A soldier’s legacy: how a baby’s cry saved a family

It was early evening on Sunday 6 August 1944. The Allies’ bloody struggle to liberate Normandy from the Nazis had reached the village of Vaudry. As gunfire broke out on a farm near the Pont du Vaudry, 40 members of one French family threw themselves into a trench next to the house. They pulled torn mattresses and tarpaulins over their heads; those sheltering ranged in age from very elderly grandparents to a four-week-old baby. The lives of the Le Chevalliers hung in the balance as Allied and German bullets were exchanged just above their heads. The family had inadvertently made their situation yet more dangerous: the tarpaulins they hid under

Female partisans played a vital role in fighting fascism in Italy — but it was a thankless task

‘I am a woman,’ Ada Gobetti wrote in a clandestine Piedmont newsletter in 1943: An insignificant little woman, who has revolutionised her private life — a traditionally female one, with the needle and the broom as her emblems — to transform herself into a bandit… I am not alone. Ada, one of four female partisans whose interconnected stories weave through this history, knew what few Germans or Italian fascists yet suspected. All across Nazi- occupied northern and central Italy, thousands of women had started to resist. Factory workers subtly sabotaged the products of their enforced labour; village women spirited away men into the hills, often feeding and sheltering them as

A solid costume drama but Dame Helen has been miscast: Catherine the Great reviewed

It’s possibly not a great sign of a Britain at ease with itself that the historical character most likely to show up in a TV drama now seems to be Oswald Mosley. But the week after his starring role in Peaky Blinders ended, there he was again, right at the beginning of BBC1’s next Sunday-night drama. World on Fire opened with Mosley addressing a 1939 Manchester rally, where he duly whipped up his supporters and reminded the rest of us of the dangers of extremism. Luckily, there were two people in the hall brave enough to protest: salt-of-the-earth northern lass Lois Bennett and her much posher and therefore much stiffer

The Dambusters raid was great theatre — but almost entirely pointless

The great bomber pilot Guy Gibson had a black labrador with a racist name. This shouldn’t matter, except Gibson loved the dog, and its name was used as a codeword during the bombing raid which made Gibson famous, upon the Mohne and Eder dams in Germany in May 1943. The 1955 movie The Dam Busters retells the story of the raid in thrilling melodrama, and inevitably includes repeated mentions of the troubling name. Nowadays, when the film is broadcast, it either features a warning about offensive language or is shown in an edited version, with the dog’s name changed to ‘Trigger’. The raid on the German dams is an old

Moving stories

Two words may pique the reader’s interest on the cover of this timely, panoramic history of Europe by the distinguished writer on human migration Peter Gatrell: ‘unsettling’ and ‘1945’. Why unsettling, and why choose the end of the second world war as a turning point? By the close of dramatic Part I (‘Violent Peacetime, Cold War Rivalry, Rebuilding Europe 1945–1956’), we have gained detailed insight into just how demographically, economically, politically and psychologically shattered — and geographically unsettled — Europeans were in the decade after 1945. The continent was on the move — from the displaced within the USSR and the new Soviet empire, to the two million German civilian

A dead letter

When lists are compiled of our best and worst prime ministers (before the present incumbent), the two main protagonists of this book usually feature, holding the top and bottom positions. Attempts are periodically made to revise these verdicts, most recently in John McDonnell’s description of Churchill as a villain; and by Robert Harris’s sympathetic portrayal of Chamberlain in his thriller  Munich. By and large, however, the general view of the two PMs remains fixed: Churchill was a hero who saved his country and arguably freedom and democracy worldwide, while Chamberlain was a purblind and arrogant fool who let Hitler stomp his jackboots all over him. The revisionists who want to

Books Podcast: the life of Richard Sorge, Stalin’s master spy

In this week’s books podcast I’m joined by Owen Matthews to talk about the man many have claimed was the greatest spy of the 20th century, Richard Sorge, the subject of Owen’s riveting new book An Impeccable Spy (reviewed in the new issue of The Spectator by Nicholas Shakespeare). Sorge (he’s pronounced ‘zorgey’, by the way — not, as I introduce the podcast, idiot that I am, ‘sawj’). Here was a man who supplied information that changed the course of the Second World War — and far from being the sort of glum duffelcoated figure who populates Le Carre’s “Circus” — he really did lead an existence of James Bondish extravagance.

Let’s twist again

What’s the best way to start a six-part thriller? The answer, it seems, is to have a bloke of a certain age pottering about at home when he’s suddenly and shockingly murdered by asphyxiation. You then roll the opening credits, forget about the dead guy and introduce the main character, who’s asked to take part in some sort of mission — and agonises about whether to accept or to leave the whole series somewhat stranded. At least, this is exactly what happened in both of this week’s big new Sunday-night dramas: BBC1’s Baptiste and Channel 4’s Traitors. In Baptiste, the pre-credits murder was of an apparently harmless shell-collector in Deal

Putting the Boot in | 14 February 2019

‘I know, let’s repaint the Sistine Chapel. But this time we’ll get it done by Banksy.’ Perhaps this wasn’t the exact phrase used in the early production meetings for the Sky Atlantic reboot (ho ho) of Das Boot (Wednesdays). It does describe pretty well the net result, though. Yes, I know James Walton covered it last week but I’m going to have to strongly disagree with him: Das Boot — Wolfgang Peterson’s 1980s miniseries about life on a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic — is my favourite wartime TV drama ever. And I’m damned if I’m going to let this travesty of a new version through the net.

Tables turned

It was odd listening to Jim Al-Khalili being interviewed on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning rather than the other way round. In his series The Life Scientific, Al-Khalili has developed his own brand of interviewing, encouraging his guests to talk about their work in science by leading them from personal biography —how they came to study science, what they were like at school, who influenced them — to the intricacies of their research and why we should know about it. He makes this sound so easy and natural, setting his interviewees at ease, and his listeners, too, with stories from school and university before delving into the complex ideas behind

An eye in the storm

Ernst Jünger, who died in 1998, aged 102, is now better known for his persona than his work. A deeply confusing and controversial figure who loathed democracy and glorified German militarism, yet despised the Nazis, he not only bore witness to the industrial flesh-mangles of two world wars, but almost the entirety of the 20th century. His writings and insights have long earned him sage status in Germany. This, the first publication in English of his diaries from 1941–45, heightens his complexity but also makes him a more rounded figure. This will come as a surprise to those who know him as the ruthless young warrior of the infamous Great

Partners in crime | 29 November 2018

I know nothing about Patricia Highsmith. The acclaimed American author wrote the kind of Sunday-night crime thrillers that put me to sleep. Her best-known creation, the suave psychopath Thomas Ripley, has spawned a number of films that I’ve carefully avoided. But ignorance is an ideal starting point for Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith, a brilliantly nasty comedy that features Highsmith in 1995 when she was past her artistic best. What a piece of work. A foul-mouthed, booze-soaked, chain-smoking misanthrope squatting in a glass-fronted hermitage in the mountains with nothing but a typewriter, a whisky bottle and an Alpine panorama for company. (Actually, it sounds quite tempting, put like that.) Her solitude

Low life | 15 November 2018

The monument to this French village’s war dead is a plain white stone block with the head of a grizzled old French infantryman chiselled on top. His big capable hands are gripping the block’s edge, as though he is peering intently over the parapet of a trench. On Sunday we assembled around him to honour the 53 local men, from a population of 1,800, who lost their lives in the first world war. Schoolchildren queued at a microphone to sing out their names. A ladies choir sang a plangent song about Verdun. The state bell tolled for 11 minutes. The major made an interminable speech in the rain. Everybody sang

An alternative history

On 20 July, Germany’s political elite recalls the day in 1944 when Colonel Claus Schenk Count von Stauffenberg exploded a bomb intended to kill Hitler, and ran an abortive coup which ended in his own death and that of other plotters. To mark the anniversary, a military band in Berlin will thump out ‘Prussia’s Glory’, whereupon Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen will urge massed recruits to emulate the rebels’ ethics. Many of us know these events from the 2008 film Valkyrie with Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg and Kenneth Branagh as co-conspirator General Henning von Tresckow. But in Germany, the ‘Berlin republic’ will be celebrating nothing less than itself, for

Imperial measures

It’s been a heavyweight week on Radio 4 with the start of the annual series of Reith Lectures and a talk on empire by Jan Morris, and thank heavens for that. We need serious, we need facts, we need to think in these trying times, beset as they are by Love Island and persistent presidential tweeting. As it happens, both talks were given by women, and I can’t help wondering whether their gender has something to do with the way neither of them plugged a definite line but instead suggested there are more ways than one of looking at things. On Wednesday morning Morris looked back at Britain’s imperial past

High life | 31 May 2018

I’m back in New York and digesting the five glorious days spent in Normandy. What was the fighting all about, you may ask: was it about freedom, equality, cultural diversity, man’s dignity — all liberal catchphrases these days? Liberty and freedom are also big words nowadays, but all I see are massive central governments with arbitrary powers à la Brussels and Washington DC. Normandy promised us a lot but, as far as I’m concerned, delivered little. If freedom of speech was non-existent in Germany in 1940, political correctness makes it just as rare in London and New York in 2018. Our stifling culture of PC makes the sacrifices of those

The other side of D-Day

Omaha Beach, Normandy I am standing in a German cement bunker having walked through a large gaping hole caused by an incoming shell that must have instantly killed the handful of defenders. The bunker is on the beach, about 50 yards from the sea at high tide, and an afternoon mist is rolling in from the north. The scene is eerie and chilling, and 74 years on my heart goes out to those defenders. There are ghosts all around us. I try to put myself in the place of the very young, or old, Wehrmacht soldiers inside the bunker as they face the 6,700 or so ships that loom suddenly

Going down in glory

In April 1945, the Japanese battleship Yamato — the largest and heaviest in history — embarked upon a suicide mission. The ship sailed to Okinawa, where a huge American assault was taking place. Under extensive enemy fire, it sank, as was expected, to the bottom of the Pacific. With it, it took 2,280 of its crew. Survivors’ accounts exist and continued to be taken until very recently. They describe seamen lost even on board, unable to find their living quarters because of the sheer size of the vessel; arrows painted on decks to indicate the direction of the bow or stern; and the testing days before what the crew knew

A tough act to follow

Gary Oldman has joined a long list of actors who have portrayed Winston Churchill — no fewer than 35 of them in movies and 28 on television. He is one of the best three. ‘I knew I didn’t look like him,’ Oldman has said. ‘I thought that with some work I could approximate the voice. The challenge in part was the physicality, because you’re playing someone whose silhouette is so iconic.’ We all have our own mind’s-eye view of what Churchill should look and sound like, and his personality was so strong and sui generis that it is almost impossible for an actor to impose himself on the role. He

Living dolls

This week on Channel 4, we watched a cheery 58-year-old American engineer called James going on a first date. He was meeting Harmony, an extravagantly shapely blonde who was obliging enough to be wearing a low-cut crop top and tiny shorts, and who greeted him with a charming smile. After a spot of small talk and a dumb-blonde joke, she then alternated between assuring him how great he was and inviting him to masturbate over her. ‘You’re awesome,’ a visibly smitten James declared — apparently not at all bothered that Harmony was a robot. This scene — clearly regarded as a heartwarming one by Harmony’s maker Matt McMullen — provided