Elephant Bill: Saving Lives in WW2 Burma

“Mommy, why do you like reading about war?”

I suppose the question shouldn’t have surprised me. My eldest is an observant, curious child, and she’d asked questions about my history books before. I’d shared little stories and anecdotes nothing too heavy or unsettling.

This…it wasn’t a question I was prepared for. I didn’t have a ready answer to hand – at least not one I could frame in a way that a seven-year-old would understand.

After some thought I told her, “I like to read stories about people who are brave, and people who are kind, even when things are hard.”

A simple answer, meant for a child, but true. I love reading history, but the stories that honor courage and kindness are the ones that resonate.

The story of  James Howard Williams, or ‘Elephant Bill,’ is a perfect example.

KristineJames Howard Williams was born November 15, 1897 in Cornwall. He was known as “Jim” to his family, “Billy” to his friends.

Williams finished his World War I service in the “Bloody Eleventh” Devonshire Regiment physically unharmed.  He found, however, that he couldn’t just resume his old life at home. He longed for a change.

He decided that an opportunity to move to Burma and work with elephants in the teak tree harvesting industry was perfect. Elephants! Williams had always loved animals- from dogs, to his boyhood pet donkey, to ‘Frying Pan,’ his wartime camel companion.

Williams took to the strenuous and dangerous life of the jungle. He befriended the elephants  he supervised and learned all he could about their personalities and care from limited texts available and from their uzis (the native elephant handlers.) He became adept at dealing with elephant illnesses, and at times would use his skills as an amateur MD for people in the isolated villages. He established an ‘elephant school’ to train working elephants, and championed humane training techniques and conditions for the infants born in captivity. He even met his wife in the jungle- Susan Rowland was keeping house for her uncle, who happened to be the chief conservator of forests.

The onset of WW2 seemed distant from the Burmese jungle- until suddenly, it wasn’t.

Japan’s entrance into the war and aggressive push into Asia left Burma vulnerable. Williams and his growing family- he and Susan had a son and a baby on the way- were also vulnerable, facing an uncertain future.

During the course of the war, Williams would have to evacuate Burma three times.

The first time involved the wives and children of his company’s employees. Once he got them over the mountains to India, Williams returned to Burma, aiding other refugees and checking on the elephants and people he left behind. He hoped to take 200 elephants back to India with him, but the treacherous mountain roads were packed with refugees, and so he was forced to retreat to India again, on foot.

He offered himself to the Allied war effort, and became the leader of the No. 1 Elephant Company, operating under the SOE (the British ‘dirty tricks’ department) behind enemy lines. He and his compatriots rescued elephants from under the noses of Japanese troops and used them to build roads and bridges and to aid the Allies in every way possible, (while still doing all he could to protect the elephants themselves.)

As the Allies geared up for a huge offensive in March of 1944, Williams was told to be ready to withdraw his elephants- they were to be evacuated so that they weren’t caught and killed in the crossfire.

Williams, the refugee families of a number of Gurkha (Allied) soldiers, his elephants and his coworkers set off on his third evacuation, across unfamiliar territory with enemy troops closing in. The group totaled 64 women and children,  53 elephants, 40 Karen soldiers, 90 uzies and 4 officers.

After days of struggling through thick vegetation, plagued by Japanese patrols and suffering from illness and lack of food, the party reached and insurmountable obstical- a 270 foot sheer rock wall, blocking their path.

Moving forward was impossible; Williams decided to do it anyway.

 

Williams’ party labored for two days and created an ‘elephant staircase,’ cutting steps into the sandstone cliff, trimming back brush, expanding existing ledges, hoping the elephants would cooperate and climb it.

They did.

 

elephant
Photo by Yathin S Krishnappa, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A few notes about the book

Generally, I prefer to read primary sources whenever possible- I like to ‘hear’ the voice of the person who lived the events telling the story. However, Vicki Constantine Croke’s list of sources and her careful citing was enough to silence even my inner skeptic, who likes to say things like, “Sure, but how do YOU know he felt that way, hmmm?” That being said,  I’d still like to get my hands on James Howard Williams’ own books. (The library really needs to start asking me which books they ought to stock… :))

While the cover of the book highlights the WW2 part of the story, the reader has to wait until the third section of the book and past the 200 page mark to get to that era in Williams’ life. If you don’t mind the wait, the rest of his story is interesting, and I learned a great deal about elephants in those first 200 pages. (From her bio on the back, Vicki Constantine Croke writes many nature/animal oriented tales.)

Whatever source you use, the true tale of ‘Elephant Bill’ is well worth reading and remembering!

 

Many thanks for visiting, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

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On Baking, Butter, and a Shameless Deception

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December is here, it’s officially Advent, and in my house that means baking season.

My cookbooks are filled with favorite cookie recipes from my mom, grandmas, in-laws, and friends. If I only make the essentials, I’ve got a half a dozen types to whip together in the next four weeks.

It gets a little crazy, and more than a little messy as the kids all pitch in to ‘help,’ but I love the memories wrapped up in the process: Grandma’s handwriting on a recipe card, the cookbook Mom assembled, the flavors of my childhood.

In a small way, dusting off the old recipes makes it feel as if the people who passed them on are part of the holidays.

The annual baking spree takes some preparation, of course. We stock up on all of the essentials. Flour, sugar, cocoa, and eggs are non-negotiable.

When we come to the dairy aisle, my internal debate begins.

Do I spring for the ridiculous amounts of butter my recipes require, or substitute a little bit of thrifty margarine? As a child of dairy country (who was also raised to spend as little as possible) it is a challenging decision.

When I visited my parents in November, we started talking about butter vs. margarine and they reminisced about when the decision was even more challenging – during the years when margarine was CONTRABAND.

Naturally, I had to do a little research.

The tale went back to the advent of margarine as a butter substitute in the late 1800s. It was cheap, and oh-so-spreadable. However, the dairy farmers of the U.S. were not pleased with the competition, and fought tooth and claw against it in the political arena.

They succeeded, to a degree.

The dairy proponents passed laws making colored margarine illegal,  hoping that the natural color of the spread would be unappealing.

The margarine companies countered by selling small packets of yellow dye with their product- just mix it in yourself at home!

Margarine was cheaper to purchase than butter, but tax laws against margarine helped to even the playing field.

Of course, you could avoid these if you could make it across the border into a different state- yes, I’ve run in to stories of margarine smuggling.

When butter became scarce during the Great Depression and the World Wars, margarine gained headway, but the butter proponents wouldn’t let little events like these discourage them.

Minnesota didn’t officially legalize colored margarine until 1963. Wisconsin was the longest holdout- they didn’t legalize it until 1967. (According to this article, it may still be illegal to serve margarine in Wisconsin restaurants without also offering butter.)

We have some of those same stubborn farmers in our ancestry, and dad shared the story of their reaction to the debate. Though the participants in our own little skirmish in the ‘margarine wars’ have been in heaven for many years, I’ll simply call them ‘The Farmer’ and ‘The Farmer’s Wife.’

The Farmer had made up his mind, and wasn’t the sort to change it easily.

Margarine- that imitation stuff- would never pass his lips.

The Farmer’s Wife disagreed. She was an excellent baker, but her passion for bread and cookies was matched by her gift for thrift.

How long the war of wills lasted, I don’t know. All that I know is that, on serving supper one night, the Farmer’s Wife made a quiet substitution.

Would he be able to tell the difference?

I wonder if she had any doubts- if she puttered around the kitchen, avoiding his eyes, or if she sat at the table to face him head on, determined to brazen it out.

Either way, The Farmer’s response says it all.

“That’s darn good butter!”

margarine
Image courtesy of “Classic Film” on flickr.com. My husband didn’t find it quite as amusing as I did. 😉

My first batch of cookies is finished baking! Today’s feature: Mom’s Baked Chocolate Covered Cherries. (I’ll share the recipe below, in case anyone is interested.)

As to my dairy aisle choice: I know this recipe calls for margarine… but I found a good deal on butter, and I like the real stuff. (You can take a girl out of dairy country… 🙂 )

Many thanks for visiting!

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Baked Chocolate Covered Cherry Cookies

1/2 C margarine         1/2 tsp salt

1 C sugar                1/2 C baking cocoa

1 egg                        1/4 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 tsp vanilla   1/4 tsp baking powder

1 1/2 C flour           1/2 tsp salt

36-48 maraschino cherries, drained, juice reserved

Cream butter, sugar, egg and vanilla. Add dry ingredients, mix thoroughly. Shape into 1 inch balls. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheet. Push one cherry halfway into each cookie. When all cookies are shaped and cherries added, make the frosting.

Frosting:

1 C semi-sweet chocolate chips

1/2 C sweetened condensed milk

1-1 1/2 tsp cherry juice

1/4 tsp salt

Cook the chocolate chips and milk in a sauce pan over low heat until melted. Remove from heat and add salt and cherry juice. Immediately frost the cookies, using about 1/2 tsp frosting to spread over each cherry.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 8-10 minutes until puffy and set.

Store tightly covered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North Africa in 1941 Continued

Life being what it is just now, I will be going ‘off the grid’ for a bit, but I  couldn’t resist one more little history article, and a chance to wish you all a happy Veteran’s Day weekend. (Remembrance Day for some of you, I believe.)

Though, come to think of it, ‘Happy’ doesn’t seem quite the right sentiment for the day.

Maybe wishing you a ‘thankful’ day is better. It fits the way I look at it, anyway.

I’m thankful for the people who serve and have served with the goal of protecting others.

I’m thankful for the stories of people who hold on to bravery in the face of fear, and who can still manage to show kindness even when surrounded by cruelty.

I’m thankful for the sacrifices others have made, who have gone where I can’t.

And to those who are still serving in the present day, God bless and watch over you, and bring you safely home.

red poppy

Back to 1941.

Things were not going General Wavell’s way.

Greece and Yuglslavia had fallen to the Axis, and General Erwin Rommel of the German Afrikakorps hounded the Allied troops in North Africa, retaking the lands the Italians had lost.

True, there had been some successes- a revolt in Iraq and a struggle with the Vichy element in Syria both quelled with relatively small forces, and the Italians in East Africa were giving way before an Allied advance.

Also, the risky Operation Tiger had paid off-  slipping 300 tanks through the hazardous Mediterranian Sea to help bolster Wavell’s efforts.

Still, the positives were overshadowed by Crete and Rommel.

The Allies had expected Hitler’s armies to make a play for the island of Crete, and had prepared themselves as best they could.

Even their best preparations couldn’t ready them for the assault of Goering’s elite XI Air Corps, who attacked via parachute and glider on May 20th.

By May 30th the Allies were on their final effort to get as many men off the island as possible. 16,500 were brought back to Egypt. Between 13 and 16,000 were lost- dead, wounded or captive.

(Side note: In this conflict, Axis losses were much lower, but Goering’s only airborne division was entirely spent.)

 

German glider plane invasion of crete
German glider crashing on Crete

Then, of course, there was the German army in North Africa to contend with.

 

Here it is again! Many thanks for a helpful reference map to Gordon Smith’s http://www.naval-history.net

 

General Wavell had tried to get the jump on Rommel, even before the new tanks, nicknamed the “Tiger Cubs” arrived. His forces had been able to take Sollum and Capuzzo- unfortunately the Germans took them right back again.

Still, the British were able to leave a garrison at Halfaya Pass and Sidi Suleima, and a sortie by the still-isolated Tobruk garrison had some sucess.

Churchill and others ‘back home’ had high hopes that the new infusion of tanks would tip the balance.

Of course, tanks are only good if they work.

The ‘Tiger Cubs’ were not ready for action. It took time to unload them, to refit them, and to prepare for service in desert conditions.

 

crusader tank
British “Crusader Tank”

 

Rommel, naturally, used this time to his advantage, preparing his own 15th Panzer Division.

He suspected that an attack to relieve Tobruck was imminent. (This was, in fact, one of Wavell’s goals with the upcoming Operation Battleaxe.) He decided to attack first, taking Halfaya Pass on May 26th.

Loosing the pass would make ‘Battleaxe’ more difficult, but it moved forward.  People wanted a clear victory against Rommel.

General Wavell wasn’t certain he could give it to them. He admitted, even before ‘Battleaxe’ began that even with numerical superiority, there were weaknesses- his armored cars were too lightly armored and had no guns, unlike the German model. His infantry tanks were too slow, there was ongoing trouble with mechanical breakdowns…

…and then, of course, there was the fact that the estimates of just how many tanks the Germans could bring to bear were wrong. Rommel brought more than 200 to the show, Wavell, only 180. The Tiger Cubs’ teeth weren’t sharp enough to finish the job.

On June 15th, they took Capuzzo, but not Halfaya and they were stopped at Sollum.

On June 16th- no progress.

On June 17th,  in the Winston Churchill’s words, “everything went wrong.” In short, Rommel’s armor was too much. General Wavell flew to the battle site, to find that his commanders on site had called a retreat- he agreed. Rommel did not pursue.

Battleaxe’s edge was effectively blunted.

“The powers that be” decided that perhaps General Wavell was tired, and it was time for a fresh look at the problems in North Africa. On June 21st, he was informed that he would trading jobs with General Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief in India. The Bristish hoped that perhaps Auchinleck was the man to finally out-fox Rommel.

 

General Auchinleck
General Auchinleck-  Look out Afrika Korps, here I come…

The very next day the entire scope of the war changed, and events took place that would soon provide Britain with another, unexpected, ally.

 

On June 22nd, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa- the invasion of the Soviet Union.

 

Thanks, as always, for visiting!

 

For further information:

Here is a wonderful animated map of the North African Campaign on through 1943

Here are some recorded memories from the battle for Crete and here is a bit more on Operation Battleaxe.

*Most of my information came from The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill, and World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle Edited by Hal Buell. I used various websites to double-check and verify dates and places.

 

Musical Interlude: Johnny Horton’s SINK THE BISMARK

Who better to tell the story of a British ship chasing a German ship than an American Country Music singer?

Johnny Horton (1925-1960) is best remembered for writing some fairly epic historical songs. In Sink The Bismark, he tells the story of the British navy’s hunt for a powerful German foe during May of 1941.

As the last week or so can best be summed up by my discovery that my youngest had vomited during the night after she hugged me good morning, I’ll let Mr. Horton tell the tale, and wish you all a good (and healthy!) weekend.

North Africa and the Balkans, 1940 and 1941

Flowers and chocolates are lovely, but my husband knows the way to my heart.

IMG_9664
BOOKS!

His timing couldn’t have been better. Those of you who’ve been following my blog know that I’ve been writing a series on major events in the Second World War, the last being on The Blitz.

I’ve had some trouble continuing the series.

The difficulty of writing about WW2 history is the sheer SCOPE of the conflict. (It’s like it involved most of the world or something…) So many simultaneous events in so many locations make it difficult to know where to focus.

The new book helped. It goes through the war day by day, highlighting events in every theater of the conflict. It was enough to give me direction.*

So… it’s back to 1940 and ’41!

tanks 1941

As Britain braced for German invasion under the rain of thousands of pounds of bombs, and U-boats attacked and sank hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping, the Allies faced off with Italian and German forces in North Africa and in the Balkans.

Many thanks for a helpful reference map to Gordon Smith’s http://www.naval-history.net

 

Upon entering the war in July of 1940, Italy sought to extend her influence, especially in Africa. Thousands of troops began to mass along the road from Tripoli, facing the frontier of Egypt and the British and Allied forces there. They dug in, but didn’t attempt to overrun the Allied lines. Not yet.

Facing them were about 50,000 troops from the 4th Indian, New Zealand and 7th Armored Divisions, along with some British battalions under General Wavell.

The outnumbered Allies didn’t launch a major offensive action, but who likes to just sit around? As soon as Italy declared war, they kept occupied harassing and raiding the Italian lines, claiming the desert territory as their own. (Sources say that they began these actions even before some of the Italian troops got word that they were at war. Surprise!)

Image result for General wavell ww2
Gen. Archibald Wavell

Mussolini also had his eye on European real-estate. Italian forces invaded Greece on October 29th. Here, too, his forces were numerically superior- he may well have had high hopes.

He must have been disappointed.

The Greeks resisted, fighting valiantly to keep the Italian army at bay. They continued to push the Italians back through November and December.

On December 9th, the Allies began the first Western Desert Offensive. General Wavell’s troops broke through the Italian lines at Sidi Barrani. In 4 days of fighting they took 38,000 prisoners (including 4 generals.)

They continued to push the Italians back across the desert.  With the addition of Australian troops, they pierced the line at Bardia on January 5th. Following the victory, Mr. Eden, (Churchill’s Foreign Secretary,) wrote to congratulate him, saying, “If I may debase a golden phrase, “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”” (From Winston Churchill’s The Grand Alliance, pg. 14.)

The Allies continued on, taking the fortified port of Tobruk and setting up a garrison there. The British advanced across North Africa until they held all of Cyrenaica.

With longstanding ties to Greece, Britain planned to secure North Africa, then send aid. They also had hopes of creating a united Balkan front by enlisting Turkey and Yugoslavia to help block the expected German advances.

They gathered the men for the British Expeditionary Force to Greece, and left a somewhat small number of less experienced troops behind to hold their newly-won positions.

As they departed, a new German General arrived in North Africa- Erwin Rommel.

Rommel
Gen. Rommel, soon to earn the nickname “The Desert Fox”

The first contingents of his Afrikakorps landed in Tripoli in mid-February. The situation in North Africa quickly turned against the Allies.

The Balkan situation deteriorated as well. Back on the 27th of September, 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact, agreeing that they were entitled to establish their ‘new order,’ in Europe and in Asia. Now, Hitler pushed the Balkan nations to sign. Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria cooperated. Hitler gave Yugoslavia an ultimatum on the 19th of March.

Some of the Yugoslavian leadership gave in on the 25th and signed the Pact. Protests broke out in Belgrade, spreading over the country. On the 27th, the government was replaced in a bloodless coup.

Yugoslavia’s new leadership refused to work with Hitler. Enraged, Hitler vowed to crush the country.

On April 6th Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece.

Within 6 days, Belgrade fell to ‘Operation Punishment.’

The Greek army, under tremendous pressure, surrendered 70,000 men.

The North African situation was not much better. Rommel, who had been steadily advancing East and retaking lost Axis positions, took back Bardia and continued towards Egypt.

Tobruk was left an island, it’s garrison besieged. (Radio Berlin disparagingly named the stranded troops the “Rats of Tobruk,” a name which they embraced with pride.)

By April 19th the Greeks had surrendered. The rearguards of the British force in Greece struggled to hold positions at Thermopylae- struggled to safeguard the routes for evacuation.

Most of the force made it out, but more than 11,000 troops were left behind.

In the midst of the losses, one bold move paid off. The British Admiralty had gambled on sending a shipment of over 300 tanks through the Meditteranian rather than via the safer route around the Cape.  Dubbed ‘Operation Tiger,’ the risk was a success- the troops at Egypt received their much-needed vehicles.

Would they be enough to answer Rommel’s threat?

“Looking back upon the unceasing tumult of the war, I cannot recall any period when its stresses and the onset of so many problems all at once or in rapid succession bore more directly on me and my collegues than the first half of 1941. The scale of events grew larger every year; but the decisions required were not more difficult.” (Winston Churchill, The Grand Alliance, pg 3)

African campaign

Many thanks, as always, for visiting!

 

For more details on this period:

Here is a wonderful animated map of the North African Campaign on through 1943

Here are links to stories of the siege of Tobruk, from people who were there. One in particular caught my eye- the stories of a fellow baker.

*Most of my information came from The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill, and my new book World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle Edited by Hal Buell. I used various websites to double-check and verify dates and places.

 

Books I Pretended to Read ‘For the Kids’

Summer vanished overnight.

My corner of the world has returned to its natural state – cold, gray drizzle.

It’s the perfect time to avoid the outside world, curl up with a mug of something warm, a plate of something fresh-baked, and a good book.

Last time, I wrote about the power historical fiction wields – the power to absorb even reluctant historians into an engaging story. In particular, I shared how I’d enjoyed reading Connie Willis’ historical sci-fi books Blackout and All Clear.

Excellent historical fiction is powerful for adults, but it might be even more powerful for young readers.

History cloaked in fiction provides something a list of facts can’t: a face. A character that kids/middle graders/young adults can relate to, empathize with, can guide them through places and times that they don’t have the background knowledge and experience to traverse alone.

I couldn’t choose just one book for this topic, oh no. One of the best things about the title ‘teacher’ is having a free pass to spend large amounts of time reading stories, because hey, it’s research!

The following are just a few of the stories I’ve come across and enjoyed.

DISCLAIMER: This list is not a recommendation to go out, buy these books, and have your child/grandchild/classroom read them, sight unseen.

My children won’t be seeing most of these for a long time yet.

After all, historical fiction deals with real people and real events. Some of these people are cruel. Some of these events are ugly. Stories can help provide teachable moments, valuable discussions, and relevant lessons, but I am a firm believer in saving books for when your child can handle them.

Books about World War 2 (Of Course 🙂 )

number the starsLois Lowry’s Newbery winning Number the Stars details the courage of Anna Marie Johansen and her family as they struggle to protect their Jewish friends in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

There’s a reason this one ends up in classrooms. It’s a moving story, building suspense without delving too deeply into the horrors of the era.

snow treasureChildren in Norway help smuggle their country’s treasure out of Nazi hands in Marie McSwigan’s Snow Treasure.

I read this one in grade-school. I still recall loving the adventure, of the story and loving that children were the heroes of the piece.

MilkweedJerry Spinelli tells the story of a nameless boy without a family  who finds and looses the people he loves in the Warsaw ghetto..

Milkweed is powerful and painful, and definitely one for older readers – honestly, I’d almost say that this is more an adult book (remembering the story to write this is making me tear up.) Still, it bears a mention on this list, as a remembrance of the terrible suffering during the days of the Holocaust.

American History

Johnny Tremain

An injury dashes Johnny Tremain’s dreams of becoming a silver-smith and launches him into the American Revolution.

Winner of the 1944 Newbery Medal, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain is another story I remember from elementary school that I still enjoy as an adult. Johnny’s growth as a character – from being on top of his world, to loosing everything, to finding himself again in a cause that he believes in – makes this book stand out as a classic.

Chains_novel_cover

Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of Isabel, a slave who ought to have been freed, who searches for freedom for herself and her sister during the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War.

I bought Chains this summer just because I had a gift card burning a hole in my pocket and it looked interesting. I’m so glad I did! Isabel’s story moved me to tears. (Ok, honestly? I was bawling like a baby halfway through.) Despite this, it’s not a story of despair. There’s sorrow and realism, but also hope.

Chains (and its sequels) looks at this period through the eyes of slaves. I appreciated the unique approach to the era, and the even-handedness of the author. I felt she told the story without vilifying any particular group, (which makes a refreshing change from so much of what’s going on these days!)

Out of the dustBillie Jo wrestles with terrible losses in her family during the Dust Bowl years.

It’s been a few years since I’ve picked up Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, the 1998 Newberry Winner, and I’m thinking I’ll have to reread it. It’s written as free-verse journal entries, and it’s a fast read, but full of depth. (If you haven’t explained childbirth to your kids yet, be prepared for questions. 😉 )

Dear America

Minnie’s family takes in an orphaned relative from the Texas dust bowl, and tries to ‘make do’ for a Christmas during the Depression.

The Great Depression Diary of Minnie Swift is part of the “Dear America” series. The series employed different authors for its books, and  I haven’t picked up others in the series, but if Katherine Lasky’s contribution is an indication of the quality, they may be worth looking into.

 

World History

The Bronze Bow

Daniel bar-Jamin hates the Romans and determines to help drive them out of Israel, until the teachings of the rabbi Jesus lead him to question whether his hatred will bring the healing he needs.

Set in Israel during the time of Christ, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Bronze Bow delves into the political and social struggles of the day (which fit in awfully well with all of the current world’s turmoil and hate) in an engaging and exciting way. Judging by the Amazon reviews, you don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy the story. As a Christian, I found the story a fascinating way to help me better visualize living in this era…and it’s a great read.

Magic Tree HouseIn The Magic Tree House books, Jack and Annie of Frog Creek Pennsylvania travel through time to complete quests, helped by the mythical figures of Camelot.

The Magic Tree House series includes a healthy dose of ‘fiction’ in its historical premise, as Morgan Le Fay and Merlin send Jack and Annie on quests for various magical do-dads. The series uses this fantastical premise to introduce all sorts of historical places, people and events in a very basic way. My seven and five-year-old love hearing these as read-alouds, and when Jack and Annie ended up in Normandy the day before D-Day, my daughter was excited that she was reading a World War 2 book, just like mommy.

Then, of course, there are the ones I’ve been meaning to read…

… and if you have others to suggest, I’d love to hear from you!

Happy reading, keep warm, and if you’re in a part of the world that is still enjoying sunshine, soak some up for me, won’t you?

 

 

 

Connie Willis’ BLACKOUT: The Power of Historical Fiction

I’ve never found history a dull subject.

Walking into the highschool classroom, all geared up to begin my student teaching, it was apparent that I was in the minority.

Some freshmen and sophomores slumped in their seats, eyes glazing over in preparation for a lecture-induced coma. Others gripped pencils, grimly determined to make the grade, however painful the process might be.

No problem. After all, I was twenty-two, in my fifth year of college, and therefore knew everything I needed to motivate and excite them with THE WONDER OF LEARNING!!!

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Sigh. Young Anne. You have so much to learn…

 

Why is that highschool reaction so common? Why does it seem that so many people expect history to be dull?

Maybe it has something to do with the way it’s traditionally presented.

After all, history teachers have a great deal of information to impart in a brief period of time. Great world events are, by necessity, boiled down to bullet points, lists of dates, and a few ageing photos.

While I don’t intend to debate teaching styles, I think it’s fair to say that oftentimes the people who lived history get buried in minutia, and with them is buried a chance for the modern learner to connect and empathize with the past.

Tales of heroism and cowardice, of kindness and cruelty, can engage even the most skeptical learner.

Of course, anyone who perceives history as dull and dry is unlikely to seek out non-fiction books to find these tales.

Therein lies the power of excellent historical fiction.

I was recently introduced to Connie Willis’ novel Blackout and the sequel All Clear. (Many thanks to Sarah Higbee and her Brainfluff blog.)

I was attracted to the books by the WW2 photos on the covers, but what sold me was the twist in their storytelling- a change from my diet of nonfiction to historical science fiction.

Oxford in the year 2060 sends historians to study history first-hand, via time travel. The process has been perfected, and all (well, nearly all) of the experts are convinced that the historians are unable to affect history’s outcome. However, when Polly, Mike and Eileen are stranded in World War 2, it appears that this philosophy may be entirely wrong.

Now, I like my historical fiction with an emphasis on the ‘historical.’ (Am I the only one nerdy enough to be wee bit disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new about World War I while watching the otherwise entertaining Wonder Woman? No one else? Sigh.)

 

wonder woman
“Now, let me explain some of the inciting incidents for this particular war…” (Hm. Ok, that probably wouldn’t have worked.)

 

Ms. Willis packs in a tremendous amount of early World War 2 historical detail. I’ll confess, I suspected at one point during the first book that a few of the POV changes existed for the sole purpose of including some of her research.

Hmmm. This story is primarily set during The Blitz Ambulance drivers and Operation Fortitude fit in…where? 

I’m pleased to announce that my suspicions were unfounded. By the end of book two, (in which I felt the pacing moved along a bit better,) all plot threads were accounted for in a most satisfying way.

Of course, incorporating a great deal of factual detail risks pulling the reader out of the narrative. Long info-dumps can weaken the most fascinating story.

I felt that Ms. Willis avoided this pitfall. Her main characters were visitors in the past, so conversations and observations about the period made sense. She didn’t lean on this ‘free pass to lecture’ overmuch; information was woven into the story as the characters lived the Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuation, and caring for evacuees.

A history lecture on these events might fail to excite skeptics.

I enjoy learning about history, and I still find the facts and figures blending together at times.

Books like Ms. Willis’ give an opportunity to experience history in a different way.

We readers can briefly slip on the shoes of her characters and walk the rubble-strewn streets of London, struggle through crowded tube stations as threatening cacophony fills the skies overhead, and meet the everyday heroes who survived the struggle, one day at a time…

…and it’s all hidden in a time travel sci-fi novel.

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Side notes: Teaching history ended up being great fun. Every time I did something besides lecture, it was like I was a teaching ROCK STAR! 🙂

I enjoyed the stories and the fresh look at history that these books provided. Due to the harrowing nature of the Blitz and some language used in response to the dangers, this one’s not for the little ‘uns. 🙂 I’m planning to blog on historical fiction for younger audiences next time. (Ahem. Younger in theory. I still like them.)

At some point I’m going to get some more non-fiction on here, when I can climb out from under the piles of sheet music I’m trying to learn…

Thanks for visiting!

 

 

 

The Blitz

It’s time!

It’s time to continue the series of articles on major World War 2 events that I began with After Dunkirk: The Fall of France and The Battle of Britain!

We’ll pick up chronologically right after the last, and take a brief look at the story of The Blitz.

Observer corps
Tens of thousands of men, women and youths participated in the Observer Corps, watching for enemy planes and supplementing the still-inadequate radar systems of the day.

The British knew the bombs were coming.

With Hitler’s forces just across the Channel, attacks were inevitable.

They had taken early precautions, evacuating around 800,000 mothers and children from cities in September of 1939, but when the threat did not immediately materialize, many returned to their homes.

About a year later, on September 7th, 1940, Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe shifted its attacks from RAF facilities to civilian centers. Attacks changed from daylight runs with specific targets, to night attacks on the massive population of London.

The people endured continuous bombing raids every night until November 3.

For the first three nights, London’s few anti-aircraft guns remained silent in the hopes that their pilots would be able to engage the Luftwaffe craft successfully.

Night fighting…didn’t go as well as hoped. On September 10th the guns opened up. Winston Churchill reflected,

“This roaring cannonade did not do much harm to the enemy, but gave enormous satisfaction to the population. Everyone was cheered by the feeling that we were hitting back. From that time onward the batteries fired regularly, and of course practice, ingenuity, and grinding need steadily improved the shooting.”               (From his memoir Their Finest Hour, pg 343)

Air raid sirens (sometimes) warned the citizenry of incoming attacks- the sound became almost commonplace. Mr. Churchill also recorded his memories of watching people vacating the streets at the sound of one, “except for long queues of very tired, pale people, waiting for the last bus that would run.”

The government provided families individual shelters free of charge or for low cost. The Anderson Shelter was made of corrugated metal and could be buried in the garden. The metal Morrison Shelter could fit in place of a dining table. These protected their occupants from debris or shrapnel. They could not withstand a direct hit.

shelter3
Photo from http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

Others found public shelters or slept in the Tube beneath the city. Still others remained in their homes or workplaces when the alarms sounded, carrying on in spite of it all.

Different types of bombs brought different types of danger and damage. Time bombs and regular bombs that did not explode on impact necessitated the forming of unexploded bomb (U.X.B.) disposal squads. This tense, dangerous work left its mark.

“In writing about our hard times, we are apt to overuse the word “grim.” It should have been reserved for the U.X.B. disposal squads.” (Churchill 362)

October’s full moon brought another horror- 70,000 incendiary bombs dropped along with the regular load of explosives. Rather than taking cover, the people of London were encouraged to head to the roofs. They organized fire-watchers and fire-services to combat the destruction.

On November 3 the London air raid sirens remained silent for the first time in nearly two months. The Luftwaffe had changed focus again, dispersing their targets to various industrial centers.

Coventry suffered their blitz on November 14th. Six hundred tons of high-explosives as well as incendiary bombs dropped, killing four hundred people and seriously injuring many others.

Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool…the list of cities struck by German bombs grew.

On December 29th the Germans planned another assault on London to correspond with the low tide. Having also destroyed the water-mains, they rained incendiary bombs over London, starting nearly fifteen hundred fires.

london blitz

The bombings slowed by May of 1941, as Hitler turned his attention towards attacking Russia.

These painful eight months left tremendous damage to property and homes, 43,000 civilians dead, and Great Britain’s resolve undiminished.

Of course, the end of the ‘official’ Blitz did not signal the end of bombings. The Allies and Axis traded explosives of increasing power throughout the war, to tremendous loss of military and civilian life. Mr. Churchill reflected,

“Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!” (pg. 349)

 

NEXT TIME: It may take me a while to get my research lined up as fall is a busy time, but I’m planning on the next history article to visit the campaigns in North Africa. I hope you’ll come along!

OH, WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

This is a recording of a rather wonderful speech Winston Churchill gave during this time- worth a listen if you’ve got five minutes.

If you are interested in more detail on this period from people who have studied it much longer than I have, the following sites might be of interest.

General information: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/the_blitz

Memories of people who LIVED it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c1161/

Information on Anderson/Morrison shelters: http://www.andersonshelters.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

Watching Over Me: A German Girl’s World War II Story of Survival and a Quest for Peace

eli-francis-100644
Photo Courtesy of Eli Francis on Unsplash.com

I try to resist my addiction.

With the bookshelves in our home full to overflowing, in some cases stacked triple-deep, I try to focus on using the public library for new reading material.

Still, exceptions must be made! When an acquaintance of a friend of a friend published a book, AND it happened to be a World War 2 memoir, what choice did I have?

Watching over meWatching Over Me , by Rachel Hartman, records the recollections of Elfi Gartzke, supplemented by her mother and other relatives.

Elfi was born in eastern Germany in 1940. Her family did not subscribe to the ideologies of the Nazi party. Devout Christians, they managed to lead fairly quiet lives on their acreage as war consumed the world around them.

This changed in 1944 as her father, (along with all men between the ages of 16 to 60 who could bear arms,) was drafted into the Volkssturm, or “people’s army.” He was sent away to an unknown location just before Christmas.

His family still knew nothing of his whereabouts- or even if he were still alive- when they fled their home in January of 1945 to escape the advancing Russian army.

They managed to find transport via train. The journey was interspersed with frantic scrambles to shelters to avoid falling bombs, where Elfi’s mother, ‘Mutti,’ would sing hymns in the dark to comfort her three children.

Reaching the relative safety of Harksheide, a city farther west, Elfi’s family struggled to build new lives in the rubble. As refugees, they faced negative attitudes, inadequate housing, and meager food allotments.

In spite of the challenges, this memoir is anything but bleak.  Trouble was interspersed with joys, such as the return of Elfi’s father. Elfi still experienced some of the simple pleasures of childhood: making friends, finding a place to play (even if it was only a particularly large bomb crater,) and receiving her first doll. Through all, her Mutti strove to keep their hopes alive and their faith strong.

Largely told from a child’s memories, Watching Over Me was quite different from the other books I’ve read about the same era. Elfi’s concerns were primarily relegated to day-to-day life. Her perspective was a poignant reminder of the suffering that lingers on both sides of a conflict, even after the hostilities of war have ended.

The author also interspersed some significant ‘big picture’ events into Elfi’s narrative. She dealt frankly, if briefly, with the horrible crimes committed under Hitler’s regime. She also related dates in Elfi’s life with events in the world, such as the Berlin Airlift, the conflicts in Korea, and the beginnings of the space program.

The last third of the book described the family’s emigration to the United States, sponsored by a kind stranger from Nebraska and their subsequent lives- learning a new language and a different culture. While I hadn’t expected this much post-war information, I found the stories interesting. My family left their European roots a few generations before Elfi’s, but I imagine some of the experiences were similar.

Overall, I found Watching Over Me an enjoyable and uplifting anecdotal history of faith and family, and a worthy addition to my bulging bookshelf.

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Britain

The school year approaches, lesson plans are coming together, and I’m finally getting around to another history article. (Pause for applause and cheering…still pausing…c’mon, you know you’re excited! 🙂 )

As promised in After Dunkirk: The Fall of France, today we’ll pick up with THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN. *

spitfire

What image comes to mind when you hear the word ‘battle?’ Guns, tanks, and infantry slugging it out over a scorched and blasted landscapes?

The Battle of Britain actually prevented such scenes from reaching the southern shores of England.

Hitler’s armies had seen great success in 1940. France had fallen. Italy had joined the Axis. The continent of Europe was effectively subdued. The world waited to see if Great Britain, the last standing Ally, would capitulate to Hitler, or fight on.

According to Winston Churchill, there was never any question, even in private meetings, of giving in.

Though their resolve was strong, their position was dangerous. His volume, The Second World War: Their Finest Hour, chronicles the dire situation his country faced.

“For the first time in a hundred and twenty five years a powerful enemy was now established across the narrow waters of the English Channel. Our re-formed Regular Army, and the larger but less well-organized Territorials, had to be organized and deployed to create an elaborate system of defenses, and to stand ready, if the invader came, to destroy him- for there could be no escape.” (Churchill 174)

The British surmised, rightly, that Hitler’s next move would be to conquer their island nation. In the brief respite as the Germans regrouped post-France, they worked to create defenses for beaches, anti-tank obstacles, and units of mobile defenders ready to fight in front of the enemy or harry him from behind. Guards protected factories and other tempting sabotage targets. Every effort was made to build up British air power, their best chance at victory.

The last was an especially good move. The German invasion plan, Operation Sea Lion, was contingent on weakening the RAF (Royal Air Force) enough to gain mastery of the skies over the English Channel.

July 10th, 1940, marked the first heavy onslaught.

German planes
In case you don’t know and want to impress people when watching WW2 films: The black and white crosses on the wings mark these as German (Luftwaffe) planes. The circle pattern on the planes in the first picture of the post mark them as British.

The initial German plan was to attack British convoys in the Channel and the southern ports from Dover to Plymouth, weakening the areas they intended to invade. The RAF would have to come out to meet them, and would (they hoped) be destroyed.

This first phase failed. Though the British suffered losses, they made the Luftwaffe pay dearly for them.

On August 15th, the Luftwaffe launched about 100 bombers and 40 M.E. 110’s  to the north, against Tyneside,  with a simultaneous raid of over 800 planes to the south. The Germans hoped that the concentration of RAF planes would be pinned down in the south, and the northern attackers could do as they wished.

The Luftwaffe didn’t account for the provisions already made by British Air Marshal Dowding, and the seven Hurricane or Spitfire squadrons he had withdrawn from the southern fighting to guard against such an eventuality.

Final score: RAF 76, Luftwaffe 34.

Air Marshal Dowding
Air Marshal “Totally called that one!” Dowdin

In spite of the Allied successes, the Luftwaffe continued to attack relentlessly. Successful bombing raids of RAF airfields and facilities threatened to cripple the effectiveness of the defense.

Fortunately, Hitler’s own people (unintentionally) kept that threat from being carried out.

Some of the heads of the German military were intent on the destruction of British planes so that they could make their invasion happen. Nazi leader and Luftwaffe Commander Herman Goering had another focus. He believed that indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, such as London, would crush British resistance.

Herman Goering
Herman “Let’s bomb cities!” Goering

In September he got his way. The attacks on London didn’t work out quite as he had hoped.

“If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against the adjacent sectors (to the airfields)…the whole intricate organization of Fighter Command might have been broken down…It was therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on London on September 7, and concluded that the enemy had changed his plan…By departing from the classical principles of war, as well as from the hitherto accepted dictates of humanity, he made a foolish mistake.” (Churchill 331)

September 15th marked the Luftwaffe’s greatest concentrated daylight attack on London.

Perhaps the results of this attack can best be summed up by what took place two days later. On September 17th, Hitler decided to postpone Operation Sea Lion indefinitely.

Churchill’s famous praise of the RAF pilots wraps up this bit of history nicely.

“At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” (Churchill 340)

While an invasion of the British Isles was off the table, the population centers remained a target. NEXT History Session: THE BLITZ

Observer corps

If you’re interested in hearing about this period from people who lived it, the BBC collected people’s recollections of World War 2 in an excellent archive. The following link is for the “Battle of Britain” section. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c55221

*As I mentioned last time, this is just an BREIF overview of the period, written considering those who may have suddenly realized (as I did) that my highschool history classes left a number of gaping holes in my knowledge. (I had great teachers, but there are only so many class periods in a year!) There is so VERY much more to all of this than I have touched on- thanks for your patience with my little sum-ups.