By the end of September, I hope to submit the manuscript of my second novel Two Families at War to my publisher. I’m almost satisfied with it (my editor may think otherwise!). This is the fourth draft of a novel which I began writing in the summer of 2012.

The story itself follows the fortunes of two families during the early years of the Second World War. One are German Jewish refugees who reached England via the notorious voyage on the SS St Louis to Cuba in May 1939. After a year in which they settled down in North London, they were interned on the Isle of Man to be released in time to witness the second great fire of London in December 1940.

The other group which the novel focuses on are a family of petty criminals who take advantage of the blitz and the blackout to expand their activities and, inevitably, come face to face with the Jewish refugees. The other chief character is Richard Walker, an important part of the plot of The Blue Pencil and he provides the link between the two novels.  Others from my first novel do make fleeting appearances in Two Families at War.

In both books I tried to weave the fortunes of fictional characters into real events and this entailed a great deal of research because I was keen to be as historically accurate as possible. Much of the work I carried out in preparation for writing The Blue Pencil was useful for the follow-up, although I did have to look in some depth into the lives of Jewish people in Berlin as war approached and into tales of internment on the Isle of Man. I spoke extensively to Blitz survivors, both in North London and elsewhere in the UK. I visited all of the locations in the book, including a whole week spent on the Isle of Man (in fine weather!). Apart from location visits, library (including the Newspaper Library in North London) and internet searches, I have spent a good deal of time at the Imperial War Museum (London) and the London Transport Museum.

I write in pencil which allows me easy correction. My typing is hopeless and I would have spent my time concentrating on the typing and not developing the plot had I chose to use a keyboard. Having said that, I do type out the pencil manuscript (with two fingers) when I’m satisfied with it. I always work in the day and seem to be at my best in mornings.

Research for Two Families at War took about six months and the actual writing a further six months. I started submitting manuscripts for proof reading to my friend Brian Cooper in May of this year and sent him the final draft in late August. When you’re an incompetent typist (as I am) you’d be amazed at how much rubbish you manage to put on to a page. After he’d returned the corrected first draft, I commented to him that he must think me illiterate!

Soon I’ll be embarking on the research for the third book, provisionally entitled The Summer of Thirty Nine. Most of the characters from The Blue Pencil will re-appear. If it gives me half as much pleasure I’ve had from writing the first two, I’ll be very satisfied.

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That was the final outcome of a fascinating debate held at the Royal Geographical Society in London and organised by Intelligence Squared at the beginning of last month. The motion “Neville Chamberlain did the right thing” was proposed by Professor John Charmley and seconded by Professor Glynn Stone. Speaking against the motion were Sir Richard Evans, author of the best book of the many that I’ve read about the Third Reich, and Piers Brendon, former keeper of the Churchill Archive Centre. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum was in the chair. You can watch the debate on YouTube.

The proceedings were of special interest to me in that appeasement in the 1930s is the background to my political thriller The Blue Pencil which was published by Sacristy Press in November 2012. Although all four speakers in the debate acknowledged that appeasement continued during the early stages of the war, the main period of focus, both in the debate and in my novel, stretched from the re-militarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 to the signing of the Munich Treaty in September 1938. Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister when the Germans marched into the Rhineland, but it was as much, if not more, the supine response of the French that encouraged Hitler to seize Austria two years later.

John Charmley, proposing, suggested that Chamberlain was pursuing normal British foreign policy which stretched back to the Crimean War in the mid nineteenth century, interrupted only by the First World War. In the half century preceding 1914, Britain’s chief overseas adventures were mostly colonial. In fact, Professor Charmley argued, the horrors of the 1914-1918 conflict re-enforced the need for appeasement and this had strong public support.

In his passionate speech, Professor Charmley also pointed out that, following the economic slump of the early 1930s, we couldn’t afford another war. Nor were we militarily prepared for it. The trauma of the first conflict was still felt throughout the country and the public and a vast majority of the House of Commons were fully behind the government’s efforts to appease the dictators. He did give some credit to Chamberlain for encouraging the development of the RAF but, paradoxically, failed to mention that the Prime Minister’s neglect of the Army contributed to the humiliation Dunkirk. Appeasement, he concluded, was the only policy and Chamberlain had made “an honourable attempt to see if peace was possible.”

Sir Richard Evans, opposing the motion, said that when Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937, he was warned by the then British Ambassador in Berlin, Sir Eric Phipps, that the Nazis did not behave like normal statesmen. He also had information from the Secret Service that Hitler’s territorial ambitions knew no limit. He could also have added that Winston Churchill (who had his own spy network) had warned Parliament of the Nazi threat as early as 1932, before Hitler came to power. Chamberlain mistook Hitler for a normal European statesman and believed that he could deal with him. He quickly replaced Phipps in Berlin with fellow traveller Sir Neville Henderson.

Britain and France had stood by while Germany marched into the Rhineland, in direct contravention to the Treaty of Versailles, and did nothing when Austria was incorporated into the Third Reich in March 1938, another Versailles provision which Hitler chose to ignore. Hitler’s triumph at Munich, when Britain and France signed away arts of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, encouraged Hitler to accelerate his plans for war, Sir Richard claimed.

In his summary, Sir Richard said that appeasement was a desperate search for peace at any price and that Munich gave Great Britain and France the chance to stop Hitler while it was still possible to do so.  There was opposition to the Fuhrer’s warlike ambitions amongst the German General Staff and, had Hitler been humiliated at Munich, the army may well have deposed him. Hitler, encouraged by Munich, began to prepare for war against what he perceived to be feeble opposition, Great Britain and France. Chamberlain returned from Munich in triumph, leaving Europe to sort out its own problems. His signature, and that of French Premier Daladier, led to the destruction of Czechoslovakia and Poland over the next twelve months.

Professor Stone, speaking for the motion, believed that the alternative to appeasement was war with Great Britain part of a grand alliance, possibly involving the USA and the Soviet Union as well as our traditional ally France. Professor Stone said that he believed that the USA would not join such an alliance, having recently passed their Neutrality Act, the USSR were in suffering from Stalin’s purges which left them militarily weak and France were feeble after years of political instability. This left Chamberlain with only one option; appeasement.

Piers Brendon  completed the presentations, supporting Sir Richard in opposing the motion. He described Chamberlain as smug, vain and fundamentally naïve. His fear of communism led him to snub the Soviet Union and court Mussolini instead. He removed all opposition to him, both in the Civil Service and the Cabinet and appointed ‘yes men’ in their place.

At this stage in the proceedings, Anne Applebaum announced the result of the pre-debate poll which showed that those against the motion were likely to score a comfortable victory, although 34% were ‘don’t knows.’  Questions and comments from the floor now followed and the evening was completed with another poll. The ‘anti appeasers’ were still in the clear but the proposers of the motion had persuaded a substantial number of the ‘don’t knows’ to vote from them, leaving the anti-appeasers ahead by only 8% of the total audience at the close.

In The Blue Pencil, I tried desperately not to take sides in this great debate and also endeavoured to write the novel without hindsight (with just one exception). I painted a picture of Chamberlain as a caring and energetic Health Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer who recognised the need to drastically improve Britain’s heath services, housing and schools and preferred to spend money on that rather than war. Ultimately I came down on the side of the anti-appeasers and believed we should have stood up to Hitler at Munich. Sir Richard told us that the German General Staff felt that the Wehrmacht were unprepared for war and may well have tried to get rid of Hitler had he gone to war over Czechoslovakia. We have evidence of this from sources inside the German Embassy who, as Sir Richard revealed, communicated all kinds of information to Klop Ustinov, former Press Officer at the embassy and father of Sir Peter. Ustinov in turn passed this information to the Foreign Office. It’s inconceivable that Chamberlain was unaware of this.

I also made the case that the military situation in the autumn of 1938 would not necessarily have favoured Hitler. Sir Richard made the same point in his presentation, making special mention of the strength of the Czech army. Add to that the natural defence provided by the mountains on the Czech western border and their fortifications, the strongest in Europe together with one of the world’s biggest armament factories in the Skoda works at Pilsen and its easy to see that Czechoslovakia would not have been an easy nut to crack. Professor Stone’s argument about the difficulties of forming a grand alliance just don’t stack up. The Czechs were already allied to France who in turn was allied to the Soviet Union as well as Great Britain. Had Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1938 and these alliances were activated, Hitler would have faced the formidable Czech forces, probably supported by Soviet air power, on his eastern front and the Anglo-French army in the west. That would probably stopped Hitler, who had no allies, for ever and the Second World War, which cost fifty five million lives would and should have been avoided.

Chamberlain, however, knew better. I remember seeing a piece of 1930s newsreel film in which he was leaning back in his chair and boasting of his success as Chancellor of the Exchequer in ending the slump of the early 30s, cheerfully ignoring the fact that recovery was, at that time, confined to South East England and the West Midlands. The rest of the country was still living in poverty. Chamberlain’s foreign policy was dictated by his hatred of communism, his lack of experience in foreign affairs and his inexorable belief is his own infallibility. He was a vain, naïve and arrogant man who led us into war.

In future posts I shall try to show how Chamberlain tried to control the press and the BBC in his pursuit of appeasement but that’s in the months to come. Meanwhile decide for yourselves. Watch the debate on YouTube or even read The Blue Pencil! 


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Alex Gerliis’ first novel starts with a bang and keeps the reader gripped until the final page. The setting is the Second World War in Europe, mostly in the time before, during and after the D-Day landings of June 6th. 1944. It is essentially a story of deception in more ways than one. The tale could easily have slotted into Ben McIntyre’s : Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies and, having swallowed McIntyre’s extraordinary narrative, Gerlis’ story becomes very credible indeed.

The background to the plot is Operation Fortitude, the plan created to persuade the Germans that the target area for the Second Front landings in Northern France was the Pas de Calais and not the Normandy beaches. Even trickier was to convince the Nazis that, even after the June 6th. landings, these were just a feint and the real attack would come in North-East France sometime later, thus preventing the main units of the Wehrmacht dashing westwards on June 7th. Had that happened, the allied armies may well not have broken out of Normandy and the consequences of that are too depressing to contemplate.

Its not giving the plot away to remind readers that these deception operations succeeded beyond their creators’ wildest dreams, but I’m anxious not to include any more plot spoilers in this post because it’s purpose is to persuade people to buy the book. It really is very good.

The characters are both complex and interesting. The hero is a young naval officer and the heroine a refugee from wartime France who is also a trained nurse. The people who create and put into place the deception plan include a kindly old World War One naval officer and a small number of utterly ruthless agents whose sole task is to win the war by whatever means necessary. This is not, however, a traditional heroic spy story and the way in which the personalities of the central players change as the tension mounts and the stakes rise is fascinating. Woven round this is a very convincing and moving love story.

The plot is, of course, full of twists and turns and demands careful reading. Several times I found myself predicting what would happen next only to be totally wrong. There is one short use of flashback when the earlier adolescent life of the hero is sketched in. This is essential to help the reader to understand his later actions. Wartime London is very well-drawn and I got a real sense of being there. This is also true  of Northern France in the aftermath of the invasion: chaos, tragedy, revenge, relief and confusion. Here we’re introduced to another set of interesting people: resisters, collaborators, good Germans and bad Nazis, families and the bereaved.

The Best of Our Spies has a contemporary feel and, apart from one or two appropriate acts of violence, could have been written in 1945. There’s no padding in the narrative. It’s superbly pared to the bone. Both sides, British and German, use deceit and cruelty as well as a weary professionalism. They’re very good spies, but tired of the war. A device that Gerlis uses particularly well is the blending together of real and fictional characters. I did the same in my novel The Blue Pencil and I felt then, as Gerlis perhaps thinks here, that this helps to lend both credibility and menace to the tale.

Many years ago I saw a film called Circle of Deception. The plot is about a young American agent sent into occupied Europe before D-Day carrying top secret coded plans (I can’t recall the precise details). He’s given a deadly cyanide capsule which he’s told he must bite into if he’s caught so that he won’t reveal the secrets. People at our end make sure he’s picked up by the Germans and he takes the pill which is, of course, harmless. Under torture he gives away the codes, the Germans read the plans, swallow them hook, line and sinker and march off in the wrong direction. It’s an old chestnut, frequently re-heated but none the less gripping. The same is true of Alex Gerlis’ novel The Best of Our Spies. It’s extremely well-written, exciting and very satisfying. It’s a brilliant must-read.

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In recent years there has been a surfeit of films and books which have either tackled the issue of collaboration in the Second World War or used it as a backdrop to the plot of a narrative. I’ve been aware for some time that many citizens of occupied countries worked alongside their conquerors but never fully realised the extent of this. I decided to blog about it and began to do some research but it soon became clear to me that a post such as this would do scant justice to an issue of such monumental importance, the effects of which were felt long after the war had ended. I hope, however, some will find what follows interesting and perhaps even do some research of their own.

I suppose it all began for me when I read a novel called Death in Bordeaux. It was a detective story set in early 1940 by Allan Massie, an author of whom I knew little. It was superb and recently I’ve read his follow-up Dark Summer in Bordeaux which is equally good. Between reading the two books, I heard Massie speaking at a literary festival where he spoke of his growing interest in occupied France and Vichy.

No soon had I finished reading Death in Bordeaux than two movies, both dealing with the same topic, appeared in quick succession. The Round Up and Sarah’s Key dealt with the arrest and deportation of French Jews. Most died in the camps of Eastern Europe. Of course, this happened in all countries occupied by the Nazis but what appeared to be different in France was that the dirty work was predominantly carried out by the French police under the direction of the Gestapo and the SS. Further reading led to the discovery that this policy was actively and enthusiastically supported by the French Head of State Phillippe Petain and the Prime Minister Pierre Laval. Both were arrested, tried and sentenced to death at the end of the war. Petain’s sentence was commuted to life and Laval was shot by firing squad.

I’ll return to France later but the early lesson that I learned was that it would have been almost impossible for the Nazis to maintain any sort of effective hold on the territories that they occupied without some degree of co-operation from the citizens of those countries, a point brought strongly home to me by the Polish film In Darkness (2011), a holocaust movie predominantly set in the sewers beneath the then Polish city of Lwow (now Lviv in Ukraine). Here, the chief enemies of the hidden Jews were not the Nazi occupiers but the Ukranian militia who hoped by allying themselves to the Germans to secure independence for Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Perhaps then, some collaborators did so for political reasons. That certainly seemed to be the case in France where Laval shared with Hitler two of the Fuhrer’s chief driving forces; hatred of Jews and Communists. Laval possibly felt that an alliance with Germany would restore France’s political stability after the chaos of the thirties.

Every country in Europe occupied by the Nazis spawned collaborators but all also had resistance movements which fought bravely against the German tyranny. Many later condemned as collaborators had not played active roles in helping the occupiers. They kept their heads down and waited for the war to pass. Others were far more pro-active, denouncing resisters, helping to keep law and order, fighting alongside the Nazis and, of course, providing the occupying soldiers with companionship and sex. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in one of the greatest documentary films ever The Sorrow and the Pity made by the French Director Marcel Ophuls in 1969. Set in the Vichy town of Clermont Ferrand, the films documents life under Nazi occupation from 1942 to the liberation, drawing on eye-witness testimony from members of the resistance, ordinary citizens, German soldiers, Special Operations Executive agents operating in the area and members of the bourgeoisie.  There was a strong Communist presence in the resistance and members were often mistrusted by other French men and women who suspected them of fighting for Mother Russia and preparing to seize power in France at the end of the war. It was the Communist resisters who took the lead in handing out punishment after the Germans had gone. Most famously it was the women who had slept with the Germans (horizontal collaborators), either as prostitutes or with their Wehrmacht boyfriends, who suffered the most and, in the final reels of the film, the public humiliation of the women having their heads shaved in the town’s main square is shown in graphic detail. For reasons best known to the Academy, Ophuls was denied an Oscar for The Sorrow and the Pity but he was rewarded with the statuette for his second masterpiece Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie in 1988.

The aftermath of occupation saw a huge number of revenge killings after the Germans had left. At first these were indiscriminate and lynchings were commonplace. In Western Europe at least, the random killings stopped once the victorious allied armies had restored some semblance of order and trials were conducted in properly constituted courts. From this time, cases were mostly dealt with by the authorities, although in areas of France, Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe the resisters and partisans continued to take the law into their own hands long after the end of the war. All this is expertly described by Keith Lowe in his brilliant book Savage Europe: Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Amongst those dealt with by the proper process was the Norwegian leader Vidkun Quisling, whose very name became a byword for treachery. He was executed by firing squad after five years of collaboration.

Would British people have collaborated with the Germans had they successfully invaded and occupied our islands in 1940? Of course, we’d like to think not but Channel 4’s recent documentary Churchill and the Fascist Plot suggests that some Britons at least would have worked closely with Hitler. The chief villain of this particular story is Archibald Maule Ramsay, Tory MP and founder of the Right Club whose members initially included William Joyce who fled to Germany and achieved notoriety as Lord Haw and died on the gallows in 1946. Ramsay was pro-fascist and ruthlessly anti-Semitic and hoped to engineer peace talks with Germany. Churchill locked him up (without trial) in May 1940 and he stayed behind bars until 1944 when he re-took his seat in the Commons! He makes a peripheral appearance in my novel The Blue Pencil. His only (dubious) legacy is his revolting ant-Jewish tract which begins;

Land of dope and Jewry, Land that Once was free

Sung to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory.

A few years ago, I was listening to some Dutch friends singing the praises of the film Soldier of Orange, directed in 1977 by Paul Verhoeven before he crossed the Atlantic to make Robcop and other movies. They said that they wished that all Dutchmen and women had responded to Nazi occupation as the heroes of Verhoeven’s film had. What did I think? I told them that no Briton could criticise passive collaborators because we never went through the horrors of occupation. Our resolve was never tested.



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Thoughts on IRON CURTAIN by Anne Applebaum

When I was twelve years old, the water polo teams of Hungary and the USSR fought, quite literally, a brutal match during the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. I asked my father why there was such hatred in the pool and he told me a little bit about the failed Hungarian revolution earlier in that year. A decade or so later, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to put an end to the Prague Spring. Shortly after that there were TV, radio and newspaper reports of prolonged anti-Soviet demonstrations in Prague following the victory of the Czech ice hockey team over the USSR in the World Championships.

Over the years, a picture had built up in my mind of the horror of living in the Soviet bloc but I never knew the full story until I read Anne Applebaum’s superlative history of the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 IRON CURTAIN.

The book gives clear answers as to how Stalin managed to achieve almost total control over eight Eastern European states during the final year of the war and the early years following the German surrender. That control lasted in six of them; East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Rumania, until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Yugoslavia, and later Albania, followed different paths. Applebaum chose to focus on Poland, Hungary and East Germany in IRON CURTAIN, although she does refer to the other countries from time to time. None had much in common, but by the time Stalinisation was complete, they shared many similarities. Each had a centrally planned economy, was ruled by a single party, shared a common political ideology, the lives of the citizens were controlled by a brutal secret police force and a Russian dominated media. Their towns and cities were pock-marked with ugly buildings designed by Stalinist architects.

How all this came about is described by Anne Applebaum in her carefully planned narrative in which each chapter deals with a different aspect of the changes each country went through following occupation by the USSR but combines to make a completely believable picture of life behind the iron curtain. Amongst these changes are the establishment of the secret police, the use of targeted violence against potential opponents, ethnic cleansing, control of the media, political and economic planning, collaboration and opposition. Stalin, like Hitler before him, recognised the importance of capturing the hearts and minds of young people and so, throughout the Soviet bloc, existing organisations for the young were either abolished or incorporated into the state machinery. It reminded me of reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich many years ago when documents unearthed post-war indicated the Boy Scouts would be amongst the organisations supressed when the Nazis conquered the UK.

Anne Applebaum deals with each change in a totally non-judgemental way. She tells in great detail what happened and leaves the reader to make up his or her mind about the moral legitimacy of these events. The narrative is backed up with exhaustive research which provides compelling evidence of the horrors of these regimes.

Several people who have read my own novel The Blue Pencil have complimented me on the amount of research I undertook but that was a tiny pin prick compared with the work that Anne Applebaum put into Iron Curtain. The book took six years to research and write. The author consulted about four hundred secondary sources and a huge mass of primary sources including twenty nine archives (none of which would have been available before 1989), thirty three document collections and carried out interviews with ninety eye witnesses who told of their lives behind the iron curtain. At the end of it all, the reader is left with only one conclusion; Stalin, and his successors Kruschev and Brezhnev,wished to completely subjugate the peoples of Eastern Europe, destroy their national identity and control every single aspect of their daily lives.

Early on in the book, Applebaum tells us that Stalin was planning the sovietisation of Eastern Europe long before the war’s end and had already carried out dry runs in Eastern Poland in 1939, following the Nazi-Soviet pact of August of that year, and in the Baltic states after their annexation by the USSR in 1940. She also explains, convincingly, why there was so little internal and external opposition; post-war exhaustion and initial disinterest from the allies, especially Roosevelt. By the time the west woke up to what was happening, it was too late. Applebaum sees the cold war as a separate issue;  battles of ideologies and technologies. 

In 1965, I attended to first European Athletics Cup in Stuttgart. The stadium was packed but the huge ovation given by the West German crowd to their own team (FRG) at the opening ceremony was almost matched by that given to the athletes from East Germany (GDR). To the West German crowd these weren’t East Germans, they were Germans. I was quite shocked when I saw the East German athletes’ enthusiastic response to the crowd’s support. These athletes, I could see, believed they were Germans too.

I never ventured behind the iron curtain but in the 1990s I visited a small town in eastern Germany. At that time, jobs were scarce but I didn’t speak to one single person who yearned for the old days. Not long after this, I was in Riga, a beautiful city. In the suburbs, however, I spotted several ugly Stalinist tenement blocks covered in expletive laden graffiti aimed at the USSR. Perhaps a tiny number of eastern Europeans look back at the iron curtain days with a tinge of nostalgia, but not many I guess.

This period was never something I taught but I was always aware that what went on behind the iron curtain represented a savage imposition of dictatorship and the destruction of the right of free thought for its citizens. The extent of this remained a mystery until I read Iron Curtain, the finest piece of modern historical writing that I’ve experienced. This is a major work of scholarship with a depth of research that leaves you in no doubt that forty four years of Soviet rule in the iron curtain counties has left nothing but bad memories. But this is no dusty volume. Iron Curtain simply and brilliantly written and constructed. Thank heaven for the collapse of the Berlin Wall. 

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More than ten years ago, I picked an Alan Furst novel off my local library shelves. It was Night Soldiers which turned out to be the first in his series of pre Second World War and Second World War espionage stories. As a spy fiction fan, the tale felt a little bit unusual to be and it left me with a curious sense of satisfaction. A few months later I came across another, I can’t remember which,  and that too impressed me. I completed this random selection until, after completing Spies of the Balkans, I realised that there were no more. I decided to read them all again, this time in the order in which they were published. Midway through this task, Mission to Paris was published but I decided to postpone this treat until I’d completed my second readings.

I’ve reached The Spies of Warsaw and, having completed it, thought I’d put my thoughts on paper about Alan Furst’s novels in general and this novel in particular. The Spies of Warsaw has been recently filmed by the BBC and was shown in January and I believe that it was recently screened in the USA. It was, I understand, the first screen adaptation of a Furst work and I hope it means that his novels are getting the wide recognition that they deserve.

The Spies of Warsaw opens with a delicious honey trap. The victim, a German engineer, knows exactly what he’s being drawn into and the femme fatale who springs the trap shows such tenderness towards the victim you could almost believe she loved him. Having been ensnared in the web, the German engineer meets his French contact Mercier, the central character in the novel. Mercier, the Military Attache in the French embassy in Warsaw is typical of many, but not all, of Furst’s heroes. He is middle-aged, comes from an aristocratic background, is a faithful, passionate and romantic lover and a slightly reluctant spy. In The Spies of Warsaw, he keeps a letter of resignation tucked away in his desk. But he is, without doubt courageous and, when he tackles a task, he does so with great commitment.

Furst has the priceless gift of making his novels appear to be written in the time in which they were set. His plots are completely credible, such is the volume of research that backs up his story telling. You can almost smell the cigar smoke and fine food in Parisian restaurants and Warsaw embassy parties. Furst has been compared with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene who were contemporary not historical writers like Furst. and this comparison is praise indeed.

The Spies of Warsaw opens in 1937 and the reader is immediately dragged into a feeling of insecurity. Something is about to happen. However much the Warsaw diplomatic corps and aristocracy enjoy the social round, the shadow of their German neighbours is always there. Pre-war tensions are everywhere. Furst’s characters are fascinating. They are either good, bad or tragic but never two dimensional. The SS villains are not cartoon characters in the mode of those in Dennis Wheatley novels but sinister, threatening yet frequently vulnerable. The prose is simple and beautifully constructed. The dialogue convincing and the plot exciting. Anyone wishing to get a sense of time and place of pre-war Central Europe and enjoy espionage fiction at its best should read The Spies of Warsaw.

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Cliveden and the seeds of appeasement

Cliveden, a large country house not far from Maidenhead in England, will always be associated for me with the part it played in the events leading to the Munich agreement at the end of September 1938. Today it is owned by the National Trust and is leased to a company running it as a luxury hotel. If I can sell ten thousand copies of my novel The Blue Pencil, I might be able to afford to spend a night at Cliveden.Image


Many will remember the house in the early sixties when it became notorious as the weekend location for a number of bawdy house parties whose guests included the then Minister for War John Profumo, the good-time girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, Stephen Ward, the procurer of women for the rich and famous and perhaps even a Soviet spy. The scandal that engulfed the press at the time cost Profumo his job and Ward his life when he committed suicide.

Cliveden, from the early twentieth century, was owned by the Astor family; Waldorf and his wife Nancy. Lavish weekend parties were in full swing (Cliveden even gets a mention in Downton Abbey) before the First World War when the visitors included the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Later Nancy Astor took an intense dislike to Churchill and he seldom appeared after 1918, especially in the thirties when he became an intractable opponent of appeasement.

Waldorf Astor was elected MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910 but, on the death of his father in 1919, he became Viscount Astor and left the Commons for the Lords. Nancy won the subsequent by-election and became the first woman to take her seat in the Commons. Waldorf had acquired The Observer newspaper in 1911 and his younger brother became owner of The Times in 1922. By the start of the twenties, the Astors had wealth, power, position and influence.

Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Astors hosted weekend parties at Cliveden and during the week at their London mansion at 4 St James Square (there’s a blue plaque on the outside of the house today). At weekends, they played tennis and croquet (future Prime Minister Anthony Eden was said to have excelled at the former), presumably ate cucumber sandwiches and talked politics. The guests shared a rigid set of values;

* They believed in strong Anglo-US relations (both the Astors were originally US citizens)

* They were imperialists.

* They believed that the Germans had been badly treated by the Treaty of Versailles and some former territory should be restored to them.

* They hated the French whom they blamed for the harsh terms imposed on Germany at Versailles.

* Many, but not all, were anti-Semitic.

* All feared the Soviet Union.

Collectively, those who gathered at Cliveden at weekends had great power and influence and so, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signaled his intention of seeking agreement with Hitler and Mussolini when he took office in May 1937, Lady Astor and her companions were ready to lend their support to his efforts. The hard core of the group included;

* Viscount and Lady Astor

* Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s former Private Secretary (later Lord Lothian).

* Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times

* J L Garvin, Editor of The Observer

* Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador in Berlin.

* Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary who succeeded Anthony Eden when the latter was elbowed into resignation by Chamberlain in February 1938.

Chamberlain himself was an occasional visitor, especially during times of crises, and another member of London’s social elite who turned up from time to time was Joachim (von) Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador (hanged at Nuremberg in 1946).

In my appeasement thriller The Blue Pencil, I focus attention on two weekends;

* 22/23 October 1937 when the Clivedenites planned Lord Halifax’s secret meeting with Hitler while he was supposedly visiting Germany to attend a hunting exhibition (Halifax was Master of the Hounds).

* 26 March 1938 when Chamberlain has present and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was probably planned. 

The hero of The Blue Pencil, Roger Martin and his girl friend Jane, befriend a member of Cliveden’s domestic staff when the three are drinking in a pub in the nearby village of Taplow and they piece together what’s happening at the ‘big house.’



Many of the outcomes of these discussions were fully aired in The Times and in September 1938 a leading article was published in that most influential of British newspapers proposing that partition was the solution to the Czech crisis even before Hitler suggested it.

In a country desperate to avoid another war so soon after the previous one, appeasing the dictators had plenty of supporters but also many opponents who pointed out the dangers of the policy. The main politicians who opposed Chamberlain ,of course, were Churchill and Eden, but the country got to know about the insidious influence of Cliveden on our foreign policy from a Claud Cockburn (later a Private Eye stalwart), a brilliant investigative journalist whose weekly news sheet The Week was typed on buff paper in brown ink, distributed by mail and which, at its peak, had a circulation of forty thousand. Roger Martin works closely with Cockburn in The Blue Pencil. Cockburn identified the Cliveden plotters, but it was Reynolds News, the Sunday newspaper of the Co-operative movement, which coined the term ‘the Cliveden Set.’

In researching my novel, I was fortunate to come across two superb accounts of the years of appeasement; Twilight of Truth by Richard Cockett (1989) and The Cliveden Set by Norman Rose (2001). Among the newspapers I consulted was The Times, archive available online,  a full bound set of The Week which is in the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale and Reynolds News and the only complete set of this newspaper can be found in Bradford University Library.

Cliveden, once a house of infamy, now a beautiful house and gardens nestling in the Buckinghamshire countryside on the banks of the River Thames.


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Movies and propaganda in the Second World War

More than one billion cinema tickets were sold in the UK in 1939 and that number rose throughout the war, peaking at 1.06 billion in 1946. The figures for the USA were more than three times that amount, given their larger population, and in Germany films were equally  popular. Small wonder that  studios, film makers and governments used the movies as propaganda.

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Reflections on the Second World War: Before Hindsight

Before Hindsight is the title of a 1977 British documentary film written and directed by Jonathan Lewis and presented by, among others, James Cameron, Leslie Mitchell and Jonathan Dimbleby. The main thrust of the film was that the newsreels in British cinemas in the second half of the 1930s often concealed, from the public, the truth about what was happening in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and civil war torn Spain.

Those of my vintage and older will remember the newsreels as being an integral part of an evening’s entertainment. The programme began with a B movie (often in black and white), followed by the adverts (many of them local), then the news, trailers and, finally, the main feature. In my home town of Barri, the news was shared between the Tivoli in Holton Road and the Plaza in Cadoxton and was transported between the two by bike, often causing havoc with the schedules of the two cinemas.

The newsreels were first shown before the First World War but the rapid post Second World War of television meant that they disappeared from our cinema screens in the 1970s. For many years, I believed that what I saw on the screen was the truth. Before Hindsight tells us that this was not always the case and explains why.

Most of the newsreels were owned, either wholly or partly, by the major studios. Fox (Movietone) and Paramount were two examples. The studios were in the entertainment business, and attracted customers by giving them a good night out not by disturbing them with stories of global crisis.

In the 1930s, many newsreels portrayed events which we now know to be warning signs of  war in a sympathetic light; Mussolini initiating world peace (Movietone 1931) and, two years later, also from Movietone, Hitler re-building a peaceful Germany. Ward Price, a journalist on The Daily Mail (part owners of Movietone), was seen conducting an enthusiastic interview with Goebbels. Some disturbing footage, Hitler’s new army and Mussolini’s 20th. anniversary celebrations, German troops re-occupying the Rhineland for example, were shown without comment but accompanied by stirring music

Many newsreel cameraman put their lives at risk to obtain good footage from trouble spots around the world like Ethiopia being invaded by Italy and the Spanish Civil War. There were no guarantees that these images would find their way on to cinema screens. The boycott of Jewish businesses in Berlin in April 1933 was the last occasion that persecution of Jews was shown in British cinemas in the 1930s. But film of this further persecution did exist. Both Movietone and Pathe shot scenes of the infamous German book burning and Gaumont British had footage of an interview in which Lord Rothschild condemned the Nazi treatment of their Jewish citizens which was never shown. There were even examples of cameraman shooting film of the aftermath of atrocities committed by Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War being attributed to government troops when the voice-over was added back in Britain.

Initially, the control of newsreels was justified under the ‘cinema is entertainment pledge’ but, as war approached, they were in Britain at least, used as a tool of appeasement. Movietone’s review of 1938 shown Chamberlain and Mussolini enjoying a night at the opera together during the Premier’s ‘happy visit to Rome.’ Lloyd Geerge, George Bernard Shaw and others were filmed praising Hitler and his achievements. (Though to be fair to GBS he soon changed his mind.)

There was no censorship as long as you toed the government line. No such restrictions existed in the USA where March of Time newsreels showed Jews being separated from their families, mentioned concentration camps and denouncements and criticised Hitler for threatening the peace of the world. When these same newsreels arrived on our shores, the censor got busy with his scissors and removed any footage that might offend the dictators.

Chamberlain’s return from signing the Munich agreement was presented as a triumph by the newsreels but the same companies were quick to reflect the government’s change in attitude six months later when Chamberlain attacked Hitler for occupying the rump of Czechoslovakia, in contravention of the documents signed in Munich.

The great bogeyman of the 1930s was the Communist not the Fascist and most of the newsreel owners had anti-Communist rather than pro-Fascist sympathies. Little persuasion was needed for them to censor their output.

All this is vividly illustrated in Before Hindsight. Chillingly, at the end of the film, Jonathan Dimbleby points out that, as the newsreel era drew to a close in the early 1970s, there were still examples of half-truths on our cinema screens, relating to Northern Ireland and .especially, South Africa where criticism of that country’s apartheid policies were thought to threaten British business interests.

Roger Martin, the hero of my novel The Blue Pencil, is first alerted to events in Spain watching a cinema newsreel. Their importance in the pre-television era should not be underestimated. They were used by the government to promote appeasement . but Prime Minister Chamberlain used far more insidious ways to control the written press. But more about that in the weeks and months to come.


Sadly, Before Hindsight is not readily available to view. I watched it at the British Film Institute archive. Afterwards, I wrote to them and suggested it be transferred to the BFI online archive but, to my knowledge, this hasn’t been done. If you wish to view it, get in touch with the BFI (www.bfi.org)



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Reflections on the Second World War: How I didn’t win the war.


I’m David Lowther, author of The Blue Pencil. a 1930s set political thriller which was published by Sacristy Press in November 2012.

I intend to post about every 14 days and I will write only about that dreadful conflict which engulfed the world between 1939 and 1945 and the years preceding. These posts will cover many aspects of the war and the build up to it. Some, but by no means all, will focus on the issues relating to appeasement. Others will be about films, books, music, propaganda, decisions made by politicians and generals about the conduct of the war and so on. These posts will concentrate on the war in Europe.

I was a war baby, born just four months before VE Day. My family lived in New Malden in South West London. I have little recollection of those years, apart from a visit to Chessington Zoo and the cricket ground at the back of our suburban semi-detached home. My older sister has told me that a flying bomb destroyed a house in our street and my older brother remembers sleeping in a Morrison shelter.

No sooner had I begun to realise who I was, the family uprooted and moved to Cardiff when my father became manager of a department store in Pontypridd. A short while later, we moved again, this time to Barri Island when he bought a large cafe and sweet shop. It was there, at four years of age, that I began to learn about ‘the war.’

My father had won a medal during the war. A serious illness in his early twenties left him unfit for call-up, so he joined the Home Guard in New Malden and captured a German airman who had bailed out. By all accounts, the Luftwaffe man offered no resistance. In his sweet shop, there was a gold tin with a slit in the top and I became familiar with rationing.

I watched my first cricket match, Glamorgan v Pakistan, at the old Cardiff Arms Park in May 1954. My mother packed my sandwiches in a gas mask bag and, until I left home to teach in Yorkshire in 1966, this bag was my constant companion.

I saw my first movie, a James Stewart western called Bend of the River, in 1952. This began a life-long love of the cinema. The films I most remember in those days were westerns and war films, especially those British productions populated by stiff upper-lipped officers who usually gave the hun a good hiding. How could I ever forget The Wooden Horse, The Cruel Sea and, of course, The Dam Busters?

So for years, my views of the war were strictly black and white, with the heroic allies usually overcoming the Nazis. It wasn’t until I began to teach history in the mid-seventies that I started to take an interest in the reasons for the war. What really fuelled this interest was a devastating TV documentary called Before Hindsight. But more of that next time.

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