Book review: Shadows in a Photograph

Shadows in a Photograph --- by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Shadows in a Photograph — by David McMichael (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The novel Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2016) describes life from the viewpoint of Peter Waring. The story begins not too long after the Great War ends and focuses at first on Peter’s boyhood exile to Cumberland. He and his mother must leave London to live, fatherless and husbandless, with relatives in the north of England. McMichael is a master of setting. His description of Peter’s departure from the railway station and the locomotive, “A black monster, it stood there, wisps of steam escaping with a faint hiss from around its pistons” evokes Harry Potter’s departure for Hogwarts.

In Cumberland, Peter meets two girls: the tomboy, Jamie, and the pretty and somewhat older, Jordan. They resurface later as young women as the story follows Peter into medical school and into the Royal Air Force as an RAF doctor attached to Bomber Command.

Second World War afficionados will appreciate how McMichael lays out the familiar milestones of those early years of war: the removal of signposts throughout the British Isles, the Blackout, Dunkirk, London’s Windmill Theatre (famous for never closing), the fifty destroyers that Roosevelt sent in answer to Churchill’s plea, Churchill himself, his speeches, the importance of radar (‘RDF,’ so-called), the ‘Famous Few,’ including Douglas Bader—the pilot who had lost both legs, the controversy of Leigh-Mallory’s ‘Big Wing,’ and then how, at the crucial stage of the Battle of Britain, Hitler ordered his Luftwaffe to switch from attacking Fighter Command airfields to bombing London.

Back then, everyone in Britain would likely have been a fan of ‘ITMA’—‘It’s That Man Again,’ the hugely popular radio (wireless!) show starring comedian Tommy Handley and his gang of characters. Their catchphrases were famous throughout the war years and McMichael refers on more than one occasion to ITMA’s memorable Mrs Mopp: “It’s being so cheerful what keeps me going;” Also: “Can I do you now, Sir?” And let’s not forget: “TTFN,” which, as everyone should know, stands for “Ta ta for now.”

On a more tragic vein, McMichael’s novel dwells, from time to time, on the horrible burn injuries that can be sustained by aircrew when their planes catch fire. The achievements of the East Grinstead burns unit plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, feature prominently in the book. Of course, the novel’s lead character, Peter Waring, becomes a doctor himself, and readers will expect some in-depth details of the doctoring life. They will not be disappointed by the amputation scene or by the delivery of a baby.

McMichael’s novel is a compendium of compelling scenes, rendered with astonishing care: A WAAF nurse gives Peter his first experience of sex (“Here, let me show you what a woman likes. This woman at least.”); a close call with an exploding bomb (“He could see nothing other than a blood-red curtain, hear nothing but a ringing as if all the bells in the world had been set in motion, . . .”); Peter and Jordan kiss each other (“. . . frantically, violently, almost brutally, open-mouthed, . . .”).

Later in the novel, Peter’s flight in a Wellington bomber on a mission over Stuttgart ends with a crash landing in northern France. Peter and the Wellington’s pilot, Beal, are taken in by Marie-Louise who works for the French Resistance. The chapters that follow are among my favorites and remind me, in some ways, of Flying Colours, one of the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester. In Forester’s novel, the Royal Navy’s Captain Horatio Hornblower is in France with wounded fellow officer, Lieutenant Bush, and they are hiding from Napoleon’s troops—just as in McMichael’s novel, RAF Flight Lieutenant Peter Waring and wounded fellow officer, Squadron Leader Beal, are hiding from the Nazis. Both heroes find themselves houseguests of beautiful women: Marie in Hornblower’s case, and in Waring’s case, her name is Marie-Louise. The similarities soon end, but the comparison is interesting and entertaining, as is McMichael’s entire novel, from start to end: Rich in detail, Shadows in a Photograph by David McMichael is a fascinating and moving novel that embraces the gamut of emotions.

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This week in the War, 24–30 April 1944: Gold medal athlete and collaborator, Violette Morris, is gunned down by the French Resistance

Violette Morris, Paris 1920 [Public domain]

Violette Morris, Paris 1920 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 26 April 1944, French gold-medal-winning athlete, Violette Morris, was ambushed by the Resistance. Morris and everyone else in her car, including two small children, died in a hail of bullets.

Between the wars, Morris had excelled in a wide range of sports, from soccer to shot putting to swimming. She was an accomplished cyclist, race car driver and boxer.

France’s Women’s Athletic Federation objected to her ‘morals’ and subsequently barred her from competing in the 1928 Olympics. She was gay.

Morris was later courted by the Nazis and invited to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. She began working secretly for the German security service (SD) and, during the Second World War, she actively worked against Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).

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This week in the War, 17–23 April 1944: Paris suffers heavy bombing

Distant view of Sacré Coeur from a Paris neighbourhood that had been hit during the Allied air raid of 21 April 1944 [Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1994-033-18]

Distant view of Sacré Coeur from a Paris neighbourhood that had been hit during the Allied air raid of 21 April 1944 [Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1994-033-18]

This week in the war, on 21 April 1944, Allied planes bombed north central Paris. The main target was the La Chapelle railway marshalling yards. Their destruction was part of an overall plan to destroy communications in northern France prior to the D-Day landings. Over 600 civilians died.

In Dans Paris occupé: Journal d’Hélène Pitrou, 1940-1945 (by Paule du Bouchet), the fictional Hélène notes in her entry for 21 avril 1944: “Terrible bombardment. And the third night spent in the cellar!”

Dans Paris occupe: Journal d'Helene Pitrou-----by Paule du Bouchet (Gallimard Jeunesse, 2005) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Dans Paris occupe: Journal d’Helene Pitrou—–by Paule du Bouchet (Gallimard Jeunesse, 2005) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Hélène goes on to describe being packed in like sardines and how there is a baby who doesn’t stop crying. Hélène has to sleep on top of a sack of potatoes; in fact she gets virtually no sleep at all (“pas fermé l’oeil”) and is freezing cold all night.

Bombing or not, she vows to spend the next night in her own bed!

 

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This week in the War, 10–16 April 1944: The King of Italy steps down in favour of his son

HRH Prince Umberto inspecting a guard of honour during his visit to the Italian Corps of Liberation, Sparanise, Italy 1944 [Public domain]

HRH Prince Umberto inspecting a guard of honour during his visit to the Italian Corps of Liberation, Sparanise, Italy 1944 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 12 April 1944, King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy stepped down in favour of his son, Prince Umberto. It was decided that the official transfer of power would be delayed until after the liberation of Rome.

The King felt himself tainted by his association with Mussolini (although it had been the King who had eventually ordered the Duce’s arrest). By stepping down, King Victor Emmanuel hoped that he could preserve the future of the monarchy.

It was not to be. After the war ended, Prince Umberto did become king (Umberto II), but his reign lasted barely one month. The Italian people no longer wanted a king (or a Duce). A referendum was held and the people voted to turn Italy into a republic.

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Book review: Never Surrender

Never Surrender --- by J.G. White (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

Never Surrender — by J.G. White (Austin Macauley, London, 2016) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]

The novel Never Surrender by J.G. White (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2016) will delight anyone who saw service in Britain’s Royal Marines and will fascinate those who have never entered military life but are curious to experience second-hand the rigours, rituals and traditions associated with any branch of the armed services.

The trials of the book’s main character, Dacre AJ, begin when he first decides to join the Royal Navy but finds the RN desk at the recruiting office unmanned and so ends up joining the Royal Marines instead. (Random life-changing decisions really do happen: Field Marshal Montgomery chose his regiment because he liked the cap badge!) From recruiting office to the Royal Marine training depot at Deal in Kent, to the RM barracks at Eastney, close to Southsea, to Dover’s old Napoleonic fort called the ‘Drop Redoubt’— White describes it all. There is a boxing tournament in Eastney. Dacre is good at boxing. And the Drop Redoubt has its one-hundred-and-forty-feet deep ‘Grand Shaft,’ whose multitudinous steps are good for maintaining the fitness level of new recruits.

Dacre’s environment is one of square-bashing, of rifle training, of sleeping in trenches half-full of water, and embraces all of the spit-and-polish regimens of barrack life. He may live in a unique, even insular, world, but it is just as solid and valid as anyone else’s. Plus Dacre has a few good mates. He experiences being with a woman for the very first time—a watershed event that is engineered by those same good mates. The fact that the young woman is the daughter of ‘First Drill,’ the most senior of Dacre’s RM instructors, adds extra spice and danger.

The writer steadfastly tracks the tumultuous events of 1939 and 1940, often using conversations between historical figures such as Antony Eden, Winston Churchill, and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey. The latter was charged with organizing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.

The German Blitzkrieg rolls through Belgium and into northern France. The British and French armies are in full retreat. Meanwhile, in harbours along the southern coast of England, small boats, fishing vessels, ferries and yachts are gathering, preparing to sail across to France and ‘bring our lads back home.’

Churchill was first to remark, afterwards, in the House of Commons, that ‘wars are not won by retreat.’ Nonetheless, the Dunkirk evacuation remains firmly fixed in the British psyche as one of the great events of history, alongside the victories of Henry V’s soldiers at Agincourt and the RAF fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. Thus White’s novel, Never Surrender, takes a sudden turn, midway through the book.

Dacre, already a fully trained Royal Marine, is not yet eighteen and so not eligible for active duty. But Britain’s stranded expeditionary force is need of help and Dacre is experienced at sailing and canoeing. He is assigned as a one-man crew to Mr. Leslie Thomas of Maidstone, Kent, owner of the thirty-five foot cabin cruiser, the Gypsy Rose. Dacre and Thomas make several trips to France, returning each time with a boat-load of grateful Tommies. Thus White’s Never Surrender, joins other famous novels of Dunkirk, most notably The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico and Atonement by Ian McEwan.

All in all, Never Surrender is an interesting novel and well worth reading.

 

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This week in the War, 3–9 April 1944: Charles de Gaulle and Marie-Pierre Koenig

Front row: Generals Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & Marie-Pierre Koenig, plus Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, taken after D-Day [Public domain]

Front row: Generals Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & Marie-Pierre Koenig, plus Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, taken after D-Day [Public domain]

This week in the war, General Charles de Gaulle appointed his London-based chief-of-staff, French general Marie-Pierre Koenig to head the FFI, the French Forces of the Interior (Forces françaises de l’intérieur). Later, in June and with the full backing of the British and Americans, de Gaulle would expand Koenig’s FFI command to include all resistance movements within enemy-occupied France.

Koenig was already an experienced commander, having commanded French troops in Norway, North Africa and the Middle East.

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This week in the War, 27 March–2 April 1944: Romania at the crossroads

Soviet tank being welcomed in Romania, 1944 [Public domain]

Soviet tank being welcomed in Romania, 1944 [Public domain]

This week in the war, on 27 March 1944, Prime Minister Winston Churchill summarized the current state of the conflict in a radio broadcast on the BBC.

He spoke of the military successes of the Soviet army and of the resulting panic in Germany’s eastern allies: Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria.

Churchill praised the heroism of the Yugoslavian partisans under the leadership of Marshal Tito.

That same day, German troops occupied Romania, with the agreement of the current Romanian government.

Romania & adjacent countries [Public domain, author: Panonian]

Romania & adjacent countries [Public domain, author: Panonian]

By the end of the week, on 2 April 1944, Soviet troops had advanced across the Put river and entered Romania. Soviet foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, had already offered a separate peace to the Romanians but they were in no position to agree, given the German occupation.

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