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, April 24, 2012


Dressed in khaki fatigues and splattered in mud, Private Denis Smith looked little different from thousands of other war-weary comrades.
Private Denis Smith. But you can
call me Dorothy.
The boyish face and cropped hair provoked no comments from those at the battlefront. Indeed, no one in the 51st Division of the Royal Engineers (British Expeditionary Force) knew that Private Smith was hiding an extraordinary secret.
He was actually a woman - Dorothy Lawrence - who had come to the battlefield to see with her own eyes what was taking place. In doing so, Lawrence became the only female soldier to fight on the Western Front in the First World War.
Dorothy’s highly unusual story began in Paris at the outbreak of war in 1914. She was desperate to become a war correspondent, but was told that it was a man’s world in which she could play no part. Determined to see for herself the battles taking place in northern France, she decided to disguise herself as a soldier and make her own way to the front.
‘I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money, can accomplish,’ she wrote.
Dorothy wanted to experience war first hand.
She befriended two English soldiers in Paris - who she later referred to as her ‘khaki accomplices’ - and asked them to smuggle her a uniform. They agreed to help and within a week Dorothy had military boots, khaki trousers, braces, jacket, a shirt and puttees.
There still remained the problem of how to disguise her feminine form: she knew that if anyone ever discovered that she was a woman, she would be arrested and sent home with immediate effect.
Dorothy Lawrence: aka Denis
‘Enveloping myself in swathes of bandages, like a mummy, I pulled these swathes taut around my body.’
But her womanly curves remained visible, ‘so I padded my back with layers of cotton wool… my outfit revealed a thick-set and plump figure, finished by a somewhat small head and a boyish face.’
The men also helped her obtain an all-important travel pass that would enable her to reach the town of B├ęthune, which stood right on the front line.
Concerned that she still looked too feminine, Dorothy had one of her accomplices crop her hair and shave her face. ‘Vainly I hoped that boyish bristles would sprout,’ she wrote. A born tom-boy, she was disappointed when this failed to happen. 
To complete her disguise before she set off for the front line, Dorothy coated her face in diluted Condy fluid. Bronzed - and looking decidedly shabby - she now headed for the battlefront.
It was not easy for her to reach the fighting. She was stopped on several occasions by officers keen to know what she was doing so far from her supposed regiment. Yet none of them ever imagined that she was a woman.
Dorothy joined sappers like these
Dorothy eventually secured the services of a tunnel expert named Sapper Tom Dunn who was serving with a Lancashire unit of the Royal Engineers. She admitted her secret to him and asked for his help.
Sapper Tom was amused by her daring and touched by her courage. He and a few comrades agreed to help get her into active service.
They found her a secret hiding place where she could rest up during the day. Only when it became dark would she venture out with the other sappers, digging out tunnels underneath the German lines and filling them with high explosive. The charges would then be set, blowing the German trenches and control centres sky high.
Hygiene was impossible and Dorothy was soon crawling with fleas and lice. ‘Every inch of my body tickled and irritated,’ she wrote. ‘Fleas jumped in all directions.’
Although she faced terrible discomfort, she remained actively involved in tunnelling underneath enemy lines. Shells and mortars rained down on her yet she never once flinched.
Bethune: Dorothy's goal
Her closest male comrade, Sapper Tom Dunn, was extraordinarily impressed with her bravery. He later described how she spent ten continuous days and nights ‘within 400 yards from the Boche front line, under rifle fire, trench mortars and coal boxes’.
The incessant fire, poor food and contaminated water rapidly took its toll. Dorothy fell ill and suffered a series of fainting fits. Fearing that her ruse would be discovered, she presented herself to her commanding sergeant and admitted her deception. He immediately arrested her on suspicions of being a spy.
Dorothy worked in tunnels
like this
Intense interrogation followed. Six generals and twenty officers were involved in cross questioning Dorothy, but failed to prove anything other than the fact that she wanted to join the dangerous world of men.
They forced her to sign an affidavit to the effect that she would never write about her story. And then she was despatched back to London.
Dorothy did eventually write up her extraordinary story and Sapper Dunn even wrote a signed affidavit to vouch for the fact that it was true.
Yet few believed it and she died in obscurity in 1964.
Dorothy’s self sacrifice was lost to history and her story became one of the many forgotten tales of the First World War.

I am the author of seven works of narrative history including the best-selling Nathaniel's Nutmeg and, most recently, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War. If you'd like to buy my books, click here for UK readers and here for US readers. For more information about my books, visit

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


It was three minutes past two in the morning: 28 April, 1944.
Omaha Beach, 1944. Slapton Sands was nearly
as dangerous
A flotilla of American ships was approaching Slapton Sands on the Devon coast, a crucial practice exercise in advance of the D-Day landings.
Exercise Tiger was a 300-vessel, 30,000 men dress rehearsal for the biggest amphibious landing in history. It would enable Allied commanders to fine-tune their Normandy battle plan.
Angelo Crapanzano one of those involved in the operation. He was in the engine room of his vessel, named LST 507, when it was unexpectedly rocked by a tremendous explosion.
LST 289: a wreck, but she didn't sink
‘I got this sensation of flying up, back, and when I came down I must have bumped my head someplace and must have been out for a few seconds, because I felt cold on my legs,’ he later recalled.
As he recovered consciousness, he realised the ship had been hit by a torpedo. A German naval squadron had encountered the fleet by chance and immediately opened fire.
 ‘The ship was burning,’ said Crapanzano. ‘[It] was split in half … fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse.’
The sea also was on fire, because the fuel tanks had ruptured and poured oil into the water.
Slapton: just like Normandy
LST 507 was not the only ship to be hit. Crapanzano witnessed another landing ship, LST 531, being attacked. She sank in ten minutes, killing almost everyone on board. A third vessel also burst into flames, another victim of the German ambush.
By about 2.20am, the captain of Crapanzano’s ship realised that she was fatally damaged. ‘The tank deck was burning fiercely…’ recalled Crapanzano, ‘It [was] just like a gas jet stove. And all the heat going up to the top deck.’
Crapanzano braced himself for the 40-foot jump into the sea, hitting the water at high speed and plunging beneath the surface. ‘It was frigid. It was like unbelievable, unbelievable cold.’
On the day of the practice, they came under heavy fire
But he didn’t think of the cold for long: he was too busy trying to escape the burning fuel on the water’s surface.
Of the 12 life rafts on the LST, only one had been lowered into the water. It was completely burned, but Crapanzano and 10 others managed to cling to it. They desperately kicked themselves away from the ship so as not to get sucked under when it sank.
Crapanzano witnessed scenes that would haunt him for years. ‘I saw bodies with arms off, heads off, heads split open, you wouldn’t believe what the hell goes on.’
As he flailed around in the water, he was struck by the scale of the catastrophe. Nine German E-boats had struck the Allied fleet as it headed for Slapton Sands. They had attacked hard and fast. Three LSTs were totally crippled and a fourth was badly damaged by friendly fire. The E-boats had got away before the Allies could return fire.
Survivors from LST 507
A staggering 638 servicemen were killed in the sudden attack. Yet the Allied landing operation was not abandoned. Instead, the surviving ships pressed on at full speed towards Slapton Sands, leaving the dead and dying in the water.
The beach landings were to prove the setting for the day’s second tragedy. The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, had ordered that real ammunition be used, so that men would experience actual battlefield conditions. It was a disastrous decision, for the entire exercise was miss-timed. The British cruiser, HMS Hawkins, was shelling the beach as the soldiers stormed ashore, killing a further 308 men.
Some were not so lucky
While the practice landings were taking place amidst scenes of carnage, Crapanzano was still struggling to keep alive in the icy water. He was acutely aware of the dangers of hypothermia and tried to keep up the spirits of the 10 men clinging to the raft. 
‘I kept saying to them, ‘Don’t fall asleep, whatever you do. If you fall asleep you’re dead.’
But one by one they slid into unconsciousness. Soon Crapanzano and one other man were the only two left.
D Day: this time it's for real
They’d been in the water for four-and-a-half hours when Crapanzano noticed a light.
‘I see this light, going up and down, and it seems to be getting bigger. I immediately assume that help is coming.’
Help was indeed at hand. The light came from LST 515, one of the ships that had belatedly  returned to sea to search for survivors. The crew were scanning the water when they spotted Crapanzano’s head. At first they thought it was another corpse, but then one of the men saw it move. Crapanzano was still alive.
At last, a memorial
He was plucked from the sea, wrapped in blankets and eventually transferred to a Dorset hospital where he made a full recovery.
Only now did he learn the full extent of the Slapton Sands disaster: Exercise Tiger had cost the lives of 946 American servicemen.
All who had been involved in the disaster were sworn to secrecy. It was vital that the Germans knew nothing of the practice landing. The massive loss of life was also highly embarrassing for the Allied high command, who wanted to keep it under wraps.
And so it remained a forgotten episode of the war for many years.
Not until four decades later - in 1984 - was a memorial finally erected in memory of the men who lost their lives in the practice landings for D Day.

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 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


He stood at the edge of heaven.
It's a long way down
Joe Kittinger's helium balloon had carried him to more than 19 miles above the earth. Now, he prepared to jump. He was about to do what no human had ever done before - free-fall to earth at the speed of sound. It was part of an extreme American experiment on ejecting at high altitude.
Kittinger knew only too well that the experiment carried extraordinary risks. He had undertaken his first free-fall jump nine months earlier, at the end of 1959, and it had almost killed him. He began spinning wildly out of control - more than 120 revolutions a minute - and quickly lost consciousness. His life was saved only when his parachute opened automatically at 10,000 feet.
An artist's impression
Now, he was going to repeat the experiment, only this time from a far greater height. His specially constructed helium capsule would lift him to an altitude of 31,000 metres - 19-and-a-half miles above planet earth. Then he would step out into the void and fall to earth. No one knew if he would survive the experience. 
It was an experiment of extremes. At such an altitude, the temperature would be minus 100 centigrade. Even more alarming was the insufferable pressure and mix of noxious gasses. If his protective suit burst, his blood would instantly boil.
Kittinger was not doing it for kicks. The United States Air Force was growing increasingly concerned about the safety of pilots forced to eject at high altitude. Tests had shown that the body went into a fatal spin when jumping from a plane. Now, scientists had created a stabiliser device designed to hold the body in one position as it fell to earth. Kittinger was to test this device.
There's a hole in the glove.
At 5.29am on 16 August, 1960, his helium balloon lifted off from an abandoned airstrip in New Mexico. It rose rapidly - 1,200 feet a minute - until it was just a tiny blip in the sky. Although it ascended at speed, it took a long time to reach 19 miles above earth.
Kittinger was wearing a specially designed protective suit - a high-tech layer of inflating fabric that was intended to save him from instant death. But it failed him before he even reached 40,000 feet.  The glove on his right hand didn't inflate - a potentially fatal malfunction which could easily kill him. 
Kittinger knew that if he informed the control centre, they would abort the flight. ‘I took a calculated risk,' he later said, 'that I might lose use of my right hand. It quickly swelled up, and I did lose use for the duration of the flight. But the rest of the pressure suit worked.’
After ascending rapidly for one hour and 31 minutes, Kittinger reached his maximum altitude. But the balloon was not quite in the right position so he allowed it to drift for twelve miles until he was over the landing target area.
It's only 19 miles.
This gave him time enough to experience life in this twilight zone.
‘You can see about 400 miles in every direction,' he said. 'The most fascinating thing is that it's just black overhead - the transition from normal blue to black is very stark. You can't see stars because there's a lot of glare from the sun, so your pupils are too small.’
Kittinger was struck by how beautiful planet earth looked from up here. ‘But I was also struck by how hostile it is: more than 100 degrees below zero [and] no air. If my protection suit failed, I would be dead in a few seconds.’
Kittinger went through a pre-planned 46-step checklist. Then he disconnected the balloon’s power supply, cutting all communication with earth. He was on his own, drifting in a hostile world.
‘When everything was done, I stood up, turned around to the door, took one final look out and said a silent prayer: 'Lord, take care of me now.' Then I just jumped over the side.’
The practice run.
He was on his way back to earth, falling through emptiness at unbelievable speed.
‘I rolled over and looked up and there was the balloon just roaring into space. [Then] I realized that the balloon wasn't roaring into space; I was going down at a fantastic rate…'
He had no sense at all that he was falling. 
'You determine speed is visual if you see something go flashing by. But nothing flashes by 20 miles up - there are no signposts there and you are way above any clouds.’
Yet he was by now travelling at an extraordinary velocity - falling to earth at the speed of sound, more than 600 miles an hour (990 km per hour).
The world appeared an alluring and welcoming sight. Joe had a camera strapped to his body which captured every moment: it revealed planet earth growing nearer and larger with every second.
Where am I?
For 4 minutes and 36 seconds, Kittinger fell through the limitless void. When he reached 17,500 feet above sea level, (5,330m), he opened his main parachute which dramatically slowed his breakneck fall. It took a further nine minutes before he landed safely in the New Mexico desert.
As the ground crew rushed over to greet him, he had just a few brief words for them: ‘I’m very glad to be back with you all,’ he said. He had completed the most extraordinary voyage through space: a 19-mile free-fall from heaven to earth. And he had survived.


Wolfram 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