Posts Tagged ‘crisis’

David Cameron to boycott Moscow’s WWII commemorations in protest over Ukraine crisis

March 12th, 2015

The Prime Minister’s Deputy Official Spokesman said: “We will be considering our representation in light of our ongoing discussions with Russia, and our concerns about their activity.

“We don’t have plans for the Prime Minister to attend, and I’m sure we will set out who will represent the government in due course.”

“We would consider our representation within our broader ongoing relationship with Russia. Recently, there have not been ministerial visits, and we will take that into account when we consider who attends.”

Vladimir Putin had sent invitations to the parade to a host of world leaders, but has been met with refusals from the Presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and the German Chancellor. President Obama has also refused, citing a tight schedule. Mrs Merkel will attend a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier the following day.

In a re-emergence of old Cold War loyalties, the leaders of Vietnam, Serbia, the Czech Republic, China and North Korea are expected to attend.

“It will not affect the spirit, the emotional aspect and the scale of the holiday,” Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman said earlier, said of the apparent boycott.

Russian servicemen march during the Victory Day Parade in Moscow’s Red Square

Victory Day ranks among the most important days in the Russian calendar, with more than 20 million Soviet citizens killed in the war, and is marked with a mass parade of tanks, troops and missiles on Red Square in Moscow and the overflight of dozens of jets and bombers.

It falls on May 9 – the day after Britain marks Victory in Europe Day, and two days after the General Election is held.

This year’s event is likely to be highly politicised and feature the largest display of military hardware in years, including a newly formed aerobatics team named Crimean Wings.

Russian media daily compares the fighting in Ukraine to the Second World War, with claims that the Ukrainian government is a “Fascist junta” and warnings that Jewish people are in danger. The orange and black Ribbon of St George, widely associated with the Great Patriotic War, has been adopted as a symbol of the separist fighters.

David Cameron last visited Russia for the G20 summit in St Petersburg. That saw Mr Cameron launching an impassioned defence of Britain after it was dismissed by a Russian official as “just a small island”.

In 1995, during the post-Cold War thaw, John Major and Bill Clinton attended commemorations in Moscow to mark fifty years since the end of the war. In 2005, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, represented Britain alongside President Bush. Tony Blair sent apologies, having only days before won a third general election.

Better times: Welsh Guards in Red Square on Victory Day, 2010

In 2010, Nato troops from Britain, France, Poland the US marched alongside 10,000 Russians.

The EU has imposed sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on some 151 people and 37 entities, in response to the assault on Ukrainian sovereignty. The Foreign Secretary this week warned that Russia, which is rapidly modernising its military, as at risk of becoming the single greatest threat to British national security.

Britain may broadcast Putin’s financial secrets
The Ukraine crisis is too grave for Cameron to ignore
Video: David Cameron warns Vladimir Putin

World War Two

The Deb of Bletchley Park: ‘There was always a crisis, a lot of stress and a lot of excitement’

January 11th, 2015

“In contrast, we felt slightly ashamed of having only done Bletchley, like also-rans. So when everything we had done, which we knew had been very hard work and incredibly demanding, suddenly showed its head and we were being asked to talk about it, it felt quite overwhelming. I’d never told a soul, not even my husband. My grandchildren were very surprised.”

Like many of the Bletchley recruits, Fawcett – or Jane Hughes, as she was then, who features in a new book, The Debs of Bletchley Park – had few academic qualifications to equip her for life in the Intelligence Service. Aged just 18, from a well-to-do London family, she had been training at Sadler’s Wells to be a ballerina, until Dame Ninette de Valois told her she was too tall and her “back too long” to make the grade.

Heartbroken, she was despatched to Zurich to study German for six months – something that proved invaluable – before her parents demanded she return home to “come out” as a debutante.

“I hated being a deb, I thought it was a complete waste of time,” she says. “It made me angry that so much money should be spent on such a stupid cause – young aristocrats getting married.”

But then in February, 1940, a letter arrived from a former school-friend, who was working at Bletchley. “She said, ‘It’s perfectly frightful, we’re so overworked, you must join us.’”

Bletchley’s codebreakers had just had some successes cracking the German Enigma code, meaning there was a huge amount of work to do. But with most of the brightest young men away in the armed services, there was an acute lack of suitable staff.

Convinced that only the “right type” of person could be trusted with such confidential work, recruitment was mainly carried out by word-of-mouth among the upper classes. Unable to tell her anything about what she would be doing, Fawcett was enlisted, after two cursory interviews. “I think they could have done better [than me] really,” she muses. Her parents never asked what she was doing: “I think they thought I was being a typist, they knew I was working on something, and they knew they couldn’t press me, so very sensibly they didn’t ask.”

What Fawcett may have lacked in academic qualifications, she made up for in her work ethic. She was assigned to Hut 6, the hut tasked with breaking German air-force and army Engima ciphers, mainly staffed by young male maths graduates.

Fawcett, however, was in the all-female Decoding Room. Once some of day’s codes had been cracked, she set her machine to the correct keys and typed in incoming German radio messages, glancing over them for potentially important information.

Conditions were difficult. “It was just horrid, there were very leaky windows, so it was very cold with just a frightful old stove in the middle of the room that let out lots of fumes but not much heat and just one electric bulb hanging on a string, which was quite inadequate,” Fawcett recalls. “We were always working against time, there was always a crisis, a lot of stress and a lot of excitement.”

After the installation of the Bombe, the decoding machine devised by Alan Turing and Alan Welchman in late 1940 that proved highly effective, all efforts turned to working out which city would be the next victim of the Blitz. “It was all go until lunchtime because we had by then to try and find out where the Germans were going to bomb the next night in order in order that we could get our very insubstantial defences in place before they attacked that evening.

“But not surprisingly, Churchill recognised this was a dangerous thing to do, because it would make it quite obvious we could read the German codes. So he decided to let go Coventry, I believe, to break the pattern.” This story is disputed, however, by many historians

In May 1941, Fawcett pulled off a huge coup. The British navy was hunting the German’s prize battleship, the Bismarck, with the search concentrated around Norway. Fawcett was typing in a decoded message when she noticed the word “Brest.”

“I remembered Brest was down towards the Mediterranean and wondered if it was something to do with the Bismarck. It turned out to be a message from one of the top brass in the German navy, who was getting in touch with the Bismarck’s captain, saying: ‘Where is my son? I’m worried about him’ and the captain replied saying this was where they were heading.”

In a moment of high drama, Fawcett’s spot was passed on to intelligence operators who sent out an urgent message that their enemy had been located. The navy chased the Bismarck to west France and sank her.

“I felt it was desperate, a great tragedy, something like 1400 people died. But everything about war is a tragedy and we had to be glad we were in a position to help.”

Initially, Fawcett was billeted with a lorry driver’s family, who lived in the nearby village next to a brick factory. “It used to belch out ghastly, rancid smoke all the time. We lived on white bread and potatoes, which was more or less all we could get.” Fawcett was working through the night but found the noise of the family’s two boys made sleep impossible in the day. “I was exhausted, the Battle of Britain was going on, we were under great pressure at work, but then a friend of my father’s, who was the local aristocrat, said: ‘We can’t have Jane living in a council house, why doesn’t she come and join us?’”

So Fawcett and several female friends spent the rest of their war living in an empty staff wing at an Elizabethan stately home, Liscombe Park. “It was very rural, so it could be quite hairy having to go down little country lanes in the pitch dark to find the mini bus that took us to work. People said I carried a hammer, but actually it was a torch, which was much more useful. But otherwise, it was a wonderful place to live.”

While Fawcett took part in Bletchley’s “jolly reel club” and the choir, she was usually too tired for fun; besides, she had already met her future husband. But many of Bletchley’s staff were single, with morals being described by other female recruits as “very loose.”

“A lot of people did have good fun, and why not?” Fawcett smiles. “They were all in their twenties and there were some beautiful girls around and some very desirable young men and we spent all our time together.” There was also, with everyone fighting for the same goal, an unusual spirit of equality. “Class barriers didn’t exist at all and women were treated as equals. It was totally irrelevant. Great days.”

She was only dimly aware of Alan Turing, recently played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film The Imitation Game (“very beautiful and very touching”). “He was desperately screwed up, like all the codebreakers, they were all in a little knot in one room desperately trying to get the frightful codes out. The whole business about his persecution [for homosexuality after the war] was just too unbelievably frightful. All I can say is we wouldn’t do it today, but that doesn’t make it up to him. Still, on the whole, I think the Turing episode has been overplayed: there were a lot of other people doing the same thing, and the fact he was sexually a bit uncertain is something we know all about now.”

Like many of the Bletchley “graduates”, Fawcett’s post-war career was long and distinguished. She became a professional singer, then after the birth of her two children, secretary of the Victorian Society, helping save many historic buildings from demolition including St Pancras station and its grand hotel, for which she was awarded an MBE and an honorary fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

“But I still feel that what we did at Bletchley was the most significant thing we ever did in our lives,” she says. “We were just chickens, but they say we saved 40 million lives, by being in the right place at the right time, by having a job to do – which we did.”

In June, Fawcett returned to Bletchley, now restored and a museum, to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. “As we were preparing to leave we suddenly heard in the distance this wonderful, very distinctive, sound of a Hurricane engine about to do a flypast.”

Most unexpectedly, Fawcett’s voice catches. “It was very moving actually, the pilot flew very, very low and did some turns and it felt as if he were saluting us. Then he flew off into the evening sun. We were just bowled over.”

The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories by Michael Smith is out now (Aurum Press)

World War Two

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