Saturday, 28 June 2014

Women At War

The Night Witches

America had Amelia Earhart. Britain had Amy Johnson, and Russia had Marina Raskova. "Who?" I hear some ask, whilst others will know straight away. Aviatrixes. Record breaking female pilots. Whilst Amelia Earhart tragically went missing during a flight in 1937, Britain's Amy Johnson signed up during Word War Two to fly with the ATA, tragically losing her life in the Thames Estuary on a freezing day in January 1941. Marina Raskova, often regarded as the Russian Amelia Earhart, was the first woman to become a navigator with the Soviet Air Force in 1933. One year later, she began teaching at the Zhukovskii Air Academy, again the first woman to do so.

Marina Raskova
When WW2 broke out, many female pilots volunteered for service, but their applications were blocked. It seemed that they were actively discouraged from serving their country and of course it would seem that this was merely a sign of the times. After all, female pilots were not engaged in active service in America or Britain either. They were, however flying with the ATA, delivering essential aircraft to air bases around the UK, and so were always flying beneath the constant cloak of danger. The Americans had their own select group of female pilots, known as the WASPS, again engaged in a similar role to Britain's ATA.

In 1941, things radically changed. The Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler's German army in the summer. The Naziz waged a war of annihilation. By November that year, they were about nineteen miles short of Moscow and Leningrad was under siege. Three million Russians were now prisoners of war and the Soviet air force was badly in need of recruits.

Marina Raskova recognised the worth of the female pilots in warfare, and was rumoured to have  used her personal connections with Joseph Stalin, to convince the military of the merits of having an air squadron of women. In all, three combat regiments were formed. Not only did they have all female pilots, but the engineers and ground crew were also women. The Soviet Union was the first country to allow female pilots to engage in battle, and the three regiments flew a combined total of more than twenty three thousand sorties, dropping 23000 tonnes of bombs upon the German army over four years, aiding their retreat back to Berlin. There were two fighter aces and twenty three women were awarded the title, Hero of the Soviet Union. By the end of the war, thirty women had given their lives in battle.
The regiments were as follows:

The 588th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which began in April 1942, the first in operation.
The 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, which was widely feared by the Luftwaffe, who referred to the pilots as the Night Witches.
The 125th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment, which was commanded by Marina Raskova until her death in battle in January 1943, aged thirty.

These brave women flew in flimsy bi-planes, without radar, radios and often without parachutes. Maps and compasses were their only sources of navigation.  They decorated their planes with flowers and used navigation pencils for lip colour, whilst their uniforms were hand-me-downs from their male counterparts. However, their success in the sky soon drowned out any disapproving and scathing remarks from their male counterparts. And as you can imagine, they tolerated a fair amount of discrimination.

The bomber pilots  flew in pairs - a pilot and a navigator. The lightweight planes were only capable of carrying two bombs, so it was standard practice to fly multiple sorties in one night. At times they found themselves flying up to eighteen sorties.
As a last precaution, they were all given an extra bullet so that they were able to shoot themselves rather than risk capture by the enemy.

Nadezhda Popova, one of the first volunteer pilots, sadly passed away in 2013. She was once quoted as saying that she could see "the smiling faces of the Nazi pilots" as they strafed women and children in the streets, who were fleeing from their Luftwaffe attackers. Patriotism and revenge were two very strong reasons for these women who volunteered to serve their country.

The Po-2 bi-planes they flew, had a top speed that was less than the stall speed of  the Germans planes and they were highly maneuverable. This meant that they could turn away from a German fighter plane, and by the time he performed his turn, he would have travelled a fair distance away from the Po-2, by which time it would be executing another turn, thus making it rather difficult for the Luftwaffe pilot to hit with canon fire.
The Russian pilots could also fly these little planes quite low to the ground, often at hedge height if necessary, for cover.
They had the ability to fly low and effectively sneak in upon the enemy, undetected by radar. Once they were close to their target, they would cut their engines and glide in to drop the bombs and then restart the engines to fly away. Hence their name, Night Witches, taken from the sound the wind made against the wires on their wings, a whooshing sound, some said it was how they imagined a witches broom to sound.
Being of such flimsy, wooden/fabric construction also made them highly flammable. Given the circumstances, they only flew at night, under the cover of darkness in an attempt to seek some protection. Prone to attacks by night fighters, it was with amazement that they returned at all as their planes were often bullet ridden. Such was their reputation that the Luftwaffe pilots were promised the Iron Cross for every Night Witch they shot down.

Marina Raskova
I am in complete awe of these feisty, brave women and commend their courage and great aviation skill. Flying in such obsolete aircraft under such bleak and harrowing conditions was testament to their abilities and to their determination. I have no doubt that their contribution made a vital difference and Marina Raskova was the mastermind of this elite squadron of women. She was given the final honour of a state funeral in 1943 and was laid to rest in Red Square, Moscow, the city of her birth.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

My Work In Progress.

Word count exceeded today. Writing this morning whilst the household sleeps on. Bliss. The dog is snoring in the background as he sleeps, curled up in the armchair behind me.

I desperately need to clear the decks on my table. Too many books and notes and not enough room to work in. However, I've been busy concentrating on the sub-plots - the filling in material as I call it. It's very enjoyable and rewarding and I've found some extra material along the way which is a bonus.

And so as the weather seems to be changing here in Cumbria, I'm off to hunker down and churn out another 500 words, hopefully.  I'm writing about the everyday stuff - in my case this is from 1943 -1944. Having done so much research I don't mind declaring that it's hard. I'm simply not good at writing about everyday occurrences - what I probably mean to say is that I'm not very confident at crafting the fiction for such. I worry about getting the detail right and ensuring that the historical facts are correct.  However, it's becoming easier and that's only from writing, more reading and more writing. And so my learning curve continues.

So, if anyone out there is struggling with their writing, don't give up. You're definitely not alone and if you persevere you will succeed. My top tips for those moments of despair are:

(1) Go visit some writerly sites for top tips. I can recommend Write Words.
(2) Go read about some of your favourite authors for inspiration.
(3) Consider a writing course - a reputable one.
(4) Join a local writers group for support.
(5) Join online writers circle - often very good for information on publishing, professional edits/critiques and lots of other stuff.

And finally, when you're struggling, keep away from email, facebook, any social media site. It's the death knell! Definitely a hazardous distraction. Discipline has to be learned and perhaps if we force ourselves to write at a certain time each day, the act will give way to habit, a learned trait that will be easier for us to maintain in the long term.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Moving On With Writing

There are so many reasons why you might find it difficult to focus upon your writing - to take the plunge and finally begin writing the novel you yearn to read yourself. One of the more obvious reasons is perhaps a lack of discipline, lack of motivation or pure procrastination. Less obvious in the beginning might be planning - or rather a distinct lack of it.

How many times I've read about other writers/authors who are 'pansters' and simply don't plan. This works for them. Great. That's what I mistakenly thought might work for me too, way back when my manuscript was but a twinkle in the sky. And then, as a couple of years went by, and I was struggling and nowhere near finished, I read how other historical fiction authors spent several years writing a tomb of a book, so I thought I was doing fine. How wrong I was although it's true to say that some books really do take years to write and perfect. Historical fiction is no easy ride. Research can be so labour intensive and note taking is essential along with an adequate filing system of sorts (still learning that one!).

In Hillary Mantels memoir, 'Giving Up The Ghost,' she talks about how she literally fell into writing because her health forced her out of one career, leaving her wondering what she could do. Writing, she knew she could do, but fiction writing was something else. She had never really attempted to do so, and she wondered if she could, so she began to learn! And learn, she did. Meticulous planning is one of her fortes, and I have taken note of what she has had to say on the subject of writing. For me, it simply struck a chord, and along with some tips from Author Roz Morris, I got my own writing back on track. The key? Meticulous planning of course although rather late in the day, but certainly better late than never. Following on from there is discipline, for without it, one is doomed. I decided that I simply have to have a regular time to write - a time that I also like to write at. This time is either early morning or in the evening (often both).

So, my manuscript has form, shape and depth. I'm filling in with the minor plots, and have the ending to revise, but I'm so relieved to be almost at the finish line. Then the real work begins, or so I'm told. Expert critiques, and I have a couple of professionals in line for that,  more edits, book cover design, marketing etc etc. As you can tell, I'm going to self publish. Why? Because, as long as I have something decent, a good story, I want to share it with the entire world as soon as possible and then move on to my next project. Why not? It's so difficult to attract a publisher today and I have no desire to wait years whilst I try. That's not to say that I won't be trying as I go along. I will, but the main objective is to keep going, and get my book published. Working on my author's platform and participating in some hard graft when it comes to marketing will be the making of me.

Just to reiterate, I can't stress enough just how important it is to establish a regular writing routine. Others will tell you not to feel bad if you don't do this and to write when you can. This latter one was me for a while, and it gave me even more excuses to procrastinate. A regular routine has transformed me, literally. My creativity and word output have increased tremendously. In fact, I write every morning, early whilst the household sleeps on. It's quiet, it's heaven and it's simply so tranquil. It's better in the winter - more cosy. Now it's almost summer and the heat this morning is a little overwhelming, but I hear you, I should not complain about the sunshine. By nine o'clock, or sometimes before, I'm ready to get on with the rest of my day. Now I find that I keep returning to my work at every opportunity throughout the day. Procrastination is a thing of the past. You do have to find your way, but I think a good starting point is to begin with a defined writing period each day and then develop it from there.

I have a funny story about procrastination. I once wrote a blog post entitled, 'The Queen of Procrastination.' That was obviously me at the time, and my local radio station emailed me, inviting me to be interviewed live on Cumbria FM. How fabulous you might think. I thought so too when I first read the email. Trouble was, I read it two days later and they wanted me on the show the day before. So, effectively, I lived up to my own title and procrastinated my way out of a fab radio interview. I will say that the programme manager had a little chuckle when I rang to apologise. C'est la vie.

The greatest thing of all is finally seeing the all important increasing word count and page count. I can almost proclaim that I have a book. Today is a good day, having achieved my daily word count this morning, I'm about to write some more this evening. If you're wondering, I don't use a desk - too small. I use a spare dining room table and it's currently crammed with books, dictionaries, notes and yellow post-its (and the spare pc screen borrowed from husband). It's absolute chaos, unorganised and wonderful.

Now, I bid you farewell for now and I leave you with this picture I've just acquired from auction. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight - Lancaster, Spitfire & Hurricane. And it's flying season now until September/October so look out for them across the UK. We will remember them.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Crimson Field

The Crimson Field is the new period drama set to grace our TV screens on Sunday evenings. Set during the Great War, it follows the lives of three girls who have volunteered to serve in a field hospital in Northern France. I've been looking forward to seeing this and can't wait for Sunday. This year as you know is the 100th year since the Great War began.

The drama, by Sarah Phelps, presents one of the untold stories of the war. From a field hospital in France, the Army doctors, nurses and volunteers work to heal the physical and psychological wounds of the soldiers. Shell shock was indeed recognised and diagnosed, but for those who could not escape its grip, it could be damning. It's the psychological scars that were perhaps considered controversial at the time, because for many such men, they would be labelled as having 'lack of moral fibre.' Some men were put on trial for military crimes such as desertion and cowardice, with a number paying the ultimate price -death by firing squad. Such mental effects were simply not understood at the time or were quickly dismissed, especially when men were desperately needed to fight. In 1916, at the Battle of the Somme, it was estimated that around 40% of the casualties were suffering the effects of shell shock.

The Author, Pat Barker addresses the psychological effects of warfare in her books, 'The Regeneration Trilogy,' which introduces the reader to the real life poets and soldiers of the Great War, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. Barker recreates the Great War period and portrays the effects of war and the resultant psychological destruction in such a fascinating and illuminating way. War is certainly not glorious and its ugliness is portrayed in places in all its goriness. These books are definitely worth reading if you have any interest at all in the Great War. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

When Help Arrives Out Of The Blue.

Wow! Finally, my eureka moment. Having just unearthed another author (the renowned Helen Dunmore) whose writing has captivated me, I have experienced an epiphany.
The LieHaving been struggling with the beginning of my novel for months now, I think I may have finally settled the matter once and for all. I've edited myself into a corner, shuffled chapters endlessly and written new beginnings, all to no avail. All in the quest of creating that enthralling first chapter, with the intention of grabbing the reader ruthlessly and retaining their attention for the duration of the entire book.

Cue the author, Helen Dunmore. I've never read any of her books before simply because I've never noticed them. I have heard her name mentioned, but I've always had plenty of titles queuing up and I never seem to have time to read all of them.

Her latest novel, The Lie, set during and after the Great War has just caught my attention. Some might call it coincidence whilst others would say it's meant to be, but for whatever reason this has cropped up just when I needed it and I'm grateful. I happened to read the first page today and immediately knew how my own novel should begin. Such a little thing and yet at times it's been rather like an insurmountable obstacle. My youngest son would declare in astonishment that I'm a cheat. However, I'm not copying anything at all - not a line, word or even an idea. What this book has given me is a vision of what I can do with my own work - which incidentally is so different in comparison to Dunmore's subject matter and thus it would be truly impossible to copy her work.

But taking inspiration and learning from the work of others is what writers do all the time. As Aaron Sorkin once said, 'Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.' And so it is from Helen Dunmore that I take my inspiration from.

Having just bought this for Kindle, I'll post a review later, but if any of you are interested in the Great War then this would appear to be a most deserved read.

From the Back Cover

Cornwall, 1920

A young man stands looking out to sea.

Behind him the horror of the trenches, and the most intense relationship of his life,

Ahead of him the terrible unforeseen consequences of a lie.

About the Author

Helen Dunmore is an acclaimed bestselling author who has published nine novels, including Zennor in Darkness, which won the McKitterick Prize; A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural Orange Prize; The Siege, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize; Mourning RubyHouse of Orphans and Counting the Stars. Her 2010 novel The Betrayal was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. In 2012 she published the novella The Greatcoat under the Hammer imprint at Cornerstone. She is also a poet, children's novelist and short-story writer. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and her work is translated into more than thirty languages.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Blog Tour: The Eagle's Last Flight by Author Ron Standerfer


The Eagle's Last Flight
by Ron Standerfer

Ron Standerfer was born and raised in Belleville, Illinois, a town across the Mississippi river from St. Louis, Missouri. While attending the University of Illinois he took his first airplane ride in a World War II-Vintage B-25 bomber assigned to the local ROTC detachment. It was a defining moment in his life. Weeks later, he left college to enlist in the Air Force's aviation cadet program. He graduated from flight training at the age of twenty and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.

Another defining moment occurred early in his career. In August 1957, he participated in an atomic test at Yucca Flat, Nevada. Standing on an observation platform eight miles from ground zero, he watched the detonation of an atomic bomb code named Smoky. The test yielded an unexpected 44 kilotons---more than twice the size of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. He never forgot Smoky, and the memory of that experience weighed heavily on his mind when he wrote The Eagle's Last Flight, a semi-autobiographical novel about his life as an Air Force fighter pilot during the Cold War.

Ron's twenty seven-year Air Force career spanned the Cold War years between 1954 and 1981. During that time, he flew a variety of high performance fighters including the F-100, F-102, F-105, F-4 and A-7. He flew over 200 combat missions during the Vietnam conflict and was awarded two Silver Stars, thirteen Air Medals and the Purple Heart. The latter was received after he was shot down over Tchepone, Laos in 1969. He retired from the Air Force just as the Cold War ended as a full Colonel after tours in the Pentagon and Tactical Air Command headquarters in Virginia.

He continued to pursue his passion for aviation after retiring. He was a marketing director for Falcon Jet Corporation, a subsidiary of the French aerospace manufacturer Dassault Aviation. In that capacity, he was responsible for launching the marketing campaign for the Falcon 900, a long-range business jet. Later, he was an owner of an aircraft charter and management company in Elmira, NY and also a marketing consultant.

Ron is a prolific writer and journalist. He appeared on WOR TV in New York City during the first days of the Persian Gulf War, providing real time analysis of the air war as it progressed. His book reviews and syndicated news articles are published regularly in the online and print news media, as well as in military journals.

These days Ron and his wife Marzenna, the daughter of a distinguished theatrical family in Poland, spend their time in their homes in Gulf Stream, Florida and Warsaw.

Author Links

About The Book
Book Genre: Fiction, Military History/Aviation
Publisher:The Pelican Communications Group (A proud Indie publisher)
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Buy Link(s):

Book Description:
Skip O’Neill lies dying of leukemia in a New York hospital, determined to live until the new millennium. His wasted body shows scant evidence of the man he once was—an Air Force fighter pilot and decorated combat veteran. 

O’Neill’s first assignment as a young lieutenant places him among hard drinking World War II—and Korean War—era fighter pilots who quickly teach him their ways. He almost washes out of pilot training but is persistent and manages to graduate. In Vietnam, he proves to be a skillful and courageous pilot who faces dangers of all kinds with equanimity. But the greatest—and most deadly danger—materializes years after O’Neill volunteers to be an observer at an atomic test site.

In the end, O’Neill decides that when his time comes, he will dash at it fearlessly. He anticipates being greeted by departed friends—but what awaits him is something totally unexpected.

Skip never forgot his experience at Camp Desert Rock. Years later, he
ran into
a Marine at the officers club who had participated in one of the
tests and the two of them compared notes about what they had
‘‘It was the damnedest thing,’’ the Marine said, ‘‘There
we were, almost at ground zero. I mean we were sitting in trenches,
three miles away. Three miles! Not on some piddley-assed platform
eight miles away, like those Air Force and Navy pussies.’’
Skip let that comment pass, based on his longstanding belief that
arguing with a Marine who has been drinking, was not a smart thing to
‘‘And get this…right after the blast we were supposed to leap
out of the trenches so we could be moved up to a point three hundred
yards away.’’
‘‘Three hundred yards?’’ Skip exclaimed. ‘‘Why so close,
for God’s sake?’’ ‘‘Why? To set up a mock defensive
perimeter against anyone who theoretically
might have survived the attack.’’
‘‘Yeah right…like anybody would.’’
‘‘Exactly. When we moved into position, there was nothing to see,
much less to defend against. I mean nothing, just a few piles of
molten metal here and there. And, oh yeah, the charred flesh of sheep
that were used in the test.’’
‘‘Yeah, sheep. There I was with my men, tromping around in this
fallout shit…you know…that white ash that crunches under your
‘‘Fallout at three hundred yards, that stuff had to be big time
radioactive.’’ ‘‘Right, but of course I wasn’t afraid,
because afterwards we were gonna get
brushed off with brooms and hosed down. I mean, brooms, man. How dumb
could we have been?’’
‘‘Anyway,’’ he continued, ‘‘about the same time, this guy
shows up over the top of the hill, all dressed out in some kind of
shiny, silver, protective suit with a ventilator and face mask. When
he sees us, he comes roaring over, like someone lit a rocket in his
ass. What are you guys doing here? Where is your protective gear? He
yelled. All the time he’s talking, he’s pointing this Geiger
counter thing at us, which is going click, click, click.
I yelled back, we’re just doing some reconnoitering,
getting ready to kick some ass.
Well, you guys shouldn’t be here, he replied. Are you crazy?
Well, yeah. I told him. We are crazy. I mean…we’re Marines, which
is basi- cally the same thing…right?
It turns out this dude was some kind of technician from the Atomic
Energy Commission. They were the guys who were supposed to be running
the tests. And, get this…he didn’t even know the military was
operating that close to ground zero!’’
‘‘No way,’’ Skip said.
‘‘Yep, and when I got him settled down, I found out that he
wasn’t pissed at all. He was just scared…for us. That should have
been my first clue.’’
‘‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’’ Skip said, ‘‘but it
sounds to me like the gov- ernment was using you guys as guinea
‘‘Guinea pigs?’’ The Marine snorted derisively. ‘‘We
should have been so lucky. The laboratory animals they used in those
tests were washed down with soap and water afterwards, and their
health was carefully monitored. It’s been fif- teen years since
that test and nobody has asked me shit about my health. It’s like
it never happened!’’
‘‘Or like you guys were expendable, so it didn’t matter,’’
Skip offered
‘‘We were all expendable. You, me, and the 250,000
or so troops who partici- pated in all those years of testing. And
that, my friend, is the way it is.


Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Wartime Christmas

December 1940, and a child sleeps on in an air raid shelter, all decorated and ready for Christmas. A single stocking hangs by the side of the bed, packed with little presents or treats.

The video link below shows how Britain was preparing to spend Christmas, in 1940, the year of the Blitz.

 People spent Christmas in their shelters, in an attempt to keep themselves safe from the bombs. As a result, very short Christmas trees were in demand, on account of the reduced height inside the shelters.

Getting by on the family ration was undoubtedly a challenge for every person on a weekly basis, but when it came to Christmas it was even more so. Turkey was simply not affordable, at least not to the majority. Chicken was also expensive so many turned to home reared chickens or rabbits. The latter often became cherished family pets of children who would have been most reluctant to see them appear on the Christmas platter at lunch time. Home grown vegetables and home made chutney would also have been supplied. With the food shortage Britain rose to the challenge assisted by the Women's Land Army, to grow their own and to keep farming production going whilst the men went to war.

Gifts would also have presented a challenge for the majority of people. The motto, 'Make do and Mend' was used prolifically and that's exactly what people did. Everything possible was recycled - brown paper and string was scarce and used over and over on parcels. Toys were home made, such as wooden carved trains or boats or doll's house furniture. Mums knitted with whatever wool they could get hold of and made sweets for the children for special treats. The British public had been discouraged from buying gifts, and encouraged to give as much as possible to the war effort. Ten million pounds in war bonds were sold the week before Christmas 1940.

There would be no Christmas bells as this signified invasion. The BBC broadcast a Christmas service from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. Both the German and British Governments postponed bombing raids from Christmas Eve until the 27th December. Two days later on the 29th there came one of the most ferocious bombing raids of the Blitz which created a fire so fierce that it became known as the Second Great Fire of London. As the city burned, the dome of St Paul's Cathedral was pictured rising above the flames.

One woman recorded in her diary at that time that a 'great red glow filled the sky' and that she had no need for a torch that night. To add to the chaos and devastation, a low tide in the Thames caused fire hydrants to run dry and rubble blocked roads prevented emergency services getting through.

Twenty nine incendiary bombs fell on and around St Paul's that night, one of which fell and lodged within the roof timbers. Molten lead then began to drip down into the nave below. As smoke from the fires outside began to engulf the cathedral, an American reporter broadcasting live announced that St Paul's was burning to the ground. However, two teams of specialist fire-watchers were immediately spurred into action, crawling across the wooden beams with hand pumps to extinguish the fire. At that moment the incendiary fell right through into the nave below, where it was easily extinguished. Perhaps a miracle on that night. As a result, St Paul's survived.

St Paul's was like the phoenix, rising from the fire, from the ashes. This picture became the transcendent image of the Blitz, and just as the cathedral had survived, so too did the British people vow to do the same.

By the end of 1940, twenty four thousand people had been killed by the Blitz and hundreds of thousands were homeless.
After all the wars that have been and after our own servicemen and women have sacrificed their own lives for their countries, we should remember this:

Merry Christmas to all.