Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange

Our Castle by the Sea by Lucy Strange was published in 2019. The setting is the south-east coast of England during World War 2.

On the first day of the war Magda came home from school with a split lip and a swollen eye. She had been in a fight and her younger sister Petra is shocked. The girls live with their parents right on the coast as their father is a lighthouse keeper, but their mother originally came from Germany and some people aren’t happy about that. They live in a cottage adjoining the lighthouse.

Of course the lighthouse lamps are no longer in use, but the glass still has to be polished up, just in case an important convoy has to be guided briefly.  The foghorn is the only way of alerting shipping to the coast now.

They all love living there, it’s ideal as there’s plenty to sketch, even their mother sketches, and that’s what causes a problem. She’s regarded as being an ‘enemy alian’ and under suspicion of being a spy and as Churchill had said “collar the lot” including people who had come to Britain to escape the Nazis. she is taken away, they’re all devastated.  She is accused of sending information to Germany, but the real enemy is much closer to the authorities than they would expect.

I really enjoyed this one which is I suppose aimed at older children (YA) but like all good writing it’s entertaining no matter what age the reader is. The story includes local legends such as standing stones, generational family strife, unresolved problems from the earlier Great War and the blot of home grown Fascism in Britain.

I bought my copy of this book from the internet, something I don’t do all that often, and I was chuffed when I realised that my copy of the book had been signed by the author.


The Small Army by Michael Marshall – 20 Books of Summer 2023

The Small Army by Michael  Marshall was published in 1957 and it’s the true account of the evacuation of children from Guernsey in the Channel Islands during World War 2. Guernsey is just twenty miles from France and the Germans invaded early in the war.

The war-time home of the author’s Guernsey school Elizabeth College was at Whitehall House in Derbyshire. The boys had to get permission from their headmaster to visit the nearest town which was four miles away, and they had to walk. They made their own entertainment which mainly consisted of training to fight when they were older, intending to get back to Guernsey and fight the Germans and free the island. One of the boys was keen on science and he was able to make weapons, I don’t know how he managed to get a hold of the chemicals he needed, but he must have done so as there were plenty of explosions which the local farmers put up with. It was known locally that there were gangs of boys playing war games, but in such a rural area it was ignored for a long time.

By the end of the war some of the boys were as old as 17 and 18 and when they were able to get back to Guernsey their plans of hunting down collaborators more or less evaporated and they set about gathering as much of the weapons and ammunition which the Germans had left behind. The island was rammed full of stuff and the older boys set up a company to sell the equipment to companies who had arrived from the British mainland to buy up as much as they could. Nobody in authority stopped them from doing so! The boys made a lot of money with no questions asked about their right to ownership of the abandoned equipment including searchlights, compression pumps, radio sets, optical instruments, tool chests, field telephone sets and miles of cable. It was a very lucrative business operated by the two eldest boys who were by then young men.

The book has photographs of the rocket projector that they built as well as the lists of the members of the organisations, suitably decorated in a schoolboyish manner.

This was an interesting and at times amusing read about schoolboys who wanted to take on the German invaders on their own home ground instead of being sent to the relative safety of the British mainland. They certainly had that “we’ll fight them on the beaches”  mentality.

Digging for Victory by Cathy Faulkner

Digging for Victory cover

Digging for Victory by Cathy Faulkner is set in Devon in 1941. Ralph Roberts has just got his papers and will be joining the RAF, Two-Six-Six squadron. His twelve year old sister Bonnie is excited about that, Ralph has always been her hero and she feels that she has to do something for the war effort too. Something more than just growing vegetables.

With Ralph’s bedroom now being empty it isn’t long before the family has a lodger allocated to them. Mr Fisher is in an RAF uniform, but he doesn’t seem to do anything but sit around in the house during the day. When Bonnie’s schoolfriends realise this they begin to bully Bonnie. Her lodger must be a shirker, or maybe even some sort of spy. Mr Fisher never speaks to anyone, so there’s nothing that Bonnie can say in his defense. Her contribution to the war effort doesn’t get any more exciting than trying to grow stuff and collecting rags, she feels such a failure.

Eventually Bonnie realises that Mr Fisher’s work is being done overnight, while most people are asleep. It is of course very important and dangerous work but it’s completely hush hush, so Bonnie still can’t tell her classmates about it. But she and Mr Fisher have become friends and he’s teaching her all about circuitry and electronics, which all helps in the coming emergency.

This book is aimed at 9-12 year olds, and it’s a great way of them learning about World War 2 and the Home Front.

I was lucky enough to be sent a digital copy of this book by the publisher Firefly via NetGalley. Thank you.

Digging for Victory is due to be published on the 4th of May.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting

 The Sixteen Trees of the Somme cover

Edvard is a young man living on his family farm in rural Norway, growing potatoes and farming sheep. He has been brought up by Sverre, his grandfather, as Edvard’s parents had died when he was only four years old. It’s all a bit of a mystery, Edvard can hardly remember his parents, but he knows that on the day they died he disappeared for four days and then turned up in a doctor’s surgery.

Edvard’s grandfather Sverre had been in World War 2 as had been his brother Einar, but they had chosen to fight on opposite sides, and the brothers had been completely estranged. When Sverre dies the local funeral director says that his coffin is all organised and has been waiting for him for years. It’s a very special coffin, art deco in design made using flame birch wood and had been sent to Sverre years before. Edvard knows that Einar had been in Shetland during the war and decides to go there to find out more about him. Eventually Edvard makes his way to the World War 1 battlefields and cemeteries as obviously the author did as he describes it all so well.

This was a great read which also involves a couple of young women, one in Norway and one on Shetland, so there’s a bit of romance of a sort, but mainly it’s a mystery, very well written, and it was translated from Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett, he made a great job of it.

Bletchley Park

When we drove down south last week for our first time away from home since Covid appeared our first day was entirely taken up by a visit to Bletchley Park, the World War 2 codebreaking centre, it’s close to the new town of Milton Keynes. There was a lot to see. Below is a stitched photo of the country house the building of which began in 1883, originally owned by a financier and politician, by the time he died in the 1930s nobody in his family wanted the house and it was eventually acquired by the government and so became a centre for secret war work. The location was ideal as it has great transport links for London and there was plenty of space in the sprawling estate to accommodate the 8 or 9,000 people who ended up working there. The workers were mainly farmed out to any local people who had a spare bedroom – whether they wanted a lodger or not. The stars of the show though were given estate cottages to live in. At one point there was a queue of people at the right hand door, waiting to go in for their afternoon tea, sadly that had to be booked so we couldn’t partake. We made do with soup and bread from the cafe.

Bletchley Mansion Stitch

There are still lovely trees and a lake on the estate although obviously lots of the land was built on.

Bletchley  Park Lake

There are ‘huts’ and buildings all over the place, but there are loads more waiting to be refurbished. That’s not going to be cheap going by the amount of ‘danger asbestos’ signs we saw!

Bletchley Park Building

Inside the huts are spartan, I don’t think they would have been very comfortable to work in, I felt quite claustrophobic just walking through them for a short time.

Bletchley Park Hut Corridor, WW2 codebreaking

Bletchley Park Hut Poster , WW2, codebreaking

Of course they not only had to break codes but also had to translate them from numerous languages such as Japanese as well as German.

Index Cards Japanese, Bletchley Park, codebreaking ,WW2

They managed to do that using the enigma machines such as the one below, it’s smaller than an old typewriter, there are lots of machines on display.

enigma machine, WW2, Bletchley Park, codebreaking

enigma machines, Bletchley Park, WW2 ,codebreaking

We took lots of photos but I’ll keep those for future posts. Almost more amazing than the work that went on in this area is the fact that the Germans never had an inkling of its existence which is incredible when you think of the thousands of people who worked here and all the people who lived nearby. It was all ‘hush hush’ and it stayed that way until someone wrote a book about it in 1974. There must have been no spies at the local electricity plant as the amount of power used here to work all the machinery must have been enormous. I can’t imagine people keeping ‘mum’ in that way nowadays.

75th Anniversary Victory Day

This time last year we were in Russia, a place that I never really believed that I would ever visit, sadly we got there two days after their huge victory celebrations commemorating the end of World War 2, but the banners were still decorating the streets.

1941-1945 banner

The Russians commemorate The Great Patriotic War – as they name World War 2 – on the 9th of May so I thought I would do this post of the memorials in St Petersburg, mainly because I really dislike the way the Russian war effort is overlooked by the rest of the allies. Without Russian people’s efforts and sacrifices, we would all be speaking German.

There is a memorial garden just off Nevsky Prospekt where I took this photo of the VICTORY hedge plus Red Star.


Below I’m just reposting what I blogged last year about what is the Leningrad Hero City Obelisk installed on the 40th anniversary of the war’s end.

WW2 Monument, St Petersburg, Russia

Over the last couple of days we’ve had the commemorations of the D-Day landings which were attended by the leaders of the allies and also by the German leader, Angela Merkel. But there was apparently no invite for President Putin, despite the fact that they were definitely our allies and if Hitler hadn’t taken on more than he could handle when he attacked Russia it’s almost certain that we would all be speaking German now. It was a close run thing.

I’m definitely not a fan of Putin, but given the fact that the Soviets lost more people in the war than anyone else, it seems mean and petty to leave them out of the memorial services. So I thought I’d show you a couple of photos of the War Memorial at the top of Nevsky Prospekt which is St Petersburg’s equivalent of Paris’s Champs Elysees or Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.

WW2 Monument, St Petersburg, Russia

Doreen by Barbara Noble

 Doreen cover

Doreen by Barbara Noble was first published in 1940 but my copy is a Persephone. I really enjoyed this one which begins in London during the heavy bombing of the Blitz. Walking to her work as an office cleaner through devastated streets Mrs Rawlings whose soldier husband has left her, decides that she’ll have to do what most mothers have already done which is to send her only child, nine year old Doreen away to the country for safety. After the previous night’s bombing she no longer has any faith that the bomb shelter will keep her and Doreen safe.

When Helen Osborne, one of the secretaries at the office finds Mrs Rawlings in tears she wonders if she can help by offering a country home to Doreen with her married sister Francie and her husband who are childless. They haven’t been allocated any evacuees because their home is seen as being too remote from a village for convenience. Francie quickly agrees to the plan and in no time she’s imagining what the little girl will be like.

After a shaky start Doreen settles down to life in a situation very different from what she’s used to. She has gone from a one room slum in London to living in a large country house and as she has been well brought up and she’s also quite clever and likeable, it isn’t long before Francie loves Doreen, she has always been sentimental about children. Geoffrey her husband has left the decision to take Doreen in up to Francie. He suffers from asthma and blames himself for not giving her a child. But inevitably Doreen’s mother is torn and visiting Doreen in the country she realises that Doreen has moved into a very different class from her poverty stricken previous existence and she doesn’t approve of it, she’s jealous and she knows that when the time comes for Doreen to go home she’ll never settle to life in a London slum again. It isn’t going to end well, but this is a really good read.

Considering that Doreen was written so early on in the war Barbara Noble must have quickly realised how evacuating the children to the countryside was going to make all sorts of problems for all concerned. It’s something that I’ve always known about as I’ve known people who were affected by it. One man in particular that I knew was very much surplus to requirement in his own large family and being evacuated to a loving couple was a definite plus for him and no doubt for them too. Luckily they did keep in touch after he had to go back home and they were the family that he had always wanted to be part of, I don’t think his parents were that bothered about losing him though.

A Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers

A Woman in Berlin cover

A Woman in Berlin by Marta Hillers was originally published anonymously and was first published in 1954 in the US in English and was subsequently published in several languages, including Finnish, but it was first published in the UK in 2005 by Virago. There’s an introduction by the historian Antony Beevor. It wasn’t until 2003 that the anonymous author was named as journalist Marta Hillers.

The author begins her diary on Friday 20 April 1945, 4 pm and her last entry is Friday, 22 June 1945 and she identifies herself as a journalist who had travelled widely before the war and had even been to Russia where she had managed to pick up some of the language, something which came in handy when the Russian army entered her neighbourhood. Obviously the women were dreading their arrival as they had heard so many rumours of their behaviour. Young girls were hidden away from the soldiers’ eyes in an effort to spare them from their attentions.

This is a grim read at times but not overly so, I’ve read far worse from Russian women writers writing about their experiences as political prisoners in Stalin’s gulags, and it doesn’t come close to matching what the Nazis did or for that matter the horrific things that are happening to young women abducted by armies in parts of Africa.

Rape occurred but the Russian soldiers spared the old, girls under 18 and young mothers. The author discovered that her neighbourhood had been taken over by what she described as elite troops, and other areas had it tougher with less refined soldiers, not that you could really call any of them gentlemanly. Yes the author was raped several times by various different men, then she realised that she must find an officer to attach herself to, in the hope that that would keep the others away from her. A lack of normal deference within the Russian ranks scuppered that hope to begin with but eventually she was seen as Anatol’s woman, unfortunately he was moved on though so she had to begin again.

But it wasn’t all bad news, the neighbours went from starvation to having plenty to eat, thanks to being able to loot the nearby German barracks and getting gifts of food from the Russian soldiers. The few German men who were around kept a very low profile, some of them had been demobbed from the army and they believed that the Russian soldiers would shoot them, but it was Herr Pauli who infuriated me. He was a lodger in the author’s building, lodging with a widow who lived on the ground floor. The author had moved in with them as her attic room on the fourth floor was dangerous while the battle for Berlin was ongoing. Pauli grudged every morsel that the author ate, and I just longed for her to say to him that if it wasn’t for her they would have had nothing to eat at all, but the German women must have been so used to seeing German men as superior beings that she never did give the lazy so and so a piece of her mind. She realises that looking back when all of the soldiers came home on leave they were pampered by the women, despite the fact that they had been living in areas of Europe that hadn’t been getting bombarded by bombs the way Berlin was.

Later in the book the author realised that if she had stayed on the upper floors of the building she would have been safe from the soldiers as they never went up to the higher floors, her theory on that was that as they were nearly all farm boys they weren’t used to stairs and didn’t like climbing up them.

The widow was eventually raped a few times, despite being 50, albeit a young looking 50, however she seems to have been rather pleased by the experience and went around telling everyone that according to her rapist she had a better figure than the Ukrainian women he was used to!

One woman states that if Hitler had been finished off on 20 July 1944, he would have kept some of his aura. That’s absolutely true as he still had plenty of supporters in modern Germany, if he had been a martyr it would only have made that situation worse.

Towards the end of the book the women discover that the Russian army didn’t give their soldiers home leave so many of the men had never seen their wives for over four years, they thought it went some way to understanding their behaviour, especially when they were drunk.

The identity of the author was obviously known to her publisher but she didn’t want this book to be republished in her lifetime as it had caused controversy when it first was published in Germany in 1954, presumably the women in particular didn’t want to admit to themselves what had happened during the Russian occupation. She outlived the publisher but his wife knew her identity and Marta Hillers apparently lived to be over 90 and died in 2001.

If This is a Man/The Truce by Primo Levi

If This is a Man/The Truce cover

If This is a Man by Primo Levi was first published in 1958 and I’ve been meaning to read it for years, but to be honest I’ve been avoiding anything like this that I thought might just be too grim a read. My mother was like many of her generation who were teenagers when the war began – obsessed by the war, obviously it was the biggest event in her life and she never really moved on from it. It’s no exaggeration to say that every conversation she had ended up back at the war somehow. I wasn’t told fairy tales as a youngster but was told of war atrocities instead! Honestly it’s surprising that I grew up so ‘normal’.

Anyway, If This is a Man turned out to be not as harrowing a read as I thought it might be. This is mainly because as a chemist Primo Levi was regarded as being a useful prisoner. His expertise was needed to help with the manufacture of synthetic rubber for the German war effort. But before that could happen he and others had to build the factory within Auschwitz.

Poor diet, freezing conditions and the heavy work involved whittled the men down over time and those who hadn’t been selected for instant departure through the crematorium chimneys often ended up there anyway.

Eventually the Russian army broke through the German defences and the Nazis fled, taking 20,000 prisoners with them. Luckily Primo Levi was ill and in the hospital at that time so he was left behind. Most of the 20,000 prisoners disappeared as they died of exhaustion during a forced march away from the advancing Russian army. He was one of only three survivors from the original 650 prisoners who had been taken to Auschwitz from his area.

The Truce is a sequel which was written in 1963 and in it Primo Levi tells of what happened to him after the Russians reached Auschwitz. I had always hoped that any camp survivors would have been cossetted by the allies and their problems would have been over but of course, advancing allies didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with them. It wasn’t possible for prisoners just to make their own way home. Another long march was the upshot with the only real difference being that they actually got fed this time. Truce is interesting though as Levi met so many interesting characters amongst the other survivors.

Another reason why I was put off from reading Primo Levi was that I had been under the impression that he had committed suicide in 1987 and that seemed unutterrably sad given what he had experienced, however it seems that many people believe that his death was an accident as he had been suffering from dizzy spells and he had lots of projects on the go at the time.

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword cover

The Spade as Mighty as the Sword by Daniel Smith is the story of the World War 2 Dig for Victory Campaign. Originally it was called Grow More Food which as I’m sure you’ll agree wasn’t a terribly inspiring name for such a campaign. It was apparently Michael Foot who went on to become the Labour leader who came up with the name Dig for Victory when he was a journalist for the London Evening Standard in 1939.

Memories of the food shortages during World War 1 were still fresh with many people and it was realised that the outcome of the war would rely on having a population that wasn’t literally starving. So began the campaign to encourage people to dig up their lawns and rose beds and replace their flowers with vegetable plots. It was amazingly successful and people who had never even thought of growing anything before became quite obsessive about their vegetable growing. As I’ve rarely been able to grow anything beyond herbs and potatoes I’m amazed at the success of it all, although in those days people were using an awful lot of poisons on their crops, including things containing cyanide! However it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.

In fact after six years of war it seems that the population had thrived on their rationed diet and they had never been so healthy before. It was however a boring diet and people rarely felt that they had had enough to eat although there were people such as Marguerite Patten developing recipes to help housewives with feeding their families.

This book features quite a lot about the politics of the times, but it’s always interesting. I really enjoyed it and it has inspired me to try out some more of the wartime recipes that I have in a book. I must give Woolton Pie another go.

One mild annoyance is that whiling away is spelled wiling away. No doubt this is partly because English people pronounce ‘wh’ as ‘w’ – which causes them confusion with words such as which and witch sounding the same – or whales and Wales. I wonder when they gave up on ‘wh’ sounds as it must have been sounded at some point otherwise they ‘h’ would never have been in those words.