Today is the 75th Anniversary of the discovery and liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp a few miles outside of Munich, Germany. Begun in 1933 by Heinrich Himmler, it would terrorize over 200,000 Jews, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Gypsies, Slavs, disabled men, women, and children, political leaders, and more than 3,000 Catholic Priests during its twelve-year existence. More than 40,000 would die from outright murder, starvation, sickness, beatings, or other brutalities. When it was found, the German SS had abandoned the facility and left more than 32,000 sick and starving prisoners behind. The US Seventh Army assumed responsibility for the camp, treating the sick and starving prisoners until they were able to leave.
We should never forget.
I read a book this week about the German submarines (called U-boats, short for Unterseeboot) in the North Atlantic that were disrupting the shipping of food, fuel, and supplies from the United States to Britain. The war between Britain and Germany had begun with the invasion of Poland in September of 1939, but it was with the fall of France in the summer of 1940 that Britain had been forced to rely on transatlantic shipments for all of her oil, most of her raw materials and much of her food and supplies. In total, a 3,000-strong merchant shipping fleet had brought 68 million tons of imports to the country each year, of which 22 million tons was food.
In the fall of 1940, hoping to starve England into submission, German naval high command authorized a total blockade of Britain, giving U-boat commanders the mandate to attack ships without warning or prior approval from superiors. Five years earlier, Germany had signed an agreement barring this kind of unrestricted use of submarines as weapons of war, but that agreement had been quickly forgotten.
The U-boats became very good at achieving their goal, mostly due to one man: Karl Doenitz, the Commander of the U-boat fleet. Doenitz had been a U-boat Captain and believed fervently that defeating the ability of Britain to receive goods from America would win the war for the Third Reich. To that end, he helped develop and mandate attack strategies for U-boat commanders to use against the large convoys that Britain and the Allies deployed for crossing the Atlantic. It was Doenitz who created and implemented the infamous “wolfpacks” that hunted the northern sea.
A Game of Birds and Wolves, written by Simon Parkin, is the story of the development of the German submarine fleet and its strategies, the terrible toll they extracted on Britain, and the development of Allied tactics to counter those strategies. It is a fascinating story about Gilbert Roberts, a retired British naval officer who had tuberculosis, and his team of two dozen or so women (called Wrens, the British naval equivalent of American WACs) who designed, implemented, and taught game-based battle strategies to the ship captains and navy escort commanders responsible for getting convoys back and forth across the North Atlantic.
The ‘game’ that Roberts and his team created is very much like Milton-Bradley’s game Battleship. They used the linoleum floor of a large building in Liverpool to create a basketball-court-sized scale map of the North Atlantic. Using captured intelligence from Germany, assembling radio messages between submarines, and the experiences of actual Allied encounters with the wolfpacks, the strategies used by Doenitz were finally realized. The team then replicated actual submarine attacks, designed counter-strategies, and played out ‘games’ on the floor, using little carved figurines of ships, submarines, and even clumps of steel-wool to represent fog and smoke, all moved by the Wrens according to player instructions and all moved according to a timer that replicated durations of real time. Even the most hardened naval commanders came to appreciate the value of using the game.
The climax of this back-and-forth struggle of strategies culminated in May of 1943. Over sixty U-boats and a hundred surface vessels and aircraft from the United States and Britain clashed for seven days near the coast of Greenland. The wolfpack used its time-honored strategies and the convoy and its escorts used the strategies developed by the gaming team. It was the costliest submarine battle that Germany would fight and the U-boats would never again dominate the North Sea.
In the book’s epilogue, Parkin relates the story of his grandfather being the captain of a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic during the last week of June, 1943, one month after the sea battle. For the first time in three years, he saw no German submarines during the crossing.
If he had been watching during that last week of June, he may have seen the Queen Mary and her convoy passing in the other direction. The luxury liner had been refitted as a troop carrier and was carrying several thousand soldiers on their way to join the war in Europe. My dad was one of them.
I am especially grateful to Gilbert Roberts and his remarkable Wrens for making my dad’s war experiences much more than they might have been.
I want to recommend a fine book for anyone to read, but an especially important book for people who are or who want to be writers.
Mockingbird, by Charles J. Shields, is a portrait of Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
It is an engrossing description of one of America’s most famous authors, including her grandparents, her parents (her father was the model for Atticus; her mother was emotionally unbalanced), her family (two sisters, and a brother who served as the model for Jem), her growing-up environment in Monroeville, Alabama, and her neighbors (including the very young Truman Capote, who became Dill; an elderly woman who became Mrs. DuBose; and a persecuted man in a dysfunctional family three doors down from her house who became Boo Radley), and her later life.
Shields does an excellent job of describing Nelle’s schooling, up to and including an almost finished law degree, and then her years of working jobs in New York City as she spends her free time as a writer. Under the tutelage and grace of a good editor and good friends, she worked full-time on To Kill a Mockingbird for a year, submitted it, was accepted, and while the proof was being created, took a month to serve as a “research assistant” to Truman Capote as he began his five-year stint in writing In Cold Blood. Shields takes the reader on the full journey of her friendship with Capote and its eventual demise.
After Nelle wins the Pulitzer Prize, and after the movie comes out, there are a few years when she accommodates being famous, and then resolves to shun public life. She lives either in Monroeville with her sister (who remained a practicing lawyer into her nineties) or in a modest brownstone in New York City, and even though she completes the manuscript of a second novel, it is stolen and she never finds the desire to start over. To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only book until an earlier book manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, is discovered and printed after her death.
It's fascinating to read about someone who is very gifted and yet so internally ordinary. She never relinquished who she was to fame and stayed faithful to being a small-town Alabama girl.
The most interesting part to me was how she was able to create such a powerful story out of the circle of her young life (which was, more or less, only an area around her house that was not much more than two blocks long and a block wide), and to turn her authentic childhood acquaintances into famous literary characters – Atticus, Scout, Dill, and, of course, Boo Radley. These were real people that she grew up with and she rendered them with few embellishments.
Her work is an example to us all in both writing her book and in boldly living her extraordinary life. I encourage you to find the book and spend some time with it.
Is everybody tired of being at home? I take my hat off to parents who have school-aged children at home. Even though school systems are making huge efforts to accommodate remote education, I can imagine that teenagers are feeling confined both physically and intellectually, and have considerably more time on their hands that they didn’t normally have.
Fortunately, I’m hearing that reading books is making a comeback, and on-line sales of books are booming.
If you have mid-school kids (ages 10 to 14, plus some older ones) who need good books to either read on their own or to be read to, consider the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series. There are currently nine books featuring a fourteen-year-old boy and his seventeen-year-old sister, both of whom live with their parents in Bluff, Utah.
Each mystery book begins with the first chapter being set in the past. Something happens and the reader is left with a mystery. The subsequent chapters are in the present, where my two heroes find themselves in a separate mystery or social crisis that is somehow linked to the mystery in the past. Solving one requires solving the other.
Each mystery takes place in a real, find-it-on-the-map location, all (except one) within a day’s drive of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Each story is relatively true to the geography, the history, and the culture of the location. Each story is also independent; you can read the books in any order. They are all exciting books, and are family-oriented with family values.
The one book that isn’t local to the Santa Fe area is the result of a visit that I made to an elementary school in Houston. The class wanted nothing to do with me because I had no story that featured pirates. Well, New Mexico has a lot of interesting characters, but no pirates. So, to answer their needs, I wrote a story that occurs on the island of St. John in the Caribbean and features Blackbeard. It turned out to be one my more clever mysteries.
You can find descriptions of each book, book reviews, and photos of the locations on my website: DonaldWillerton.com. Each book is available from Amazon.com and can be ordered through my website.
The Ghosts of the San Juan (#1) won First Place in the Southwest Writers 2001 Contest, and a Finalist Award in the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
The Lost Children (#2) won the Juvenile Book category in the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
Outlaw (#6) and The Lady in White (#7) received Finalist Awards in the 2019 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
The Lake of Fire (#5) won Honorable Mention in The 2019 Eric Hoffer Book Award contest.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.