The Democratic Unionists – Our New Friends

‘Let’s get to work,’ says Theresa May, suggesting that the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, her friend and ally, are an ideal fit.

So I’d like to introduce you to the Democratic Unionist Party – or at least the former Democratic Unionist Minister of Health and assembly member, Jim Wells…

Mr. Wells, the Democratic Unionist MLA, is a very interesting man. I met him a few years ago at Stormont, in his Parliamentary office. He is utterly charming, self-deprecating, and genuine. He is deeply committed to various charitable foundations, at home and abroad. He is critical of Northern Ireland’s lax planning laws, and very serious on the subject of the environment. His is not a sentimental interest – it is a rational, practical and forward thinking concern for the state of the planet.

All of this makes his views on other matters disconcerting. He tells me that homosexuality is ‘an abomination’, and as he says it, his whole manner changes from boyish enthusiasm to righteous anger. He glowers and raises his voice.

I am not sure that anyone has ever used the word ‘abomination’ in my presence before, and I cannot imagine a serious English politician taking a similar stance. But then, Wells’s party, the DUP, is not like any English party. Launched in the bombed ruins of the Four Step Inn on Shankill Road, it is the biggest political party in Northern Ireland, and it is – and always has been – the party of Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church. Jim Wells is actually a Baptist, but the vast majority of the party’s politicians are Free Presbyterians, and their brand of unionism is subtly different to that of the Ulster Unionist Party. Whereas an Ulster Unionist might express total fidelity to the union with Britain, a member of the Free Presbyterian church will place his fundamentalist Protestantism before his loyalty to his country. And since the Irish Republic is an expressly Catholic country, the surest means of protecting his Protestantism, is through adherence to the union.

Such subtle difference in approach explains why, in 1971, Ian Paisley was able to tell Irish journalists that, were the Irish Republic to scrap its constitution, and change certain of its laws relating to the influence of Catholicism, then ‘the Protestant people would take a different view’ on unification. Northern Ireland’s most notorious unionist was – briefly – willing to question the union.

Northern Ireland is a place of contradictions, and one in which religion rarely seems far from the surface. Which brings me to my most surreal exchange with Jim Wells. As our discussion of human sexuality continues, he leans in to me and asks in a low voice, ‘Do you know how many transexuals there are in Northern Ireland?’

I have no idea.

“At least seven…”

Remembering Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness was an inspiring peacemaker – and, for many years, chief-of-staff of the Provisional IRA. He led Northern Ireland towards an unlikely peace, and was responsible for the deaths of countless people. Yet, perhaps, given the failure of peace initiatives led by moderates, he could not have done the former had he not been the latter.

When I was in Northern Ireland, a few years ago, I met a man who told me of an encounter with McGuinness, way back in 1971. It ought to be repeated. This is what he said:

“I was listening to the ten o’clock news one evening, and I realised I’d run out of cigarettes. I got in the car and I went to Guildhall Square. But the cigarette machine had been vandalised, so I went to Fiorentini’s café. There were two girls sitting in the café, and they asked me if I could give them a lift home. I thought to myself, ‘Well now, two young girls, my wife’s away. What about it?’ So I said yes, and asked where they lived. They said in a very subdued whisper, ‘The Creggan’. I thought about it – my God! This really is an opportunity. The Creggan was a no-go area, I could say that I’ve been there, and nobody else has. So I said OK, and I finished my cup of coffee, and Mr Fiorentini gave me two packets of cigarettes. We got in the car, and went up into the Lecky Road, and there were armed IRA men all over the place. The girls said some password to them, and we were let through. Then we were let through a second one by Free Derry Corner. Just after that, there was a third one – and all hell broke loose. The car was surrounded. I was pulled out and forced on to the ground, and the girls were taken away.”

“Now, I looked and sounded like a British officer; I was about thirty, and spoke the Queen’s English, so somebody must have assumed that I was a British officer, or that I was trying to spy on the IRA. My car was taken away, and I was bundled into the back of another car, and I was sat on by about five heavy young men – which was a most horrid thing. I was given a few kicks – not in the balls – but around the back and arms, and I was manhandled across a bit of green in front of the modern Catholic Cathedral, into a place where I was sat in a chair, with a light bulb above me, just like interrogations in films. A couple of fellows were behind me with old fashioned Sterling machine guns, pointing at the back of my head, and then the most extraordinary sight. A crocodile of about a dozen men entered, all in balaclavas, a pretty shambolic looking lot. Then an extraordinary character came in, who had the air of a deserter from the army. He was clean, fair haired and much younger than me.”

“This man took position behind my head, drew a pistol from his belt, and asked me various questions – which were pretty banal. Since I wasn’t in the army, and I wasn’t in the Ulster Defence Regiment, he couldn’t get any information out of me. He said, ‘Your car’s been seen going out of Ebrington Barracks on many occasions, so you must be a spy!’ I said to him, ‘My dear fellow, you’re completely and absolutely crazy! These are my friends. These people were at school with me. Of course I’m going to go and see them and have them to my house. Do you think they’re going to tell me secrets about you? You’d have to be joking – they just don’t do that sort of thing!’ Eventually he got fed up talking to me, and I stayed with these fellows guarding me for several hours. There was absolutely no brutality whatsoever, no question.”

“Eventually somebody else came in, and said, ‘OK, you. We’ll give you back your car’ and I was led outside, and there was the car, engine running. The man who had been interrogating me was in an absolute fury. His eyes were just full of fury. He drew his pistol, cocked it, put it beside my head, and this other fellow said, ‘Oh no! Don’t kill him! We’ve checked him out with the boys in Ardmore, and he and his family have always been decent to people like us. He’s OK.’ I remember those words very well; one tends to listen if you think you’re about to be killed. The man was absolutely livid. He put his pistol back in his belt and said, ‘Fuck off!’ So I got in the car and drove away. But I had to ask, ‘Could you please show me the way out? I’ve never been here before.’ And they did – they got into another car and they drove in front of me! They also pinched my cigarettes, which I really objected to. I still didn’t have any cigarettes after the whole bloody night.”

No cigarettes, perhaps, but he still had his life. He had survived his encounter with a fair-haired, young, and absolutely furious Martin McGuinness.

Never Forget

Andrey Kodin was a young Austrian Jew who managed to escape to Britain in 1938. He joined the Pioneer Corps in the early part of the war before transferring to the Intelligence Corps. On 20 April 1945 he was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation. His job, as an Austrian, was to speak to freed prisoners.

Arriving at the Belsen gates, Kodin stood and stared at the pile of bodies, rotting men, women and children, their eyes pecked out by birds. As he stared, an army car pulled up and three British officers jumped out.

Two of the officers took a look and returned to the car – but one stood alongside Kodin similarly affected. As Kodin turned to look at the officer, he recognised such empathy and sadness in his eyes, that his face stuck in his mind.

A shout came from one of the officers in the car. “Come on, Derek! Haven’t you had enough?” Nothing happened. Then Kodin watched the officer in the car cover his nose with a handkerchief. “I never knew there were so many stinking fucking Jews,” he said.

Some time later, back in Britain, Kodin was at the cinema with his wife. The screen showed a close up of an actor. Kodin jumped out of his seat. “It’s him!” he screamed. His wife, embarrassed, told him to sit down. But Kodin had just recognised the sympathetic officer who had stood alongside him at Belsen. It was Dirk Bogarde, who, in 1945, had been a captain in the 7th Parachute Battalion. His name, then, was Derek van den Bogaerde.

Thirty years on, Kodin read Bogarde’s description of his visit to Belsen, printed in a national newspaper. Kodin recognised the event – but Bogarde made no mention of his fellow officer’s hateful remark. Perhaps he was so unnerved by the spectacle that he hadn’t heard what was said. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit that a British officer was capable of such a thought at such a time. Or perhaps the monstrosity of the scene was so complete that the officer’s words could only detract from its impact.

Whatever the truth, this story is yet another reminder of why we must never forget. It’s with us all the time. Even now.


How American Drillers saved the Secret British Oil Industry; or, How Robin Hood won the Second World War


The importance of oil to Great Britain during the Second World War can hardly be overstated. It sustained the civilian population and enabled the military effort. On the Home Front, it provided heat, light, food, clean water, working hospitals and a basic level of comfort. For the military, it was the source of toluene for explosives, of synthetic rubber for tyres, of wax for packaging, and of petrol, that magical mainstay of modern warfare.

In May 1940, the magic was enhanced by the arrival in Britain of an improved form of fuel. Known as ‘100 octane’, it was the result of a process known as catalytic cracking, and it gave an instant boost to the power rating of Fighter Command’s Spitfires and Hurricanes. British pilots were surprised by increased speeds and enhanced rates of climb and acceleration. The sudden improvement in performance contributed significantly to their success during the Battle of Britain.

But all of this depended on oil being available in huge quantities – and the supply could not be taken for granted. It arrived by tanker, but German U-Boats, hunting in packs, threatened to stem the supply. Between September 1939 and February 1941, seventy-nine British or British-controlled tankers were sunk with the loss of over 630,000 tons of oil. And not only were the U-Boats picking off tankers, but the Luftwaffe was destroying hundreds of thousands of barrels in dock areas. In April 1941, for example, stocks were affected during attacks on Avonmouth, Purfleet, Plymouth, Thamesfleet, Thameshaven, Jarrow and Belfast.

In the summer of 1942, the Secretary for Petroleum, Geoffrey Lloyd, called an emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board. Discussion focused on an impending crisis – until Philip Southwell, a senior Anglo-Iranian Oil engineer, stood up to speak. His words caused a sensation. The most pressing matter regarding Britain’s oil requirements, he said, was the development of Britain’s own oilfields. His listeners were amazed. What oilfields? The board members was entirely unaware of an astonishing undertaking in Sherwood Forest. Almost three decades before the discovery of oil in the North Sea, an effort was underway to pump oil from the ground in Robin Hood’s backyard. At no other period would such an ambitious venture have been attempted – but these were radical times.

The impetus for Britain’s inshore oil industry had come from Lord Cadman, the government’s petroleum advisor. As far back as 1908, while overseeing drilling tuition at Birmingham University, Cadman had been convinced that oil would come to dominate world politics. In the build-up to the Second World War, he led a nationwide search for deposits – and when significant oil reserves were discovered near Eakring in Sherwood Forest in June 1939, Cadman pressed home the need to start drilling immediately. D’Arcy Exploration, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, quickly set to work – and a cadre of specialist drillers was called in.

One of these men was Sandy Ross, an Anglo-Iranian driller, who was at home on leave from Iran when his telephone rang. Told by an inscrutable voice to report to Newark railway station, he would be working at Eakring for the next five years. Men were needed in large numbers, and many of the first recruits were Nottinghamshire coal-miners deemed unfit for work underground. The Labour Exchange was called upon to provide others, so that unskilled workers found themselves training to become everything from labourers to well pullers to members of the drilling crew. Jack Clarke had been a miner at Ollerton Colliery, before starting work at Eakring. He remembers the small country roads clogged with double decker buses ferrying newly-created oil workers to and from the wells. ‘The lanes were so busy,’ he says, ‘that local people used to avoid travelling along them.’

At first, wells up to 2500 feet were drilled, which were soon producing an average of 700 barrels of oil per day. A national oil industry was being built up from scratch – an extraordinary undertaking at a time when the country was unsure of its own survival, and weakened by nightly aerial bombardment. The oilfield, with its derricks and pumps, seemed unlikely to be targeted by enemy aircraft, hidden away in the heart of England among the oak, birch and hawthorn trees. But any residual risk paled alongside the fact that Eakring crude was of an astonishingly high quality, purer than anything being produced in Europe or the Middle East. This made it ideal for the high octane fuel required by Spitfires and Hurricanes.

By 1942, the nation’s oil supplies had begun to run short. Stocks stood at two million barrels below normal safety reserves – even as military requirements were increasing. It was clear that ‘indigenous’ production would have to increase: the Petroleum Department urged a fourfold increase. This was why, in August, Philip Southwell went before the emergency meeting of the Oil Control Board to confess the truth about Britain’s secret industry.

The specific problems laid out by Southwell were the lack of skilled labour, and the difficulty in obtaining materials and equipment. The rigs in use had been designed for deep-drilling operations in Iran, and were not appropriate for the shallower Nottinghamshire reserves. They were also large and complicated to erect and move, resulting in wasted time and effort. Denis Sheffield, working at Eakring in 1941, recalls the struggle. ‘This heavy equipment would be pulled by hand and jacked by a gang onto a lorry,’ he says, ‘and they would literally manhandle it up at the next site.’ Smaller and more mobile American rigs were badly needed. Given the equipment, and the men to operate it, it was hoped that a hundred new wells could become operational within a year.

With this goal in mind, Philip Southwell flew to Washington DC – no easy endeavour mid-war. Once there, he set out Britain’s material requirements. He wanted to buy the latest rotary drilling rigs, drill pipe, and rotary rock bits – but United States law presented a problem. Drilling equipment could not legally to be sold to a foreigner – so a loophole was exploited. The equipment was sold to Lloyd Noble, an American appointed to carry out operations in the United Kingdom. Noble, founder of the Noble Drilling Corporation, also agreed to recruit drillers – and to forego any profit from the operation.

The result was that forty-two experienced oil workers, mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, were engaged to come to Britain on year-long contracts. They would be billeted together to make them easier to control. The billet chosen was an Anglican monastery in the Nottinghamshire village of Kelham. Designed by Sir Gilbert Scott in his familiar Gothic Revival style, it was imposing and well-appointed. But it was already populated by members of a religious order. How would the placid monks react to the arrival of drillers plucked from another world? Eugene Rosser, the Noble Drilling Corporation representative who would be looking after the men in England, was keen to reassure the anxious novices. ‘I’m figuring,’ he said, ‘that not many of them is going to feel like a lot of hell-raising and whoring around in their spare time.’

One of the would-be hell-raisers was Lewis Dugger from Louisiana. Interviewed many years later, Dugger was honest about his motivation for accepting the position: at $29 a day, he stood to receive almost twenty times the pay of an army private. ‘I said yes straightaway,’ he says.

The ‘roughnecks’ (as oil workers were known) met up in New York before sailing for Britain. One man was fired – for getting drunk and running wild – before crossing the Atlantic. And when Lewis’s group finally disembarked, they spent the day drinking before being taken to a hotel:

‘We were mischievous. The people at this hotel put their shoes out at night to be shined. We thought we’d mess this up real good. We didn’t steal the shoes, but we mixed them all up. It was a prank. We got a kick out of it.’

The monks of Kelham Hall were in for a surprise. The roughnecks arrived at the monastery on 18 March 1943, carrying banjos as well as bags. The next day, they were taken to Newark, where they innocently mistook the ruins of Newark Castle for war damage. In the town, they spoke cheerfully to impressionable locals, bought bicycles, and stood out in the crowd. Their Stetson hats, colourful shirts, and cowboy boots presented an unreal sight against a monochrome English backdrop. So incongruous did they seem, that a rumour spread that they were in Britain to make a film.

Small culture shocks were soon felt. One of the oil workers tried to place a telephone call to his family in the small town of Stroud, Oklahoma. After a confused discussion, the operator tried to place the call through to Stroud, Gloucestershire. The roughneck had never heard of that Stroud, the operator had never heard of the other, and a sad little argument ensued. ‘Hell, no, honey!’ the driller was heard to shout, ‘I want Stroud America! Not Stroud England, Stroud South Africa or Stroud Australia!’ Meanwhile, in The Fox pub, the men, accustomed to Budweiser and Schlitz, were unimpressed by the local beer. Once they had drank the pub’s whisky, they took to adding salt to pints of bitter and mild in a desperate attempt to improve the taste.

The roughnecks’ accommodation was in one wing of the monastery, two men to a room. Each roommate worked a different shifts, twelve hours on, twelve hours off, so they barely saw each other. Lewis Dugger’s room was spacious and warmed by a fireplace, and nearby was a recreation room with a snooker table. There were also good washing facilities – unusual for the time but important for men who spent their days in filthy conditions. There were six cooks and stewards (all soldiers recently released from hospital) who prepared and served some very unpopular meals. ‘It was either brussel sprouts, or mutton, or potatoes fried in mutton grease,’ remembers Dugger.

Once the men were settled, Eugene Rosser set them a target. ‘Guys we want to get after it! We want to drill a hundred wells in a year!’ And the roughnecks were soon showing their worth. After the first twelve hour shift on an existing Anglo-Iranian rig, they reported 1010 feet. The works manager refused to believe that this was possible. But there was no mistake; the American drillers worked much quicker than their British counterparts. And when the new American rigs began to arrive, their speed increased further. By the beginning of June 1943, they had completed 42 wells, at an average of one a week; the British crews had been taking up to eight weeks to complete a single well.

Astounded by this pace, the Anglo-Iranian Company asked Eugene Rosser how it was done. In front of Sir William Fraser, Anglo-Iranian’s chairman, Rosser explained what the English drillers were doing wrong. They were wasting time changing rock bits when the existing bit was still doing a good job. They were waiting too long for cement to set on their wells. And they were drilling with chemically-prepared mud when they could be drilling with water. Above all, though, they were too rigid in their application of the rules. They were failing to react to circumstances as they arose.

Speaking years later, Lewis Dugger is equally damning of the English drillers and their methods. He recalls being surprised to learn that a complicated operation carried out mechanically by the Americans – laying down a drill collar – was carried out manually by the English crews. When he asked a British driller how they went about it, he was told, ‘We get about fifteen men round and we push the bugger!’ Dugger was not impressed – and his description of most British drillers as ‘military rejects’ gives a sense of his feelings.

Dugger was equally unimpressed by British social conventions. ‘I had one Englishman working for me, he says, ‘and he told me he had to shine the boots of the driller.’ But Dugger was positively amazed when he met an Englishman in his twenties with a full set of dentures. American contempt for badly maintained British teeth stretches back a lifetime.

Though he is critical of much of the Eakring set-up (which was, it should be remembered, entirely new and operating under wartime conditions) Dugger was clearly enthusiastic about the job itself, saying, ‘I felt like I had an obligation, and I wanted to do it to the best of my ability.’ And he is happy to praise the younger British workers whom he trained. ‘The English roughnecks weren’t skilled when they started to work,’ he says, ‘but we taught them what to do and they’re quick learners.’

One of the British oil workers who learned quickly was Ivan Mitchell, a local boy recruited through the labour exchange. Attracted by the money – ‘£3 more than I was getting’ – he cycled through the forest to attend an interview at the oilfield. His first job, at the age of seventeen, was tidying up the yard, but he was soon assigned to a drilling crew. His attitude toward the Americans is revealing:

They were crackers, the way they fly about. Crackers. When they first came, the way that they performed, people were scared of them.

The British, according to Mitchell, learned from the Americans, and began to improve. ‘We went the same way eventually,’ he says. In Ivan’s case, this included dressing like them, in their cast-off clothes.

Despite their initial rate of progress, and the impression they made on the locals, the Americans began to experience problems. Mistakes crept in, levels of drinking increased, and the mood turned darker. The problem, it became clear, was lack of food. The roughnecks were used to a robust diet of red meat and fresh fruit and vegetables. They were not prepared for an English diet, and certainly not a wartime diet where many foods were rationed, and others were unavailable. Working twelve hour days, seven days a week, the men lost weight alarmingly. ‘It was food for an office worker,’ says Dugger.

One of the roughnecks tried to help the situation by growing his own vegetables in an allotment behind the monastery. Offered the use of a local family’s greenhouse, he began cultivating tomatoes, peppers and celery – but he overstepped the mark when he borrowed a shotgun and bagged a brace of pheasants. Somebody arrived at the monastery to warn him that local farmers had heard the gunshots. He returned the gun promptly, and decided to focus on beekeeping.

The black market was another way of boosting rations. Talking to a farmer, one day, Dugger agreed to trade five gallons of petrol for a dozen eggs. At 2015 prices, this works out at about £2 per egg, but as Dugger points out, ‘money don’t mean nothing when you can’t get stuff.’

Food matters finally came to a head when a steward announced that breakfast would consist of warmed up brussel sprouts from the previous night’s dinner. Fed up and hungry, the roughnecks announced that that they would work one more full month – but that if the food had not improved by then, they would be returning to America.

Deeply concerned, and aware of the army’s abundant food supply, Eugene Rosser travelled to London to speak to the Petroleum Attaché at the United States Embassy. He was sent first to see Major General John C H Lee, chief of supply of services, who, in turn, wrote to his chief quartermaster, Brigadier General Robert Littlejohn, ordering him to issue military rations to the oilfield workers. After a few days, however, nothing had happened so Rosser went in person to Littlejohn’s headquarters – where it became clear that the brigadier general was not prepared to see him. Littlejohn was a plain-speaking man with a huge logistical task on his hands – and no interest whatsoever in civilian oil workers.

Unwilling to return meekly to Kelham Hall to report an army snafu, Rosser plucked up the courage to barge into Littlejohn’s office. The astonished quratermaster began shouting – until a remarkably timely telephone call from Major General Lee silenced him. The chief of supply confirmed his order – leaving the seething Littlejohn with little choice but to comply.

The roughnecks were soon receiving increased rations – including an extra meal at midnight as the day and night shifts crossed over. ‘We could eat great,’ says Lewis, ‘sugar, pork luncheon meat, sliced pineapple, sliced peaches…’ The mood improved immediately – as did the standard of work.

But even with extra rations, oil drilling was a dangerous business. One man’s arm was broken by a spinning rope, another caught his hand in a motor clutch. And in November, Herman Douthit, a 29-year-old Texan, fell from a platform 55 feet above the ground. His boots, it seems, were covered in clay and his gloves were wet. As he climbed down a ladder, he fell, suffering head injuries. An ambulance arrived quickly, but Douthit was pronounced dead on arrival at the United States Military Hospital at Sutton-in-Ashfield. The funeral was held in the small church attached to Kelham Hall. Douthit’s coffin was draped in an American flag which was sent to his widow in Texas, along with the proceeds of a collection taken by locals. Today, Douthit is the only civilian buried in the United States Military Cemetery near Cambridge.

By the end of the Americans’ year in Sherwood Forest, they had drilled 106 wells, from which ‘nodding donkeys’ pumped nearly a million barrels of fine crude oil. In the days that followed, the roughnecks were offered the chance to carry on working at Eakring (albeit at a lower wage) but they all chose to return to America. In fact, four men had already gone back: one had been injured, another was homesick, and two had been fired – the first for drunken fighting and the second for helping a local farmer when he was supposed to be sick in bed. When the time came for the rest to leave they went quietly. ‘We disappeared without any fanfare,’ says Dugger. But before they shipped out, they were taken to London where they were shown around the city by Philip Southwell. It was, believes Dugger, a mark of appreciation for what they had achieved.

They sailed home on Mauretania, having reached Southwell’s goal of a hundred wells. They had helped to ease the national petroleum shortage, and they had passed on their knowledge to local men, many of whom would have long careers as oil drillers around the world. At its peak, the Sherwood Forest oilfield employed 1200 people, and by the end of the war, it had stretched across nine miles of countryside, and produced over 300,000 tons of high grade oil, equivalent to two and a quarter million barrels from 170 nodding donkeys. It had become a genuine commercial proposition, with a life that was to extend into the mid-1960s.

Shortly after the war, Father Gregory, the prior of the monastery, wrote about his American tenants in NAFT, the journal of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. He admitted that initially, the monks had been alarmed by the prospect of the roughnecks’ arrival, but that Eugene Rosser’s assurances had been well founded. He also revealed himself to be a motion picture fan, who could not have been happier had Gary Cooper come to stay. ‘It really is most interesting and at times almost uncanny,’ he wrote, ‘to see how like the films they are.’

A visit to the area reveals that they have never quite gone away. Their names are still carved into the bark of old beech trees. Their image is visible in a bronze statue in Duke’s Wood nature reserve. And perhaps, one day, they will sit beside the Merry Men as figures of Sherwood Forest legend – outlaws and roughnecks together. On a national scale, however, their achievement reflects the ambition of a country reinventing itself. Beliefs and assumptions were changing. Oil was no longer something that simply came from abroad. Just as the people of Britain were making do and mending – so was the island itself.



It wasn’t just oil workers gaining knowledge at Eakring. The director of the British Geological Survey, Sir Edward Bailey, wrote to the chairman of Anglo-Iranian Oil, pointing out that Eakring’s activities were offering unimagined scientific opportunity. Well 146, he wrote, ‘has recently passed through a very thick breccia-conglomerate series’, and he asked for the chance to drill a further 200 feet in search of fossils. ‘Such an opportunity cannot be expected to repeat itself in the next fifty years.’ The chairman agreed to Bailey’s request, and the drilling was done. The war took many forms in many places, but surely nowhere else was it used to achieve greater understanding of prehistoric carboniferous rock formations.



The Blitz in a Nutshell

The Blitz was a time of terror and misery. Almost 100,000 people were killed or seriously injured over eight-and-a-half months of brutal enemy action. For those directly affected, the Blitz starts and ends there, a period of unremitting darkness.

For others, however, the Blitz was a time of possibilities. Shocked out of their rhythms by fear and necessity, ordinary people pulled together and helped strangers. They spoke to each other for the first time. They found common ground amidst the chaos where none had existed before. And at the same time, they broke rules and exploited each other. They were selfish in ways they could barely have imagined. People behaved very well – and they behaved very badly.

The Blitz, after all, was a time of extremes. Extremes of experience, extremes of behaviour, extremes of reaction. In every possible direction. Take the case of Ida Rodway. Ida was an ordinary law-abiding woman in her late sixties from east London. In early October 1940, she went to fetch her blind husband, Joseph, his morning cup of tea. But as the water boiled, Ida changed her mind. She picked up an axe and a carving knife instead. Returning to her husband, she attacked him with the axe. It quickly broke. So she slit his throat with the knife.

Ida was a devoted wife. Joseph’s brother never remembered the couple sharing a harsh word. But they were as truly victims of the Blitz as anybody killed by an aerial mine or a high explosive bomb. In September, they had been bombed out of their Hackney home, and after several days in hospital had begun sleeping on Ida’s sister’s floor. Joseph’s mental state was deteriorating and he rarely knew where he was. They were about to lose their labour money and Ida had no idea how or where they were going to live, or what to do about the bombed house that still contained all their possessions. Hopeless, helpless and overwhelmed, she did what she considered to be the kindest thing for her husband. Charged with murder, she was found unfit to plead at the Old Bailey, and committed to Broadmoor where she died a few years later.

This was truly a crime of the Blitz. Yet the extremes of the period had other, more positive, effects. They changed the attitudes and expectations of Britain’s citizens. And as expectations altered, the fight against Nazism became intertwined with the fight for a better future. Women, for example, were encouraged to step outside the home, to become independent, to contribute actively to the war effort. Yes, they were paid less than men to do their widely varying work. Yes, they were still required to run the home. And yes, when it was all over, they were expected to step aside and allow the men to replace them. But for the duration, their lives opened up in extraordinary ways.

Sexually, too, attitudes and behaviours shifted. In her diary on 7 September 1940 – the day the daytime bombing of London began – nineteen-year-old Joan Wyndham wrote ‘As the opposite of death is life, I think I shall get seduced by Rupert.’ As good as her word, she went to bed with her boyfriend. ‘If that’s really all there is to it, I’d rather have a good smoke,’ she told her diary afterwards. But disappointing or not, her experience was not unusual. Many people had love affairs they would not have had before the war. These ranged from isolated experiences to ‘wartime marriages’, liaisons intended to last for the duration before being dropped – the sexual equivalent, perhaps, of powdered egg.

Many of the freedoms and attitudes that we nowadays take for granted were forged in the Blitz’s dark crucible. The country owes a far larger debt to the period than has been acknowledged. This was the time when the vulnerable in society began to be protected, when a sense of collective responsibility began to form, when plans were first laid for a National Health Service and an Education Act offering free secondary education to all. It was the period when a War Aims Cabinet Committee, composed mainly of Conservatives, delivered a paper declaring that economic, social and educational practices would, in future, have to be overhauled in order to secure a reasonable standard of life for the entire population. The Blitz was certainly a time of misery – but it was also a time attitudes and behaviours changed. And it was a time when the sacrifices made by ordinary British people began to tilt the balance of society in their favour. For better or for worse – depending on one’s point of view – we have been living with the consequences ever since.

Bad Reporting from the BBC

I’ve just been watching this news video –

It covers the appalling murder of Cerys Marie Yemm by Matthew Williams – and I’m finding it hard to believe that it’s the work of the BBC.

There is a hint of what’s to come when the reporter says, ‘Angelina Cossy lives across the road to the hostel…’ This isn’t English, but the story is an upsetting one, and it’s fair to make allowances.

Then comes an interview with a woman who feels ‘physically and mentally sick’ and who ‘can’t believe that anything like this can happen anywhere.’ This woman, it turns out, has nothing whatsoever to do with the incident, and as I doubt anyone feels physically and mentally enhanced by it, I’m not sure why she’s featured.

But the real problem comes at the end – and it isn’t just sloppy journalism, it’s dangerous. Williams had recently served a prison sentence for assaulting an ex-girlfriend, and was living in a half-way house, a hostel for people returning to the community. The reporter says:

Tonight questions are being asked about why a man with such a violent past was living in this residential community.

The point of a half-way house is to return prisoners to normal life. It has to be in someone’s residential community. And when he was placed in the hostel, he hadn’t committed a murder. He had a conviction for assault, like many tens of thousands of others around the country. Does that automatically qualify him as someone ‘with such a violent past’ that he shouldn’t be allowed near ordinary people? This journalist is using hindsight to make an invalid and irresponsible point. The story is terrifying enough without making it seem even worse than it is. That’s what tabloid newspapers do. The BBC – usually – doesn’t.

Williams’s crime was vicious and appalling, and I certainly don’t want to appear to minimise its seriousness. But that seriousness is no reason to lower our expectations of how it is covered.

The Unlikely Story of the German Invasion Spies

In the late summer of 1940, Britain was gripped by spy paranoia. Enemy agents and fifth columnists, people believed, were everywhere. Stories did the rounds – of spies recently arrived on Dunkirk evacuation ships, of lamps being flashed at low-flying Dorniers in the Home Counties, of a Lincolnshire vicar arrested for transmitting wireless messages from his vicarage. The stories were almost invariably untrue – but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

As Britain waited for invasion in September 1940, four men were chosen by the German Intelligence Service to act as the invasion’s advanced guard. They were to be the scouts, the eyes and ears that would help the first German invasion for fifteen hundred years to gain a foothold.

The four men would be expected to report back on coastal troop positions, frequency of patrols, locations of landmines, and weather conditions – but their preparation was insufficient. They were given just a month of cursory training in Morse and cryptology, they were shown how to use their transmitters, and they were given a few sketchy lectures about the structure of the British army. The German Intelligence Service, poorly run at the best of times, had been taken by surprise by the speed and success of Blitzkrieg, and these invasion spies had been a very quickly organized response. The mission to England was acknowledged to be so dangerous that it quickly became known to prospective spies as ‘Himmelfahrt’ – ‘the journey to heaven’.

The men were sailed to within a few miles of the British coast, placed in rowing boats, and pointed towards the Kent coast. Now they were on their own.

In one rowing boat were Jose Waldberg and Carl Meier. Waldberg was a committed Nazi, a German born in France, with some experience of spying in France before its fall. He spoke no English. Meier was a Dutchman born in Germany who had studied in the United States. He spoke English with an American accent, but had no experience of spying. And, as it turned out, not a great deal of aptitude for it.

In the other boat were Charles van den Kieboom and Sjoerd Pons. Kieboom was a half-Dutch, half-Japanese YMCA receptionist. Pons was an unemployed Dutch army ambulance driver. These two men had known each other for years – and it appears that they had both been involved in illegal currency smuggling which had been discovered by the Nazi authorities. As a result they were blackmailed: either they agree to spy in England, or they would be sent to concentration camps. They chose Himmelfahrt.

The two boats landed in the very early hours of the morning; one near Dungeness, and the other by the Dymchurch Redoubt. Only Waldberg, unsurprisingly, had the makings of a decent spy. In his few hours of freedom on the Kent coast, he managed to make wireless contact with his German handlers. The other three men were truly hopeless. Meier gave himself away by knocking on the door of The Rising Sun pub at Lydd at nine in the morning and asking the landlady whether he could have a champagne cider, and whether he could take a bath. Lydd was no hub of cosmopolitan activity in 1940, and Meier with his foreign accent, ignorance of pub etiquette, and lack of the correct papers, was soon under arrest. The landlady had explained to him that a bath was not on offer, and had called for assistance. Two members of the public stepped up to arrest him. “You’ve caught me,” Maier told them, “and I don’t mind what happens to me, but I don’t want to go back to Germany!”

Yet even before Meier had been picked up, Kieboom was already in police custody. His abandoned boat had been noticed by a patrolling soldier in the early morning gloom, and he was spotted minutes later. I am a Dutch refugee!” he exclaimed, “And I can explain the situation!”

The others were duly arrested, and all were sent to Britain’s wartime spy prison – just around the corner from Richmond tube station. Latchmere House, known as Camp 020, was run by Colonel Robin ‘Tin-eye’ Stephens. Stephens’s role was to interrogate his prisoners, and to decide whether they could be used as double agents against their German masters. Before they could be ‘turned’, however, the spies had to be ‘broken’, and to admit that they were spies. Stephens used his own carefully concocted methods to break his guests.

One method was known as ‘Blow-hot/blow-cold’. This was a prototype of ‘good cop/bad cop’, long before it was being featured in television dramas. Stephens would begin by behaving ferociously towards the prisoner. A calm officer would intervene, apparently trying to pacify Stephens. The kindly officer would take the prisoner aside and explain gently that, perhaps it would be better if he confessed, because Stephens could become a very angry man indeed…

Stephens also invented ‘Cell Fourteen.’ Just as George Orwell’s Room 101 contained ‘the worst thing in the world’, so Cell Fourteen was intended to conjure up a prisoner’s darkest fears. It was actually a perfectly ordinary room around which a story of death and madness was created. The prisoner was told that the previous occupant had committed suicide in it, that it was opposite the mortuary, that he would not be spoken to again, that he would remain there until he confessed – or until he left “for the last time…”… Very often, a confession was forthcoming.

Perhaps surprisingly, Stephens would never allow physical violence to be used against his prisoners. But this was not the result of progressive thinking on Stephens’s part; he simply understood that a confession gained by torture could rarely be trusted.

While in Stephens’s custody, Waldberg admitted to being a willing German spy – but the others all vehemently denied being spies. Sjoerd Pons, the fourth man, claimed that he had intended to give himself up as soon as he arrived: “I want to take it all to you,” he said, “I want to tell the police and take him my apparatus under my arm.” Pons was asked, in interrogation, whether he would be willing to become a double agent. His dilemma was clear from his stumbling answer. Believing that the Germans would invade Britain in the coming days, he didn’t know what to say. After all, if he refused, the British might execute him summarily as a spy. But if he agreed, the Germans might execute him on arrival. So Pons chose a different option. Instead of answering the question, he asked his interrogator whether he could possibly be sent to America, where he had wanted to go all along. The answer, unsurprisingly, was no…

In the end, Colonel Stephens concluded that the men could not be used as double agents. He gave three reasons. Firstly, Waldberg had already made contact with his handler. Secondly, their arrests had been widely observed. Thirdly, three of them denied being spies at all. And so they all went to trial at the Old Bailey – except for Waldberg who pleaded guilty.

The trial, held in Court One, began on 19 November 1940. The three men were charged under a brand new law – The Treachery Act – which had just been introduced to fill a legal loophole. The trial was held in secret, with the jury being told by the judge to “Make up some story if you are asked what you are trying.” The judge also told them to keep “an open mind” – but at a time when spies were feared and hated, when Britain was expecting an invasion, when the Blitz was raging, when Britain and its dominions were fighting without Russian or American help, an ‘open mind’ was an extremely tall order. Rarely can a jury have approached a trial in a more justifiably prejudiced frame of mind.

Section 1 of the Treachery Act read: “If, with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty’s forces, or to endanger life, he shall be guilty of felony and shall on conviction suffer death.”

The penalty was death. The stakes were high. In his examination-in-chief, Pons told his impressively named counsel, Christmas Humphreys, that the Nazis had caught Kieboom and himself smuggling currency between Holland and Germany. The Nazis, he said, had given them a choice – either agree to spy for Germany in England, or be sent to a concentration camp. (It is possible that this was true; blackmail was a common Nazi inducement to spies). They had agreed to the offer, said Pons, but had decided that they would hand themselves in to the police as soon as they came ashore. “Did you mean to help the Germans when you got to England?” Pons’s counsel asked. “No, sir!” he replied. Pons was trying to convince the jury that he had done nothing, as the Act put it, “likely to give assistance” to the enemy.

During Pons’s cross-examination, the judge interrupted to ask Pons why, if had really intended to surrender, he hadn’t come ashore waving a white handkerchief. Pons said that he hadn’t thought of it. Describing Pons’s evidence in his summing up, the judge said: “You may think that that is merely a cock and bull story.” He was leaving the jury little room for manoeuvre.

The jury retired to consider its verdict half way through the third day of the trial – and an hour later it came back with a question. What should they do, the foreman asked, if they thought that one of the defendants had originally conspired with the others to spy for Germany – but that “when he arrived in England he decided that he would not do anything to help the enemy but he would make a clean breast of it here.” Sir William Jowett, solicitor general and prosecuting counsel in the case, stood and said that would be a ‘Not Guilty’ verdict.

And so, minutes later, the jury returned with a Not Guilty verdict for Pons, and Guilty for Kieboom and Meier. In the view of Sir William Jowett, solicitor general and prosecuting counsel in the case, Pons was acquitted “mainly because the jury did not feel keen on his execution.” Pons may well have cut a more sympathetic figure than Kieboom, and it is perfectly possible that the jury simply didn’t want to punish him with death. It is not unknown for juries to decide cases on emotion rather than brutal logic. It is certainly true that while the other two defendants had made attempts to hide their equipment, or conceal their identities, Pons had been unresisting and co-operative.

Whatever the reason for his acquittal, though, it stands as an extraordinary testament to the independence of these jurors – and a testament to the jury system itself – that Pons was acquitted as the Germans stood poised to invade. When people cast doubt on the jury system nowadays, this trial should be remembered. As a nation, we should invoke it with pride.

Waldberg, Kiebook and Meier were subsequently hanged at Pentonville Prison – and the public was informed that three men had been convicted and executed. A photo of Waldberg’s radio transmitter even appeared in The Times. But the public was NEVER told that a fourth man had been acquitted. The British public never learned about Sjoerd Pons at all. He was swiftly rearrested and placed in internment for the remainder of the war.

In Sjoerd Pons’s file, open to all in the National Archives in London, it is noted that Pons’s wife was murdered in a concentration camp in 1943. This is not true; in fact, the couple divorced in 1951, after Pons’s repatriation. He remarried before moving to Spain in 1983 where he died. He had no children.

A search through the case files reveals letters that Meier, Kieboom and Waldberg wrote to their loved ones shortly before their executions. They died believing that these letters had been sent via the Red Cross – but they never were. Meier wrote to his American fiancée in perfect English. The letter’s last paragraph reads:

“Darling, keep your chin up! Say goodbye to all our friends from me and here’s all the love that my last thoughts will convey. I’m not going to say goodbye, because there must be something after this. Darling. XXXX So long! Carl.”

But the letter also includes a section which gives an insight into Meier’s true state of mind, rather different to anything he told the jury:

“I went into this with both my eyes open, telling myself that a man who has an ideal must be willing to sacrifice everything for it or else the ideal isn’t an ideal at all, or the man isn’t a man at all, but a humble creature who deserves only pity.”

This extraordinary story, in the end, stands as evidence of the only part of the invasion actually to arrive, of the appalling quality of German wartime spies, of the extraordinary fair-mindedness of a British jury…and of the first attempted Germanic conquest since the fifth century…

Medieval Advice for the Circumcised

I’ve just come across an extraordinary piece of advice written by a 13th century French rabbi, Isaac ben Yedaiah. I found it on the website, and it attempts to explain, in some detail, why a circumcised man should never allow his wife to sleep with an uncircumcised man:

She will court the man who is uncircumcised in the flesh and lie against his breast with great passion, for he thrusts inside her a long time because of the foreskin, which is a barrier against ejaculation in intercourse. Thus she feels pleasure and reaches an orgasm first. When an uncircumcised man sleeps with her and then resolves to return to his home, she brazenly grasps him, holding on to his genitals, and says to him, “Come back, make love to me.” This is because of the pleasure that she finds in intercourse with him, from the sinews of his testicles – sinews of iron – and from his ejaculation – that of a horse – which he shoots like an arrow into her womb. They are united without separating, and he makes love twice and three times in one night, yet the appetite is not filled.

I’m not really clear why Rabbi ben Yedaiah felt he had to say any of this. Was he answering a congregant’s question? (‘Rabbi, my wife wants to sleep with an uncircumcised man. It couldn’t harm our marriage, could it?’) Or was he recounting how the first Mrs ben Yedaiah had ended up living with her yoga instructor? Either way, he makes the strongest argument against circumcision that I’ve come across for a while.

Viva Big Elvis: An Account of a Trip to Las Vegas without a Single Mention of Gambling

Until a few weeks ago I’d never been to Las Vegas. And when I told people I was going, their reactions weren’t always predictable. A trainee rabbi laughed happily as he remembered the place. A liberal – apparently tolerant – friend angrily dismissed it as a moral vacuum. And these were people who’d actually been there. There were others who hadn’t, but who offered up comprehensive views anyway. Would anyone critique Helsinki or Lille without going there? And then there were those who didn’t tell me what they thought of Vegas, but told me, instead, exactly what I would think of it.

Why, I was wondering, were people so involved?

Possibly because they weren’t actually talking about Vegas at all. Weren’t they really presenting themselves as they’d like to be seen? In some cases, as moral individuals who frown on greed and superficiality, on dancing musical fountains and morbidly obese Elvis impersonators. And in others, as people who get it, whose highly developed senses of humour shine ironic light on seven-pound burrito eating contests, and indoor recreations of Piazza San Marco.

And if Vegas really does represent a scale on which we can all be judged, I might as well tell you that before I went, I really liked it there. But now that I’m back, I like it even more. For me, Las Vegas is all about emotion. Yes, it’s built on gambling and sex and extortion, and, yes, it only smiles on those who can pay. I was told – more than once – about the people who follow their shiny dreams to the city only to finish up living in piss-soaked tunnels underneath it. “Some people say they like it here,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson, “but then some people like Nixon, too.” Vegas wastes natural resources to the point where brushing your teeth in the morning feels wrong. But I loved it all the same. I’ve never been anywhere that’s had me so close to tears so often. And I never cry.

One of my first experiences – and I recommend it as an introduction for any visitor – was an old-style Vegas show called ‘Jubilee’. It’s full of showgirls in feathered headdresses with make up so thick I wondered for a while whether some were men in drag. But they weren’t because they all had breasts, some bigger, some smaller, all bouncing freely around the stage. And when they disappeared off at the climax of a George Gershwin medley, they were replaced by a startlingly detailed recreation of an ocean liner. For the next ten minutes I sat astounded as the showgirls (and showboys) returned to act out the sinking of the Titanic. They played shuffleboard, they panicked at the sight of an iceberg, they hummed ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as the ship disappeared into the churning Atlantic. And then the breasts (which had been covered up – presumably out of respect for the dead) returned for a Cole Porter tribute. It was all so sincere, so funny, so naive, so enthusiastic – and so moving. Yes, moving. Lots of ingredients come together in Vegas to create a currency of emotion, and the machines pay out if you’ll let them.

I was moved the next day, too, watching Big Elvis, the above-mentioned medically obese impersonator. The thing is, he’s not just obese, he’s also terrifically good. And that combination of talent and tragedy mirroring Elvis’s own, plus the fact that Elvis is a religion in the States, (Vegas being his Medina, if not his Mecca), plus the nicely down-home atmosphere of the bar in which he sings three times a day, makes Big Elvis another emotional experience. At first I felt like laughing as Midwesterners wept. Thirty minutes later, as he begged Dixieland to look away, I was crying myself. And I never cry.

I could go on. By the end of the trip I was moved by an impeccably dressed Pee Wee Herman impersonator posing for visitors’ cameras on the strip. Nobody was paying him much attention so I gave him a few bucks. He was very grateful. Hell, maybe he was Pee Wee Herman. Of course by this time I’d have been moved by my own reflection in a puddle. (I should add that a combination of jet lag and excitement meant that I was barely sleeping; this could be another reason for my vulnerable state. I should also add that I was only ever going to be staying for six nights. A lifetime in Vegas would be something else altogether…)

So there we are. Am I telling you that I loved Vegas to impress you with my highly developed sense of absurdity? Maybe. To alert you to my unusually empathetic and amiable personality? Probably. But don’t you see? You’ll love it there too.

Really. You will.

Philip Philip Everywhere

Several years ago I visited Manorbier Castle in west Wales. I enjoy walking round old houses and castles – particularly when there’s no one else there and I can maintain an illusion of ownership.

On this day, the castle was all but empty, and as I ambled round, I noticed an awkwardly posed wax figure. He was dressed in chain mail, winding up the portcullis. He seemed familiar. Moving on to the kitchens, I spotted what looked like the same man, this time stirring a pot.

Then I saw him again in another part of the castle – and it dawned on me that these men were all Prince Philip.

I asked a member of staff, who said that, yes, the castle had recently purchased “a job lot” of Philips from Madame Tussauds.

This was all a long time ago, but I sometimes wonder whether the Duke’s been relieved of his duties. Or perhaps he’s now assisted by other job lots…