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…
‘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!
One summer we took an Amtrak train across America, from New York to San Francisco. Some nights we slept on board, while the train roared west, blowing its forlorn whistle as it passed lonely crossings in the darkened plains. Standard sleeping accommodation was minimal – our cat, we joked, had more room in her luxury quarters at her cats’ hotel ( ‘the Ritz’ as we called it.) We had upgraded (wise move!) though lying in the top bunk, nose inches from the carriage roof, it was no easy ride. The blanket encased me like a straitjacket, while the descent down the ladder in the middle of the night, as the train rocked and rolled, was fraught with hazard. An expedition to the ‘bathroom’ was not readily undertaken.
In the early morning, approaching Los Angeles, we breakfasted with two tartan-shirted ancients in caps: the restaurant car attendants insisted on the passengers socialising – the protocol was ‘Side by side!’ One ancient was hard of hearing, while both, it turned out, were in their nineties. Brothers, they had been back to Kansas for a college reunion. ‘Who slept on the top bunk?’ I asked empathetically. ‘Me,’ said the 90 year old, ‘He made me − I’m his kid brother.’ The older brother was 95 and had flown Catalina flying boats in World War 2. Daniel Boone was a distant ancestor. They were amazing company: charming, witty and so alive. Not for the first time, we were glad of the Amtrak custom that required eating with strangers.
Little seems to have changed on the night Pullman in America over sixty years, though our breakfast companions would have been young men then. The sleeping arrangements were the same: ‘one can book a “drawing room”… a private compartment with a sleeping berth, or a “compartment” which is smaller and private, or a “section”… top and bottom curtained bunks.’ So wrote Jenny Nicholson, the daughter of Robert Graves, on board the Pullman from Charleston to Palm Beach one night in March 1947. ‘Towards bedtime,’ she wrote in The Sickle and the Stars, a steward ‘arrived, and with a swift series of pushes, pulls, heaves and hitches the alcove was converted into the top and bottom berth.’ Like me, her dining companion was chosen by the sassy dining-car attendant. She ‘shared a table in the “diner” with a boy of twelve wearing plus fours who was behaving with proud assurance’. Reading her description, I felt I was sitting at the next table, looking out at America in the morning light, transported across both a continent and time.
I had come to The Sickle and the Stars by way of Nicholson’s husband. Alexander Clifford was a war correspondent whose account of the north African campaign, Three Against Rommel, I had read with admiration. He and Alan Moorehead were two of the most significant correspondents of the 1939-1945 conflict. They had first met in the Bar Basque in St Jean-de-Luz in 1938, both drawn to this corner of France by the Civil War over the border. It was an inauspicious first meeting, but when they bumped into each other in Athens months later, a night of ouzo turned wariness to liking. As Moorehead later wrote, they ‘agreed to continue our travels together’.
Once the world war broke out, the two of them sought to ensure that they were posted together to Cairo. In Moorehead’s poignant memoir A Late Education he describes the plan which would exploit the rivalry between their respective newspapers: ‘Alex would wire his paper: “Moorehead of the Express proceeding to Cairo stop shall I follow?’ while I warned my people that Clifford of the Mail was setting off in the same direction…. Automatically the telegrams from London came back: “Follow Clifford,” “Follow Moorehead”, and Alex and I booked our passages to Cairo’. They flew by flying boat, alighting at one point in Suda Bay, Crete, where the steward opened the aircraft door allowing the newspapermen to gaze down ‘into sparkling water that had the same colour and transparency as the sky.’ The sun’s rays illuminated deep water, shoals of fish flickered around the flying boat’s silver hull and Clifford and Moorehead stripped off and ‘dived straight into the water from the open doorway’. They became, if not inseparable, then the closest of friends. In the desert they played bridge, talked under the stars while drinking whisky nightcaps, stood on the roofs of armoured cars to watch desperate tank battles. Sharing tents, transport, danger and conversation, heat, flies, bitter winters, sandstorms, and demanding editors back in London, their friendship was a kind of marriage.
Moorehead’s despatches during the war were prolific, widely read and made him famous. My father-in-law was sufficiently excited by his presence on board a Paris-bound Dakota flight in October 1945 that he made a point of noting the great man’s presence in his navigator’s logbook. After the war was over and wanting to establish himself as a great novelist, Moorehead struggled with his writing until he found his niche. Clifford was to be denied the time to make a new career: The Sickle and the Stars was one of only two books he wrote after 1945. He had married Jenny Nicholson that year and, two years later, they both set out in opposite directions – she to the United States and he to Russia – for a two month period, charged with sending despatches to their respective newspapers. They also wrote long, wide-eyed letters to each other describing what they saw. The book is the drawing together of that correspondence. There is little sense of passion for each other in the writing, but the picture they construct of two civilisations poised on the brink of the final world war is remarkable: Clifford comments at one point about Jenny’s letters that it is as if she is on Mars.
They both write elegantly, while the contrast between the different worlds they inhabit is stark. Jenny’s Pullman journeys across the States are echoed by Alex’s Russian train which was ‘pure Anna Karenina … art nouveau brasswork … pink silk curtains and shaded lamps everywhere and a communal samovar at the end of each coach.’ Russia was flat and endless, heavy with snow-bound melancholy. America was bright and noisy, its citizens warm and hospitable, and expecting a war with ‘the Ruskies’ sooner rather than later.
Jenny Nicholson flits from one social whirl to the next, and travels by plane, train and car with an unbounded energy. Men flirt with her. She likes drugstores − ‘remarkably attractive corner places where they sell everything from a fried egg to a hot water bottle.’ America! Juke boxes, chocolate sundaes, Oklahoma and Annie Get Your Gun, … ‘the lighted hulk of Brooklyn’ and the ‘mysterious silky waters of the Hudson’, bubble gum – ‘a new form of chewing gum which you can blow out of your mouth like a soap bubble. Very nasty.’ The US is bright, shining and efficient, or so Clifford is persuaded by his wife’s bubbling account. She is wary though of some aspects of American life: advertising is regarded with great suspicion: ‘With a well-advertised campaign you would persuade all the mothers in the country …to feed their children on a diet of orange peel and vodka.’
Nicholson’s journey takes her across a rolling Atlantic bound for New York (she is distinctly queasy and wonders why ‘If Britain rules the waves – why doesn’t she rule them straight?’); then Washington (‘gentle and pretty and I wish you were here’); and on to South Carolina and Palm Beach. In New Orleans she hears a ‘roguish businessman from Pittsburgh’ tell a ‘spinsterish-looking lady…: “Now we don’t ever need to go to Europe – can’t be nothing gives in Europe any better’n we’re seeing tonight – this is genuwine Paris – take it from me – I was in Paris, France.”’ She heads up the Mississippi to Natchez, then west for Dallas and El Paso. In Los Angeles she visits the film studios and sees Michael Redgrave, Alfred Hitchcock – a friend who sends her red roses, and is seen hard at work on a movie (‘All right, then. How about us making a moving picture?’); and Gregory Peck, her favourite film star who ‘is even more attractive eating a sandwich’. And so, at roughly the same time as Clifford is contemplating a flight to war-battered Stalingrad, she is moving on from Beverley Hills to Salt Lake City and Denver.
Alexander Clifford’s attitude to Russia is wary, cautious, watchful. His flight to Stalingrad he dreads, writing on 12 April, 1947, ‘This may be my last letter to you, if it is true about Russian aeroplane engines never being warmed up, and the pilots being dumpy little ex-schoolmistresses, and freight-loads being simply a matter of testing whether or not the plane will leave the ground.’ For the most part, he remains in Moscow, staying in a tenth floor hotel room – ‘small and clean and bare, with the double windows cemented up for the winter.’ It is cold, expensive and strange. The conference he is attending – of foreign ministers – begins drearily and doesn’t improve; the weather is grim; dinner doesn’t usually happen till eleven at night.
Early in April, Clifford took the night sleeper to Leningrad – it prompted more thoughts of Tolstoy. The sleeping car attendant spoke of the hardship of the city’s siege during the war and held the prevailing Russian view that the west made little serious effort to win it. Post-war propaganda, it seemed, suggested that the British ‘were basically in sympathy with Hitler.’ For someone like Clifford, who travelled ceaselessly in acute discomfort, waiting for mines to explode or the Luftwaffe to sweep in low, this must have been particularly galling.
Sixty four years after Clifford caught the Red Arrow sleeper from Moscow to Leningrad, I followed him, arriving in St Petersburg at a time of the year when the sun scarcely sets. The train from Helsinki was sleek and modern, more Eurostar than Anna Karenina, while the journey was through a remorseless landscape of forests and lakes. In 2011, the Russian border was still marked with wire and watchtowers. I stepped out on the same platform as Clifford, and later stared in awe, like him, at the city’s ‘vast space and magnificence’.
Clifford wrestles too with the nature of communism and what was to become of the world. In Stalingrad he sees, outside his hotel window, a large family living in the ruins of a cellar, its roof long gone, replaced by a web of machine gun belts. Nearby is another family living in a hole covered by the shell of an old taxi-cab. He ends his final letter by noting that Russia knows where it is going and how, while America has no such plan or objectives: ‘she makes a programme of not having a programme.’ The day after Clifford wrote that, Jenny is homeward bound, flying in a BOAC Constellation, looking forward to meeting Alex in London and a life together, a resumed marriage, with no need to write such letters again. She suggests the idea of a book: ‘We seem to have written a great deal to each other in these past months.’
Their book was duly published in January 1949. Its cover is a communistic red, with merged stars and stripes. Jenny Nicholson, pictured on the inside flap, looks pert, glossy-haired, poised – conclusively pretty. Alexander Clifford is in uniform, bespectacled, with a high forehead. He looks unassuming, mild, warm-hearted, and, yes, handsome. You hope for a long, happy life together for them. It was not to be. Clifford died in 1952 of Hodgkin’s disease, while Jenny Nicholson married again – another war correspondent − but also died young. Even the glittering Moorehead was treated cruelly: a stroke denying him the ability to write and talk in the way he once he had.
The Sickle and the Stars provides a bright window on a world where Russians and Americans thought that the next war was just a fleeting moment away. Reading it, I warmed to Clifford’s seriousness and humanity. Having followed his wartime progress, I felt I knew him well. Jenny Nicholson was the surprise − that youthful energy and evident joy in living! I imagine the two of them, each holding a copy of their new book in that spring of 1949, arms around each other and careless of the future. If occasionally they saw dark clouds, they weren’t for their own lives, but for the world. It was just three short years before Alan Moorehead found himself at Clifford’s deathbed: ‘What was there to say except that I loved him?’
Jenny Nicholson and Alexander Clifford’s book The Sickle and the Stars is out of print. If you want more on the two of them, and Alan Moorehead, you’ll find their detailed story in my book The Trio published in 2015 by The History Press.
Journey Among Warriors by Eve Curie
This is the first of an occasional series of book reviews, the focus of which is books that are have faded into undeserved obscurity….
She was the only woman for some three hundred miles in each direction, having arrived in the Libyan desert with Winston’s son, Major Randolph Churchill. It was November 1941. For many miles there was scarcely a bush to crouch behind and when the elegant Mademoiselle Curie needed to answer the call of nature, she had to be driven to an empty patch of desert four miles away. Randolph Churchill, playing the discreet gentleman, turned his back. Eve Curie – daughter of Marie, the discoverer of radium − was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and reading about her as she sat in the north African sunshine hammering away at the typewriter keys, dressed in slacks and a snood, I began to fall under her spell. I imagined the fragrance of French perfume amidst the diesel fumes and dust.
I like to think I would have set out on such a journey with her kind of eagerness, but the truth is that, while I like travelling itself well enough once embarked, I am increasingly reluctant to leave the comforts of home. Eve Curie, by contrast set out from America with a spring in her step, despite the fact that she, a Frenchwoman, was tasked with writing dispatches directly in English for the first time. She packed with markedly more enthusiasm than I do: limited by Pan American Airways to forty-four pounds of luggage in weight, her clunky typewriter, assorted documents and heavy French-English dictionary reduced the allowance to just 29. She packed woollen stockings and underwear for Russia and lightweight gear for the tropics. Woollen slacks and a snood – no hat.
So it was that she sat expectantly on a Pan-Am flying boat in New York harbour on Monday 10 November 1941, waiting for the dawn and take-off. As well as writing a series of despatches from across the world at war, she was also charged with attempting to write her first book in English. Her only other venture into writing a book was a biography of her famous mother and that, Madame Curie, was written in French before the war. Journey Among Warriors – her account of her war correspondent’s life − was also to be her last book, although she lived to a great age. Born in Paris in 1904, Eve Curie died, in New York, in 2007.
Journey Among Warriors is a reassuring presence by my side as I write this. Published in 1943, it is long (522 pages of paper as thin as toilet tissue). The index, mostly of names and places, runs to 18 pages. I read it travelling to Istanbul by train: as we rattled across the Hungarian plain, horses and carts shambling through a flat landscape under an untroubled sky, she was sharing with me a much more intrepid journey. A sombre-coloured map in the inside boards of the book plots her route: west Africa, Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, Teheran, Moscow, Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Chungking – and eventually back again in the spring of 1942.
It is evident that Marie Curie’s reputation is a passport that opens many doors. Eve notes at one point that ‘the name of Curie had helped me in my work’, a fact which didn’t always please her rival correspondents. She was ‘treated by the Russians,’ she quoted one of them as saying, ‘like the Crown Princess.’ In India, for example, she met Gandhi, Nehru, General Wavell, among others; in Russia she visited Tolstoy’s house with a descendant of the great Russian writer. Later, Eve Curie would joke that she was the only one of her immediate family of five who was not awarded the Nobel Prize. She is, nonetheless, a writer who can make you feel that you are travelling with her, sharing the discomforts and danger. She is good on landscape, never failing to describe what she sees from an aircraft window: flying over the Egyptian desert she noted that the lower valley of the Nile ‘was miraculous fertility versus dry desert – it was life versus death’. Flying in a BOAC flying boat from Dubai she describes ‘the translucent Arabian Sea…tinted with colours so magnificent that they seemed false and treacherous, as if they contained poison.’ Over Burma she is uplifted by the sight of the Lashio plateau, surrounded by a circle of hills: ‘it was so beautiful,’ Eve thought, ‘that I felt like staying there all my life… We landed on an airfield of dark, red earth, which looked like dried blood.’
In Russia, she shows early signs of frostbite and her Red Army minder, Lieutenant Liuba Meston, demands that she rub her nose with wool and snow immediately – ‘until it becomes red, until it hurts’. Eve recognises that Liuba would be most anxious she didn’t leave Mother Russia ‘minus my nose’. It is deep in a bleak midwinter, a time so cold that an old lady Eve meets can smile at the prospect of what she calls ‘a real Russian winter. A winter to freeze Russia’s enemies. A winter to freeze Hitler.’
The Russian section of the book is both heart-warming (the indomitable spirit of the nation) and chilling (the bitter Russian winter and the sheer effort of staying alive) and it makes compelling reading. Conditions are tough: the Grand Hotel in Kuybyshev is anything but grand, with the heating not working. Eve puts on ‘an additional sweater’ and sits down at the typewriter at the table, trying to ignore ‘the innumerable stains on the old tablecloth …the noise of the radios, the banging of the doors… the quarrels, the yelling, laughing…’ and the overpowering smell. Flying to Moscow is a spartan experience: ‘the metal seat was cold. The window, dimmed by frost, was cold. Our teeth became cold whenever we spoke, and our frozen breath looked like white steam.’ Opposite is a Russian officer whose ‘jaws were actually shaking’. Eve realised that ‘the Russians were cold too’.
Later, she visits the room where Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina and finds that it had been used until recently as a mess hall by German officers. The windows were broken and stuffed with straw. Elsewhere in the house there were rooms that showed the Germans had tried to set the iconic building alight. Nearby, grouped around the writer’s tomb, were 83 German graves half buried by snow: ‘The Reich’s soldiers certainly have deserved to be buried close to Leo Tolstoy’ was one German officer’s view when objections were made. A large wooden marker declared that the men had ‘gefallen für Grösser Deutschland’ – ‘They fell for Greater Germany’.
There is an intensity about Eve Curie’s work; you feel that the pain of France’s ignominious defeat in 1940 drives her on. She is the first woman to be taken to the Libyan front. She comes down with ‘malignant malaria’ caught in Nigeria; interviews German POWs on the Russian front, and is advised to keep her distance because of lice; she drives towards Rangoon as the Japanese are closing in on the Burmese city. She interviews at the drop of the hat she doesn’t have: Air Marshals, Ministers of State, Hurricane pilots in the desert, ambassadors, Free French commanders, Polish generals, the Shah of Iran, ‘the second best ballerina’ in the USSR, groups of refugees, Chou En-Lai and Chiang Kai-shek in China. In India she asks a secretary for an interview with Gandhi and is surprised to be asked, ‘Can you walk?’ It seemed an odd question: ‘I answered, however, affirmatively. Without any question I could walk. I had, in fact, been walking for years.’ In the event it transpired that ‘Mr Gandhi will take his daily walk with you tomorrow morning at seven.’
To many, the gender of the New York Herald Tribune’s special correspondent was a shock. In Kyaikto, Burma, a young English lieutenant stared at Eve ‘in bewilderment and distress. He whispered: “Now, let’s put this straight. We were expecting from Rangoon, Captain Nyar and the war correspondent for the Herald Tribune and Allied Newspapers Ltd. What happened to the chap?”’ Eve enjoyed revealing that she was ‘the chap’. In reading Journey Among Warriors we are never allowed to forget that the writer is a woman, and a glamorous and exceptional one at that: in photographs she has that quality that singles out the truly beautiful – she looks different each time, but always exudes an air of resilient, striking self-possession. Early in her journey, in Darfur, having been invited to dine at the Residency, she worries that she ‘had no iron to press my evening dress (and no shoes or bag to wear with it, anyway.)’ The further she travels, however, the less exercised she is about her clothes: invited to the High Commissioner for Palestine’s Residence in Jerusalem, she looked at ‘the women in elaborate evening dresses, the men in black ties.’ She, on the other hand ‘wore my all-purpose checked suit that was abominably wrinkled and covered with dust.’ The cold she had caught had made her face swell and reddened her nose. No doubt, despite the apparent handicaps of streaming nose and crushed dress, she was a fascinating figure, listening intently to those who merited it and talking from a widening experience of the war she was following across the world.
I happened on Eve Curie by chance when I was researching the desert war. That research involved reading a series of accounts by male war correspondents, each one heavy with descriptions of shellfire, tanks, army manoeuvres, and constant frantic journeys across the sands of Libya. Eve Curie provides something quite different. For a start, there is a clear sense of sustained purpose in her travelling – she is not engaged in a hectic chase in the wake of dusty army convoys wandering hither and thither across the desert; Eve Curie’s itinerary was methodical and considered, and it gave a unique perspective on the war in the Middle East, Russia and Asia. While she was away, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the World War became truly global. The Frenchwoman that she was grieved over the events of 1940, while her adopted American side gleaned hope from the resistance of the Russians, Chinese and British. Her book ends with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: ‘it was for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought had thus far so nobly advanced.’
I took Journey Among Warriors with me on my rail journey to Turkey, confident that she would prove a good friend crossing borders at midnight and walking through the cities of eastern Europe. I’ve always warmed to female travel companions – Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell spring to mind. Eve Curie, however, was different. She never wrote another book over the next 65 years of her life. Her life thereafter was not a literary one – my heart sank when I realised that there were no other books of hers to turn to. Her first occupation was as a concert pianist − strangely you get little sense of a musical background in her writing. In the latter stages of the war she was active in the Free French Army. Thereafter she worked for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and UNICEF.
What she wanted to say to the world was confined to her loving biography of her mother and her painstaking, detailed, opinionated, evocative and spirited account of a year of wartime travel in distant lands. The warriors amongst whom she journeyed would have recognised her energy, sharp intellect and warm heart, and been stirred by her presence. Later, those who read her book of wartime travels would have realised that she was a woman who could write with passion and honesty and who had the brightest of literary futures, but who chose to set out on a different journey.
RICHARD KNOTT’s admiration for war correspondents stretches from Alan Moorehead to Marie Colvin. He is only too aware of how such a life was not for him. His most recent books are The Sketchbook War (about the wartime experiences of a group of war artists and the plan to keep them alive), and The Trio about three famous war correspondents.
Richard Knott has been an actor (with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Youth Theatre), a teacher and management consultant. He now lives near Bristol, the city where he grew up. Previous homes include the Spanish Basque country and Yorkshire where he lived for nearly 25 years. His move back to the West Country was because he could no longer resist the lure of his precious football team, Bristol Rovers FC (the Mighty Gas).
Richard’s most recent book is ‘The Trio’ (The History Press, 2015), about three famous war correspondents of World War 2 – Alan Moorehead, Christopher Buckley and Alexander Clifford. Other books include ‘The Sketchbook War’ (The History Press); ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ (Pen & Sword); and ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’ (Robert Hale). His books are meticulously researched, as well as savouring character, location and narrative, legacies of his earlier novel-writing ambition. That is something to which he may return…
Reporting the Desert War
For the war correspondents of World War 2, life was uncomfortable, exhausting, and frequently mobile. Alan Moorehead of the Daily Express, for example, estimated that in one year, he travelled more than 30,000 miles. All this for a man who hated flying.
Most war correspondents were men. When Eve Curie, the daughter of the discoverer of radium, arrived in the Libyan desert in November 1941 as a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune, she was the only woman for some three hundred miles in any direction. War reporters endured intense heat by day and bitter cold in the desert nights, as well as sandstorms, fleas, sand-flies, mosquitoes and scorpions. They also had to face the wary suspicion of British army commanders.
At least the process of writing seemed easier in the desert, maybe because there were so few distractions. It was a straightforward existence with clear priorities: sleep and food; keeping warm at night; finding news, not getting lost; finding transport. They were expected to fend for themselves and ‘meals’ often comprised just bully beef and biscuits, bread and margarine. Drinking was not usually excessive, perhaps a few companionable whiskies in the darkness.
Despite the hardship, the desert could feel like paradise: the clarity of the light, perhaps, or the aching silence; or those occasions when fortune smiled, for example when the correspondents were able to exchange a damp tent for a few nights in a sumptuous coastal villa abandoned by the Italians, enjoying its shady lawns, bougainvillaea, fine wines in the cellar, open fires, and, best of all, hot baths.
Correspondents were invariably worried that news was breaking far away, the action happening somewhere else. They worried too about despatches not getting through to London or New York, or even Cairo. They wrote their reports from the desert perched on the backs of lorries, on beaches, leaning against gun emplacements, under the awnings of tents. Stories were often written at night in flickering candlelight, or under hurricane lamps. Only a sudden ‘flap’, perhaps triggered by the rapid approach of German tanks, stopped the chattering typewriters of these diligent, brave and steadfast men. From the desert they eventually crossed the Mediterranean to follow the war into Sicily, through Italy, Normandy, Paris and Brussels to the final victory at Lüneburg Heath. For many of them that day in May 1945 signalled the end of a journey begun in Spain, reporting that country’s civil war nearly a decade before.
Richard Knott is the author of ‘The Sketchbook War’. His new book ‘The Trio’, to be published by the History Press in October, tells the story of three great war correspondents, Alan Moorehead, Christopher Buckley and Alexander Clifford.
We arrived in Sicily the same way as she had, by train from London and ferry across the Straits of Messina. Daphne Phelps had left from Victoria station ‘in a cold grey drizzle’ early in February 1948, while we had travelled from St Pancras, via Zurich, Rome and Naples, some 65 years later. Steam train from a dank Victoria for her; Eurostar and the Freccia Rossa for us. The ferry crossing the Straits of Messina involved the same methodical ritual: the coaches being shunted slowly on to the boat. It was hot – for her in winter and us in October – and the train followed the twists and turns of the coast, mountains to one side and the blue Mediterranean to the other, with the Italian mainland in a hazy near-distance. Taormina was as beautiful as promised, terracotta roofs, the looming presence of Mount Etna, a sprawling shadow breathing a wispy smoke, a tumultuous landscape of lava scree, sea and trees. I knew that the town stood proud and high above the sea; what I had not foreseen was the village of Castelmola high above it, teetering on an impossible crag.
We sat that first night in the town’s square – the very spot where its population had looked down from the ramparts to the trio of war correspondents slowly clambering up the goat-track to the town in the August of 1943. They had been greeted by an Italian officer with the suitably resounding words, ‘My lords we have waited too long for you’, as if he was auditioning for a part at Stratford. The town evidently hid a past: the hotel where we stayed had been the German HQ during the war; the surrounding area of the town had been a Jewish enclave, the only remains of which were Stars of David cut into a nearby wall. The hotel’s basement had served as cells in the war years before the Allies arrived in that blistering August heat. That first night we sat in the square, with our backs to the sea, listening to a saxophonist playing sleepy jazz, slumped deep in a chair and with his feet resting on a lamppost, the epitome of Latin cool. I had come to Taormina to tread the same paths as my three correspondents, but the town had more to show me.
The next morning we set off to find the house in Sicily, the villa which Daphne Phelps had inherited in 1948: Casa Cuseni whose story she had told in her book A House in Sicily (1999). The house had been her uncle’s and had been left her when he died after the war. Robert Hawthorn Kitson was the only son of a Yorkshire locomotive engineer who had abandoned the damp smoke of Leeds for Sicily’s dry heat in the immediate aftermath of his second severe bout of rheumatic fever; there he was able to pursue his passion for watercolours and build the house which would be regarded as the finest villa in Taormina. It took more than three years to build and old photographs appear to show that the local women did much of the work while the men ‘appear mostly to be measuring walls, managing plumb lines, keeping accounts, or helping to load huge baskets of earth and rubble on to their women’s heads’ – or so Daphne thought. The weather in Taormina was benign: frost was unknown, and snow fell perhaps every forty years or so. Daphne came to Sicily intending to sell the property, but she fell in love with the house and the Sicilian way of life. Her book is a homage to both.
We passed through a gate, climbed some steps and found ourselves in a garden looking out over the Mediterranean, the blue sea visible through trees and a comforting huddle of houses. The garden was formal and stepped, with a terrace set in front of a building of golden stone. Inside we waited in a room, part office, part library. On the wall were two original Picassos and I took a photograph of one of the bookshelves, so evocative of time past was the selection of books: Freya Stark’s The Lycian Shore; Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary; The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary. I sat in the chair where, we learned later, Bertrand Russell had written part of the History of Western Philosophy.
Part of the joy of A House in Sicily is the window on a world lost forever: for example, Casa Cuseni had no phone until the mid-1970s; Phelps writes of ‘the days when no Sicilian woman wore trousers’; she describes the time when an embittered woman, bent on revenge, hammered a large nail into Daphne’s favourite tangerine tree in an act she characterised as ‘witchlike’; where women who drove had never been seen before; where haggling over prices was known as the ‘beating of beaks’. The window on the past goes back further: in 1908, a devastating earthquake hit the city of Messina, killing some 80,000 people. Daphne’s uncle Robert helped in the rescue work at Taormina station, ‘where trainloads were arriving of those dead, dying, wounded and being born.’
The house remains a remarkable building: apart from the Picassos, there is a Henry Moore, a mural by Sir Frank Brangwyn, Greek treasures in cupboards, a sofa where Greta Garbo reclined; an ancient wind-up gramophone. The building reflects the people who have passed through the house in the years after Daphne Phelps had elected to stay: they include Dylan Thomas’ widow, Caitlin, who arrived with Wyn Henderson whose ‘intimate friendships had, it seemed, been mainly with the authors of books on my library shelves.’ Wyn and Caitlin Thomas arrived in moonlight, toting a large half-empty bottle of wine in a wicker basket. Bertrand Russell was another friend who figures large in the book: Phelps describes him at the end of an evening commenting on his state of inebriation: ‘This is most disgraceful. I was a teetotaller until I was forty… I’m as drunk as a lord – but it doesn’t matter because I am a lord!’ Daphne was all too aware that Russell was a meek and hen-pecked husband, asking on one occasion if he wanted a separate room from his wife. Russell was delighted: ‘It would be an unmitigated relief,’ he replied, adding that ‘she declaims and I am the public meeting.’
In the villa’s library there is a copy of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, another visitor to the Casa Cuseni. He had written at the front of the book: ‘To Daphne Phelps who showed forgiveness of Henry’ and had signed it ‘Tennessee.’ The Henry in question was the American artist Henry Faulkner whose behaviour was often both quirky and challenging – he once arrived at the villa from Perugia with three dogs and six cats in the car. When Roald Dahl came to the villa he was late and unmistakeable: ‘a gigantic figure with a vast straw hat, a cerise shirt and the brightest of scarlet trousers.’ He had mistakenly by-passed the villa and ‘been halfway up’ the road to Castelmola beetling high above them.
The love Daphne felt for the island of Sicily is clear, manifesting itself very soon after her arrival, when she travelled with a meagre post-war tourist allowance of £35. The Straits of Messina might be narrow but there is a world of difference between the island of Sicily and the mainland, referred to by some Sicilians as ‘il continente’. The island’s people fill the book: Beppe who, when his son was born, wrote to Daphne to tell her of the birth, signing off as ‘Your unforgettable slave’; her cook Concetta; the local Mafia boss Don Ciccio who befriends her, offering his protection. He once guaranteed the security of Daphne’s car which she had left unlocked in wild and lonely countryside by the simple expedient of placing his hat on the bonnet. The car remained untouched. Don Ciccio’s hospitality was such that he would not be denied – it was not done to gainsay his offers of food – once Daphne and some English friends were invited to eat with him, despite having already eaten: it challenged all but the most robust of digestions. ‘Eat,’ Daphne whispered to her friends, ‘eat for the honour of England.’
Daphne Phelps died in 2005, just six years after the publication of A House in Sicily. Her life prior to her love affair with Taormina was never less than interesting: she had spent the early part of the war in the United States having sailed there on 19 August 1939 in the Empress of Britain and being unable to return until 1941. The Empress of Britain had been sunk soon after the voyage which took Daphne to America. Coincidentally the first class dining room had been designed by Frank Brangwyn who also painted the mural in the dining room at Casa Cuseni. Daphne visited 42 of the then 48 US states, often travelling by Greyhound bus, and working as a chauffeur, parlour maid, translator and propagandist for the Allied cause. In the second half of the war she worked for the Ministry of Home Security investigating the effects of bombing, before becoming a social worker. Daphne Phelps was a remarkable woman: resourceful, cultured, brave, independent and feisty. She was sociable, warm-hearted and lovable. A House in Sicily reveals her to be a highly capable writer, with a sharp eye, a keen sense of time and place and the ability to shape a narrative. In the final chapter of her book, she describes Mount Etna as ‘a queen and a spitfire’; I like to think that describes Daphne Phelps herself too.
We left Taormina on the slow train to Naples, sharing a carriage with three Sicilians none of whom spoke English. At one point, on the mainland, the train came to a halt for an hour in a tunnel. As the air conditioning hummed and then stopped, I reread the ending of Daphne’s book while the carriage echoed with a loud Italian commentary from my travel companions who, within the time it took to travel a hundred miles, had become the best of friends. Later, north of Naples, I helped one of them, a Sicilian widow, with her cases and she kissed me as she descended to the platform. She had offered us her house to stay in when we were next in Sicily. Leaving the heat of the Italian south I reflected on the drizzle at home and autumn darkness, and on how Daphne Phelps’ good fortune and courage had allowed her to lead a life less travelled. It is nearly a decade since Daphne Phelps died, but the villa remains full of her life, her books and art. The views across the town towards Etna are as beautiful as ever. Searching for the paths that my war correspondents had trodden 70 years before I was moved to uncover this other story of Taormina. It warmed me too that Concetta, Daphne’s long serving cook and friend, had a granddaughter named Daphne.
Richard Knott’s most recent books are: ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ (Pen & Sword); ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’ (Robert Hale) and ‘The Sketchbook War’ (The History Press). ‘The Trio’, his account of three remarkable war correspondents, will be published in 2015.
‘A House in Sicily’ was published by Virago in 1999.
Your new book tells the story of a catastrophe during World War Two, explain to me a little bit about how the weather dealt a terrible hand of fate that night on 16 December 1943?
December 16th 1943 was a cold and increasingly foggy night and, although the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had made clear that he wasn’t pressing for RAF crews to fly on operations whatever the weather, in practice there was considerable pressure to resume bombing raids on Germany. There had been four raids on Berlin, for example, in late November, but none for the two weeks before the raid on 16 December. That night, 482 Lancaster bombers set off from airfields in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire, in weather that was judged acceptable for flying, but was to deteriorate rapidly in the time they were in the air. The returning aircraft were running desperately low on petrol, while the fog was widespread and very thick. 43 aircraft crashed trying to return to base.
What will local people in Lincolnshire find particularly pertinent when reading this book?
Lincolnshire was home to many of the Lancaster squadrons involved and most of the crashes on return were caused by pilots being unable to avoid the Lincolnshire wolds in the thick fog. Fourteen of the crashes happened in the county. The bleakness of the night is perhaps best summed up by the fate of Wing Commander Holford whose Lancaster came down near Kelstern and whose body was found next morning buried in a snowdrift. In addition to Kelstern, there were crashes at Hainton, Hatcliffe Top, Waltham (where two Lancasters collided in the darkness), Ingham, Ulceby, Barrow upon Humber, Caistor, Normenby, Market Stainton, Binbrook and Gayton-le-Wold.
I know you have explored crash sites for Black Night for Bomber Command. How did you find that experience and how did this help you write your book?
I decided at the outset of writing the book that I would visit each crash site. I wasn’t interested in finding aircraft remains; rather, I wanted to understand the circumstances behind each crash, the geographical factors which might have contributed. Increasingly, though, I felt I was paying some kind of homage to the men who died there. It was strange how often when I was at some desolate spot on the wolds, I would hear a single-engined aircraft passing overhead!
I understand you were inspired to write this book by your father-in-law who was a navigator with No 97 Squadron – which was based in Lincolnshire – why were his stories so motivating?
He is a remarkable man, a survivor, still hale and hearty at 93 years old. I wanted to understand more about what he went through: after all, he completed nearly 50 operations over enemy territory. I began by cycling to the bomber airfields near where I used to live in Yorkshire and was stirred by the ghosts of what had once been there, the comparison between the birdsong and tranquillity that prevailed now, and the noise and bustle of seventy years ago.
Who will this book appeal to and what do you hope readers appreciate most?
The book is basically an investigation into why such a catastrophe could be allowed to happen – and catastrophe it was, with over 300 men dying that night. It is not about the raid on Berlin, but focuses instead on the men who survived the flight home that night and those who didn’t. In writing it, I had in mind the general reader who wants to understand what those days were like, who appreciates a compelling and powerful story, and whose interest is stirred by the way ordinary people can cope in extraordinary circumstances. Clearly if you live in Lincolnshire, the importance of the location will appeal too! I hope readers will appreciate the distinctive way in which the story is told – I wanted the book to read like a novel, but be thorough and rooted in fact and detail too. I also want the reader to warm to the courage of those caught up in the events of that dark night and to reflect on how it is all too easy to require too much of those engaged in combat.
‘Oh, but you should be an artist,’ says a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, ‘I had one with my squadron during the last war, for weeks – until we went up the line.’ The implication is that war artists were reluctant to put themselves in danger. In fact, in both wars, artists sought to convey the reality of war and inevitably that meant getting close to it. In the 1914-1918 war, the artist Paul Nash (who was to be a war artist in both conflicts) was determined to get ‘as near to the real places of action as it was possible to go.’ He was not the exception. Artists recognised the need to draw the war as truly as possible: Anthony Gross, for example, in 1940, wrote to Eric Kennington declaring that he wanted ‘to get to France by some way or other and paint in and behind the lines there.’
Being close to the action however had its problems: artists soon realised that the most intense moments of danger were the most impossible to sketch. If the shells were flying you kept your head down, and the sketchbook was temporarily discarded. Modern warfare also provided a challenge for the artist: tank battles in the desert, for example, took place over huge distances, making their depiction very problematic.
Then there was the issue of censorship. For example, the artist Eric Ravilious was reminded on appointment in January 1940 that ‘it will be necessary to submit all your preliminary sketches, as well as finished works, for censorship’. He had already been vetted by MI5 to ensure that he was a fit and proper person. Several artists were turned down by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) because of their political affiliations. The purpose of the WAAC was ostensibly to record the war, but also to save the lives of artists who might otherwise be drawn into the fighting. The memory of the generation cut down in 1914-1918 was still very powerful. The horrors of the Great War had been exposed by Paul Nash, Nevinson and Eric Kennington among others. In 1917 Nevinson was told by War Office officials that his Paths of Glory could not be exhibited. Preferring not to withdraw the picture, Nevinson put a strip of brown paper over the dead bodies and wrote ‘CENSORED’ over it. Early in the Second World War, Eric Ravilious was refused permission to paint an admiral’s bicycle.
It was inevitable that the closer an artist got to sensitive information, the more likely the censors would be to refuse any attempt to let the drawing see the light of day. For all that, while artists might have subjects suggested to them, in the main they felt free to draw what they liked. The resulting work of art, however, might languish in a store somewhere unseen. Much thought and discussion was given over to what constituted appropriate subject matter for war artists in the 1939-1945 conflict. It was recognised that it would be different from that of 1914-1918: to begin with, war in that earlier conflict was much more static, while because of the development of the bomber in the 1930s, the Home Front had become a front line too.
Richard Seddon, an artist who served in France in 1940, summed up the issue of what to paint: he wanted ‘not to report facts, nor mould opinion’; rather, he sought to paint action – the ‘battle when it began’, not the mundane nature of a soldier’s existence. He ‘didn’t see soldiers peeling potatoes as war art’. Later he would experience the true reality of war, struggling to capture the nature of an artillery bombardment on the ship he was sailing in, sketching as the shells fell around him, but drawing a burned corpse was beyond him. He had wanted to produce ‘a work of art that would be a silent cry of the human spirit.’ When it came to it, he could not face drawing so painful a subject.
In the later stages of the second war, during the Italian campaign, the war artist Edward Ardizzone found himself staying with a Guards brigade up in the Apennines. He had crossed swords with a brigadier who voiced, in a truculent bellow, what the more cantankerous officers thought of those charged with recording the war in paint: ‘What’s an artist doing here?’ he roared. It was a legitimate question rudely framed. No doubt he would not have listened to a reasoned argument that, without the 6,000 or so examples of art produced by artists in the 1939-1945 war, our understanding of, and emotional response to, the war would be greatly impoverished.
Richard Knott’s book ‘The Sketchbook War’, published by The History Press, tells the story of nine war artists, including Eric Ravilious and Edward Ardizzone, whose work took them close to the front line in the 1939-1945 war.