Today in the Library we have Kathryn Gauci, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into her life as an author.
You are very welcome, Kathryn, please introduce yourself:
Thank you for inviting me to the Library, Pam. It’s great to be here with you. I was born in Leicestershire, England, and studied textile design at Loughborough College of Art and later specialised in carpet design and technology at Kidderminster College of Art and Design. After graduating, I spent a year in Vienna, Austria, before moving to Greece to work as a carpet designer in Athens for six years. There followed another brief period in New Zealand before eventually settling in Melbourne, Australia, where, among other things, I ran my own textile design studio for over fifteen years. After thirty years in the textile industry, I wanted a change and began writing almost ten years ago.
Initially, I hesitated to write a story set during World War 2, unsure what I could bring to it that would be unique. And then it dawned on me that few had written about the war from a neutral Irish perspective. Luckily, all I had to do was delve into my family and local history and Her Secret War, the first novel in the Sarah Gillespie Series, was the result.
Essentially, the stories in the series are about spies and fifth columnists, a subject covered in some depth by Tim Tate in his book, Hitler’s British Traitors. This was the source for much of my background information and threw up a few plot ideas too (always a bonus!). [Buy Link: Hitler’s British Traitors]
My mother and her sisters left rural Ireland to work in Britain during WW2. One aunt followed her boyfriend, who had joined the RAF, and she worked in a munitions factory. Another aunt wanted to study nursing, and my mother was a ‘clippie’ (bus conductress) on the Birmingham buses. Neither book is their story, but there are glimpses of their experiences hidden throughout the fiction. The German attack on North Strand, which opens the first book, happened only a few miles from where I grew up. As a young child, I passed the bombed-out sites regularly, knowing nothing about them. I was in my late teens before I heard about the bombing and the relevant history.
For me, the greatest challenge was getting up to speed on day-to-day life. I knew a lot about the overall timeline and events of the war, but it was the nitty-gritty details of life on the Homefront which would ground the stories in reality. Thankfully, there is an enormous amount of material out there, from eyewitness accounts and books to newsreels.
My heroine, Sarah Gillespie, is Irish, and the first novel in the series begins with the infamous bombing of neutral Dublin by the Luftwaffe in May 1941. The opening chapters take place during the bombing and its aftermath before the story moves to England. Like many Irish, Sarah has family living in the UK. They welcome her to their home when her own family is killed. Without giving away the plot, Sarah’s nationality leads to complications, and she is forced to decide where her loyalties lie. The complex relationship between the Irish and their ex-colonial masters interests me, and I explore it to some extent in both novels.
Her Last Betrayal continues Sarah’s story. She is now employed by MI5 and must work with a new colleague, a US Naval Intelligence officer, who is hostile and suspicious of her motives. There mission is to track down IRA members who are facilitating British fifth columnists and Abwehr agents entering and leaving the UK. Just as they appear to be making progress, one of the MI5 team is revealed to be a German mole. Their mission thrown into chaos, Sarah and Tony must learn to trust each other if they are to survive.
Again, I referenced Mr Tate’s excellent book only to find that the port used by the IRA was only alluded to as being in South Wales. I knew the UK National Archives document reference number, but the text in question was only available to view in person, not online. Due to Covid, I could not travel to Kew to look at it. So, in the meantime, I had to make an educated guess (Fishguard seemed likely as it connected Cork and neutral Lisbon at the time—a possible route).
As the deadline for finalising the book approached, however, I panicked and took a chance and messaged Mr Tate directly through social media. A few weeks later, he responded and emailed all the information I needed. But, as it transpired, the identity of the port used by the IRA for smuggling people in and out of the UK, remains a mystery. The document Mr Tate had seen only mentioned South Wales. And then the bombshell: the British Secret Service had destroyed the other file which identified the exact location. Although disappointed, at least I had an answer. And let’s be honest, a bit of mystery is music to the ears of a writer of espionage tales!
Her Secret War was published in October 2021 and is available in all good bookstores and online. Her Last Betrayalis published today, 14th April 2022 and is available in all good book stores and online. I am currently working on the third novel in the series, as yet unnamed.
This could not be more appropriate when describing what became known as ‘Blitzmas’. In December 1940, Hitler’s Luftwaffe was doing its best to wipe British cities off the map. But the British public were having none of it and were determined to have the best possible holiday they could. Time magazine reported that Christmas parties were being held in the larger air-raid shelters, which provided safety for over one million people. Even the London theatres put on the usual Christmas Pantomimes. However, everyone suffered. It was not a normal Christmas by any means.
Gifts were difficult to come by. However, the Evening Standard reported that the Oxford Street pavements were congested and had a pre-war atmosphere. Luxuries such as silk stockings or French perfume were not to be found, but there was still liqueur chocolates available, and if you were lucky, you might find some figs or Turkish delight. Wine and spirits were plentiful but brandy was rare. The most popular present that Christmas was soap!
It was a ‘recycle’ Christmas. At home, decorations for the most part, were handmade, often by the children. Due to a paper shortage, scraps of paper, old Christmas cards, old newspapers, and brown paper were used to make ornaments and decorations. Presents were often homemade gifts wrapped in brown paper or even small pieces of cloth. Hand knitted items, such as hats and scarves were made by unravelling old jumpers and war bonds were bought and given as gifts, which helped the war effort. Homemade food items, such as chutneys and jams were popular and practical presents, along with items associated with gardening, like wooden dibbers for planting.
There was little reprieve from the misery of Blitzkrieg. Greater Manchester bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe’s attacks that Christmas. On the night of 22/23 December 272 tons of high explosive were dropped, and another 195 tons the following night. Almost 2,000 incendiaries were also dropped on the city over the two nights. It became known as the Christmas Blitz. In total, 684 people died and a further 2,300 were wounded with districts to the north and east of the city badly affected. At least 8,000 homes were made uninhabitable.
The royal family had to spend the holiday at a secret location in case the Nazi airmen attacked while George VI was giving his Christmas broadcast. But as a mark of solidarity with the British public, the royal Christmas card was a picture of the king and queen in the grounds of the bombed Buckingham Palace. Traditional carol singing was cancelled due to the bombing and black-out, festive lights were not to be found on the streets, and many people had to work on the 26th of December, Boxing Day, which was a public holiday.
Due to rationing and high prices, most could not afford the traditional turkey or goose. Housewives had to use all their ingenuity to find substitutes. Luckily, the Ministry of Food provided lots of information (see recipe below) and even films on the subject. (The Imperial War Museum has many examples of these.) The only concession came in the week before Christmas in 1940; the tea ration was doubled and the sugar allowance increased to 12 ounces.
It can’t have been easy to celebrate a normal Christmas with many families separated by war and loved ones fighting overseas. Even though there was a small respite from the bombing in London on Christmas and Boxing Day, by 29th December, many families were rushing for the safety of air raid shelters once more. The King’s speech on Christmas Day must have been the highlight for many families but in December 1940. the outlook still looked bleak.
“The future will be hard, but our feet are planted on the path of victory, and with the help of God we shall make our way to justice and to peace.” King George VI (Christmas 1940)
In Her Last Betrayal, the sequel to Her Secret War, Sarah Gillespie spends Christmas with her family in Hampshire and is delighted to be involved in the Hursley Amateur Dramatic Society’s production of Hayfever, which they put on for the locals just before Christmas. However, it is to be a tragic Christmas that Sarah will never forget …
Her Last Betrayal will be released on 14th April. Cover reveal in the new year but pre-order now available:
There is such a wealth of great historical fiction books available right now, books that make super Christmas pressies too. Here is my round-up of 2021’s best, and there is something to suit all tastes, from romance to the ancient world.
I am so thrilled to share the news that my new release is out in the world today. Her Secret War is the first of two books based around a young Irish girl, Sarah Gillespie. Sarah is the only one of her family to survive the North Strand bombing in May 1941 which kills 28 people and leaves hundreds homeless. Her plight resonates with the thousands who survived similar incidences throughout the war, all over the world. From the ruins of her life, Sarah must make some difficult decisions. Like many Irish, she has family in Britain and when they hold out the offer of a new life and a job, Sarah decides to leave Ireland. Unfortunately, her new life slowly falls apart as her family history catches up with her, and she is drawn into the dark world of WW2 espionage.
Like most young people in the forties, my heroine, Sarah Gillespie, in Her Secret War, is obsessed with cinema and spends all of her hard-earned, but meagre wages, on film tickets and cinema magazines such as Picturegoer Weekly. The world she sees on the silver screen is very different to her life and feeds her dreams. For someone like Sarah, growing up in a working-class part of Dublin, the regular trip to the picture house was pure escapism. During WW2, a third of most Britons went to the cinema at least once a week and it is likely the statistics were similar here in Ireland. My father often spoke of his weekly trips as a child to ‘the flicks’ with his friends, and could tell you all about the various cinemas in Dublin and the types of films they showed. Sadly, most of those cinemas are long gone now.
And then of course, there was the Hollywood glamour filling the pages of the fan magazines, which transported readers far away from the realities of war. Much like the social media influencers of today, the movie stars’ lives influenced popular culture, fashion and music.
In Britain, the fictional trials and tribulations of favourite movie stars on the screen resonated with a public reeling from the Blitz. For a couple of hours, you could forget about the bombs dropping on your neighbourhood, the discomfort of nights spent in an Anderson Shelter or your next bombing run.
It is often the children who are most affected by war and WW2 was no exception. A poignant example of the terror experienced by a child is a quote from a young girl who survived the Southampton Blitzkrieg.
“There must have been some sort of warning before the sirens and when the barrage balloons went up, I knew it meant danger. I was very frightened. I used to rush down the garden to go headfirst into the shelter.”
Being within easy reach of German airfields in France, Southampton was an easy target for the Luftwaffe and a strategic one. Over the course of the war, 57 raids were carried out with approximately 2,300 bombs dropped. Six hundred and thirty one citizens were killed and 898 were seriously wounded. The damage was extensive with 45,000 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Eighty years ago, a German pilot dropped four bombs on neutral Dublin City
Ireland was still recovering from the War of Independence from Britain and the Irish Civil War, when WW2 broke out in Europe. The government at the time, led by Eamonn de Valera, declared Ireland was a neutral country. Ireland had neither the manpower nor the resources to become involved in the conflict. Relations with Britain were already strained and Ireland’s stance made Churchill furious.
Ireland’s neutrality, however, was tilted slightly in favour of the Allies. Downed RAF pilots were quietly escorted to the border with Northern Ireland, while their German counterparts were interned at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the conflict. Perhaps more significantly, the Irish government sent fire crews to Belfast, during the Blitz in April 1941, to help put out the raging fires and dig out the bodies. Immediately after, many Northern Irish refugees made their way to Dublin where they were warmly welcomed.
I grew up a few kilometres from the suburb of North Strand on the north side of Dublin City. As a teenager, I was astonished to discover I lived so close to the spot where a Luftwaffe pilot dropped bombs in the early hours of 31st May 1941. The events of that Whit weekend, echoed the Blitz of Belfast only weeks before, and the bombing of cities such as Liverpool and London, and indeed, many other cities throughout Europe. A taste of the Blitz must have shaken Ireland to its core.
Today in the Library we have Hannah Byron, who has dropped in to say hello and to share some insights into her life as an author.
A little bit about Hannah:
Hannah Byron (penname of Hannah Ferguson) was born in 1956 in Paris, France. She is of British/Irish/Dutch descent and lives in The Netherlands. Next to writing historical fiction, she is a part-time translator for a Dutch university.