Posts Tagged ‘Revealed’

Revealed: How Britons welcomed black soldiers during WWII, and fought alongside them against racist GIs

December 6th, 2015

“These men have been sent to this country to help in its defence, and whatever their race or creed they should be entitled to the same treatment as our own soldiers.”

Letter to the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette

While white GIs sought to have them banned from pubs, clubs and cinemas and frequently subjected them to physical and verbal assault, many ordinary Britons welcomed the black troops into their homes – and on several occasions physically stood up to their tormentors.

The book, Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War, also reveals how in June 1943 there was a public outcry when four black servicemen were refused service in a bar in Bath, for no reason other than the colour of their skin.

One resident described the episode as “disgraceful” and wrote to the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette stating: “These men have been sent to this country to help in its defence, and whatever their race or creed they should be entitled to the same treatment as our own soldiers.”

A 320th Barrage Balloon crew in action, Corporal A. Johnson of Houston, Texas walks a VLA balloon toward a winch with help from two men in his crew on Omaha Beach. The VLA balloons flew up to 2,000 feet

In one of the most notorious incidents fighting broke out when white Military Police officers – one of whom was drunk – began harassing black GIs outside a pub in the Lancashire village of Bamber Bridge.

But in what could be regarded as a surprising turn of events the locals sided of the black troops.

A later account of the riot, which began on June 24, 1943, stated: “The MPs expected the locals to resent the presence of the blacks but the locals sided with the blacks. The MPs, using racial expletives, returned with two more and tried to frighten the blacks, who fought back with bricks and bottles.”

More than seven servicemen were wounded in the fighting and 32 black soldiers were later court-martialled. Between November 1943 and February 1944 there were 56 such clashes between white troops and their black counterparts, an average on more than four a week.

GI Willie Howard, of the segregated 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – whose task on the D-Day beaches was to raise the curtain of balloons protecting Allied troops from German planes – later went as far as to say: “Our biggest enemy was our own troops.”

Willie Howard

In another notable case a public campaign, including a petition of thousands of British signatures, led to the US President Eisenhower revoking the death sentence on Leroy Henry, a black soldier wrongly convicted of raping a woman near Bath, in May 1944.

The book also cites a letter from the owner of a café in Oxford to the Times, in which he recalled a black soldier presenting him with a letter from his commanding officer asking him to be served.

The café owner, a Mr D. Davie-Distin, promptly served him and said: “Had there been the slightest objection from other customers I should not have had any hesitation in asking them all to leave.”

And he added that the incident had left him “ashamed” that a man “fighting for the world’s battle for freedom and equality” had to resort to such humiliating measures to obtain a meal.

For the black GIs, to be treated with basic decency, after years of suffering humiliation, abuse and the daily threat of lynching from whites in the segregated southern states of their native US was, in the words of one of their number, Arthur Guest, like “a spark of light”.

File photo: Arthur Guest holds his wartime portrait

Guest was a sergeant with the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion – entirely composed of black soldiers led by white officers – which arrived in Pontypool, South Wales, in February 1944, and found itself among a population that had rarely seen a black face before.

“The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.”

George Orwell

Another member of the 320th was Wilson Monk , who was billeted in the basement of the town’s Trinity Methodist church.

Here he met the organist Godfrey Prior, a milkman, who quickly invited him to join the congregation.

Wilson Monk (third from left) and other fellow GI's

Mr Prior’s wife Jessie took it on herself to provide Monk with the occasional home cooked meal and – with her 18-year-old boy Keith away on active service – came to look on him as a surrogate son.

In February 1944 she wrote a touching letter from her home in the village of Abersychan to Monk’s mother Rosita, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to reassure her about her son’s well-being.

Mrs Prior, who like most Britons outside of the port cities of Liverpool, Cardiff, London and Bristol, has never seen a black person before, told her:

“Mrs Monk, you have a son to treasure and feel very proud of. We have told him he can look upon our home as his home while in our country. We shall take every care of him . . . we will look upon him now as our own.”

File photo: Wilson Monk points to the names of his friends painted on the canister of a German gas mask he found in Normandy in 1944

A Padre’s tale: How an Army chaplain’s diary throws new light on the anniversary of D-Day

The arrival of 130,000 black troops in Britain – in many places they were the first Americans soldiers to arrive – had presented the British authorities with a dilemma.

Although Churchill’s war Cabinet objected to their presence, British officials rejected US Army requests that the men be formally segregated from the white population, fearing a negative reaction from voters over what would be regarded as a distinctly ‘un-British’ policy.

In this rare close-up of a 320th Barrage Balloon crew in action The VLA balloons flew up to 2,000 feet

At a time of rising nationalist sentiment across the British Empire they were also worried about alienating Commonwealth troops if they began to treat black soldiers as second class citizens.

But anticipating a backlash from white American troops, civil servants introduced a de-facto policy of separation, designed to encourage British civilians and soldiers not to fraternise with the black GIs.

However the wider British public were far more welcoming.

“Equitable treatment abroad helped fuel the budding civil rights movement that would rock America in the coming decades.”

Linda Hervieux, author of Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes

Black troops generally behaved more courteously and with more dignity than the brash white GIs, who openly mocked Britain’s old fashioned cars, bad food and even its poor plumbing – so much so that many Britons preferred them to their countrymen, who soon earned the sobriquet of “overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here”.

British women noted that, in contrast to the white GIs, the black soldiers did not cat call them – something that back home could have seen them lynched.

George Orwell wrote in Tribune: “The general consensus of opinion seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.”

‘What you did was beautiful’, Dutch famine survivors tell British airmen 70 years on

The presence of so many black troops on British soil had a lasting legacy in a country that was soon to see an influx of Afro-Caribbean migrants, starting with the arrival of the Windrush ship at Tilbury, in 1948.

320th men having fun in Hawaii with a their standard issue M-1 rifle

While most people have heard of the GI babies the US troops left behind, few have considered that many of these children were of mixed-race, the offspring of affairs between local white women and the black soldiers they encountered.

Many of those “brown babies” only came to know their fathers in later years, with some of their descendants now embarking on a search for their American grandfathers.

Miss Hervieux said: “Given the racial tensions that exist in Britain today, as in other countries, it is hard to believe that the UK was once a relative racial paradise for African Americans. Britons were willing to open their hearts and minds to fellow human beings who were there to help them.

She added: “Their efforts extended beyond mere hospitality. True and deep friendships developed, some of which endured long after the war. Although Britons suffered through vicious bombings that ravaged the country and extreme privation, they never forgot basic human kindness.”

The treatment the men received at the hands of ordinary British men and women also had a significant impact on post-war America, believes Mrs Hervieux.

“In Britain America’s black soldiers were welcomed and treated with respect and kindness. Once they returned home, there was no going back,” she said. “Equitable treatment abroad helped fuel the budding civil rights movement that would rock America in the coming decades.”

Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes, at Home and at War, by Linda Hervieux, is published by Harper Collins.


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Revealed: New evidence that executed wartime nurse Edith Cavell’s network was spying

September 13th, 2015

The daughter of a Norfolk vicar, Cavell was invited to set up a nurses’ training school in Brussels in 1907.

When war broke out, she was visiting family in England but insisted on returning to Belgium.

Edith Cavell and probationers at the Brussels Nursing School, Belgium

It is well documented that she and her associates aided soldiers cut off behind enemy lines after the Battle of Mons, arranging for them to be smuggled back to Britain via Holland.

But Dame Stella said her evidence showed “that the Cavell organisation was a two-pronged affair” and that espionage was the other part of its clandestine mission.

The Belgian archives contain reports and first-hand testimonies collected at the end of the First World War.

They include an account by Herman Capiau, a young Belgian mining engineer who had brought the first British soldiers to Cavell in 1914 and was an important member of her network. He was arrested alongside her but escaped the firing squad, instead being sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in a German labour camp.

He wrote: “Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly.”

Capiau referred to information about a German trench system, the location of munitions dumps and the whereabouts of aircraft.

Details were written in ink on strips of fabric and sewn into clothes, or hidden in shoes and boots.

There are also notes in the archive linking Cavell to a character called ‘Dr Bull’. He was Dr Tollemache Bull, an Englishman who had lived in Brussels for many years and later admitted to working for the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to MI6.

Dame Stella Rimington, DCB, the British author and former Director General of MI5

In the Radio 4 programme to be broadcast on Wednesday, Secrets and Spies: The Untold Story of Edith Cavell, historian Dr Jim Beach said military espionage was in its infancy at the beginning of the First World War, and Cavell’s associates were amateurs.

“They are learning as they go,” he said of Cavell’s network. “The boundaries between different kinds of clandestine activity were a little bit more blurred.”

Dame Stella added: “We may never know how much Edith Cavell knew of the espionage carried out by her network. She was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies.

“Her main objective was to get hidden Allied soldiers back to Britain but, contrary to the common perception of her, we have uncovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies.”

A year into the war, Cavell was arrested, interrogated and put through a show trial. She was shot at dawn by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915.

Her death provoked international condemnation, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing: “Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood.”

Funeral cortege of Edith Cavell

The German military governor of Belgium who signed the warrant for Cavell’s execution, General Moritz Von Bissing, maintained that she had knowledge of the espionage operation.

“This Cavell woman… had guilty knowledge of much of their work. Such a system of spying assails our very safety and we proceeded to stamp it out,” he said when asked to justify Cavell’s death.

According to Julian Hendy, producer of the documentary, circumstantial evidence points to Cavell being aware of the espionage, even if not directly involved.

He said: “Cavell was certainly not a naive woman – her shrewd testimony before her German interrogators proved that.

“As so many leading members of the network were involved in espionage, it would have been truly extraordinary for her to have been completely unaware of the intelligence-gathering.

“The story we have always been led to believe – of a simple nurse just doing her duty helping soldiers – turns out to have been a lot more complicated, nuanced, and dangerous than we had ever previously thought.”

Cavell’s name lives on in the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which provides financial support for nurses in need.

A spokesman said: “We’re looking forward to the BBC’s radio programme but what’s clear is, even without Edith’s courage during the war, she was a remarkable nurse and we’re proud to be here for nurses as her lasting legacy.”


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Nazi gold train’s existence revealed in deathbed confession

August 28th, 2015

Mr Zuchowski told a press conference on Friday that the dying man was involved the operation to hide the train 70 years ago. The identity of the man, and the two treasure hunters – believed to be a Pole and a German – who claimed the find last week has not been revealed, and remain part of the mystery still surrounding the train.

The minister said he is now “99 per cent” that the train has been found, after seeing photographs of an object taken with ground penetrating radar.

“This is unprecedented. The train is over 100 metres long, and is armoured. We do not what’s inside but its armour indicates it has a special cargo,” said Mr Zuchowski. “There is probably military equipment but also jewellery, works of art and archive documents which we knew existed, but never found.”

And the suggestion that the train carried stolen personal items, rather than solid gold blocks, has sparked a keen interest among specialists in returning looted property to their lawful owners.

“We are still very keen to establish the facts surrounding the content of this train, but certainly the discovery alone is of great interest,” said Mary Kate Cleary, Art Recovery Group’s research and due diligence director.

The entrance to the Riese tunnels where the treasure may have been found

“The Nazis engaged in a systematic campaign to loot works of art and cultural property from public and private collections in Europe with close to 80,000 objects confiscated in Poland alone. If even a fraction of that number can be recovered from this train then we could be witnessing one of the most significant finds in modern history.”

The authorities and the finders have kept the exact location of the train secret, owing to fears that it could be booby trapped and that any explosives on it could have become unstable, and so pose a danger to other treasure hunters who have reportedly descended on Walbrzych in the hope of getting to the train first.

Despite the news blackout on the location Radio Wroclaw, a radio station in southern Poland, claimed the train was located somewhere beside a four-kilometre stretch of the Wroclaw-Walbrzych main line near Walbrzych. This would tie in with one of the original rumours of a gold train, which said the Nazis had parked a locomotive with trucks in a tunnel off the main line and then concealed the entrance.

Although just what the train might have been carrying is still unclear, Mr Zuchowski said the two treasure hunters are in line for some kind of reward for their efforts.

“If it is confirmed, the train is carrying valuable items, the finders can expect a 10 per-cent finder’s fee, either in the form of a reward from the ministry or from the owners of the property,” said the vice minister. “Of course any items of value will be returned to their original owners, assuming we can find them.”

Ms Cleary, the art restitution expert, welcomed the Polish government’s promise of returning the items to their owners. She added that recovery operations of this scale require international cooperation.

“We encourage authorities to make public the details of any artworks, cultural property or archival documents so that we can begin efforts to identify and return them to their rightful owners,” she said.

Archaeologists have said that any excavation process could take months.

The tunnels are thought to be under Ksiaz Castle

Along with the fear of landmines, unstable explosives and booby traps the train could now be buried under tonnes of earth and rock.

Some historians have warned that it might also have been carrying secret supplies of chemical weapons.


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Revealed: identity of Fifi the stunning wartime spy

September 17th, 2014

Posing as a French journalist – she was fluent in several European languages – she was tasked with charming young trainees and engaging them in conversation over drinks or dinner, gaining their confidence and extracting information from them. The reports she wrote decided whether the trainees could be trusted on foreign assignments, and for some she was their downfall.

One would-be agent from Belgium, well-regarded by his instructors, was dismissed after spending a day in Chilver’s company. “By the evening,” she wrote in one of her meticulous reports, “I had learnt practically all there was to know about him.”

Jonathan Cole, researcher at the National Archives, said: “Fifi was somewhat of a legend of the Special Operations Executive. Until now, her existence and the deployment of her services had been dismissed.

“With the release of her file, her identity, impressive skills and the important role she played in Second World War secret operations is now finally revealed.”

Chilver, who went by her middle name of Christine, was born in London but grew up in her mother’s native Latvia, where she was privately educated at a German school in Riga.

She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and when war broke out was interned at Besancon. She escaped and made her way to the UK, where in 1942 she offered her services “for active work under conditions of danger”, according to her file.

Her role was known to only three people because, in the words of her superior, “the English public was very sensitive to the idea of people snooping”.

Trainee agents were placed on 96-hour undercover assignments around Britain, and Chilver was sent there to test them. Her instructions included where she should bump into them and a brief description. One target in Newcastle was described as having “uneven front teeth, large feet… carrying a Penguin novel”.

The job was far from glamorous: Chilvers noted wryly in one of her reports that her hotel consisted of “plush curtains, fried fish smell and aspidistras”. Despite the serious nature of her work, humour was a feature of her correspondence with superiors. Dispatching her to Wolverhampton, her boss wrote: “A room will be booked for you at the Victoria Hotel, which is the only hotel, and a very bad one at that, in that revolting town.”

After leaving the service, Chilver lived first in Chelsea, west London, and latterly in Lydney, Gloucestershire, close to the Welsh border. She spent her last decades with her companion, Jean ‘Alex’ Felgate, who died in 2011.

Hugo Whatley, current occupier of the house, said: “Alex and Christine lived here together. I believe they met during the war and that Alex may also have been in the SOE.

“Their garden was extraordinary. They had so many plants here. It’s run-down a little now but you still find the odd wonderful plant they planted. After what they went through in the war, I think this was a way for them to get away.”

Chilver did not forget her Latvian roots and in 2001 set up an animal shelter in Riga. Staff there were amazed to hear of her wartime past and said she had led an intensely private life.

“She was devoted to animal welfare and that was what she spoke about on the few occasions that she came here. She lived in England and rarely visited us.

“She didn’t have many friends. I think she led a lonely life with just one companion, Alex. She didn’t like to visit public places and told us she lived far out of town,” an employee said last night.

Chilver’s file is one of more than 3,000 Second World War intelligence records made available online on the National Archives website.


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Revealed: war diary meant to stay secret

June 8th, 2014

Other entries record the unseen wranglings of the coalition government, spies on British shores, the perceived warmongering of Churchill, tearful German ambassadors and personal clashes around the Cabinet table.

Sketch of a camouflaged warship,drawn by Joseph Pease and passed to Lewis Harcourt during the Cabinet meeting of 18 February 1915

Harcourt even records private conversations with King George V, in which the monarch allegedly claimed the government was out of touch with the people.

The politician also gossips about Asquith, who “never” indulged in a cup of tea.

Harcourt, who served as colonial secretary in 1914-15, made his notes – often verbatim – on the back of Foreign Office telegrams, as well as neat pieces of paper written up after meetings.

The papers, which were filed in initialled cases, were stored by Harcourt’s family after his death in 1922, and have been seen only by a handful of academics.

They were transferred to Oxford University in 2008, where they have been catalogued. They will now go on show in an exhibition at the university and in a book, From Downing Street to the Trenches by Mike Webb.

Issued by the Bodleian Library, the book will use personal letters and first-hand diary extracts of contemporary politicians and their peers to tell the story of how the First World War unfolded.

Harcourt’s notes, which he was expressly forbidden from taking, are believed to have been intended to one day contribute to his memoirs, and give an unexpectedly candid account of life in the pre-war government.

In 1914, he recorded how Asquith had been warned about the activities of Churchill, of whom Harcourt recorded having a “profound distrust”.

By June, he wrote of Churchill’s getting “prematurely into the war stage”, noting: “I think he has gone mad.” In August, Harcourt claimed that the French and German ambassadors were “in tears” at the prospect of being “crushed” by war, while Churchill threatened to resign if Germany was permitted to violate Belgium’s neutrality.

Further Cabinet clashes involved Churchill’s “trying to raise compulsory service” against the prime minister’s wishes, and various members trying to bargain over the ownership of Cyprus and Malta.

By March 2 1915, a frustrated Asquith had passed a handwritten note to Harcourt, reading: “I shall some day keep a Cabinet time table. I roughly estimate that about one-half of the whole is taken up by one person.”

Sketch by Lewis Harcourt from his journal, showing the positions round the table of the first coalition cabinet,27 May 1915,together with his notes of the discussions

For the avoidance of any doubt, Harcourt added the initials W.S.C: Winston Spencer Churchill. On Aug 17 1916, at what appeared to be a crisis point for the government, Harcourt wrote of persuading Kitchener, the war secretary, not to resign, putting him in a “more yielding mood” by informing him he would be “damned in history and by the allies”.

As well as negotiating the future of Europe, the Cabinet found time for “long and confused discussion” about women’s suffrage, with one member condemning it as a “criminal waste of time”.

By Oct 5 1916, Harcourt’s note-taking had come to the attention of Asquith, who wrote to him saying: “It has been represented to me by some of my colleague that you are in the habit of taking notes of what goes on at Cabinet. As I have more than once pointed out in the past, this is a violation of our unwritten law.”

After resigning in Dec 1916, Harcourt recorded a personal conversation with the King, in which the monarch shared strong political opinions, including a belief that the Cabinet was far too large, that the government had fallen “a little out of touch with public opinion” and that he was “utterly opposed” to a snap election .

Mr Webb said the notes included were merely “scratching the surface” of Harcourt’s complete collection, despite the fact he had not been a “prominent” political figure.

“It’s more vivid than anything I’ve seen before,” he said. “There are not that many private diaries around of this kind.

“The thing that makes it most interesting is that it was not just a Cabinet journal, he also recorded private conversations and meetings.

“He quite happily recorded that Churchill was very angry on several occasions. He sometimes even quotes exactly what people were saying. It’s almost like a drama.”

The exhibition The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches 1914-1916 is at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, from June 18 to November 2.


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