Members of the UK electorate may be worried in 2019 about the consequences of the Brexit ‘war’ but the situation eighty years ago was far worse for it was then, in the summer of 1939, that Britain stood on the verge of war for the second time in a quarter of a century. In 2019 many are looking forward to the Ashes Test Cricket series against Australia and the beginning of the football season. Eight decades ago fans didn’t know that when football ended in the spring of 1939 it would be the last official competition until the autumn of 1945 or that that summer’s cricket tests against the West Indies would be the last international cricket matches in the UK until India toured in 1946.
Britain was on the brink of another conflict with Germany despite the best efforts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain whose attempts to appease Adolf Hitler had come to nought despite his very best efforts. Germany had already seized Austria (March 1938), the Czech Sudetenland (October 1938) and the rest of Czechoslovakia (March 1939). Hitler had pledged, in an agreement signed in Munich the previous autumn, to keep his hands off the rump of Czechoslovakia. The German dictator broke this accord when his troops marched into Prague and then turned his attention to the next country on his shopping list, Poland. Chamberlain and the UK Parliament had had enough and had guaranteed Poland’s sovereignty in the spring so any move by the Third Reich against the Poles more or less guaranteed war. Hitler was banking on Chamberlain getting cold feet and expected that another ‘Munich type’ deal would leave him free to attack Poland.
The last months before the outbreak were dominated by preparations for the expected conflict. In Britain there was already a military conflict of sorts taking place. Dissident terrorists from the Irish Free State, desperate to see a united Ireland, had been carrying out a bombing campaign on the UK mainland since the turn of the year. So far nobody had been killed but there had been a good deal of damage and disruption. At the same time, many Germans living in Britain were engaged in espionage . Organised by the German secret service, the Abwehr, these activities soon came under the control of the Gestapo whose agents were already active in the guise of journalists and businessmen.
Soon the two halves of this conspiracy came together and the Irish terrorists (IRA) struck a deal with the Germans who provided them with weapons, explosives, safe houses and training. At the same time, anti-Nazi Germans living in the UK (many of them Jewish refugees) were coming under pressure from the Gestapo to spy on their employers. many of these fugitives (mostly young women) had relations still living in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia and the Gestapo threatened these defenceless people if their British based relatives didn’t co-operate with them.
This, then, is the background to my novel THE SUMMER OF ’39. It’s a work of fiction with heroes, villains, traitors and patriots. Young love, too, plays a part in the story. The central characters are Roger Martin, a crusading journalist, and his girlfriend Jane, both of who appeared in my earlier novel The Blue Pencil, a very senior Irish terrorist, a small number of Gestapo agents whose work is directed from the German embassy in London’s Carlton House Terrace by a senior SS officer and two teenage boys from London’s East End who help Roger keep track of the bad guys. A desperate Jewish girl refugee, her parents marooned in Berlin, a senior Foreign Office diplomat, a Special Branch detective and Roger’s close friend Richard Walker more or less complete the cast of fictional characters but the narrative is strengthened by the inclusion of some real-life people including legendary investigative journalist Claud Cockburn (later a significant contributor to Private Eye and father of present-day Middle East Correspondent of the Independent Patrick Cockburn), MI5 spy Klop Ustinov (father of Sir Peter), Seamus O’Donovan, senior IRA operative on the UK mainland and Wolfgang zu Putlitz, German diplomat spying for Britain.
The action, and there’s plenty of it, takes place in West and Central London, Woolwich, Coventry, Harwich, on the London Underground network and in Hanover and Berlin. The narrative closes with two climactic set pieces on either side of the North Sea, one of which involves London Films, whose founder Sir Alexander Korda was a Hungarian who had settled in Britain. So grateful was he for the opportunities that his new country gave him, he allowed MI6 agents to be based in his European offices. London Films Rotterdam office plays an important part in The Summer of ’39.
Graham Greene would probably called this novel an ‘entertainment.’ With its intoxicating mixture of espionage, action, romance, good guys and bad guys, threats and blackmail and the approach of war, it seems that this would be an apt description. Of course, few of the incidents in the book actually happened eighty years ago but, in writing this tale, I tried to create a background in which they could conceivably have happened. It’s the favourite of my three fiction titles that have been published by Sacristy Press.