The stories in this Anthology aim to give a vivid insight, through a fascinating mixture of history, reminiscence and fiction, into life during WWII: for those at the front, those left behind, the young at school, the old in the twilight of their years, parents, lovers, spouses, families, colleagues; Britons, Germans, Irish, Kenyans, French, eastern Europeans and Americans.
These pages see householders struggling to maintain a semblance of normality; young men reluctant to volunteer; soldiers determined to win; acts of generosity, acts of cowardice.
There is violence – impossible to avoid in an Anthology dedicated to the memory of war – but there is also humour and romance, suspense and emotion, heroism and daring. Even the paranormal puts in an appearance (as one might say).
The action is set variously in France, Britain, Eire, Kenya, Russia, Poland ...
You are guaranteed hours of stimulation, enjoyment and fruitful relaxation with a book devoted to one of the defining events of our times.
Le Fantôme du Maquis
Alan Harrison turned from the window through which he had been staring for the last five minutes and looked at the young man sitting at the opposite side of his desk. He had been the governor of the North Sea Camp borstal since its opening in 1935, and John Naylor had been in and out of the institution on two occasions. Knocking out the contents of his pipe into an ashtray, he sighed and sat down.
‘All right, Mr Brough,’ he said. ‘That’ll be all; I’ll call for you when Naylor and I are finished.’
‘Sir.’ The clipped reply was typical of an army NCO which was, in fact, what Brough had been until an honourable discharge at the age of forty-eight in 1934.
With the door now closed and privacy assured, Harrison opened the brown manila file on the desk before him. He read again the contents, slowly shaking his head at the familiar words. He closed it and looked into Naylor’s eyes.
‘What is it, John, that drives you back here time and again?’
‘Don’t know, sir,’ Naylor replied, looking directly ahead.
John Naylor had one week left to serve at North Sea Camp, and then he would once more be free to return home and carry on with his life. That life had been one of juvenile delinquency since early childhood, and he had progressed through a range of institutions culminating in two visits to the borstal run by Alan Harrison.
He had been born in 1916 to a tannery worker in the Derbyshire village of Langley Mill. His father, Reginald, had served with the British army and was killed at the Battle of Cambrai on 22 November 1917. Left to bring up their son alone, Emily Naylor worked tirelessly to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, but by the time John was seven he had become a troublesome youngster. Roaming the streets after school, he was a constant source of irritation to neighbours on Sedgwick Street initially, and then further afield as he grew older. When Emily died from pneumonia in 1926, John was sent to live with an aunt in Nottingham.
From the age of ten until his first incarceration at approved school, the youngster took to the city’s streets, regularly missing school and finding amusement with a group of older boys in the Meadows area of his new home. Jean, his aunt, struggled hard to cope with the disruption of her formerly placid life but when, at the age of nineteen, he was sent to North Sea Camp for the second time, she made it clear that he was no longer welcome in her home.
‘Look, lad,’ Harrison said. ‘You need to get your life sorted out. I don’t want to see you back here in another few months. How old are you now? Twenty-one?’
‘Twenty, sir,’ John replied.
‘Twenty,’ the governor shook his head again. ‘You do understand that if you carry on like this you’ll probably end up in prison, don’t you? Borstal can only take you up to twenty-three, and it’s a much harder life inside.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Naylor stared at the floor, suddenly realising the seriousness of his situation.
‘Have you considered joining the army? They’ll give you training, and at least you’ll have a home to go to now that Nottingham’s no longer an option.’
‘Sir?’ Naylor looked up – he had never considered the lifeline that Harrison was holding out to him.
‘Go and speak to Mr Brough, son. He was an RSM in the Northumberland Fusiliers; I’m sure if you ask him politely he’ll point you in the right direction.’
‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,’ John replied, brightening suddenly.
‘Well, this time next week you’ll be free again, and I really don’t want to see you back. You’re much better than the rest of the lads in here.’
As good as his word, John Naylor spent an hour with an extremely surprised Arthur Brough and, at the end of that time, came away with not only the address of the recruiting office in Nottingham, but also the name of a former colleague in the army. One week later he left Nottingham, bound for the Northamptonshire Regiment in Wootton; from there he was sent for basic training in the Norfolk town of Thetford with a number of other new recruits.
Naylor prospered in the disciplined lifestyle which the army presented to him. He had always considered himself to be reasonably fit, but a regime of route marches, frequently in excess of twenty miles, and daily drill under the watchful eye of SM Barrowman, saw him quickly become one of the best recruits in his company. By the end of his ten-week stint at the Norfolk camp, he was looking forward to a brighter future in his new ‘family’.
When the war clouds began to gather over Europe in 1938, John had been in the Northamptonshires for almost two years and, as a result of dedication to the task at hand, had risen to the rank of corporal. He looked at the new recruits coming through ‘B’ Company and smiled - had he really been that raw himself? When war was declared by Neville Chamberlain’s government on 3 September 1939, he was amongst the first of the Northamptonshire Regiment to be sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force committed to driving the German invaders out of Poland. Nine months later, he was a member of the rear guard protecting the retreating British and French forces on the road to the beaches of Dunkirk where a flotilla of small boats was ferrying soldiers to larger ships offshore.
‘Corporal Naylor!’ The command came from Lieutenant Peters. ‘Take a dozen of your best shots and pin the Jerries down at the end of the street.’
‘Yes, sir,’ John replied. Calling out a series of names, he led the way back along the rubble-strewn street and took up a position at the crossroads one hundred yards from the retreating members of ‘B’ Company. A steady toll was taken of the advancing German infantry during the following two hours, as a regular stream of sniper-fire from both sides of the ruined French street kept them pinned down and unable to make any headway. That scenario suddenly changed with the appearance of the tank summoned to clear the way.
‘Fall back!’ Naylor shouted. ‘Two sections – one covering the other.’
With his group now retreating before the advancing armour, Naylor saw his chance. The tank commander, seeing the fleeing British troops, appeared above the turret for a better view of the street. Passing Naylor’s position without a sideways glance, he was unaware of the danger into which he had allowed his crew to stray. John looked back up the street and, seeing no infantry, made his move. He stole in behind the vehicle; a burst of shell fire from the tank concealed his progress up the track guard, and, by the time the commander turned, it was too late. A crushing blow from Naylor’s rifle butt sent him slumping back into the interior of the tank, and he was followed by a fistful of grenades dropped in behind him by the now fleeing British corporal. The four-second fuse gave Naylor just enough time to dive for cover as the tank exploded, killing all those on board and sending the first wave of advancing German infantrymen running for shelter amongst the ruins of the once-beautiful street. John took the opportunity to make good his escape, joining up with the rest of his company at the beach.
‘What was all that, Naylor?’ Lieutenant Peters asked. ‘The rest of your men arrived here a while ago.’
‘Just a bit of a lesson for the Jerries, sir,’ John smiled. ‘Where’s the Bren?’
Moving back up the beach, Naylor set the machine-gun up to cover the end of the street now blocked by the burning tank. His only targets would be the German infantry inching past the searing heat of the wreckage – they were easy prey, and bought more time for those on the beach. He maintained his position for a full hour until ordered to withdraw by his commanding officer; he was one of the last to leave for the ‘little ship’ sent to rescue them.
Back home, and at regimental headquarters ten weeks after Operation Dynamo, he stood to attention before his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dodsley. Dodsley had served in the Great War and had risen to his current rank by means of the same kind of action for which he was now about to reward Naylor.
‘Corporal Naylor,’ he barked. ‘Your field promotion to sergeant, awarded by Lieutenant Peters, is confirmed and the regiment is proud at the recommendation of the award of the Military Cross in recognition of your acts of outstanding bravery in the face of the enemy at Dunkirk.’ Naylor snapped to attention and saluted smartly. Once free from the ceremony, and after a round of handshakes from his fellow ‘B’ Company regulars, he was summoned to a side room by Lieutenant Peters who gave him a note.
‘I’ve been ordered to give you this,’ he said. Naylor frowned in puzzlement at reading the contents and looked up at his superior officer.
‘I don’t understand, sir. Am I being discharged?’
‘All I know, sergeant, is that the man whose name is on that note has pulled some strings to get you seconded to his unit from the Northants. Can’t tell you any more, but I’d get my skates on if I were you.’
Two days later, Sergeant John Naylor was in London’s Baker Street, knocking on a plain door bearing the number on the note in his hand. He was greeted by the smiling face of an older man who opened it.
‘Sergeant Naylor?’ he asked. ‘Please come in; we’ve been expecting you.’ With the door now closed behind him, John Naylor was about to ask why he had been pulled out of his unit – he was beaten to the punch.
‘My name is Ralph Morrison – welcome to the ranks of the SOE.’