Category Archives: war

Stalin’s Englishman: the lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie

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The story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, or the Magnifivent Five as they were dubbed by the media, continues to be of interest, long after the Cold War ended. How did this group of young, wealthy, Cambridge University students fall into the clutches of the Soviet Union during the 1930s? The reality is that Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, all brilliant young men, were very willing recruits because, in the polarised politics of the time, they saw it as a simple choice between Fascism or Communism, and they chose the latter.

Guy Burgess was the most important, complex and fascinating of the Cambridge Spies. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers. And he did all of this in plain sight while drawing attention to himself via a disolute and promiscuous lifestyle. There was no security vetting in those days. The only entry requirements were that you went to Eton and Oxbridge and came from a ‘good family’. It was all about the connections which tied the ruling class together.

Burgess lost his father at an early age and some have speculated that this may have influenced his later direction in life. He was devoted to his mother and was an outstanding Cambridge undergraduate. He joined the Cambridge University Socialist Society and came into contact with other rich young men who were attracted to Marxism and how it was being implemented in the Soviet Union. His comrades included John Cornford, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War, and James Klugmann, who went on to become a skilled organiser within the Communist Party of Britain.

This is Andrew Lownie’s first full biography and he draws a rich picture of Guy Burgess’s lives, both personal and political. He shows how Burgess’s chaotic personal life of drunken philandering did nothing to stop his penetration of the British Intelligence Service. Even when he was under suspicion, the fabled charm which enabled close personal relationships with numerous influential figures prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. But it was the exposure of Donald Maclean which led to Burgess’s exile in Russia. Maclean was tipped off by Kim Philby and had to be smuggled out of the country. Burgess was instructed to escort Maclean to Europe, where we would be taken care of by his Soviet handlers. Burgess did not realise that he had been given a one way ticket and that he would become a fellow defector with Maclean in Moscow.

Burgess and Maclean left England in 1951 and disappeared for the next five years. Their mystery was solved when Tom Driberg visited them in Moscow and published Guy Burgess: a portrait with background in 1956. Burgess was not happy in Moscow and missed his mother, friends and London life. When he died in 1963 his ashes were sent back to England and placed in the family plot besides those of his father. Guy Burgess had finally had his wish and returned home.

Through interviews with over a hundred people who knew Burgess personally, many of whom have never spoken about him before, and the discovery of hitherto secret files, Stalin’s Englishman brilliantly unravels the many lives of Guy Burgess in all their intriguing, chilling, colourful, tragic-comic reality.

Review by John Pateman -Chief Librarian/CEO Thunder Bay Public Library

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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Everyone’s familiar with the fate of the Titanic, but very few have heard of the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the greatest maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost on a single vessel. As the Red Army advanced through Prussia in 1945, the desperate Germans planned a naval evacuation of refugees and personnel across the Baltic Sea. Thousands of desperate citizens swarmed the ship and the estimated final count on board is 10,500. Five thousand of those were youth and children. The conditions were unimaginably overcrowded and dangerously cramped, but being on board was seen as the only hope for survival.

The Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945 and an estimated 9,400 of those on board perished. The sinking was not reported by the Third Reich in order to avoid spreading more bad news within the losing regime. It was also underreported in western Allied countries, and the official line in Russia stated (inaccurately) that the ship was transporting armed personnel. Due to these factors and the disinclination of the survivors to discuss the event due to their extreme trauma, the Gustloff largely disappeared from public knowledge.

This tragedy is the inspiration for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Poignant, engrossing, and emotionally intense, we see the horrors of war-time Germany though four different perspectives of Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and German youth. They endure starvation and brutality, but also find moments of hope, joy, and love. Different kinds of bravery and sacrifice are shown throughout the story, highlighting the heroism often found in society during terrible times, and despite the tragedy the book ends with moments of hope. I highly recommend this book to all readers of historical fiction.

Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

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This tale takes us to the final days of the doomed last flight of the Hindenburg.  Lawhon used the actual ship’s manifest to create the characters and the life aboard the airship and carefully weaves a story that is part historical fiction and part mystery. To this day, no one actually knows for sure what caused the disaster. Could it have been an accident or a mechanical failure, or perhaps it was a bomb employed to embarrass the Nazi’s who hailed the Zeppelin as a symbol of their regime, so as the pages turn it is difficult not to speculate what role each of the characters may have played in the tragedy.

The novel is told from five different points of view; including Emilie, a female stewardess, who was the first female crew member of a Zeppelin, Max, the navigator who loves her and Werner Franz, the fourteen year old cabin boy trying to earn money for his family. Rounding out the main characters are a disgraced female journalist, Gertrud Adelt, forced out of Germany and desperately missing her child and a mysterious unnamed American, frequently found in restricted parts of the ship.

Two elements really contribute to the depth of the novel, one is the ship itself and the other is the tension of the pre-war years with some of the passengers and crew supporting the ideals of the Third Reich, while others are using the airship as a means of escape from a government which is becoming ever more oppressive and frightening.  For modern readers, it is hard to imagine the amazing size of the Hindenburg, 16 stories high and over 800 feet long, sporting all the amenities of a luxury hotel of the era, the airship is definitely a character in the novel.

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Dance of the Banished by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

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Part action novel, part history, part love story – Dance of the Banished is a book which will linger in the reader’s mind.

Zeynep and Ali are young Alevi Kurds in Anatolia, Turkey who are dreaming of a future together. Ali leaves his fiancée when he gets passage to Canada and Zeynep’s world is thrown into chaos when war breaks out. Their ensuing stories are told in alternating chapters and letters. Zeynep travels to a city where life is becoming more dangerous each day. It soon becomes clear that the Turks are using the camouflage of war to murder the minority Armenian population and Zeynep is a horrified witness.
Meanwhile, in Brampton, Ontario Ali is swept up with other immigrants and imprisoned in a war camp in northern Ontario. To the Canadian government, he is Turkish because he came from Turkey, and is therefore an enemy of Canada. Through everything, the main couple hold each other in their hearts and dream of dancing the semah together again. The semah is a religious dance and form of worship for the Alexi Kurds and is the inspiration for the book’s title and the cover painting by Pascal Milelli.

There are many stories set during World War 1, however few have touched on the period of the Armenian genocide and few books have also tackled the uncomfortable truth about innocents interred in Canada’s wartime camps. The characters’ love for each other and fierce hope despite terrible odds is very compelling and urges an ending of reunion and the righting of wrongs.

There is a reason why this book won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction. Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch can bring history to life in a way that few others can

The Wars by Timothy Findley

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thewarsThe Wars by Timothy Findley

Thunder Bay Public Library (TBPL) is leading a major cultural partnership project to commemorate the centennial of World War One. TBPL is also a partner in the City of the Poppy initiative to mark Thunder Bay’s unique role as the city where the poppy was first adopted as a symbol of remembrance in Canada.

The line between fiction and non-fiction is at best thin and at worst arbitrary and a good example of this is novels written about the Great War. Each nation has its classic Great War novel – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning, Under Fire by Henri Barbusse – and Canada is no exception.

The Wars by Timothy Findley has been described as ‘quite simply one of the best novels of the Great War’. It tells the story of Robert Ross, a sensitive nineteen year old Canadian officer, who joined the 39th Battery, Canadian Expeditionary Force, in April 1915. After nine months training he left for England in December 1915. His description of the stormy voyage across the Atlantic and its impact on both the men and horses packed into its hold is vivid and memorable.

But when he arrives in France in January 1916 the real horror begins. He finds himself in the nightmare world of trench warfare; of mud and smoke, of chlorine gas and rotting corpses. He took part in the battle of the St Eloi craters in February 1916 which raged for five days. In it 30,000 men would die and not an inch of ground would be won.

Amidst the carnage Robert tries to retain both his humanity and his sanity. In this world gone mad he performs a last desperate act to declare his commitment to life in the midst of death. This is an unforgettable story of war and courage and a man pushed to the very limits of his endurance.

John Pateman

Line of Fire: Diary of an Unknown Soldier (August, September 1914) by Barroux, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone

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lineoffire2This book’s origins are quite remarkable. It began when a French artist named Barroux noticed some garbage being thrown out on a Paris street and stopped because he saw some old magazines and had been looking for some to cut up for a project. Among the debris he also found a medal and an old diary. It turned out to be over 100 years old and had belonged to a French man who had been conscripted into World War 1. The name was too faded to read anymore, but the words were quite amazing and they inspired the artist to create the images which would illustrate the unknown soldier’s words.

The result was a graphic novel unlike most novels or true-life accounts of war. Because the diarist was writing for himself the story is told in a very matter-of-fact and unedited manner. The reader views the story just as it unfolds for the teller, and it is not a grand drama, but rather, the personal view of an infantry soldier recounting what he sees, hears and feels as he moves through the early days of the war.

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It begins when France declares war and continues until early September in 1914. Then, it abruptly stops. By that time, the reader is captivated and wants to know what happens next, but it must remain a mystery because that is all there is to the diary. Instead, he includes the lyrics of some of the songs of the day and we are left to speculate what became of the person we have gotten to know.

In his diary, he writes about the initial enthusiasm of his fellow servicemen, of long treks and journeys, his aching feet, some of the people he befriends, life in the trenches and also in the hospital where he is taken at one point. He writes of the countryside, his inner thoughts and seeing courage in battle.

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Barroux illustrates every page of the diary using acrylic paint and a thick black grease pencil that he obtained from his butcher. He had to spray the pages to keep the grease lines from smudging and the result is a yellowish patina which suits the 100 year old story well. The drawings are semi-realistic with a slight cartoonish element which preserves a bit of the mystery of the diary-writer’s identity. He is “any-man” fighting for his country and wondering what will happen next.   Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse and many other fine books, wrote the introduction for Line of Fire and stated: “We need the voice of a witness to tell the unadulterated truth. We have it in this remarkable book.” I couldn’t agree more and recommend this unique book to anyone aged 12 and older.

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Angela Meady is Head of Children’s & Youth Services for the Thunder Bay Public Library.