Posts Tagged ‘wartime’

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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Wartime spy finally accepts she is a French heroine

November 22nd, 2014

Mrs Doyle was one of a handful of female agents working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up to spy upon and sabotage Nazi-occupied Europe. She had joined the RAF to train as a flight mechanic in 1941 but the secret services spotted her potential. Although her mother was English, her father was a French doctor and Mrs Doyle was fluent in the language. Instead of working on fixing aircraft, she was whisked away for training in espionage.

“It wasn’t until after my first round of training that they told me they wanted me to become a member of the SOE,” she said in a rare interview five years ago, “They said I could have three days to think about it. I told them I didn’t need three days to make a decision; I’d take the job now.”

A close family friend – her godmother’s father – had been shot by the Germans and her godmother had committed suicide after being taken prisoner by the Nazis. “I did it for revenge,” Mrs Doyle told the New Zealand Army News magazine in 2009.

In Britain, the SOE operatives were trained by a cat burglar, released from jail especially. “We learnt how to get in a high window, and down drain pipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught,” she recalled.

Given three separate code names – Genevieve, Plus Fours and Lampooner – she was first deployed in Aquitaine in Vichy France from 1942.

She was dropped behind enemy lines under a new code name, Paulette, into the Calvados region of Normandy on May 1 1944.

Although then aged 23, she assumed the identity of a poor 14-year-old French girl to make the Germans less suspicious. She used bicycles to tour the area, passing information through coded messages.

The messages would take half an hour to send and the Germans an hour and a half to trace the signal. She would have just enough time to send her message and move on before being discovered.

She would sleep rough in forests, forced to forage for food, or stay with Allied sympathisers. “One family I stayed with told me we were eating squirrel,” she told the Army News, “I found out later it was rat. I was half starved so I didn’t care.”

But the war – and the horrors she witnessed – took its toll. She has disclosed how she sent a message requesting a German listening post be taken out by bombers but a German woman and two children died.

“I heard I was responsible for their deaths. It was a horrible feeling,” she said, “I later attended the funeral of a grandmother, her daughter and her two grandchildren, knowing I had indirectly caused their deaths.”

After the war, Mrs Doyle returned to Kenya, where she had gone to school, for her wedding to an Australian engineer. The couple had four children and moved to Fiji and then on to Australia, where they settled.

Eventually, she moved with her children to a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, divorcing her husband in the mid 1970s.

Her bridesmaid, Barbara Blake, 91, who lives in north London, said her friend had never wanted publicity for her deeds. The French government, however, had wanted to make its award public to highlight Mrs Doyle’s remarkable achievements.

It wasn’t until the last 15 years or so – and her children now grown up – that Mrs Doyle confided in them about her career as a spy. “My eldest son found out by reading something on the internet, and my children insisted I send off for my medals,” she said.

“I was asked if I wanted them to be formally presented to me, and I said no, I didn’t, it was my family who wanted them.”

Laurent Contini, the French ambassador to New Zealand, said: “I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honour that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration.”


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Keira Knightley beaten by quick crossword despite playing wartime codebreaker

October 9th, 2014

Her character was among the recruits to the secret project who had actually been brought on board after showing their ability by completing a cryptic crossword.

Knightley said: “One day we decided we should all really do the crossword. So we got the quick crossword, there were five of us, it took us five days, and we still didn’t finish it. We were really bad at all of it. And I didn’t understand any of the maths.”

Knightley and Cumberbatch answered with a resounding ‘no’ when asked if their Sudoku skills had improved, although Cumberbatch explained that as much as he didn’t understand the intricate details of the mathematics Turing was working with to create the enigma, he did find the experience fascinating.

“I think there are hugely exciting things on a basic level that everyone can understand,’ the actor said.

“Like the idea of coding, the idea of programming, the idea that what you use as language can be turned into something universal and can be used here, China, Russia, and those things excite me.”

“But the machine, the bomb, the reality of Bletchley Park, that was the moment that I thought right now this is very hard.’

He added: “I did understand a bit, a bit about the enigma machine and the coding but put an algorithm in front of me now, or a quadratic equation and this press conference would never end for me trying to work it out.”

The Imitation Game kicks off this year’s BFI London Film Festival, and the two stars gathered at the Corinthia Hotel on Wednesday to talk about the movie.


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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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Dame Vera Lynn breaks chart record aged 97 with album of wartime hits

June 8th, 2014

An early version of We’ll Meet Again was played at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday, in a “duet” with singer Katherine Jenkins. Dame Vera appeared on screens in black-and-white footage, with her daughter watching on from the audience.

On being told of her achievement, Dame Vera said: ”I am delighted of course. It is wonderful to hear these songs again that were at the top of the charts so long ago, and it’s warming to think that everyone else is listening to them too.”

The veteran singer’s last major chart feat was five years ago when, at the age of 92, she achieved a number one with an earlier best-of release.

Dame Vera – who made her professional debut at the age of seven – already holds the record as the first British artist to top the US charts in 1952 and as the only artist over 90 to top the UK album charts.

Elsewhere in the chart, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran achieved his first UK number one single with Sing, while fellow British solo star Sam Smith remained at the top of the album chart with In The Lonely Hour.

Sheeran’s single, which was co-written and produced by US star Pharrell, sold nearly 124,000 copies over the last seven days, according to the Official Charts Company. It knocked Sam Smith’s Stay With Me off the top spot, with the 22-year-old’s track slipping to number two.

A charity single inspired by teenage cancer victim Stephen Sutton also reach ed the top 20. Hope Ain’t A Bad Thing by The Neon Brotherhood finished in 16th place.

Tom Drover from Neon Sound Studios, who played guitar on the track, said: ”The idea was hatched when Stephen posted his thumbs up picture. We all decided to come together to do something for Ste, one of the things on his bucket list was to have a charity single.”

Stephen, 19, raised millions of pounds for Teenage Cancer Trust before his death last month and all the profits from the song will go to the charity.


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Dambusters deserve proper medals not a brass clasp, says wartime bomber hero

April 20th, 2014

There is even a specially commissioned Bomber Command Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, opened by the Queen, to commemorate the 55,573 Allied air men who died during WW2.

Arctic convoy veterans have recently been awarded the Arctic Star medal after a 70 year fight in recognition of what Churchill called the worst journey in the world. Nearly 3,000 perished in the freezing waters supplying the troops on the front.

“A medal was produced for the Arctic survivors. If a medal is good enough for them it’s good enough for us,” said Mr Johnson from Bristol.

“We deserve a medal not a clasp. The 55,000 doesn’t include the injured or those taken prisoner and the sacrifices they made.

“If that’s the last thing I do it will be to get a medal for us.”

Mr Johnson, who flew 50 missions during his 22 years service was the bomb aimer on the night of May 17, 1943, as part of Operation Chastise to cripple the Nazi war effort.

He dropped the bomb on Sorpe dam and was awarded a raft of medals including the Distinguished Flying Medal for his part in the daring 617 Squadron raid.

He is still considering whether to wear his clasp he describes as an “insult.”

“I have got, much to my disgust, one of the clasps but still not made up my mind whether to wear it,” he said.

“All those people died and we get that. To get that little copper job instead of a medal, no, I’m sorry I am not sure I’ll bother to wear it.

“Although I am Conservative through and through I am not quite happy with our present Prime Minister. He should have done more for this medal business. It is the politicians who make the final decision.

“There was all the hassle with politicians to get the Memorial then they had front row seats. It’s hypocrisy.”

Next week, Mr Johnson will be at the London unveiling of his portrait by artist Richard Stone dedicated to the whole squadron and will make a speech about their huge sacrifice.

“I didn’t want to do it but my family told me to!” he added.

“It is amazing to think there is still all this interest in the Dambusters. I have insisted on a dedication to the whole squadron. It will go on the portrait as it is for everyone who took part, not just me.”

In May he will again renew the call for a medal with the release of his life story The Last British Dambuster released to mark the 71st anniversary of the raid on May 16, 1943. He worked on the book published by Ebury Press with a ghost writer.

“I am pleased people still want to know what we did,” said Mr Johnson.

“I go to schools and talk to children about the raid, they are fascinated. It is a part of our history and they really listen to my stories that are real, not like something off the television.

“I can still remember it all quite clearly after all these years. That raid was a turning point in the war.”

Mr Johnson is also an adviser to Hobbit director Peter Jackson who is working on a remake of the classic black and white Dambuster movie that starred Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave.

The widower has gone deaf because of his valiant service in the RAF from the noise of the planes. For his sacrifice he gets a £140 a month war pension in recognition of his service.

“I call it Lancaster Ear, I’m deaf in both ears and have got hearing aids,” he said.

“The noise from all those aircraft didn’t help. They didn’t give us any warnings just blow your nose as you come in so your ears don’t pop.”


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