Category Archives: military history

Opening the birdcage

My wonderful fiction publisher Cumulus have written this blurb (blush, blush) about The Birdcage, my first novel, coming out next Spring.  I hope it intrigues you!  (Can I write that?  My old English master hated that usage — sorry, Frank…And I’m not sure what he would have made of the book!)

The Birdcage, by Clive Aslet

Salonika, 1915: a city more than half-Jewish, which – until a few months ago – was one of the jewels in the Ottoman crown. After a brief Bulgarian interlude, it is now suddenly Greek. A city nominally neutral, but teeming with French, British and Serbian armies, to hold it against the Austro-German forces to the north, with their Bulgarian allies. A city seething with intrigue, where café society pursues its way unperturbed, within earshot of the fighting, where the foreign soldiery seeks its pleasures among the shabby streets, and where the native inhabitants are eager to make from them what money they can. This is The Birdcage – named after the miles of tangled barbed wire which separate the city from the fighting to the north. It is the Casablanca of WWI.

In Clive Aslet’s sparkling fiction debut we see how this kaleidoscope of nations, cultures and political ambitions shifts and re-forms around a group of English men and women, blown here by many different winds: the military; young nurses from a Women’s hospital which has been shipped out to tend the wounded; seasoned soldiers, pulled back from Gallipoli; mysterious intelligence officers. The young art student – talented but uncouth – who is surprised into love of Elsie, a doughty young nurse; Isabel, the slightly aging beauty of the Surrey Hills, who finds she is not immune to the glamour of a Serbian officer who has nothing to lose and little to offer; ‘Simple’ Simon, who pursues spying and antiquarian studies with equal enthusiasm; the Kite Balloonists, who must trade off a sort of historical chivalry towards the enemy against the need to fight and survive in this world so foreign to them.

Welcome to a world of perilous ascents – and abrupt descents – from military kite balloons; of madcap journeys by mule, by Wolseley motor car and by foot over the grim northern mountains, where the opposing armies are locked in combat; of U-boats lurking in the waters off the city; of sinister and dangerous Enver Effendi, who says he is Turkish – or is it Bulgarian? Or Even Venezuelan? What is his game? Where is all the petrol disappearing to? The breathless ride is just beginning, in a tale where the spirit of P G Wodehouse meets the world of Biggles and R C Sherriff, and the sense of time and place is uniquely vivid and real.


 War Memorial (Penguin, £20) is now out, and I’m excited by the number of people who have been contacting me to research their own local war memorials.  Some of them have asked for advice, so here are some tips for how to get started.
My publishers have asked me to make the obvious point.  A good way to begin would be to buy the book!  I’m sorry, but I would get into trouble if I didn’t say it… although in all seriousness I hope that the book will provide a template for what can be done.
After taking that important step, you’ll need to identify the individuals.  (I had to, at any rate: the Lydford war memorial only lists names and initials.  Other war memorials might help with regiments, or even, in the case of one Welsh war memorial I saw, addresses – but that was only to distinguish between the many different Joneses.)  You can usually make the identification through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  They list more or less everyone from the services who has died for his country since the First World War.  I say more or less: the roll for the First World War closed in, I think, 1921.  At Lydford, two individuals who died after this date were included on the memorial: this could be seen from the fact that their names were out of alphabetical order, J.Stephens and W.H.Daw coming after S.Voysey.
However, particularly since CWGC entries list the parishes that the men and women came from, it is usually straightforward.

After that, I should think the county record office would be the first port of call.  That would give background on the village (if that is your interest); there might be publications of local relevance, and the staff could tell you what else might be available locally.  I enjoyed looking through the register of Lydford school.

Local families may have a shoe box full of their great-uncle’s letters, diaries and medals, or an album of photographs.  Try writing a letter to the local paper to see if this puts you in touch with descendants.
For my book on the Lydford war memorial, I spend a long time spooling through microfiches of the local paper, The Tavistock Gazette.  It was a very laborious process although I found loads that was interesting, not necessarily because of a connection with the war memorial.  Every so often I would come across a reference to one of the names on the memorial — for example playing billiards or taking part in a church social.  There were also occasional obits, as well as an account of the war memorial being unveiled.  It was time-consuming but gave me a feel for both the period and the place, as well as all sorts of unexpected historical sidelights (for instance, an item from 1916 saying that cocaine was now illegal.  Before, it had not been.)

There are a couple of good websites for family history — i.e. and  I seem to remember that they give you a few months of trial period for free, although after that they charge.  However they have some indispensable records.  Ancestry in particular is linked to the National Archives at Kew, having digitised some of the records.  The census records are key.  They will help you place the men in the village.

In terms of researching their careers under arms, I would suggest going first to the National Archives at Kew.  Their catalogue is online.  You can look up the records of individual servicemen where they exist (some records were destroyed in the Blitz).  Soldiers were entitled to various medals, depending on when and where they fought; the medal cards which list who was due what are available online.  Silver war badges or medals were awarded to soldiers who were wounded.

If you go to Kew in person, the staff will explain what the different records mean. 
The next step is to find if the battalion war diary exists for the relevant battalion.  All battalions had to keep one but some of the records were destroyed along with the other records.  I was generally lucky with mine.  If the soldier wasn’t away from the battalion (e.g. through illness, which will be recorded on his papers) you can tell what he must have been doing on any particular day.  The deaths of officers are noted by name, other ranks are generally just given as numbers.  The quality of the war diaries varies but they make fascinating reading.

The Imperial War Museum and National Army Museums are invaluable.  The IWM in particular has a vast archive, of every conceivable kind of record – letters, diaries, official papers, photographs, voice recordings, film, memorabilia.  It is digitising some of those for the First World War in time for the centenary I believe. 

If you know when a soldier was with a battalion, you can find records from people who were, so to speak, standing beside him.  They might take the form of diaries or letters — sometimes quite brisk and businesslike, but others very vivid indeed.
Good luck.  I hope you will enjoy your project as much as I enjoyed mine.

Mountain villagers preserve the memory of a British airman

I thought you’d like to see my new best friends in Greece.  They’re from Delvine.  It’s a little village just on the Greek side of the Albanian border: after scrambling over the bumpy mountain roads, you go under a homespun arch that tells you you’re in Greece.  I came to Delvine because an airman is buried here: not one of Herby’s 211 squadron but someone else who took off from Paramythia, Harold Sykes.  He was a fighter pilot and collided with an Italian plane he was attacking.   
The RAF initially reported him missing, because his body could not be found.  Later his remains were buried just outside the village cemetery, among the long grass, quiet and wild like everything in this practically semi-deserted village.  In the Communist era, the grave was kept hidden because the villages feared what would happen to it as a supposedly ‘capitalist’ grave, even though it was technically in Greece; it might have been destroyed.  But in the 1990s, it was rediscovered.   
Sykes’s family decided not to have his body repatriated; they were living in Australia by that time, and felt that it was a peaceful spot.  But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made it a headstone.  It is to the same pattern as all the other CWGC headstones in war cemeteries across the world.  Only this one stands alone.
Incidentally, if you’d like to see the cover of my book War Memorial, which took me to the mountains of Northern Greece, click here.

Greek pilgrimage — I pay my respects to history and the Herbert family

This is Paramythia, in northern Greece.  It means the valley of the legends, and to the Ancient Greeks it was the limit of the known world.  Nearby flows the river Kalamos, which was to them the river Styx across which the dead were ferried on their way to Hades.  It’s a broad valley, high up and surrounded by mountains – a good place for the British to hide an airfield when they were attacking the Italians, attempting to invade Greece from Albania, which is not far away.

211 Squadron came here, bombing ports along the Albanian coast.  They had previously been in the Western Desert, again fighting the Italians; and it was because the Duce had done badly there that he turned to Greece.  But despite his boasts, his army was miserably equipped and poorly led, and the Greeks drove it back.  Then the Germans decided to do he job properly, and came down through the Balkans.  Between them, the Greeks and the RAF could muster around 80 planes, whereas the Luftwaffe had 700.  It was an unequal contest.

I took the ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa, and from there a taxi.  There’s a new road, sliced out of the mountainside, and it’s safer than the old one, with its corkscrew bends.  When 211 Squadron were here, local people travelled by donkey.  There were so few buildings in the valley that the airstrip could have been put anywhere that was flat.  That’s not quite the case now; a few villas have been built in the valley and the village of Paramythia has spruced itself up.  A café has some pictures of the old days on its tables and walls.  The taxi driver took some advice about lunch, and we ate something with a friend of his; extra beers were pressed on us, plates of specialities that we hadn’t ordered brought out.  But after the courtesies had been observed, we were able to follow his little car for a few kilometres out of the village.  This was where the airfield had been, he told us.  A road cut across it, and a new villa with orange trees in front of it stood to one side.  There was nothing to be seen but reeds, a bit of scrub; the local people no longer have to wring every last ounce of profit from the land.  It was, though, from here that Richard Herbert – Herby as he was known to his fellow officers and crew – took off on Easter Day 1941.

Richard is one of three Herbert brothers whose names are on the war memorial at Lydford in Devon.  All joined the RAF, all were killed.  Richard was slight, pale, with neatly brilliantined hair.  He was 21, quiet but popular in the mess.  He loved flying and it was difficult to keep him on the ground.  In September 1940, he and his crew had had a near brush with death when they flew a Blenheim Mk 1 bomber out to the Western Desert.  They hit a thunderstorm and only just succeeded in limping into Malta to refuel.  But he’d recovered his sang froid by the time they flew over the pyramids, observing laconically: ‘terrible waste of stone, what?’
That Easter Day, April 13, 1941, the squadron was attempting to halt the German advance, as troops poured through the Monastir Gap near Florina.  One Blenheim was sent off on a reconnaissance mission.  There were six other functional Blenheims, one of them being Richard’s.  He had already flown twice that day.  Usually the aircraft were escorted by Hurricane fighters.  This time the Hurricanes weren’t there.  Over Florina, the Blenheims were spotted by German Messerschmitt 109s, better armed and more manoeuvrable than the Blenheims.  211 squadron formed up into a defensive box and headed west, into the sun – it gave their gunners an advantage.  But it wasn’t enough.  Every one was shot down.  Richard’s plane came down over woods near Lake Prespa.  Airmen were seen jumping, but it was already too near the ground for their parachutes to open.

There is little enough to see at Paramythia.  But I still feel that coming here is a pilgrimage.

More about my book War Memorial here.

The family followed military tradition and buried him where he fell; a Devon war memorial remembers his history

This is the Devon War Memorial that has been occupying my thoughts for the past year.  Not the memorial itself – designed, in that age of deference, by the local squire – but the names on it.  There are twenty three; you can see them on the plinth, in sans serif letters attached to the granite.  They don’t give away more than they need to: just the surname of the individual who died and his (and in one case her) initials.  But each has a story, which I have been applying myself to uncover.
There is nothing particularly unusual about the memorial itself.  Crosses were a standard form, particularly in Devon where wayside crosses had been erected since the time of the monasteries to help travellers find their way across the moors.  But the names include a young pilot who died in the Falklands, the first British casualty of the war, and a boy paratrooper, just eighteen years old, killed in Iraq.  The pilot was Nick Taylor.  He died attacking the air field at Goose Green, the target being principally the runway and the Pucara planes parked round about.  It was later discovered that the Argentines had constructed a primitive facility for making napalm there.
To assemble the 20 Sea Harriers that left with the Task Force was a considerable task.  They took every available plane that they could find – including the very first Sea Harrier ever built, which had been retained by British Aerospace so that it could be used to test new equipment.  That is the one that Nick flew. 
Thirty seconds from the target, the pilot in front of Nick, heard the whine in his headset which told him that the radar of a pair of Oerlikon 35mm anti-aircraft cannons had locked onto his plane.  He released a scatter of metal chaff to deceive it, and swung the plane violently left.  This broke the lock; he continued the attack.  But Nick’s plane, retained by the manufacturer as a test aircraft, was not fitted with a radar warning receiver.  He would not have known that the enemy radar had got a lock – probably transferred from the first plane as he flew through its chaff. 
By the time Nick’s death was reported in Britain, it had been overshadowed by the loss of HMS Sheffield, hit by an Exocet launched from a Super Etendart, later that day.  But his loss nevertheless affected the development of the war.  When the Argentines studied his plane, they saw that it had been fitted with Sea Eagle, a more advanced weapon than Exocet.  This amost certainly contributed to the decision to keep the Argentine Navy in port for the remainder of the conflict.
History is full of chances.  Loved ones are left to grieve.  Nick, who came from a military family, was buried when he fell.  This is a picture of his grave.

Archie Huggins, from a family of Devon stonemasons, becomes history. His name is on Lydford War Memorial

This morning I’ll go to the British Library.  It gets crowded at this time of year: the university students have exams to prepare for.  While it’s nice to see them, beavering away – even to imagine that one is one of life’s students oneself – they do clog the place up.  Don’t they have their own libraries to go to?  However, there are fewer of them on Saturdays, particularly when the sun shines.
My mission – and on this I don’t think that many of my young co-library users will be able to help me – is to discover whether organised took place on Dartmoor before 1914.  Discover?  I should say confirm, because I am pretty sure it is.  But since I make passing reference to it in my book War Memorial, just finished, I have got to be certain.   G.T.Teasdale-Buckell’s The Complete Shot, 1907, will be able to help me.
You see, Archie Huggins, a splendid young stonemason who played football for Tavistock and performed in horseback tugs of war at county shows, was a member of the Royal North Devon Hussars, originally a territorial regiment which sailed to Gallipoli on board the SS Olympic, sister ship to Titanic, in 1915.  They left Devon on August 12 – the Glorious Twelfth, the opening of the Grouse Shooting Season.  (You see why I need to know.)   That was in 1914.  First stop was Winchester, where, improbable though it may seem, given its inland location, there had been an invasion scare.  The subsequent 12 months they spent in Essex, getting bored in the very out of season holiday resort of Clacton.
I laughingly think that the grouse business is one of my last checks.  It won’t be; it never is.  Editor and copy editor will raise dozens more.  But unpicking the family history of the war memorial has consumed me for the past year, and I will be sorry when it ends.  If it does. 
If you’d like to see the book at Penguin, click this