Women Heroes of World War I – a review

In 2011, American author, Kathryn Atwood, wrote a book entitled Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Now, comes a prequel to that title, Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics.

Women Heroes of WWI coverWhen one thinks of the Great War, invariably the first images to spring to mind are, understandably, that of soldiers in the trenches, men with shellshocked eyes carrying their wounded comrades, soldiers with gas masks. Women, with the exception of nurses, rarely feature among the iconic images of the war. Atwood, in her finely-crafted book, attempts to redress the balance.

Nurses, resisters, soldiers and journalists

Kathryn Atwood’s book, although aimed primarily at the ‘Young Adult’ market, is a fine read for all. Her introduction provides a brief overview on how the war started and the changing role of women as the conflict progressed. The book is then divided up into sections where we are told the stories of some incredibly brave women. We have a section on nurses, resistance and espionage, women soldiers and journalists. Some, like Edith Cavell (pictured), are still remembered but most have been forgotten, partly, says Atwood, because their stories have been eclipsed by the very women they helped inspire during the Second World War.

Edith CavellThe stories are indeed remarkable. We have, for example, Louise Thuliez, whose resistance work in Belgium was discovered by the Germans and stood trial alongside Cavell. Following the war, she was decorated by French president, Georges Clemenceau. We have Emilienne Moreau who, just 16-years-old, single-handedly managed to warn a company of Scottish soldiers that they were walking straight into a German ambush. Days later, she shot dead two Germans with a revolver. Incredibly, a quarter of a century later, following the fall of France in June 1940, Emilienne resumed her resistance work.

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Under the Wire by Paul Conroy – a review

Veteran war photographer, Paul Conroy, has written a compelling and direct book on his experiences in 2012 covering the conflict in Syria while working alongside American journalist, Marie Colvin. Weaving between the Syrian narratives, he also describes their adventures, the year before, in Libya during the final days of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and his brutal end.

Under the WireEarly on in Under the Wire, Conroy describes Colvin giving a speech in a church on Fleet Street, London, in which she argued ‘passionately’ for the need to send reporters to dangerous places. And Colvin had certainly been to several dangerous places; hot spots such as Kosovo, Libya and Chechnya. Her raison d’être, Conroy tells us, was to inform the world of injustice, and to use mass media to hold governments to account.

To bear witness

Roy Greenslade, writing Marie Colvin’s obituary in The Guardian, quoted her as saying, ‘My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm’. It was this, in February 2012, while reporting for the Sunday Times, that motivated their mission into Syria and to the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs. At the time, Homs was heavily under siege with the forces of President Assad relentlessly pounding the city on a daily basis.

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The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty by Mary Hollingsworth – review

Ever since the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire first coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, the maxim has been used as a yardstick by which to judge many of those who have assumed a position of influence and authority, and their subsequent deeds. Did those in power use their position to benefit others, or did they capitalise on and manipulate their success for personal gain? Unfortunately, history is littered with many more examples of the latter than the former.

The Dark Side of Power

The BorgiasIf we were to assess the Borgia family in these terms, how would they fare? Not well, I fear.  This infamous Aragonese dynasty, which spawned no less than three popes and which dominated 15th century European politics, has long been associated with the dark side of power.  Indeed, the Borgia name itself has become a byword for corruption, avarice, ruthlessness, and debauchery.  Add to this a blatant disregard for celibacy and a fondness for nepotism among those members of the family who had taken up Catholic holy orders, and we are left with a rather unflattering impression of the Borgia clan in general.

Mary Hollingsworth does not shy away from these uncomfortable truths in her book, The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious DynastyIn her account of the family’s rise to prominence, she presents the history of Borgia family year by year, providing insightful and illuminating commentary along the way.  Starting with Alonso de Borja, who hailed from Valencia in modern-day Spain, we follow his inexorable rise from lawyer to diplomat of the Court of Aragon to cardinal in Rome, culminating in his ascension to the Papal throne as Calixtus III in 1455.

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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

Britain’s high command was gripped by fear of Germany’s huge battleship, the Tirpitz, a massive ship, a sixth of a mile long. Its sister ship, the Bismarck, had been sunk in May 1941, but the Tirpitz still roamed large. The only dry dock on the French coast capable of accommodating such a ship was to be found at the port Saint-Nazaire, a town of some 50,000 people. If the Normandie dock, as it was called, the largest dry dock in the world at the time, could be put out of action, then the Tirpitz’s activity in the Atlantic would be severely constrained.

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Code Name Pauline – a review

Born in Paris to English parents, Pearl Witherington Cornioley was an extraordinary SOE agent who, at one point during World War Two, had over 3,000 fighters under her command. In 1995, her memoirs were published in France. Now, eighteen years later, as Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent, they are finally available in English, edited by American author Kathryn Atwood, and published by Chicago Review Press. Atwood first introduced us to Pearl in 2011 in her excellent Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. And here we get Pearl’s story from the woman herself. And it’s quite a story.

Code Name PaulinePearl’s father was a drifter and an alcoholic, rarely at home. Although she states she was “never unhappy at home with Mummy”, it was, nonetheless, a difficult childhood, having to bear her parents’ arguing, often rummaging for food and fighting off her father’s debt collectors. As the eldest of four girls and with an English mother who found it hard coping with life in Paris, Pearl was imbued from an early age with a sense of responsibility; a responsibility that deprived her of a proper childhood. As soon as she was old enough, and following her father’s death, Pearl went out to work to earn money, not for herself, but her mother and her sisters.

The Fall of France

Pearl met her future husband, Henri Cornioley, the son of prosperous parents, in 1933. But with war, six years later, came separation. Drafted into the army, Henri was not to see his sweetheart for over three years. Following the fall of France in June 1940, Pearl and her family, as British citizens, were still technically enemies of Nazi Germany and therefore had to flee. Following a circuitous journey lasting some seven months, they finally arrived in London in July 1941.

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The Best of Friends, the Worst of Friends? Tales of Two Cities: book review

Review of Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City by Jonathan Conlin (Atlantic Books)

Tales of Two CitiesParis and London.  London and Paris.  The very names of these two world cities conjure remarkably separate and distinct impressions in the mind of the reader.  Debonair Paris mixes a worldliness and elegance with a somewhat contradictory joie de vivre which can, at times, verge on the seedy.  London, on the other hand, fosters an equally inconsistent image of a battle-hardened and shabby metropolis which prides itself on its stoicism in the face of adversity, while continuing to bask in the rapidly dimming reflection of past glories.  Indeed, if conventional wisdom is to be believed, the only real connection between these two vastly divergent cities is their long-standing and deeply-entrenched rivalry.

Disdain

And, on the face of it, this appears to hold true.  Despite sharing similar early histories (both cities were founded by the Romans within a decade of year other), Paris and London have long defined themselves by their differences.  It cannot be argued that, from time immemorial, denizens of both cities have not held the other in unconcealed disdain.  And it is equally irrefutable that each city derived their sense of identity, at least in part, by holding themselves above and apart from the other.

But this widely-accepted (and one might say, hackneyed) belief in the separateness of the two cities is exactly what Jonathan Conlin sets out to controvert in his excellent examination of the cross-Channel relationship, Tales of Two Cities.  Far from developing interdependently from each other, Conlin argues, both metropolises have been engaged in a constant dialogue which has informed their evolution.  Borrowing extensively from each other, London and Paris have each exerted considerable influence over the other, and in doing so laid the foundations of the modern cities that have emerged in their wake.

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Stalin’s Romeo Spy – Dmitri Bystrolyotov

Charming, dashing and aristocratic, Dmitri Bystrolyotov’s life reads like a far-fetched spy thriller. Addicted to danger, Bystrolyotov seduced French, British and German women procuring for Joseph Stalin vital information in the years leading up to war, including, amazingly, Hitler’s plans for rearmament. He was, without question, Stalin’s most daring and successful spy.

But then, in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s purges, Bystrolyotov was arrested by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Tortured and crippled, and made to ‘confess’ to fantastical charges, he was sentenced to 20 years hard labour. Incarcerated and broken, Bystrolyotov felt the full force of the corrupt regime he had served so loyally for so long. But always one to take risks, Bystrolyotov recorded his experience within the gulags. With the help of contacts he smuggled out, page by page, his damning first-hand account of Stalin’s labour camps.

Now, 38 years after his death, the life of Dmitri Bystrolyotov is retold in a dramatic new book, Emil Draitser’s Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative.

The name is Bystrolyotov, Dmitri Bystrolyotov

Dmitri Bystrolyotov is a well-known name in Russia, an action hero for today reclaimed from the myths of yesteryear. Hailed on TV and film, subject of books and documentaries, Bystrolyotov is to Russia what James Bond is to the West but with one slight difference – Bystrolyotov was real.

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The Spy Who Loved by Clare Mulley: review

One can’t help but gasp with admiration at the life and exploits of Christine Granville, one of Britain’s bravest wartime heroines. On reading Clare Mulley’s entertaining new biography, The Spy Who Loved, we are introduced to a woman who lived life on the edge and who found ordinary, routine existence a bore. Mulley writes with almost a venerable regard for her subject and rightly so, for one would expect the life of Christine Granville to exist only within the pages of fiction. Indeed, she may well have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s character, Vesper Lynd, from his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.

The Spy Who LovedBorn Krystyna Skarbek in Poland, 1908, to a rakish father, a count who taught her how to ride a horse like a man, and a wealthy, Jewish mother, Christine Granville, the name she later adopted, enjoyed an aristocratic, carefree childhood, whose tomboy antics earned the respect of her loving father. Granville disdained authority and convention from an early age, pushing boundaries wherever she went. As a convent schoolgirl, to cite one of several examples, she was expelled for setting fire to the priest’s cassock. (He was wearing it at the time).

Absolutely fearless

With the outbreak of war in September 1939, Granville and her second husband travelled to London where she offered her services to British intelligence. She was sent to Hungary and from there, skied into German-occupied Poland. And it is from here that Granville’s life of adventure, incredible courage and resilience begins. ‘She is,’ wrote one secret service report, ‘absolutely fearless ready to risk her life at any moment for what she believed in’. What Granville believed in was to play an active role in undermining Nazi control of her beloved homeland.

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Bombing Hitler: Georg Elser, Man Who Almost Assassinated the Führer – review

The date is 8 November 1939, the location – the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich. With their uniforms freshly-pressed, their buttons gleaming, their shoes polished, Hitler’s longest-standing comrades filed into the hall, their chests puffed-up with pride, their wives at their sides. This event, on this day, had become an annual occasion in the Nazi calendar, a ritual of celebration and remembrance. The climax of the evening, awaited with great anticipation, would be Hitler’s appearance and his speech in which he would praise and pour tribute on these self-satisfied men, his old-timers.

Bombing Hitler- The Story of the Man Who Almost Assassinated the FührerBut there was one man who awaited Hitler’s appearance with equal anticipation – but for entirely different reasons. This man was 36-year-old Johann Georg Elser, a carpenter. For Elser, a long-time anti-Nazi, had planted a bomb with the full intention of killing Adolf Hitler. And his bomb was due to explode half way through the Fuhrer’s speech.

Kill Hitler

Georg Elser had always been quietly defiant in his hatred of the Nazi regime – he’d supported the communists and, once Hitler was in power, refused to give the Nazi salute. He feared Hitler’s aggressive warmongering and foresaw the coming of war and resolved himself, in his own way, to do something to prevent it – and that was to kill Hitler.

Exactly a year earlier before the fateful night, on the 8 November 1938, Elser attended the same annual commemoration in Munich marking the anniversary of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. And it was this annual event, he decided, that would provide the perfect opportunity to implement his audacious plan. The following night, he witnessed first-hand the vicious Kristallnacht, when Nazis throughout the country terrorized Germany’s Jews in a concentrated orgy of killing and violence. Seeing for himself this state-sponsored anarchy merely confirmed for Elser that what he was doing was right.

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The Company of Artists – book review

The Company of Artists: The Origins of the Royal Academy of Arts in London by Charles Saumarez Smith – a review by Sinead Fitzgibbon

It is late in the afternoon of 28 November 1768, a Monday.  A small group of men – three artists and an architect – converge on St James’s Palace for an audience with the King, George III.  There was but one thing on their minds – to secure the monarch’s support for the establishment of ‘a well regulated School or Academy of Design’ which, they hoped, would be the British equivalent to similar, well-regarded institutions on the Continent.

This is the setting used by Charles Saumarez Smith to introduce his engaging account of the origins of the Royal Academy of Arts.  It soon becomes apparent, however, that this rather decorous opening scene is entirely misleading.  As the author recounts the background to this historic meeting at St James’s Palace – the endless infighting between various artists, the rebellion against the Directors of the Academy’s predecessor, the Society of Artists – the reader soon realises that the establishment of this venerable institution was far from uncontroversial, and the behaviour of those involved was sometimes quite removed from the high-minded ideals they espoused.

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