The heroines who helped win WW2 – the untold story

Under A Wartime Sky - thumbnailThis year – which marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – many thousands of visitors from all over the world will flock to the popular tourist attraction of Bletchley Park, to learn how codebreakers helped to win World War Two.

What is almost forgotten is the equally vital work of the scientists who developed radar – then known as Radio Direction Finding – and the hundreds of operators, mainly women, who worked tirelessly, day and night, up and down the coasts of Britain to track the approach of enemy planes. During the Battle of Britain, radar delivered crucial intelligence enabling the RAF to overcome the Luftwaffe’s 2,400 planes with just 640 of our own.

I have been fascinated by this story ever since I was a child, and Under a Wartime Sky was inspired by real-life people and events, and especially the place where radar began, in a fairy-tale mansion set on a remote part of the Suffolk coast.

My father was a keen dinghy racer and as children we spent many anxious hours watching him from the shingle at Felixstowe Ferry. Across the river, the gothic towers of Bawdsey Manor peeped enticingly above the pines, although it was still firmly out of bounds. Several decades later, some friends bought the place from the Ministry of Defence to set up an English language school. We visited often and soon fell in love with it.

The Manor and estate – including a farm and staff houses – was built by a Victorian millionaire, William Cuthbert Quilter MP, as their ‘seaside home’. His wife, Lady Quilter, created extensive formal gardens including a Cliff Path, using an artificial rock called Pulhamite.

In 1936 Winston Churchill asked the physicist Sir Robert Watson-Watt to develop a ‘death beam’ or a ‘magic eye’ to counter the growing threat of German airborne aggression. Under the cloak of utmost secrecy, he and a small team of brilliant scientists moved into the Manor. Stables and outbuildings were converted into workshops and the first receiver and transmitter towers were built. Just eighteen months later RAF Bawdsey became the first fully operational radar station in the world.

As the technology developed, dozens of similar stations with their distinctive towers were hastily constructed all along the south and east coasts of Britain. Watson-Watt – whose mother had been an early feminist – then shocked everyone by declaring that they should recruit and train women as radar operators because they had better concentration, more patience and the delicate touch needed for the sensitive instruments.

After war was declared, thousands of young women joined the newly-created Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and were put through rigorous aptitude tests. Because of the secrecy, those chosen to be radar operators had little idea of what this meant until they started the intensive period of highly technical training. Even then many failed to make the grade.

The work was hard and demanding – intense concentration and nerves of steel were required. Shifts operated day and night, scanning the skies for signs of enemy aircraft and tracking our own during dog fights. Later, they provided a vital early-warning system against bombing raids. It was also dangerous – the stations were highly vulnerable in their coastal positions and easily identifiable by their tall masts . Several suffered disastrous bombing but the women never deserted their posts.

As with the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, the work of the scientists who developed radar and the women who operated it remained an official secret for many decades. Yet even now, very little is known about their critical role in helping to win the war.

The Bawdsey Radar Trust is working hard to change this. This small museum largely run by volunteers in a former transmitter block explains how radar began, how influential it was and still is today. Radar developed into microwave technology which has thousands of applications in our everyday lives such as speed cameras and air traffic control, as well as in space. A millennium-funded project recorded fascinating oral histories of the experiences of  women and men who worked there. The Museum recently won the Suffolk Small Museum award. Find out more at www.bawdseyradar.org.uk.

 

Reader beware!

Dear friends

If you are buying from Amazon, please be aware that my books have different titles and covers, depending on the country in which they are published. The ones in translation will be obvious (!) but the UK/US ones less so.

Both versions are available on both UK and US Amazon sites and although both I and my publishers have tried to change this, Amazon doesn’t seem able or willing to differentiate or make it clear.

Thus, The Poppy Factory is called All the Things We Lost in the US, The Silk Weaver has been re-titled The Hidden Thread for the US, In Love and War (The Lost Soldiers in US) and my latest, Under a Wartime Sky in the UK is called Our Last Letter in the US.

The price difference should usually be a clue, but please beware!

Thanks and sorry if you have been caught out by this.

 

Beautiful cover for US version

Our Last Letter FINAL

This is such an evocative cover for the US version of my novel titled Our Last Letter in US (published 21st February) and Under a Wartime Sky in the UK (published 20th February). Hope you agree!

Set against the background of the build up to WW2, the novel tells the little-known story of the heroes and heroines who invented and operated radar – the ‘magic eye in the sky’ – which is widely credited with helping to win the war and changing the course of history.

The untold story of the heroes who helped win the war

Under A Wartime Sky - thumbnail

I am delighted to reveal the cover of my next (seventh) novel, Under a Wartime Sky, to be published by Pan Macmillan on 20th February 2020. I believe this is the first ever novel telling this remarkable story of the men and women who helped to win WW2.

In 1936, with war looming, the country’s brightest minds were gathered under the the utmost secrecy at Bawdsey Manor, a gothic Victorian mansion on a remote part of the East Anglian coast. They were tasked by Winston Churchill to develop an invention that would prove vital in winning World War Two. As war was declared, the Manor became the first of dozens of radar stations along the south and east coasts of Britain on the front line as waves of German bombers set their sights on Britain.

I’ve been fascinated by Bawdsey Manor since my very early years. My father was a keen dinghy sailor and we spent many hours watching him from the shingle at Felixstowe Ferry. Across the river the Manor’s fairy-tale towers peeped enticingly above the pines, but it was still firmly out of bounds. Many years later a friend fell in love with the place and bought it, setting up a successful English language school there, so I was at last able to explore its wonderful buildings and gardens. The mansion is remarkable in itself, but its importance in WW2 and its extraordinary military history makes it an irresistible setting for a novel.

The invention of radar is widely credited as being a major factor in winning Second World War, particularly in the Battle of Britain and during the Blitz and in subsequent phases. Sadly this work and the dedication of thousands of radar operators – mostly women – is far less widely recognised than the code-breakers of Bletchley Park. Radar later developed into microwave technology which has thousands of applications in everyday life today such as speed cameras and air traffic control, as well as in space.

I’ll be out and about from February onwards talking about the research I carried out to write this extraordinary story. Please go to my events page to find out more.

 

Publication week for The Dressmaker!

I am thrilled to share this wonderful review at the start of publication week for The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane:

‘I enjoyed Anna’s story in The Silk Weaver so I was looking forward to immersing myself again in this time period with Charlotte.

The prologue at the Foundling Hospital is heart-wrenching.  What makes this even more hard hitting is the fact that this scene could well have taken place in reality.  Liz Trenow certainly knows how to hook her readers in emotionally!

I was drawn in to Charlotte’s quest and found it frustrating when she kept hitting brick walls.  Louisa (her sister) obviously knew more than she was prepared to share and these scenes kept me intrigued.  I loved the family time on those visits, well, the ones where Ambrose wasn’t present …

Charlotte is a complex character.  Independent and fierce on the outside, she is full of doubts on an inner level.  She’s not afraid of confrontation though or of doing the right thing whether that’s for her business or in her private life.  I must admit I found her actions with the leeches rather daring, considering what the possible consequences could be.  She shows bravery visiting suppliers for payment of overdue bills, outstanding customer service and puts her life on hold when she’s needed by others.  Loyal and selfless.

You’ll find real historical people woven into The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane and factual information at the start of each chapter.  The information at the start of the chapter details an item of clothing or fabric and what it is – all relevant to the chapter.  A fabulous idea and in my opinion, gives deeper understanding for the fashions and foibles of the time.

After the story, Liz Trenow has included links to the historical places and people should you wish to find out more.

I’ve loved walking through time with Charlotte.  If you enjoy historical fiction with secrets and intrigue with women at its core then you should add this one to your reading list.

A recommended read from me.

Shaz Goodwin, Shera’s Jamboree

Announcing my new novel and the fascinating world of 18th century dressmakers.

the dressmaker of draper's lane cover

In just over a month (21st February) my sixth novel, The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane, will be published by Pan Macmillan (UK only, for the moment).

The story behind it came when I was writing a previous novel, The Silk Weaver,  inspired by the history of my family’s silk business, which started in East London in the early 1700s. The company, now based in Suffolk, is one of just three in the country still weaving today.

At first, Miss Charlotte was just a minor, character – a go-between, useful for taking the plot forward – but she soon grew in personality and importance, and I realised that her backstory was begging to be told. Most seamstresses were poorly-paid workers but a very few were fortunate enough to run their own businesses, allowing them financial freedom and an ability to move between the layers of society in a way not available to others according to the strict mores of the time.

Miss Charlotte is different: she is happily unmarried, and an independent businesswoman in the days when this was most unusual. She ought to be content, but something is missing, and the discovery of a rare piece of silk sets her off on a search that will change her life.

I loved returning to the setting of 18th century London.  It was a fascinating era, a time of much societal change: trade barriers were relaxed, the industrial revolution was about to begin, capitalism was on the rise as a newly wealthy middle class became consumers, and great thinkers and explorers of the Enlightenment were opening up their knowledge of the world. And of course, it was the time when the first Foundling Hospital was established in London.

Researching and writing my own family’s silk weaving history has brought a greater sense of connection to my ancestors and an appreciation of the remarkable fabrics they have created over three hundred years. As it approaches its 300th anniversary in 2020, Stephen Walters & Sons is certainly the oldest silk company and probably one of very few continuously family-owned companies of any kind in Britain, and I am very proud to be connected with that heritage.

Check out my events page for dates and venues when I’ll be talking about my research and inspirations.

 

It’s been a sobering day

Flanders 1919.jpg

Today I went to the Remembrance Sunday parade, wreath laying and two minute silence in my home town of Colchester – a garrison town – and was moved to tears by the Band of the Parachute Regiment and the ranks of proud soldiers and veterans, many literally weighed down by their medals.

Tomorrow (Monday 12th November) I’ll be talking about the ones they left behind, and the thousands who went in search of their loved ones in the devastated lands of Flanders and the Somme, and showing photographs of those very first ‘battlefield tourists’. It’s a field of research I discovered when writing my latest book In Love and War.

My illustrated talk, Searching for Remembrance, is being hosted by the fabulous independent Caxton Books at the Oasis Centre, Connaught Avenue in Frinton on Sea. Tickets are £5, and it starts at 3pm. See you there.

 

A quiet thought for Armistice Day

Tyne Cot cemetery 1920.jpg

When you are standing at your hero's grave,

Or near some homeless village where he died,

Remember, through your heart's rekindling pride,

The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.




Men fought like brutes, and hideous things were done,

And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.

But in that Golgotha, perhaps you'll find

The mothers of the men who killed  your son.




Reconciliation by Siegfried Sassoon 1918

Quoted as an inspiration for my novel, In Love and War


Searching for reconciliation

Honouring the dead in Flanders, 1919

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, millions of visitors will flock to the cemeteries and battlefields of Flanders and the Somme.

What is little known is that these tours actually began a hundred years ago.  In 1919, within weeks of the Armistice, thousands flocked across the Channel on what was then an extremely daunting and risky journey, in a desperate search for news of their lost loved ones.

The very first organised trips were run for ‘pilgrims’ by church groups, but companies such as Thomas Cook and Michelin soon realised their commercial potential. Their involvement was highly controversial; furious arguments raged in the letters pages of newspapers about the way in which these ‘sacred places’, where so many died, were being so distastefully ‘desecrated by the spectre of commercial tourism’.

Others believed they provided a vital way of remembering and honouring the sacrifice made by that ‘lost generation’, arguing at the same time that visitors brought much-needed income to areas in desperate need of funding to rebuild their shattered lands.

I will be talking and showing photographs of the research into early battlefield tourism carried out for my latest novel, In Love and War, (published in the United States as The Lost Soldiers) at the Roman River Festival  in my home town of Colchester UK next week (19th September). Click on the link for more details. The talk is free, but booking is advisable.

 

The Lost Soldiers (aka In Love and War)

Ever get the feeling you’ve seen something somewhere before? The image on this cover is the same as the UK version, but my US publishers, Bookouture, have changed the title of In Love and War to The Lost Soldiers because they believe it will have more appeal for American readers. And so it has already proved – sales are now moving faster!

The Lost Soldiers

This seems a good time to apologise for the wrong posting of my previous novel, The Silk Weaver for sale on UK Amazon under the different title given to it by my US publishers, The Hidden Thread. Of course it should only have been available in the US (on Amazon.com). Several people have bought it in good faith thinking it was a new title, only to be quite naturally disappointed to discover they had already read it.

Both American and British publishers apologise for this problem and have been trying to fix it. You’d think it would be simple, but as with all things Amazon, it never is. Something to do with ‘leaking territories’ (sounds painful), algorithms, blah blah blah. Apparently it is not uncommon.

If you have been caught out I suggest you return it to Amazon and ask for a refund. I can only apologise again and hope it doesn’t happen with this new title.