessing it within the wider context of the Allied war strategy, and providing a fine tribute to the men, and women, who served on the plateau. Read my review for The Spectator.

I knew that Ashdown was working on this book because he had been in touch about the role played by Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, and the subject of my last biography, The Spy Who Loved. Paddy describes Christine rather memorably as ‘beguilingly beautiful, extraordinarily courageous and enthusiastically promiscuous’. She was also a brilliantly effective special agent, and ultimately highly honoured for her huge contribution to the Allied war effort.

Christine serving in France, summer 1944
Christine had been parachuted into France some weeks before the Vercors rising to act as a courier for Francis Cammaerts, the rising star of SOE in France who was coordinating resistance plans to support the Allied liberation in the south of the country. Christine’s role was to take messages between the different resistance cells, and help to coordinate the clandestine supply of arms and equipment. Although she and Francis did serve on the Vercors plateau during the rising, her most important work - work which would make her legendary within the British special services - was yet to come.

Francis Cammaerts, 1944
Allied planes dropping canisters of supplies
to the French resistance in the Vercors, summer 1944
The morning after her retreat from the overrun Vercors battle zone, Christine threw herself into her next mission. Over the next few days she established the first contact between the French resistance on one side of the Alps, and the Italian partisans over the mountains. She then single-handedly secured the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass through the mountains. On her return she learnt that Francis, and two of his colleagues, had been arrested by the Gestapo during a standard roadblock check. Christine begged members of the local resistance to mount a rescue operation. Probably wisely, they rejected the idea. At this point in the war they could not afford to risk either the men or the weapons required for such an operation. In any case, the three men were held in a secure prison and due to be shot within days, so any rescue attempt seemed doomed to failure if not suicidal. Undaunted, Christine cycled over to the prison, assessed the situation, and secured the release of all three men on her own…

Francis and Christine returned to work immediately. The American General Patch, who commanded Operation Dragoon (Anvil), was due to land with his troops on the French Mediterranean coast on 15 August. The American forces' plan was to break out of the bridgeheads and fight up the Route Napoleon towards Grenoble with the aim of rendezvousing there on D-Day +90. They had not counted on French support. Francis’s resistance circuit, and connected local resistance groups, felled trees and blew up bridges to harry and redirect German troop movements while clearing the through roads for the Americans. MRD Foot, the father of SOE historians, believed that Patch arrived eighty-four days ahead of schedule as a result of this brilliant work. Paddy Ashdown believes it took Patch just 72 hours to get through, and he cites this work as one of the greatest contributions of the French resistance to the Allied war effort.

Christine sitting by a water duct near the blown-up bridge at Embrun,
Haute-Savoie, France, August 1944
The Germans stipulated that they would only surrender to the Americans. Poignantly, however, in the event they were obliged to surrender to Lt Colonel Huet as well, the French commander of the tragic Vercors resistance. That evening Francis and Christine went freewheeling down a hill in a US jeep to celebrate the victory.

D Day was a harrowing day of incredible bravery and fortitude. As we commemorate the courage of the men who stormed the Normandy beaches, we should also remember their colleagues-in-arms among the courageous French resistance and the British, Polish and American officers who worked with them either in the invasionary forces or with the special forces in the field. Among them were Francis Cammaerts and Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, who shared their goal of a free Europe, and who would never forget their fallen comrades.

Christine paying her respects to those lost at the Battle of Vercors
at a memorial event,  July 1946.

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A Comic Strip War

Can war be seriously examined through art inspired by American comic strips? As a biographer I am fascinated by the different ways in which human stories from the past can be effectively examined and presented, particularly when this touches on my own current area of interest, the Second World War. So I was captivated when a friend and neighbour, Brian Sanders, published a stunningly beautiful and evocative picture book memoir, Evacuee. Sandy, as I know him, is now working on the sequel, about his life in post-war London, and invited me over to have a look.

If you are as stunned as I was by the cover of Evacuee, I should perhaps mention that Sandy has had a wonderful fifty-year career as a professional artist with commissions ranging from magazine illustration, Penguin book covers and postage stamps to being the official artist portraying the making of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey during 1964-65, and designing the advertising poster for last year’s acclaimed television series, Mad Men. However, it is Sandy’s work portraying war, and the impact of war on lives, that fascinates me most.

As a young man, Sandy served in 45 Commando Royal Marines during the Suez Invasion and later in Cyprus. His irrepressible talent for capturing the scenes around him was soon noticed by the intelligence officer, and he was recruited into the Intelligence Section to record events, the movement of people and so on, as well as producing occasional private portraits. When he returned to Britain all his drawings were in his sea-kit bag, and had been stolen before he arrived. The only piece he has from this time is the one published in Soldier magazine, below, showing how far from reality the public image of life in the Libyan desert was at the time:

Tripoli 1957 
Sandy never sought a career as a war artist but commissions for various publications, and several series of stamps including those commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Second World War, naturally followed his experience and the trust placed in him as an artist who, as he put it, ‘had been there, and understood what war was’.

Some of Sandy's stamps commissioned to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of the Second World War
Now a pacifist, Sandy has always aimed to report historically rather than comment through his art, letting events speak for themselves. ‘I wouldn’t glorify war’, he told me, but ‘in fact I have advertised war, I have done pieces for Officers Magazine and so on’. It was only when he came out of the Royal Marines that he gained a new perspective on Britain’s involvement in Suez, and his attitude started to shift.

After a rich career in what is called ‘lifestyle illustration of the 1960s', Sandy is now taking a very different look at the Second World War, focusing on his own childhood as a London evacuee in Saffron Walden, a market town in Essex. Free from the constraints of commission or briefs, this is a very personal project, the impact of which comes from both its clear sincerity and its wonderful evocation of time and place.

Sandy told me that his great blessing is that he has always known he had to draw. The Evacuee project began with loose sheets of pictures drawn from memories, and collected in a small black folder until he suddenly realized there was a book there. He found no problem remembering what he saw, and felt, as a child; ‘my problem is eliminating pictures, not finding them’, he told me. Soon he realized that the book was naturally going to be told from the perspective of his younger self in the form of the American comics that he had collected during the war, and long afterwards. In this way the book speaks directly to ‘children of all ages’, from three or four, up to 65 or 70; ‘the people who were there’. As a result Evacuee is great fun, with hundreds of wonderfully evocative visual details, and the echoing refrain that rang in his ears as a boy; ‘because there’s a war on’. And yet although Sandy’s own father survived the war, he makes a point of recording without unnecessary elaboration that those of two of his friends did not.

Evacuee is an honest book and this, combined with the stunning art-work, is where its power lies. ‘It’s about the people that I love, that I loved at the time’ Sandy says simply. Although increasingly conscious from readers’ reactions that the book is seen as a much-loved contribution to social history, his intentions were always just to record and let the pictures speak for themselves. This is a world beautifully observed by a child and reproduced by his adult self, which is at once deeply personal and yet also gloriously familiar. ‘It is deliberately for everyone’ Sandy told me, but because it is his own story it is also compellingly authentic. Surely this is social history at its best.

Sadly Evacuee is currently sold out, but the good news is that as I left Sandy this afternoon he was heading to his studio to work on the sequel about his life in post-war London and Saffron Walden holidays. I will let you know when it is out, but here is a sneak preview of a page in progress:

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