Staring Death in the Face

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Pvte Eddie Slovik

Death comes to us all, but it’s how we live right up to that very final moment that can often show our true character.

Private Eddie Slovik, the only GI to be executed by his own side in World War II (and of whom I’ve written before), raged at his imminent demise in the minutes before they strapped him to a post to kill him.

‘I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.

‘They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army. They just need to make an example of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con.’

Eddie was killed because he was a deserter, but he had never gone on the run, instead he had handed himself in and simply stated that he preferred prison to battle. That wish was denied him and, on January 31, 1945, he was executed by firing squad. Who can blame his anger at the injustice of it all?

Erskine Childers

Erskine Childers

Others have taken a more sanguine approach to imminent death. In 1922, Erskine Childers was executed in Beggars Bush Barracks by the Free State Army during the Irish Civil War.

Childers was an historian and author of the acclaimed The Riddle of The Sands (a book I loved to read as a boy). In 1914, almost a hundred years ago to the day, he famously brought a shipload of weapons from Germany to Irish nationalists on board his boat, the Asgard. It was a pivotal act in Irish history and formed the basis of the armed struggle against British power.

Later, he was part of the delegation that traveled to London with Michael Collins to negotiate a treaty with the British. He later broke with Collins on the issue and supported the IRA nationalists who fought the Free State.

When Collins was killed, emergency laws were brought in ordering the death sentence for anyone caught with unauthorised weapons. Childers was arrested in early November with a small sidearm — a gun that had actually been given to him by Michael Collins as a gift back when they were on the same side.

The Free State wanted vengeance for Collins and so Childers paid the ultimate price. But Childers himself wasn’t one for revenge. On the eve of his death he asked to speak to his sixteen year-old son (also Erskine, who would one day become President of Ireland).

Erskine senior made his son promise that he would seek out every one who had signed his death warrant… and shake their hands. The following day he was was shot at the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. As he stood there, facing all those rifle barrels, he said one more thing to the men about to kill him.

“Take a step forward, lads. It will be easier that way.”

And then they shot him.

My grandfather was one of those who pulled the trigger. He never spoke much about it, only telling my father that it was a bad business.

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Thomas Whelan and Paddy Moran before being hanged

Others have faced death in similar fashion. A remarkable series of photographs show IRA Volunteers Paddy Moran and Thomas Whelan about to be executed by the British in Mountjoy Jail in 1921.

The men were sentenced to die for their parts in the assassination of British intelligence officers on what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. They are pictured posing happily with their captors. In one photograph, Whelan even has his arm around one British officer. A few minutes later both prisoners were hanged.

In World War I, German spy Karl Lody showed his mettle when he was in the Tower of London awaiting death.

Born in Berlin in 1877, Lody graduated as a captain from the Maritime Academy in Geestemünde in 1904, but became ill and was never able to take up the post. He married an American. Under a forged U.S. passport he traveled Europe, speaking English with an American accent.

Karl Lody

Karl Lody

When war broke out, German intelligence thought he would be useful and sent him to spy on the British naval base at Rosyth, in Scotland.

Lody was eventually tracked due to his own carelessness – he stopped encrypting his messages and even wrote them in German. He was tried and sentenced to death.

The day before his execution, on November 6, 1914, he wrote a letter to his jailers, in which he stated:

‘I feel it is my duty as a German officer to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to the guards and sentries… Although they never neglected their duty, they have shown always the utmost courtesy and consideration towards me.’

So impressed was Lody by them, that he even left a sixpence tip to show his gratitude. The guards, apparently, found it all a difficult business… but they still managed to take him out and kill him.

We are strange, strange creatures. Stories such as these only reinforce the pride and shame we feel in our own humanity, leaving us with the faint hope that, come the day, we too might meet our Maker with such grace and fortitude.



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The Not-so-Great Train Robbers

Jack Graham-Parker was convicted of indecent exposure at Edinburgh station on three days in March 1920. He was sentenced to 60 days imprisonment

Jack Graham-Parker was convicted of indecent exposure at Edinburgh station on three days in March 1920. He was sentenced to 60 days imprisonment

Here we are in the centenary of World War One. There have been many ceremonies, many articles on the price paid by those who fought in the trenches.

John Moir, a goods checker at Leith Walk Goods Yard, stole some tea and was fined £3 or 10 days imprisonment in April 1920

John Moir, a goods checker at Leith Walk Goods Yard, stole some tea and was fined £3 or 10 days imprisonment in April 1920

I recently read one on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand – the trigger that led to over four years carnage, and I’m sure I’ll be reading more as we hit the various milestones of terror that form the history of those years.

Private Roy Crooks, of the 2nd Battalion Australian Forces, stole a suitcase from Edinburgh Waverley station in January 1918 and was fined £7 or 30 days imprisonment

Private Roy Crooks, of the 2nd Battalion Australian Forces, stole a suitcase from Edinburgh Waverley station in January 1918 and was fined £7 or 30 days imprisonment

We think of those times and tend to get swallowed up by the epic nature of the events – the battles, the espionage, the life and death moments of individual soldiers, frightened and alone while breathing their last lungful of cordite-tainted air.

It’s all pretty dramatic stuff, but during and after those fateful  days, there were more mundane things happening, too…and some less than impressive foot soldiers of history.

John Yates, alias John Hewitt, Patrick Hines, John Miller and John Roy, was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour in March 1921 for theft of a parcel of clothing

John Yates, alias John Hewitt, Patrick Hines, John Miller and John Roy, was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour in March 1921 for theft of a parcel of clothing

I came across these images quite a while ago. They are mugshots, published courtesy of the British Transport Police’s History Group, of crooks – caught stealing luggage mostly – at train stations in the early part of the 20th Century.

I never wrote about them at the time because I wasn’t sure what could be said. What I like about the images is the level of character that comes through on their faces. One of them (John Yates) I have even included in a new novel that I am writing.

Margaret McConnell, while employed at Edinburgh Waverley station, stole parcels from an office and was fined £5 or 30 days imprisonment

Margaret McConnell, while employed at Edinburgh Waverley station, stole parcels from an office and was fined £5 or 30 days imprisonment

Their crimes, committed, around and about 1920, are unimpressive – pathetic in the case of Jack Graham-Parker – but here’s the thing… it is people just like these who made the history of the Great War.

They were the soldiers and the nurses, the cogs in the wheel that made history turn. It was these people and many others who entered that hellish cauldron and managed to emerge years later, scraping together some semblance of a life in the aftermath of the horror.

I look at their faces now and try to imagine what they saw of the Great War and what scars they took with them when they finally left the front line.

Every picture tells a story… think of the ones you could write from a few forgotten mugshots.

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Adolf Hitler and the Battle of Little Bighorn

Popular depiction of 'Custer's Last Stand'

Popular depiction of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’

You may not think the words in the headline above belong in the same sentence, but history throws up some intriguing links sometimes. This one caught my eye a while back, but I think now is a fitting time to share it.

We’re fast approaching the 138th anniversary of, arguably, America’s most ignominious military defeat. It was on June 25, 1876, that a bunch of ‘savages’ under Chief Sitting Bull aninhilated the command of the charismatic, vainglorious Colonel George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

‘Custer’s Last Stand’, as it became known in the media, was portrayed as a noble fight in which over 200 men lost their lives fighting a force of approximately 2,000 Indian warriors.

The iconic image of the day was of Custer, his golden locks flowing in the wind, standing shoulder to shoulder with his men as they tried to stem the advancing horde of blood-lusting Indians.

The soldiers were portrayed as brave souls who stood their ground against overwhelming odds. As potent as that image was, it ignored evidence that the battle was a much messier affair, with several  little ‘last stands’ taking place at various points of the battlefield.

Captain Myles Keogh

Captain Myles Keogh

Captain Myles Keogh, the commander of I Company (one of five companies to be wiped out on that day), led one such ‘stand’ in which men actually fought shoulder to shoulder.

Keogh was a Carlow man who had served with distinction in the Papal wars, had been an officer of the Vatican Guard and had then gone on to fight with the Union side in the American Civil War, ending his service as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Keogh’s body was said to have been found at the centre of a group of troopers that included his two company sergeants, his trumpeter and his guidon bearer.

Like his comrades, he had been stripped of his clothing, but not mutilated, perhaps because of the religious medal he wore around his neck.

The spot where Captain Myles Keogh fell on the battlefield

The spot where Captain Myles Keogh fell on the battlefield

Keogh’s horse, Commanche, was later celebrated throughout America as being the only survivor found on the battlefield. He had been badly wounded but would survive the ordeal and live out his final years at Fort Riley, Kansas.

But what has any of this got to do with that little Austrian Corporal Adolf Hitler, I hear you ask. Well, it so happens that Myles Keogh’s grandnephew was one Michael Keogh, a man with just as interesting a military pedigree as his late relation.

Keogh, an ardent republican, had enlisted in the British Army in 1913. He became a POW during the war, joined the Irish Brigade and then later enlisted in the German Army as he felt the Germans could advance the republican cause in Ireland.

He rose to the rank of Field Lieutenant. In his regiment he met a certain Lance Corporal called Adolf Hitler. He actually saw Hitler on a stretcher when he was wounded at Ligny in 1916.

After the war, Keogh joined the Freikorps, an early fascist organisation sworn to smash Communism. He was duty officer at a Munich barracks when he was called to quell a riot that had erupted in a gym.

Michael Keogh

Michael Keogh

When he got there a crowd of some 200 soldiers were busy beating two men to a pulp.  Some of the attackers held bayonets and it seemed to Keogh that the two victims were about to die.

He ordered his men to fire a volley over the heads of the mob. The crowd dispersed and Keogh managed to drag the two victims out of the gym “cut, bleeding and in need of the doctor”.

Keogh recalled: “The fellow with the moustache gave his name as Adolf Hitler. It was the Lance Corporal of Ligny. I would not have recognised him. He was thin and emaciated from his wounds.”

After the war he’d say: “If we’d been a few minutes later or Hitler had got a few more kicks to his old wounds or he’d been shot — what would have happened if we hadn’t intervened and he’d died?”

It’s a fascinating story that would torment Keogh for the rest of his life.

In his memoirs, Keogh also refers to a time when he was undergoing military training in America before World War I while doing service with the National Guard. He tells of how he was on a mounted infantry course at Ft. Riley and that he actually rode Commanche (who was then, according to Keogh, 34 years old).

It was the image of the young Michael Keogh riding the only mount left standing on the bloody field of the Little Bighorn that got me writing this post. The notion of the grandnephew (and Hitler’s saviour) riding his granduncle’s horse was fascinating.

Unfortunately, in my research for this article I encountered one small problem with Michael Keogh’s memoir (With Casement’s Irish Brigade)  – namely that Commanche died aged 29 years in either 1890 or 1891. Michael Keogh was born in 1891.

This incongruity is not to suggest that anything else in Michael’s memoir is suspect. I think what happened was quite prosaic… Michael may have told those at Ft Riley about his illustrious relative. Possibly, somebody there spun a yarn about Commanche being still alive and let Michael ride her for ‘old time’s sake’.

It’s a pity, because it would have tied two strands of history even closer together. Even without the Commanche connection, though, it’s a remarkable thing that two members of the same Carlow family could have been involved with such famous figures during such pivotal moments from history.

History with a twist, indeed…



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The D-Day Dogs

Last week saw the 70th anniversary of D-Day, on June 6, 1944. Newspapers and airwaves were filled with stories from that momentous event and with images of the surviving participants, now stooped with age and weighed down with their medals and their memories.

French President, Francois Hollande hosted world leaders, ranging from the Queen of England and Barack Obama to Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin. There were all there to mark the moment the liberation of Europe finally began, when brave young men raced into a storm of German bullets and gave their lives for freedom.

But there was one section of the invasion force that was overlooked by all those present. Monty may have got a mention, but that was only the General. There was no reference to his namesake or to Bing, or Ranee for that matter.

If you’re finding this a little hard to follow and suspect that I am barking mad, that’s understandable because those names refer to three of our canine friends who leapt into the unknown on D-Day and helped bring Hitler to heel.

In his book, 13 – Lucky for Some: The History Of The 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion, Andrew Woolhouse tells how these ‘paradogs’  become true dogs of war.

'Paradogs' Monty and Bing with handler Cpl Aaron Watson

‘Paradogs’ Monty and Bing with handler Cpl Aaron Watson

Bing was one of them. Trained to sniff out mines, he also learned how to leap from planes thousands of feet high and even to attack sentries.

Lance Corporal Ken Bailey ran the War Dog Training School in Hertfordshire where the dogs were taught how to sniff out TNT and cordite, as well as how to keep low when bullets were bring fired all around them.

They also had to become accustomed to sitting patiently for hours on noisy transport aircraft taking them to their drop zones.

A parachute that had originally been designed to drop bicycles from aircraft was fitted to the dogs. Getting them to jump into the wide blue yonder was not so difficult. They were deprived of food and drink before the jump. Their handler would then lure them from the plane with tasty chunks of meat.

Bailey kept note of the training progress. On April 2, 1944, he wrote:

‘After my chute developed, I turned to face the line of flight; the dog [Ranee] was 30 yards away and slightly above. The chute had opened and was oscillating slightly. Ranee looked somewhat bewildered but showed no sign of fear. I called out and she immediately turned in my direction and wagged her tail vigorously.

‘The dog touched down 80 feet before I landed. She was completely relaxed, making no attempt to anticipate or resist the landing, rolled over once, scrambled to her feet and stood looking round.’

On D-Day, Bing’s jump didn’t go so well. Like many paratroopers, he landed in a tree where, injured by shrapnel from German mortars, he hung for two hours before being rescued.

But Bing and the other dogs were soon doing what they did best, sniffing out mines, and thereby saving lives.

‘They would sniff excitedly over it for a few seconds and then sit down looking back at the handler with a quaint mixture of smugness and expectancy,’ Bailey wrote.

Unfortunately, Monty was severely wounded on D-Day, while Ranee was disappeared soon after landing and was never seen again.

Bing survived the war, and went on to receive the Dicken Medal, Britain’s highest honour for animals. After the war he returned to his original owner, Betty French, and lived a happy life until dying of natural causes in 1955.

Bing’s story is even told in the children’s book, The Amazing Adventures of Bing the Parachuting Dog, written by Gil Boyd, who was himself a former paratrooper.

A life-sized model of the dog can be found in the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces Museum in Duxford… standing proud and wearing his parachute.

D-Day was a remarkable event, in some ways even more so now that we know of Bing, France’s four-legged liberator who leapt into history.

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The Empress of Ireland

The cruise ship cut through the near-freezing water in the dead of night. For the first-, second- and third-class passengers it was an exciting time, ahead of them lay a long voyage across the ocean to a far-flung land.

But it would be a voyage that was to be cruelly cut short, for out of the darkness loomed a solid mass – one which it was impossible to avoid. When the collision occurred it was severe – steel plate juddered and buckled from the impact.

The radio officer managed to send out a message, but things started to happen very fast. The ship began to flood, very, very quickly.

The Empress of Ireland

The Empress of Ireland

In 17 short minutes it was all over and more than a thousand lives were consigned to the deep.

You might be thinking Titanic, but this tragedy occurred two years later, on May 29, 1914 – almost 100 years ago to this day – when The Empress of Ireland sank in Canada’s St Lawrence River.

The ship, which had been bound for Liverpool, collided in thick fog with a Norwegian coal freighter, the Storstad. The two ships had signaled each other, but according to Henry Kendall, captain of The Empress of Ireland, the fog obscured the view.

The next time he saw the Storstad, it was just a ship-length away… too late to avoid catastrophe. The freighter, which had an ice-breaking bow, plunged into the side of the Empress.

The real damage was done, though, when the Storstad backed out,  causing water to rush through the gaping hole.

Captain Henry Kendall

Captain Henry Kendall

Captain Kendall was on the bridge at the time, and quickly ordered the lifeboats to be launched. However, as the Empress of Ireland lurched to her side, he was thrown overboard, and was taken down with her as she sank.

He managed to swim to the surface and clung to a wooden grate until he was hauled aboard a lifeboat. which he immediately used to rescue survivors.

The lifeboat’s crew pulled many people from the water, and deposited them onto the Storstad. Kendall and the crew then spent over an hour scouring for survivors. They only stopped the search when they felt those still in the water would have either drowned or died of hypothermia.

Most of the Empress of Ireland’s passengers were asleep at the time of the sinking, and drowned in their cabins, mainly because their portholes had been left open.

Amongst the 1,021 dead were the English dramatist and novelist Laurence Irving, and the explorer Henry Seton Karr. The statistics make for tragic reading. All but eight of a group of 167 members of the Salvation Army also perished.

Only 465 people survived the tragedy, four of whom were children (the other 134 children were lost). Forty-one women made it ashore out of a list of 310 who were on board.

An interesting aside to the story concerns the ship’s cat, Emmy. She was an orange tabby who never missed a trip. On the day of the Empress of Ireland’s final voyage, Emmy tried repeatedly to leave the ship.

She could not be coaxed aboard and so watched from the roof of a shed at Pier 27 as it sailed away from Quebec City for the last time. Pier 27 would be the place where many of the dead would be deposited in the wake of the tragedy.

Over 1,500 people died on the RMS Titanic. In terms of lives lost, the Empress of Ireland wasn’t far behind. Unlike the Titanic, though, her demise has largely been forgotten outside of Canada.

On the centenary of a terrible tragedy, spare a thought for the Empress of Ireland’s thousand-plus lives now lingering amid the murky depths of an ill-remembered past.




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How ‘Pam’ and a Dead Tramp Helped win the War

Jean Gerard Leigh, who helped fool the Nazis

Jean Gerard Leigh, who helped fool the Nazis

Whoever came up with the line that dead men tell no tells needed their head examined. Dead men – and women – tell us quite a lot, actually, as we know when we look at the fields of pathology and archaeology. But let’s forget those areas for the moment, the dead man I’m interested in is a fellow by the name of Glyndwr Michael.

Michael was a semi-literate drifter – a part-time gardener and labourer – who had a rather sad time of it. He was born in Aberbargoed in Wales in 1909. By the age of 15 his father had committed suicide. When he was 31, his mother died. Ill educated and homeless, Michael moved to London where he died in 1943, apparently after eating stale bread which had been smeared with rat poison.

Life had been hard for Glyndwr Michael but it would be in death that he would achieve true greatness by playing the key role in one of the greatest hoaxes in military history.

At the time of Michael’s demise, Britain was struggling for survival in the war against Nazi Germany. For some time, a plan codenamed ‘Operation Mincemeat’ had been bubbling away at MI-5 – a deception developed to steer the German army away from Sicily, which was the planned point of attack for an Allied invasion of Italy.

Glyndwr Michael's false identity papers

Glyndwr Michael’s false identity papers

An identity was created – ‘Acting Major William Martin’ – with a whole collection of documents, including a receipt for an engagement ring, a letter from the Major’s father, a warning about his overdraft from his bank manager and even love letters and a photo of his fiancee, ‘Pam’.

When Michael died he became Major Martin. His body was dressed in a naval uniform and an attache case containing false invasion plans was handcuffed to his wrist.

The body of Glyndwr Michael being prepared for his mission

The body of Glyndwr Michael being prepared for his mission

Michael/Martin went on his first and last voyage and was then dumped in the sea off the Spanish coast. As hoped, the current washed the body ashore. The hoax worked, and the Germans moved their forces from Sicily to Sardinia, leaving the way clear for the subsequent invasion.

The tramp Glyndwr Michael had fooled the German High Command, but he didn’t do it alone. Commander Ewen Montagu and a certain Nancy Jean Leslie also played their parts to perfection.

Commander Ewen Montagu

Commander Ewen Montagu

Montague was in charge of the operation. It was his job to ensure that Michael made a convincing corpse. Leslie was an 18-year-old clerk at MI-5. It was her photo that was slipped into Martin’s wallet along with ‘love letters’ she and Montagu wrote to each other, signed ‘William’ and ‘Pam’ .

“He was Willie and I was Pam,” Leslie recalled years later. “We went to clubs, films and dinner – always keeping tickets stubs etc.” She also inscribed a photo of herself in her swimsuit with a loving, “Till death us do part. Your loving Pam”.

It was only in 1996 after the true identity of ‘Major William Martin’ was discovered that Leslie (who became Jean Gerard Leigh after her marriage in 1946) came forward and identified herself as ‘Pam’.

The story was made into a movie, The Man Who Never Was, in 1956, but it is only relatively recently that the identities of the key players became known.

Jean Gerard Leigh passed away in 2012 at the age of 88. Her part in one of military history’s greatest hoaxes should be acknowledged, but by far the role played by a dead tramp from Wales in saving the lives of thousands of Allied invasion soldiers, should never be forgotten.

Glyndwr Michael’s body lies in Spain’s Huelva cemetery.


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Free copy of The Golden Grave

THE GOLDEN GRAVEMy thriller, The Golden Grave (, which is set in the old battlefields of post-World War One Flanders, is FREE for the next three days (April 25-27).

It’s a tale of lust, greed and double-dealing (they say write what you know!) which follows Liam Mannion, the character from my previous novel, Tan. The synopsis for The Golden Grave is below, to give you an idea of what it’s about.

I’d love you to download the book (click on the link above), and I hope you enjoy it. If you would, please share this post.




SYNOPSIS: 1920 – Former British soldier turned republican fighter Liam Mannion is on the run with a price on his head. He looks up with old comrade Ernie Wood, who is being lured back to the battlefields on the Western Front in search of lost gold.

The source of the story is Liam’s former lover, Sabine Durer, who ran a soldier’s bar close to the frontline. Blinded by thoughts of her and buried treasure, Ernie and Liam enlist three other ex-soldiers to find it.

What starts out as a simple excavation soon becomes much more. Wartime memories and old rivalries are resurrected.

The men discover that Sabine has not told them the whole story and that their lives are in danger, but who can you rely on when greed and lust cloud your judgment beneath Flanders’ fields?




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