Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovakian forces who were at risk of captured and put into German Prisoner of War camps. Churchill realised that if this could be avoided it would mean he would have experienced, battle-hardened troops in Britain. So he ordered them to be rescued from southern France. In the end some 20,000 Polish and nearly 5,000 Czechoslovakian soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechoslovakians sailed into Liverpool and were put on a train to Bunbury from where they marched 8 miles to Cholmondeley Castle.
The villagers along the way cheered them and the soldiers immediately fell in love with the beautiful Cheshire countryside. They camped in the fields around the Castle, which had already been requisitioned for another military use, and they remained there throughout the glorious summer of 1940 until they moved on to Leamington Spa to a more permanent camp.
The mood in the early summer of 1940 was one of agitation, anxiety and apprehension, mixed with fear. People were told that careless talk would cost lives and that they should be on the lookout for spies. Signposts were taken down or blacked out, so that moving around in the dark became even more difficult.
There was a genuine and powerful fear of invasion. Even Churchill thought it unlikely that Britain could withstand a full-blown attack by the Luftwaffe and seaborne troops. The Battle for the Atlantic, which is the off-screen backdrop to our series, was about to enter troubled times. The German U-Boats had become ever more effective at targeting convoys and fears grew for the safety of passengers, especially evacuee children, who were setting out west for the safety of Canada or America. Yet once France had fallen there was a sense in Britain that, as the last man standing, on the edge of Europe, we would somehow defy the odds and emerge victorious. This mood is well-documented in diaries, letters and newspapers from the era.
So, for our village of Great Paxford, the sense of anxiety about the future is very much there. The incoming Czechoslovakian soldiers add a fresh element to the drama, as does the permeating anxiety about foreigners, spies and Nazi sympathisers. However, life did go on during the war and it will go on in Great Paxford. The everyday lives of the characters are of course affected by the external influences but themes of love, loss, suspicion and excitement are constants. We pick up where we left off with Laura Campbell named in the divorce of her lover, Richard Bowers; Alison Scotlock is still in trouble with the police over accounting and Claire Hillman is as in love with Spencer as she was at the end of the last series. Bryn the butcher is typical of the kind of man who is determined not to be cowed by the threat of invasion. He has a business to run, a pregnant wife to protect and a missing son to worry about. Pat, on the other hand, is once again knocked down: not by husband Bob, this time, but by a brawl outside a pub. For her the war is about to change her life but in a wholly unexpected way. This episode opens with the farmer going about her business and the army going about theirs. After all, this is wartime…
Home Fires airs on Sunday on PBS Masterpiece. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Home Fires which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.
It is almost three weeks since Home Fires was dropped by ITV but the noise on social media shows no signs of quietening. There is an impressive cross-section of people who comment on Facebook and Twitter. The majority of supporters are women but there is a strong male presence which, when I assessed it, almost matches the drama in terms of representation. I was once again reminded of Mark Umbers (Wing Commander Lucas) wise words when he wrote how the Home Fires story is told from the female perspective in a way that does not diminish its male characters. That’s exactly right and is one of the reasons why it has a strong male following as well as the perhaps-to-be-expected female audience.
This got me thinking about the profile of wartime villages in Britain. It was not the same as in the towns and cities, where factory workers were split almost 50/50 but the men were a great deal older, about 11 years on average, than they had been in the 1930s. The young men had in the main been conscripted. Women stepped up to the plate and took on roles that were hitherto the domain of men. They drove buses, became tram conductors, they made machines and munitions. In the countryside it was different. Women’s roles had changed in the Great War and with the birth of the WI they had a stronger sense of community than their urban counterparts. By 1916 women in the countryside made up a significant proportion of the labour force on farms. It is estimated that over 600,000 women worked in agriculture in the First World War, of which just 1/10th were members of the Women’s Land Army. The rest were wives, mothers, daughters of farmers and farm labourers who worked more often than not for no pay. It was simply expected that they would pick up where their young men had left off.
Rolling forward two decades these women, now a generation older, knew that they would have to do the same as they had done in the previous war. This time they were better organised. The Women’s Institute, formed in 1915, was a huge help in that it offered a ready-made structure to get things done: to bust the government’s bureaucratic logjams and keep the countryside ticking. They also knew that this time they would be more directly involved. The editor of Home & Country wrote in 1940:
‘Women who were grown up in the last war remember, as hardest to bear, the thought that young lives were being paid for their safety. Young men are defending us now, in a manner beyond praise. But this time we have the honour of sharing a little of the danger.’
Mrs Dunne, county chairman of Herefordshire wrote to her eighty-five presidents: ‘We must remember that “The main purpose of WIs is to improve and develop conditions in rural life.” To do this we must not neglect the education and social side of our movement. The war threatens civilisation, and we must do our best through the stress and turmoil to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’
There is something so stoical in these remarks. They are not headline grabbing or startling in their insight. They are not even particularly passionate but they are solid, determined and focused. Nothing, not even a war, was going to put the countrywoman off her stride. Throughout my research for Jambusters I found countless references to women who would carry on meetings or jam-making in an air-raid ‘because it had to be done’. A Kent member would shout and wave a clenched fist at the German planes flying overhead, not out of rage but out of frustration that it meant she had to abandon her fruit picking or gardening while they fought overhead. Other women sprang to help evacuees from the Blitz on Coventry and Plymouth, offering them practical help, such as a bath and a bed for the night. If there was anything they could do to help they would do it.
Simon Block has managed to capture this sense of community in his glorious fictional Great Paxford. I think one of the reasons why so many viewers react passionately towards Home Fires is that they recognise this as something they knew or or learned of through parents, grandparents or older siblings. It is living history in the most visceral way. Yet, as I have said before, Home Fires wears its history lightly. So it speaks to our sense of community, to our understanding of the role played by women in the war and, frankly, to our debt to them that they did so bravely and with humour. Looking at Frances Barden, can you not see how similar she is to Mrs Dunne of Herefordshire? Not speaking the same words but understanding the same sentiment: ‘to preserve all that is good and beautiful and true.’ In her own way, Joyce Cameron wants the same, but in the first series she is too stuck in her old ways to see that preserving something can mean allowing it to change with the times. By series two she is a changed woman and we find ourselves warming to her more and more. When Malcolm shows her the picture of her baby granddaughter I had hot tears in my eyes as I watched the brilliant, regal Francesca Annis do what every proud grandmother would do, which is to beam with joy. But Home Fires also speaks with a modern tongue to issues that cross generations: domestic abuse, loneliness, prejudice, racism and love. I think that Simon’s characters, in the hands of the outstandingly gifted cast and the superb camera crews, sound engineers, make-up artists, directors and producers, give us something that we really get. These are people who are real to us every Sunday evening, so that they have become like friends who we talk about all the next week. That is one of the reasons, I believe, that Home Fires has such a strong and passionate following.
I am going to end with a quote from the Chairman of the Women’s Institute, Lady Denman, from October 1939. If you want to change the words and see what I’m getting at slightly tongue in cheek, you are most welcome to try.
‘Germany is said to count on breaking our nerve. Every person who spreads an atmosphere of cheerfulness and quiet resolution at this time is helping to win the war. We are proud of the cause for which Britain is fighting, and those of us who are not called upon to endure the hardship of actual fighting, will be glad to feel that we have comforts to go without, difficulties to contend with in daily life, and that by meeting such troubles cheerfully and helping our neighbours to do so, we are taking our small share in winning the victory which we believe will come, but which will come only if the whole nation is ready to make willing sacrifice.’
Episode 2 of Home Fires is packed full of love, loss, hope and pain but I do not intend to write anything in this blog that would give away the plot. Instead I thought it would be fun to explore two of the themes which were introduced in Episode 1. The first is that of divorce. It was considered a disgrace to be cited in a divorce at almost every level of society. The stigma attached to any part in the unravelling of a marriage is today hard to imagine. In the United Kingdom there were 470,549 marriages and just 7,755 divorces in 1940. That was to rise dramatically to over 60,000 in 1947 as couples found they were incompatible in the sober light of post-war Britain. Those figures compared with 241,000 marriages and 120,000 divorces in 2011 show just how rare divorce was in the era of Home Fires.
Laura Campbell’s naming as the co-respondent in the formal break up of Richard and Charlotte Bowers’ marriage is therefore deeply humiliating and people’s attitudes towards her reflect the intolerance of 1940’s society. The fact that Wing Commander Richard Bowers was a predatory man has nothing to do with the way she is treated in Great Paxford. In reality, a disgraced woman would have brought shame not only on herself, damaging her chances of making a ‘suitable’ marriage, but also on her entire family. I recall as a child in the 1960s being told in a very hush hush way that one of my relations was getting something beginning with ‘D’. I immediately assume this meant death, but in reality she was leaving her abusive husband and filing for divorce. It was the first time I had ever hear the word. Laura is contending with a very difficult situation and we will soon learn whether there are people in the village who have sympathy with her.
As I have written before, it is so very difficult from this perspective to imagine what a perilous position Britain believed herself to be in during June 1940. An article in the New York Times of that summer gives perhaps just some hint of how dangerous the situation was as seen from the other side of the Atlantic:
… the wisest prophet in Christendom cannot say what is to come. The folk, old towns of Britain, the hills and cliffs and shores and meadows, rich with history, the homes and lives of forty-five million people, the great British traditions of human worth and dignity, the folk sayings, the deep wisdom and the long-suffering hopes of a race – these, not being pleasing to Hitler, are condemned.
Words falter. There are no phrases for the obscene ambition that attacks, for the magnificent mobilization of a people that defends, unshaken and unafraid. We can only pray that soon the time will come when the vultures no long defile the British skies, and the cry goes out from John o’Groats to Land’s End –
‘Twelve o’clock and all’s well!’
It was not the case that Britain was wholly unprepared. All during the 1930s the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS) and various government departments, including the War Office and Civil Defence had been planning how to keep the country safe in the event of war. Now, with their backs to the wall, SIS decided there should be a Home Defence Organisation known as D/Y which would be a sabotage and spying body. A team under Major Lawrence Grand drew up plans for a behind-enemy-lines stay-behind terrorist and intelligence gathering network. The thing that was new about this organisation was that although it would be overseen and supervised by army and professional SIS officers, the work on the ground would be undertaken entirely by civilian volunteers. Key here was that if a man fought in uniform he had the right, under the Hague conventions, to lay down his arms and claim prisoner of war status. A civilian, on the other hand, had no claim to POW status. The hope was that they could carry out their sabotage and blend into the background but if he or she was caught they would almost certainly be executed. In the end about 3,000 men and women from all walks of life, peers and poachers, policemen and priests, volunteered to undertake training in sabotage to be ready to hinder the invaders once they came. They were known as Churchill’s hidden army and the name they were given was designed to be as vanilla and inconspicuous as possible: Auxiliary Units.
All over the country people were preparing for invasion. Farmers, in particular, were called to help prevent aircraft from landing on their fields by placing farm machinery and old junk from their buildings onto fields that might be used as a landing strip. Some villages protected themselves by rolling huge tree trunks across the entrance roads. They were often on wheels so they could be rolled back to allow legitimate vehicles through. Signposts were removed from roads. Railway and bus stop signs were taken down in an effort to confuse the enemy when they landed and tried to make headway inland. Whether any of this would have worked in the face of the Wehrmacht is something that we shall never know as fortunately it was never tested. But make no mistake, even Churchill believed it unlikely that Britain would not soon be under the jackboots of an implacable foe.
Enjoy Episode 2. It is magnificent. Simon Block and Glen Laker’s writing sparkles through the words and actions of the outstanding cast. The mood in Great Paxford is tense, tempers are short and surprises come thick and fast. Roll on Sunday evening!
When we left Great Paxford at the end of series 1 the villagers all stood on the street, spell-bound by the sight of hundreds of aircraft flying south. The Phoney War had come to an end and the real war was about to begin.
In fact, by the time those planes were flying south, Hitler’s troops had already invaded Denmark and Norway. The British Expeditionary Force had been guarding the Maginot Line for the last nine months but was woefully unprepared for what was to come. On 10th May 1940 two things happened that changed the course of the Second World War: Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against France, Belgium and neutral Holland, and in Britain Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. For two weeks the BEF and its Allies fought to hold out against the German onslaught but towards the end of May it was obvious that they had suffered a humiliating defeat and Churchill ordered a retreat. The familiar story of Dunkirk now unfolded.
Hundreds of boats, ships, barges and tugs were sent to the rescue and over 330,000 British and Allied soldiers were picked up from the beaches of Dunkirk over a period of several days. My grandfather was pulled out of the water by a Thames barge pilot on 2nd June and brought back to Southampton by ship. ‘The sailors who dried our clothes pinched all our buttons and insignia but we were so relieved to be safe we didn’t bother about it.’ The following night he was reunited with his wife, Alex: ‘It was one of the strangest contrasts of the war. One night I was standing up to my neck in water with very little chance of rescue and the next I was eating dinner with my wife in the Midland Hotel in Manchester.’
Three weeks after the evacuation at Dunkirk, France fell to the Germans. Amongst the Allies who had been fighting were Polish and Czechoslovak forces who were at risk of captured and put into German Prisoner of War camps. Churchill realised that if this could be avoided it would mean he would have experienced, battle-hardened troops in Britain. So he ordered them to be rescued from southern France. In the end some 20,000 Polish and nearly 5,000 Czech soldiers and airmen were brought to Britain and proved themselves more than worthy of the trust Churchill had placed in them. The Czechs sailed into Liverpool and were put on a train to Bunbury from where they marched 8 miles to Cholmondeley Castle. The villagers along the way cheered them and the soldiers immediately fell in love with the beautiful Cheshire countryside. They camped in the fields around the Castle, which had already been requisitioned for another military use, and they remained there throughout the glorious summer of 1940 until they moved on to Leamington Spa to a more permanent camp.
The mood in the early summer of 1940 was one of agitation, anxiety and apprehension, mixed with fear. People were told that careless talk would cost lives and that they should be on the lookout for spies. Signposts were taken down or blacked out, so that moving around in the dark became even more difficult. There was a genuine and powerful fear of invasion. Even Churchill thought it unlikely that Britain could withstand a full-blown attack by the Luftwaffe and seaborne troops. The Battle for the Atlantic, which is the off-screen backdrop to our series, was about to enter troubled times. The German U-Boats had become ever more effective at targeting convoys and fears grew for the protection of passengers, especially evacuee children, who were setting out west for the safety of Canada or America. Yet once France had fallen there was a sense in Britain that, as the last man standing, on the edge of Europe, we would somehow defy the odds and emerge victorious. This mood is well-documented in diaries, letters and newspapers from the era.
So, for our village of Great Paxford, the sense of anxiety about the future is very much there. The incoming Czechoslovakian soldiers add a fresh element to the drama, as does the permeating anxiety about foreigners, spies and Nazi sympathisers. However, life did go on during the war and it will go on in Great Paxford. The everyday lives of the characters are of course affected by the external influences but themes of love, loss, suspicion and excitement are constants. We pick up where we left off with Laura Campbell named in the divorce of her lover, Richard Bowers; Alison Scotlock is still in trouble with the police over accounting and Claire Hillman is as in love with Spencer as she was at the end of the last series. Bryn the butcher is typical of the kind of man who is determined not to be cowed by the threat of invasion. He has a business to run, a pregnant wife to protect and a missing son to worry about. Pat, on the other hand, is once again knocked down: not by husband Bob, this time, but by a brawl outside a pub. For her the war is about to change her life but in a wholly unexpected way. Meanwhile Jenny is busy in the telephone exchange taking the government’s message to ‘trust no-one’ very much to heart.This episode opens with the farmer going about her business and the army going about theirs. After all, this is wartime…
Home Fires airs on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on ITV. It is created and written by Simon Block and inspired by my book Jambusters which tells the true story of the WI on the home front from 1939-1945.
HomeFires series 2 begins on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on ITV. It is so exciting to be going back to Great Paxford to see what will happen to the characters that we were introduced to in 2015. Many people have asked me over the last few months whether I have had to write another book for series 2. I have not: Jambustersis a non-fiction ‘biography’ of the Women’s Institute covering the entire Second World War. Simon Block, the creator and writer of Home Fires, used and continues to use the book and my research as the inspiration for his drama. Inspiration is the key word here. Home Fires is not based on Jambusters per se but rather set in a fictional version of the same era that I describe in my book. Some of the stories that you will come across in series 2 of Home Fires have evolved directly from Jambusters, others have been the result of research, conversations and other lines of inquiry. From my perspective this is fascinating and exciting. The link to history of the Second World War and life on the Home Front in Jambusters anchors the series in the 1940s but leaves Simon Block free to let his characters grow and develop in Great Paxford.
I have to be a little careful not to give anything away about series 2 because I might spoil people’s enjoyment of the drama. However, what I can say is that it takes place against the extraordinary summer of 1940. Series 1 set the scene for what happened in rural Britain during the early months of the war in the period known as the Phoney War. The unnatural calm of the winter and spring of 1939-40 was about to be shattered by the Blitzkrieg when Hitler’s army marched into the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The British Expeditionary Force, who had spent the winter guarding the Maginot Line, was suddenly called into action against a furious, implacable, overwhelming foe. This began on 10 May and by the end of the month over 330,000 Allied troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk.
A month later France fell to the Germans and Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe waiting with baited breath for an invasion. It was a summer of high drama and danger; a summer when thousands of families opted to send their children abroad to the USA, Canada and Australia. It was also a summer of bountiful harvests, glorious weather and prodigious activity by the WI on the food production front. Britain was never invaded, as we all know, but everyone, even Churchill himself, thought it the likeliest outcome at the time. Elaborate emergency plans were laid to and a secret guerilla army was built up throughout the country and trained to carry out acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. It was the moment in the war when Britons realised that it was up to them to fight; to resist whatever threat might be around the corner and it proved the making of many on the Home Front. Far from panicking, people resolved to be calm and brave and it is this extraordinary stoicism which became defined, later, as the Blitz spirit.
But Britons were not entirely alone. Canadian troops had been in the country since December 1939 and immediately after the fall of France Churchill welcomed a large number of battle-hardened troops from the continent. Nearly 5,000 Czechoslovak and 20,000 Polish Forces would turn out to offer immeasurably valuable support during the Battle of Britain when the German Luftwaffe tried, but failed, to gain air superiority over the Royal Air Force. This is the backdrop for series 2 of Home Fires.
One of the aspects of Home Fires which I found most rewarding was the bonds of friendship that grew up between the actors when they were on set for filming. It mirrored closely the extraordinary bonds that developed during the Second World War when women were thrown together in a wholly unfamiliar situation, put upon by every department in government imaginable and expected to cope. They coped and with humour.
Nothing could have delighted me more when I read Samantha Bond’s reply to a question asking her what it was like to reunite the cast:
‘It was absolutely glorious. I’m afraid we are appallingly happy and we relish each other’s company on set and off. I can’t remember ever having been in a company so happy and so funny and so full of love. All immensely supportive of one another. I adore them. And our men. All brilliantly written by a man. Simon Block has done a fantastic job.’
I made three visits to set in the autumn and each time I was aware of the great atmosphere on set and the mutual support and respect the actors had for each other’s performances. I watched a wonderful scene filmed in the church when Sarah Collingbourne (Ruth Gemmell), the vicar’s wife, makes an emotional speech about coping at this difficult time. Samantha Bond said of this outstanding performance: ‘It’s just stunning. I was sitting on the front pew trying to be the grown-up big sister, sending your little sister waves of support. And I just kept crying. We were all in pieces.’ So was I.
But a film set is a place of work and one of the striking aspect of set visits from the point of view of someone who spends their working life with her nose in a book or an archive, is that there are so many people involved. I have said this before: there are more people working in the Make-Up truck at the unit base for Home Fires than are involved in the production of one of my books. Well, on the editorial side at least. On set everyone is so professional, clear-headed and confident in what their role is. For me the fun is in the detail. I’m often described as a scratch and sniff historian because I like tiny snippets that tell me something about the minutiae.
So this photograph of stockings drying in a trailer is one of my favourites from series 2.The actors wear real stockings, not tights. The wardrobe is authentic to the last inch and I love that. The clothes are hired from Angel Costumes and all date from the 1930s and 1940s, shoes and underwear included according to Melissa Cook, who is in charge of the wardrobe. It is as important for me as making sure the lettering used on the war memorial is of the era (it is) and that the cows are the right breed (they are). The telephone exchange, the cars, the tractor are all minutely observed. Even the ration books look authentic.When details like this are correct but don’t get in the way you can trust the rest of the drama, which I do.
The filming was done in Cheshire, where fictional Great Paxford is set, and it is a stunningly beautiful corner of the North West which is still relatively unknown. Although the phone signal is poor and one Cheshire lane looks very like another – imagine what it was like for incoming drivers when all the signposts were removed – everyone in the cast speaks very fondly of the area around Bunbury. Claire Rushbrook, who plays Pat Simms, said recently: ‘You do have to pinch yourself that you’re working. Because it’s just stunning around there. . . I hope the viewers enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.’
Weekly blogs will appear here to introduce each episode. No spoilers, just a little background historical information for anyone interested in knowing a bit more about the war. And of course there’s history, sticky jam and plenty of laughter in Jambusters. You won’t meet Frances Barden or Pat Simms but you will meet their true historical counterparts: Edith Jones, Clara Milburn and Ruth Toosey, whose stories are equally fascinating, although their hair and make-up might not have been quite so beautiful…