If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years as a writer, it’s that you never know where your next story will come from. In May 2018, the day after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, I attended the opening of an art show in London. The central painting was a portrait of WW2 veteran, RAF Squadron Leader George “Johnny” Johnson MBE DFM, one of the famous “Dambusters”. Johnny himself was there to see his portrait unveiled. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to chat to him and he whispered something so cheeky that it made me laugh out loud. It also made me see him, then a 97-year-old, as the young man he must have been. In that moment, the idea for my dual timeline novel THE EXCITEMENTS was born as I realized what fun it could be to explore how a character might evolve over the whole of a very long life.
At around the same time, I was commissioned to write the memoirs of female WW2 veterans Patricia and Jean Owtram, two sisters who served in the Women’s Royal Navy and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry respectively. Working with the sisters during the early months of 2020, right before the pandemic, was a wonderful experience. Though they were both well into their nineties, they had much better social lives than I did and, joining them on some of their adventures between interviews, I was given an important lesson that ageing doesn’t have to mean fading away. We dismiss the experience of the most senior members of society at our peril. After all, as Pat once told me, thanks to her WW2 training, she still knows how to use a Sten gun.
As I worked with Pat and Jean, The Excitements continued to take shape in my imagination. They’d both had such exciting lives. What if they weren’t telling me everything about their wartime work…
I used to joke with Jean in particular that she’d really been a spy. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, with whom she worked, was closely linked to the WW2 intelligence ministry, the Special Operations Executive, known as ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’. The SOE trained agents who were embedded with resistance fighters in occupied Europe to help them sabotage German military operations. Among those agents were a small number of extraordinary women. While researching The Excitements, I read extensively about their work.
Polish-born Countess Krystyna Skarbek was Britain’s first and longest-serving WW2 female special agent. Also known as Christine Granville, she became Winston Churchill’s favorite spy. In occupied Eastern Europe, she smuggled intelligence across borders on skis and saved the lives of several of her fellow agents. She also served in Egypt and is famous for her heroism alongside the maquis in France.
Granville’s bravery was legendary and at the end of the war she was awarded the George Medal, the OBE and the French Croix de Guerre. But her extraordinary life came to an abrupt and unhappy end when, in 1952, she was murdered by an obsessive former colleague. Clare Mulley’s excellent biography, The Spy Who Loved: the secrets and lives of one of Britain's bravest wartime heroines, brings Granville back to life in a way that truly honors her bravery.
In all, the SOE sent thirty-nine women into France over the course of the war. Some of them, such as Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom and Noor Inayat Khan, have been widely celebrated, but in Mission France: the true story of the women of SOE, historian Kate Vigurs gives voice and equal weight to every one of the female F Section agents. Mission France is a wonderful book, which highlights how different the women were (they ranged in age from 20 to 53 and came from every socio-economic background), the risks they took and the importance of their missions. Mission France is a fine tribute to all the women but particularly to those who paid the ultimate price for freedom – their lives.
To begin with, the female agents were trained separately, but as the war went on, they were sometimes sent to commando schools alongside male SOE candidates. I read Kaggie Carew’s Dadland to get a sense of what that commando training might have involved. Dadland is a family memoir / military history, which follows the story of her father, Tom Carew, who served with the Jedburghs, an elite special operations unit, formed in a WW2 collaboration between the British and American Secret Services.
Carew didn’t know much about her father’s WW2 service until she joined him at a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Jedburghs’ formation. When her father was diagnosed with dementia, she decided to explore his story, and in doing so has written a spell-binding and poignant book that stayed with me long after I turned the final page.
I feel very fortunate to have met the late Johnny Johnson, and to have become friends with Patricia Owtram and her late sister Jean. As we approach the 80th anniversaries of VE and VJ Day, the number of WW2 veterans grows ever smaller but theirs are true stories of bravery and heroism that will always have the power to entrance and inspire.
A brilliant and witty drama about two brave female World War II veterans who survived the unthinkable without ever losing their killer instinct…or their joie de vivre.
Meet the Williamson sisters, Britain’s most treasured World War II veterans. Now in their late nineties, Josephine and Penny are in huge demand, popping up at commemorative events and history festivals all over the country. Despite their age, they’re still in great form—perfectly put together, sprightly and sparky, and always in search of their next “excitement.”
This time it’s a trip to Paris to receive the Légion d’honneur for their part in the liberation of France. And as always, they will be accompanied by their devoted great-nephew, Archie.
Keen historian Archie has always been given to understand that his great aunts had relatively minor roles in the Women’s Royal Navy and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, but that’s only half the story. Both sisters are hiding far more than the usual “official secrets”. There’s a reason sweet Auntie Penny can dispatch a would-be mugger with an umbrella.
This trip to Paris is not what it seems either. Scandal and crime have always quietly trailed the Williamson sisters, even in the decades after the war. Now armed with new information about an old adversary, these much decorated (but admittedly ancient) veterans variously intend to settle scores, avenge lost friends, and pull off one last, daring heist before the curtain finally comes down on their illustrious careers.
Mystery Historical | Historical [William Morrow Paperbacks, On Sale: January 30, 2024, Paperback / e-Book, ISBN: 9780063337480 / eISBN: 9780063337473]
CJ Wray is the pseudonym of Christine Manby, a Sunday Times bestselling author with more than forty books to her name. Raised in the west of England, she studied psychology before embarking on an entertaining and wide-ranging career that has seen her selling kitchens, editing erotica, interviewing an armed robber, and impersonating a princess.
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