Mikhail Gorbachev and the Cold War – a brief summary

Born 2 March 1931, Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union. 

The Youngest First Secretary

Mikhail Gorbachev was an up and coming star in the Communist Party and, following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, became a protégé of the new Party leader, Yuri Andropov. But on Andropov’s death in February 1984, the post of First Secretary fell, not to Gorbachev, but to the ageing Konstantin Chernenko. However, Gorbachev spread his influence further so when Chernenko died after only thirteen months as leader, the post finally fell to him. Aged 54, Gorbachev was the youngest First Secretary in Soviet history, and the first to be born after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

His youth and progressive ideas alarmed the Communist hardliners and traditionalists, whose fears were confirmed when Gorbachev ushered in a reformist programme, and introduced into the political lexicon the words perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness). The Soviet’s system inept handling of the Chernobyl crisis highlighted the need for reform.

“I like Mr Gorbachev”

The international community welcomed the appointment of a man who seemed open and not ruled by cloak and dagger diplomacy and mistrust. Margaret Thatcher said of him, “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”

Immediately on coming to power Gorbachev was proposing a reduction in the number of nuclear arms held between the superpowers. In November 1985 Gorbachev met US president, Ronald Reagan, for the first time. Reagan, who had referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”, was also impressed by the new man in the Kremlin.

In January 1986 Gorbachev made what is known as his ‘January Proposal’ by proposing a radical strategy for removing all nuclear weapons by 2000. Another meeting with Reagan in October 1986 brought this deadline forward to 1996.

Through their several meetings Reagan and Gorbachev helped ease international tension. Despite their ideological and cultural differences, the two men build a rapport that was to have a real and lasting effect on the ending of the Cold War.

“We can’t go on living like this”

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New History books: Jan-Feb 2016

My primary historic interest is very much the twentieth century, so there is a bias here.
Nonetheless, here are 12 top reads published in January or February 2016…

If you have any suggestions for any additions, let me know.

(Thumbnail click for Amazon).

The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich
The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich  Lara Feigel
As the Second World War neared its conclusion, Germany was a nation reduced to rubble: 3.6 million German homes had been destroyed leaving 7.5 million people homeless; an apocalyptic landscape of flattened cities and desolate wastelands.

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949
Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949  David Cesarani
This moving and dramatic account captures the fate of the Jews, the horror and the heroism, in their own words. Resting on decades of scholarship, it is compelling, authoritative, and profoundly disturbing. David Cesarani sadly died in October 2015.

The Romanovs: 1613-1918
The Romanovs: 1613-1918  Simon Sebag Montefiore
The Romanovs were the most successful dynasty of modern times, ruling a sixth of the world’s surface. How did one family turn a war-ruined principality into the world’s greatest empire? And how did they lose it all?

Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War
Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War  Ian Buruma
A priceless record of an assimilated Jewish family living in England throughout the upheavals of the twentieth century and a moving portrait of a loving couple separated by war. By using their own words, Ian Buruma has created a spellbinding homage to the sustaining power of a family’s love and devotion through very dark days.

In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond
In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond  Robert D. Kaplan
A riveting journey through one of Europe’s frontier countries—and a potent examination of the forces that will determine Europe’s fate in the postmodern age.

The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History
The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe’s History (hardback only)  Peter H. Wilson
In this strikingly ambitious book, Peter H. Wilson explains how the empire worked. It is not a chronological history, but an attempt to convey to readers the Empire’s unique nature, why it was so important and how it changed over its existence.

1956, The World in Revolt
1956: The World in Revolt Simon Hall
Vibrantly and sympathetically told, this is the story of one year – a capsule history of exhilarating triumphs and shattering defeats around the world.

The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women's Lives
The Button Box: Lifting the Lid on Women’s Lives  Lynn Knight
The Button Box traces the story of women at home and in work from pre-First World War domesticity, through the first clerical girls in silk blouses, to the delights of beading and glamour in the thirties to short skirts and sexual liberation in the sixties.

24 Historic Oddities and Strange Events: Collection
24 Historic Oddities and Strange Events: Collection  Sabine Baring-Gould
This collection presents 24 essays, each of them based on historical evidence, about different events, strange and sometimes unbelievable.

History's People: Personalities and the Past
History’s People: Personalities and the Past  Margaret MacMillan
What difference do individuals make to history? Are we all swept up in the great forces like industrialisation or globalisation that change the world? Clearly not: real people-leaders in particular-and the decisions that they make change our lives irrevocably, whether in deciding to go to war or not, decisive tactical choices made in the heat of battle or changing the economic fortunes of countries.

Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The history you weren't taught in school
Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The history you weren’t taught in school  Dominic Selwood
A brilliantly fun and informative read. Dominic Selwood has taken the juiciest bits of history from the past two thousand years and put them together in one marvellous volume.

The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria
The Morning They Came for Us  Janine di Giovanni
In May 2012, Janine di Giovanni travelled to Syria, marking the beginning of a long relationship with the country, as she began reporting from both sides of the conflict, witnessing its descent into one of the most brutal, internecine conflicts in recent history. Drawn to the stories of ordinary people caught up in the fighting, Syria came to consume her every moment, her every emotion.

See also New Historical Fiction, Jan-Feb 2016.

New Historical Fiction: Jan-Feb 2016

My primary historic interest is very much the twentieth century, so there is a bias here.
Nonetheless, here are 12 top reads published in January or February 2016…

If you have any suggestions for any additions, let me know.

(Thumbnail click for Amazon).

The Moonlit Garden
The Moonlit Garden  Corina Bomann
Lilly Kaiser had come to terms with her solitary, uncomplicated life after becoming a young widow. So when a stranger delivers an old violin to her Berlin antiques shop and tells Lilly it belongs to her, she’s completely bewildered. Why should she be the one to inherit such an exquisite instrument?

But You Did Not Come Back
But You Did Not Come Back Marceline Loridan-Iven
In But You Did Not Come Back, Marceline writes a letter to the father she would never know as an adult, to the man whose death enveloped her whole life. Her testimony is a haunting and challenging reminder of one of the worst crimes humanity has ever seen, and an affecting personal story of a woman whose life was shattered and never totally rebuilt.

The Noise of Time
The Noise of Time  Julian Barnes
In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.

The Ballroom
The Ballroom Anna Hope
Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, THE BALLROOM is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

The North Water: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016
The North Water Ian McGuire
A 19th-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp and highly original tale that grips like a thriller.

If I Could Tell You
If I Could Tell You Elizabeth Wilhide
Suffolk, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well-ordered life. Once a promising musician, she now has a handsome husband who pays the bills, a young son she adores and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfortable home. Then on the eve of war something unexpected happens. She falls in love.

Colours Other Than Blue
Colours Other Than Blue Anthony Glavin
A canny, captivating, humorous portrayal of a Boston-Irish woman’s struggle to find her feet, love, and a quotient of tranquillity in 1980s dirty ol’ Dublin.

The Yid: A Novel
The Yid: A Novel  Paul Goldberg
A debut novel of daring originality, The Yid guarantees that you will never think of Stalinist Russia, Shakespeare, theatre, Yiddish or history the same way again.

What Lies Between Us  Nayomi Munaweera
In the idyllic hill country of Sri Lanka, a young girl grows up with her loving family; but even in the midst of this paradise, terror lurks in the shadows. When tragedy strikes, she and her mother must seek safety by immigrating to America.

Toward the Sea of Freedom (The Sea of Freedom Trilogy Book 1)
Toward the Sea of Freedom  Sarah Lack
In mid-nineteenth-century Ireland, charming Kathleen and dashing Michael harbor secrets and dreams. Imagining a life beyond the kitchen and fields of the wealthy family they both work for, they plot to leave their homeland, marry, and raise the child Kathleen is secretly carrying. The luck of the Irish, however, is not on their side.

Midnight in Berlin
Midnight in Berlin James MacManus
Berlin, 1938. Newly-appointed military attaché Noel Macrae and his extrovert wife Primrose arrive at the British Embassy. Prime Minister Chamberlain is intent on placating Nazi Germany, but Macrae is less so. Convinced Hitler can be stopped by other means than appeasement, he soon discovers he is not the only dissenting voice in the Embassy and finds that some senior officers in the German military are prepared to turn against the Fuhrer.

The Edge of Lost
The Edge of Lost  Kristina McMorris
On a cold night in October 1937, searchlights cut through the darkness around Alcatraz. A prison guard’s only daughter–one of the youngest civilians who lives on the island–has gone missing. Tending the warden’s greenhouse, convicted bank robber Tommy Capello waits anxiously. Only he knows the truth about the little girl’s whereabouts, and that both of their lives depend on the search’s outcome.

See also list of new history non-fiction, Jan-Feb 2016.

The Cleverest General: the Life and Death of Sir George Pomeroy Colley

When I was a child my parents had on their bookshelves an old red-bound nineteenth century tome called The Life of Sir George Pomeroy Colley by one W.F.Butler, published 1899.

Sir George Pomeroy Colley was a Victorian general who met his death on 27 February 1881, whilst fighting the Boers in South Africa.

(The author of the book, William Francis Butler, was the husband to the famous military painter, Lady Elizabeth Butler).

The title fascinated me because here was a book about a man that shared my family name, and an important one at that (he had to be important to have had a book written about him). I always assumed we were related because we were both Colleys. And, to add to the excitement, he was a ‘Sir’. Perhaps some great-great-grandfather.

To this day I still don’t know. It might be just a coincidence of name but then why would my father have this book on his shelves rather than a more famous Victorian general?

Colley was an all-round clever man and well thought of. He passed through his military school with the highest ever recorded marks, was fluent in various languages and was a dab hand with the paint brush. But like many a British general of the time, he underestimated his enemy – and that proved his undoing.

The First Boer War

In 1877 the British had annexed the South African state of the Transvaal, and two years later made it a crown colony. The Boers naturally resented this, and in December 1880 revolted. At the time there were only 1,700 British troops dotted around the Transvaal in small, isolated garrisons. Colley, recently appointed governor in neighbouring Natal, was ordered to deal with the situation.

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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.


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The Battle of the Bulge – a quick summary

16 December 1944 saw the start of the German ‘Ardennes Offensive’ (the Battle of the Bulge). It was to be the US’ biggest pitched battle in their history, involving 600,000 American troops. The Allied forces were advancing towards Germany, pushing the Germans back town by town and believing the war to be almost won. But this was Hitler’s last attempt to stop the momentum. His aim was to advance through the wooded area of the Ardennes in Luxembourg and Belgium and cut the Allied armies in two and then push on towards the port of Antwerp, a vital Allied stronghold.

The Allies knew there was a build-up of German troops and equipment around the Ardennes but never believed Hitler was capable of such a bold initiative. Only the day before the attack, the British commander, Bernard Montgomery, told Dwight D Eisenhower, the Allies’ Supreme Commander, that the Germans would be incapable of staging ‘major offensive operations’. Captured Germans spilled the plans but their information was ignored. Thus, the attack came as a complete surprise.


Thick snow and heavy fog prevented the Americans from employing their airpower and the German advance of 250,000 men forced a dent in the American line (hence battle of the ‘Bulge’). Germans, dressed in American uniforms and driving captured US jeeps, caused confusion and within five days the Germans had surrounded almost 20,000 Americans at the crossroads of Bastogne. Their situation was desperate but when the German commander gave his American equivalent, Major-General Anthony McAuliffe, the chance to surrender, McAuliffe answered with just the one word – ‘Nuts’.

US soldiers near the town of St Vith were not so lucky and 8,000 of them surrendered – the largest surrender of US troops since the American Civil War 80 years before. Elsewhere, the Germans taunted the Americans, using loudspeakers to ask, ‘How would you like to die for Christmas?’

‘Lovely weather for killing Germans’

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The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior – a summary

On 11 November 1920, two years after the armistice that ended the First World War, the Unknown Warrior was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey in a deeply sombre ceremony that caught the mood of a nation, still reeling in grief following four years of war.

In 1916, the vicar of Margate in Kent, the Reverend David Railton, (a recipient of the Military Cross) was stationed as a padre on the Western Front near the French village of Armentières on the Belgian border when he noticed a temporary grave with the inscription, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Moved by this simple epitaph, he initially suggested the notion to the British wartime commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig that one fallen man, unknown in name or rank, should represent all those who died during the war who had no known grave. In August 1920, having received no response from Haig, Railton muted the idea to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, who, in turn, passed it onto Buckingham Palace.

George VInitially, the king, George V (pictured), was not enthusiastic about the proposal; not wanting to re-open the healing wound of national grief but was persuaded into the idea by the prime minister, David Lloyd-George.

On 7 November 1920, the remains of six (some sources state four) unidentified British soldiers were exhumed – one each from six different battlefields (Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, Somme and Ypres). The six corpses were transported to a chapel in the village of St Pol, near Ypres, where they were each laid out on a stretcher and covered by the Union flag. There, in the company of a padre (not Rev Railton), a blindfolded officer entered the chapel and touched one of the bodies.

The following morning, chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service for the chosen soldier. Placed in a plain coffin, the Unknown Warrior was taken back on a train to England via Boulogne. At Boulogne, the coffin was kept overnight in the town’s castle, a guard of honour keeping vigil.

A British Warrior

On the morning of the 9 November, the coffin was placed in a larger casket made from wood, three inches thick, taken from an oak tree in the gardens of London’s Hampton Court Palace. Mounted on the side of the coffin, a 16th century sword from the collection at the Tower of London especially chosen by George V. Draped over the casket, the Union flag, which had been used by Rev Railton as an altar cloth during the war. (The flag, known as the Padre’s Flag, now hangs in St George’s Chapel within Westminster Abbey). The coffin plate bore the inscription: ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.

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The Munich Putsch – a brief outline

During the early 1920s Adolf Hitler became convinced that the way to power lay in revolution. Revolution had brought power to the Bolsheviks in Russia and had almost done the same for the Communists in Germany during the chaos of the immediate post-First World War period. Hitler watched, with fascination and admiration, as Mussolini took over power in Italy following his March on Rome in October 1922.

And so in Munich, Hitler planned his overthrow, or putsch, of the Bavarian government followed by a ‘March on Berlin’. The date set, Sunday 11 November 1923, was an auspicious anniversary – five years on from Germany’s defeat in the war, and, on a more practical level, being a Sunday, a day when the armed forces and police were on reserve strength. (Pictured is Hitler and his Munich entourage).

A Beer Hall in Munich

But when Hitler learnt about, and indeed was invited to, a public meeting in a Munich beer hall on the evening of 8 November, hosted by government figures such as Gustav Ritter von Kahr, leader of the Bavarian Government, and the Bavarian chiefs of police and army, the opportunity was too perfect to pass by. At his side were Hermann Goring and Rudolf Hess.

The National Revolution Has Begun

As the meeting progressed, Hitler’s armed corps of bodyguards, the SA, silently surrounded the building. With the bulk of his men in place, others noisily barged into the beer hall, interrupting proceedings and shouting ‘Heil Hitler’.

A machine gun was hauled in and the audience, fearing a massacre, cowered and hid beneath their chairs. Hitler took his cue and brandishing a revolver, charged to the front, leapt onto a chair and, firing two shots into the ceiling, declared that he was the new leader of the German government and that the ‘National revolution (had) begun’. He then forced the three men on the stage, Kahr and his chiefs, into a side room, apologised to them for the inconvenience, and promised them prestigious jobs in his new Germany.

Returning to the stage, Hitler delivered a rousing speech, winning over his audience who applauded ecstatically. They applauded with equal enthusiasm when Hitler’s famous co-conspirator, General Erich von Ludendorff, made his appearance. Ludendorff, as the joint head of Germany’s military during the First World War, was well-known and respected, and Hitler hoped that with Ludendorff as his mascot it would win him support. It seemed to be working.

Ludendorff’s task was to persuade Kahr and his chiefs to support the revolution and join the March on Berlin. After some reluctance the three men eventually acquiesced.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, the SA, led by Hitler’s confidant, Ernst Rohm, was successfully securing vital strongpoints. Hitler, his speech done and his audience converted, left the beer hall to check on progress.

The Gullible Old General

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The Sinking of Hospital ship Armenia

On the 7 November 1941, the Soviet hospital ship, the Armenia, was torpedoed and sunk by the Nazis. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers perished on a ship designed for not more than a thousand. A comparatively modest 1,514 died on the Titanic (1912) and 1,198 on the Lusitania (1915) yet the sinking of the Armenia on 7 November 1941 is all but lost to history.

Armenia shipSunk in the Black Sea, the exact location of the wreck is still a mystery and for years, the question remained – was a hospital ship, identified by a Red Cross, a legitimate target?

A stricken city

Designed for 980 passengers and crew, over seven times that number had surged onto the ship in the Crimean port of Yalta that fateful night of 7 November 1941. The reason was blind panic. The Nazi war machine, which had invaded the Soviet Union less than five months before, had overrun the Crimean peninsula and was bearing down on Yalta. People expected the city to fall within a matter of hours. The only possible means of escape for its stricken population was by sea – the roads outside the city having been sealed off by the Germans.

Built in Leningrad in 1928, the double-decker Armenia began its career as a passenger ship. In August 1941, following the outbreak of war, it was pressed into military service as a hospital ship. The day before its sinking, the Armenia had left the port of Sevastopol having taken civilian evacuees and the occupants of several military hospitals. Crammed with up to 5,000 passengers, the ship made for Tuapse, a town on the northeast coast of the Black Sea, about 250 miles east. But the captain, Captain Vladimir Plaushevsky, received orders to pick up extra people from nearby Yalta.

More civilians and wounded soldiers, some severely, crammed onto the ship amid scenes of chaos and utter panic. No register was taken, no names recorded of these additional two thousand passengers. Captain Plaushevsky then received orders to remain in port until escort vessels were at hand to chaperon him out. The delay frustrated the captain, he had to get going, they were cutting it too fine.


The next morning, seven o’clock, the Armenia finally set sail, escorted by two armed boats and two fighter planes.

The escorts were unable to prevent a German torpedo bomber, a Heinkel He-111, swooping-in low and firing two torpedoes at the ship. It was 11.29 am, the ship was 25 miles into its journey. The first torpedo missed but the second one scored a direct hit, splitting the ship into two. The Armenia sunk within just four minutes. All but eight of the 7,000 passengers died, the survivors being picked up by a patrol boat.

The tragedy lay in the postponement of its departure. If Captain Plaushevsky had not lost those precious hours, the ship may well have arrived at its intended destination.

Lying at a depth of about 480 metres, the location of the Armenia wreck remains unknown despite the efforts of oceanic explorer, Robert Ballard, discoverer of several historical wrecks including the aforementioned Titanic and Lusitania.

A legitimate target?

Was the Armenia a legitimate target? As a hospital ship, it was clearly marked with the Red Cross, both on its sides and, clearly visible to the German pilots, on the deck. But it had a military escort, and it had two of its own anti-aircraft guns, so under the rules of war, it was a perfectly acceptable target.

But this doesn’t detract from the catastrophe of its sinking and today we should remember, if only momentarily, the forgotten tragedy of the Armenia.

Women on the TrainRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s novella, set during World War Two and Paris in 1968, The Woman on the Train, is now available in paperback and ebook formats.

Also, gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century.

Join the mailing list for digests of history articles or new releases by Rupert Colley: New Releases List 



Erwin Rommel – and his forced suicide

‘We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.’

The words were Winston Churchill’s and the great general he was referring to was Erwin Rommel.

The Desert Fox

Born 15 November 1891, Erwin Rommel was, as Churchill suggests, respected as a master tactician, the supreme strategist who, in 1940, helped defeat France and the Low Countries and then found lasting fame when sent by Hitler to North Africa where, commanding the Afrika Korps, he earned the sobriquet, the Desert Fox. Germany, his nation, adored him, his troops loved him, Hitler treasured him and his enemies respected him. His Afrika Korps was never charged with any war crimes and prisoners of war were treated humanely. When his only son, Manfred, proposed joining the Waffen SS, Rommel forbade it.

In June 1944 Rommel was sent to Northern France to help co-ordinate the defence against the Allied Normandy Invasion but was wounded a month later when a RAF plane strafed his car. Rommel returned home to Germany to convalesce.

The July Bomb Plot

Meanwhile, on 20 July 1944, Hitler survived an assassination attempt in his Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, the July Bomb Plot, perpetuated by Nazi officers who hoped to shorten the war with his removal. Hitler, although shaken, suffered only superficial injury and those responsible were soon rounded up and executed. Rommel, although not involved and actively against any plan to assassinate Hitler, did support the idea of having him removed from power. Once his association with the plotters, however tenuous, came to light, his downfall was inevitable and swift.

On 14 October 1944, Hitler dispatched two generals to Rommel’s home to offer the fallen Field Marshal a bleak choice. Manfred, aged 15, was at home with his mother when the call came. He waited nervously as the three men talked in private, and then as his father went upstairs to speak to his mother. Finally Rommel spoke to his son and told him of Hitler’s deal.

Manfred’s story

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