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Gold, Frank-intentions and Murder

By the summer of 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with nothing to protect her apart from the Channel.

This is an oft stated fact that has become entirely accepted by a large majority of the British population today. But is it true? Strictly speaking, yes. Geographically we stand on the edge of the European continent and always have done. There is nothing new in that claim. But the implication here when set in the context of the early summer of 1940 is that of plucky little Britain, with its population of 38 million, standing shoulder to shoulder to face the threat of a German invasion entirely alone and with no support from anyone. That is the bit that is not true and it does history a great disservice to ignore the massive contribution made by our friends and allies both that summer and in the subsequent springs, summers, autumns and winters that followed.

By the time the Battle of Britain took place, London was host to seven foreign governments-in-exile and the hot-headed French General, Charles de Gaulle, had arrived as well. None of them came empty handed. 

The Norwegian government leant the British more than 1,300 vessels from their fleet, the fourth largest and most modern merchant fleet in the world, which sailed with the Atlantic convoys for the whole war. In 1941 a British official declared that the Norwegian merchant fleet was worth ‘more than an army of a million men’. That was an enormously valuable contribution and one that was not without risk. Many Norwegian sailors would lose their lives in the heaving seas of the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, King Haakon of Norway brought 1400 soldiers, 1,000 sailors and a small number of pilots that grew rapidly over the next few months. 

The Belgians donated their substantial gold reserves and over the course of the war shipped 1,375 tons of uranium from their stocks to the USA to fuel the Manhattan project. 

The Dutch government and their magnificent Queen Wilhelmina, who was described by Churchill as the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London brought six hundred ships from its mercantile fleet and rich resources from the Dutch East Indies. 

Jozef Gabcik, one of the two assassins of Reinhard Heydrich

Jan Kubis, the assassin who threw the grenade that killed Heydrich

The Czechs’ contribution was brilliant intelligence from inside Nazi Germany. Their main agent, A54 as he was known, was a high-ranking Abwehr officer who divulged highly valuable secrets until his eventual capture in 1941. He told the Czechs about the build-up of Goering’s Luftwaffe, he gave them the code for German wirelesses in 1938. It was a sinister code: Heil 15 März and a week before Prague was invaded (on 15 March 1939) he told them that the Germans had been instructed to round up all intelligence officers and treat them with great harshness. His warnings helped the intelligence services to evacuate to London the night before the invasion. In 1942 two agents, one Czech, one Slovak, carried out the most audacious assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi to be murdered: Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš were trained in Britain and flown to Bohemia by the RAF to carry out the murder. Our past is inextricably linked to the former Czechoslovakia.

Charles de Gaulle’s contribution would take longer to materialise but his presence in London cannot be underestimated. Churchill, passionately supportive of the French, gave de Gaulle every encouragement as he gradually built up the Free French army and encouraged the development of the Resistance. Many of their agents were trained in Britain and used safe houses all over the country, including one in Sussex which features in Our Uninvited Guests, to stay while waiting for flights into occupied France.

End House, used during the war as a secret training base for Polish agents.

The Poles brought fighter pilots to the Battle of Britain. They were among a total of 8,000 airmen and 20,000 soldiers as well as hundreds of sailors manning three destroyers, two submarines and a number of smaller vessels who arrived here after the Fall of France. By the end of the war the Polish was the fourth largest Allied Force after Russia, the USA and the British Empire. Critically they also sent an early decoded version of the Enigma machine for the British security services. It was the Poles in 1932 who first worked out how to use the German Enigma machines and they had been reading German messages for the greater part of seven years by the time the war broke out. I’m not saying the coders at Bletchley Park could not have done their work without Polish help but it might not have happened so quickly. We owe the Poles more than we ever imagine. That is why I have dedicated my book to them. They might have been Uninvited Guests but they were brilliant guests to have on our side.

Auxiliary Units trained at Coleshill House near Swindon from the summer of 1940 until they were stood down in late 1944

Closer to home we had the Auxiliary Units, young men and women recruited in the summer of 1940 to act as a sabotage force to work behind the lines in the event of an invasion. They were told their work was so secret that they could not tell anyone about it outside the tiny groups of six or so who would man an observation post, underground, and plan their attacks on bridges, railway lines, petrol stores and so on. The life expectancy of an Auxilier had the Germans invaded was estimated to be no more than fourteen days. Their training centre was based at Coleshill House, home of the Pleydell-Bouverie family, just outside the village of Highworth in Wiltshire, close to the railway hub of Swindon, meaning that trainees from all over the country could reach Coleshill with relative ease. The man who developed the training programme to turn vicars, poachers, farmers and schoolteachers into saboteurs and silent killers was Brigadier Sir Colin McVean Gubbins, the man who would later be in charge of Special Operations Executive.

When you next hear somebody misusing history, please suggest they might like to read Our Uninvited Guests and remind themselves of the real behind the scenes story of the summer of 1940.

 

 

 

 


Julie Summers is a bestselling author and historian. Her books include: Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine; The Colonel of Tamarkan, a biography of her grandfather, the man who built the ‘real’ bridge on the River Kwai; Stranger in the House, a social history of servicemen reuniting with their families after the Second World War, and When the Children Came Home, which tells the story of returning evacuees. Her book Jambusters was the inspiration for ITV’s hit drama series Home Fires, which ran for two seasons in 2015–16.

Julie will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Friday 28th June about Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Lives of Britain’s Country Houses. Tickets are available here.

History, Made by Women

Foreman, AmandaOn Sunday, the final day of CVHF 2015, award-winning historian Amanda Foreman will be speaking about the history of the world, as made by women. Writing as a woman with a particular interest in women’s history, I am understandably extremely interested to hear Amanda’s talk. More importantly, I am excited by what such a high-profile discourse signifies – the growing public interest in women’s history, as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of books, TV programmes and films dedicated to female narratives, let alone the academic work that is going on behind the scenes.

Anand,-AnitaWomen’s history doesn’t get much more powerful than the suffragettes, and it has been fantastic to see their story given a new lease of life in a year in which female politics have been very much in the public eye. Later this year comes the much-anticipated film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, but at the festival on Saturday night the acclaimed journalist and writer Anita Anand will tell the story of a far less well-known suffragette: Sophia Duleep Singh. Dispossessed Indian Princess, godchild of Queen Victoria and society darling turned revolutionary, Singh has been described as one of the ‘unknown giants of women’s suffrage.’ The suffragette story was also the inspiration for Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, a recent TV series presented by previous CVHF speaker Amanda Vickery, a powerful and inspiring advocate for women’s history. As well as this series and other television appearances, Vickery has published numerous books in which the lesser-known stories of women’s lives are told, often through the objects and material culture of their social spheres.

Helen CastorThe life of Joan of Arc – a similarly powerful woman from a very different era – will be the subject of a talk by medieval historian and BBC broadcaster Helen Castor at CVHF on Sunday morning. The story of the French peasant girl who heard the voice of God has become somewhat lost in myth and legend, and it is fantastic to hear an old tale re-told with a new clarity. Castor demonstrated the depth and magnetism of this gripping history in her recent BBC Two programme on the same subject, Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior. Alongside festival co-founder Tom Holland, Castor also hosts BBC Radio Four’s Making History programme, and last year made a number of recordings live at CVHF will are still available as podcasts on the BBC website.

Summers, JulieThere is perhaps less drama in the smaller social and cultural details of women’s history, but the resulting stories can reveal a huge amount about the experiences of our female ancestors, whose lives have been less extensively or formally recorded that those of men. Julie Summers is a writer who often dwells on historical subjects, and this year has most notably written the accompanying book to Fashion on the Ration, the Second World War fashion exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and seen her recent book Jambusters translated into a successful ITV series: Home Fires. The book and consequent TV adaptation tell the story of the Women’s Institute during the Second World War, and it is on this subject that she will be speaking at CVHF on Friday afternoon. For myself, I am hoping that some forties fashion makes it into her talk also!

Kate MosseIt is important to note, of course, that female historians are interested not only in women’s history. At the festival this year we will be lucky to witness the work of some of the UK’s biggest names connected to the broad field of historical study. Speaking on Thursday is the internationally bestselling author Kate Mosse, who has shown in her incredibly popular novels the way historical fact can be interwoven with fiction to extraordinary effect. Awarded the OBE in 2013 for services to literature, I am personally very excited to hear from such a successful female writer on how she has shaped historical narratives into a world of her own cJanina Ramirezreation. I am also particularly looking forward to talks from Alice Roberts and Janina Ramirez, both of whom have made regular TV appearances alongside their successful academic careers. Ramirez, most recently spotted as a panellist on BBC museum-based quiz show The Quizeum, will be speaking about the Private Lives of the Saints at the festival on Wednesday.

Roberts, AliceAlice Roberts, meanwhile, will be speaking on Tuesday about evolution, the human body, and our historical understanding of anatomy – which, based on her compelling on-screen presence, is sure to be a highly engaging and fascinating event.

It is great to see – in both private research and the public eye – how female historians are re-shaping history in the present day. Forging a career in academia or writing is no mean feat and it is wonderful to see how many women are juggling roles in broadcasting, teaching, publishing, science, museums and more to do just that. The increasing respect for female historians bodes well for an ever more diverse and dynamic history of the world, as made by women.

 


lucie bw pic

On Saturday, 27th June at 5pm, fashion historian, Lucie Whitmore, will be giving a ‘Pop Up History’ talk at Chalke Valley History Festival, discussing how women’s fashion changed and was influenced by the conflict, and how we can study the garments today to learn more about women’s experience of war.

Hidden Gems

James Holland, the Festival’s Programme Director and Co-Chair, lists the talks he’s most looking forward to seeing.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand
Anita Anand is a really well-respected BBC journalist but on the back of terrific reviews I read this book and found it utterly fascinating.  Sophia’s story is an extraordinary one that blends human drama and social history in a very compelling way.  I’m always looking to get brilliant speakers – people who perform rather than read out a written speech, and Anita is going to be excellent, I know.

Anand,-Anita

The English & Their History by Robert Tombs
I was really fortunate to persuade Robert Tombs to come.  He’s a hugely eminent professor and academic and a very busy and much-in-demand man.  His book received amazing plaudits when it came out and this is bound to be both fascinating and thought-provoking at a time when we as a nation are asking many questions about our identity – and thus also our past.

Tombs, Robert

 

Home Fires by Julie Summers
I’m rather hooked by the ITV drama, Home Fires, which was based on Julie Summers’ book about the WI in the Second World War.  I’m also really interested in the totality of Britain’s commitment during the war, so I’m really looking forward to hearing Julie speak.

Summers, Julie

Hobbes, Ideas and the English Revolution by Hannah Dawson
If I had anything to do with it, studying the Civil War would be compulsory at schools before GCSE choices are made.  The country we are today really stems from that traumatic period in the middle of the 17th Century and so this is just the kind of meaty, thought-provoking subject we should be doing at the festival. Hannah is an amazing historian and academic – charismatic, passionate and a brilliant speaker.  This will be a treat.

Dawson, Hannah

Ancient Egypt: New Stories by Joann Fletcher
I think Jo Fletcher is brilliant.  Although an academic, she has made herself the BBC’s No.1 Egyptologist and her series are just brilliant.  Her enthusiasm is infectious, she’s loads of passion and energy, and ancient Egypt is just so interesting.  I’ve been out there, but even if one hasn’t, how can one not be seduced by the sheer scale and grandeur of Karnak, the Pyramids and the Temple of Queen Hapshepsut?

Joann Fletcher

The World’s War by David Olusoga
David is not only one of the nicest people on the planet, he is a brilliant historian and television presenter.  I thought this BBC series was the best history I’ve seen on telly for a while, and he’s another who has charisma, charm and a gift for storytelling in bucket loads.  This wider view of the First World War is just so interesting and I know David will be giving us an incredible talk.  I wouldn’t miss this one for anything.

David Olusoga

Sensation and Pleasure in 18th Century France by Andrew Spira
I was once on holiday with Andrew and he had us all eating out of his hand – his knowledge is immense and all of us, young and old, were rapt by both his stories and his intellect.  This might seem an unusual choice for a talk, but trust me, it will be utterly and completely fascinating and will get you thinking and talking about it for a long time after.  I can’t wait.

Spira, Andrew

Rock Stars Stole My Life by Mark Ellen
In London, Mark’s talks sell out every time.  I’m also keen to inject a bit of more recent cultural history into the programme, and this will be a hilarious, gossipy, anecdotal romp through the seventies and eighties music scene, when Mark was at the very heart of music journalism.  Come along, sit back, and enjoy!

Ellen, Mark