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

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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Friday 28 August 2015

Hiroshima: City of Peace

Hiroshima: City of Peace

Seventy years ago this month, on Monday 6 August 1945, the nuclear bomb known as ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, immediately killing an estimated 80,000 people. Three days later a second bomb, the equally appallingly nick-named ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on Nagasaki, killing between 60-70,000 people. On 15 August Japan surrendered, marking the end of the Second World War.

It has been argued that President Truman’s decision to drop the A-bombs on these two Japanese cities saved more lives than were lost by ending the war so much earlier than any alternative course of action. As usual the truth is more complex. Truman’s primary objectives were certainly American lives and the earliest possible end to the war, but other pertinent considerations included impressing the Soviets as the Cold War approached, the lasting need to respond to Pearl Harbour, and the pressure to justify the development costs of the atomic project. In this war, sides of very different motivations and experiences all committed atrocities and suffered from traumatising war crimes. I don't seek to suggest equivalence. Nevertheless, it is still difficult understand the detonation of two separate Atomic bombs on the same country within a few days.

Cherry blossom in Hiroshima, April 2015
I visited Japan for the first time this Easter. It was cherry blossom season and the flowers were spectacular, frothing white and pink against bright blue skies. I was traveling around by bullet train and bicycle, visiting shrines and temples, stroking deer, feeding carp, and watching robots hop and skip in Tokyo. I also spent a day in Hiroshima, a vibrant city rebuilt after its almost total destruction in 1945. Modern Hiroshima has its fair share of cherry trees, but the official flower of the city is the Oleander, as this was the first plant to bloom again after 1945.

I was shown around the city by a local guide called Keiko. We started at the Peace Park that had opened in 1955. Here Keiko pointed out the new ground level, resulting from the vast amount of imported earth brought in to cover contaminated land. We visited the Genbaku Dome, the skeletal remains of the most central building left standing by the bomb which has been preserved as a memorial, as well as the eternal flame, and the peace pagoda erected in 1966.

Hiroshima Peace Pond in front of the Peace Flame
and Cenotaph in the Memorial Park
Keiko had married into a family from Hiroshima. Her husband’s mother was a young woman living less than two kilometers from the epicentre of the detonation in 1945. Of their large family only she, and a few others who were also away from home that August morning, survived. Keiko's husband was not born until a few years later but Keiko told me that, although rarely talking about it, he still carries the weight of these devastating events on his shoulders. 'As do all the city’s post-war generations', she added.

While other cities like Tokyo and Osaka had been severely bombed during the war, Hiroshima, where several Japanese armies were based, had not been targeted. Anticipating an eventual attack, that August the city authorities had mobilised school-children aged between eleven and fourteen to demolish certain houses to create fire-breaks, with the aim of limiting potential damage from firestorms. Many were helping with this work on the morning that the A-bomb fell, putting them close to the centre of the impact. Amongst other relics, such as melted road girders and roof tiles, the absolutely heart-wrenching Hiroshima Peace Museum displays possessions from some of these children including unopened lunch-boxes, scorched school books and several school blouses that had been beautifully hand-stitched by girls in classes just weeks earlier. In case these seem romantic, there are also some appalling human relics, kept by traumatised relatives who had nothing else. Thousands of other people left no evidence of their lives, abilities or personalities at all.

The museum also holds a display of many of the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was just two years old when she was exposed to radiation from the A-bomb further out in the suburbs of Hiroshima. Having developed leukaemia some years later, Sasaki began folding paper cranes in the hope that when she had made a thousand she might be granted a wish, as in Japanese legend. Too weak to continue, Sasaki died in 1955.

Origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki in Hiroshima Peace Museum
Sadako Sasaki statue, holding a crane aloft
Such devastatingly personal effects and relics are deeply telling, but nothing can convey the enormity of the loss. Six thousand Hiroshima school-children were killed when the atomic bomb was dropped. Many more died later from their injuries. By the end of the year the death toll is estimated to have been between 90,000-166,000, possibly more than half of the city’s entire population. Cancer and other resulting conditions claimed many more lives, such as that of twelve year old Sasaki. Around 70% of Hiroshima’s buildings were also destroyed. Nagasaki suffered a similar level of destruction.

Hiroshima was proclaimed a City of Peace by the Japanese parliament in 1949. It has since hosted a series of conferences on peace, developed a dedicated Peace Institute within its university, and established the international ‘Mayors for Peace’ organization, calling for the abolition and elimination of all nuclear weapons by 2020. This may be an unrealistic goal but it serves as a guide to steer disarmament. When one thinks of mothers, their skin hanging off, running towards the suburbs of Hiroshima clutching their dead children to their chests, it seems impossible to conceive of ever using such a weapon again.

The American decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki resonates in other ways today as well. From a historian's perspective, earlier this year the USA took the decision to digitise the records generated by their Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, to make them readily available to researchers internationally. The ABCC was the US body established in 1947 to carry out a medical assessment of the effect of radiation on survivors from the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The documents show that many of the US commission’s doctors were deeply affected by what they witnessed, although, as The Japan Times noted while I was visiting Hiroshima, many of the A-bomb survivors later criticised the commission for treating them like research guinea-pigs. Pity, without empathy or respect, is of little value. Preserved images in this collection include many taken to show the ‘atomic bomb radiation effects on the human body’, with some of the survivors photographed holding nameplates. Clearly issues around confidentiality and sensitivity must be paramount, and the full history behind the commission, as well as its findings, needs to be addressed.

Keiko nevertheless believes that the stories that stem from Hiroshima need to reach the widest possible audience. She told me that she feels deeply moved when showing visitors around her city and she hopes that, in this way, she can play a small part in helping to spread Hiroshima’s messages both of peace, and of the ‘evil of Atomic weapons’, around the world. I thought of Keiko as Hiroshima and Nagasaki fell silent for the seventieth anniversary this August, each city remembering the moment when tens of thousands of their citizens were killed. After doves were released and Buddhist bells tolled, vows were taken to redouble civic efforts to halt nuclear proliferation in a world where incidents, accidents, and the threat of nuclear terrorism is ever growing. Since then, countries including Japan and the USA, Britain, India, Australia, China and Russia have negotiated a controversial new deal to limit Iran's nuclear programme, while providing relief from previous sanctions and permitting the country to continue its atomic programme 'for peaceful purposes'.

As I left Hiroshima, Keiko gave me a white origami orizuru, or paper crane, which she had folded as we walked around the peace park. There are many important war anniversaries this year, but among them we must remember the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the message of peace with which Hiroshima has heroically chosen to reply to the world. Pity alone is not enough.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Imagining Eglantyne

‘We have to devise a means of making known the facts
 in such a way as to touch the imagination of the world.’ 
Eglantyne Jebb 

Poster for Anne Chamberlain's production, Eglantyne
Earlier this month I was fascinated to see a new one-woman play called simply, Eglantyne, written, produced and acted by the New Zealand artist Anne Chamberlain. Eglantyne Jebb, around whose life the play is built, was the remarkable founder of the independent children’s development agency Save the Children, and author of the pioneering statement that has since evolved into the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history. She was also the subject of my first biography: The Woman Who Saved the Children, and it is wonderful to see that her life is still inspiring people, both to write, and to support the vital work of Save the Children today. Proceeds from both my book and Anne’s play are donated to the charity.

Among Eglantyne’s many skills was an extraordinary ability to communicate the facts in such a way as to inspire others. She had a very vivid imagination and clearly loved words, writing numerous poems and romantic-social novels, as well as her pioneering statement of children’s rights. She also wrote and gave speeches, published leaflets and press articles, and made pioneering use of photographs and film footage to win support for her cause, often from initially hostile audiences.

Anne’s play opens with Eglantyne’s very public arrest in Trafalgar Square in the spring of 1919, for distributing leaflets calling for an end to the economic blockade that was contributing to the starvation of thousands in Germany and Austria. These leaflets had not been cleared under the Defence of the Realm Act – it had never struck Eglantyne that they might need to be. The crown prosecutor did not mince his words, but Eglantyne chose to represent herself and focused on the moral case. By the end of the session she had been found guilty, but the court reporters had plenty to pad out their stories with, and the crown prosecutor insisted on paying her fine.

Eglantyne Jebb, c.1921
Anne Chamberlain, as Jebb 2015

Save the Children was swept into existence on the wave of publicity that followed this trial, culminating with an exciting public meeting at the Royal Albert Hall. After listening to Eglantyne and her sister’s speeches, the crowds, who had arrived armed with rotten fruit to throw at the traitor women who wanted to give succour to the enemy, were instead inspired to put their hands in their pockets and fund a herd of Swiss dairy cows to provide milk for the children of Vienna.

Eglantyne gained the support of factory girls and aristocrats, the Pope and the Mining Unions, the British aristocracy and the Bolshevik government. She even won the backing of the wife of the Prime Minister whose policies she had campaigned against. ‘When she spoke’, her friend and colleague Dr Hector Munro later wrote, ‘everything seemed to lose importance and one agreed to do whatever she wished.’

Little surprise then, that Eglantyne’s words are still inspiring people today. In her play, Anne manages to integrate many wonderful examples of Eglantyne’s own phrases, from speeches and letters, into her script:

- ‘Humanity owes to the child the best it has to give.’

- ‘Every generation… offers mankind anew the possibility of rebuilding his ruin of a world.’

- ‘The world is not ungenerous, but unimaginative, and very busy.’

As I often still give talks about Eglantyne, and use many of the same quotes, it was strange to hear these words in someone else's mouth, with different intonations. But it was also really lightening - and heartening. At the end of the evening I felt as though, in a way, I had been kindly exorcised of Eglantyne. She will always be an inspiration, but my relationship with her feels less intense – it feels shared.

Eglantyne Jebb, c.1925
Anne Chamberlain as Jebb, 2015
Before I saw Anne’s play, I had wondered whether I would see a very different Eglantyne on stage, to the one I had come to picture to myself, someone I might not recognise even. This happened once before when I went to a production of Tony Harrison’s play in verse, called Fram. Fram, which means ‘Forward’ in Norwegian, was the name of the arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s ship. As the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Nansen became an associate of Eglantyne’s, helping to bring desperately needed relief to Russia during the famine of 1921. She greatly admired his spirit and energy, calling him a ‘solid viking’. Harrison’s play explored the relationship between art and aid, at times in quite provocative and painful ways. Eglantyne’s lines are the best in it, I think, and she was excellently played by Carolyn Pickles when I saw the production at the Royal National Theatre. But although Carolyn made me laugh by signing my programme ‘Eglantyne’, I did not feel a strong connection with the figure she had portrayed on stage. Perhaps, I thought for a while, I had imagined her wrongly... 

Save the Children feeds starving Russian children, 1921 
As we slowly approach Save the Children’s centenary in 2019, the charity has asked whether it might be possible to re-imagine Eglantyne, to bring her story to a new and younger audience – with a picture book about her life, adventures and achievements. I think this would be wonderful, and look forward to seeing yet another interpretation of this wonderful woman on the page… If anyone has suggestions for brilliant and inspiring children’s illustrators I would be delighted to hear them!

Sadly there is no one alive today who knew Eglantyne. There are photographs and sketches, but no one who heard her voice, and no recording of her. However, much of her writing survives, her actions speak volumes, and her energy, spirit, determination and often rather dark sense of humour, are palpable throughout. When I watched Anne Chamberlain’s play earlier this month, I was delighted to discover that I felt very familiar with the Eglantyne that she brought to life, which makes me hope that perhaps we both found something of the truth in this remarkable woman.

Anne and me, holding each other's writing about Eglantyne Jebb
I think that Eglantyne herself would have been fascinated by each reincarnation, and on the whole pleased, given that each helps to promote the cause – the welfare and rights of the world’s children – that she cared so passionately about. ‘A friend of mine once said to me that our minds, contemplating the truth, were like so many cameras turned towards the same building’, she once wrote. ‘No two cameras can be in the exactly the same position… so that no two precisely similar photographs can be taken; hence also, though some may be better than others, no single photograph, always supposing that it had not been faked, will be without its value.’

Sadly Anne’s play has now finished its British run, but it may be back next year and if so I will pass on the tour dates. I hope that between Eglantyne the play, my biography, and any new portrait, many more people, of all ages, may yet come to picture Eglantyne Jebb in their own way, and be inspired.

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Sunday 28 June 2015

Fighting Cocks and Showcased Skeletons, or Respect in Retrospect

Fighting Cocks and Showcased Skeletons, or Respect in Retrospect

The record of history is a living thing, not just connecting people across time but ever-evolving, reflecting the changing sensibilities of those looking back. Each generation considers the past with fresh eyes, re-selecting the people, events and themes of importance and re-evaluating the motivations, implications and lessons to be learned. Sometimes it is wonderfully surprising how controversial the past can turn out to be.

One of my favourite pubs in my old stomping ground of St Albans has recently been targeted by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which claims to be the oldest pub in the UK, dating from the eighth century, has drawn criticism for its historic name. PETA spokesperson Dawn Carr has suggested the pub be re-named to Ye Olde Clever Cocks to reflect a change in society’s attitudes.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
The St Albans pub does indeed sit on the site of an old cock-pit. The round, sunken arena was still evident in the floor when I use to drink there. But although this brutal sport is occasionally still secretly organised in England, it was made illegal here in the 1830s. Today the Fighting Cocks does not celebrate or encourage cock-fighting any more than The Flying Pig in Cambridge promotes porcine parachutists, or London’s The Hung, Drawn and Quartered advocates a return to capital punishment. In fact the landlord, Christo Tofalli, claims that the Fighting Cocks is particularly animal friendly, being near the park and welcoming dogs. 

Signpost to the historic cockpit inside
Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, St Albans
PETA may be a well-motivated organization, but their suggestion completely disregards the value of social history. Sanitizing our past exploitation of animals will do nothing to prevent future abuses; possibly the reverse. Beyond that, such heritage has inherent value, worthy of respect and protection, as landlord Tofalli appreciates. ‘This is an historic building with a remarkable story behind it’ he commented. It is a story that wants to share with locals and tourists and so, I am pleased to report, he is not planning a pub name-change soon.

Sometimes however the clash of interests and perspectives can be more difficult to negotiate. Last month the remains of a German soldier, believed to be those of Private Friedrich Brandt, were put on display in a Belgian museum. Private Brandt was not a soldier of the Second World War, nor even of the Great War before it, but of the Battle of Waterloo two hundred years ago. His skeleton, less skull but with the telling discovery of a French musket-ball between his ribs, was found, traditionally enough, under a car park near the battle-site. It was the curvature of the spine that led to his unofficial identification as Private Brandt, a twenty-three year old, known to have kyphosis, from Hanover. The skeleton was subsequently put on show at the ‘Waterloo Memorial 1815’ display in a Belgian museum.

Skeleton of the Waterloo soldier,
believed to be Private Friedrich Brandt, Belgium
Within days the respected military historian, Rob Schäfer, had launched a petition, Peace for Friedrich Brandt, asking to have the bones removed from display and respectfully reburied. Schäfer is able to picture the young Brandt in the early 1800s, feeling ‘as though he were on the adventure of a lifetime’ as he left his Hanover home to make his way to the ports of the German North Sea. He would have then ventured across the channel and completed his training in the - to him very alien - environment of East Sussex, before fighting alongside his English counterparts at Waterloo. ‘Friedrich’s compatriots would have buried him with honour’, Schäfer argues compellingly, before asking whether it is no less our duty to do the same.

Yet Françoise Scheepers, director of the Belgian Tourist Office for Brussels and Wallonia, has stated that the purpose of the memorial display was ‘not to shock but to pay tribute’. The museum is non-profit making, so there is no commercial exploitation. By humanizing the story of the Battle of Waterloo, their display hopes to engage young people with their history, helping them to appreciate that the soldiers were not just statistics but the ‘people made of flesh and bones’ with whom Schäfer can already empathise so well.

The Battle of Waterloo
(Image courtesy of Rob Schaefer)
Voltaire famously argued that ‘we owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only the truth’. Do we teach disrespect to the living by displaying the bones of the dead, or do we teach history? Private Brandt signed up to fight the French under Napoleon, not to champion the teaching of history or the humanity of his fellow-fallen. However, in life he also sought adventure rather than peace. If he has no traceable descendents, who is to say whether a quiet burial would be a mark of greater respect than his redeployment to promote an understanding of the cause for which he gave his life? I would certainly prefer to be useful post-mortem, but I doubt that such a role was something Private Brandt envisaged or would have aspired to. More broadly, what is it that makes the display of Private Brandt’s remains so much more provocative than those of the Ancient Egyptians, or other human reliquary? At what point, if ever, and under what terms, do bones become historic artifact rather than human remains? Is it the relatively young age of Private Brandt's skeleton, or is it something else that makes this display seem so disrespectful, such as the familiarity of his name? Or is it the fact that we have marked so many military anniversaries recently and honoured so many dead, and because we have developed such a culture of respect for fallen military heroes?

Both animal rights and respect for human remains are important issues that comment on people’s capacity for empathy, altruism, and the value of respect. Engagement with history demands similar qualities. While we must be careful not to impose modern sensibilities on our appreciation of the past, without a degree of respect and an attempt at empathy, any engagement loses meaning. The only thing that is absolutely clear is that sometimes it is the dialogue we have with history itself that is as important as the facts and artifacts of the past. Unless we ask the questions, unless we consider, criticise and debate not just the facts and stories, but the interpretations placed upon them and the uses made of them, history will itself become dead and meaningless.

Thursday 28 May 2015

Plotting the Second World War

Earlier this month I was delighted to speak at a commemorative day at Tempsford, in Bedfordshire, being held in recognition of the RAF Special Duties Squadrons that delivered SOE's special agents behind enemy lines from the village’s top-secret airfield during the Second World War.

Memorial Plaque in Tempsford village church
(courtesy of Martyn Cox,
Among the guests was Doreen Jeanette Galvin, nee Grey, a former member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, better known as the WAAF. Doreen served as an Intelligence Officer at RAF Tempsford during the war. She now lives in Canada, and this was her first visit back to her wartime base. Finding a squashy sofa in the memorial hall, Doreen told me how moving it was to return to this tiny village, attend the service of remembrance, and see the beautiful memorial to both the female special agents who were dropped behind enemy lines, and the Special Duties pilots who flew them there.

What I was not expecting was for Doreen to tell me how she had plotted the Second World War. Not in an evil god-of-destruction way you understand, but as a WAAF processing data about aircraft movement provided by radar stations and observation posts, and plotting the changing positions of Allied and enemy planes on a map.

Me with Doreen Galvin at Tempsford, May 2015
(courtesy of Mary J Miles)
Doreen joined the WAAF in March 1941. Her family’s association with the British Air Force went back to the First World War, but it was not until the late autumn of 1940 that she decided to volunteer. The trigger was watching the Battle of Britain at close quarters from her south coast garden, which was on a steep hillside looking down to the sea. At one point the planes flew so low that she felt they might knock the television aerial off the roof of her house, and she threw herself into a ditch in the garden. When she looked up there were black crosses on each wing of a German fighter above her, which was followed by a Spitfire which shot it down into the sea. She knew then that she had to volunteer.

Doreen in uniform
(courtesy of Doreen Galvin & Martyn Cox,
Doreen’s first position as a plotter was in Liverpool, receiving aircraft information and translating it into representative counters moved across a large map. On her third evening she found herself plotting the course of an enemy plane. Soon more followed; it was the start of the Liverpool blitz. Nothing could have better brought home to her the vital importance of her work, and how essential it was to be accurate.

Doreen's long and often exhausting career eventually led her to a Commission interview with ‘a very frightening Squadron Leader’ and, as the result of her courage to refuse the more regular roles she was encouraged to take in admin, or codes and ciphers, either of which she felt would ‘drive me crazy’, she was accepted for Intelligence.

Doreen in the WAAF
(courtesy of Doreen Galvin & Martyn Cox,
Doreen was then trained as a Photographic Interpretation officer at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire. Here she worked with Constance Babington Smith, known to all as ‘Babs’, who was ‘charming, not gushing, but she knew what she was doing’, as well as Sarah Churchill, the red-haired daughter of the PM, among others. Their role was to examine photographs and identify tell-tale troop movements, the build up of fleets and tanks, the creation of fuel and ammunition dumps, the construction and development of weaponry and key sites for military production and other bombing targets. Once, when particularly sensitive photographs and maps had to be examined, Sarah Churchill was segregated in the bathroom, with a 3-ply plank across the huge claw-foot bathtub on which to spread the pictures. She did not know it at the time, but she was working on images of North Africa. ‘We always used to say,’ Doreen told me with a laugh, ‘that for us, North Africa started in the bathroom’.

Among a wealth of other material, including pictures of her family's former house in the Channel Islands (garden doing well, she noted), Doreen’s photographs provided early images of the German Messerschmitt 162 and 163 rocket planes. She also worked on photos of a series of ramps in northern France, all facing London. ‘It was obvious something was going to be shot off them’, Doreen said, but they couldn’t see what. Nearly two years later she was spending the night with a friend in Bromley when the first V1s to reach London ‘flew over the roof like an express train’. Wearing a hard hat on the early morning journey into work the next day she suddenly realized that these new flying bombs must be what she had been looking for at Medmenham.

Doreen during the Second World War
(courtesy of Doreen Galvin)
After a year in Aerial Reconnaissance, Doreen moved to Bomber Command, with an office next to the famous ops room. From there she became an Operations Officer at RAF Feltwell, in Norfolk. At times it was almost unbearable work. One morning twelve planes left to bomb a hydroelectric station, and just one damaged aircraft returned late that afternoon. It was ten days before Doreen learned that she was in no way to blame for the high losses through any inaccuracies in her work - the planes had simply had the misfortune of coinciding with a Luftwaffe squadron.

Finally Doreen was sent to RAF Tempsford to work as an Intelligence Officer, without yet knowing the operational nature of the secret little airfield. On arrival she was surprised to see the odd variety of aircraft of all vintages and sizes that operated from the airfield, including a number of old-fashioned Lysanders, affectionately called ‘Lizzies’, which she thought must have come from the previous war. The intelligence office seemed ‘very dull’, the maps ‘uninspiring’, and Tempsford struck Doreen altogether as ‘a mediocre station, full of left-overs, in a forgotten backwater’.

A Lysander at Tempsford during the war,
with officers from Special Duties squadron 161
(courtesy of Hugh Verity & Martyn Cox
Only after she was taken through a security door did Doreen see a map covering the entire wall opposite. ‘On it were hundreds of brightly coloured pins, each holding down a small label with a number and a code name typed on it.’ These represented the dropping and landing sites for Britain’s special agents and supplies across Europe. Her role was to ensure the pilots were fully briefed on the sites, and their routes, using aerial photographs and other intelligence. Doreen stared at the map in amazement, thinking, ‘If only the Germans could set eyes on this wall map, they could surely eliminate the entire Underground Movement in Europe in a week!’

Tempsford brought its own tragedies, although nothing quite on that scale, but also many lighter moments among friends who became very close. Here the WAAF Officers’ Mess was so close to the vicarage and the old stone church that one morning, after an RAF dance the night before, the vicar’s wife accused Doreen's friend of getting their chickens drunk. The hens had come wandering in unnoticed and drunk from the dregs of the slop bucket behind the bar.

Doreen at the Special Duties memorial plaque in Tempsford Church
(courtesy of Martyn Cox,
Reverend Margaret Marshall with Doreen Galvin
at Tempsford's memorial to the SOE women and Special Duties pilots
(courtesy of Clive Bassett)
Last Sunday, after the morning of talks, Doreen visited Tempsford’s old stone church again, this time for a service of remembrance conducted by the Reverend Margaret Marshall (how times have changed), before laying wreaths at the memorial opposite. For Doreen it had been a moving experience to return to the village where she had spent so much of her war, and to see that neither the special agents, nor the brave pilots who flew them behind enemy lines, have been forgotten. Not only are there beautiful memorials in the church and on the village green, but there are often events here which welcome everyone from family members who come to remember, to school children who may be hearing for the first time about the history of the village, the airfield, and the many brave people who once passed through.

Aerial photograph of RAF Tempsford during the war
(courtesy of The Bob Body Collection & Martyn Cox,
I am delighted that Doreen has written and self-published her memoirs, From Arts to Intelligence, available from Amazon in kindle and EPUB formats, and paperback.