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The History Press blog

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    First World War

    In today’s age of technology, it can be easy to forget about how animals paid a pivotal role in the First World War - in some cases they meant the difference between life and death. In the centenary year of the First World War, it’s important to remember how many creatures, including the humble homing pigeon, played a vital role in communications during the conflict.

    Pigeons were responsible for sending rescue messages back and forth from soldiers to their base. Over 100,000 birds were used, with an astonishing success rate of 95% getting through to their destination with their message, proving the huge impact they had when other communication systems were still unreliable during this time.

    The pigeons would use their natural homing ability to get home, with their magnetic and solar compass following landmarks by aerial recognition and their sense of smell.

    Lee Fribbins, representative of Pigeon Racing UK & Ireland, commented: '2014 marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. Not only do we remember the bravery of the soldiers, but we also want to remember the amazing achievements of homing pigeons during this terrible conflict. Pigeons were an invaluable form of communication during the war and the birds literally saved lives - without them, many more men would have perished.'

    However, the use of these birds for vital communication began long before the First World War. Racing pigeons are descended from the Rock Dove, and the earliest recorded reference to the use of messenger pigeons comes from Ramses III (c.1200 BC) when they were used to convey news between cities regarding the flood state of the Nile.

    The Romans used pigeons to convey messages throughout the empire, for example Olympic Games results for betting syndicates, and ships warning their home port of their imminent arrival.

    Arab engravings

    Carrier pigeons were held in very high esteem in the Arab world, and were called “The Kings Angels”, and in medieval times pigeons were brought back to Europe by the Crusaders.

    In the 1800′s there was an official pigeon postal service throughout France, and this was expanded between capitals so that a postal service by carrier pigeon between London and Paris was advertised in 1870.

    Pigeon racing became a sport of the masses in the early 1900′s, and of course the pigeons were used extensively as message carriers by armies on both sides during the First and Second World War. 

    The homing pigeon is said to be one of the toughest birds on the planet and will voluntarily fly over 20,000 miles a year, which is the equivalent to flying completely around the world at the equator.

    Today there are still around 43,000 pigeon fanciers in the UK with pigeon racing continuing to be a popular pastime around the country. Not only have they served Britain for generations, they have proved their many talents across a wide spectrum and should be treasured for the foreseeable future. 

    This short educational video shares the history of the homing pigeon and their huge impact on civilisation for thousands of years

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  • 09/22/14--02:00: My paranormal journey
  • Tolbooth Tower, Pittenweem

    My interest in the paranormal first started as a young child. My grandfather was a painter to trade, and a specialist in gold leaf work, which led him to work in places of historical significance, such as Falkland Palace, the formal home and country retreat of the Scottish Royals, where he carried out the gold leaf work to the chapel and king’s bed-chamber. While working in buildings such as this, he would hear tales of ghostly goings on which he would bring back to re-tell to me in front of the fireplace whenever I stayed overnight.

    As I grew up, being told a ghost story was never enough for me, I wanted to know more. It is easy to say a place is haunted, but it’s not so always easy to say what or who haunts it, or why it is haunted. My inquisitive mind wanted more, I wanted to understand why some places are said to be haunted, while others aren’t, and I knew the answers would lie in the history. People are often surprised when they hear about my interest, or see the bookcase in my study full of old ghost story and history books, that I cannot actually say that I believe in ghosts! I am sure there is something else out there, something we don’t understand, and so for that reason I equally cannot say I disbelieve in ghosts. I feel the word ‘ghost’ is too generic and conjures up images in the minds of what we think ghosts are, but in truth, we don’t know what they are…..yet! I consider myself a true open minded sceptic. I will try to find logical reasons for everything, but will never exclude the possibility that there is something paranormal going on.

    Over the years, I have visited hundreds of reputedly haunted locations. In some, such as the Edinburgh underground vaults which are said to be one of the most haunted places in Britain, I have rarely felt uncomfortable. In others, the opposite can be said. One such place is the Tolbooth Tower in the quiet fishing village of Pittenweem, Fife. The tower houses the jail and torture rooms from one of the worst cases of witch hunting recorded, and something still lurks within the metre thick stone walls of this ancient tower.

    Me on the stairs of the tower 


    I have been lucky enough to have the opportunity to stay in the tower overnight on several occasions. For these investigations, I consider the essential pieces of equipment to be a camera, voice recorder, a thermometer and electromagnetic field meter. While many believe the changes in the electromagnetic field is a spirit drawing on energy to manifest, there is no evidence of this. The meter does however alert that there is something happening in the atmosphere worth checking.

    During these investigations, I have recorded numerous unexplained sounds, such as the heavy wooden doors slamming shut with a loud ‘Ker-chunk’, even though the doors were removed a long time ago. Footsteps on the stairs are frequently heard, and voices, including one of a small girl who has also been seen in the tower on several occasions, have been recorded. One of the best pieces of unexplained phenomena I have recorded was in this tower. While approaching the end of the investigation, we began to hear noises again. I asked the question whether whoever is in the tower objects to people being brought in and told what happened there. A response, partly speaking over our own voices, appears to respond ‘definitely, too much talking’. Could this be the spirit of one of those responsible for the murder of so many innocent people who does not want the story told? Listen, and decide for yourself!

    Haunted Kirkcaldy


    Compiled by paranormal investigator Gregor Stewart, Haunted Kirkcaldy contains a chilling range of spooky tales from around Kirkcaldy. From haunted public houses, which have left both customers and staff terrified, to the ruins of the ancient Ravenscraig Castle, which still attract a mysterious visitor many years after their death, this collection of ghostly goings-on, phantom footsteps and playful poltergeists is sure to appeal to everyone interested in the paranormal and the history of Fife’s largest town. Richly illustrated with over fifty images, Haunted Kirkcaldy is guaranteed to make your blood run cold. 

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     Southend at War


    Dee Gordon will be giving a talk at Southend on Monday 29th September from 2.00-3.30pm and signing copies of her book, Southend at War. Tickets cost £5 (including booking fee) and can be pruchased here.  

    This is the unique and fascinating result of many conversations with people about the lives of their families in Southend during the First and Second World War. Vivid memories are recounted, including interviews with former Land Army girls, evacuees, and members of the Home Guard. As well as recollections of life on the Home Front, archive reports and letters touch upon the horror of the conflict at the Front. Illustrated with over 90 archive photographs and documents, Southend at War draws on the first-hand accounts of those who were present during those dangerous years and is sure to appeal to everyone interested in the history of Southend.

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    Salvarsan treatment kit for syphilis, Germany, 1909-1912. L0057814 Credit Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images

    In 1913 the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases was established to inquire into the prevalence of venereal diseases among the civilian population and to recommend more effective systems of prevention and treatment. In 1916, after 64 sitting days during which 85 expert medical witnesses were asked 22,296 questions and their testimony transcribed into 758 pages of minutes, the Royal Commission finally brought down a comprehensive series of 35 recommendations.

    The Royal Commission’s unprecedented series of recommendations was based upon the principal of universal and freely-available healthcare, while rejecting traditional calls for notification and regulation. They were directly responding to long-standing concerns over the training of medical students, the competency of the average general practitioner, the accessibility and effectiveness of treatment, and the role of various professional groups in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of venereal diseases. These recommendations constituted the first systematised state intervention in the prevention and treatment of venereal diseases among civilians since the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886. Medical technologies such as the diagnostic Wassermann reaction and the German-manufactured drug, salvarsan (and its British-made wartime substitutes), became available on an unprecedented scale through the establishment of a national network of clinics specifically designed for the treatment of venereal diseases among the civilian population of Britain.

    The affordability and availability of these new diagnostic and therapeutic technologies was crucial to the efficient working of the new clinics. The Commissioners therefore recommended that, subject to proper safeguards, local health authorities be empowered to supply salvarsan (an otherwise costly drug) gratuitously to medical practitioners. They also recommended that the Wassermann reaction be made readily available to test the blood serum of any patient suspected of having syphilis. In the years before the First World War much of the clinical work being done with salvarsan had been experimental as clinicians sought the safest concentrations and best methods of administration. Likewise, the performance of the Wassermann reaction had been expensive, experimental, and confined to a small number of institutions. The new centralised system of treatment clinics enabled greater numbers of general practitioners, unskilled in the administration of salvarsan or the employment of the Wassermann reaction, to obtain these new therapeutic and diagnostic facilities for their patients.

    "Local authorities and... venereal diseases" 1917 L0018068 Credit: Wellcome Library, London

    By the time the Royal Commission brought down its recommendations in 1916 it had become apparent that, if venereal diseases were to be successfully combatted, practitioners and health officials could not confine their attention to the sexual practices and sexual health of soldiers and prostitutes. The regulatory measures imposed under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) 13a and 40d may have prohibited women convicted of soliciting from being in the vicinity of military camps, and may have prohibited any woman, prostitute or otherwise, having intercourse with servicemen if infected with venereal diseases. However, as Julia Laite has most recently demonstrated, DORA had little tangible influence upon a public health bureaucracy and medical profession that, by the First World War, had set itself on a path towards a much less interventionist and regulatory system of treatment and disease prevention. Indeed, the Royal Commission’s recommendations demonstrated a discernable shift towards a gender-neutral system of treatment and disease management. It was a system based upon the principal that venereal diseases could not be effectively controlled unless infected persons were diagnosed early and received adequate and immediate treatment.

    If this new non-interventionist system of diagnosis and treatment was to work, then confidentiality was essential. Infected persons seeking care through the new clinics not only needed confidence in the efficaciousness of new treatments. They also needed to feel that their treatment would remain confidential, and not subject of the type of notification and regulation that had been enforced under the Contagious Diseases Acts. Under these circumstances, the Royal Commission could do little else but recommend in 1916 that ‘no system of notification of venereal diseases should be put into force at the present time’.[1] This recommendation demonstrated concern for the fact that many patients, keenly aware of the stigma surrounding venereal diseases and desirous to be done with treatment as soon as possible, were slipping through the cracks of an ill-equipped healthcare system. The Commissioners were placed in a difficult situation. They were having to make recommendations for the improvement of a system of care that was still underpinned by moral prejudices. At the same time, they needed to remain sensitive to the strong liberal and feminist opposition towards any return to the regulationism of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

    The network of clinics established in the wake of the Royal Commission not only reflected wider shifts in the ideology of healthcare and in medico-moral attitudes towards venereal diseases and sexual health. As the first universally and freely-available healthcare system in the United Kingdom these clinics would also have profound implications for the trajectory of healthcare throughout the twentieth century, providing important ideological and structural foundations for what would become the National Health Service in 1948.


    Anne Hanley has recently submitted a PhD in medical history to the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research addressed the developing clinical practices, knowledge claims, and professional debates that were instrumental in building up knowledge of venereal diseases in England during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. She is now taking this research forward into the First and Second World Wars, examining important legislative changes and technological developments, and their effects upon healthcare provisions. Her blog and more about her research can be found here.


    [1] Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases, Final Report, Cd 8189, p. 64.

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    Dartmouth and Kingswear

    Sea mist shrouded the boats on the river Dart as the train from London pulled into the riverside station at the Royal Dart Hotel. Train passengers carrying strange parcels then made their way silently onto the ferry and across the river to the old paddle steamer called Westward Ho! 

    It was 1942 and David Birkin was just a messenger for the Naval Intelligence Division, but he knew that in just a few hours these secret agents would be arriving in darkness on a French beach, scrambling ashore to meet the Resistance. He begged his boss to be part of these clandestine operations.

    However the Medical Board had pronounced David Birkin unfit for any form of military service. He suffered from sea-sickness, sinus infections, bleeding lungs and double-vision. After two years working as a telegraphist, spending most of that time in hospital, Birkin had dwindling hopes of ever seeing the ‘real’ war. Working for transport operations was the best he could hope for. Or so he thought.

    The 15th Motor Gunboat Flotilla at Dartmouth urgently needed navigators to get them to the French coast and they were willing to let David Birkin have a go, sending him on a crash course in navigation and assigning him on probation to Motor Gunboat 318.

    Their charts for the rock-infested north Brittany coast were out-of-date and using radar would attract unwanted attention from the enemy. So Birkin had only a compass, log and an echo-sounder to find their way in the pitch dark. After steaming across the Channel for seven hours, the echo-sounder often didn’t work.

    In MGB 318’s chart room, every mission was a challenge. The bridge was armoured, but the chart room was just plywood as Birkin discovered when the boat lurched and he fell through the wall. The chart-table was collapsible as it frequently demonstrated. In the diffused lighting, red for black-out purposes, he could barely see the charts and the room stank of cabbage and engine oil. From the voice-pipe connecting him with the bridge came sea-water and rust, often pouring through in foul weather. When the ship first nosed into the swell, David Birkin was up to his ankles in salt-water, trying to read sodden charts; the lamp exploded on the floor and in the sudden darkness, he was violently sick. Only another twenty-three hours of this to go...

    David Birkin’s story is just one of many true stories of clandestine operations in the West Country during the Second World War, as told in South West Secret Agents

    .South West Secret Agents

    Laura Quigley is the author of South West Secret Agents, a collection of true stories of spies, espionage and the West Coutry
    during the Second World War. She will be signing copies of her book on the 28th of September at Hidden Heritage, Cornwall from 11.00 am-4.00 pm. She is also apprearing at the Plymouth International Book Festival on October 22nd at 7.30pm.

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    The advance on Kilimanjaro.

    In Britain, most of the commemorative events held to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War have been firmly focussed on Europe and the heavy fighting that took place there.  In contrast, the remembrance of far-way theatres has been much more subdued despite the enormous impact and devastation of the conflict on the societies that it touched.  East Africa stands out as the prime example of this relative neglect; it was the battleground for four empires and their African subject peoples with fighting that ranged from modern Kenya and Uganda in the north through Tanzania to Mozambique in the south, leaving hunger and devastation in its trail.  Despite lasting for over four years and impacting the lives of millions of people, it still remains one of the least known theatres of the war.  

    While the name and exploits of the famed German commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the 1950’s film The African Queen, which was inspired by an episode of the campaign, remain in the public consciousness, it is less appreciated that apart from the famous King’s African Rifles, the British brought in troops from the United Kingdom, India, South Africa, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, the Gambia, the West Indies, Nyasaland as well as both North and South Rhodesia to fight alongside with those from the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Mozambique.  The opposing Germans, cut off by sea and blockage, used ingenuity, endurance and ruthless exploitation of their colonial subjects to survive in the field until the final Armistice in November 1918. 

    In contrast to the Western Front, the distances in East Africa were enormous and troop levels were low.  Although there were a number of pitched battles, operations in East Africa were dominated by that of patrols and isolated columns moving through heavy bush with the nerve-wracking and constant threat of ambush.  It was not uncommon for columns to advance a hundred miles through dense bush with their bases far in the rear and dependent on civilian carriers to move their supplies on their heads.  Most of this had to be accomplished while marching on foot in terrain that ranged from arid deserts to tropical jungles to formidable mountains and usually on inadequate rations and in ragged clothing.    Apart from the enemy, soldiers had to contend with dangerous wild animals such as lions, elephants and hippos as well as the clouds of voracious insects that carried pestilence and made life a misery.  The results were unprecedented levels of sickness, including malaria, dysentery, and pneumonia, for humans, while nearly every single pack animal perished from disease.  

    In 1914, the British brought in substantial reinforcements from the Indian Army to reinforce the King’s African Rifles and then subsequently two divisions of South Africans for the offensive of 1916.  But decisive victory eluded them while disease and overwork ravaged their ranks.  It was to be a greatly expanded African force that led the clearance of German East Africa in 1917 and then the pursuit through Mozambique in 1918.  They were backed by the thousands of carriers who moved their food, equipment and ammunition as well as the hundreds of thousands of others who worked the war economy.   The full story of the East African campaign is told in ‘The Forgotten Front’ which is based on archival research in five countries that draws on the original documents written by the participants.  It is a story of heroic human endeavour and terrible suffering set in some of the most difficult terrain in the world. 

    It certainly deserves to be less ‘forgotten’ ...

    The Forgotten Front:  The East African Campaign 1914-1918

    Ross Anderson is the author of The Forgotten Front: The East African Campaign 1914-1918The First World War began in East Africa in August 1914 and did not end until 13 November 1918. In its scale and impact, it was the largest conflict yet to take place on African soil. Four empires and their subject peoples were engaged in a conflict that ranged from modern Kenya in the north to Mozambique in the south. The campaign combined heroic human endeavour and terrible suffering, set in some of the most difficult terrain in the world. The troops had to cope with extremes that ranged from arid deserts to tropical jungles and formidable mountains, and almost always on inadequate rations. Yet the East African campaign has languished in undeserved obscurity over the years, with many people only vaguely aware of its course of events. 

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    The Gloucestershire Local History Association will be holding a Local History Day based on 'The Effects of World War One on Gloucestershire Communities' at Pates Grammar School, Cheltenham on Saturday 11th October from 10.30am - 4.30pm.   

    There will be a programme of speakers and displays by Local History Societies, including The History Press authors Robert Dixon, author of the upcoming Great War Britain: Gloucestershire and Sally Dickson, author of Great War Britain: Kidderminster.

    Admission is free and refreshments will be available throughout the day. 

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  • 09/26/14--02:30: The Friday Digest 26/09/14

    THP Friday digest

    This week's update features the Mitford sisters, Amazon warriors and the lost city of Cambodia.

    This Greek cup, dating from around 510 B.C., depicts an Amazon warrior on a horse. Scholars suggest wording on the vase names the woman Worthy of Armor in ancient Circassian.  PHOTOGRAPH BY THE J. PAUL GETTY MUSEUM

    * A number of Amazon warriors' names have been revealed amidst 'gibberish' on Ancient Greek vases


    Two sphinxes guard the entrance to the tomb at Amphipolis (c) Greek Culture Ministry


    The discovery of an enormous tomb at Amphipolis in northern Greece, dating to the time of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, has enthused Greeks, and is a welcome distraction from the dire economic crisis.

    The painted replica of a c. 490 B.C. archer (at the Parthenon in Athens) testifies to German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann’s painstaking research into the ancient sculpture’s colors. The original statue came from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina [Source: Smithsonian]


    * We always imagine Greek statues to be white marble but the reality is that the statues were painted in extremely bright colours ...

    Relief sculpture of Mithras (c) Museum of London

    * The temple of Mithras: how do you put London's Roman shrine back together?

    Artificial leach


    * Victorian inventions that didn't change the world – in pictures



    * A day out at the gallows and other bygone photographic oddities.

    Reading Picture: AP/ Fotolia


    * A look at Britain's most visited cities.

    It's estimated that approximately 1,000 Indigenous soldiers fought in World War I.

    * Eighteen powerful photos of the forgotten indigenous soldiers of the First World War

    The Mitford sisters (clockwise from top left): Unity; Jessica; Diana; Nancy; Deborah; Pamela

    * The Mitfords: six sisters who captured an era ...

    The All Cannings long barrow


    * Wiltshire's 'Neolithic' long barrow burial chamber opens but would you be tempted to be buried there?  

    Angkor Wat temple

    How lasers revealed a lost city ... 


    Peaky Blinders publicity shot

    Why is the Birmingham accent so difficult to mimic? 

    Illustration by Jonty Clark

    * What would you have done? Terrible choices people had to make during the Second World War and why we’re not as different from the Nazis as we like to think

    Houses of Parliament


    * The Scottish referendum last week certainly caused a stir but the history of the UK Parliament is anything but dull ...

    Lonesome George

    * A dispute has broken out between an Ecuadorean ministry and the Galapagos Islands over where the preserved body of Galapagos tortoise Lonesome George should be housed

    21 reasons why museums are rubbish. Why are there no interactive displays for adults? Photo: ALAMY

    * Twenty-one reasons to love and hate museums ...



    * Ten gorgeous quotes from banned books.

    Downton & Kindle message


    * Is Downton Abbey the best metaphor for the publishing industry?

    Amazon, we want to talk to you about Kindle Unlimited - See more at:

     'Amazon, we want to talk to you about Kindle Unlimited.'


    Publishing’s holding pattern: the 2014 salary survey

    Graphic - or are we led by our imagination?


    * Do we need graphic descriptions in crime fiction?

     Great French Passenger Ships by William H. Miller.


     * A review of Great French Passenger Ships by William H. Miller

      Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    The Tooting Co-op.  The scene of the robbery and murder.

    On a dark autumnal night in 1962 three young men arrived at the Tooting Co-op building in a grey Austin Cambridge. 
    Two of the men, brandishing guns, held up the cashier, while the other one, also armed with a Luger pistol kept lookout. A Co-op worker named Dennis Hurden happened to be passing by the cashier's office and was told to keep still and not move; he continued walking and the gunman panicked and shot him in the face. He died instantly. The masked robbers left with just £500. As they made their getaway over a bridge and down to where their car was parked they were noticed acting suspiciously and the number plate was taken down by a member of the public.

    It was not long before one of the men, Phillip Kelly, was tracked down and arrested.

    The getaway car in Tooting police station

    Because a nightwatchman had thought he saw four men in the car the police were convinced that there were another three men involved. Connelly and Hilton, the other two, were quickly rounded up and charged with robbery but they all denied the murder.

    Kelly was taken up  to the attic room of Tooting police station and his head was repeatedly submerged in a water tank until he was ready to finger another man for both robbery and murder.

    George Thatcher, a safe blower and petty criminal on parole and living in a hostel inside Pentonville prison in North London was the unlucky man. He was picked up and driven to Tooting police station where he was stripped naked and left for over 8 hours. He denied all knowledge of the crime and they eventually released him. He was later rearrested and charged with capital murder, which carried the death sentence.

    Judge Roskill donned the black cap and sentenced George to hang by the neck until dead

    His trial at the Old Bailey was a farce. His counsel, the renowned Christmas Humphreys who had successfully prosecuted Ruth Ellis and Bentley and Craig, spoke to George for barely fifteen minutes during the three week trial. The police lied in the witness box. The three actual robbers kept silent and the judge was extremely biased in his summing up.

    After Judge Roskill donned the black cap and sentenced George to hang by the neck until dead, Phillip Kelly stood up in the court and shouted, 'I killed Dennis Hurden', but it was too late. Kelly later confessed to a Catholic priest in Brixton prison but it was ruled as 'inadmissable evidence'.

    Kelly later confessed to a Catholic priest in Brixton Prison but it was ruled as ' inadmissable evidence.'

    Here is a very revealing letter Phillip Kelly wrote to a friend:

     Here is a very revealing  letter to Phillip Kelly wrote to a friend


    George spent four weeks in the death cell at Wandsworth before his death sentence was repealed. Fast forward ten years and the playwright David Halliwell who wrote the hit 60s play Little Malcolm and his struggle against the eunochs replied to an advert in the New Statesman which said 'Lifer needs Help'. The lifer was George Thatcher.

    Death sentence repealed

    David encouraged George, already an accomplished painter, to write about his life and experiences in prison and in the death cell, waiting to die. David, Michael Elphick (the actor) and I visited George in the Albany prison on the Isle of Wight. We smuggled out his first play in the back of one of George's landscape paintings. It was performed at the Little Theatre in St Martins lane.

    His second play called The Only Way Out was produced at the Royal Court with Brian Croucher as George and Oliver Smith as the guard. It was the last ever review by Sir Harold Hobson, the distinguished critic of the Sunday Times.

    His second  play called 'The Only Way Out' was produced at the Royal Court with Brian Croucher as George and Oliver Smith as the guard. It was the last ever review by Sir Harold Hobson the distinguished critic of the Sunday Times

    George spent eighteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The policeman in charge of his case shot himself. Over 500 police officers left the force under the cloud of corruption. No one has apologised. He later found happiness with his wife Val living in the west of Ireland.


    George Thatcher's autobiography Fitted Up is a riveting account of poverty, injustice, incompetence, skullduggery, survival and ultimately freedom. George sadly passed away earlier  this year. He knew his story would be published but his fight to see justice done was never completed. 

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    Robert the Bruce Statue in Stirling, Scotland taken July 2012 (c) Ally Crockford

    At first glance, King Robert the Bruce might seem a strange choice as a colossus worthy of inclusion in a series exploring the lives and careers of such historical luminaries as William the Conqueror, Jane Austen and Charles Darwin. Although it has been hard this year to ignore the fact that, 700 years ago, the Scottish King inflicted a most unexpected, but entirely resounding, victory against the English at Bannockburn, I would be willing to bet that few will have given much thought to his qualities as either monarch or military leader beyond Scotland itself.

    Certainly his moustachioed turn as the only three-dimensional character in Mel Gibson’s 1995 Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart – here was a man who actually gave some thought to choosing between the competing needs of his family and his country – left him branded a faint-heart next to Mel’s single-minded Wallace. And we should not forget Bruce’s other famous mentor – the spider who supposedly persuaded him to try, try and try again in his early days as king when his cause seemed lost. It would be fair to say, in terms of popular perception, that drawing inspiration from a tenacious arachnid and the doomed, short-lived ‘win-one-lose-one’ Wallace does not augur well for King Robert’s claims to greatness.

    Needless to say, this book – part of the pocket GIANT series devoted to major historical figures – explores the life of a rather different man to the one we vaguely think we know. In only the time it takes to defeat a major cavalry army, the reader will gallop through a life-story of the ‘you couldn’t make it up’ variety. Ambitious, decisive, charismatic, and possessed of a breath-taking military genius, Bruce brought his small, peripheral kingdom to such a pitch of martial prowess that it dominated the island of Britain, earning international renown for the king and his generals.

    At the same time, the propaganda circulated throughout the courts of Europe on King Robert’s behalf should be far more widely known as some of the earliest – and finest – medieval articulations of the right of a nation to self-determination. The stirring lines of the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) – It is not for glory, riches or honours that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life – are as potent today as they were 700 years ago.

    But for all that such propaganda is lyrical and impassioned, it played fast and loose with reality because Bruce possessed some of the more problematic attributes of greatness so often exemplified by military leaders in the past (and far from unknown in the present). His unfailing determination and tactical genius were employed in the service of a ruthless and self-seeking ambition to be king, one that did not baulk at the wholesale terrorisation of parts of Scotland once home to a powerful family which also had a claim to the Scottish throne and whose head Bruce murdered on the high altar of a church.

    Forcing his fellow countrymen to choose between himself, a murdering usurper, or the occupying English regime, King Robert nearly split Scotland apart. And yet he too suffered much as penance for his vaulting ambition. The story of his early trials and tribulations as king seem to owe more to fiction than fact, his brothers and friends brutally executed, his womenfolk taken off to face indefinite imprisonment in England, he and only a handful of men forced into the heather, unsure where they would find their next meal or who to trust. That he found the strength to carry on, never mind to release in himself an extraordinary talent for turning even the most limited of resources into ingredients for victory stands as an example of one of the most spectacular turn-arounds in history. And in saving himself and his crown, he ultimately saved a nation from extinction.

    That this is a rip-roaring tale, there is no doubt. But how does Bruce’s story really touch us, 700 years on in a very different world? In this momentous year, as we commemorate Bannockburn and Scotland prepares to make a fateful decision of its own, I hope that it is not getting one over the Auld Enemy, as Bruce so tellingly did over and over again, that guides us at the ballot box. I think King Robert – and Scotland - deserves better than that, for aspects of our past are as worthy as that of any other nation to be held up as an example when we do not choose to imbue them with belligerent self-pity. Robert the Bruce was a great king and phenomenal military leader because he did not succumb to defeatism, but used anything and everything to build success out of nothing. He did not follow, but led from the front, with only an inner belief, an ability to take advantage of even seemingly hopeless situations, and the charisma to persuade others that the impossible was possible too. In other words, even if he never actually met a spider (sorry, folks!), he certainly had the guts to try, try, and try again. That is something that might inspire greatness in us all. 

    Robert the Bruce: pocket GIANTS

    Fiona Watson is the author of pocket GIANTS: Robert the Bruce. Why is Robert Bruce a giant? Because he proved to the medieval world that superior military might could be overcome even in battle by a well-disciplined, tactically innovative and brilliantly led force. Because his approach to warfare gave food for thought to many on the opposing side, and helped to inspire the evolution of English military tactics over the following century, contributing to their extraordinary performance during the Hundred Years war with France. Because the difficult circumstances of his reign, both internally and externally, helped to produce a more coherent and uniform expression of Scottish national identity, contributing to the development of such ideas more generally. This is the story of the revolutionary medieval Scottish king, renowned across Christendom as a great and innovative warrior. 

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    The Witch's Familiar

    Medieval folk had long suspected that the Devil was carrying out his evil work on earth with the help of his minions. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared this to be the truth in his Papal Bull, which had the result of creating witch-hunts across Europe which lasted for nearly two hundred years.

    The centre of the witch hunts were the German-speaking lands of the Continent, and Scotland, but in 1645, England (and most notably Essex) was in the grip of witch fever. Between 1560 and 1680 in Essex alone, 317 women and 23 men were tried for witchcraft, and over 100 were hanged.

    Religious tensions resulted in the introduction of serious penalties for witchcraft. Henry VIII's Act of 1542 - the first to define witchcraft as a felony; a crime punishable by death and the forfeiture of the convicted felon's goods and chattels. Additional laws in 1563 and 1604, making the death penalty liable for 'invoking evil spirits and using witchcraft, charms or sorcery whereby any person shall happen to be killed or destroyed'.

     The Ducking Stool

    King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) was a keen believer in witchery – and writing the book 'Demonologie', took part in the interrogation of a suspected witch, Agnes Sampson of Keith, Scotland. The persecutions were aided by difficult times for ordinary people in the early seventeenth-century - religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, political arguments leading up to the Civil War, rising inflation meaning higher food prices, and a huge increase in the gap between rich and poor.

    Many people turned to spiritual and alternative guidance in these tough times, but such ideas were frowned upon by religious leaders, as well as the Kings and Queens of the day. Thus, hundreds of trials of common-folk who, for their beliefs and practices in herbal remedies and potions, foretelling of weather, harvests and health of livestock, were taken before the courts and trialled for being sorcerers and practicing in demonic ways. Many murders were also associated with witchcraft, taking the form of poisoning, or malicious acts using familiars against neighbours, village-folk, and even their own kin.

    It wasn’t until the Witchcraft Act of 1735 that a complete reversal in attitudes was marked. Many influential figures believed it to be an impossible crime, and it was replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft; punishment being the same as for vagrants and con artists, and subject to fines and imprisonment. 

    Essex Witches by Peter Brown

    Peter C. Brown is the author of
    Essex Witches, which includes biographies of many of the local common folk who were tried in the courts for their beliefs and practice in herbal remedies and potions, and for causing the deaths of neighbours and even family members. These unfortunate citizens suffered the harshest penalties for their alleged sorcery and demonic ways, and those punishments are recorded here.

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    The Liverpool ferry, Iris, undergoing smoke generator trials during refitting

    In the early months of 1918, the British people were forced to face the fact that they might lose the war against Germany.  There were a number of reasons why such a situation had arisen, but the greatest cause was the activities of the enemy U-boats in the Atlantic and around the coast of Britain.  It was felt in some quarters that the source of the problem lay in the fact that the Germans had captured the Belgian ports of Zeebrugge and Ostend, but they were opposed by the admiral in command of the Dover Patrol.  He was convinced that his attempts to seal off the Straits of Dover was working, and that the enemy submarines were having to sail around the top of Scotland – a considerably longer voyage.

    Eventually, however, irrefutable proof arrived at the Admiralty that the U-boats were passing through the straits.  As a result, the commander of the Dover Patrol was replaced by an officer of a very different character.

    Vice Admiral Roger Keyes had already enjoyed an active career in which he had begun to earn the popular title of ‘The modern Nelson’.  With a speed that shocked some of his new staff, Keyes came up with a plan, and immediately set in motion the means of achieving his aims.  Using picked men from the Grand Fleet and the Royal Marines, and employing worn-out old cruisers, he intended to enter the enemy-held ports and sink the vessels as block-ships in the canal entrances.

    At Ostend, this seemed fairly straight-forward, but Zeebrugge was protected by a mile-long mole protected by heavy guns in addition to the possibility of enemy destroyers being tied alongside.  To deal with this problem, a ‘distraction’ force consisting of an ancient cruiser (the Vindictive) and two Mersey ferries would land seamen and Royal Marines to engage the enemy forces whilst the block-ships entered the harbour.  At the same time, two submarines, filled with explosives, were to ram a viaduct connecting the mole to the mainland and destroy it, thus preventing re-enforcements coming to the aid of the enemy.

    After two attempts were thwarted by the weather, the fleets sailed on 22nd April.  What followed was a maelstrom of courage, initiative, and bold enterprise.  At Zeebrugge, the raid was completely successful against heavy guns, entrenched defenders, and a change in wind direction.  At Ostend, however, despite astonishing bravery, the attempt was entirely unsuccessful.

    Unbowed (and annoyed) by the partial victory, Keyes returned to Ostend – this time leaving a cruiser, packed with concrete in the entrance to the canal.  The canal was not blocked, but the ship remained there as a daily ‘insult to the enemy’.

    The combined actions saw a total of eleven Victoria Crosses being awarded, and a further, incredible, six decorations for bravery every minute of the action.  The example being set by the raids was used by the Royal Navy during the Second World War as a pattern for sea-borne operations against an armed enemy coast.

    Unfortunately, the end of the war had seen the rise of the ‘Disenchantment School’ which, not only concentrated on the casualty rate, but eagerly spread the German propaganda version of events.  Until now, this view has been widely accepted and constantly reproduced.  ‘No Pyrrhic Victories’, however, re-examines the facts about a battle which rightly restored Britain’s pride in its Royal Navy, was greeted with acclaim throughout the Empire and amongst its allies, and sent the enemy reeling in shock and dismay.

    No Pyrrhic Victories

    E. C. Coleman served in the Royal Navy for thirty-six years, on board everything from submarines to aircraft carriers. He is the author of No Pyrrhic Victories, The 1918 Raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend - A Radical Reappraisal, destroying the myths that have arisen about what Churchill called 'the finest feat of arms of the Great War'.

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  • 10/03/14--04:30: The Friday Digest 03/10/14

    THP Friday digest

    This week's update features Victorian exercise regimes, Cern in sixty seconds and the Everest diaries of mountaineer Edward Norton.

    Illustration from 19th Century exercise book


    * A number of Victorian 'keep-fit' exercises and gym regimes have been revealed and they aren't too different from programmes that people follow today ... 

    Birthday cake and balloons

    * The onward march of the century makersFigures from the Office for National Statistics show that there are now 13,780 people aged 100 or more in the UK, an increase of 70 percent over the last decade.

    Boy and stethoscope


    * The stethoscope revolutionised the way doctors interacted with their patients when it was introduced in the early nineteenth century but is there an electronic revolution happening in the doctor's bag

    Amphibious scooter  The eccentric inventions of years gone by include what appears to be an early version of a videophone, an amphibious Lambretta scooter (seen here), a Land Rover hovercraft and a bicycle with wings. Amphibious scooter  Photograph: Easyart/PA

    An archive of wacky British inventions – in pictures

    Horse sculpture in Tewkesbury The roundabout sculpture commemorates the Battle of Tewkesbury


    * The 'battle horse' roundabout in Tewkesbury has been named the 'best in Britain' this week by the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society.

    Queen Victoria, 1887 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

     * How well do you know the queens of England

    Robert Scott

    * A London woman is seeking help in tracing R.C. Scott, a Northern Ireland war hero whose possessions were found in a trunk in her house. Can you help? 

    Meredith Towne

    Knitting now and then: women and the First World War

    First World War


    The princes in the Tower in an 1878 painting (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


    Linda Stratmann
    *  'I can report that the yeast dumplings in white sauce, with chopped parsley substituting for arsenic (Eiza Fenning 1815), were unexpectedly good' - Linda Stratmann tries some murderous recipes ...


    What to do if you find a dead body (besides scream). 

    The coin featured Augustus with a laureate on one side and a heifer on the other; it was one of 22 ever made, of which only seven are in private collections (c) DixNoonanWebb/BNPS

    Henry VIII



    Cern at 60, in 60 seconds 

    * Cern at 60 in 60 seconds ...


    * A fascinating look at the making of Gateshead Then & Now book cover.

    'Motor Smash (Vallance & Martin)' Station Street, Lewes 1913


    * The world's oldest photography studio opens its archives.

    Archaeologists inspect a female figurine inside a recently discovered, fourth-century B.C. tomb, in the town of Amphipolis, northern Greece on Sept. 7. The occupant of the tomb is unknown, but there's speculation that it could be someone who was closely linked to Alexander the Great. (c) Greek Culture Ministry/AP

    * Who is buried in the 'magnificent' tomb from Ancient Greece?

    African Elephants are under threat from poaching and habitat destruction (ALAMY)

    A shocking report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has found that more than half of the world's animals have vanished since 1970

    Group portrait of expedition to climb Everest in 1924


    Everest diaries of mountaineer Edward Norton are to be published.  

    HMS Erebus


    A shipwreck uncovered beneath the icy wastes of northern Canada has been identified as the long-lost HMS Erebus.

    Roger Hudson visits the Belfast shipyard in 1911, where the Titanic and her sister ships, Britannic and Olympic were constructed.

    In focus: Titanic's sisters


    Robert the Bruce Statue in Stirling, Scotland taken July 2012 (c) Ally Crockford

    * The journey of one of the greatest war leaders of medieval Europe

    Hercule Poirot

    * Poirot or Scheherazade

    World's oldest clown

    * The world's oldest clown has passed away aged 98

    Egyptian workmen’s absences, circa 1250 BC

    * Six of the most important lists in history.


    An eighteenth-century clock


    * Mirror year: how old are you really?  

    This map will change how you see the world

    * The map that will make you change how you see the world ...

    Colleen Higgs shares the twenty-nine errors a publisher can make … and counting.

    * Amazon launches Kindle Unlimited in the UK  and indie authors have shared their doubts over Amazon's terms.  

      Which history and publishing stories have you enjoyed reading this week?

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    Melissa Turland in the office

    When you are illustrating a book, how do you start the process?

    When I take on a new project I like to do a bit of research in order to get the look just right. For example on the Swindon edition of Great War Britain it was important for the background to be representative of the town.  So, I chose to include Christ Church (or The Lady on the Hill), and the Corn Exchange in the background.  I like to have plenty of imagery around me to give me inspiration and keep me focused, particularly if I’m working on a piece that needs to be historically accurate.  Choice of colour can make or break a design.  For this series I chose a palette similar to the colours that would have been used in propaganda material from that era.

    I begin with a rough drawing.  Well, I say rough but often my first drawing is the most precise so a lot of rubbing out takes place.  Most artists I know start with a rough and then hone it down but I seem to work in reverse.  Once I am happy with how it looks I’ll place it on a light-box.  You can never see the original very clearly but it enables me to take the elements which I am most happy with from the sketch and use it as a guide should I need to make alterations.

    If I’m adding colour to my drawings I tend to use Photoshop.  But first I will outline my drawing using black ink – at the moment I favour Uni pens, but I’m always on the hunt for new materials.  Once I am happy with the result I will scan it in and fill in the outlined sections with colour.  I must admit, I love using the computer for this purpose.  Colour can be changed in an instant and you can try many variations without having to re-draw the entire piece over and over again.

    Sketches in progress

    Who are your influences?

    My influences include Stephen Wiltshire, an artist who draws very detailed cityscapes often from memory.  I also love Fred Taylor’s work.  He was an illustrator and decorator but mainly known as a poster artist from 1908 to the 1940’s, designing posters for the Underground and London Transport.  I love his choice of composition and how he places blocks of colour on the page.

    Where do you find your inspiration?

    I find inspiration all around me and ask a lot of questions: how is that made, what materials were used, what is the story behind it.  In fact I am constantly stopping to look at things or take notes that it takes me ages to get anywhere.  The walls of my studio are covered with wrapping paper, cards, images that have been torn out of magazines. If I am struggling with a project I usually find the answer buried away somewhere here.  I love drawing old buildings with plenty of character.  The best thing is finding an old grainy photograph in which you can barely make out the detail. But I love drawing from these because it means you can give the image a new lease of life with your imagination.

    I like to take my sketchbook out with me, and I will sit down somewhere and do a few scribbles.  I enjoy drawing people and usually they are busy going about their business so I will literally have seconds in which to draw them, but it’s a great exercise and loosens you up.  It can be tricky finding the time though as I usually have my 4 year old daughter with me.  There was the time I was drawing Flamingos at Slimbridge and she fell in the pond, but we won’t talk about that!

    Great War Britain

    Melissa Turland was born in Cheltenham and has loved drawing for as long as she can remember. She graduated from the University of South Wales with a degree in Animation, and has since made a career as an Illustrator and Graphic Designer. She has worked on projects for clients such as Plymouth Gin, Tewkesbury Civic Society and The History Press and has completed a large number of private commissions. She recently began teaching and runs courses on Life Drawing and Drawing Master Classes.

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    Aerial reconnaissance plane

    What were the battlefields of the Western Front really like? Most of the photographs were taken on the ground behind the lines, or in trenches, but do not actually show the ground over which soldiers had to move and fight or the obstacles in their way.

    Although observation from balloons had been in limited use since the American Civil War, it was in the First World War that air observation and reconnaissance was fully developed. The development of aeroplanes with the ability to carry cameras in the air, enabled commanders to “See over the hill”, to view the ground in front of them, and the enemy dispositions, that were previously impossible.

    Nearly a century ago, in January 1915, the first photographic section of the Royal Flying Corps was set up to take and interpret aeroplane photographs over the Western Front. From that small beginning rose a photographic reconnaissance organisation essential for military intelligence that by 1918 had taken over 100,000 photographs on the Western Front alone.

    Photographs of the western front from the air for military planning by the high command

    Photographs in themselves were useless without practical interpretation, which required a new skill. Originally, the first interpreters of these air photographs were self taught, but by 1916 the first training courses for photographic interpreters were started. Photographic Interpreters, or PIs as they later became known, learned to identify machine gun posts, artillery positions, communication cables and other military activity, that would make a decisive contribution to intelligence gathering

    Aerial photographs provide a unique contemporary birds-eye view of the Western Front battlefield immediately before, during and after military action. These photographs, taken by the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force in providing reconnaissance for the British Army on the Western Front, have been selected from the Imperial War Museums “Box Collection”. This unique archive of over 150,000 glass negatives, comprises possibly over 90 per cent of the official photo-reconnaissance coverage of the Western Front, remained largely unseen for over 80 years.

    Using a selection of these photographs, together with their contemporary trench maps, it is possible to obtain a bird’s eye view of the battlefields, as they were seen by the reconnaissance aircrew and the photographic interpreters over 90 years ago.


    Nicholas C. Watkis is the author of The Western Front from the Air. The photographs included and analysed here were taken by the Royal Flying Corps to provide reconnaissance for the British Army on the Western Front and are drawn from the huge archive held by The Imperial War Museum. The reader will, quite literally, see just what the Western Front looked like. 

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    Great War Britain Shropshire: Remembering 1914-18


    Janet Doody will be at Pengwern Books, Shrewsbury on Sunday 19th October, giving a talk and signing copies of her new book, Great War Britain Shropshire: Remembering 1914-18

    The First World War claimed over 995,000 British lives, and its legacy continues to be remembered today. Great War Britain: Shropshire offers an intimate portrayal of the county and its people living in the shadow of the 'war to end all wars'. A beautifully illustrated and highly accessible volume, it describes local reaction to the outbreak of war; charts the experience of individuals who enlisted; the changing face of industry; the work of the many hospitals in the area; the effect of the conflict on local children; the women who defied convention to play a vital role on the home front; and concludes with a chapter dedicated to how the city and its people coped with the transition to life in peacetime once more. The Great War story of Shropshire is told through the voices of those who were there and is vividly illustrated through evocative images from the archives of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

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    Great War Britain Shropshire: Remembering 1914-18


    Janet Doody will be at BookShrop, Whitchurch on Friday10th October from 7pm, giving a talk and signing copies of her new book, Great War Britain Shropshire: Remembering 1914-18

    The First World War claimed over 995,000 British lives, and its legacy continues to be remembered today. Great War Britain: Shropshire offers an intimate portrayal of the county and its people living in the shadow of the 'war to end all wars'. A beautifully illustrated and highly accessible volume, it describes local reaction to the outbreak of war; charts the experience of individuals who enlisted; the changing face of industry; the work of the many hospitals in the area; the effect of the conflict on local children; the women who defied convention to play a vital role on the home front; and concludes with a chapter dedicated to how the city and its people coped with the transition to life in peacetime once more. The Great War story of Shropshire is told through the voices of those who were there and is vividly illustrated through evocative images from the archives of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.

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    Cambridgeshire Folk Tales


    Maureen James will be at Ely Library on Thursday 23rd October from 7-9pm launching her new book, Cambridgeshire Folk Tales

    Modern-suit Cambridgeshire is a county of diverse landscapes: from the elegance of the university city and the rural delights of the old county of Huntingdonshire Isle of Ely, each district has its own identity and its own stories. Explore the antics of the inhabitants of the past, including Hereward the Saxon hero; the Fenland giant Tom Hickathrift; the pious Bricstan of Chatteris; the raconteur and skater Chaffe Legge; and Mr Leech, who was carried off by the Devil. You will also discover the hidden history of the area, including how the secret Brotherhood of the Grey Goose Feather helped King Charles I, and what really happened to King John’s treasure. These entertaining tales will delight readers both within Cambridgeshire and elsewhere.

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    Cambridgeshire Folk Tales


    Maureen James will be at March Library on Monday 13th October from 5-7pm launching her new book, Cambridgeshire Folk Tales

    Modern-suit Cambridgeshire is a county of diverse landscapes: from the elegance of the university city and the rural delights of the old county of Huntingdonshire Isle of Ely, each district has its own identity and its own stories. Explore the antics of the inhabitants of the past, including Hereward the Saxon hero; the Fenland giant Tom Hickathrift; the pious Bricstan of Chatteris; the raconteur and skater Chaffe Legge; and Mr Leech, who was carried off by the Devil. You will also discover the hidden history of the area, including how the secret Brotherhood of the Grey Goose Feather helped King Charles I, and what really happened to King John’s treasure. These entertaining tales will delight readers both within Cambridgeshire and elsewhere.

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    South West Secret Agents


    Laura Quigley will be at the Plymouth Book Festival, Mayflower Bar on Wednesday 22nd October talking about her new book, South West Secret Agents: True Stories of the West Country at War.   

    True tales of Second World War spies from across the West Country have been collected together for the very first time in this fascinating book. From the rescue operations as the exodus from France began to the secret guerrilla army in Devon and Cornwall, this book will amaze and intrigue with the incredible stories of Jasper Lawn of N51, the Helford Flotilla and the first escape routes for POWs, agents and crashed airmen. 

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