Pass the Pint, London Can Take It

Friends, Romans, Countrymen,

Yesterday I was interviewed by my esteemed colleague Dr. AJP. You can read my interview here if you’d like. It consists of how I came to teach history and what projects I’m working on. One of the questions asked specifically about my blog and I had to admit it has been some time since I’d put words on the internets. Far too long. My problem is that I have the attention span of a 6 month old baby. I’ll write religiously for a month or two and then I’m like “Oh…..look…..shiny things!” and next thing you know a few months have gone by without a post. I don’t have a good excuse, so I won’t waste your time giving you a bad one. In the interview, I do mention my novel project which as you may recall was the subject of a four part series I wrote. You can find the first article here and sort of take it from there.

Properly chastened, I sallied forth this morning to try and find a worthy subject of which to write. Truth be told, the subjects are worthy of a better writer than I, but I digress. Normally I make a pointed effort to not discuss current events on my blog. It isn’t that I don’t have opinions on things, of course I do, but I don’t really think you’d be interested them. However, today I will break my rule a tiny little bit, only because it is what inspired what I decided to write about.

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the terrible tragedies to strike Manchester and London. Nothing I can say would bring comfort to those mourning the loss of a loved one. However, a certain picture making the rounds on social media caught my eye and sparked today’s topic. I chuckled when I saw the photo of the gentleman racing away from the scene of the London attack with his pint. Given drink prices in London, I don’t blame him. But it also speaks to something else. Something deeper.


On this, the eve of the D-Day anniversary, we in the United States should remember that before we entered the war, and even before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the British stood alone against Hitler. The Germans hit London hard. At one point, German bombers flew over the city on 57 consecutive nights. People lost their homes and their lives. Over 1 million British homes were damaged or destroyed and half of all British deaths took place in London. Add to that 1,000 British firefighters who died in the line of duty.  In October of 1940, the British government commissioned a short film called London Can Take It. It was primarily aimed at an American audience to reassure them there was no chance of the British giving up. To quote Churchill, the “full fury and might of the enemy” was indeed turned upon them and the British public emerged from the darkness and carried on into a future which saw IRA bombing campaigns and now attacks by Jihadis.

It also reminded me of an audio file I listened to of a Lancaster crew over Germany in 1943. The same spirit of the man carrying the pint can be heard in their voices. “They’re firing at us now.” “Are they?” “Yep.” The boys in Bomber Command were in their late teens and early twenties. They came from all over the Commonwealth. Australians crewed planes alongside South Africans, Welshmen, Canadians, and Scots. Night after night they flew over blacked out German cities bristling with vipers nests of searchlights and Flak batteries. Night fighters prowled the skies looking for them. Nearly half of all Bomber Command crews were killed in action. The odds of finishing a tour of 30 ops in 1943 or 44 were long indeed, yet they kept calm and carried on (a phrase coined by Churchill during the Blitz). These men had gigantic balls made of steel.


The same spirit which saw the British through the dark days of the Second World War and the dark days of IRA attacks in British cities from the 70s-90s will no doubt see them through their current situation. You will never defeat a country where people think to save their pint in the midst of unspeakable horror. You will never defeat a country where people, night after night, listen to German bombs raining down upon them with no thought of surrender. You will never beat a country willing to stand up to the Nazis alone. The resolve of the British people is, quite simply, unbreakable.



Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 4)


Dear Readers,

I’ve reached the 1/3rd point of my work in progress. It’s been a mixture of slow and fast going. I write much slower now than I ever have before. When in college, I could dash off 10 pages in a matter of an hour or two. Now, my 3,000 word a day limit sometimes takes me the better part of 6 hours to finish. Of those words, maybe half of them are actually any good. But books a rewritten more than they are written. That’s what editing is for. The important thing is to get the first draft finished. I’ve identified several issues with the overall plot and layout which will require extensive revision. I may end up cutting the four characters down to two so that I can get more in depth into them and their world. We’ll see. There is much left to write.

As I slave away in front of the computer, I have been pondering great works of World War 2 fiction that I’ve read in my life. If you are a writer, you have your favorites that influence your style and even the type of fiction you write. I’m a HUGE fan of the Dave Robicheaux series by the great James Lee Burke. Indeed, my completed novel is a mystery set in a fictitious Texas town on the Gulf Coast. It’s pretty good, actually. I haven’t take the time to revise and edit it though. I might once I finish with my current project. So please allow me a few moments to discuss my favorite World War 2 novels. For those who tough it out to the end, you’ll get to read the opening of my own novel So Others May Live. 

Bomber by Len Deighton. This is an incredibly written novel which takes place over a 24 hour time span. It details everything that went into planning and carrying out a bombing raid on the fictitious German town of Altgarten. At the same time, it also details the town itself with all its secrets and intrigue. Deighton is a master storyteller. As an added bonus, the BBC did a radio dramatization of the novel in the early 90s too, so you can both read it and then listen to a radio version of it. Both are excellent. I would tell people that if they read any novel about the Second World War, make it this one.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque. Wait, I hear you saying, isn’t he the guy that wrote All Quiet on the Western Front? Yes, Dear Readers, he is. This novel is, in my opinion, perhaps better even than his best known work. It takes place over a short span of time and involves a German soldier on leave from the Eastern Front. Particularly evocative of the paranoia and claustrophobia of wartime Germany, Remarque does an excellent job showing the behavior of people in wartime. It is worth noting that Remarque’s books were banned in Nazi Germany and he fled to Switzerland. In retaliation, the Nazis arrested his sister who remained behind. At her trial for undermining morale, the judge said “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach but you, however, will not escape us.” She was beheaded in 1943. Remarque eventually immigrated to the United States and became and American citizen. He married actress Paulette Goddard who was both incredibly hot and a redhead. But I digress.

The Burning Blue by James Holland. A friendship. A forbidden love affair with a best friend’s twin sister. Spitfires. The Battle of Britain. They blend together in this wonderful novel to create a perfect tale of wartime England. Told through a series of flashbacks whilst the main character lies recovering in a hospital bed in North Africa, the book starts a few years before the war and builds towards an exciting climax. You feel for the main character as he lives on a razor’s edge during the Battle of Britain. You want him to get the girl and you genuinely grieve when he doesn’t. Or does he? The aerial combat scenes are magnificent as are the personal interactions between the characters. Holland is a master of aviation fiction. (See his other work A Pair of Silver Wings as well.) For fans of British period dramas (Foyle’s War, etc) or The Battle of Britain, I highly recommend this novel. If you want to find yourself behind the controls of a Spit, read this book at once.

Berlin by Pierre Frei. This is technically not a World War 2 novel as it is set in Berlin, but it is at least in the immediate post-war period. A serial killer stalks the streets and a Kripo detective is partnered up with the Americans to track him down. What is really neat about this novel is that you have a chapter about each victim that tracks their lives up until the instant they are murdered. Then you’ll have a chapter about the investigation of their death. Getting deep into the lives of the characters makes their deaths all the more tragic. The novel does an incredible job of describing post-war Berlin; the hunger, the black market, the fraternizing between GIs and German girls that wasn’t supposed to be taking place, the secrets people tried to keep about the lives during the Nazi era. The author was born in Berlin in 1930 and grew up there. First published in German in 2003, it was translated to English in 2005. Definitely read this, especially if you like murder mysteries.

Payback by Gert Ledig. “When the first bomb fell, the blast hurled the dead children against the wall.” Holy F–k! What an opening! This book is rare and difficult to get a copy of, though used copies do exist. First published in German in 1956, it was not translated into English until 1999. The author served on the Eastern Front and was sent home after he was wounded near Leningrad. Whilst at home, he experienced Allied air raids which are the subject of this novel. The book isn’t long. The whole thing takes place over the course of an hour or so in a nameless town as it is pummeled by bombs. Each short chapter tells about one person in the town. Before each chapter is short piece where the character introduces themselves to the reader. You see the raid unfold with all its macabre horror. From a 16 year old girl raped in a cellar as bombs fall to the dead unburied by explosions and hurled into the trees, Payback provides a stomach churning glance into life under the bombs. The book is controversial because British and American audiences do not generally like to read about what their bombs did. Still, this book is an anti-war classic and a must read.

Now, Dear Readers, as promised, here is the opening to So Others May Live. Keep in mind this is an unedited first draft and I cannot state with certainty that this will be the opening scene in the finished product and even if it is, it’ll probably be a bit different.

Fire. A tornado of fire. Flames shot upwards, a thousand feet or more, and turned the night sky to daylight. Wind swirled around the base of the inferno. Over the roar of the conflagration, a new sound emerged like the scream of wounded animals. People staggered over the rubble choked streets as the heat seared their bodies. Clothing burst into flame. The human torches ran in circles until they dropped to the street and lay still. The wind grew in intensity until it lifted, first children and then adults, and hurled them into the seat of the fire. They screamed and flailed in the air until the flames devoured them. Hair burned. Clothes burned. Even the streets burned. The odor roasted flesh overpowered that of the phosphorus driven firestorm. Somewhere, a bell rang.  

There you have it, friends.


Reaping the Whirlwind (Pt. 3)


Dear Readers,

As I share my journey in writing my book, I thought I’d take the time to share a little about the research process. You can read the other parts of this series here: Part One & Part Two.  My previous completed novel is a mystery, and since I was an investigator, I know something about solving crimes. As my latest work is historical fiction, I thought it worthwhile to say a few words about how the research process works for me.

The past is like a foreign country. It has its own language, culture, and living conditions. I find it best to approach it in that way. Now, I have always had a healthy interest in the past. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve been reading about the past since I was five years old. That’s when I checked out my first book from the library and it just so happened to be a history book. I’ve been held captive ever since. I have a personal library of 2,000 books and the largest single subject is World War Two. Both of my grandfathers were veterans of this war. My grandmothers’ brothers all served as well (one was killed). All of my grandparents’ friends either served in the war or went through it on the home front, so in a way I was surrounded by it as a child. I studied history in college not because I planned on actual doing anything with it (I was happily a fireman in those days) but because I enjoyed the subject. The same goes for my graduate degree in History. Then I changed teams and became a police officer, still with no plans to use my degree, though I started teaching part time as an second job way back in 2004. I never would’ve guess I’d get hurt. I’m still teaching, and it is still part time because I’ve been told I’m not “full time material”. But I digress.


My book deals with two interconnected pieces of the war. First, is the bomber offensive against Germany, particularly that waged by the British. Thankfully there are some excellent books and documentaries on the topic. I start at the time and read general World War Two histories, then general books about RAF Bomber Command, and finish off with specific books written by people who flew Lancaster bombers over Germany. I have also consulted books on the British Home Front. Start broad and finish specific. The second piece of the book deals with the German Civil Defense system, particularly the fire brigades and how they coped with devastating fire bombing raids. This proves a little more difficult to research as there is not a large amount of material in English. For this aspect, I use interview notes I’ve complied while speaking with those who experienced the war in Germany as civilians, including some who served in the Luftschutz and/or the fire brigades. These interviews were conducted long ago, and long before I decided to write a book. I also read general history books about Nazi Germany, then books specifically about Berlin during the War (and there are some great ones), and finally the published recollections of German civilians. I’ve also uncovered some excellent training videos done by the German government to instruct civilians how to respond to incendiary bombs. For the sake of comparison, the study of the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz and of the British ARP and Civil Defense system has been important too.


Bomber Boys. 45% of all RAF Bomber Command aircrew were killed in action.

In some ways, I feel as though my entire life has been one big study session and this novel is my final exam. In that case, I hope I pass. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself. Writing is a difficult enough undertaking, but with historical fiction I feel a solemn obligation to get it as “right” as I can. I feel I’d be doing a great disservice to the men and women who lived through this tumultuous period in our past if I fudge the truth. Maybe that’s asking too much of myself. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction where the author is so knowledgeable that they can’t help but dump massive amounts of information in a single paragraph to the detriment of the story. To help resist that urge, my motto is : “Storytelling first”. Tell the story and weave the history around it, do not weave the story around the history. But get it right, nonetheless.


My book is divided into four parts. It takes place over the space of 36 hours and there are four main characters, one male and one female in England and the same in Germany. (There are, of course, a host of secondary characters who dance across the pages. Some for longer than others.) Each chapter is from the point of view of one character and each part has eight chapters. This is how part one is structured:

Part One: Afternoon, Sunday, November 21, 1943

Chapter One begins with Flying Officer Michael O’Hanlon, 22, as he finishes up his weekend pass with his fiance Grace. He has one more mission to reach his 30th which will give him a spell off of operations and an assignment to a training unit. They have plans to marry then. His reason for a weekend pass? The previous Wednesday he brought his plane back from a night mission over Germany with a dead top turret gunner, a dead wireless operator, and a seriously wounded navigator. His Lancaster received heavy damage and his crew got the time off to allow for repairs and to allow for replacement crewmen to be found. Now he will fly his last mission with half his crew inexperienced.

Chapter Two begins in Germany where Oberwachtmeister Karl Weber is teaching a class to a new draft of recruits. These aren’t military recruits, however. Karl is a veteran member of the Berlin Fire Brigade. One of the few men with experience still around owing to the constant drain on German manpower in Russia. Even Karl served during the early days of the war before a wound allowed him to resume his civilian occupation where he’s served since 1929. His recruits? Four young Hitler Youth boys 15-6 years old. Full of love for their Fuhrer and a belief in their own invincibility. The other four recruits are four young women who range in age from 17-20. It will be with these kids that Karl and the three older men at the station must wage a very different war than that waged by Michael O’Hanlon. While one drops bombs, the other tries to save lives amidst the rubble. Both are scared, yet they do their jobs anyway.

Chapter Three follows Grace Robinson,21, the daughter of a doctor and the only surviving child now that her brother, a Commando, was killed at Dieppe, as she leaves Michael at the train station. She can tell something is wrong with him, but she doesn’t know what. They haven’t known each other for long, just a few months, really, but she desperately wants him to return after his next mission so they can get married. Grace has not told her father of her plans to marry, much less her plans to marry an Irish Catholic from Belfast. She also harbors a deep secret, one which is alluded to, but that she won’t speak openly about. Should she tell Michael before they marry? Grace wanted to tell him while he was on leave but decided not to burden him with it before his next and hopefully last flight. Grace understands as much about Michael’s war as any civilian could. She was in London during The Blitz and knows firsthand the power of bombs. To that end, she and Ursula might get along if their countries weren’t at war.

Chapter Four introduces us to Ursula whom we briefly met at the end of Chapter Two. She’s a serious, redheaded German girl who lives on the edge of Charlottenburg in the western part of Berlin. Her parents are dead. Frau Muller died in an accident in 1937. Herr Muller, a Social Democrat who referred to the Nazis as ‘Hitler and His Circus Clowns’ died of a heart attack on the day Germany invaded Poland. This was perhaps for the best as he was spared the deaths of his two sons, both killed on the Eastern Front. Ursula got those telegrams instead. She works as a telephone operator and shares a small apartment with two other young women, also phone operators. But she nurses her own deadly secret. We follow Ursula as she delivers forged identity papers to a group hidden in a warehouse. They have another assignment for her tomorrow night. Pick up a pistol and deliver it. She leaves the warehouse, in the middle of the blackout, and reaches her apartment building as the air raid sirens begin to howl in the distance.


Each of these chapters are taking place simultaneously. The next block of four chapters which finish up Part One pick up where each of these chapters leave off. My working title is So Others May Live though I am also strongly considering A Terrible Symphony which was how reporter Edward R. Murrow described a night trip over Berlin in a Lancaster ten days after this story takes place. Which one do you like best? Since I’m not finished with the book, I’d not wedded to any particular title.

Many thanks to you all for sharing this journey with me. I do not know everything there is to know about World War 2, but I do know a lot. I’d be more than happy to help anyone with their war related questions and I place my library at your disposal. If you’d like to know specific titles I’ve found useful whilst researching my novel, please ask and I’ll forward you a list.




Reap the Whirlwind (Pt 2)


Dear Readers,

Typically I’m not a big fan of doing too much talking about a writing project as I feel it saps the creativity that one needs to actually finish said project. I’ll make an exception here, mainly since I’ve alluded to it in another post which you can find here. In fact, you might want to read that one first as it will give you some historical background. So….here is the plot in a nutshell:

Two men. Two women. One night. Michael, a bomber pilot, proposed to Grace, but now fears leaving her a widow. Grace has a secret past that could change their relationship forever, but she can’t tell him. At least not yet. A thousand miles away in Berlin, Karl, a grizzled veteran of war both war and the fire service, takes responsibility for managing a crew of teenagers, the last line of defense against British bombers. On a routine call, he meets Ursula and falls in love, unaware she holds a deadly secret of her own.  In the space of an hour, four lives clash while a city burns. Secrets are exposed and lives change forever.

That’s it, more or less. I’m not very good at writing “blurbs” like this. I’m better at the story itself or at describing it verbally. Research wise, I draw on interviews I conducted in graduate school, a whole host of books (my personal World War 2 collection numbers several hundred volumes), some excellent documentaries, and even some of my own experiences as a firefighter. Obviously when writing any historical piece, be it fiction or non, you owe it to those who lived through the events to get it as “right” as you can. Certain pieces can be dramatized, if you will, but big events have to happen as they really did. You can’t, for example, have Pearl Harbor being bombed on Dec. 12, 1945 unless you are writing an alternate history novel (and there are some great books it that genre out there).


The single night I mention in the blurb above is the night of November 22-23, 1943. This was the heaviest and most damaging raid Berlin had seen up to that point in the war. Bombs fell mostly in the western area of Berlin, in residential areas. Bombs also hit the zoo. The raid left over 175,000 people homeless. In the skies above the city, flak and night fighters claimed 26 British bombers who made the nine hour round trip to Berlin and back. Some flew home badly shot up. Others flew home with dead or seriously wounded crewmen on board. By the end of the war, 45% of all British Bomber Command crews died. Few in 1943 made it to the end of a thirty mission tour.

I’m still teasing out some of the plot elements and will naturally make some changes as I go along, but I do have the bare bones of a halfway decent story. I’ve completed two novels already, neither all that great in my opinion, but I get better with each one I write. Maybe the third time will be the charm. Below is an excerpt:

A young girl sat on a pile of rubble, a teddy bear clutched under one arm and a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under the other. Two teenage Luftshutz boys in blue-gray coveralls stood over two charred bodies, on a baby. Cigarettes dangled from the corners of their mouths as eyes far too old for their young faces stared from under the brim of helmets too big for their heads. A truck arrived, driven by a young woman in a similar uniform. The boys scrape the bodies off the pavement and toss them in the back. A block away, firefighters sprayed a limp stream of water on an enormous pile of brick and concrete. Smoke curled out from amidst the debris, as did the screams of those trapped inside. A small Hitler Youth boy stands in front of the hose stream to wet his clothes before he wormed his way into the collapsed building. He emerged a few minutes later with a child in his arms. Dead. No one took notice of the zebra, freed from his cage by a bomb, as it galloped down the street.


Murder, Utility Knickers, and the Seamy Side of Wartime England



Arson investigators have a difficult job since the crime in their case, fire, can do a number on your crime scene! (as can the firefighters sometimes) That said, it leaves evidence behind also. You just have to know where to look for it. Fires leave patterns, accelerants leave traces, and people leave clues. This makes a tough task a little easier. Imagine returning to the scene of a murder only to find out that it has been bombed into oblivion. That, Dear Readers, was the task faced by the intrepid Inspectors from Scotland Yard during the Second World War.

Though often we look at times of national catastrophe or struggle as a uniting factor that brings people together, that does not negate the fact that under it all a criminal element still lurks in the shadows. In the case of the blacked out cities of Europe, those shadows grew larger and the hiding places more numerous. Even Berlin, the city at the center of Hitler’s Empire was rocked by a series of bizarre sex murders in 1940 though the government kept it secret as the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo) quietly worked the case. In fact, as we will see, secrecy was a big issue in dealing with crimes in wartime.

Sir Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829 while serving as Home Secretary. This paved the way for the first large professional police force in the world. And, maybe more important, it led to police officers being called “Bobbies” or “Peelers”. In fact, the Irish (my people!) brought the term “Peeler” with them to the United States and it was the first commonly used slang for police officers in eastern cities in the US. Can’t say it is all that popular anymore. I never got called that during my time in law enforcement. But it would have been cool if I had. By the time England declared war on Germany in September 1939, the British police force and the government intelligence branches (MI 5 and 6) were up to the challenge. Just as they had with the Fire Service, the government hired thousands of auxiliary policemen to help fill the spots left open by those who left to enlist in the military. However, the detective inspectors tended to be long term men who knew their way around a crime scene.


When I was a “peeler”, I worked weekends, holidays, and night because crime doesn’t take a vacation or sleep. Nor does it disappear just because your country is at war. As soon as war was declared, the British police force helped the government in rounding up enemy aliens and people with suspicious loyalties for internment. Some of those interned were British citizens, but that did not stop them, just as it did not stop us from interning Americans citizens with Japanese ancestry.  One question that we must consider is why did crime rates in England go up during the war years? I suppose there are a variety of factors. First, large numbers of people are thrown together in stressful circumstances. That is a major part of it. Second, we have the fact that for soldiers and civilians alike in England, death could come on any given night. This can give rise to a certain sense of fatalism and an anything goes attitude. And then you add in the increased opportunity for crime with blackouts and the like. Thus wartime England was not as safe as you might think.

To begin with, the fact that London remained blacked out for much of the war and people spent a lot of time in bomb shelters meant that your everyday burglars had a field day. Rings of mostly youth with a few professionals thrown in, would watch houses after dark. When the air raid sirens went off, they would see if the people left to go to a public shelter. If so, they could break into the house with little fear of detection. As an added plus, if the house was hit by a bomb or incendiary, then it would obliterate the evidence! Perfect! The British government took a dim view of this as they also did looting bombed out homes but with their resources already stretched thin, combating it proved to be a very tough task. Fraud and the black market also consumed resources, but more important than that was the “serious” crimes of rape and yes, even murder.


Time and space dictate that I can only share a few cases with you. First, we have the Dobkin Case. Apparently Mr. Dobkin got tired of his wife Rachel and decided to kill her. Plenty of murders have their origins here it seems. Anyway, he murdered her and buried her body under the rubble of a bombed out church hoping that if she was discovered, the authorities would write it off as a bombing victim. Almost, Mr. Dobkin. Almost! It took over a year for anyone to discover the body and owing to the fact that she had obviously been dead a while, an autopsy was conducted. During said autopsy, the intrepid pathologist Dr. Simpson discovered that the hyroid bone was fractured, thus indicating Rachel died of strangulation. Oops! And as an added oops, Mr. Dobkin covered her body in lime hoping to speed the decomposition but he used the wrong type! (Builder’s lime rather than quicklime) That may have actually preserved the body better than it would have otherwise been! The jury convicted him in less than a half hour and he was promptly hanged. Makes you wonder if other people tried this very thing and got away with it, doesn’t it?

Though often called a serial killer, our next dealer of death is really more of a spree killer. In serial murders, the killer has a “cooling off” period in between according to the almighty F.B.I. Young Gordon Cummins did not. He went on a six day murder spree earning him the very English name, “The Blackout Ripper”. On February 10, 1942, the body of a 40 year old woman was found in an air raid shelter. She had been strangled and her handbag was stolen. Inspectors and the pathologist surmised that the killer may have been left handed. The next day, a prostitute was found murdered in her apartment. The victim had been strangled, had her throat cut, and had her sexual organs mutilated with a can opener which was left at the scene. The scene was eerily reminiscent of Scotland Yard’s most famous open case, Jack the Ripper, as it looked like one of his crime scenes. Luckily, they were able to get prints off the can opener. The Home Office clamped down on the story as they did not want to spark a panic. However, worse was to come. And quickly.


Gordon Cummins

The next day, yet another prostitute was discovered murdered in her apartment. The scene was one of the most brutal you could encounter back then. She had been strangled with a stocking. The killer took the time to mutilate her with several objects and to violate her body with a candlestick. The next day, he struck again. This time the victim was not a prostitute but a 32 year old married woman. She too was strangled and mutilated. Word reached the press despite the wishes of the Home Office and they dubbed the killer the “Blackout Ripper”. Unlike Jack, this guy wouldn’t quit. He took a day off after his fourth murder and on Valentine’s Day, he struck again. This time his dastardly deeds were interrupted by the arrival of a delivery boy and his victim survived. She reported he was wearing an RAF uniform and when he made his getaway, he left his gas mask and its case behind! Hours later a prostitute reported she had been approached and then attacked by a man in an RAF uniform too. She fought him off and he left his belt behind during his escape.

His gas mask had a serial number and inspectors tracked it to a Gordon Cummins. Upon searching his apartment, they found items belonging to the victims and matched his prints to the one on the can opener. Naturally, he was promptly convicted and even more promptly hanged, during the middle of an air raid, no less! He may have killed other women and there were some within Scotland Yard who believed he did.


Evelyn Oatley, the beautiful second victim.

As much as we would think that hard times bring a country together, as you can see, the worst elements of our society are still very much present for duty also. When the Americans arrived in England, our cousins across the pond liked to blame the presence of our soldiers for the increase in crime. They said at the time that the problem with the Americans was that they were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here!” I doubt that had all that much to do with the increased crime rates though it not doubt added to the rate of unwed pregnancies, after all, some of the English women wore utility knickers. One Yank and they were off! VD rates soared as did prostitution. I’ve seen estimates that one out of every ten American soldiers in Europe during the war contracted some sort of “unwanted guest” but I do not know how accurate those statistics are.


Hey lady, on a scale of zero to America, how free are you tonight?

As tempting as it is to complain about working conditions, and Lord knows I did enough of that when I was a peeler, at least you don’t have to work whilst bombs fall around you. Air raids tend to make a right cock up of crime scenes. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about bombs. Rookie patrol officers on the other hand……

My name is Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who never met an English girl wearing utility knickers, unfortunately.

P.S.: For more along these lines, check out Murder on the Home Front by Molly LeFebure and the PBS film by the same name.

London’s Burning: A Night With the London Fire Brigade During The Blitz


I few days ago I discussed the civil defense system in Germany during World War 2, so I thought it appropriate to revisit my ode to the London Fire Brigade during The Blitz. First published on my old site.


Just like the warning labels on firefighter’s bunker gear and helmets say, firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation. An average of 77 firefighters died in the line of duty each year since 2010. This is down from an average of 151 per year in the 1970s. Still, the job puts incredible demands on the men and women who answer the calls. Given the fact that 9/11 and Pearl Harbor aside, the firefighters in the United States have not regularly been called upon to put out fires in the midst of bombing raids. It has happened on two days here, and one of those days, 9/11, saw over 300 of FDNY’s bravest killed in action. This hit home to me because I was a firefighter then. And having started out in life as a firefighter before I went over to the dark side of the force (law enforcement), I feel a certain kinship with the men and women who struggled to save lives and property during the darkest days the world had ever seen.

During the 1930s, architects of air power worldwide demonstrated the vulnerability of cities to aerial bombardment. The German Condor Legion, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, brought this point home to Europe when they pummeled the town of Guernica. Thanks to Pablo Picasso, who from what I understand was a pretty screwed up dude, the world knows of this because of his painting of the same name. As Europe marched closer and closer to war, the British government tried to plan ahead. The London Fire Brigade was an entirely full time department but many of the other parts of England relied on a mixture of full time and on call firefighters, similar to our volunteer firefighters in the United States. In 1937, Parliament authorized the establishment of an Auxiliary Fire Service to be made up of men and women to supplement the ranks of the paid fire crews in the event of a national emergency.  This proved to be a wise decision as two years later, war did come. By the time it ended, over 270,000 men and 70,000 women served in either the National Fire Service or the Auxiliary Fire Service.


Let us first consider the difficulties faced by the men and women of Britain’s Fire Service and the people of London, Manchester, Liverpool, etc, when the bombing began. First of all, fire stations are above ground, of course, and that is where all of the fire apparatus (or appliances as they call them across the pond) are stored. This means that they are just as vulnerable as a civilian’s house or an industrial target. Second, hospitals are also above ground. Imagine being injured and taken to a hospital only to be killed by a second bomb while waiting in an emergency room. Sounds terrible and it happened. Putting out fires is tough work, but imagine doing it while bombs are falling all around you. The men and women of the Fire Service did it routinely. They did not seek shelter from the shrapnel of exploding high explosive rounds or the burning goo of an incendiary bomb. Rather they went out into the fire lit night and did their jobs. And they died in scores.

For eight months, one week, and two days the German Luftwaffe rained bombs on the people of London and also other cities in England. It began on a Saturday afternoon, September 7th, around 5pm. Today it is sometimes called Black Saturday. This would start a period of sustained bombings that would see London bombed for 57 consecutive nights at its height. Over 400 civilians died that evening and over a thousand others were wounded. Two firefighters and a female air raid warden were among those killed and over a dozen firefighters injured. If you want to see a minute by minute and bomb by bomb account, check out this link. The London docks were hit causing a massive fire. The reporting Station Office is reported to have said “Send all the pumps you’ve got! The whole bloody world’s on fire!” It is amazing that the London Fire Brigade was able to keep such records in the midst of such an attack. And they say that the Germans are good record keepers!


“Keep calm and carry on” was the slogan of the day. (And you thought all the posters and t-shirts you see today are a new creation!) The British people went about their jobs as best they could during the day, as there was a war on, after all, and spent their nights huddled in private bomb shelters or in the “tubes” of the city’s underground subway system. By the end of October 13,000 civilians were dead. And there were more to come. Perhaps the biggest raid of the war, with the most potential for destruction, took place on the night of December 29th, 1940, a night called the Second Great Fire of London. If the London Fire Brigade and the Auxiliary Fire Service could not rise to the occasion, the city might be lost. Given the fact that I am not a real historian, but rather a Half A$$ Historian, I will now depart from the usual narrative and take a bit of dramatic license. You will now enter a time machine and be inserted into the role of a member of the London Fire Brigade.

You are 36 hours into a 48 hour shift. The wartime demands have caused a different shift schedule. You now work 48 hours on followed by 24 hours off. Then rinse and repeat. Even your off time isn’t really off. After all, it isn’t like the Jerries won’t come over whilst you are on a brief holiday. Bombs still fall on your off period and sometimes you have no choice but to report back to work, snatching what sleep you can in between alarms. Your station, in the East End of London has escaped damage thus far, but manning the station in the midst of an air raid is terrifying. You can hear bombs falling all around you and hear the clang of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells bouncing off the roof. Outside a helmet is a must. You risk death otherwise. When the alarm comes in, you jump on the engine, just like in peacetime, and head out the door. But this time your driver has to dodge shell craters and debris. All hope for a quiet night is shattered when the air raid sirens begin to wail around 6pm. A quick check of the equipment, and then it is time to wait for the Central Office to call with an assignment. Women man a control board in the candlelight waiting to receive reports of fires and send you out towards an uncertain fate.


Tonight the East End gets a pasting, as does the center of the city. You race from one burning block to another trying desperately to stem the tide of the bombs which just don’t seem to stop. Around 2am, you respond to a report of a direct hit on an air raid shelter. These calls are the worst. Bombs can kill people in many different ways. One of the most unusual is “blast lung” where the victim’s lungs are destroyed by the pressure caused by high explosives. You think of them as the lucky ones. They look as though they are asleep. You want to shake them and tell them to wake up and move along. Normally, high explosives blow people apart. You don’t deal with bodies so much as pieces of bodies. Arms, legs, heads, brains, stomachs, hopes, and dreams, all shattered by an unseen enemy. And then there is the constant smell of roasted flesh which never seems to leave your nose. Even on your off days, you wake up and smell it. There are a few victims trapped. Despite the roar of nearby flames, the drone of German aircraft, and the constant bark of anti-aircraft guns, you press your ear into the rubble hoping to hear a sound. You tap on a piece of pipe and listen again. Someone faintly taps back. A fury of digging ensues and soon you uncover a young woman. Her leg is pinned beneath a heavy beam. You and several of your mates lift in while another pulls her out. Part of her shattered leg remains behind. The ambulance crew frantically searches for a tourniquet but when they manage to produce one, she is already dead. And the screams. Dear God, the screams. The screams of the trapped, the screams of the dying, the screams of those who have survived but lost their entire family. You’ll never get them out of your head. No matter how long you live.


The crew fighting a blaze one street over is caught in the open when a bomb explodes. Three of them are killed and five more seriously injured. They are whisked away to hospital where another will die a few hours later. And the fires keep coming. The city is facing a fire storm with fires merging together and creating a tornado of fire that threatens to destroy the center of the city. As you spray water on a burning building, a wall collapses nearby, adding another firefighter to the list of the fourteen who will die tonight. Another 250 will be injured, some severely. But you and your mates hold on. Against all odds, you manage to gain the upper hand. As the sun rises, partially obscured by the smoke which still wafts over the city, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is still standing. Despite Jerry’s best efforts, it is still there as a symbol of the city’s determination in the face of everything that can be thrown at it.


That, Dear Readers, is a glimpse into one night faced by the men and women of the London Fire Brigade and Auxiliary Fire Service. And that is just one night, one out of many. During the course of the Blitz, two fire stations would receive direct hits. Two firemen died in the first and six in the second. The deadliest raid during the Blitz took place near its conclusion, on May 10th, 1941, when over 1300 Londoners died in a single night. And again, the members of the Fire Brigade answered the call. By the war’s end, over 1,000 men of the Britain’s Fire Service died in the line of duty, with 1/3rd of them being from London. In addition, 24 women of the Auxiliary Fire Service also gave their lives. 6,000 were seriously injured and many more slightly injured. Their sacrifices are commemorated with the National Fire Memorial near Hyde Park, pictured below. I will close with a quote from a member of the LFB who penned these words.

And many learned the nastier ways of dying

Or limped back maimed and shattered from the strife

While all endured unpleasantness and danger

Continually—and learned to love life

And in an era here in the United States, when paid and volunteer firefighters get into heated internet exchanges about what makes a “real” firefighter, allow me to share this anecdote. The paid firefighters were issued one type of boots and the auxiliary another. One Station Officer during the Blitz walked past the tarp covered bodies of 14 firefighters. All he could see of them was the boots sticking out. 6 wore the boots of the London Fire Brigade. 8 wore the boots of the Auxiliary Fire Service. “Well,” he said “they are all equal now.”


May we never forget those who fought to save lives during the worst war the world has ever seen.


Reaping the Whirlwind:A Firefighter’s View

Warning: Post Contains Graphic Images


Dear Readers,

I attended graduate school to receive my Master’s Degree in History many years ago. 2001-2003 to be exact. I had been working as a firefighter for several years prior and continued to work while in school. In fact, I made Lieutenant during that time! A few years later, I went over to the dark side of the force and became a police officer and eventually a detective who worked arson cases. I say all that to say this: I’ve always been interested in Fire Service History, not just here in the States, but also abroad. In a previous post many moons back, I discussed the gallant efforts of the London Fire Brigade during the Blitz. Friends, their story of wartime firefighting is truly the stuff of legend. But what of the view from the other side of the fence? 10 times as many German civilians died in Allied bombing raids as British citizens died in German raids. What was it like for their firefighters? For their rescue workers?

Precious little in the way of sources exist in the English language, probably due to a general lack of interest. Of course, you find passing references in plenty of places, but not much else. Truthfully, there isn’t a whole lot in the German language either. There is, however, one notable exception. After the war, Civil Defense authorities in the United States commissioned a report on the experiences of the Hamburg Fire Brigade during the week of Operation Gomorrah which included a firestorm that killed nearly 40,000 people. You can view the report here. In the appendix of the document, it contains the Hamburg Police President’s report on the raids as well as the Fire Brigades report. I will draw from that for the below paragraph.


By the summer of 1943, Hamburg had a multilayered fire protection system. As a large city, it naturally had a professional fire brigade. However, you also had community volunteer fire brigades, Nazi Party volunteer fire brigades, industrial fire brigades (to protect important factories around the city), military rescue squads, and Luftschutz personnel who functioned sort of like civil defense volunteers or CERT teams today. During the height of the attacks, aid was sent from all over Germany including volunteer companies and professional brigades. However, each night, those units (except members of the Berlin Fire Brigade) were withdrawn from the city so the Hamburg and Berlin men bore the brunt of the response during the heaviest raids. By the end of the week, 55 Hamburg firefighters were dead, and scores more wounded, often seriously. The chief spoke of their suffering many symptoms brought on by nervous exhaustion after working for 36 hours straight with no food or water. For any of you who have fought a fire, you know how tough that must have been on them. Imagine going from fire to fire for 36 hours without a break and no way to hydrate. The Police President (whom the fire brigades reported to) wrote that aid provided by the volunteer brigades both in the city and from the surrounding area “was trifling” due to their lack of training and outdated equipment. What follows is a quote from page four of his report about what the aftermath of the raid was like:

The streets were covered with hundreds of corpses. Mothers with their children, men, old people, burnt, charred, unscathed and clothed, naked and pale like wax dummies in a shop window, they lay in every position, quiet and peaceful, or tense with their death throes written in the expressions on their faces. The situation in the air raid shelters was the same and made an even more gruesome impression because, in some cases, it showed the last desperate struggle which had taken place against a merciless fate. Whereas in one place the occupants were sitting quietly on their chairs, peaceful and unscathed as if they were sleeping and had unsuspectingly been killed by carbon monoxide gas, elsewhere the existence of the fragments of bones and skulls showed how the occupants had sought to flee and find refuge from their prison tomb. Source


There is another great source (in German) which describes the multiple levels of Civil Defense in Germany. The specific chapter on the Luftschutz you can see here. My interest was never so much how they were structured but rather how they responded. What affect did continuous raids have on them? Whereas the Blitz in London last 9 months (with a second Blitz later on in the war from V-1 and V-2 rockets), German cities endured raids of varying intensity for years. Every German city of any consequence was bombed at least once. Some of the cities were as much as 80% destroyed by the end of the war. Increasingly, young women and teenage boys too young for service at the front found themselves drawn in the battle to save German cities from fires as the war dragged on.


I’ve been fortunate to speak to dozens of people who lived through this era. Some served in the Germany Army, but my biggest area of interest was the civilian side of it. Therefore, I’ve spoken to teenage boys who crawled into rubble to search for trapped occupants, teenage girls of 18 or 19 who learned to fight fires caused by incendiaries, and military personnel who served in what would, in a modern fire department, be called a Heavy Rescue Squad. Some of the stories they told me were humorous. Most were tragic.


They spoke of seeing firefighters cut down by shrapnel from high explosive bombs in the midst of trying to put out a fire. Of piles of dead bodies in the streets. Of the many ways bombs can kill you. They spoke of going into shelters and seeing women and child apparently sleeping, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. Of shelters fulled of charred human remains who burned alive from the phosphorus incendiaries designed to penetrate into underground shelters and torch the occupants. One man told me of falling into what he thought was water, only to find it was liquified human fat. He was a young boy of 13 when that happened. They spoke of fear for the safety of their loved ones while they tried to save strangers. Of hours spent digging into the rubble of a building to reach trapped occupants, only to find them all dead. The lives of the occupants summarized by a simple chalk mark on the side of the building (20 Tot). The remains to be collected later.

Berlin, Opfer eines Luftangriffes

But, Dear Reader, to even discuss this invites criticism. Most will tell you they deserved their fate. I do not necessarily disagree with that. Some have called the British practice of area bombing and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants a war crime. I do not. Total War is a devastating thing. We’d do well to keep that in mind. War is not a video game. I do, however, feel sympathy for the children and the animals. Neither of them were responsible for what their government or the adults in their society did. Did a five year old child deserve to be burned alive, trapped below ground, because of what his government was doing? But they suffered just the same. The Berlin Zoo was hit during a heavy raid in November 1943 and many of the animals died. For the residents of Berlin, the dead animals led to a temporary increase in their meat ration.


Dear Readers, I’m working on a book length project which compiles most of the research I’ve done off and on for twenty years. It gives a ground level view of the bombing raids Berlin suffered during the war and what it was like for the inhabitants and, most importantly, the Civil Defense and Rescue Workers. It is difficult for a few reasons. First of all, there is the language issue though thankfully I know enough German to get by. Second, I have the gnawing idea that no one cares about the subject, so why bother writing about it. Third, I have to walk a very, very thin tightrope. When describing the aftermath of a raid, if I appear too sympathetic, then I risk being called all sorts of names (Nazi sympathizer, etc, etc). But at the same time, as a historian, I also have an obligation to the truth. Therefore, my approach is to simply report the facts without judgement or observation. I just describe what happened and leave it at that. I think, perhaps, that is the best way to handle it. As I said above, I do not consider adult German civilians to be innocent victims of air raids. However, that does not somehow change the fact that firebombing raids were a horrific, horrific thing, no matter if justified or not. Maybe if we read graphic descriptions of what those raids were like, we as a society will strive to live in a world in which bombs are no longer necessary. History tells us human nature doesn’t change, so sadly, a world without bombs is not possible.

Here, Dear Reader, is but a small excerpt from a passage dealing with the raid on Berlin on the night of November 22-23, 1943. The heaviest in the war up to that point:

The heavy stench of smoke mingled with the sickly sweet odor of burned flesh filled the air. A young girl sits on a pile of rubble, clutching a stuffed bear under one arm and a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under the other. A group of teenage Luftschutz boys in blue-gray coveralls with helmets too big for their heads stand near the charred remains of two bodies, one a child. Cigarettes dangle from their mouths as they stare with vacant eyes too old for their young faces. When a military truck arrives, driven by a young woman in a similar uniform, they scrape the bodies off the pavement and toss them in the back. A group of firefighters spray a limp stream of water on the facade of a collapsed building as workers scurry back and forth across the pile of brick and concrete as if they were ants constructing a colony. The screams of the trapped occupants are muffled, but you can hear them from the street. Smoke curls upward from within the debris. Something inside is burning. A young boy in a Hitler Youth uniform stands in front of the hose stream to wet his clothes before he worms his way into a hole made in the rubble. No one takes any notice of the zebra, freed from the confines of his zoo home courtesy of a bomb, as it gallops down the street. Such is the nature of war.


It is a difficult topic to write about, one that gives you nightmares. But I do think it is an important one. Since I’m a historian cross trained as a novelist, I take a bit of dramatic license with my descriptions, but all of them are born out by my research. Is this something even worth writing about? I don’t know. If it is worth it or not isn’t a question that I can answer. Only the reading public can. But what I do know is that it is an important topic, fraught with peril though it may be. So thank you for reading my post and excerpt. May we all learn something from the lessons the 1930s and 40s should have taught us.