Cambridge author’s uplifting story of feral children escaping the Gestapo’s clutches
In days before lockdown I would join the vast East Anglian commute to London, desperate like everyone else to reach the office on time.
But one day I arrived at Liverpool Street station early, loitering on the concourse... and stumbled on a story I just could not resist.
First I noticed a tiny statue in one corner, then near the street, a larger statue comprising a whole group of figures. All children. Smart kids with suitcases and satchels, dressed in their Sunday best, looking for a new life in England and telling the story of the Kindertransports – the escape of hundreds of youngsters from the clutches of the Nazis in the frantic months leading up to the Second World War.
An uplifting tale of escape and survival which came to an end the day Hitler invaded Poland, slamming shut the frontier gates and closing off the escape line.
So what happened then, I wanted to know. This question gave rise to my latest novel, The Führer’s Orphans.
Back inside Germany the Gestapo round-ups continued, people dragged off to concentration camps. Amazingly, many children avoided capture. Their plight was stark: all alone, their only hope was to hide from the authorities in basements, cellars, lofts, parks, sheds or, if lucky, with some brave householder.
This was the basis of my story – the attempted escape in wartime of a desperate group of feral children. November is the national novel writing month, so those about to launch into fiction might like to ponder this. Many authors go to fantastic lengths to attain fictional realism and research how their characters would feel in a given situation. A famous crime writer even got himself buried alive to authenticate the experience. Fortunately, someone came along and dug him up again.
I have to admit my researches were somewhat less bleak but a pilot did ask me before a trial flight: “Are you feeling brave?”
I decided I needed to create two rescue characters. First, a British commando who could infiltrate the Third Reich by parachuting on a German glacier. A similar feat was accomplished in wartime by some Jewish fighters, so off I went to my chosen glacier. I cheated, of course, taking the train to a tiny station near the Alps, using a cable car to get to the summit of the mountain and hiking along the ridge paths... to get the feel of the scene.
So what’s it like flying a tiny biplane over the mountains at night? A lot of research reading helped me here, but I wanted to imagine what it felt like. No parachutist I – so I made do with a Tiger Moth flight from Duxford in brilliant sunshine, but you get the idea. The tight helmet, goggles and gloves, the wind in your face, the blaring motor, the swaying, dipping, wallowing feeling. I’d be all right at flying, the instructor promised, if I stuck at it.
But how to get my fugitives to safety? With more research I discovered a bizarre engineering project planned down to the finest detail but shelved until after the war. A visit to the German railway museum at Nuremberg put me on the trail of Adolf Hitler’s supertrain scheme, a gigantic scaling up in size, power and speed of normal railways. The display models helped and back home I scanned the engineering plans and studied the pictures. This was my escape vehicle.
Next, location. I already knew Munich from an earlier novel and I trudged around the disused and scrubby bits of the city to describe a wasteland hideout for my children.
Finally to the heroine, the local teacher who sustains the fugitives, how did she dress? Researching wartime fashion for Britain or the US is easy, but there’s a paucity of information for the German scene. Eventually, after much trawling, I discovered a little shop in Cologne able to supply two fascinating women’s fashion magazines from the period.
The end result of all this is a shiny new paperback and ebook, the sum of much endeavour and, I hope, good writing. So I trust this will inspire all those new authors during lockdown.
The Führer’s Orphans is published by Bloodhound Books, £8.99; ebook £1.99.