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Richard Knott

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Second World War

‘The Trio’ begins…


The opening of Richard Knott’s book about war correspondents in World War 2:

1 copy of ‘The Trio’ can currently be won on Goodreads!

 

In the middle of August 1943, a small group of war correspondents arrived in the hilltop town of Taormina on the island of Sicily.  There were three of them – Christopher Buckley, Alexander Clifford and Alan Moorehead – and they worked for three London newspapers: The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express and the Daily Mail.  They had been drawn together by the shared demands of a dangerous job, the familiarity of living cheek-by-jowl in the open air of the North African desert, and the recognition that each of them would be the lesser without the other two.  They had not known each other long – a few eventful years – but, in a world of guns, bombs and frantic movement, their friendship had been accelerated to the point where it bordered on love.  They were known as ‘The Trio.’

On that hot summer’s day they approached Taormina by way of a tree-lined road which passed through shaded verges where wild geraniums grew.  It was a cautious progress prompted by the fact that the Germans had planted scores of mines in the road.   A young peasant woman appeared, clutching a jug of wine and glasses, and offered them a drink.  So began the pleasures of Taormina.  The town was captured ‘in the old style’, the Daily Mail’s Alexander Clifford wrote home to his mother, declaring it to be ‘the most lovely place in the world.’  On that Saturday afternoon the three men slowly climbed ‘the precipitous goat-track’ which led up into the town, watched by the ‘townspeople leaning over the ramparts.’ On one side, far below the red cliffs and rocks,  lay the Mediterranean and, in the distance across the strait, the pale outline of the Italian mainland.  To the north west was ‘the great black lava bulk of Mount Etna.’  It felt like walking into paradise.  By the time the Trio reached the top of the winding path, they were panting for breath and desperately hot, scarcely ready for what greeted them, an excited, enthusiastic mob, and an Italian officer with a fine sense of occasion and a Shakespearian turn of phrase.  ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘we have waited too long for you!’

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Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’ 3: Cyprus, 1946


Another extract from my ‘Posted in Wartime’ (Pen & Sword 2017), this time about the mismatch between the beauty of Cyprus and the plight of Jewish ‘illegal immigrants’…

 

Later that autumn Donald drove into the mountains, to a resort near the summit of Mount Olympus, at the wheel of a grandly proportioned Chevrolet staff-car, ‘the sort of thing that Brigadiers and Generals ride around in.’  A man raised his cap as the limousine progressed in stately fashion through a white-stoned village.  ‘Perhaps,’ Donald reflected, ‘he thought we were a hearse.’    A series of hairpin bends slowly revealed clusters of red-roofed villages and churches with ‘sugar-icing belfries’ in the valley below.  Vines clung to the precipitous  hillside.  As they climbed, poplar and beech trees were replaced by pine and juniper.    Donald stopped for sweet Turkish coffee, and bought some apples, before travelling on towards Troodos.  There, through a break in the cloud, ‘round the hoary head of old Olympus’, he could see the whole of the island spread out below him and the blue, glittering sweep of the Mediterranean.  There was no barbed wire to be seen, or camp huts, just the winding road, the island’s coastline and the occasional sprawl of people’s homes.  The weekend over, he drove back to Nicosia along a ‘switchback highway,’ stunned by the island’s beauty, its tree-clad hills, the golden sunset, and ‘the intense rose and purple of the hills which shared the afterglow’ as twilight fell.  Back in the valley floor, speeding towards Nicosia, he soon began to think of what lay ahead, rather than the idyll of the past few days, and his return to the camp was as dispiriting as he feared.  Officers in the mess were huddled ‘around the blazing hearth in an atmosphere of choking cigarette smoke,’ and when night fell it brought the first chill of autumn.  Soon after, 850 more Jewish ‘illegal immigrants’ arrived by sea.

Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’ 2. – London to Land’s End, 1943


Cecil Beaton sets out for India in late 1943 to work for the Ministry of Information – from Chapter 11…

 

The departure from a cold, bleak Paddington station was inauspicious and Beaton was glad to stop en route at Lord Berners’ exotic country house near Farringdon in Wiltshire.  The next day he flew on to Land’s End where he was obliged to settle for a frustrating wait, only brightened by the dazzling good looks of the Canadian pilot who was to fly them south.  Eventually the Dakota was cleared for take-off but crashed almost immediately, a tongue of flame licking through the cabin before the whole aircraft became swathed in a dense cloud of thick orange smoke.  With an explosion likely, it was necessary to get out of the aircraft as soon as possible and Cecil found himself by the open door,  observing others on board jumping out into the darkness.  It was clearly better than burning to death, but there was no knowing how far he might fall….

What happened next?  Find out in my book Posted in Wartime’ (Pen & Sword).

Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’: 1. Cairo


Cairo was a kind of wartime Clapham Junction, people constantly passing through on their slow journey to some posting far from home.  Almost all the main protagonists of my book Posted in Wartime were there at some time or other, occasionally on the same day.  The two in this extract are a good example.  The date is early 1945…

Donald Macdonald arrived in Cairo soon after the assassination of Lord Moyne.  I like to think that he and Jack might unwittingly have passed each other on an Egyptian street, though clearly not in one of the places in the city where ‘Other Ranks’ were unwelcome or forbidden.  To Donald, after weeks at sea, and years of blackout darkness, Egypt’s extravagant lights and riotous noise were a revelation.  Everything about Cairo was a shock to the system, be it the ‘utterly oriental’ railway station – ‘ yellow ochre in colour, with turrets, battlements and grilles, it might be a sultan’s palace;’ the continual hooting of horns; the Nile ‘busy with feluccas and the old paddle steamers’; the street Arabs who ‘actually cultivated Glasgow accents,’ the better to ingratiate themselves with the troops; the city streets ‘strewn with orange skins, loud with street cries, (and) the drone of tramways.’

 

Posted in Wartime by Richard Knott (Pen & Sword, 2017)

‘After a bad war…’


My book Posted in Wartime includes at the outset a quotation from Annette Kobak’s excellent book Joe’s War: ‘After a bad war… the officers stammer and the ranks become mute.’  My father was emphatically ‘other ranks’ and ‘Posted’ explores his silence.  This is an extract from the book’s opening:

I had always believed that he was a bespoke tailor before the war, living in the English Midlands, an ordinary man plying an unremarkable trade in one of England’s less green and pleasant towns.  More than six years after he died, the publication of the 1939 Register revealed him to be a ‘Forge Labourer.  Shell Factory.’  It was, dare I say it, a bombshell.  That revelation did not, however, alter the basic question: how different, I wondered,  would his overseas service have been from others like him; and, more tellingly perhaps, how much of a contrast would the experience of the more celebrated have been in similarly distant situations?  At much the same time as I was contemplating that comparison, I was loaned substantial bundles of letters written by two men whose war involved long journeys and prolonged absences from home.  Their evidence begged the question which would not go away: why would some write at such length while my father seemingly remained so silent?  Those letters and my father’s reluctance to communicate comprise a major strand in this book.  Woven into that story are the wartime experiences of three celebrities for whom the war also meant periods of exile: the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton; the playwright Noël Coward; and the traveller and writer Freya Stark.

 

Middle East Posting: Jack Knott and Freya Stark


 

Compared to some, my father Jack was an intrepid traveller, thinking nothing of driving through the night to Portugal or Austria in the post-war years.  But his love of the road was of a different order to Freya Stark’s who always assumed that any journey was possible, and a God-given right.  Perhaps that difference reflected their disparate backgrounds: hers – exotic, cosmopolitan, comfortable; Jack’s – urban, grey, short-lived, and narrow; Freya brought up in an artist’s sprawling house near Dartmoor, its grounds thick with rhododendrons; and my orphaned father from his Black Country two-up, two-down, with its weedy yard and outside privy.  She regarded the wider world as hers to explore; he, though, would have chosen to see the war out in gloomy boredom in some obscure RAF station in the English Home Counties.  That was all to change in 1942 when Jack was posted to the Middle East.

 

Did their paths ever cross?  It’s certainly possible.  Was he perhaps part of her police protection on one of the occasions when she passed through Habbaniya?  One thing is certain: Freya understood exactly why she was in Arabia, writing in her diary towards the end of March 1942, that ‘Hitler must make for oil or die.’  Jack was not a man to keep a diary, or care about the bigger picture.   He was there simply because his luck had run out and some miserable bugger behind a comfortable desk had decided that Jack Knott’s war would not be complete without taking in some years in the desert sun, and, before that, a long sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

Another extract from ‘Posted in Wartime‘ (Pen & Sword, March 2017); the quotation from Freya Stark is from ‘Dust in the Lion’s Paw’, page 129.

 

‘You want to be careful with family history…’


‘You want to be careful with all this family history,’ Jack mumbled.  ‘You never know what you might find out.’  It was only much later that it occurred to me that that was precisely the point, the very purpose of research, to lay bare what had been hidden.  What on earth could I uncover that mattered so much?  Moreover, his dismissive resistance was guaranteed to have exactly the opposite effect from the one he wanted.  Was there some family secret that he was set on erasing from sight?  What if his taciturn defensiveness about the war was the result not of those miserable wartime postings, but because of something closer to home,  a painful memory of what had happened in his absence?  My brother was sure he could recall a uniformed man about the house, someone who was decidedly not our father.   Was he Canadian?  Or American?  ‘I was too young to realise any deep significance,’ Peter said, ‘and in any case it may have been entirely innocent.’  He remembered an idyllic day on the river, mother laughing and a stranger rowing with studied elegance.  There was a photograph he had seen – since lost – of our mother, smiling and carefree, under a spreading tree in the garden, with a man in air-force blue – a stranger to us both, but evidently not to her.  He even remembered the man’s name – Ron.   I joked about changing my name to Ronson and we laughed, uneasily, wondering whether this was a bit too close to the truth – and what else we didn’t know about our parents.

 

Another extract from ‘Posted in Wartime’, published this month in the UK by Pen & Sword.

Jack of Arabia: why the secrecy?


The original title of ‘Posted in Wartime’ was Jack of Arabia.  Jack, my father, served in the RAF during World War 2 but carefully avoided talking about his experiences during the four years he was overseas.  After he died I wanted to explore where he went and why he was so secretive about it.  There was a further mystery: was my father actually back in England in time after the war to be my father?!   That was where the book began.  He left no letters at all (although a lot of photographs) and when I was given two extensive sets of letters written by others who had spent much time abroad, I decided to write a book which related their lives to my father’s, their sustained correspondence with his silence. Soon after I became intrigued about how the lives of celebrated exiles – like Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and Freya Stark – compared.  The book stitches the six of them together, uncovering in the process some unexpected connections.  For example, there was the day midway through the war when my father and Noel Coward’s paths crossed…

‘Posted in Wartime’ – What’s It About?


‘Wartime exile then is a key theme in this book; it is what connects the six principal characters, both the celebrated and the unknown.  ‘Posted in Wartime’ has a double meaning of course: the first of which refers to the role and nature of written correspondence during the war – the impact, for example, of censorship and stretched lines of communication, the slow and unreliable postal service on which those sent abroad relied for news and reassurance.  Even, presumably, my tight-lipped father.   The second meaning concerns the despatching of  individuals to far corners of the world, sent hither and thither to fight, police, drive transports, administrate, liaise, or entertain.  That process was often the result of some anonymous civil servant’s whim or staff officer’s hunch which duly consigned someone to a rattling, cold Liberator or DC3, or a transcontinental train; or, more likely, some rusty troop-ship beating its way from one fly-blown port to another.’

That’s it basically.  The book is concerned with the following key issues/newsworthy items: what wartime service does to people; the nature of exile; how people’s background determines the kind of war one faced; and how wartime service changes lives forever.  There are a number of very topical locations in the book as well, including Iraq and Palestine.

In addition there are a significant number of interesting people who appear within the book, including:   Tony Benn, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Greta Garbo and Evelyn Waugh.  I’ll provide some more information tomorrow about the book’s main characters, including my mysterious father!

 

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