Farewell to the real Charlotte Grey

From the BBC today:

Australia WWII agent Nancy Wake’s ashes scattered

The ashes of Australia’s most decorated World War II servicewoman, former saboteur and spy Nancy Wake, have been scattered at a ceremony in France. The service took place in a forest near the village of Verneix, whose mayor attended the ceremony, as did an Australian military representative.

Mrs Wake died in 2011 at the age of 98. It had been her wish that her ashes be scattered in the area, where she played a key role in the resistance movement against German occupation. Australia was represented at the ceremony by military attache Brig Bill Sowry.

“We are here today to pass on our respects, to give her the respect she deserves,” Brig Sowry said. It’s great the people of Verneix have done so much to recognise her and make this little part of France part of Australia as well.”

Mrs Wake was partial to an early morning gin-and-tonic and after her ashes were scattered, there was – as she had apparently asked for – a drinks reception at the local mayor’s office.


Mrs Wake was one of the most highly decorated Allied secret agents of World War II. Born in New Zealand but raised in Australia, she is credited with helping hundreds of Allied personnel escape from occupied France.

The German Gestapo named her the “White Mouse” because she was so elusive.

The ceremony took place in the grounds of a chateau in central France

After studying journalism in London, Mrs Wake became a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune in Paris and reported on the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. After visiting Vienna in 1933, she vowed to fight against the persecution of Jews.


After the fall of France in 1940, Mrs Wake became a French Resistance courier and later a saboteur and spy – setting up escape routes and sabotaging German installations, saving hundreds of Allied lives.

She worked for British Special Operations and was parachuted into France in April 1944 before D-Day to deliver weapons to French Resistance fighters.

At one point, she was top of the Gestapo’s most wanted list.

“Freedom is the only thing worth living for. While I was doing that work, I used to think it didn’t matter if I died, because without freedom there was no point in living,” she once said of her wartime exploits.

It was only after the liberation of France that she learned her husband, French businessman Henri Fiocca, had been tortured and killed by the Gestapo for refusing to give her up.

She returned to Australia in 1949, where she failed several times to win a seat in parliament.

In 1957 she went back to England, where she married RAF fighter pilot John Forward.

Her story inspired Sebastian Faulks’ 1999 novel Charlotte Gray. A film based on the book, with the lead role played by Australian actress Cate Blanchett, was released in 2001.


It wasn’t 100 years ago today….

No this isn’t another sodding Titanic Special ( as this isn’t the BBC and there’s only so many commemorations/celebrations of a national tragedy which one can really stomach.)

No, it wasn’t 100 years ago on this very day,just nearly:  April 21st 1918 that Baron Manfred Von Richthofen – that’s The Red Baron to you – was shot down over Armiens during the first world war. There’s all sorts of controversy and mystery surrounding the exact details of his death, with many differing (you might say Anton Differing) accounts who actually fired the shots which brought The Baron down. But you could do worse than examine what the student’s friend, Wikipedia, has to say on the matter.

At the time, the Baron had been pursuing (at very low altitude) a Sopwith Camel piloted by a novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force. In turn, the Baron was spotted and briefly attacked by a Camel piloted by a school friend (and flight commander) of May’s, Canadian Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, who had to dive steeply at very high speed to intervene, and then had to climb steeply to avoid hitting the ground. Richthofen turned to avoid this attack, and then resumed his pursuit of May…. [then after he crashed to the ground] eye witness, Sergeant Ted Smout of the Australian Medical Corps, reported that Richthofen’s last word was “kaputt

So one thing seems clear, the 1st World War was full of heroes, derring-do, inappropriate nicknames and racial stereotypes. The Kraut was shot down by The Wop and uttered that he was “Kaputt” just before he snuffed if after a wizard prang. If it had been reported he’d said “Gott in Himmel” it couldn’t have been more Corking! It’s like reading a copy of The Battle Picture Library.

As kids in the UK we were brought up on this stuff – mini comic books depicting our brave boys struggle against the nasty nazis. Of course it was all pretty much concerned with WWII as the lines of good vrs evil are slightly more blurred in the first world war than in the second. Us Brits were (and some of us still are) obsessed with the fight against the Nazis and the 1939-45 affair, knowing few details of, or caring far far less about the 1914-18 conflict (the great British hero and eccentric Col A.D.Wintle, of course thought there was only one war against Germany: 1914-1945 which included a 21 year pause in the middle “while the Germans regrouped”). The Nazis are a much easier target than Kaiser Bill’s army, and as the second war is so much closer in time, we’ve tended to concentrate on that, rather than The Red Baron & Co.

There are always exceptions, of course. There are times when the whys and wherefores, the whos and the whats get mixed up. But the important thing is that no-one goes overboard and try to ignite bad feeling and relive old fights. So imagine my surprise when I discovered this little gem by the American group The Royal Guardsman. I was familiar with the song, of course, but certainly not with this performance, complete with cartoon German accents, nazi saluting and goose-stepping. Forgive and forget, they say, but I know neither if The Red Baron back in 1918 was an exponent of the straight-arm salute or the funny walk, nor whether The Royal Guardsmen should be forgiven, or simply forgotten.


In Bed with Ingrid

I remember catching my first glimpse of Ingrid Pitt. Back in the early-70s I was given my first tv set which I’d be allowed to keep in my room. It was a black and white, 6 inch, (analogue, kids) metal-clad affair with a dirty great carrying handle on top. My parents had, after some lobbying from yours truly, bought it for Christmas one year with the express orders that, not only should I watch it every night between 9pm (beddie-byes time) until I could no longer keep my eyes open, but that I should thrash myself within an inch of my life while doing so, when appropriate. Well that’s how I remember it anyway.

It took me a good few months to realise that the tv came with a tiny earphone-jack which would enable me to watch The Sweeney, I CLAVDIVS or The Beguiled without giving the game away to my parents in the next door bedroom. I didn’t actually own any headphones, so guess what was on my Christmas list the following year ? That’s right – an England football shirt.

Back in those heady, sweaty days, there was no internet to amuse me, and no dvd players. The home video age was still several years away. You could buy video recorders but they were the size of Belgium and when played dimmed the street lights outside. So we were left to the whims of the tv executives who decided when and what we were to watch on a Tuesday night from the comfort of our three-piece suite or, in my case, under the blankets in bed. (A duvet was known in my house as a “continental quilt” and I’d have to wait a few years yet to get my bum under one.)

And it was through this tv that I became aware of Ingrid. This blonde, buxom bird who’s face (and often much more) was projected onto my little black and white screen during the hours of darkness. This woman was magnificent. This woman was gorgeous. She was sexy. And she seemed to be in every other movie that I managed to see.

I was only interested in two types of movie: War and Horror (note the distinction). War because, obviously, there was a lot of shooting of Germans to be had. Horror because at some stage during the 90 minutes you could guarantee that some victorian wench would end up starkers and screaming for her life as her blouse was ripped from her lithe, white flesh and she was ravaged by someone in an unconvincing werewolf outfit (where were those bloody  headphones ?). Anton Diffring was in all the war movies, Ingrid Pitt was in all the horrors. (They were both in Where Eagles Dare)

As I’d yet to experience any homo-erotic tendencies towards masculine, blue-eyed Germans (and I’m still waiting), my affections lay with Ingrid. Even if I couldn’t. And why not ? Look at the picture at the top of this story. It’s a studio still from Vampire Lovers – the erotic goth horror classic. Ingrid’s on the far left. How sexy is she ?? She didn’t squeak annoyingly like Madeline Smith and didn’t scare the bejesus out of me as did Kate O’Mara. No, Ingrid was the one for me. I spent those nights listening to her soft sensual Swedish voice (well, how was I supposed to know she was actually Polish?) and hoping that soon all her clothes would fall off. I never had to wait long, bless her.

So now sadly, at the age of 73, she has gone upstairs to meet up again with Peter Cushing, Vincent Price and the rest. Perhaps her and Anton Diffring will relive old times ? She might even let Richard Burton’s Broadsword finally meet her Danny Boy.

…and now a word from our sponsor:

Operation Flower Market Garden

Ok: Plan B.

Not since the planning of D-Day, when the Allies poured over maps of northern Europe has so much thought gone into and effort been spent on crossing the channel. Ike, Patton and Monty, housed in top-secret bunkers, argued over the merits of the Pas-de-Calais and the Normandy beaches and had to deal with a delay in launching the attack, having to wait for a window in the weather. Theirs was a massive aerial and seabourn invasion, relying on surprise, overwhelming forces and stirring, patriotic music.

66 years later, and from an undisclosed location in London (my house), the Incumbent and I had to choose between going by air, rail or sea to our planned destination of Amsterdam. Now the weather has made up our minds for us. Our force comprises of two people in one Toyota, relying on an alarm clock radio to wake us up, and a slow puncture on the car holding out, accompanied only by Status Quo OBE on the iPod. Unlike Monty, we can’t delay our crossing: there’s is no window in the weather system, but the hotel’s already booked. Fucking Volcano.

It became increasing clear that our BA tickets would be worthless. With all air traffic in Europe grounded due to the ash cloud, the train seemed the best option of getting to Europe. But Eurostar was reporting record passenger numbers and little hope of us getting on board. So on Thursday I secured our place on a boat from Dover. As no-one travels by boat any more, I managed to book easy enough online. The ferry departs at 0800hrs (ZULU) to take us onto Dunkirk, from where we intend to drive to Holland. The first problem will, of course, occur if there are so many people with the same idea the queue starts somewhere outside Dartford.

In 1944 Kent is said to have resembled a massive car park, as the invading armies and their vehicles queued up to board the ships which would take them to ‘have a crack at Gerry’. My fear is that the roads into Dover in the morning will be in a similar, gridlocked state, as we queue to board the boat which we hope will take us to have a crack at Dutch beer and waffles.

Once safely beached in continental Europe, we hang a left and drive like the wind for the Lowlands, in our own mini-version of Operation Market Garden. Like the tanks of Irish Guards in 1944 we will have to push, push, push northeast into Holland. They were trying to secure the bridges across the Meuse River, arriving before the defending German forces defeated the stranded allied paratroopers. We’ll be trying secure a place in a Park-n-Ride car park in Amsterdam, then to the hotel before they give our room away to stranded tourists.

By the way, Michael Caine led that column of tanks (in the film anyway). He was my hero. So what the FUCK was he doing flag-waving for the Tories at the rally last week ? Turncoat. I shall never watch Zulu again (or until and unless I’m very drunk).

Boo !

Now where was I ? Ah yes, Amsterdam, for sure. I love Amsterdam. Keeping well clear of Muckystraat, which is easier to do than you might think, there’s lots of fun to be had. Good beer, proper pubs, many with proper, live music, the aforementioned waffles and of course cheese. All of which to be devoured with lashing of hot chips (yes, yes, yes, ok with mayonnaise, but you can avoid that if you are clever). If you survive that lot there’s all the museums, the Anne Frank House and, of course, the Flower Market. But I recommend lots of beer first.

On past trips (and there have been many) I have been guilty of over-indulging in all of the above, and after a particularly long and jolly evening a couple of years ago I took two hours finding my hotel after leaving a bar. I’d walked off in what I thought was the vague direction of the hotel and ended up circumnavigating the city. When I finally arrived in the lobby, how drunkly-smug with myself was I that I’d found the hotel without once having to ask for directions ? The next morning I discovered the bar was 200 yards away from my lodgings, and if I’d taken a left out of the bar, not a right I’d have been home in five minutes, wobbly legs allowing. I confess I said a rude word.

So this year, in an effort to keep me from straying too far, The Incumbent has booked a hotel which is not only a lot swisher and slicker than the hovels I’ve booked myself into in the past, but it’s also all-inclusive. For a goodly amount of Euros, the breakfast is inclusive. Drinks in the bar are included in the price. Even the mini bar in the room is all free, included in the price of the room ! It could be carnage. The chances of me wanting to leave and show the missus all the delights of Amsterdam on her first trip to the city are, at very best, minimal. A free bar and mini bar! Toblerone-me up!. If we get an upgrade to a suite we’ll have TWO to empty though, of course that may be a Fridge too Far.


Sons (and Daughters) of the Desert

Morning Has Broken, Like my Right Ankle. Pic: Andy Preston

Those of you who have seen and loved (and I am assuming that’s all of you) Ice Cold in Alex, the epic, almost perfect 1958 British war movie, will remember the scene half way through where John Mills (as a brave British Alcoholic), Anthony Quayle (as a dirty nazi spy) Harry Andrews (salt of the earth sergeant) and Sylvia Syms (a stunning example of British womanhood) have to winch an ambulance up a hundred foot sand dune to escape from Gerry.

The scene takes ages, full of sweat, pain, close-up shots of vexed faces and bulging biceps, and then Sylvia buggers it all up by letting go of the crank handle, allowing the truck to roll all the way back down the hill. Silly cow. So they have to start all over again.

On the other hand, you may be more familiar with The Hill, Sidney Lumet’s classic 1965 flick about a British Military prison in North Africa during World War II. In the movie, Harry Andrews (he was in all of ‘em) shouts a lot at Sean Connery and Roy Kinnear and has them running, climbing and crawling up and down a dirty great mound of sand (‘The Hill’ of the title) as part of their punishment. It’s grueling stuff. Sean won’t let the buggers get the better of him, but poor old Roy’s only got little legs. Hot n sweaty stuff again. If you’ve not seen it go get it out (or illegally download it, as I hear you young kids are prone to do nowadays). It’s great stuff.

I only mention this because this time about a week ago, I was merrily drinking my own bodyweight in duty free booze when someone had a brilliant idea:
We were sat in a camp in the Omani desert, having arrived far too late to sit on top of a dune and watch the ‘spectacular sunset’, as it says in all the guide books. “We’ll sod that, then” piped up someone, who may or may not have been me, “Let’s get up, sparrows, and climb up top and watch the sunRISE!”. Hurrah said a few of the gathered pissheads, and we set about drinking ourselves into an oblivion that only British tourists go to when they are in a “dry” country.

The party finished (I am told) when the booze ran out. By a later count it would seem we’d averaged about a litre of something each (I’m sure someone else must have had my share). Anyway, apparently I nodded off because I was woken by the incumbent who announced we were off up the dune. It was about five in the morning. I’d been on it for around ten hours, followed by seventeen minutes sleep. I rose and wobbled off into the darkness. Like Saladin, T.E.Lawrence and Michael Palin before us, I and a few close, pissed friends strode out, with only the moonlight to guide us. Saladin, I’m guessing, was teetotal, Lawrence had the help of the Bedouins, Palin a BBC lighting and camera crew. I’d enlisted the help of a bottle of Tanqueray gin and a couple of Nurofen. My fellow trekkers had done similar but also had this fat pissed old bloke to look after. And not a Harry Andrews in sight.

The dark, intimidating dune loomed ominously in front of us. It was huge, A hundred feet, maybe 150. (I say this NOW, but I honestly have very little memory of any of this, most of it is first and second-hand testimony from people who were considerably less pissed than I was). I can remember the first twenty yards-or-so not being too bad. Perhaps I wasn’t so drunk after all? Perhaps all that pre-tour training had finally paid off? No, hang on: I was very pissed and I hadn’t done any training. I was just numb and stubborn.

The Incumbent and I stop for a breather

The next section was another story. Softer sand, steeper climb, I was beginning to sober up rapidly. Several of those above me made the unmistakable sounds of fit people having fun. They laughed, they gasped, they talked about stuff OTHER than how much pain they were in. I made no such polite chitchat. I was pleading with my legs to keep pumping, and for the Incumbent to give me a piggyback. She politely refused and suggested we stop to catch our breath. Too late for me. I’d left my breath back at camp during a recital of Status Quo’s finest at the party earlier that night. However, we dug in half way to the summit to rest.

It was steep, and damp, but the sand was cool and soft. I could have stayed there forever, or until after I stopped hurting- whichever came sooner. The incumbent took off her flip-flops which she’d nearly lost several times on the way up, I thought about writing a will. But for reasons beyond me we were soon on our feet/knees and heading slowly for the top. Our friends had already disappeared from view, and were presumably readying themselves for the great spectacle to come. I didn’t want to miss it, having come so far. So gasping, coughing and swearing at myself (well, it saved anyone else doing it) I gradually emerged over the brow of the hill to see such a wondrous sight: my mates sitting on top of ANOTHER dune 40 yards away. After a brief pause for a word with my sponsor, we made our way over to the other peak and collapsed. Some took photos, some looked for their flip-flops, some merely closed their eyes and wept at the pain and the heat that their quadriceps and lungs were emitting.

And there we sat, like that bunch of old gits in Close Encounters, waiting for something to come over the hill. We didn’t have to wait long. Five or six minutes later a beautiful, perfect yellow sun came up over the horizon and shed it’s pale golden hue on all around. It gave us a warm glow to know we, out of all others left down below, had made the effort to come up top and witness this sight. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart, though that could have been from the gin and a dodgy prawn earlier.

Like Hillary and Tenzing, just a little more dignified. Pic: Andy Preston

But we’d done it, without the aid of 4×4, guide or even Harry Andrews. We stood there and gawped for minutes.

Then we went back down the hill for brekkie.

Days later by a hotel swimming pool I suddenly sat bolt upright and remembered what a prat I’d been to attempt such a thing in such a state. I could have killed myself and been left up there on the desolate peak, like a discarded flop-flop. Such was my distress that I had to order another gin. “Better make it a large one, I’ve got to play cricket tomorrow.”