Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Friday, December 30, 2011


It was the moment when he lost control.
'Just listen to me!'
On the morning of 21 December, 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu  - Romania’s Communist leader - addressed the crowds gathered in central Bucharest.
The previous days had seen unrest and disturbances in several provincial centres. Now, Ceausescu himself decided to calm the unrest with a conciliatory speech heralding the achievements of Communist Romania. To ensure a favourable reception, busloads of workers were driven to Palace Square and ordered (on pain of losing their jobs) to cheer and wave red banners.
Ceausescu’s speech was the usual monologue of party rhetoric and it didn’t impress the crowd. After eight minutes, they began chanting ‘Ti-mi-soa-ra!’ -  a reference to the town which had seen serious disturbances.
Ceausescu was stunned to silence. He had been expecting the usual adoring crowd of party faithful. Nothing had prepared him for a hostile and angry audience. In his confusion, he panicked. After attempting to offer concessions, he paused again in mid-speech. The crowd was shouting: there was the sound of gunfire.
Ceausescu's building of doom
Ceausescu’s bodyguard jostled him back into the building as the situation began to turn nasty.
Ceausescu might have saved his skin if he had fled straightaway. Instead, he remained inside the Central Committee building as the entire nation inexorably spilled into revolution.
He spent the night sheltering in the building. A sign of his lack of grasp on the situation came on the following morning - 22 December - when he attempted to address the crowd once more.
This time, rocks were hurled at him and he was forced to flee inside once again. He was now in grave danger of becoming a prisoner inside the building.
Mrs C - much hated
At around 10am, a group of protestors managed to break inside the Central Committee building. They overpowered Ceausescu’s bodyguards and then headed for the balcony.
They were not aware of it at the time, but they had come within a whisker of capturing Ceausescu and his wife, Elena. They had got into the lift in the nick of time and were now hiding on the roof of the building.
In the nick of time
At precisely 11.20am, Ceausescu’s personal pilot, Vasile Malutan, was ordered to rescue the Ceausescus by helicopter. He landed with difficulty on the adjoining roof and the couple were bundled into the chopper. They were taken the Snagov, some 40km to the north of Bucharest. For the moment, at least, they were out of danger.
Ceausescu told his pilot to contact military headquarters and order more helicopters and armed guards. Malutan did as he was told, only to be informed by his commander: ‘There had been a revolution. You are on your own.’ He then added the words: ‘Good luck!’
'You're under arrest'
Ceausescu panicked when he heard this and ordered Malutan to fly to Titu in southern Romania. But Malutan was by now tiring of helping the Ceausescus to escape. He sent the helicopter into a series of dives, informing Ceausescu he was dodging gunfire. A terrified Ceausescu ordered him to land.
The Ceausescus flight now had to continue on land. A car was flagged down and the couple climbed in. But the driver, a doctor, had no wish to help them. He pretended there was engine trouble and told them he could go no further.
Thus ends a dictator.
A second car was flagged down and the driver, a bicycle repair man named Nicolae Petrisor, told them that he had the perfect hiding place - a farming institute on the edge of town. He took them there and once they were safely inside, he locked the door. He then informed local police, who came and arrested the Ceausescus shortly after.
Their end was now not long in coming. Less than 48 hours after their capture, the head of the newly formed Council of the National Salvation Front signed a decree establishing an Extraordinary Military Tribunal. Its first trial was that of Ceausescu and his wife, held in secret on the following day - Christmas Day.
Ceausescu repeatedly insisted that the proceedings were unlawful, but the Tribunal nevertheless ordered the death sentence to carried out on both Nicolae and Elena. It was undertaken immediately: they were shot there and then.
The one flaw in the execution was the fact that the cameraman arrived too late to film it. He only obtained footage of the two corpses, which were immediately broadcast to a jubilant nation and world. 

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition

'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Friday, December 16, 2011


All questions are taken from this year's blog postings. 
Answers at the end… but no peeking, please!

'Hey, were's Stubby?'
1: Who was Sergeant Stubby of the American 102nd Infantry Division?

a) The most decorated American soldier of the First World War.
b) The last American casualty of the First World War.
c) A dog

2: Who shot Ronald Reagan?

a) James Brady
b) John Hinckley Jnr
'Honey, I forgot to duck!'
c) Timothy McCarthy

Hans Litten. But who was he?
3: Who was Hans Litten?

a) Hitler’s Reich Justice Minister
b) A Jewish lawyer who prosecuted Hitler
c) The leader of Munich’s underground resistance movement.

4: What was Abraham Lincoln watching when he was assassinated?

a) Our American Cousin
b) Little Dorrit
c) Revolution, 1789

Man? Woman? Neither?
5: Who was Chevalier D’Eon?

a) A man
b) A woman
c) A hermaphrodite

6: When Dutch slave girl, Maria von Meetelen, refused to convert to Islam, what did the Moroccan sultan do?

a) Have her stabbed to death
b) Bury her alive
c) Let her marry another slave

'We are not amused.'
7: When burglar Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom at Buckingham Palace, what did the Queen say?

a) What are you doing here?
b) Would you like a cigarette?
c) My, how young you look, Philip.

'Yes, I know I'm not blonde.'
8: Which people did the Nazis consider neither Aryan nor totally degenerate? 

a) The Slavs
b) The Danes
c) The Turks

9: How did female pirates Mary Reid and Anne Bonny escape execution?

So... what was my fate? 
a) By committing suicide
b) By getting pregnant
c) By a daring escape from prison

10: What was the fate of the last dodo?

a) Killed by hunters
b) Captured and taken to a menagerie in Rotterdam
c) Eaten at a banquet

11: Charles Joughlin survived the Titanic by what means?

a) Getting completely drunk
b) Swimming to an upturned life-raft and flipping it over
c) Clinging to an iceberg until a rescue ship arrived.

It sank. But what happened to him? 
12: Who was the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated?

a) Spencer Percival
b) Spencer Compton
c) George Grenville

13: What was Witold’s Report?

a) A secret investigation into President Nixon
b) A ‘lost’ Viking saga recently discovered in Iceland
c) An account of daily life inside Auschwitz

Emperor. But of where? 
14: Emperor Norton I claimed to be the legitimate ruler of which territory?

a) Austro-Hungary
b) California
c) San Remo

15: Churchill wanted to hasten the end of World War II by which means?

Hmm, bomb, assassination, or biological?
a) Dropping an atomic bomb on Berlin
b) Assassinating Hitler
c) Waging biological warfare on Germany

16: What was the shortest war in history?

a) The Anglo-Sudanese War of 1894
Over before it began
b) The Anglo-Malawi War of 1895
c) The Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896

And for a bonus point…

17: How long did it last?  
Happy Christmas

a) 38 minutes
b) 39 minutes
c) 40 minutes and 16 seconds


AND THE ANSWERS ARE: 1c, 2b, 3b, 4a, 5a, 6c, 7b, 8a, 9b, 10c, 11a, 12a, 13c, 14b, 15c, 16c, 17a.
Happy Christmas one and all! And thanks to everyone for following my blog! It will continue on 3 January, 2012.

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

Monday, December 12, 2011


It was not the first time he had tried to meet the Queen.
Fagan: 'Just wanted to say hello'
In June, 1982, Michael Fagan had shinnied up a drainpipe and entered Buckingham Palace through an unlocked window.
The window belonged to the bedroom of housemaid Sarah Carter. She was sitting on her bed at about 11pm when she was disturbed by a noise outside. ‘Turning towards the window, I saw some fingers on the outside of the frame,’ she said. ‘They were a few inches up from the sill itself.
'We are not amused.'
‘I saw a fleeting glimpse of a man’s face. Then I ran out of the room into the corridor, shutting the door behind me.’
As she did so, Michael Fagan pulled himself through the window and slid down into the bedroom. He was inside Buckingham Palace.
He would later justify his actions by saying that he wanted to prove the laxity of security. He had previously taken his children to see the Queen’s residence (from the outside) and was surprised how few security guards there were.
Now, once inside, he decided to explore. He wandered down corridors, noting who slept where. ‘Princess Anne was in one room and Captain Mark Phillips in another. I decided not to disturb them.’
We leave the windows open at night
When he saw another door marked Prince Philip, he could not resist turning the handle. But the bedroom was empty. ‘They were out seeing President Reagan.’
Fagan passed the post-room and poked his head around the door. When he saw a bottle of Californian wine, he opened it and drank half the bottle.
Housemaid Sarah Carter had by now raised the alarm and the hunt was on to find the intruder. But no one thought to search the post-room, where Fagan was enjoying Prince Charles’s wine. He eventually left the palace without being traced.
Hey, did you see anything strange just then?
A month later, Fagan decided to break into Buckingham Palace once again. This time, he was determined to see the queen.
At around 6am on 9 July, 1982, he climbed the 14-foot perimeter wall (topped with barbed wire and spikes) and jumped down into the garden. He noticed an open window on the palace’s west side and climbed inside.
He found himself in the locked room housing King George Vs stamp collection, worth £20 million.
'I just want to talk with her.'
Unable to enter the rest of the palace, he climbed back outside and pulled himself up a drainpipe that led into the office of the man responsible for the Queen’s security.
He had by now triggered two alarms, but the police assumed the system was malfunctioning and they turned it off - twice.
Fagan walked along the upper floor corridor, admiring the paintings. At one point he picked up a glass ashtray and broke it, cutting his hand. He also passed a palace housekeeper who said ‘good morning’. A few minutes later, he found himself outside the queen’s bedroom.
'Was he bonkers? His mother thought not.'
Her room should have been guarded, but the armed policeman’s shift had ended and the footman replacing him had not yet arrived (he was walking the Queen’s corgis).
The Queen awoke with a start when Fagan twitched her bedroom curtain. He then sat on her eiderdown and started to chat.
Twice the Queen phoned for police, but they didn’t come. When Fagan asked for cigarettes, she phoned again. They were finally brought by a maid. Only when the maid didn’t return to her work station did footman Paul Whybrew realise something was wrong. He went to investigate.
Whybrew later recalled that Fagan kept insisting he wanted to chat with ‘my queen.’
Fagan: no need for a crowbar.
‘I tried to keep him calm and he said he was all right... I noticed his breath smelled of alcohol.’
Whybrew asked Fagan: ‘How did you get here?’ Fagan replied: ‘I just want to talk to her.’
To stall for time, Mr Whybrew told him: ‘All right but let her get dressed first.’ He then asked if Fagan would like a drink: Fagan said he’d like a Scotch.
Whybrew handed him a glass of whiskey just as PC Cedric Robert arrived and led him away. He was later taken to court to be tried.
Fagan’s crime was deemed to be a civil rather than a criminal offence and he was therefore not charged with trespass. Instead, he was convicted of theft from his first visit (the half bottle of wine) and committed to psychiatric care. He spent six months in an asylum before being released in January 1983.
Commenting on the case, Fagan’s mother said: ‘He thinks so much of the Queen. I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems.’

UK paperback
Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail