I’m honoured to have author and lawyer, Deb Burrows, join me in the attic today. Deb’s published four historical novels, and all tell the stories of courageous women during WWII.
Deb was born and grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and is the author of four popular novels set in the Second World War. The latest is Ambulance Girls, is the first of a trilogy set in the London Blitz. Deb’s ‘day job’ is in the law, but she has a passion for history (and three history degrees to prove it!). She uses her research and legal skills to make her historical novels accurate, and her imagination to make them entertaining.
Although she loves the clear skies, beautiful beaches and easy-going atmosphere of her hometown, she also adores the dreaming spires of Oxford, UK, where she read medical history. Deborah now sees herself as a proud citizen of both Perth and Oxford and divides her time between the two.
Writing Tales of Courage
I stand in awe of those who accept grave risks in order to help another human being.
Reading about bravery always reduces me to a weepy mess. I stand in awe of those who accept grave risks in order to help another human being, and I am also in awe of those who face danger with stoicism and humour. It’s become fashionable to downplay the idea of the “Blitz spirit”, but I have read many diaries and histories and I have spoken to those who lived through it and it is crystal clear to me that such a spirit did exist in London and the other British towns and cities that faced relentless Nazi bombardment more than seventy years ago.
I lived in Oxford in 2014-16 and I wanted my fourth novel to be set in the London Blitz. My previous novels were set in wartime Perth and Melbourne, but one thing I love about writing is walking in the footsteps of my characters, and with London only a bus ride away, I wanted to be able to walk the streets and really get a feel for the city under siege.
One thing I always do when preparing for a new novel is to trawl though the digitised newspapers on Trove, the National Library of Australia site. The idea for Ambulance Girls came from a 1941 newspaper article headed: “WA Girl is ARP Heroine”. It was about Stella O’Keefe, the first ARP (Australian Air Raid Precautions) worker in Britain to be presented to the Queen for outstanding bravery in the London Blitz. What made Stella’s story especially interesting was that she had been born in a tiny mining town called Kookynie (now a ghost town), around 120 miles from Kalgoorlie, where my mother was born, which in WA terms means that they were practically neighbours.
Stella (described as ‘petite, with a fleck of auburn in her brown hair, and with eyes of the deepest Irish-blue’) was known to her colleagues in the London Auxiliary Ambulance Station where she worked as ‘The Mighty Atom’ because ‘she stops at nothing’. In November 1941 she climbed to the top of a bombed block of flats to rescue a Royal Armoured Corps brigadier, his wife and child.
‘We are all right but slightly hemmed in with masonry.’
It seemed hopeless to attempt a rescue in the blackout. If the family were still alive they were on the ninth floor, and the building’s stairways, corridors, and walls had collapsed. The hazardous climb was made in pitch darkness and from the sixth floor upwards she was forced to crawl. At the top Stella shouted, ‘Is there anyone there?’ and the brigadier (with typical British understatement) answered, ‘We are all right but slightly hemmed in with masonry.’ Actually they were in the only portion of the top storey that remained, and were surrounded by the fallen roof and walls. Stella helped them to descend, assisting them ‘across yawning gaps’ to safety.
Stella was quoted as saying, ‘Other girls at my station have done stickier jobs than this rescue. I am the only driver who so far has not crashed an ambulance into a bomb crater while going to hospital with wounded in the darkened streets. Many times bombs have been so close that I saw the explosion and disintegration of buildings, but the pressure of the job is so intense that there is no time for fear.’
No time for fear! A picture of Lily Brennan, the main character of Ambulance Girls, formed in my mind: a wisp of a girl with a core of steel. An Australian teacher who had been working as a governess in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Nazi invasion, and so knew first hand the evils of Nazism. An ambulance girl who was self-deprecatingly brave and intensely loyal to her friends. A woman who would fight fascism in any way that she could.
I read all I could about the London Blitz. I studied the diaries and memoirs and I talked to people who had lived through those months. I tried to ‘see’ the landscape of London at war, and to picture the bombed and devastated city that Churchill described as being ‘so vast and strong that she is like a prehistoric monster into whose armoured hide showers of arrows can be shot in vain.’ I gained an understanding of the duties of female ambulance drivers and the dangers they experienced during the bombardments. I visited the site of the Bloomsbury Auxiliary Ambulance Station, in the basement of a large block of flats opposite Russell Square. And as I researched the “ambulance girls” of the Blitz, the picture of Lily, and of her life during the Blitz, grew clearer in my mind.
I was determined that this dark side of the Blitz would also form part of Lily’s fight.
Of course not everyone in the Blitz was a hero. Some were not committed to the war, and wanted to treat with Hitler. Sadly, there was virulent anti-Semitism. Some people exploited the bombings for their own gain, and looted shops and houses. None of this was widespread, but I was determined to include the worst as well as the best in my novel. And I was determined that this dark side of the Blitz would also form part of Lily’s fight.
What is Blitz spirit’? It seems to me that it is relying upon your neighbour and knowing that they will be there for you in the worst of times. It is courage and it is endurance and resilience. It is facing the unimaginable and doing so stoically and with good-humour. As another Australian ambulance girl, who drove in London throughout the Blitz, said in 1942: ‘For all the horrors, nothing has been exaggerated about the courage of the people of London, nor of their sense of humour. I look back on it all as a grand experience. In fact, I think I had more laughs in those weeks of the blitz than ever before.’
How can anyone really portray such extraordinary times? As I said, I often cry when I read about courage. Not surprisingly, there were more than a few tears when I was researching and writing Ambulance Girls.
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