Surviving History

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

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012


She was a plain-looking woman with bad teeth and a plump belly.
Instant attraction: Hitler and Unity
Yet Unity Mitford had never been hindered by her strange looks. Now, in the summer of 1934, she was determined to do everything she could to meet her idol, Adolf Hitler.
Unity travelled to Munich and began stalking Hitler around town, Although he was fuhrer of Germany, it was relatively easy to see him in public since he was accustomed to eat at the same caf├ęs and restaurants each day.
When Unity learned that he frequently had lunch at the Osteria Bavaria, she began eating there as well.
She did everything she could to get his attention. Yet ten months passed before Hitler finally invited the persistent English girl to his table. They chatted for half-an-hour and quickly realised they were soul mates.
One for the family album
‘It was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life,’ wrote Unity to her father. ‘I am so happy that I wouldn’t mind a bit, dying. I'd suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For me he is the greatest man of all time.’
Her feelings were reciprocated. Hitler was particularly intrigued by Unity’s middle name, Valkyrie. And he was fascinated to learn that her grandfather had translated the anti-Semitic works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of his favourite writers.
Hitler began to see more and more of his fair-haired English friend, much to the annoyance of his ‘official’ girlfriend, Eva Braun.
Hands up who likes Hitler: Unity and sister Diana
‘She is known as the Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs,’ wrote Braun in her diary. ‘I, the mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the whole world, I sit here waiting while the sun mocks me through the window panes.’
Unity was now introduced to members of Hitler’s inner circle. She got along particularly well with the thuggish Julius Streicher, publisher of the vitriolic anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Sturmer.
Munich: Unity's new home
When Unity delivered a particularly nasty diatribe against the Jews, Streicher asked if he could print it in his paper. Unity was flattered.
‘The English have no notion of the Jewish danger,’ began her article. ‘Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler!
She ended her text with the words: ‘Please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater.’
Hitler was so pleased with what Unity had written that he awarded her a golden swastika badge as well as a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Unity with the thuggish Streicher (right)
Unity now became one of the fuhrer’s intimates, visiting him on numerous occasions and expressing her constant admiration for him. He was no less smitten with her: in 1938, he even offered her an apartment in Munich. Unity had high hopes of replacing Eva Braun in his affections.
By now, her behaviour had aroused the suspicions of the British Secret Service. The head of MI5, Guy Liddell, was particularly alarmed by her closeness to Hitler. He felt that her friendship with him warranted her being put on trial for high treason.
Unity refused to leave Germany even after Britain’s declaration of war on 3 September, 1939. Yet she was deeply depressed by what had happened, not least because of the implications it had for her relationship with Hitler.
She took herself to the English Garden in Munich, held to her head the pearl-handled pistol given to her by Hitler and pulled the trigger.
She was badly wounded but - amazingly - survived. Hospitalized in Munich (the bills were paid by Hitler), she was eventually moved to Switzerland. When she was partially recovered, her sister, Deborah, flew to Bern in order to bring her home to England.
What fun we had: Unity and Diana at Nuremberg
‘We were not prepared for what we found - the person lying in bed was desperately ill. She had lost two stone (28 pounds), was all huge eyes and matted hair, untouched since the bullet went through her skull.’
What happened next remains shrouded in mystery.
He's my dad: as it might have been
The official account relates that she was taken to the family home at Swinbrook in Oxfordshire. She learned to walk but never made a full recovery.
She eventually died in 1948 as a result of meningitis caused by the bullet in her brain.
But there is another, more intriguing theory about her return to England. It has recently been claimed that she was actually taken to a private maternity hospital in Oxford. Here, in absolute secrecy, she gave birth to Hitler’s love child.
The woman who made the claim, Val Hann, is the niece of the hospital’s former manager, Betty Norton. Betty had told the story to her sister, who in turn passed it on to Val.
If true, it would mean that Hitler’s child is quite possibly still alive and living somewhere in England.
But the facts will never be known for certain: Betty Norton died long ago and the maternity hospital neglected to register many of the babies who were born during the war.

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 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


His home was a dense area of rainforest and he lived on the wild coconuts that grew in abundance.
Hiroo Onoda: never surrender
His principal enemy was the army of mosquitoes that arrived with each new shower of rain. But for Hiroo Onoda there was another enemy - one that remained elusive.
Unaware that the Second World War had ended 29 years earlier, he was still fighting a lonely guerrilla war in the jungles of Lubang Island in the Philippines. His story is one of courage, farce and loyalty gone mad.

Lubang Island: news travelled slowly
Hiroo Onoda was born to be a soldier. He had enlisted in the Imperial Japanese Army at the age of 20, receiving training in intelligence and guerrilla warfare. In December, 1944, he and a small group of elite soldiers were sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines.
Their mission was to destroy the island’s little airstrip and port facilities. They were prohibited, under any circumstances, from surrendering, or committing suicide.
US landing at Leyte: beginning of the end for Japanese
occupation of Philippines
‘You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand…’ read Onoda’s military order. ‘So long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that's the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you [to] give up your life voluntarily.’
Onoda was unable to destroy Lubang’s landing facilities, enabling US and Philippine forces to capture the island in February, 1945. Most of the Japanese soldiers were either imprisoned or killed. But Onoda and three others fled to the hills, from where they vowed to continue the fight.
Japanese soldiers in the Philippines
Lubang Island was small: 16 miles long and just six miles wide. Yet it was covered in dense forest and the four Japanese soldiers found it easy to remain in hiding.
They spend their time conducting guerrilla activities, killing at least 30 Filipinos in one attack and clashing with the police on several other occasions.
In October, 1945, the men stumbled across a leaflet that read: ‘The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains.’
Onoda did not believe it: he was convinced it was Allied propaganda.
A couple of months later, the men found a second leaflet that had been dropped from the air. It was a surrender order issued by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, Commander of the Fourteenth Army.
Once again, Onoda and his men did not believe it to be genuine and vowed to continue Japanese resistance.
General Tomoyuki:
'You can surrender now.' 
Four long years passed and still the little band were living in he forest. But by now, one of the four - Yuichi Aktsu - had had enough. He abandoned his comrades, surrendered to the Filipino army and returned to Japan. He informed the army that three of his comrades still believed the war to be ongoing.
Another two years passed before family photographs and letters were finally dropped into the forest on Lubang Island. Onoda found the parcels but was convinced it was all part of an elaborate trick. He and his two companions remained determined to continue fighting until the bitter end.
They had little equipment and almost no provisions: they survived by eating coconuts and bananas and occasionally killing a cow.
Their living conditions were abominable: there was the tropical heat, constant rain and infestations of rats. All the while they slept in makeshift huts made from branches.
Years rolled into decades and the men began to feel the effects of age. One of Onoda’s comrades was killed by local Filipinos in 1954: another lived for a further 18 years before being shot in October, 1972. He and Onoda had been engaged in a guerrilla raid on Lubang’s food supplies when they got caught in a shoot-out.
Onoda was now alone: the last Japanese soldier still fighting the Second World War, a conflict that had ended 27 years earlier.
By now his struggle had become a lonely one, yet he refused to lay down his arms. He was still conducting guerrilla raids in the spring of 1974, when a traveling Japanese student, Noria Suzuki, made contact with him.
Suzuki broke the news that the war had ended a long time previously.
Suzuki meets Onoda
Onoda refused to believe it. He told Suzuki he would never surrender until he received specific orders to that effect from his superior officer.
Only now did the Japanese government get involved in trying to bring Onoda’s war to an end. They managed to locate his previous commanding officer, Major Taniguchi, who was thankfully still alive.
The major was flown to Lubang Island in order to tell Onoda in person to lay down his weapons.
He was finally successful on 9 March, 1974. ‘Japan,’ he said to Onoda, ‘had lost the war and all combat activity was to cease immediately.’
If it's 1974, the war must be over. Onoda lays down
his weapons
Onoda was officially relived from military duties and told to hand over his rifle, ammunition and hand grenades. He was both stunned and horrified.
‘We really lost the war!’ were his first words. ‘How could they [the Japanese army] have been so sloppy?
When he returned to Japan, he was feted as a national hero. But Onoda disliked the attention and found Japan a mere shadow of the noble imperial country he had served for so many years.
Hiroo Onoda is alive to this day. Now 89 years of age, he remains grateful to Major Taniguchi for tracking him down in the Philippines.
Had it not been for Taniguchi’s mission, he would still be fighting his lonely war in the thick forests of Lubang Island. 

Uk hardback
My new book, Russian Roulette, is now published in the UK and available here. An extraordinary tale of British espionage inside post-revolutionary Russia. USA and foreign editions in 2014 

'A gripping history of derring-do... [readers] will find themselves as gripped as they would be by the very best of Fleming or le Carre' - Sunday Times.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


It was the crowning achievement of his career. And it was the beginning of a feud. 
At the 1889 inauguration of his famous Paris tower, Gustav Eiffel was feted as a French national hero.
Watkin: genial but mad
But among the few who did not appreciate his iron skyscraper was a patriotic Englishman named Edward Watkin.
Watkin resented the Eiffel Tower for one simple reason: it stood more than five times higher than Britain’s national monument, Nelson’s Column.
As far as Watkin was concerned, Gustav Eiffel had thrown down the gauntlet. He made a private vow to construct a British tower that would be taller, bigger and more spectacular than anything the French could build.
Declined Watkin's kind offer
Watkin had made his fortune in railways, creating networks in England, India and the Belgian Congo. 

Immensely energetic and deeply ambitious, he also happened to be a proud nationalist.
Ever-the-entrepreneur, Watkin also had his eye on increasing his fortune. He reasoned that if the new British mega-tower was built in Wembley Park - a large area of unused land to the north-west of London - then his own Metropolitan Railway could transport the thousands of annual visitors to the site.
Some crazy designs
Watkin launched his competition to build the British tower within months of the inauguration of Eiffel's rival tower.
‘Anything Paris can do, London can do better!’ was his boast.
By the end of 1889, architects from across the world were working on designs for a tower that would be taller and more spectacular than Eiffel’s.
Watkin’s idea fired the public imagination and his Metropolitan Tower Construction Company became a byword for national pride. The Company offered a prize of 500 guineas for the best designed tower.
With more than a hint of mischief, Watkin even dared to approach Gustav Eiffel and ask if he’d like to submit an entry. Eiffel politely declined.
‘If I,’ he said, ‘after erecting my tower on French soil, were to erect one in England, they would not think me so good a Frenchman as I hope I am.’
The winning design
Soon the designs began to arrive on Watkin’s desk - from Italy, Sweden and Turkey, as well as many other countries.
Watkin quickly realised that most of the designs were frankly preposterous. One, named Ye Vegetarian Tower, was submitted by the London Vegetarian Society. It came complete with hanging vegetable gardens.
Another, the so-called Tower of Babel, was so vast in scale that it had a road and railway leading to the top.
Perhaps the most extraordinary design - of a tower far taller than Eiffel’s - was to be built entirely of glass.
As Watkin flicked through the numerous entries, he realised there was only one design that was actually practical. It was made of open metal lattice work and rose to a point at the top. Standing upon four legs (the original design had six) it was in every respect an exact copy of the Eiffel Tower. The only difference was that it was 87 feet taller.
Watkin's Tower: no need to go to Paris
Building work began immediately. By 1891, the gigantic foundation holes in Wembley Park had been plugged with concrete and work began on the 3,000-ton tower itself.
It had soon reached a height of 62 feet and curious Londoners began to flock to see the fledgling Watkin’s Tower.
Watkin claimed it would be finished by 1894. But when the surrounding park was opened to the public, the tower was still only 155 feet high.
Better go to Paris after all.
Some 100,000 people came to see the stump; most were extremely disappointed to see a partial replica of Eiffel’s French tour-de-force. Only 18,500 bothered to buy a ticket to ascend to the first (and only) level.
At the end of 1894. Watkin’s workmen downed their tools. The Metropolitan Tower Construction Company had run out of money and the general public no longer had any enthusiasm. The tower was abandoned.
For the next 13 years, Watkin’s folly remained as an embarrassment on the London skyline - a rusting and derelict eyesore.
It was finally blown up in 1907, a sorry end to a chapter of Anglo-French rivalry.
Watkin’s only consolation was to have died six years earlier. 
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