Death of a Forgotten Hero

On Monday, the news came through that the Moors Murderer, Ian Brady, had died. Every UK newspaper and news channel had his 1965 mugshot on their front pages or on our screens; many column inches and many minutes of airtime were devoted to his life and his notorious, foul crimes. Meanwhile, on the same day, in a hospital in East Sussex, my Uncle Edwin died. He was 94. Obviously, having done nothing newsworthy during his life, his death passed unnoticed by anyone outside his family. Fair enough – we can’t mark the death of every elderly citizen. And, like I say, he’d done nothing during his 94 years worthy of comment. Except perhaps, ensuring our continual freedom, the survival of our way of life and upholding our democracy. Oh, and along the way, he’d killed a few people.

You see, back in July 1944, Uncle Edwin, aged 21, crossed the English Channel, along with many other young men, and landed in France. Over the coming months, with a rifle in his hand, he walked eastwards across northern France, through Belgium, Holland and then into Germany. He saw and experienced things that no one should have to see or experience. He was shot at and he killed. He was a lieutenant, so had responsibility. He could also speak German, so one of his jobs on approaching terrified German households was to assure the women that his men were not going to rape her or her children.

My uncle joined up with three school friends whose surnames began with A, B and C (let’s say, Atkins, Bingham and Collins). All three were killed. For years, my poor uncle suffered terrible survivor guilt over this.

Uncle Edwin’s bravery didn’t end in 1945. In the early 1970s, he was standing on a train platform when he saw a woman jump onto the railway in front of an incoming train. Without hesitating, he leapt down and tried to pull her free as the train hurtled towards them. Unable to do so, he lay on top of her, managing just in time to drag her limbs in, before the train whooshed over them. Afterwards, they staggered to their feet, both, I imagine, in a state of shock. The woman walked away. No words were exchanged. It took a year before Uncle Edwin mentioned it to his wife. Bravery doesn’t always have to be announced. Imagine if it’d had happened today – the incident would have been caught on CCTV, it would have gone viral and Uncle Edwin would have been an Internet sensation. He would’ve hated that.

Post-war, Uncle Edwin worked for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. One of his jobs was to help people find the graves of their loved ones, killed in action in faraway places. I remember, back in the 1970s, he helped our village shopkeeper get his wartime medals. The man had never bothered to claim them, but thirty years on, he was regretting it – my uncle came to the rescue. Such was Uncle Edwin’s status at the commission, he was awarded an MBE.

My father had died when I was quite young so Uncle Edwin, a frequent visitor to our home in Devon, became a bit of a father figure to me. He helped me with my homework, warned me not to smoke, and tried, without success, to understand the music of UB40.

In later life, Uncle Edwin was a little bit guilty of becoming one of these “I fought the war for the likes of you” men that youngsters, like me in the 1980s, used to mock. Now, with age and knowing what he and his contemporaries went through, I can understand their frustration. We, who have never known any different, take our freedom for granted.

I remember, in the eighties, believing myself to be a pacifist, I was shocked when he told me he and his peers cheered and celebrated when the news came through in August 1945 that the Americans had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But tens of thousands of people were killed in an instant, I protested. But it ended the war, he told me, it allowed Japan the opportunity to surrender, something they would never have done under normal circumstances. He and millions like him would have had to fight in Japan. The death toll would have been unimaginable.

Although Uncle Edwin talked about the war incessantly(!), he never talked about his role in it. But he did occasionally mention his friends, A, B and C. In January 2013, I phoned my uncle to congratulate him on reaching 90 (not that he was celebrating the fact) and I took the opportunity to ask him, rather nervously, if I could read his wartime memoirs, which I knew he’d written. Rather reluctantly, I think, he agreed. What I read shocked and appalled me. It is not my place to recount his tales but let’s say I saw him a different light. I thought of myself at 21 – my main worry was how to gel my hair and whether I had the latest record by Bauhaus or New Order. And here he was, as a 21-year-old, a hairbreadth from death for months on end. I’d always revered the man but now my admiration was magnified a hundredfold. What came across again and again – was his respect for the enemy. He didn’t see them as Germans or as Nazis, he saw them as young men, like himself, having to do a nasty and dangerous job on the orders of their superiors.

Luckily, Uncle Edwin retained his health right to the end. A couple of weeks ago, he had a fall and ended up in hospital. A week later, he died. His wife had died a decade earlier. He leaves behind a son, a daughter and a grandson, now aged 25 and embarking on a career in dentistry.

Seventy years on, Uncle Edwin is finally reunited with A, B and C. But what the heck – let’s read about Ian Brady – far more interesting.

Rupert Colley.

 

 

 

How ‘The Sixth Man’ came about

It’s strange how a new novel can materialise in a writer’s mind. Most of the time, like most novelists, I have a nugget of an idea and a setting. Then I spend days, weeks, even months, nurturing and fleshing it out – the character arcs, the plot developments, sub-plots, etc.

But not so with my latest novel, The Sixth Man. I was sitting in the garden one sunny afternoon in August 2014, cup of tea in one hand, pen in the other, a pad of paper on my lap. I was about to write a shopping list. Then, out of nowhere, came this idea – six men in a prison in Nazi-occupied France. Admittedly, I had been reading a lot round the subject – two of my novels were already set in wartime France.

So now, armed with this seed of an idea, I sketched out the whole plot – from beginning to end. Thirty minutes gone, tea finished, I had it all done.

My wife returned. The dog barked in excitement. ‘Have you done that shopping list?’ asked my wife, breezily.

‘Er, no, but I have plotted out a whole novel. Look,’ I said, handing over a sheet of paper.

I waited eagerly as she scanned it, waiting for her hearty approval.

‘Hmm, very nice, dear,’ OK, she may not have called me ‘dear’ but the tone implied it.

The following day, I re-read what I’d written and decided it was, if anything, too simple. Ideas shouldn’t come that easily. It felt wrong, as if I’d cheated somehow. And so I filed this sheet of paper, with a faint smudge of a tea stain, and forgot about it.

And I really did forget about it. Never gave it another thought.

It was about two years later, when I was looking for something else, I came across it: ‘THE SIXTH MAN’ in capital letters along the top. Seeing it afresh made me think – well, why not. Just write it.

And I did. It’s a short novel, only about 53,000 words. Took me about a month to write the first draft. The novel gives equal space to each of the six men. Usually, when writing a novel, you put yourself in the mind of your protagonist and perhaps the antagonist. But here, there were six of them, all of them flawed in equal measure. It was an enjoyable experience.

So this is what it’s about… six Frenchmen in a German prison in a village somewhere in France: a doctor, postman, policeman, soldier, teacher and, most importantly, a priest. Having spent six months incarcerated, ‘this’ is their last night so they’re all feeling rather jolly. But then comes a development – a German train has been blown up by the resistance, five German soldiers killed. Therefore, in reprisal, five of these men will be executed the following day. They have to decide which five should face the firing squad and they have six hours, ‘til dawn, to decide.

And that, essentially, is what the novel is about. We hear each of their sorry tales and none of them come out of it particularly well.

The novel was released April 2017.

If you get to read it, I hope you enjoy it.

You can read the opening chapters here.

 

 

The Amritsar Massacre – a brief outline

On Sunday 13 April 1919, the occupants of the city of Amritsar in the Punjab were preparing to celebrate the Sikh New Year. Three days previously, six Britons had been indiscriminately killed by an Indian mob and the British, fearful of further violence during such a potentially volatile occasion, sent in a man ‘not afraid to act.’ That man was 54-year-old Reginald Dyer, and act he did.

Reginald DyerReginald Dyer (pictured) issued a proclamation banning any gatherings of four or more men and imposing an eight o’clock curfew. Those failing to comply risked being shot. Yet word reached Dyer that a gathering of about 5,000 men, women and children (Dyer’s estimate) had converged in a square at Jallianwala Bagh for a public meeting. The square was accessible only via a narrow gateway and otherwise was surrounded by walls. Dyer approached with a unit of about 90 soldiers, mainly Indians and Gurkhas. Although the gathering was unarmed and, it seemed, peaceful, Dyer feared that his small contingent of men would, if things got out of hand, soon be overwhelmed. Deciding attack was the best form of defence, he ordered, without warning, his men to open fire. Bedlam ensued.

With the only entrance blocked, there was no escape from the withering fire that lasted an entire quarter of an hour. People hid behind bodies, others were killed in the circling stampede. Dyer only ordered a stop when he feared his men would run out of ammunition. Without sanctioning any medical aid, Dyer ordered his men out. 379 were left dead, over 1,200 wounded. Dyer did not stop there; in the days that followed Dyer subjected miscreants, as he saw them, to public flogging.

Mistaken concept of duty

Amritsar MassacreAt the resultant enquiry, General Dyer was censured for ‘acting out of a mistaken concept of duty’ but survived unpunished. The British press was outraged – not by the lack of punishment but that the British establishment had failed to condone his actions. The Morning Post launched a campaign, raising over £26,000 for the beleaguered general, as they saw him; Rudyard Kipling being one such giver. Reginald Dyer quietly took early retirement and died eight years later humbled perhaps but unrepentant. Indeed, his only regret was that ‘I didn’t have time to do more’.

(Pictured, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial).

Amritsar was systematic of all that was wrong in post-First World War British India. Mahatma Gandhi wrote of the massacre, ‘We do not want to punish Dyer; we have no desire for revenge. We want to change the system that produced Dyer.’

Amritsar confirmed an uncomfortable truism – that ultimately British rule in India was dependent on force.

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Victor Emmanuel III – a brief biography

On 29 July 1900, the king of Italy, Umberto I, was assassinated. The throne passed to his 30-year-old son, who, as Victor Emmanuel III, would reign until 1946, a period which saw both world wars and the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini’s fascists.

Victor Emmanuel IIIBorn in Naples on 11 November 1869, the future king was so short, the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, nicknamed him the dwarf, and, in private, Mussolini called him the ‘little sardine’. He ruled over an Italy that had been in existence as a unified nation only since 1871. Despite unification, Italy was a deeply-fragmented society, steeped in poverty and corruption, and ruled over by a succession of weak coalition governments. But, as a figurehead king, Victor Emmanuel III chose to ignore the affairs of state, preferring instead to focus on his vast collection of coins.

World War One

With the outbreak of war in July 1914, Italy initially adopted a position of neutrality despite having been in alliance, the Triple Alliance, with Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire since 1882. Victor Emmanuel favoured participation in the war, partly as a means of enhancing Italy’s reputation on the international stage. Italy duly entered the war in May 1915, not as allies of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but on the side of the Triple Entente allies – France, Russia and Great Britain.

Mussolini

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The Vellore Mutiny – a brief outline

Fifty-one years before the outbreak of the year-long ‘Indian Mutiny’, took place another act of defiance against British rule in India. Lasting but a few hours, the Vellore Mutiny of 10 July 1806 was a mere foretaste of 1857. But the grievances that led to the brief uprising were very much the same as the ones half a century later.

Vellore MutinyMuch of India, at the time, was governed by the East India Company. The monolithic, monopolizing commercial company with its own army had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government. The town of Vellore, in south-east India, contained a large fort garrisoned by some 380 British soldiers and 1,500 sepoys. Incarcerated within the fort of Vellore, although in considerable comfort, were the sons, families and servants of Tipu Sultan, the former ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, who had been killed by the British in battle in 1799. (Pictured the Vellore Fort today)

Religious sensibilities

In 1806, as in 1857, the Indian soldiers, sepoys, feared the British were attempting to undermine their religions in order to convert them to Christianity. A new dress code, introduced in 1805 by the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, General Sir John Craddock, forbade Hindu soldiers from sporting any caste marks on their foreheads, banned the wearing of earrings and proposed that turbans be replaced by a round hat. Muslim soldiers were to shave off their beards and trim their moustaches. Craddock, in issuing his directive, was going against advice from his Military Board who warned that local religious sensibilities be respected.

United by their grievances, Hindu and Muslim sepoys decided to act. An initial protest resulted in a number of sepoys being lashed.

But in the early hours of 10 July 1806, the rebel sepoys launched their main attack on the fort. The rebels looted and killed, and barged into the garrison’s hospital where they slaughtered men in their hospital beds. 200 British soldiers were killed or wounded. The sepoys declared the eldest son of Tipu Sultan their new leader, hoisting Tipu’s flag atop the fort.

Rescue

Rollo Gillespie The British took refuge on the fort’s ramparts. One soldier escaped, took to his horse and galloped the sixteen miles to the garrison based at Arcot to call for help. A small relieving force of about twenty men, led by Sir Rollo Gillespie, quickly made their appearance at Vellore. (Born in Comber in County Down, Northern Ireland, a statue of Gillespie standing upon a 55-foot high column today dominates the town square, pictured).

Climbing up the ramparts to aid the stricken British still clinging on, Gillespie led a bayonet charge to keep the sepoys at bay. More reinforcements arrived in larger numbers, blowing down the garrison gates and setting upon the rebellious sepoys. By 2 pm, the rebellion had been quashed. Retribution was swift and merciless; executions plentiful. The Vellore Mutiny was over.

Tipu Sultan’s sons and their retinues were resettled in Calcutta. The British certainly did not want to risk them becoming a rallying point again.

Rupert Colley.

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The Black Hole of Calcutta – a brief outline

On 20 June 1756, 123 Britons perished in a tiny dungeon cell in the city of Calcutta. The incident, which soon became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta, illustrated only too well that the Indian race, when left without Britain’s civilising influence, was barbaric in the extreme.

Siraj ud-DaulahIn April 1756, the nawab (provincial governor) of Bengal died and the throne passed to his 23-year-old grandson, Siraj-ud-Daulah (pictured), a name that was soon to become infamous in Britain as the ultimate in perfidy and cruelty. The British had been hastily strengthening Fort William in Calcutta (Kolkata) against possible future French incursion into the city. When Siraj-ud-Daulah demanded that the British desist, the British refused – it was they, after all, that had, in 1690, established Calcutta in the first place. Siraj-ud-Daulah marched into the city with 50,000 men and 500 elephants and, imposing his authority, took it with relative ease.

Black Hole

The British fled – but not all managed to escape in time. On the 20 June 1756, those left behind, 146 soldiers and civilians, including two women, surrendered. Despite assurances that they would be protected, they were imprisoned on the apparent orders of Siraj-ud-Daulah in a tiny cell within Fort William measuring only 18 feet by 14 feet, 10 inches, with only two small windows. Screams and appeals for water were ignored. The prisoners were left to suffocate in the oppressive summer heat, sucking the perspiration from their shirts for liquid or drinking their own urine.

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Indian Mutiny – a brief outline

On 10 May 1857, the Indian Mutiny, as it became known, erupted in the town of Meerut in northern India. Discontent among the native Indian soldiers, the sepoys, had been simmering for months if not decades but the violence, when it came, took the British completely by surprise. History In An Hour looks at the causes of the Indian Mutiny.*

Indian SepoyBy 1857, the East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of the country on behalf of the British government, ruled two thirds of India. The remaining third was overseen by Indian princes who paid tribute to the British. That the East India Company could maintain its authority was down to the might of its huge army, consisting of 45,000 Europeans and 230,000 Indian sepoys. While most sepoys were glad and even proud to serve in the army, their loyalty to it always took second place to their religion

Religious sensibilities

Sepoys of all faiths were concerned for their respective religions. The prospect of being made to serve overseas, for example, alarmed Hindu sepoys as travelling over water was a compromise of caste. (Similar grievances led to a much smaller rebellion, the Vellore Mutiny, in 1806).

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The Hindenburg Disaster – a summary

On 6 May 1937, a tragedy took place that, caught on film, haunted the American consciousness for decades.

Hindenburg disaster

Built in Germany in 1935 the 800-foot long Zeppelin airship, the Hindenburg, was considered the height of sophisticated travel. It may only have travelled at 80 mph yet it still provided the fastest means of crossing the Atlantic – twice as fast as the speediest ship. It was akin to being on a luxury liner and had already made dozens of journeys across the Atlantic from Germany to Brazil or America and back. Of course, it wasn’t cheap – a one-way ticket across the Atlantic cost about US$400 (about US$7,000 / £4,500 in 2016).

With the Nazi swastika on its fins, it was named after the last president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, who had appointed Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933, and who died in August 1934. Joseph Goebbels had, apparently, wanted the airship to be named the Adolf Hitler but the owner of the Zeppelin Company, Hugo Eckener, a known anti-Nazi, refused.

But before it became a transatlantic airship, the Hindenburg began its life as a tool of the Nazi propaganda ministry, run by Goebbels. In March 1936, ahead of a German plebiscite to rally support ratifying the re-occupation of the Rhineland, the Hindenburg was used to drop propaganda leaflets while blaring out loud patriotic music and slogans from huge loudspeakers, and broadcasting political speeches from a temporary on-board radio studio. (The plebiscite returned a 99.8 per cent vote in favour). On 1 August 1936, the Hindenburg made a special appearance flying above the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics trailing an Olympic flag in its wake.

The Hindenburg‘s last journey

On its 63rd and last, fateful journey, the Hindenburg had departed from Frankfurt on May 3, 1937, and was due to land at Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the morning of May 6. But poor weather had delayed its landing by about twelve hours. The captain, Max Pruss, kept his passengers entertained by flying over New York City. The Hindenburg had a capacity for about 70 passengers but on this trip there were only 36 passengers plus 61 crew.

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Osama bin Laden – a brief biography

 

Born 10 March 1957, Osama bin Laden was one of 52 (or more) siblings born to his billionaire father, Mohammed, and his 22 wives. Osama’s mother, Alia, was 14 when she married Mohammed, his tenth wife, and 15 when she gave birth to Osama (‘young lion’ in Arabic). Osama was the only product of this union. His parents divorced soon after his birth.

Mohammed bin Laden had built from scratch a large building empire in Saudi Arabia and when, in 1968, he died in a helicopter crash – his vast fortune was distributed amongst all his children.

Osama bin Laden stood 6ft 5in tall and married the first of his four wives, a 14-year-old, when he was 17. He had 19 children, of whom his 22-year-old son, Khalid, was killed in the US attack that killed Osama in May 2011.

The Mujahideen

Bin Laden first visited Afghanistan during the early weeks of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) and helped organise the supply of men, arms and money for the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet invaders.

Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in February 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia a hero for having contributed to the Soviets’ defeat. During the late eighties, possibly 1988, bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda, meaning ‘the base’.

Following the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1990 the threat to Saudi Arabia seemed real. Bin Laden offered the Saudi king Mujahideen fighters to help defend the country but the king declined the offer and instead allowed 300,000 US troops onto Saudi soil from where they could attack Iraq. Bin Laden heavily criticised the Saudi king to the point his country of birth revoked his citizenship and had him banished.

Al-Qaeda

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The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln – a summary

On 15 April 1865, in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, died, having been shot in the back of the head the night before by John Wilkes Booth.

Only six days before, Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant, effectively bringing to an end the American Civil War.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes BoothJohn Wilkes Booth (pictured), who originated from a famous family of actors and was himself regarded a fine actor, had lived in the North throughout the war but, a great believer in the institution of slavery, his loyalties lay firmly with the Confederate South.

In March 1865 Booth had hatched a plan to kidnap the president but the plan came to nothing. However, following Lee’s surrender, Booth’s determination to punish the man he saw as responsible for the war and the ending of slavery hardened.

On hearing that on the evening of April 14, Good Friday, Lincoln would be at the Ford’s Theatre watching a performance of the farce, Our American Cousin by British playwright Tom Taylor, Booth quickly devised a new plan. Together with two companions, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, Booth planned a triple assassination – of the president, the Vice-President, Andrew Johnston, and Secretary of State, William Seward.

Come 10 pm, the agreed time, the three men went to work. Atzerodt, however, backed out whilst Powell broke into the home of Seward and attacked the Secretary of State with a knife. Seward survived but bore the facial scars for the rest of his life.

Ford’s Theatre

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