November 11 1943 is, I understand, a well-remembered day for historians of the Resistance in Nazi-Occupied France.
It was on that day that the Maquis paraded through the town of Oyonnax in an event designed as a show of strength, a morale boost for the local population. The town was chosen because there was no German garrison nearby.
More than 200 Maquisards took part. They marched, sang the Marseillaise, and then disappeared back into the mountains. The event is described in Matthew Cobb’s excellent book The Resistance.
Sometime ago I came into possession of this small medallion. It features the date ‘XI Novembre, 1943’.
One side is the Cross of Lorraine smashing a Swastika.
On the other side is an Astrix-like warrior.
I would love to know the story behind it. I assume it relates to Oyonnax, but does it?
Writing Tom Sharkey’s biography meant we got to “meet” many of the great characters of old-time boxing.
Sharkey wasn’t the only wild character among them.
One of our favourites was “Kid” McCoy – real name Norman Selby – who faced Sharkey in January 1899 as a boyish-looking 26-year-old and had fast become one of the most notorious figures ever to step in the ring; a talented fighter, yes, but a trickster too.
According to Patrick Myler: “The numerous stories told about his trickery, mostly apocryphal, are a treasured part of boxing folklore.”
He was said to have once filled his mouth with loose teeth and spat them out during a bout, horrifying his opponent and delivering a knockout punch on his unguarded chin.
He also scattered thumb-tacks on the canvas when he took on a fighter who fought in bare feet.
One particularly dirty trick involved Peter Maher. McCoy sent him a fake telegram, shortly before they were due to fight, saying there been a sudden death in the Irishman’s family.
As another writer, Graeme Kent, has noted: “McCoy was a brilliant boxer and an extremely shrewd operator who had sailed close to the wind on a number of occasions.”
His name lives on with us to today as a way of describing the genuine article. Myler reckons this relates to confusion with a lesser-known fighter named Peter McCoy, who was also known as “Kid”. He says a newspaper once ran the headline, ‘Choynski is Beaten by the Real McCoy’ and the phrase stuck. Kent prefers a story more in keeping with ‘Kid’ McCoy’s trickster image. He says that McCoy, trading on the drawing power of his name, sometimes booked himself to appear in different places at the same time and sent along ringers.
“Promoters had grown wise to this ploy and had insisted on the Kid being less generous with his doppelgangers,” notes Kent. “To reinforce this point they had taken to billing the boxer as ‘the real McCoy’, a phrase which later entered the lexicon.”
For those fascinated by this week’s tributes to Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and Christoph Probst (all executed 76 years ago) this is the spot at which their fate was sealed.
Sophie threw anti-Nazi leaflets from the balcony under the clock and into the hall below at Munich university.
All these years later it is still an emotional place to be.
A university is a place for free thinking, for questioning, for youthful exuberance. The Scholls went to the guillotine for displaying these qualities, as would many more connected to their White Rose movement.
When a prison guard came to clear her cell after her execution he found that she had written a single word on the back of her indictment sheet: “Freiheit.” Freedom.
Coming soon from Dutton Caliber in the US (published April 2019):An enthralling work of popular history that vividly resurrects the web of everyday Germans who resisted Nazi rule
Nazi Germany is remembered as a nation of willing fanatics. But beneath the surface, countless ordinary, everyday Germans actively resisted Hitler. Some passed industrial secrets to Allied spies. Some forged passports to help Jews escape the Reich. For others, resistance was as simple as writing a letter denouncing the rigidity of Nazi law. No matter how small the act, the danger was the same–any display of defiance was met with arrest, interrogation, torture, and even death.
Defying Hitler follows the underground network of Germans who believed standing against the Fuhrer to be more important than their own survival. Their bravery is astonishing–a schoolgirl beheaded by the Gestapo for distributing anti-Nazi fliers; a German American teacher who smuggled military intel to Soviet agents, becoming the only American woman executed by the Nazis; a pacifist philosopher murdered for his role in a plot against Hitler; a young idealist who joined the SS to document their crimes, only to end up, to his horror, an accomplice to the Holocaust. This remarkable account illuminates their struggles, yielding an accessible narrative history with the pace and excitement of a thriller.
Praise for Defying Hitler:
“The question was often asked amid the ruins of the Third Reich: why did the Germans fight on for so long when all was lost? Those liberated from concentration camps knew the answer. Terror, mass murder, ruthless and barbaric persecution—all opposition had been mercilessly quashed. In Defying Hitler, Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis show in chilling and vivid detail just how courageous were those who dared to defy Hitler. A terrifying and timely account of resistance in the face of the greatest of evils.”—Alex Kershaw, New York Times bestselling author of Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris
“This carefully researched book challenges the myth that the German people were virtually unanimous in support of Hitler… Defying Hitler is filled with almost unbearable suspense and drama.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A deeply researched work that passionately challenges the popular myth that ‘the German people followed Hitler as if as one mass, mesmerized like the children of Hamelin by the Pied Piper.'”—Kirkus
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 to an illicit radio and by trying to create their own civilised society behind barbed wire.
Throughout the suffering in Java, a perilous journey in the hold of an infamous hellship and the horrors of a forced labour camp in Japan, Les Spence kept writing.
He spent much of his time in a coal mining camp near Nagasaki. There, he was able to record one of the most momentous events in history: the dropping of the plutonium bomb on the city.
We had uneventful train journey to Nagasaki and then we saw the result of the atomic bomb. It was simply astounding, nothing left standing for miles, everything flat and burnt out.
Covering the period from January 1942 to November 1945, the diaries have been annotated to create a record of the Allied forces who many feel were sacrificed on Java.
Les Spence’s work is a first-hand account of how to hold onto hope when all seems lost.
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING:
“Moving and magnificent in its reportage, this is a war story with a difference. The very gut-wrenching rawness of Les Spence’s diary is a reminder of an area of World War Two almost forgotten: the battle for Java and the sacrifice that followed. This is one of those books that once you start you can’t forget it. These secret diaries have been lovingly edited to provide a firsthand account of the rigours of being a prisoner of a cruel enemy is superbly evoked.”
Gordon Thomas, author of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, ‘Inside British Intelligence’ and ‘Gideon’s Spies’
“A remarkable testament to courage and endurance in the face of hardship and cruelty – and a firsthand account of how to hold on to hope when all seems lost.”
“A remarkable wartime document.”
South Wales Echo
“These remarkable diaries cover the period from January 1942 to November 1945, and are a testament to one POW’s moving story.”
Britain at War magazine, September 2012
From Amazon: “My grandfather was in the same camp as Les Spence (Camp 8B @ Inatsuki). He told me stories about his time in camp, but [this] book has provided additional insight into the fear, hope, and dreams of these prisoners. Its value lies in the fact that it is a first hand account (actual diary that was retained by Les Spence throughout his imprisonment) of the day-by-day blows experienced by this POW.”
Shadow Warriors: Daring Missions of World War II by Women of the OSS and SOE
A group biography of the fearless young women who became secret agents during World War II.
Award-winning journalists Thomas (Operation Exodus: From the Nazi Death Camps to the Promised Land: A Perilous Journey That Shaped Israel’s Fate, 2010, etc.) and Lewis (A Bullet Saved My Life: The Remarkable Adventures of Bob Peters, 2006, etc.) bring their talent for telling detail and brisk pacing to an engrossing history of women who worked for the United States and Britain as spies, cryptographers, analysts, couriers, and resistance fighters during World War II.
Drawing from official records, memoirs, diaries, and letters, the authors detail the recruitment, training, and daring escapades of women who infiltrated enemy lines and carried out sabotage operations, ranging from stealing documents to blowing up railroad tracks. Risking their lives repeatedly, the women proved themselves ingenious and fearless.
They were also, as the authors portray them, uncommonly attractive: slim, vivacious, charming, intelligent, quick-witted, and multilingual. Among them was the irresistible Betty Pack, who took countless lovers and became known as “the spy who slept her way to obtain information”; and Evangeline Bell, “intelligent, beautiful, mysterious, and ethereal,” who had the “demanding responsibility of ensuring there were no inconsistencies in the forged documents” and articles of clothing given to French agents. Any detail could result in arrest. French clothing, for example, was sewn “with parallel threading” rather than cross-stitches, a detail for which Bell had to be alert. Spies were taught how to pick locks, reassemble documents from scraps in trash baskets, live off the land, manage a safe landing in a parachute, make a cast of a key in a bar of soap, and canvass surroundings using a shop window’s reflection.
Some training centers taught forgery, microphotography, and safecracking. Not all agents were successful: some were arrested, executed, or died in concentration camps, never seeing the victory for which they worked. The authors make a strong case for the importance of these women to the course of war, offering a fresh perspective on military history.
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.