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Dear Reader

Dear Reader #116

Dear Reader,

Now available for pre-order, Damaged, Sam Smith Mystery Series book nineteen. This story is set in the South of France and deals with immigration and terrorism.

Eight and a half months pregnant. My detective agency was in good hands, Faye and Tamara’s hands, so time to put my feet up and await the Big Day. However, Gabe, my private eye friend from Boston, had other ideas.

Hired by Alexander Carmichael III the current head of a powerful Boston dynasty, Gabe was on the trail of Chelsea, Carmichael’s runway daughter. That trail led to Wales – hence my involvement – then on to the South of France.

Amongst the glitz and glamour of the South of France events took a murderous turn – someone was making and detonating bombs, and that someone had developed a close association with Chelsea.

We found ourselves in a race against time, to prevent an explosion and the loss of many innocent lives, and to return home to deliver my baby.

Read this from the top to the bottom then from the bottom to the top.

My latest translation, The Olive Tree: Branches, in Portuguese.

My ancestor Robert Dent was born on 17 July 1882 in London to Richard Dent and Sarah Ann Cottrell. As a child, Richard emigrated to Ontario, Canada only to return to London in his early twenties where he married Sarah Ann. He found employment at London Docks and on the ships that sailed into those docks. In 1883 his ship, Stadacona, foundered with all hands. You can read Richard’s story here https://hannah-howe.com/ancestry/dent-yorkshire-canada-london/dent-yorkshire-canada-london-4/

In the early 1900s Richard’s son, Robert, followed his sister, Eliza, to Ontario, Canada. On 17 November 1909 in Simcoe, Ontario, Canada, Robert married Edith Eugenia Mollett, a woman of French descent. Between 1910 and 1914 the couple produced three daughters: Caroline (named after Edith’s mother), Edith and Jessie. Then the First World War broke out.

Given their British and French backgrounds, Robert and Edith must have discussed the war and its unfolding events in some detail and those discussions led to Robert enlisting in the Royal Canadian Dragoons (1st Armoured Regiment) on 21 January 1916.

Most of what follows was recorded in Robert’s official war record.

Robert Dent’s attestation paper

At the time of his marriage to Edith, Robert was a railway assistant. He was still working on the railways when his daughter Caroline was born. Remarkably, we know the exact time of her birth: 8.40 pm on 20 September 1910. When Robert signed up he was a farmer. In common with the vast majority of men who signed up he had no military experience.

Robert’s personal details. Height: five foot five and three-quarter inches. Weight: 135 lbs. Girth: 37 inches when resting, 41 inches when expanded. Complexion: fair. Eyes: grey. Hair: light brown. He had no smallpox scars, but his skin did reveal four vaccination marks. His habits were considered ‘good.’ On 21 January 1916 the medical officer considered Robert ‘fit for active service.’

After training, Robert left Halifax, Canada on 15 August 1916. By ship he arrived in Liverpool, England on 24 August 1916 and was transferred to the 11th Reserves Battalion at Shorecliffe. On 27 October 1916 he was transferred to the 8th Battalion to serve overseas. 

The 8th Battalion was authorized on 10 August 1914 and embarked for Britain on 1 October 1914. It disembarked in France on 13 February 1915, where it fought as part of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division in France and Flanders until the end of the war. The battalion was disbanded on 15 September 1920. During the Great War the battalion saw action on a number of key battlefields including Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme.

A page from Robert’s military file

Robert’s war record reveals that he was ‘accidentally slightly wounded’ on 7 February 1917. These ‘slight’ wounds included gunshots to the right knee, thigh, leg, forearm and face, and they necessitated a thirty-two day stay at Clapton Military Hospital, from 3 March 1917 to 4 April 1917. 

How did Robert sustain his wounds? It would appear that he was present in a brigade bombing area, attending a bombing instructional course. The safely at the course must have been lax resulting in a accident. Robert’s medical record states that he sustained ‘gunshot wounds’ and not ‘shrapnel wounds’ so maybe he was hit by bullets during the exercise and not shrapnel from an exploding bomb.

On 4 April 1917 medics moved Robert to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital in Bromley, Kent, where he remained until 17 April 1917 when he was discharged with limited movement in his right knee.

Robert’s disability was of ‘a serious nature’ and would ‘interfere with his future efficiency as a soldier.’ On 27 July 1917 he made a will, leaving all his worldly possessions to his wife, Edith. Then, despite his injuries, he returned to the frontline.

Back on the frontline, Robert suffered from trench foot, a common malady during the First World War. On 13 December 1917 he was transferred to the Canadian General Hospital in Shorecliffe where he remained until 12 March 1918, forty-eight days. During his stay surgeons removed his toenails.

A case of trench foot from the Great War, 1917

Despite his injuries, Robert survived the Great War. However, he then faced another twist of fate.

From February 1918 mankind had been engaged in another ‘war’, against the ‘Spanish Flu.’ While in England waiting to return to his family in Canada, Robert became ill. On 15 January 1919 he was admitted to the Mile End Military Hospital. A week later, on 21 January 1919, he died.

Trooper Robert Dent, service number 225554, survived the horrors of the Great War only to succumb to an unseen enemy. This suggests an irony and tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. However, this was no play; it was life, and death. Edith lost her husband. In return she received a gratuity of $180, her husband’s life valued at £4,000 in today’s money.

Robert Dent’s final resting place, Brookwood Cemetery.
Image: Find a Grave.

As ever, thank you for your interest and support.

Hannah xxx

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Dear Reader

Dear Reader #105

Dear Reader,

This month, I am writing Leaves, book three in The Olive Tree, my Spanish Civil War saga. This story features the Battle of Brunete and the plight of refugee children, like six year old Esperanza Careaga (pictured), who fled the fascists for saver havens elsewhere.

A post office directory from 1865 confirming that my 3 x great grandfather Richard Stokes was a furniture maker in Finsbury, London. From the 1600s every member of my Stokes family except one was a carpenter, originally based in Pangbourne (Richard’s father, William, was a weights and measures man, overseeing the distribution of corn as it arrived in London). 

Richard married Lucy Sarah Glissan, the daughter of a chemist and a nurse. The couple had seven children, including my direct ancestor, William Richard Frederick Stokes, another furniture maker.

My article about SOE heroine Eileen Nearne appears on page 36 of this month’s Seaside News.

My 3 x great grandmother Fanny Brereton was baptised on 19 November 1837 in Holy Trinity, Bristol (pictured). Her father, James Richard Brereton, a tinker, died shortly before her birth.

With William Bick, Fanny produced eleven children. However, she only married William when she was a month pregnant with their seventh child.

The family moved from Bristol to Hampshire, back to Bristol, before settling in London. James Richard Brereton was born in London and the family had relatives there.

William Bick worked as a stoker in Battersea Gas Works. The couple gave each of their children two names, so managed to think of twenty-two names, including Albert Charles Bick, their last born and my direct ancestor, who died during the First World War.

The last of my Heroines of SOE articles features Nancy Wake, a truly exceptional woman.

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born on 30 August 1912 in Wellington, New Zealand. Two years later, her family relocated to Sydney, Australia.

Nancy was very fond of her father. However, he returned to New Zealand leaving his wife and six children in Sydney. The separation ensured that Nancy endured a difficult childhood and aged sixteen she ran away from home. At first, she worked as a nurse. Then a legacy from a relative enabled her to travel to New York, London and Paris, where she reinvented herself as a journalist.

Nancy Wake

In 1937, Nancy met wealthy French industrialist Henri Edmond Fiocca, whom she married on 30 November 1939. The couple lived in Marseille and were there when the Germans invaded.

Never a passive person, Nancy responded by becoming an ambulance driver. Then, after the fall of France in 1940, she joined an escape network known as the Pat O’Leary Line. The Gestapo pursued members of the Line and because of Nancy’s ability to elude capture they named her the ‘White Mouse’. 

In November 1942, the Nazis occupied Vichy France, increasing the danger for Nancy and members of the escape line. When a traitor betrayed the network, she had no option but to flee France. Her husband, Henri Fiocca, decided to stay in Marseille. 

Although Nancy loved Henri, he was known for his affairs and the couple parted on the tacit understanding that neither party would remain faithful. Their relationship was an unconventional one and, personally, I believe that’s why fictional accounts of Nancy’s life have failed to capture the public’s imagination. Indeed, she was unimpressed with a well-made biopic released in her lifetime because she felt it focused on her relationship with Henri and not on her amazing wartime exploits.

The Gestapo captured Henri and murdered him. Although she suspected, Nancy didn’t learn of Henri’s fate until after the Allies had liberated France. The news devastated her and although she later remarried she lived with that sadness for the rest of her long life.

After escaping to Britain, Nancy joined the Special Operations Executive. Vera Atkins, a mother hen to the female members of the SOE, described Nancy as, “A real Australian bombshell. Tremendous vitality, flashing eyes. Everything she did, she did well.” Her intelligence record noted her “cheerful spirit and strength of character.” While M.R.D. Foot, the official historian of the SOE, said, “Her irrepressible, infectious, high spirits were a joy to everyone who worked with her.”

Nancy’s honours. From Wikipedia.

During the night of 29–30 April 1944, Nancy parachuted into Auvergne, France as a member of a three-person team. The team liaised with the Resistance, which often tried Nancy’s patience because of internal bickering and local politics. 

Nancy’s duties included surveying, collecting arms and money from parachute drops, training the local Maquis and engaging in sabotage. 

Setbacks occurred, which forced the Resistance and SOE into retreat. During one desperate episode, Nancy cycled 500 kilometres through enemy territory in 72 hours in search of a wireless, a feat she later recalled with justified pride.

Nancy participated in attacks on Nazi convoys. She also took part in defensive actions when the Nazis attacked the Resistance. Her main tasks were centred on organising the Maquis and distributing money and arms. Nevertheless, Nancy was active in all aspects of Resistance work and she killed several members of the Gestapo including a sentry with her bare hands. During a television interview in the 1990s, she described the incident. “They’d taught this judo-chop stuff with the flat of the hand at SOE, and I practised away at it. But this was the only time I used it – whack – and it killed him all right. I was really surprised.”

After the liberation of France, Nancy returned to Britain. She mourned Henri then set about the next phase of her life, which included a return to Australia where in 1949 she stood as a Liberal candidate in the federal election running against the deputy prime minister. She achieved a thirteen percent swing, but narrowly lost the vote – 53% to 47%. In 1951, Nancy tried again and came within 250 votes of success. 

Nancy was a liberal in the widest sense. She was sympathetic towards homosexual members of the SOE at a time when hostility and prejudice were the norm. She possessed a heart of gold, and nerves of steel. 

Seeking a new challenge, Nancy returned to Britain where she worked as an intelligence officer at the Air Ministry in Whitehall. In December 1957 she married RAF officer, John Forward. In the early 1960s, the couple relocated to Australia where Nancy resumed her interest in politics.

In 1985, Nancy published her autobiography, The White Mouse. John Forward died on 19 August 1997 and in 2001 Nancy moved again, returning to London. She became a resident at the Stafford Hotel in St. James’ Place, near Piccadilly before ending her days at the Royal Star and Garter Home for Disabled Ex-Service Men and Women. 

Nancy died on 7 August 2011, aged 98, at Kingston Hospital. Her ashes were scattered near the village of Verneix, at Montluçon, central France.

Is my character Eve Beringar based on Nancy Wake? Yes, to some extent, but the overall answer is ‘no’. Eve is a composite character based on the lives and exploits of twenty-one SOE agents. I did consider writing about Nancy Wake. However, I felt that aspects of her relationship with her husband, Henri Fiocca, did not translate well into my fiction. 

Nancy Wake was an unconventional woman fighting an unconventional war. She was a remarkable woman, a true force of nature and undoubtedly one of the greatest heroines of the Special Operations Executive.

As ever, thank you for your interest and support.

Hannah xxx

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Dear Reader

Dear Reader #62

Dear Reader,

I’m writing chapter one of Operation Broadsword, book three in my Eve’s War Heroines of SOE series. Eve is preparing to parachute into France. The SOE give her French-tailored clothes, with jackets ten inches longer than British and American fashions, plus a gun, a .32 pistol made in Czechoslovakia. Blank pages are daunting, but the sight of a completed page is still very exciting.

Operation Zigzag has entered the top ten of Amazon’s war chart 🙂

Spitfire pilots, 1940, who helped to win the Battle of Britain.

Read this from the top to the bottom, then from the bottom to the top.

I’m Greek 😱

Palace Chateaubriand in October 1944 during the siege of St Malo. Vogue carried an eight page report on the siege, filed by Lee Miller, a model and fashion photographer. The only journalist in the city during the siege, she wrote, “My heel sank into a disembodied hand, and I cursed the Germans for the horrible destruction that they had inflicted on this once-splendid city.”

Money does not make you immortal. The quest for unlimited wealth is a desperate attempt to fill a hollow soul, to attain happiness when the simple things in life are deemed ‘inadequate’. It is a Midas shadow that condemns the seeker to a life of darkness.

On 8 August 1944, British, Canadian and Polish forces launched Operation Totalize, the first phase of the Falaise Pocket, which pushed the Nazis out of Normandy. Picture: a Cromwell tank and Willys jeep passing an abandoned German 88 mm anti-tank gun.

Army trucks, cars and motorcycles for sale in Britain, 1946.

An early example of a ‘zebra crossing’ 😉

The Battle of Saint-Lô took place between 7 – 19 July 1944. Located at a strategic crossroads, the Americans bombarded the city destroying ninety-five percent of it before driving the Nazis out. In his report, Samuel Beckett dubbed the martyr city “The Capital of Ruins”.

Pictured, two French boys watch from a hilltop as Allied vehicles pass through the city in July 1944.

The great thing about writing and publishing is there are always new stories to write and new pastures to explore. Delighted to announce that my Ann’s War series will be translated into Afrikaans 🙂

A muggy morning on Margam Mountain.

Apologies for the formatting errors. These are supplied by WordPress.

Odette Sansom, also known as Odette Churchill and Odette Hallowes, was born on 28 April 1912 in Amiens, France. Her father, Florentin Désiré Eugène ‘Gaston’ Brailly, was killed at Verdun shortly before the Armistice in 1918.

Odette Sansom

As a child, Odette contracted serious illnesses which blinded her for three and a half years. She also contracted polio, which left her bedridden for a number of months.

As an adult, Odette met an Englishman, Roy Patrick Sansom (1911–1957), in Boulogne and married him on 27 October 1931. The couple moved to Britain where they produced three daughters. Roy Sansom joined the army at the beginning of the Second World War. Two and a half years later, in the spring of 1942, Odette responded to an Admiritaty appeal for photographs of the French coast. Those photographs brought her to the SOE’s attention and the secretive organisation promptly recruited her into their service.

With her three daughters in a convent school, Odette trained as an SOE agent. At first, Odette’s instructors regarded her as too temperamental and stubborn for the SOE. One report stated, “She is impulsive and hasty in her judgments and has not quite the clarity of mind which is desirable in subversive activity. She seems to have little experience of the outside world. She is excitable and temperamental, although she has a certain determination. However, she is patriotic and keen to do something for France.”

George Starr, a successful agent who clashed with many of the female agents, particularly the attractive ones, described Odette as “a dreadful lady.” In particular, he deplored her “seductive behaviour.”

Odette landed on a beach near Cassis on the night of 2 November 1942. There, she made contact with Captain Peter Churchill. Her initial objective was to contact the French Resistance on the French Riviera and establish safe houses for other agents in Burgundy. 

In January 1943, to evade arrest, Churchill and Odette moved their operations to Annecy in the French Alps. The couple resided at the Hotel de la Poste in the village of Saint-Jorioz. The hotel became a meeting place for agents, which aroused suspicion.

Spy-catcher Hugo Bleicher proceeded to Saint-Jorioz where he introduced himself to Odette as “Colonel Henri.” He suggested that they should travel to London to “discuss a means of ending the war.” Odette reported this meeting to her superiors and they warned her to sever all contact with Bleicher.

At the time of Bleicher’s meeting with Odette, Peter Churchill was in London consulting with the SOE. They warned him to avoid contact with Odette and “Colonel Henri” on his return to France. However, when he parachuted into Annecy during the night of 14 April 1943, he met Odette and they proceeded to the hotel in Saint-Jorioz. At 2 am on the 16 April, Bleicher, no longer in the guise of “Colonel Henri,” appeared in the hotel and arrested Odette and Churchill.

At Fresnes Prison, near Paris, Odette was interrogated by the Gestapo

fourteen times. Despite brutal torture, she stuck to her cover story and insisted that Peter Churchill was the nephew of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and that he knew nothing of her activities. The idea was, as a relative of Winston Churchill, the Gestapo would keep Peter Churchill, and Odette, alive as bargaining chips.

Nevertheless, in June 1943, the Gestapo condemned Odette to death on two counts to which she responded, “Then you will have to make up your mind on what count I am to be executed, because I can only die once.” Infuriated, Bleicher sent her to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.

Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

In Ravensbrück, the Nazis kept Odette in a punishment cell on a starvation diet. However, her earlier blindness and paralysis, and the example set by her grandfather, who “did not accept weakness very easily”, aided her survival. Furthermore, she accepted in advance that the Gestapo might capture her and that she might die.

Odette adopted an attitude of defiance and found that this attitude earned a degree of respect from her captors and strengthened her mind.

Later, Odette insisted that she was not brave or courageous, but that she just made up her mind about “certain things.” She recalled in a post-war interview that while everyone has a breaking point, her feeling was that if she could “survive the next minute without breaking up, that was another minute of life.” 

Because of her past illnesses, Odette knew that she could accept her situation and survive it. By accepting death, she felt that, “They would not win anything. They’ll have a dead body, useless to them. They won’t have me. I won’t let them have me.”

In general, the Gestapo found people of the prisoners’ own nationality to carry out their torture, so that the prisoners could not say they were tortured by the Nazis. Odette’s torture was carried out by a “very good-looking young Frenchman” who she believed was mentally ill.

In August 1944, with the Allies advancing on Ravensbrück, the camp commandant, Fritz Suhren, took Odette and drove her to an American base to surrender. He hoped that her supposed connections to Winston Churchill would allow him to negotiate his way out of execution. 

In 1946, at the Hamburg ‘Ravensbrück Trials’, Odette testified against the prison guards charged with war crimes and this resulted in Suhren’s execution in 1950.

Odette receiving her George Cross

Odette’s wartime experiences led to a complex personal life. She divorced Roy Sansom in 1946 and married Peter Churchill in 1947, only to divorce him in 1956. That year, she married Geoffrey Hallowes, a former SOE officer.

Odette’s SOE experiences were chronicled in a movie, Odette, which was released in 1950. Anna Neagle played Odette while Trevor Howard played Peter Churchill. Odette insisted that the film should not be made in Hollywood for fear that her story would be fictionalised. The movie, a great success, ensured that Odette became a celebrated member of the SOE.

Odette died on 13 March 1995 in Surrey, aged 82. 

As ever, thank you for your interest and support.

Hannah xxx