Shadow Warriors, UK edition, Amberley, September 15, 2016

Shadow Warriors, UK edition, Amberley, September 15, 2016

World War Two was the war in which old gender rules changed, as intelligence agencies created specific training and roles for women.

SHADOW WARRIORS is the story of women as undercover combatants: armed with Sten guns and grenades; cutting telecommunication wires, laying mines in roadways; organizing bombing raids; preparing the way for the D-Day invasion and harassing enemy forces as the Allies moved inland.

It begins by telling the story of how US and British intelligence agencies decided to use women as spies in a way they never had before; and of how they then recruited and trained them, as couriers, wireless operators, saboteurs and even resistance leaders.

These agents ranged from girls barely out of high school to mature mothers, from working class women to the daughters of aristocrats, from the prim and proper to wild high-livers.

They were taught how to send coded messages; how to lay explosive charges; and how to kill with knives, guns and their bare hands.

Sometimes they faced sexism and even derision from their trainers. Yolande Beekman, an efficient and courageous agent who was executed by the Germans, had been dismissed by one SOE instructor as, “A nice girl, darned the men’s socks, would make an excellent wife for an unimaginative man, but not much more than that.”

Their actions behind enemy lines were to change for ever the views of the US and UK intelligence communities on using women as agents.

Some, such as New Zealander Nancy Wake and Polish-born Christine Granville led men in battle. Granville masterminded the escape of a fellow SOE agent. Nancy led a gun and grenade attack on a Gestapo headquarters in France. American Virginia Hall became the Gestapo’s most wanted agent.

Others, such as the American Betty Pack, used their beauty and sexual allure to capture enemy secrets which would change the course of the war.

All these agents knew that torture and death were the price of failure. Some had to leave babies and children at home. Many paid the ultimate price for their bravery.

As Nancy Wake said: “I hate wars and violence but if they come then I don’t see why we women should just wave a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”

The clandestine war, and therefore the war itself, would not have been won without the courage and contribution of these Shadow Warriors.

UK edition now available; US edition to be published by Chicago Review Press in January 2017.

Pen-Y-Gwryd_Hotel_smallerpicAfter becoming the first man to climb Mount Everest Sir Edmund Hillary returned to North Wales where he had trained for the historic event.

Planning to meet up with Lord Hunt and the rest of the expedition for their first-ever reunion, Hillary arrived late at the Pen y Gwryd hotel and was told that everyone had already set off for the summit of Snowdon.

Without bothering to change into appropriate clothing, Hillary set off after his friends.

Halfway up he was accosted by a distinguished-looking gentleman who told him off for wearing inappropriate clothing which gave “hill walkers and climbers a bad name”.

The story, infused with humour and cut from the DNA of the history of climbing folklore, gets to the heart of the historic Pen y Gwryd hotel, which has now been celebrated in a new collection of stories and memories that explain why the building has become a “place of pilgrimage for mountaineers the world over”.

EverestPlaqueJan Morris, who was the only newspaper correspondent embedded with the 1953 Everest expedition, describes the hotel as “one of the great climbers’ inns of Europe”.

Among the items on display there is the length of rope which connected Hillary and Tenzing Norgay as they disappeared into the mist at the roof of the earth, making their ascent on Everest’s summit.

The rope was essential and functional then; it has since developed significance as a symbol of humankind’s endeavour. It must appear in the dreams of many of those pilgrims and adventurers who are drawn to the Pen y Gwyrd.


‘The Pen y Gwryd Hotel: Tales from the Smoke Room’ is a 259-page hardback book which has been compiled and edited by Rob Goodfellow, Jonathan Copeland and Peter O’Neill. It is priced £14.99 and is published by Gomer Press

A forgotten tragedy

Posted: July 28, 2016 in History
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The toll bridge at Penmaenpool.

 The toll bridge at Penmaenpool.

The wooden toll bridge at Penmaenpool provides a peaceful walk for visitors to the Mawddach Estuary near Dolgellau.

The area is a haven for walkers, cyclists and bird watchers. The RSPB has turned an old signal box into an observation centre overlooking the estuary.

But the Grade II-listed bridge, which was built in 1879, was not always peaceful.

In July 1966, it was the scene of a great tragedy when the Prince of Wales ferry, which was nearing the end of its pleasure trip from Barmouth, got into trouble as it tried to pull up alongside the nearby jetty.

15 people died when tragedy struck this peaceful corner of Wales

15 people died when tragedy struck this peaceful corner of Wales

The vessel was washed into the wooden toll bridge and quickly sank, with its passengers being thrown into the fast-running incoming tide.

Staff from the nearby George III hotel and the toll bridge itself rushed to help but 15 of the 39 people on board drowned.

A peaceful corner of Wales, but a scene of great sadness for so many.


*First published on


Aberfan, Gaynor Madgwick & Greg Lewis

Via Y Lolfa

On the 21st of October 1966, the village of Aberfan in south Wales was shattered by one of the worst disasters in Welsh and British history.

Following days of bad weather, water from a spring had destabilized a huge coal slag tip – one of the black man-made mountains which surrounded the village. Thousands of tonnes of coal tip waste slid down a mountainside and devastated the mining village of Aberfan. The black mass crashed through the local school, where pupils were celebrating the last day of term.

One hundred and forty-four people were killed. One hundred and sixteen were schoolchildren. Gaynor Madgwick was there. She was eight years old and severely injured. Her brother and sister were in  classrooms either side of her. Both died.

Recalling the horrific event in a diary four years later, Gaynor wrote, ‘I heard a terrible, terrible sound, a rumbling sound. It was so loud. I just didn’t know what it was. It seemed like the school went numb, you could hear a pin drop. I was suddenly petrified and glued to the chair. It sounded like the end of the world had come.’

In Aberfan – A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One Of Britain’s Worst Disasters, Gaynor tells her own story and interviews people affected by that day – from the bereaved and the rescuers, to the police and royalty. She explores the nature of courage, grief and faith, to create both a moving personal story of one family’s pain and a definitive account of the events that shook the nation and the world.

‘For the past 50 years I have lived as a sort of prisoner or victim of my past. Now I am trying to break free.’ said Gaynor. ‘I started this book by looking again at the writings of my young self. I’ve tried to explore the determination, courage and resilience which got me through. Then, I set out on a journey, to find those same qualities in my community, to see how it had coped, survived and often thrived.’

The Earl of Snowdon – who was there hours after the disaster – described it as ‘one of the most moving experiences of my life.’

‘Gaynor Madgwick’s book, Aberfan, is a brave, heartbreaking and inspiring journey in which she re-visits the story of what happened to her and to the whole community of Aberfan on that dreadful day.’ he said. ‘It is a book that should be read by all of us in memory of those who died and those who survived.’

Broadcaster Vincent Kane said, ‘Gaynor Madgwick was pulled injured from one of the classrooms where her friends died. She was left behind to live out her life. This is her story, sad, sweet, sentimental, and authentic. I commend it to you.’

‘October 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of that awful day. For 50 years we have been trying to recover from the Aberfan disaster. It’s a long road, and we take it one day at a time.’ said Gaynor.

‘I’ve tried to tell this story in a way in which it has never been told before, beginning by reliving Aberfan through the eyes of a survivor.  As a survivor, now 58 years old, I have been haunted by the memories of the Aberfan disaster.

‘I wanted to create the fullest picture of the disaster and its aftermath while people were still around to tell their story.

‘For me, I can’t start the next chapter of my life if I keep rereading the last one; this book will help me move on. My hope is that it will help others move on too.’

Aberfan – A Story of Survival, Love and Community in One of Britain’s Worst Disasters by Gaynor Madgwick (£9.99, Y Lolfa) is available now.

I was delighted to be involved in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, marking the work of nurses today and over the past five decades.

I produced these films (edited by Collin Games and filmed by Paul Roberts and Gareth Thomas).

And there is also a commemorative book, Nursing Matters.


As actor Michael Sheen states on the back cover, “There is no more fundamental or valuable service than to devote yourself to the care of others in their times of greatest need. It is the most noble of tasks and the highest of aspirations.”

Back page

Video  —  Posted: April 15, 2016 in Books, Health, History, Video
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Les Spence was a remarkable man who kept an astonishing journal. For almost four years he risked his life to keep a daily record of hardship, courage and endurance in prison camps run by the Japanese. He and his fellow prisoners faced starvation, disease and cruelty. They kept up their spirits by playing sport, listening […]

via Nagasaki: It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burnt out. — jon kilkade

A Life On The Edge, reviewed by Lyn Ebenezer, author of Operation Julie and Fron-goch Camp 1916

A Life on the Edge, Eric Jones/Greg Lewis

A Life on the Edge



I have never met Eric Jones, yet I feel as if I know him well. Two contributions on the back cover of his autobiography sum up my impression of his character. One is a long-range photo that picks him out on the north face of the Eiger, like a forlorn gnat slithering towards the upper reaches of a gigantic frosty window pane. The other is a quotation by fellow mountaineer Reinhold Messner: ‘Eric’s many solo ascents can be respected for being free of any sense of heroics, and for his sense of humour when his stories are told. His strength, self-sufficiency and silent courage are admirable.’

Jones may not have any sense of heroics, but he is a hero. Heroes achieve feats that we mere mortals can only dream of realising. Heroes are modest. Heroes are fearless. Heroes respect the challenges that lie before them. Eric Jones is a hero.

Summing up Jones’s achievements could, on its own, fill this chunky, liberally illustrated volume. Greg Lewis manages to compress them into his opening blurb: Jones was the first British man to climb the Eiger’s north face, he has soared over Everest in a hot air balloon, he has parachuted onto the North Pole, he has skydived into the Cave of Swallows in Mexico, and now he has written, with Lewis, a cracker of a story.

To someone like me who is terrified of heights (I live in a bungalow), Jones is a superhuman. Leo Dickenson, cameraman-climber extraordinary, reveals in his foreword that in fifty years of knowing him, he can never remember Jones refusing an adventure. Yet Jones has known fear – his greatest being chased by a cockerel. His fascinating tale leads us from humble beginnings at Brynsaithmarchog around and above – and in some cases below – the earth.

Heroes, of course, can be boring. Like cockerels, some tend to crow. Jones, however, understates his feats. Imagine him hurtling towards seemingly certain death on the North Face of the Matterhorn. Rather than panic, he merely hoped it wouldn’t hurt. Incredibly, despite such dangers, he manages to posses an inner peace.

Jones is the kind of man whose hand I would dearly wish to shake. But please let it happen on level ground!

See the original review on the website of the Welsh Books Council.