The second world war

Agent Zo: the Polish blonde with nerves of steel

In recent years, far from diminishing, the number of books on the Nazis, Occupied Europe and the Holocaust – events that now lie three quarters of a century in the past – seem only to grow. New archives are opened and attics are raided for forgotten diaries and letters. One historian who has mined them with great skill is Clare Mulley, the author of books on spies and Hitler’s pilots. She has now unearthed a story about a bold and resolute Polish agent, Elzbieta Zawacka, who went by the name of Zo. Her adventures are extraordinary, and their background is no less fascinating. Agent Zo is as much a book

Eighty years on, the planning of Operation Neptune remains awesome

In December last year, the last surviving D-Day veteran of my old regiment, the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, died peacefully in his care home. On 6 June 1944, 20-year-old Trooper Lawrence Burn had been the gunner in a specially adapted Sherman tank which, along with others of the regiment, had driven down the ramps of their landing craft 5,000 yards off Sword Beach and swum for almost an hour through the high swell to land a few minutes ahead of the assaulting infantry in order to suppress the defenders’ fire. Years later, Burn was still in awe of the scale and execution of the Normandy landings: ‘I don’t know who planned

Dangerous secrets: Verdigris, by Michele Mari, reviewed

In everyday life – on a garden path, flowerpot or lettuce – I back rapidly away from slugs. I didn’t expect to confront them in literature, but in Michele Mari’s Verdigris they are present in abundance, from the first line: Bisected by a precise blow of the spade, the slug writhed a moment longer: then it moved no more… slimy shame transformed into splendid silvery iridescence.  So, not a novel for one who shrinks from gastropod molluscs, you would think. Yet I quickly found myself drawn into a remote corner of rural north Italy in 1969 where a lonely, bookish boy, Michelino, spends long summers with his emotionally unreachable grandparents.

The Duke of Windsor had much to be thankful for

Once a King is trumpeted as ‘game-changing’, a ‘trove of never-before-seen papers which shed fresh light on the maligned Duke of Windsor’ and will ‘turn on its head long-accepted stereotypes’ about him. These are bold claims, but do they stack up? ‘The lost memoir of Edward Vlll’ actually consists of an early draft of the Duke of Windsor’s self-serving memoir, A King’s Story (1951), which Jane Marguerite Tippett found in the papers of the former king’s ghostwriter Charles Murphy in the Boston University archives. Far from being lost, the papers have been known to historians for 20 years and largely ignored in favour of more important collections elsewhere, not least

What Britain owed to Gracie Fields

Simon Heffer is the supreme Stakhanovite among British writers. Where the original Stakhanov moved 227 tonnes of coal in a single shift, within the past decade Heffer has produced four massive volumes of modern British history, each little less than 1,000 pages. Alongside them he has edited three equally voluminous diaries of the waspish socialite MP ‘Chips’ Channon, as well as writing regular reviews and columns. Hats off to the master! In this latest and final volume of his tetralogy chronicling the British century between Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837 and Neville Chamberlain’s reluctant declaration of war on Germany in 1939, Heffer once more treats us to his vast knowledge

The philosophical puzzles of the British Socrates

Imagine your donkey and mine graze in the same field. One day I conceive a dislike for my donkey and shoot it: on examining the victim, though, I realise with horror I’ve shot your donkey. Or imagine a slightly different scenario. As before, I draw a bead, but just as I pull the trigger, my donkey – perhaps more invested in this vale of tears than yours – steps out of the firing line and I shoot your donkey. Now here’s the question. When, in either case, I turn up on your doorstep with the remains of your donkey, how should I frame my apology to you? In his 1956

Propaganda from the Russian Front: The People Immortal, by Vasily Grossman, reviewed

On its posthumous publication in 1980, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate was widely compared with War and Peace. For all the novel’s many virtues, the comparison was hyperbolic. In one respect, how-ever, Grossman’s was the more remarkable achievement. Whereas Tolstoy wrote about historical events with the benefit of hindsight, Grossman wrote about ones that he had recently endured. Life and Fate was the third of Grossman’s novels set during the Nazi invasion of the former Soviet Union. The first was The People Immortal, which, like the second, Stalingrad, is now available in an unexpurgated edition, superbly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. It covers a few days in July 1941

Behind the Five Eyes intelligence alliance

In February 1941 four US officers were landed from a British warship at Sheerness, bundled into vehicles and driven to Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, a large redbrick house amid wartime huts. They were greeted at midnight by the head of Bletchley with sherry, whisky being in short supply. They carried with them a secret device called the Purple Machine, which deciphered previously impregnable Japanese communications. In return, they were given full details of Bletchley’s breaking of the German Enigma cipher. Yet it would be another ten months before the US entered the war. This exchange between two governments of their greatest secrets, with no formal agreement beyond an understanding that they

Berliners were punished twice – by Hitler and by the Allies

‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.’ Albert Einstein’s deft avoidance of the question put to him in 1929 – whether he considered himself a German or a Jew – was prophetic of what would happen to his country in the following decade. He was just one of the many stars of Berlin, Europe’s dazzling, decadent centre of the arts and culture, whose spark would be dimmed or extinguished by Adolf Hitler. Capturing the history, people and spirit of Berlin, arguably the beating heart of Europe, can be a tricky proposition, as I know. Sinclair McKay has wisely kept to analysing the city through the prism

Pablo Picasso in love and war

The decade 1933-43 was one of busy erotic multi-tasking by the deft and diminutive Pablo Picasso. It took him the best part of ten years to effect a separation from the reluctant Olga Khokhlova, his ex-ballerina wife, retired injured from the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. Legal proceedings were triggered by her discovery of Picasso’s affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter (aged 17 when Picasso picked her up in 1927 outside the Galeries Lafayette). On 5 October 1935, Marie-Thérèse gave birth to Picasso’s daughter, Maria de la Concepción, later known as Maya. By then Picasso was fornicating on many fronts: with Alice Paalen, the wife of an Austrian painter, and the 49-year-old Valentine Hugo,

The Belfast Blitz: These Days, by Lucy Caldwell, reviewed

Caught outside at the start of a raid in the Belfast Blitz as the incendiary bombs rain down, Audrey looks up at the sky, transfixed by its eerie beauty. She watches ‘the first magnesium flares falling, bursting into incandescent light, hanging there over the city like chandeliers’. It is the sort of thing you never forget, she thinks, ‘not in a lifetime’. This scene in These Days, by the Northern Irish writer Lucy Caldwell, brilliantly captures familiar territory for anyone who has read about the Blitz. The awe at the peculiar beauty, the feeling that this is unforgettable and will change people forever, the desire to domesticate these undomesticated happenings

The horror of tank warfare brought vividly to life

If Joseph Stalin was right about one thing it was his assertion that ‘the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic’. Numbers don’t inspire empathy. They don’t tell stories. Nothing exemplifies this principle better than the second world war. The deadliest armed conflict in human history killed an estimated 70 million people or 3 per cent of the world’s population, and yet these numbers will make few people weep. They are difficult to fathom without faces. James Holland’s greatest strength as a military historian is that he brings humanity to his work — a rare trait in a field of research that can

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was lucky to escape retribution in 1945

They rather like bad boys, the French. Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) is one, in a tradition that stretches from François Villon to the dyspeptic Michel Houellebecq. But provocation doesn’t always get you where you want to be, as the careers of Richard Millet and Marc-Édouard Nabe demonstrate. Journey to the End of the Night, Céline’s first novel, was a huge success when it was published in 1932 and made him a darling of the left, with applause from Trotsky and Jean-Paul Sartre. That didn’t last long. His virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets (so extreme that André Gide thought he was joking) and his arguments for accommodating Hitler resulted in him going on the

Germany’s post-war recovery was no economic miracle

Lord Macaulay wrote that ‘during the century and a half which followed the Conquest there is, to speak strictly, no English history’, because everything in England was decided by an elite who spoke French. This, of course, makes it one of the most fascinating and overlooked parts of our national story.By a similar token, the years 1945-1955 have been neglected by German scholars, because their national history, in Macaulay’s terms, also did not properly exist. Germany, prostrate, shorn of its ancient east, its fate as yet undecided, was entirely run by occupying powers. Yet, as Harald Jähner argues, this is the very era which defined modern Germany. His Aftermath is

The defiance of the ‘ghetto girls’ who resisted the Nazis

‘Jewish Resistance in Poland: Women Trample Nazi Soldiers,’ ran a New York headline in late 1942. That autumn, the Nazi occupying forces in the ancient town of Lubliniec, in southern Poland, had forced the Jewish community to assemble in the square. As men, women, the elderly and children were ordered to strip, a dozen women suddenly attacked their persecutors, scratching, biting and hurling stones. Stunned by this unexpected defiance, the Nazi soldiers fled. The influence of such courageous acts of resistance was tremendous. Galvanised by largely left-wing youth activists and connected by mainly female couriers, Jewish defence groups were soon staging armed attacks and operations across occupied Poland. Judy Batalion’s

Should you take your children to visit Auschwitz?

Is the Auschwitz museum suitable for children? I pondered that question on a visit accompanied by a plane load of secondary school teachers, organised by The Holocaust Educational Trust. The Holocaust was first included on the UK’s National Curriculum in 1991 and the Trust charters aeroplanes for a professional development course for UK teachers, taking them to Auschwitz and back within a day. It aims to increase their understanding of the atrocity so that they can teach it more effectively.  That it’s possible to fly from London to Krakow in Poland and back with budget carriers and then take a cheap bus ride or short rental car drive to Auschwitz all within 24 hours makes the idea

Old men remember: reliving the horror of Tobruk

‘Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,/ But he’ll remember, with advantages,/ What feats he did that day.’ Peter Hart quotes the St Crispin’s Day speech aptly, for as an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum, he’s done his bit over the years to record memories. By the 1980s the IWM’s sound archive had amassed an impressive collection of interviews with veterans of the first world war, and so began on those of the second. At Close Range weaves the recollections of 50 veterans (an unusually high number for a single unit) from what, as Hart puts it, some might consider a relatively obscure regiment, into a continuous

Dreading demobilisation: The Autumn of the Ace, by Louis de Bernières, reviewed

The Autumn of the Ace begins in 1945, as the second world war ends, but both Louis de Bernières and his protagonist Daniel Pitt appear reluctant to leave warfare behind. Pitt is a flying ace, but so nervous about returning to civilian life that he argues against handing back his service weapon. Eventually he capitulates. During the war, he lost two toes after being tortured by the Gestapo but he nonetheless appears to prefer physical peril to the prosaic dysfunctionality of his family life. His mother and one of his daughters are dead, his marriage has disintegrated and he has fathered two children by his wife’s bohemian sister. His son

How Hitler’s great gamble nearly paid off

Do we need another wrist-breaking book about Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich and the second world war? Since Ian Kershaw published his two-volume biography of the Führer 20 years ago, there have been at least a dozen similarly weighty tomes on the war by historians including Max Hastings, Andrew Roberts, Antony Beevor and Kershaw himself; not to mention more recent massive lives of the Nazi dictator by Brendan Simms and the German historians Peter Longerich and Volker Ullrich. So what is there left to say that we do not already know? To gain attention, any new study has to have a thesis: some fresh angle that previous writers have overlooked

Lambs to the slaughter: the fiasco of the Dieppe Raid, August 1942

In carefree days which now seem so distant we used occasionally to take the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry. Docking after a long lunch, I would try to imagine the port during the infamous Dieppe Raid of August 1942. It is so clearly a natural defensive position that I could never work out how they expected to take it or, more importantly, why. This book sets out to answer both questions and, thanks to the release of previously classified wartime files, largely succeeds. It also throws new light on Ian Fleming, who was there. Dieppe in those days was intensively fortified by the Germans, flanked by heavy guns on the cliffs. Just about