For you, the war is over

As I go through the process of editing the draft of my novel, a few thoughts are starting to emerge about things I need to do. Regular readers of this blog may recall that one of my central characters, Herbert, was a prisoner of war during WWII and later, when he moves into a nursing home, starts to believe he is in a POW camp (see Prisoner of Memory).

Conscious that there are so many myths about POW camps, spawned by films like Colditz and The Great Escape, I thought I’d better do a bit of research, to make sure that Herbert’s experience as revealed in the book is true to life. I’ve been reasonably reassured that I’ve not committed any howlers, but have also picked up a few details which should add a bit of texture to the novel.

As a downed airman, Herbert would have faced his greatest ordeals before he even got to the camp – that is, assuming he was one of the mere 15% of Lancaster aircrew who survived the loss of their plane. The civilian populace were understandably hostile to bomber crews, calling them Terrorflieger or Kindermorder (terror flyer, child-murderer). They might be pelted with stones or worse, beaten up or even lynched.  Their troubles were not over once in the custody of the regular armed forces. Unlike the majority of allied prisoners of war, most airmen were interrogated before being sent to a permanent camp. They were not generally tortured as such, but to encourage cooperation they might subjected to solitary confinement, sometimes in cells heated to uncomfortably high temperatures. Tricks were also used to obtain information, such as fake Red Cross officials asking them to fill out forms purportedly to be sent to relatives.

Once he had been transferred to a permanent POW camp – for an airman, normally a Stalag Luft operated by the Luftwaffe – he would be relatively safe. It is an odd fact about the war that Nazi Germany, so contemptuous of international law and common decency in many other respects, did for the most part (with some significant exceptions – such as the murder of 50 of those who broke out of Stalag Luft III in the ‘great escape’) adhere to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Prisoners of War in respect of captured personnel of the western Allies (the position for Soviet prisoners was very different indeed). The Convention provided for prisoners to be treated humanely, allowed to communicate with relatives, to be given adequate food, clothing, housing and medical attention, and to receive packages of food, etc. from relatives and the International Committee of the Red Cross. As a result, only some 3.5% of British prisoners of the Germans died – compared with a quarter of British prisoners of the Japanese – and a staggering 57.5% of Soviet prisoners of Germany.

Once in their camps POWs now faced a rather different set of problems: crowded, basic living conditions, variable rations and above all, boredom. The films give us the impression that they addressed this by constant efforts to escape – and it’s true that many POWs did feel some sort of duty to do so (as does Herbert in my novel). However, only a minority were actively involved in escape attempts. A few hundred did succeed in escaping the camps, but the vast majority of these were quickly recaptured. Nor did those escapes – even the ‘great escape’ itself – have any significant impact on the war.

For all that POW camps have spawned an entire genre of exciting films, the reality of life, for the vast  majority of prisoners, was one of years of separation from loved ones and undending monotony.








Meeting of Minds

Here’s a little bit of fun I wrote at Holmfirth Writers a while back. The perils of enhanced cognition …


“Mr Taylor?”

The words sparked my consciousness back into life, setting it free from the depths where it had been tethered. I swam back up towards the light like a diver through a murky sea. Slowly, the light resolved itself into an oval shape, with eyes, a nose, a mouth. And the mouth spoke.

“Mr Taylor. Welcome back! This is Doctor Schmidt.”


“Doctor Schmidt, of the Phrenos mind expansion clinic. I’m pleased to tell you that your operation has been a complete success. You are now the proud owner of our top-of-the-range intra-cranial expansion pack. Your mind has been upgraded, Mr Taylor.”

“Upgraded?” Ah yes, it was coming back to me now. It had seemed like a good investment of my lottery winnings. “But I don’t feel any different.”

“Of course not, Mr Taylor. Your mind is still your mind. But now it is partially hosted on our latest and most powerful processor chip. With all sorts of extra functionality thrown in. Tell me, Mr Taylor, what is the cube root of 2129.26331?”

“12.865,” I answered immediately. “What the …?”

“That’s your complementary math co-processor,” said Schmidt. “And you’ll also find a full suite of Omnipedia, comprehensive book, music and video library and, of course, Angry Birds. Plus, since the processor is not subject to biological degradation, you are now effectively immortal. I’ll leave you now for a while, to let you get used to your new abilities. The nurses will bring your dinner in about an hour, then I’ll come back and see how you’re getting on.”

He left, and I began to experiment. I closed my eyes and watched one of my favourite Tom and Jerry cartoons from my childhood. Then I did a few more instant calculations, quickly getting bored of them. Next, I discovered that I could recite the Deputy Finance Ministers of the Netherlands from 1911 onwards. “Van Rijn, Hoeksma, Geesters ..”

“It’s actually pronounced ‘Haysters’.”

“What? Who said that?”

“I did. And what are you doing in my brain?”

“This is my brain. I’ve just paid an awful lot of money for it.”

“So did I. I’ve had this brain for four years now. I was here first.”

“I’m sorry, but who the hell are you?”

“My name is Candice Murray. I’m an actress.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of you. Look, I’m sorry to have to break this to you, Candice, but you died in a car crash three months ago.”

“I can’t die. I’m immortal. I’ve been backed-up.”

“Yes, to an intra-cranial chip which now belongs to me. Those bastards at Phrenos have been recycling second-hand stuff. Wait till I get my hands on that Dr Schmidt.”

Our hands,” said the voice, and to my horror my hands began to gesticulate without any prompting from me.