Setting The Scene In Wessex - The WWII Era
The War Era In Local-Interest Literature

The ‘Wessex’ region played a key role as part of Britain’s home front line during WWII. This was based largely on its geographical location on England’s south-central coast, and partly on the fact Salisbury Plain 30 miles inland was the British Army’s main training area. Nearly a century before WWII, Alfred Lord Tennyson (who lived on west Wight) set a precedent in war writing with his contemporary poem ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’, which – almost unthinkably for the era – questioned ‘the reason why.’ Here, for the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII, we look at how local-interest novels covered this conflict, from its roots in the political extremism of the 1930s on into the postwar period, when most of the actual writing was done, attempting to put the war just past into historical perspective.
Note: Screen adaptations of novels are mentioned here for comparison and completeness, but because of the larger-than-usual amount of material, local-interest WWII-set film and tv dramas have a separate, companion web-page,'Wessex At War - On Screen,' here.

In the 1930s, the rise to power of extremist political factions in Italy and Germany, their military buildup and their intervention in Spain’s Civil War prompted a few novelists to pen anti-fascist ‘warning’ thrillers. One was Geoffrey Household (1900-88), with his classic Rogue Male, “the publishing sensation of 1939.”

Before he became a wartime Intelligence officer, the Bristol-born author lived for a time in Dorset, and here uses a real West Dorset landscape for his “warning” thriller. The narrator, after failing to assassinate Hitler (who is not named as such) in order to avert war, must go into hiding. He goes to ground in west Dorset, as it is “a remote country, lying as it does between Hampshire, which is becoming an outer suburb, and Devon, which is a playground.” But he finds even in the very heart of rural England, “the green depths of Dorset,” on the very land once owned by Sir Francis Walsingham, founder of England’s first Secret Service, English Nazi sympathizers are everywhere, and soon on his trail. Yet he cannot turn to the authorities, for the Fascists have friends in high places, and wish to implicate the British government in political assassination.

Household’s ‘eve of war’ thriller was an extension of the interwar Clubland hero thriller novel of the Bulldog Drummond type. His scenario being so soon overtaken by events – declaration of war in September 1939 - only seems to have made the novel more topical, as the dangers of German fascism suddenly became manifest. Until then, the often-louche-but-deeply-patriotic typical Clubland hero had usually been sympathetic to Fascists than their deadly enemy the Communists. In the new anti-Fascist subgenre of spy thriller, the hero must exhibit his British bulldog breed qualities by undergoing beatings from omnipresent fascist henchmen before meting out his own rough justice. Household’s Rogue Male paralleled what John Buchan had done in 1915 with his WWI-era The 39 Steps. Here, West Dorset - with real geography (Cattistock, Lyme Regis Undercliff etc.) - takes the place of the Highlands as the arena for a relentless manhunt, with English Fascist agents operating almost openly in both town and country. The 1939 bestseller was retitled Man Hunt in the US when filmed under this title by Fritz Lang in Hollywood in 1941, and in 1976 a BBC telefeature version with Peter O’Toole, scripted by Frederic Raphael, was filmed in the Dorset locales where much of the story takes place.

As Nazi Germany began to take over parts of Europe, boys adventure comics and stories had British Secret Service heroes fighting the fascist Fifth Column, as with ‘Biggles’ author Captain W.E. Johns’s April 1940 story in a tuppenny magazine called The Thriller, “Nazis In The New Forest.” This story features one of Johns's other heroes, Steeley, though the author recyled the same story in 1942 with different lead characters, as "Sinister Service."

The then-popular schoolboy-adventure stories field sometimes made the leap from gangs of boys playing war games to a more real-world framework, tackling “spivs” and other war profiteers and the like. The Otterbury Incident, written just after the war, and published by Heinemann Educational in hardback in 1948 and in Puffin paperback since 1961, is an example of this development of more long-lasting interest than the usual outing. This was because its author was the future Poet Laureate C. Day Lewis (1904-72) CBE, then better known as detective thriller writer "Nicholas Blake." (He gave his son Daniel – the actor Daniel Day-Lewis - the middle name Blake.) Due to his Communist Party membership and general leftist sympathies, the Irish-born Day-Lewis was under surveillance by MI5 from 1933 on, but led a respectable enough existence as a schoolmaster, soon joining the war effort by becoming a publications editor in the Ministry of Information,

Day-Lewis had been to school at Sherborne during the First World War, and returned there as a schoolmaster, marrying the daughter of a Sherborne master, and drew on his time in Sherborne for inspiration in his children’s novel. (Wikipedia says the novel is an adaptation of the 1941 French film Nous les gosses, but their writeup seems wrong in other details, having it set in post-WWII London. The story, told in enthusiastic style by one of the schoolboys, is set in WWII in the fictional town of “Otterbury,” which like Sherborne, has an Abbey and a boarding school, King’s School. The story’s good-hearted would-be vigilante gang of juniors begin by innocently mimicking adult activities, playing scouts and commandos, but soon come up against real crooks, ‘spivs’ armed with razors.

Nearly every soldier in the British Army trained in the region, as Salisbury Plain was its main training ground. The nearby ranges of hills in Wiltshire and Dorset, or the "Wessex Downs" as novelist Alexander Baron refers to them in his war novels, were also used. Baron’s first novel From The City, From The Plough tells the story of a Battalion of the ‘Wessex Regiment’ (based on the 43rd Wessex Division) from their training through D-Day and beyond. Both a critical success and a bestseller in 1948, it was described as the ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ of WWII. The title is from a ditty about how the Army takes men from both the city and the country and puts them in identical uniform. To emphasize this anonymisation process, the setting is left vague, representing a country where the road signs are covered up, and military bases cannot be identified. Here, the camp is on the hills overlooking a foggy Channel somewhere near 'a seaport town,' and the only real place-name is one used for comic effect - the Isle of Wight, where the men have an unexpected stopover on the eve of D-Day.

Alexander Baron (1917-99) himself was from the city side. Born Alec Bernstein, he was raised in London’s then largely Jewish East End, where he organised a pro-communist Labour Youth League which battled with Fascist blackshirt gangs. Baron used his own early political disillusion as well as his own bloody front-line war experience in Italy, Normandy, Northern France and Belgium for his WWII trilogy. (The 3rd book, The Human Kind, became the basis for blacklisted Hollywood writer-producer Carl Foreman’s 1963 antiwar film The Victors, the British characters being changed into GIs).

Baron was a natural dramatist and, as well as writing screenplays, became the BBC’s chief adapter (pre Andrew Davies) of literary classics for TV. His Guardian obituary described him as “the greatest British novelist of the last war and among the finest, most underrated, of the postwar period,” whose novels "caught the essential decency of mankind," yet reflect "a monumental suspicion of those touting big ideas," and from a literary viewpoint, "offer proof that there need be no contradiction between the serious and the popular." Baron's Guardian obit said of From The City, From The Plough, “Written from the point of view of the squaddie, it is both a portrait of the British class system disintegrating, and an at times almost unbearably moving and visceral account of a group of soldiers who have landed in a situation in which heroism is the only available option.” Time Magazine’s review characterised it as the story of the birth, and then the destruction, within six months, of an infantry battalion, commenting that "it conveys, unabated, a sense of quiet reality more remarkable than any American World War II writer has yet achieved."

Millions of men were undergoing the “call-up” experience, either as enlisted men or as wartime-commission officers. The latter experience seems to have prompted a more self-consciously satiric approach. One writer who was first an enlisted man and then commissioned an officer was Patrick Ryan (1916-), author of the 1963 anti-war satire pseudo-memoir How I Won The War. Ryan was born on the Isle of Wight, worked as a journalist and became a regular Punch contributor. In WWII he served in the infantry and the Armoured Corps, in the Mediterranean theatre. His 1963 How I Won The War satirizes both military eccentricities and the absurdities of warfare, and has a Dorset training-camp sequence [Chs 5-6] not in the surreal 1967 Richard Lester film version starring John Lennon. (“Through the dark days of 1940, we stood with our backs to the wall, manning the beaches and ever ready to hurl the Hun back from the green hills of Dorset.”)

To replace the millions of young men who left essential farm work to enlist, the Women's Land Army was formed to maintain the national food supply in the face of the German U-boat blockade. Land Girls, a 1994 novel about the Land Army by former BBC presenter Angela Huth (1938-), is set on a Dorset farm near the fictitious village of 'Hinton Half Moon'. The novel is nearly 400pp long, covering 1941 to the present time [i.e. c1994], after 50 years of annual reunion lunches. (The 1998 film adaptation simplifies this set-up considerably.) It uses the setup of 3 women from different social backgrounds working together on the one small farm, and follows them through the war, including their luckless involvements with various men. The wartime story begins as the 3 young women arrive at “Hallow’s Farm” in Hardy Country (Ag, the educated one, is reading a novel by him). Though Huth admitted it was not based on personal experience or in-depth research, she later received letters from women who said the novel dramatised their experience of a form of war service which previously had not received much recognition.

From 1940 on, refugees from Occupied Europe began to arrive at Channel ports. One who became a local resident and based a realistic novel on his wartime experience was the playwright and novelist Jan de Hartog (1914-2002). A ship's officer and author of detective novels, he had to go into hiding after writing a patriotic eve-of-war bestseller. In 1943, he escaped from Occupied Holland and served on Merchant Navy tugboats rescuing torpedoed Channel-convoy ships or their crews. After the war he lived on Wight, when in 1946 he married the daughter of writer J.B Priestley, who had a house there, before moving to the US and becoming a Quaker. In 1950, he wrote The Distant Shore, a 2-volume novel from his war and postwar maritime experiences. Book I, Stella, was set in "Westport" somewhere on the southwest coast. This was portrayed by Weymouth in Carol Reed's 1958 film version starring William Holden, which saw paperback editions retitled The Key. The plot has the hero, a tug skipper, ritually given the spare key by his soon-dead old pal, to his girl Stella's flat. (Scripted by ‘spy’ novelist Eric Ambler, this - presumably for international box-office reasons - turned the shy English girl Stella into a buxom Italian refugee, played by Sophia Loren.) The novel draws on his time serving on the unarmed tugs sent after the “lame ducks” in the Channel convoys trying to run the German blockade in “U-boat Alley.” This was an experience de Hartog characterized as a study in the nature of fear, and his novel is an exploration of the things men cling to psychologically in war.

As Britain continued to fight a defensive war, one asset it put to good use was its back room ‘boffins’, as wartime inventors came to be known (supposedly after a character in Dickens or Tolkien novels). This was the subject of Nigel Balchin's wartime best-seller The Small Back Room, an influential novel in its realistic depiction of behind-the-scenes Whitehall politicking among rival agencies, and its use of a device called the unreliable narrator, where the first-person narrator is anything but omniscient (this influenced authors like Len Deighton). Future Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman called Balchin "one of our dozen readable writers of genius."

It has to be said there is no specifically local setting, with the main setting in London and the famous bomb-defusing finale in fictional “Luganporth.” However, this has been identified as along the Dorset coast since the famous 1948 film version was partly shot here (at Stonehenge and in West Dorset), to the extent of using the film scene shot on Chesil Beach on the paperback reprint cover [pictured]. As a Brigadier in the War Office’s Psychological Warfare Department, the author would have known of the MOD-backed scientific teams who developed special weapons Lord Beaverbrook nicknamed "the back room boys." The narrator of Balchin's “psychological” novel is a bad-tempered research scientist (he has a tin foot which hurts) who becomes involved in helping tackle a new type of German anti-personnel bomb. This becomes his way of getting directly involved again with the war effort, escaping the endless internecine politics of his worplace, and his own private battle with the whisky bottle, and in general recovering his own confidence and self-respect.

A real “boffin,” the aviation designer Neville Shute (Neville Shute Norway, 1899-1960) turned novelist is best-known for his On The Beach. Earlier, he drew on his 1940s experience with establishments at Christchurch and in the New Forest in Requiem For A Wren (1955, US title The Breaking Wave). The novel is set in Australia, but has a central flashback set in the Lymington-Beaulieu area around the Navy's shore station at Exbury House. Inspired by a still-unsolved aviation mystery, it is really the sad tale of one of the many who lost their way in wartime.

Another author who used his mixed WWII experience was Evelyn Waugh (1903-66). As a boy, his name had been put down to attend Sherborne School, like his older brother, Alec (1898-1981). But the school objected, as a novel Alec (then an officer in the trenches of WWI) had written, The Loom Of Youth, became a scandal. (It dealt with those close schoolboy friendships that flourished at boarding schools.) Waugh did come to Dorset as an adult, from the late 20s onward, for personal reasons (his aristocratic wife-to-be then being based here), writing his first novel, Decline And Fall, while staying at an inn outside Wimborne. During WWII, Captain Waugh returned, during D-Day preparations, when his Commando unit was based at a Dorset stately home near Sherborne, one of a number of such billeting requisitions. Waugh was fascinated by the aristocracy and their slow decline, and the sight of these requisitioned manor houses was no doubt a source of inspiration for his best-known work, which he was writing at the time. Brideshead Revisited (1944, revised 1959), whose title echoes that of Bridehead Manor in west Dorset, uses a contemporary WWII time-frame at a now-requisitioned stately home in west Wiltshire to set up the central ‘flashback’ to the now-lost days of the narrator's youth between the wars.

The preparatary exercises for D-Day took place largely on the south coast, and involved at least one disaster, when during 'Operation Tiger' in Lyme Bay in April 1944, German E-boats got in among unprotected landing craft practising to land on Utah beach, and nearly a thousand died. This provides the plot hook for an example of the relatively modern "war thriller" genre, where the action focuses on some secret, special mission that will "change the course of the war." This is the 1978 Fox From His Lair: A Novel Of D-Day by John Harris (1916–91). A set of D-Day invasion plans is found on the body of a drowned US Officer by a German spy known as The Fox, and the scene shifts from Lyme Bay eastward, and then to Normandy on D-Day itself. Fortune Of The Creeds (1980) by a local author, ex-officer David Petri (1924-), opens in 1944 Normandy with a young officer needing some mental diversion reciting to the regiment’s new padre the saga of his how his family came to own a magnificent estate in Dorset.

WWII, like WWI twenty years before, is also a favourite setting of the “landed family saga” novel, offering a “war and peace” before-and-after contrast as war inevitably sees the old traditions die off. And In The Morning (1986) by Bournemouth-resident historical novelist "Elizabeth Darrell" (Edna Dawes, 19??-) is set 1939-44 partly in the Mediterranean "theatre" and partly in mid-Dorset, in the Tarrant Valley area. It covers the wartime vicissitudes of the Sheridan family, who are involved with the development of aviation. (The other novels in the Sheridan family series also take their title from the same war-remembrance verse: At The Going Down Of The Sun (1984), set prewar, and We Will Remember (1995), set postwar.) Bournemouth resident Nora Fountain's 1998 romance novel Love Thine Enemy, about a German and an Englishwoman separated by WWII, has scenes set in Dorset, at 'Durley Manor', the heroine's family home, and Bournemouth.

Rosemary Ellerbeck (193?-), who writes under various pen names, lived at Sturminster Newton and Chideock in southwest Dorset in the 1990s and as "Nicola Thorne," wrote a 6-novel romantic historical saga which includes the WWII period on the home front. Her 'People Of This Parish' series is set in a mid-Dorset village, between the 1880s and 1950s, ending with In Time Of War (2000). (“The titled Woodville family intermarry with the yeoman Yetman family, and set off a train of events that weave in and out in a rich tapestry during the course of two world wars and a complete change in society.”) Despite a serious car accident, she has since begun another such series, The 'Broken Bough' Saga, set in 1920s-50s Dorset.

The war often appears in these Dorset-set country-life novels only indirectly, as background events which are yet one more factor hastening the disappearance of traditional country ways. John Eastwood, of Burton Bradstock in southwest Dorset, chronicled this in a series of novelised memoirs of village life as it was in his youth, in the 1940s. The author, who wrote local history books as well as a historical novel, The Dorset Highlander, reflects this theme in the title of one of his novelisations, Farewell To Old Dorset (1984), described as “a gentle elegy on the passing of the old rural civilisation.”

For a comparison nonfiction account of the home front during the war, one could turn to A Pacifist's War (1978), the wartime journal of Frances Partridge (1900-2004). With her husband Ralph (who had fought in WWI), she had left the London Bloomsbury literary scene to set up house in north Wiltshire. There she and Ralph lived and wrote. She also entertained other survivors of the Bloomsbury set, the war impacting on all of them, and helped care for evacuee children. The diary is a useful counterbalance to the nostalgically rose-tinted accounts of the war that have appeared. It recounts the locals denouncing them as spies, harassment by the police, petty bullying officials everywhere, threats of internment for being Conscientious Objectors, and their own contemplation of suicide if the Nazis invade. (This was a factor in Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941). In the end, Frances would outlast them all, living to be over 100, and her diaries live on in paperback, an insight into what it was like living through this difficult time, after which the world would never be the same again.

Rogue Male

 

The Otterbury Incident

Land Girls

 

Stella and The Key
Below: the 1958 film adaptation called The Key. The English Stella became an Italian refugee and the Dutch tug captain an American.

The Small Back Room

 

Requiem For A Wren

 

Brideshead Revisited (1944) by Evelyn Waugh is the classic wartime-flashback-to-peacetime-days novel. Though the tv version pictured here used a Yorkshire stately home, the novel places it in Wiltshire.

And In The Morning

 

Frances Partridge A Pacifist's War

 

 

 

 

 

The Wiltshire Downs on the edge of the army's main training ground of Salisbury Plain. During the war, official "what we are fighting for" propaganda employed pastoral images, showing English Downland in light and shade, evoking the "blue remembered hills" of earlier more peaceful days - with the shadow of war now passing over them, with the promise of "bright sunlit uplands" in prospect.

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