Extracted from The King’s War, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, an incredible insight into the monarchy during the darkest days of WWII. The King’s War draws on diaries, letters and other documents left by George VI’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, and his wife, Myrtle. It provides a fascinating portrait of two men and their respective families – the Windsors and the Logues – as they together faced up to the greatest challenge in Britain’s history.

The first full year of the war began with a big chill: the newspapers proclaimed it the coldest since the Battle of Waterloo. The Thames was frozen for eight miles between Teddington and Sunbury, and ice covered stretches of the Mersey, Humber, Severn, the Lakes and all the Scottish lochs. Hundreds of barges were unable to move on the Grand Union Canal. Temperatures in central London were below zero for a week and there was skating on the Serpentine on  six inches of ice. Trains were trapped in snow drifts, water pipes froze, boilers exploded and birds were said to have fallen from the sky into the Channel. The average temperature in January was minus 1.4° C.

Despite the war and the worsening weather, the Logues had enjoyed a remarkably normal Christmas break – even though, as had become a habit, Lionel spent the day itself with the King. Guests began arriving at Beechgrove on the twenty-third, which was a Saturday. Together with the Logues, there would be ten of them for Christmas. The visitors would be staying in the house because the fog made travelling almost impossible, even within London. Myrtle viewed the challenge ahead with some trepidation: it would be the first time since they had left Australia that she had to look after so many people without any staff to help. In the run-up to Christmas she had also been struck down by a bout of bronchitis – although at least this afforded her time to finish knitting a pullover for Valentine.

On Christmas Day itself, they had a ‘jolly cold luncheon’. ‘Champagne cocktails at 6.30 p.m.; the presents given, goodness knows when we shall be able to afford champagne again,’ noted Myrtle. As the guests washed up after dinner, they listened to Gracie Fields on the radio singing to the troops. ‘Didn’t have our usual dance as nobody felt inclined for it.’

By 27 December the guests had all departed, and life settled down into the usual lull between Christmas and New Year, though it was enlivened by the arrival home of Valentine, who had been given a ten-day break from the hospital after having worked all through Christmas. It began to snow; Beechgrove, to Myrtle’s eyes, ‘looked divine’, even though Valentine and Antony, who was back from Leeds for the holidays, were disappointed that not enough of it had settled to make it worth getting out their toboggan. On New Year’s Eve, they all set off for a party hosted in Wimbledon by their Australian friends, Gilbert and Mabel Goodman, which meant a ten-mile drive through blacked-out London. ‘The fog came up and we had the most terrifying experience getting there in Valentine’s little open sports car,’ Myrtle wrote in her diary. ‘Dozens of people telephoned cancelling, we had another party in town to go to, left early and went to the Lyceum club and saw the New Year in, then started for home, which took 1½ hours instead of 30 minutes.  Pedestrians led us with torches, their hands on the top of the car. I really must not try an experience like this again.’

And then it was all over. That Sunday, Antony left early to go back to Leeds to look for new digs; Valentine stayed until after lunch. ‘It is lonely without them,’ wrote Myrtle after they had both gone. ‘Back again to the old routine. Frost again, and snow nearby, the whole of Europe suffering likewise.’

In the days that followed, Myrtle chronicled the worsening arctic conditions engulfing London:

9 January: ‘Freezing today, so I’m not allowed out, so have decided to repair bed linen, have not had to do this myself many years.’

10 January: ‘Fall of snow, which had hardened on top of frost and making roads very dangerous, so decide to clear out the drawers of discarded toys belonging to the boys . . . This cold is certainly keeping the Huns quiet.’

18 January: ‘This icebound land is becoming boring, our place is a sheet of snow, with only the marks of the birds across the smooth surface.’

Keeping a large house such as Beechgrove liveable in such temperatures was a near impossible task. At the beginning of the winter, to save money, Lionel and Myrtle had decided to heat only the few rooms they were using and to turn off all the radiators in the top part of the house. On 19 January, as the temperature plunged, three of the radiators burst. Myrtle spent two hours fighting an ever increasing cascade of water using a spanner as a lever until she managed to shut off the stop cock. ‘Oh boy, do we have fun,’ she wrote. The next day, according to Met Office records, after an early low of close to minus 9° C, the temperature crept up only as high as minus 2.4° C.

The King’s War is out now!

How Allied high command turned their backs on Italian partisans and SOE.

When endeavouring to tell a story that concerns behind the lines raids, partisan armies and epic journeys deep into enemy territory, one invariably bumps up against the shadowy world of intelligence. Any “special operation” will have some ties to this secretive, murky arena of warfare. The mystery men with their hidden agendas pop into the light fleetingly, to give soldiers their targets and orders, only to slide back into the shadows.

My latest book SAS Italian Job is no different; it tells the story of two maverick Special Forces commanders and their private army of veteran raiders combined with unruly partisans, as they attempt one of the most daring raids of the Second World War. Their audacious plan was to attack the German 14th Army headquarters, so creating chaos just before the big push by the Allies into Northern Italy and on to Germany. It was a mission that would be fraught with action, adventure tragedy and betrayal.

Whilst they were trying to fight the war as they believed it needed to be fought, they found they were increasingly butting heads with someone else’s hidden agenda. In early 1945, legendary commander Major Roy Farran of the Special Air Service (SAS) and Captain Mike ‘Wild Man’ Lees of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) hadn’t yet realised they would be stepping on the toes of British Intelligence and clashing with their own Government, even as the war in Europe neared a close.

Up until late 1944 the western allies had a “come one, come all” policy concerning support to any resistance groups keen to fight the Nazi’s. It didn’t matter what side of the political spectrum they hailed from, left or right. Churchill was adamant: arms and support were to be provided to such resistance forces, to aid in the Allied cause. Agents of the SOE – Churchill’s shadowy Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare – or its American counterpart, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), were embedded with these groups, training them in weapons and explosives use, ambush, sabotage and assassination – in fact anything they could contrive to turn a group of civilians into an underground army.

This doctrine was exactly what Farran and Lees believed they were following when they armed and trained the Italian partisans, preparing to point their newly-hewn spear directly at the heart of German command and control. Their idea was simplicity itself: cut off the ability of the enemy to command or control 100,000 troops, by blowing up its headquarters, and killing as many high ranking German officers as possible.

But unbeknown to these two adventurers, the doctrine had been changed. Not officially, but as more of a secret discussion amongst shadowy intelligence services, leading to a sudden truncation of supplies, transport or weaponry for the partisans in Italy. Positive press coverage for Italy’s – largely communist – partisans was quietly suppressed. One Canadian reporter, Paul Morton, was shocked that the stories he had risked his life to capture behind enemy lines when living with the Italian partisans were suddenly killed, never to see publication. When he tried to take matters into his own hands, he found himself blacklisted and cast as a liar, destroying his career and reputation. What circumstances had changed the attitude of the British Government from one of enthusiastic support to one of outright enmity?

British Intelligence had spent most of its history tracking and combating two major groups. During the First and Second World Wars its main target was Germany. However before, and during the inter war period they had reverted to their main target, Communism, and stopping its spread. With the end of WWII in sight, MI5, MI6, and the British Government – who had never stopped spying on the Soviets – were dialling back the anti-German rhetoric and action, in favour of taking a keener interest in their old enemy, the Soviets. The strained relationship that had lasted since mid-1941 was one of necessity, based upon the age-old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It came to a close in the rush to shore up Western Europe against communism, at war’s end.

Trust in the alliance had been steadily chipped away at through the war. One watershed moment was the discovery of the bodies of thousands of Polish officers in the forest of Katyn, in Russia, in 1943. When Russia had invaded the eastern half of Poland during 1940, they had rounded up anyone they thought constituted a problem – military officers, priests, and university lecturers, who were executed and buried. Knowing full well that these executions had been carried out by Stalin’s NKVD (Secret Police), the Nazis used this to try and drive a wedge between the Western Allies and Stalin. The Polish Government in exile pushed Churchill to denounce the murders, but Churchill knew that he needed Stalin’s forces fighting on the Eastern Front, and so dodged the issue.

However, behind closed doors these murders and Stalin’s lies concerning the fate of thousands of Polish soldiers were known to British Intelligence. The Soviets had executed all those who would have made up any opposition to Soviet control, in a Poland under their occupation. What was to stop them doing the same again in countries they had “liberated”, Allied intelligence reasoned? Hence the fears for Italy post-war. The country had the largest contingent of known communists outside of the Soviet Union, and it was a neighbour to the increasingly Soviet controlled Yugoslavia. Though it wouldn’t be liberated by the Soviets, Italy might fall into its sphere of influence, should its post-war government turn out to be avowedly left wing and communist dominated.

The Western Allies had seen civil war erupt in Greece between right and left wing partisans, as soon as the Germans had pulled out. The power vacuum created and the support and training the Allies had given the Greek partisans fuelled the civil war. The Allies wanted to ensure they would avoid a similar situation in Italy.

In late 1944, the British Government instructed its intelligence services to quietly cut support for any partisans they felt would be a problem at war’s end. Requests for any large amounts of explosives or heavy weapons were to be denied. This was intended to cut the amount of arms in the hands of the Italian communists, though it might also risk them not being able to defend themselves against the Nazi occupiers. Many might be killed, including the SOE officers – known as ‘British Liaison Officers’ (BLOs) on the ground – embedded with the partisans. The death of Major Temple, leader of SOE’s Operation Flap, is due to such a covert change in policy. He had been calling for a resupply of arms, to fend off a major enemy attack, but all to no avail.  His exploits with the Italian partisans and the failure to re-supply them with weaponry would ultimately play a central role in his tragic death.

Via various Freedom of information requests I managed to get some still-sealed British Government files opened, and discovered that the British were willing to get into bed with some decidely nefarious characters towards war’s end, ones they felt would be useful in their plans for post-war Italy. One such file, closed until 2050 until I had it opened, spoke of a “proposal put to the Chief of Staff, to make contact with the Italian nobleman Prince Borghese, with the intention of encouraging anti-scorch measures and assisting in the maintenance of law and order”. Don Junio Valerio Borghese – nicknamed ‘The Black Prince’ – hailed from a titled Italian family with close ties to the Vatican. He’d served as a Naval Commander under Mussolini and was a hard-line Fascist. Upon the Italian surrender to the Allies in September 1943, Borghese had signed a treaty with the Kriegsmarine – Nazi Germany’s navy – raising an 18,000-strong force that would remain loyal to Hitler until the bitter end.

The proposed approach to Prince Borghese was to be made in March 1945, whilst we were still at war with the Nazis, and whilst Roy Farran and Mike Lees were in the field fighting that war at the sharp end. British Intelligence was now playing a double game. By contacting Italy’s foremost allies of Nazi Germany, it was betraying its long standing relationship with Italy’s partisans. This is but one example: there were many more.

As matters transpired the communist wing of the Italian partisans quietly handed its weapons in at the end of the war, seeking to gain power – if at all – via democratic means. Roy Farran and Mike Lees would successfully navigate this double game, to pull of one of the most audacious raids in the history of WWII, but they would not come away unscathed. Farran was inadvertently protected by the Americans, when he was awarded a high-valour medal for the 14 Army HQ raid. But Lees would see his career in SOE disavowed, and his future in the military and even his reputation destroyed.

You can read more about the thrilling raid and the ultimate betrayal of Major Temple, Paul Morton, and Mike Lees in my new book SAS Italian Job.

When James Pope-Hennessy began his work on Queen Mary’s official biography in 1956, it opened the door to meetings with royalty, court members and retainers around Europe. The series of candid observations, secrets and indiscretions contained in his notes were to be kept private for 50 years. Now published in full for the first time and edited by the highly admired royal biographer Hugo Vickers, The Quest for Queen Mary is a riveting, often hilarious portrait of the eccentric aristocracy of a bygone age.

In this extract, Pope-Hennessy makes his first visit to Sandringham, the royal residence in Norfolk where the Family traditionally celebrate Christmas every year, and notes his first (not necessarily favourable) impression of the ‘Big House’, as well as York Cottage where, as Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George V and Queen Mary spent their early married years.


We walked up the road, through a gate into a yard where retrievers are trained, and on down a sloping path to York Cottage. This building has to be seen to be believed: it is grotesquely ugly, unarchitected, like something designed by a child – all gables, and beams and little balconies, and hexagonal turrets. It stands on the rim of a melancholy, reed-infested pond or ‘lake’, a leaden pelican looks into the water, an iron bridge (replacing the old ornamental one) leads across to an untidy island, rife with primroses. (N.B. Mrs Bill later showed me a letter written to her in Q.M.’s old age saying how odd it was that she had never seen the daffodils at Sandringham, not having been there at that time of the year). We went round to the front door, which is ornate, and into the house, after first looking at the dining room which is, like all the rooms, minute and has a bay, formed of the inside of a turret, which they used for breakfast. They would have tea under an awning stretched from the dining room French windows on warm days.

On the left of the door is King George’s small study, still hung with scarlet serge given him in France (v. the Ferays’ chateau to which I went last year), though it is now cleared of the shrubs which rendered it pitch dark in the old days. Downstairs are two or three more rooms and the drawing room, all of dwarf proportions. Upstairs Q.M.’s dressing-room, with Maple-like fitted furniture painted in white, for all the world like an hotel near the Gare de Lyon; her bedroom next door, where all but one child was born, is equally microscopic and claustrophobic, and looks out over the lake. The best room is the schoolroom, over the dining room and repeating the same bay. There is with it all a total lack of fantasy about the building; it was expanded from being the Bachelors Cottage (built by a Colonel Edis) by flinging on now one room now another, like a house made from several sets of toy bricks. It is middle-class, suburban, in some indefinable way pretentious and utterly uncosy. Of course it is now the estate office, and the paint is peeling off the outside woodwork; but even in its heyday it must have been peculiarly unattractive.

We then walked up to the Big House, which is as large as York Cottage is small. It is a preposterous, long, brick-and-stone building with a terrace behind it (no balustrading); once more hotel-like – Pitlochry or Stratpeffer perhaps – tremendously vulgar and emphatically, almost defiantly hideous and gloomy. The grounds round are very pretty, especially at this time of the year; good trees and shrubs, ground falling away into dells and rising to small eminencies, a larger lake, a vista of green lawns fading away towards the Church Walk and the church tower in the distance. A giant Chinese god, not exactly a Buddha, with a lascivious smirk on its face (rather the face of Kruschev) sits under a pagoda-roof, flanked by Chinese lions: Admiral [name omitted] sent it from China for King Edward; the children, the late King told Fellowes, always called it ‘Laughy’ or ‘Goddy’. The late King laid out a formal garden running from the house towards the Norwich Gates, and installed a stone figure of Father Time at the end of it; he also abolished some beds and ponds and extended the flat wide lawns. Queen Mary was always planting, as she hated to be pried upon by the public from the Norwich Gates, which are unexpectedly close to the house; it seems strange they could not have found a property more truly secluded. All the blinds of the sleeping formidable house were drawn, tall white blinds, and the windows glittered in the orange setting sun. It was all rather ominous and charged with implications of past unhappiness which, one could sense, but not grasp.



The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessy, edited by Hugo Vickers, is out now in hardback, ebook and audio.

Ctesiphon, capital city of the Parthian Empire,
March, AD 55

The setting sun lit up the broad stretch of the Tigris river, so that it gleamed like molten gold against the pale orange of the sky. The air was still and cool, and the last clouds of the thunderstorm
that had drenched the city had passed to the south, leaving the faintest odour of iron in the gathering dusk. The servants of the royal palace were scurrying about their duties as they prepared
the riverside pavilion for that evening’s meeting of the king and his council to discuss the latest Roman threat to Parthia. They were urged on by the impatient shouts and blows from the chamberlain, a thin rake of a man, prematurely grey with the anxiety that came from attending the irascible ruler of an empire that stretched from the banks of the Indus to the borders of the Roman province of Syria. King Vologases was a man bent on reviving the grandeur of Parthia and was not prepared to suffer anyone who stood in the way of his destiny, to the smallest degree.

Neither rebellious noble, nor clumsy or inefficient servant. The last chamberlain had failed to ensure that the food served at a banquet had been sufficiently hot when it reached the royal table. For that he had been flogged almost to death before being thrown into the street. The current chamberlain was determined not to follow his example, and so he cursed and beat his underlings as they set up the divans, piled fuel by the braziers and hung thick embroidered screens on three sides of the pavilion. The fourth was left open for the king and his guests to enjoy the view of the river as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon and the stars came out and shimmered on the dark waters of the river.

When the last silk cushions had been carefully deployed, the servants backed to the side of the enclosed space and waited as the chamberlain scrutinised their work and bent to make a handful of
minor adjustments until satisfied that there was nothing his master could take exception to. Not that Vologases was inclined to closely inspect every detail of the luxury he was accustomed to living
within. Still, the chamberlain mused, better to be scrupulous than take the slightest risk of incurring the king’s wrath. Having completed his inspection, he clapped his hands loudly.

‘Away, you dogs! Bring the fruit and wine.’

As they began to trot away, he turned to his assistant. ‘And you, tell the kitchen master to have the meal readied to be served the instant I give the word.’

His assistant, a younger, corpulent man who no doubt aspired to replace him, nodded and scurried away. The chamberlain cast another look round at the handiwork of his staff and then stood in
front of the king’s dais and narrowed his eyes as he inspected the large divan, cushions and covers minutely. He leaned forward to ease out a crease in the cloth and then stood back and folded his
arms in satisfaction. Then, uncharacteristically, he gave a thin smile and glanced around warily. But he was quite alone. It was a rare moment in his life, consumed as it was with the myriad duties of his post. The interlude would be brief enough before the servants returned with the fruit and wine, along with the royal taster, who would sample each bowl and jar at the behest of the chamberlain to ensure that King Vologases would be able to eat and drink safely. Vast and enduring though Parthia was, the empire’s rulers were less enduring, regularly falling victim to the plots of powerful nobles, or the ambitions of members of the royal family.

The chamberlain breathed deeply as he smiled at the royal divan and felt an almost irresistible urge to bound forward and throw himself upon its silk cushions, unobserved. It would be the act of a
moment and no one would ever know. His heart quickened at the prospect of such an extraordinary breach of protocol, and for a few breaths he tottered on the brink of temptation. Then he drew
himself back and covered his mouth in horror at the thought of what would become of him if the king ever discovered what he had done. Although the chamberlain was quite alone, the fear of his
master ruled his heart and he quailed at his fleeting madness. With an anxious gasp he hurried to the top of the steps leading down to the gardens either side of the path that stretched towards the bulk of the palace. The first of the servants was returning, laden with a large silver platter of figs, dates and other fine fruits.

‘Run, you idle dog!’ the chamberlain snapped, and the man broke into a trot as he struggled not to upset the arrangement on the platter. The chamberlain took a last look at the setting and offered a quick prayer to Mithras that his master would find nothing amongst the arrangements to displease him.


When the king and his small retinue emerged from the palace, the sun had slipped beyond the horizon and a band of bronze sky stretched across the shadowy landscape across the river. Above, the
bronze gave way to violet and the dark velvet of night, where the first stars glittered like tiny specks of silver. A party of bodyguards marched in front, armed with lances and wearing their flowing,
richly embroidered trousers tucked into their leather ankle boots. Scale armour cuirasses and conical helmets gleamed in the light of the torches and braziers burning either side of the path. But their appearance was as the basest metal to the purest gold compared to the magnificence of their master. Vologases was a tall, well-built man with a broad brow and square jaw, made to look more square still by the meticulous trimming of his dark beard. His eyes were equally dark, like polished ebony, which lent his gaze a formidable intensity. Yet there appeared to be humour in his expression too. His lips lifted at the very edges so that he smiled when he spoke in his deep, warm voice. And, indeed, he was capable of wit and kindness, alongside his wisdom and ambition, and his soldiers and his people regarded him with loyal affection. But those who knew him well were wary of the mercurial change in mood that he was capable of and smiled when he smiled and stood in rigid, fearful silence when he raged.

This night his mood was sombre. News had reached the Parthian capital that Emperor Claudius was dead, murdered, and that he had been succeeded by his adopted son, Nero. The question for
Vologases was how the change of reign might affect the strained relationship between Parthia and Rome, a relationship that had soured in recent years. The cause, as ever, was the fate of Armenia,
the hapless border kingdom caught between the ambitions of Rome and Parthia. Some four years earlier a pretender to the Armenian throne, Prince Rhadamistus of the neighbouring kingdom of Iberia, had invaded Armenia, killed the king and his family, and installed himself as the new ruler. Rhadamistus had proved to be as cruel as he was ambitious, and the Armenians had appealed to Vologases to save them from the tyrant. So he had led his army against Rhadamistus, who fled his capital, and placed his brother Tiridates on the throne. It was a provocation, Vologases knew, since Rome had regarded Armenia as within the Roman sphere of power for over a hundred years now. The Romans were not likely to regard Parthia’s intervention favourably.

The chamberlain, who had been waiting at the entrance, bowed to the waist as the party climbed the steps into the pavilion. The bodyguards took their positions outside, except for the two largest
men, who stationed themselves either side of the king’s dais. Vologases eased himself down on to the divan and settled comfortably before he gestured to the members of his high council.

‘Be seated.’

In a formal setting his guests would have remained standing before their master, but Vologases had deliberately chosen the pavilion and put court protocol aside to encourage his subordinates
to speak freely. Once they were seated on the divans, the king leaned forward, plucked a fig from his platter and took a bite, thus giving permission for the others to eat as they wished.

Vologases tossed the half-eaten fruit back on the platter and gazed round at his guests: Sporaces, his finest general; Abdagases, the royal treasurer; and Prince Vardanes, the eldest son of the king and heir to the Parthian throne. An ambassador from Tiridates completed the gathering: a younger man, about the same age as the prince, Mithraxes by name.

‘We’ve little time to waste, my friends,’ Vologases announced. ‘So you’ll pardon me for dispensing with any small talk. You’ve all heard the news from Rome. We have a new emperor to contend
with. Nero.’

‘Nero?’ Sporaces shook his head. ‘Can’t say that I recall the name, sire.’

‘It’s hardly surprising. He was only adopted a few years back. Son of Emperor Claudius’s last wife by a previous marriage.’

‘The same wife who happens to be Claudius’s niece,’ Vardanes added wryly. He clicked his tongue and raised an eyebrow. ‘Those Romans, eh? Quite the decadent type. Never anything short of

The others smiled at his comment.

‘What do we know of this Nero?’ Sporaces continued. The general was a veteran who had little time for levity, a characteristic that suited his thin, almost gaunt features. Most of those in the royal
court held his boorish manners in low regard, but Vologases knew his worth as a soldier and prized his talents. Moreover, as the son of a Greek mercenary and a whore from Seleucia, Sporaces was despised by the great nobles of Parthia and therefore posed no threat to Vologases.

The king nodded to Abdagases, who ran the network of spies that Parthia used to glean information about events within the Roman Empire. ‘You’ve read the full report. You tell them.’

‘Yes, sire.’ Abdagases cleared his throat. ‘Firstly, he’s young. Only sixteen years old. Barely more than a boy.’

‘Maybe so.’ Sporaces tilted his head slightly. ‘But Augustus was only eighteen when he set out to destroy his opponents and become the first emperor of Rome.’

‘Nero is no Augustus,’ the treasurer contradicted him tersely. ‘He may become one, though the possibility of that is remote, according to our agents in Rome. The new emperor fancies himself as something of an artist. A musician. A poet . . . He surrounds himself with actors, musicians and philosophers. He has ambitions to make Rome some kind of beacon for such people, rather than turn his mind towards more martial matters.’

‘An artist? A musician?’ Sporaces shook his head. ‘What kind of a bloody emperor is that?’

‘One who will play into our hands, I trust,’ said Vologases. ‘Let us hope that young Nero continues to concentrate his efforts on his art and is not distracted by events in Armenia.’

Abdagases nodded. ‘Yes, sire. We can hope, but it may be wise not to be guided by mere hope. Nero may be a dilettante, but it would be foolish to dismiss him out of hand. He is surrounded by
advisers, many of whom have the intelligence and experience to cause us problems. Not least because they suffer from the Roman disease.’

‘Roman disease?’ Vardanes cocked an eyebrow, helped himself to a second fig and took a big bite. His jaws worked casually before he attempted to continue with a full mouth. ‘What . . . disease . . . is that?’

‘It’s a term some of us at the royal court have used for those Romans obsessed by the pursuit of glory and their utterly inflexible sense of honour. No Roman noble of any standing ever passes up
the chance to win acclaim for his family. Whatever the cost. Which is why Crassus attempted to invade Parthia and came to grief. And Marcus Antonius after him. It’s a pity that they seem to  measure themselves by outdoing the achievements of their ancestors, and are driven to succeed where others have failed.’ Abdagases paused a moment. ‘It would seem that the failures of Crassus and Antonius only serve to inspire Romans to regard Parthia as a challenge to be overcome. Reasonable men might have profited from the example of failure, but Roman aristocratic honour trumps Roman reasoning almost every time. Augustus was shrewd enough to realise that he could gain more from diplomacy than from military actions in his dealings with Parthia, and his heirs have followed his example in the main. Even if that meant frustrating the senators urging them to wage war on us. The question is, will this new emperor be able to resist the blandishments of his advisers, and the Senate?’

‘I sincerely hope so,’ Vologases answered. ‘Parthia can ill afford the risk of war breaking out with Rome while we have enemies threatening trouble on other fronts.’

Vardanes sighed. ‘You speak of the Hyrcanians, Father?’

Vardanes was the king’s favourite son. He had courage, intelligence and charisma, qualities useful in an heir. But he also had ambition, and that was an attribute that was as much to be feared as admired. Particularly in Parthia. The king’s expression darkened.

‘Yes, the Hyrcanians. It seems that they disapprove of the increase in tribute I have demanded of them.’

Vardanes smiled. ‘Which is no surprise. And not helpful at a time when we have provoked our Greek subjects by forcing them to put their language and traditions aside to embrace ours, even though Greek is the common tongue across the eastern world. Then there is the trouble brewing up with Rome over Armenia.’ He sipped his wine. ‘I fear we are overreaching ourselves. Particularly with respect to Armenia. Rome and Parthia are like two dogs fighting over a bone.’

The treasurer coughed politely as he interrupted. ‘His Highness oversimplifies the matter. The bone happens to be ours, and those Roman interlopers have no right to attempt to seize it. Most of the nobles of Armenia share our blood. Armenia owed loyalty to the Parthian empire for centuries before Rome turned its gaze to the east.’

‘I think we can all agree that Rome has no right to Armenia. Nevertheless, Rome lays claim to Armenia, and if it comes to war, she will take it. I have heard much about the might of the Roman
legions. We cannot prevail against them.’

‘Not in pitched battle, my prince. But if we can avoid a head-on clash, our forces can wear them down, weaken them and, when the time is right, tear them to pieces. Just as hunting dogs kill the
mountain bears. Is it not so, General?’ Abdagases turned to Sporaces for support.

The general thought a moment before he responded. ‘Parthia has defeated the Romans in the past. When they have blundered into our lands without adequate intelligence of the lay of the land, or
adequate supplies to sustain them. They march slowly, even without a siege train. Whereas our forces can cover ground far more swiftly, particularly our horse-archers and cataphracts. We can afford to trade ground for time in order to let them exhaust their supplies and their strength. But that is true only if they wage war across the rivers and deserts of Mesopotamia. Armenia is different. The mountainous terrain favours Rome’s infantry rather than our cavalry. I fear Prince Vardanes is correct. If Rome wants to take Armenia, it will succeed.’

‘There!’ Vardanes clicked his fingers. ‘I told you.’

‘However,’ Sporaces continued, ‘in order to take Armenia, Rome will be forced to concentrate its forces. Her soldiers are the best in the world, it is true. But they cannot be in two places at once. If they march into Armenia, then they will leave Syria exposed. Not to conquest. We lack the forces to achieve that. Parthia will never be strong enough to destroy Rome, and Rome will never
have enough men to conquer and occupy Parthia. And that is how it has always been, and always will be, my prince. A conflict neither side can win. Therefore the only answer is peace.’

‘Peace!’ Vologases snorted. ‘We have tried to make peace with Rome. We have honoured every treaty made between us, only for them to be broken more often than not by the accursed Romans.’
Vologases’ brow creased in frustration as he thought a moment. ‘And for that reason we must be certain that we choose wisely in dealing with the situation in Armenia.’
He turned towards the ambassador sent by his brother. ‘Mithraxes, you have not spoken yet. You have no opinion about the new emperor in Rome and his intentions towards Armenia?’

Mithraxes shrugged nonchalantly. ‘It hardly matters what my opinion is, Majesty. I am an Armenian noble, descended from a long line of nobles, none of whom has ever lived to see our land free of the influence of either Parthia or Rome. Our kings have a habit of being deposed, or murdered. Your brother has been on the throne barely two years. He is no worse than some who have ruled
Armenia and—’

‘Choose your words carefully when you speak of my brother,’ Vologases warned.

‘Majesty. I was sent to report on the situation in Armenia and ask for your help. I believe that is best done if I speak honestly.’

The king regarded him closely, and noted that the Armenian did not flinch under his gaze. ‘Courage as well as integrity? Are all Armenian noblemen like you?’

‘Sadly not, Majesty. And that is the problem that besets your brother. As I said, he is no worse than many rulers, and better than many. Yet, he has been obliged to rule with a firm hand in order to
establish his authority over his new realm.’

‘How firm a hand?’

‘Some nobles favour Rome, Majesty. Some resent having any foreigner imposed on them. King Tiridates determined that lessons were needed in order to discourage such disloyalty. Regrettably, it
was necessary to banish some, and execute others. This had the effect of quelling most of the discontent.’

‘I can imagine.’ Vardanes smiled. ‘But I dare say it might have inclined some to feel just a little more discontented.’

‘Quite so, Your Highness. However, King Tiridates remains on the throne in Artaxata. His enemies are cowed for the present. Though I am certain they will soon appeal for aid in unseating the
king. If they haven’t already.’ Mithraxes turned his gaze to Vologases.

‘Therefore, your brother requests that you send him an army to ensure his control over Armenia. Enough men to defeat any nobles that conspire against him, and to dissuade Rome from invading
his lands.’

‘An army? Is that all he asks of me?’ the king of Parthia scoffed. ‘And does my brother think I can just pluck armies out of thin air? I need all my soldiers here in Parthia to deal with the threats I
already face.’

‘He does not ask for a large army, Majesty. Just a force strong enough to discourage any attempts to remove him.’

‘The Armenian rebels are one thing, the Romans quite another.I doubt they would be discouraged by any force I could afford to send to Armenia.’

Mithraxes shook his head. ‘I am not so sure, Majesty. Our spies in Syria report that the Roman legions there are badly prepared for war. They are understrength and poorly equipped. It has been many years since they have seen any action. I doubt they constitute much of a threat to King Tiridates.’

Vologases turned to his general. ‘Is this true?’

Sporaces reflected a moment before he replied. ‘It is consistent with our own intelligence, Majesty. But if the Romans should decide to intervene, they will bring more legions to Syria, and will
be sure to find fresh recruits for the existing legions. Of course, they will need to be trained. Supplies will need to be stockpiled, roads repaired, siege trains massed. It will take time to prepare a campaign.

Years perhaps. But once the Romans have decided to act, nothing will stop them. It is the Roman way.’ He paused briefly to let the others consider his words, then continued. ‘My advice would be not to provoke our enemy any further. Rome already feels affronted by having Tiridates placed on the throne. But it has not yet decided on war. If we send troops to aid your brother, that may tilt the Romans towards action. Besides, we do not yet know the mettle of this new emperor, Nero. He may be swayed either way. So let’s not give the war party in Rome any opportunity to persuade him to fight. Instead, I suggest we flatter him with warm words of friendship and congratulate him on his becoming emperor. If he questions our actions in Armenia, then tell him we were forced to replace a tyrant, and that we have no interest in any other lands that border Rome’s territory.’ He bowed his head in conclusion. ‘That is my humble advice, Majesty.’

Vologases eased himself back on his cushions and folded his hands as he considered all that he had heard from his advisers. It was true that Rome’s pride would endure being pricked only so far. Yet he could not risk sending any men to support his brother while he faced potential rebellion in Hyrcania in any case.

‘It seems that I am forced to wait on events. The choice over what to do lies with Emperor Nero. He will decide whether we have peace. Or war.’


THE BLOOD OF ROME is out now in hardback

David ‘Mad Piper’ Kirkpatrick recruited by SAS as audacious mission decoy: ordered to play Highland Laddie as raiders went in on war’s most daring raid

Bagpipes have a long history when it comes to war, one of pipers at the head of Scottish regiments piping them to glory. When researching my new book ­SAS Italian Job – which tells the story of one of the most audacious raids of the war – I was amazed to find that legendary SAS commander Major Roy Farran had put in a special request for what he saw as his “Secret weapon” – a youthful Scottish piper in the shape of one David Kirkpatrick.

What does a Special Forces unit that is meant to operate in secret (quietly) behind enemy lines need with a (very loud) bagpiper? Surely this was anathema, running contrary to the very essence of silent, stealthy forces striking by utter surprise? But no, Farran’s was actually an inspired and wily plan.

Working behind enemy lines, especially in concert with local partisan groups, could lead to reprisals from the local German troops. They tended to take out their anger on the local civilian populace, as a way to ‘dissuade’ further action by the resistance. Farran knew this from experience of previous behind-the-lines missions. In German-controlled northern Italy in March 1945, his forty SAS would be operating alongside one hundred war-bitten Italian partisans. Farran was determined to stamp an indelibly ‘British’ mark on his operations, to deter any reprisals.

The Germans had every reason to fear the Italian partisans. Over the winter of 44-45, they Italian resistance had accounted for some 20,000 dead and injured German troops. In response, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring – a Hitler favourite and his supreme commander in Italy – ordered his men to resort to widespread brutality.

‘It is the duty of all troops and police in my command to adopt the severest measures,’ Kesselring had announced. ‘Every act of violence committed by the partisans must be punished immediately.’ He ordered ‘a proportion of the male population’ to be shot, while pledging to ‘protect any commander who exceeds the usual restraints’. Hitler added fuel to the fire, ordering ten partisans killed for every German casualty.

Winston Churchill – a key proponent of irregular warfare across occupied Europe – was privy to Kesselring’s orders. Code-breakers working at Bletchley Park had decrypted the German commander’s messages, sending them directly to the British prime minister. They made for grim reading. In August 1944, in the village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, SS troops had machine-gunned 560 men, women and children, as reprisals for partisan operations. Then, in late September, at Marzabotto, they had perpetrated one of the single greatest massacres of the war, wiping out over 700 villagers.

These were far from isolated examples, and the level of bestial horror visited on remote Italian populations was terrifying. It reflected the growing desperation of Kesselring. Farran, aware of the increasing savagery adopted by the enemy, was determined to avoid anything similar in his area of operations. One way he could try and convince the enemy that his was a wholly British operation was to include a Scottish Regimental Piper in his raiding force.

Something of a wild and troubled teen, David ‘The Mad Piper’ Kirkpatrick had earned a reputation for drinking and insubordination, but he was utter reliable when leading troops in action. Having already piped ashore a Commando unit on a do-or-die daylight raid in Albania, his commander sought him out for a new, and even more daring operation. Kirkpatrick was working in the dreaded “Stores” at the time, where a slow death through boredom often resulted. He was ripe to be recruited to Farran’s case.

‘I’m looking for a piper to do a wee job,’ his commander announced, enigmatically. ‘I know you’re more or less qualified for these things.’

Aye,’ Kirkpatrick had agreed, simply, ‘I’m way fed up in the stores.’

Thus he was recruited for Major Roy Farran’s mission, codenamed TOMBOLA. That “wee job” entailed boarding an aircraft, being strapped to a parachute and jumping into Northern Italy some 200 miles behind the lines. It was very possibly a safer place for the young Kirkpatrick than back in Scotland, for when his father found out his son had volunteered for Special Service he was none too happy.

On the night of 23/24 March ’45, Kirkpatrick made his drop. Forty SAS were already on the ground having jumped earlier in the month. The main difference between him and them was that none of them had parachuted from an aircraft wearing a regimental kilt. A sight not seen in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, it caused quite a stir amongst the locals, who seemed to think a woman in a skirt was falling from the skies.

Once on the ground, Farran explained to Kirkpatrick the nature of his role in the forthcoming raid. Even as all hell was to let lose during the planned attack on the German 14th Army headquarters – one that controlled 100,000 troops garrisoning northern Italy – Kirkpatrick was to begin piping Highland Laddie, then the formal marching song of all British highland regiments. The aim was to stamp an iconic British signature on the battle, to deter against reprisals. Farran also sought to stiffen the resolve of those charged to fight their way into the headquarters buildings – two fortress-like villas – intent on wreaking bloody mayhem and murder.

On the night of the attack that is exactly what Kirkpatrick did. The Germans were taken by complete surprise, as bullets ricocheted about the place and grenades went off, the raiders striking from out of the silent darkness. They were further shocked and confused to hear, intermingled with the cacophony of battle, the sound of a lone piper playing the Scottish regimental theme, Highland Laddie. It sounded as if an entire British army regiment had arrived on their doorstep.

What Farran had hoped for seemed to be paying off.  ‘Keep playing,’ he cried above the roar of battle. ‘You’re my secret weapon!

And play Kirkpatrick did, ignoring the bullets that targeted the sound of his pipes, blasting holes in the uppermost section of the bass drone, the longest pipe that creates the harmonising bass tone.  The long and gruelling retreat to their mountain base would take 24 exhausting hours, but as the raiders approached safe territory, delirious with fatigue, they dug deep and fell into line. Their attitude and posture were stiffened as the sound of Kirkpatrick’s bagpipes rang out, and the men marched into the village heads held high.

Farran’s plan had worked. Sixty enemy officers were killed and the headquarters villas left gutted, smoking ruins. The attack was hailed as, ‘One of the most dangerous and effective ever undertaken by this Regiment against the enemy,’ by SAS Lt Col Robert Walker‐Brown, MBE DSO. Even though there was evidence of partisan involvement, the enraged enemy decided against carrying out reprisals, for it was so clearly a British-led raid. Once again a lone piper had led his men into battle, armed only with his instrument and his resolve to keep playing under fire.

After the war, Kirkpatrick returned to Scotland and settled into family life. It wasn’t until a few years before his death that he would find out that the Italian village where the raid had taken place had for years celebrated his actions as those of a true war hero. Kirkpatrick would be invited with his family to join the villagers, taking his pipes with him so as to play once again on the battlefield. After his death his sons, all pipers themselves, have returned there to carry on the tradition and to pay homage to the brave actions of their father, and all who served on that raid.

You can read more about this audacious raid and the exploits of David “The Mad Piper” Kirkpatrick in my new book SAS Italian Job.

Julian Stockwin

I write the Thomas Kydd series, set in the Great Age of Fighting Sail, the period of the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793-1815). One of the questions I’m often asked when I give talks about my books is would I liked to have lived back then. It’s an interesting point to ponder, especially given the creature comforts we enjoy today like a bracing hot shower in a cold morning and the push-button warmth of central heating. Then there’s the wonders of the modern age such as the internet, medical advances that have prolonged life by decades, ease of global travel and so forth. But the Georgian age, although to modern eyes a hard and brutal time for many, has aspects that draw me to it irresistibly.

Moon rocket of its day
At the height of the Age of Sail the man-of-war was the moon rocket of its day, a complex self-contained community of some 800 men, and as arcane. Day and night it would move faster than a man could run and was far taller than most buildings ashore. And it was a time when man, with just his wits and courage, undertook great ventures out of sight of all land-dwellers at home. To me there is something alluring and personally compelling about a sailing ship under full canvas with nothing but the ocean winds and the skill of the mariner to carry her to the four corners of the world.

The great heroes of the age
In my books I often write about Kydd’s encounter with real-life characters from history. How I would love to be able to meet some of the giants that strode the Georgian stage! Of course there will never be another Nelson and to have been one of his Band of Brothers would have been a truly unique experience. Yet I would have been equally intrigued to get to know Lord Thomas Cochrane, whom I do in fact write about in my latest book A SEA OF GOLD. One of the most daring and courageous sea captains of the Napoleonic era, he was an enigmatic and controversial character – did I capture this accurately in the book? And there are many others on my Bucket List – such as Black Dick Howe, who was said never to smile unless he was going into battle; Admiral Collingwood: ‘Old Cuddy’ who gave so much to his country, dying at sea just four days after he was finally recalled home; Admiral Duncan, as gracious to an enemy in victory as courageous and single-minded in battle, to name just three.

Eat, drink and be merry!
Being a bit of a trencherman myself I empathise with the Georgian’s love of food and drink. How splendid would it be to sit down to a feast, washed down with beer, wine and port, along the lines of this one that diarist and parson James Woodforde gave for three friends. First course: a couple of boiled chickens, a tongue, a leg of mutton with capers and a batter pudding. Second course: roast duck, green peas, artichokes, tarts and blancmange (Georgian ‘courses’ included a number of both sweet and savoury dishes.) Then almonds and raisins, oranges and strawberries. And this was just a humble offering given by the man to his friends! Much more lavish meals saw a dozen or more dishes in each of up to five courses, along with the finest of wines.

A rich and wonderful vocabulary
Sadly, some of the colourful words that my hero Thomas Kydd was familiar with are not really in use today, the PC movement being in some part responsible…
Here’s five I picked at random
‘strut–noddy’ – a poseur who doesn’t realise what a ridiculous figure he is
‘fubsy wench’ – healthily chubby female
‘oragious’ – superlative, as in a raucous time ashore
‘puckle–headed loon’ – fool with a vacant expression
‘to clap to your tally’ – add to your reputation

The Georgian Age had huge life and vigour, qualities that I sometimes feel are missing in the modern day. So I have to say, yes, on balance, I would have loved to have lived back then! Roll on, time travel…

Julian Stockwin’s next book, A Sea of Gold, is out now.

a sea of gold

All The Queen's Corgis

Fourteen facts about the history of corgis in the royal family.

Test your knowledge and see if you already knew them…

1) Queen Victoria started the trend for keeping dogs as pets. She had more than a hundred dogs during her lifetime and 28 different breeds.

2) Queen Victoria was one of the the first people in Britain to own a dachshund – now one of the country’s most popular small breeds.

3) The first corgi to be owned by the the current Queen’s family was Dookie – bought because the seven-year-old Princess Elizabeth had begged her father for one. It belonged to them all.

4) The Queen was given a corgi of her own for her eighteenth birthday. It was called Susan and every corgi she has had since then has been related to Susan, through fourteen generations

5) Susan went on honeymoon with the Queen and the Prince Philip – hidden under a rug in the open landau that took them from Buckingham Palace to Victoria station.

6) George VI called Choo-Choo, the family’s shih-tzu ’the animated dishcloth’

7) Edward VII founded the Kennel Club.

8) Edward VII had a wire-haired fox terrier who was inconsolable when the king died. He walked behind his master’s coffin at his funeral.

9) Dookie used to attack the legs of the dining chairs as they ere being put in place at Royal Lodge.

10) In 1934 King George V won first prize at Crufts with his Clumber spaniel, Sandringham Spark.

11) The Queen’s first dorgi was the result of a unplanned liaison between Tiny, one of her corgis, and her sister’s dachshund, Pipkin.

12) Queen Victoria’s favourite dachshund, Dackel, was an ace rat-catcher and once caught a huge one in front of the Queen.

13) When Queen Alexandra’s favourite Pekinese, Togo, died she laid him on a cushion in her bedroom and refused to let him be taken away.

14) The only time the kennels at Sandringham have been without gun dogs since they were build by Edward VII in 1979 was during Edward VIII’s brief reign.

More corgi fun can be found in All the Queen’s Corgis by Penny Junor. She reveals the scraps and scrapes that the dogs have been involved in – the hierarchy amongst them, the corgis’ feisty attitude to footmen and guests, gardeners and innocent passersby. This fascinating and affectionate look at the Queen and her most faithful companions is a book for dog lovers everywhere about what really makes our much-loved and longest reigning monarch truly light up.

All the Queen's Corgis


It’s two weeks until publication day for The King’s War, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, an incredible insight into the monarchy during the darkest days of WWII. The King’s War draws on diaries, letters and other documents left by George VI’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, and his wife, Myrtle. It provides a fascinating portrait of two men and their respective families – the Windsors and the Logues – as they together faced up to the greatest challenge in Britain’s history.

VE Day dawned fine and warm after heavy thunderstorms overnight. That morning Logue received another message from the Palace. ‘The King would like to see you at dinner tonight, and bring Mrs Logue’ – to which an unidentified hand had added: ‘Tell her to wear something bright’. When Lionel and Myrtle set off for Buckingham Palace at 6.30, they found the streets decked with flags but virtually deserted. It took them only a few minutes to drive the seven miles from Beechgrove to the centre of London. They encountered their first traffic barrier near Victoria Station, but Miéville had rung up Forest Hill police and asked them to organize a pass, which Logue had picked up. This got them through the barrier and on to the first gate of the Palace. Logue expected a hold-up, but the policeman there was an old friend and the gate swung open. As their car crossed the courtyard towards the Privy Purse entrance, a tremendous cheer broke out – the King and Queen had just come out onto the balcony again. Lionel and Myrtle joined other members of the royal household in wildly cheering and waving handkerchiefs.

Lionel made for the new broadcasting room on the ground floor, facing the lawn, and went through the speech with the King. They made a couple of minor alterations before the King declared, rather plaintively: ‘If I don’t get dinner before 9 I won’t get any after, as everyone will be away, watching the sights.’ This, coming from a man in such an exalted position, sent Logue into paroxysms of laughter – so much that the King himself joined in, though after reflecting for a moment, he said: ‘It’s funny, but it is quite true.’

After they had eaten, they went back to the broadcasting room at 8.35. Wood, of the BBC, was there. He and Logue synchronized their watches and had another run-through. There were two minutes to go before the King, dressed in his naval uniform, was due to step out once more onto the balcony, but this time to make a speech. Another small further alteration, and then the Queen, now wearing a white ermine wrap over her evening gown and a diamond tiara in her hair, came into the room, as she always did, to wish her husband luck.

Once the floodlights were switched on, a mighty roar erupted from the crowd. ‘And in an instant the sombre scene has become fairyland – with the Royal Ensign, lit from beneath, floating in the air,’ Logue wrote in his diary. ‘Another roar – the King and Queen come on to the balcony.’ He was struck by the way the lights played on the Queen’s tiara; as she turned, smiling, to wave to the crowd, the floodlights created what looked like a band of flame around her head.

‘Today we give thanks to Almighty God for a great deliverance,’ the King declared:

Speaking from our Empire’s oldest capital city, war-battered but never for one moment daunted or dismayed, speaking from London, I ask you to join with me in that act of thanksgiving.

Germany, the enemy who drove all Europe into war, has been finally overcome. In the Far East we have yet to deal with the Japanese, a determined and cruel foe. To this we shall turn with the utmost resolve and with all our resources But at this hour when the dreadful shadow of war has passed far from our hearths and homes in these islands, we may at last make one pause for thanksgiving and then turn our thoughts to the task all over the world which peace in Europe brings with it.

Continuing, the King saluted those who had contributed to victory – both alive and dead – and reflected on how the ‘enslaved and isolated peoples of Europe’ had looked to Britain during the darkest days of the conflict. He also turned to the future, urging that his subjects should ‘resolve as a people to do nothing unworthy of those who died for us and to make the world such a world as they would have desired, for their children and for ours.’

‘We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing,’ he concluded. ‘But let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead. Japan with all her treachery and greed, remains unsubdued.’

The King was exhausted – and it showed; he spoke slowly and stumbled more than usual over his words, but that didn’t seem to matter. The crowd listened in silence, but at the end they raised a great cheer and sang the national anthem. ‘We all roared ourselves hoarse,’ recalled Noël Coward, who was among the crowd. ‘I suppose this is the greatest day in our history.’

The King and Queen reappeared on the balcony together with the princesses at about 10.45 p.m., standing waving to the crowd for about ten minutes, and yet again just before midnight as searchlights flashed across the sky. This time, though, the two princesses were not with them. They had asked their parents to be allowed out to join in the celebrations. The King agreed: ‘Poor darlings, they have never had any fun yet,’ he wrote in his diary. And so, Elizabeth and Margaret slipped out of the Palace incognito, chaperoned by their uncle, David Bowes-Lyon, the Queen’s youngest brother, and accompanied by their governess and a party of young officers. No one recognized the nineteen-year-old heir to the throne and her fourteen-year-old sister as they joined the conga line into one door of the Ritz and out of the other amid crowds that chanted ‘We want the King! We want the Queen!’ and sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

Years later the future Queen was to describe this as one of the most memorable nights of her life.

The King’s War is out on 1st November

History is scattered with events in which the deaths of ‘ordinary people’ are overshadowed because someone famous was involved.

In an extreme example, the first headlines in US newspapers after the Titanic sank in 1912 focused on the death of millionaire John Jacob Astor and only mentioned as an aside that 1,500 other people had perished.

Jacqueline Kennedy was always careful to remember police officer J.D. Tippit, who was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald when he pulled over his car 45 minutes after the assassination of her husband, the President. She compared her grief with that of Tippit’s widow. But the entire media focus was on Mrs Kennedy in her black veil, clutching the hands of their two young children, while Marie Tippit and her three children mourned in private.

When there is a plane crash or a tsunami, a forest fire or a massacre, news editors’ first response is to find out whether anyone famous was involved, and history books often follow their lead.

I would like to redress the balance in one particular instance by writing about the four devoted servants who died with the Romanovs in July 1918, shot and bayonetted to death in a grimy Ekaterinburg basement. Their names were Dr Eugene Botkin, Anna Demidova, Alexei Trupp and Ivan Kharitinov.

Appointed in 1908, Botkin was the most devoted physician any royal family could wish for. He treated Alexei for the complications of haemophilia and was endlessly patient with Alexandra’s countless ailments, both real and imagined. He was married with four children but his devotion to the Romanovs caused the breakdown of his marriage. After the death of two of his sons in the First World War, he became increasingly religious and felt it was his earthly duty to continue to look after his royal charges once they were under house arrest, although he was several times given the option of leaving. He was in the middle of writing a prophetic last letter – “I am dead, but not yet buried” – when Yurovsky, the commander of the guards, knocked on his door at midnight on the 16th of July 1918 and asked that he tell the family to dress and prepare to leave. Botkin stood close to Nicholas in the basement and took bullets to the head, spine and pelvis that killed him more or less straight away.

Anna Demidova’s father was a wealthy merchant and she was introduced to the Romanov household in 1905 by a friend who already worked there. She was a tall blonde woman with blue eyes, who had suffered disappointments in love. She got engaged to her friend’s brother while in service, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. Next she had a crush on the Romanov girls’ English tutor Charles Sydney Gibbes – who was homosexual. She became indispensible to Alexandra during their period of house arrest, looking after her clothes and personal possessions, writing letters for her and doling out her various medicines. When they were ordered down to the basement, Anna was carrying two pillows with metal boxes containing some of the family’s jewels hidden inside. She was hit in the leg during the opening volley of shots and fainted. When she came round and saw Yurovsky and another of the killers, Ermakov, she cried “Thank God! God has saved me!” Ermakov raised his bayonet to slash her and she caught its blade in her hands, gripping on tightly till she was so badly wounded she could hold no more and he finished her off with brutality.

Alexei Trupp had served as a colonel in the Russian Army before joining the Romanov household as a footman. He was extremely tall and strong, capable of carrying little haemophiliac Alexei with ease. His devotion to the Romanovs knew no bounds: he requested that he be allowed to follow them to the Ipatiev House, even signing a document in which he consented to be treated as a prisoner of the Ural Soviet. He brought with him Alexei’s spaniel, Joy, the third of the three dogs that joined them in captivity (the others were Tatiana’s French bulldog, Ortipo, and Anastasia’s spaniel Jemmy). When the firing started Trupp was hit first in the leg, before a second bullet in the side of the head killed him outright.

Ivan Kharitonov was married, with a young daughter, when the Romanovs were arrested. He brought his wife and child along to Tobolsk, where they spent the winter of 1917-18, but left them behind in April when he accompanied the former royals to Ekaterinburg, presumably with some inkling that it could be dangerous. Food was scarce at the Ipatiev House and they were dependent on charity from outside, but he usually managed to make Alexandra’s habitual meal of macaroni and he taught the grand duchesses how to bake bread. He was struck by several bullets in the first volley of firing on the night of 16th/17th July, and died instantly.

Each of them had their own tragic story; two of them left children, who went on to have grandchildren. All four were canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1990s. All four were heroes. But while the Romanovs’ story is the stuff of legend, few remember their servants’ names today.


Gill Paul’s novel about the Romanovs, The Lost Daughter, is out now in ebook for 99p and the paperback is published on 18 October












**Longlisted for the HWA Gold Crown**

An eerie and compelling ghost story set on the dark wilds of the Yorkshire moors. For fans of The Witchfinder’s Sister and The Silent Companions, this gothic tale will weave its way into your imagination and chill you to the bone.

‘Spine-tingling… the scariest ghost story I have read in a long time’ Barbara Erskine

‘A wonderful, macabre evocation of a lost way of life’ The Times

‘Like something from Emily Bronte’s nightmares’ Andrew Taylor, author of The Ashes of London 

Maybe you’ve heard tales about Scarcross Hall, the house on the old coffin path that winds from village to moor top. They say there’s something up here, something evil.

Mercy Booth isn’t afraid. The moors and Scarcross are her home and lifeblood. But, beneath her certainty, small things are beginning to trouble her. Three ancient coins missing from her father’s study, the shadowy figure out by the gatepost, an unshakeable sense that someone is watching.

When a stranger appears seeking work, Mercy reluctantly takes him in. As their stories entwine, this man will change everything. She just can’t see it yet.

What readers are saying about The Coffin Path:

‘A fantastic eerie ghost story to settle down with on a winters night’

‘Compelling and chilling, the slow build-up of tension had me completely on edge’

‘I couldn’t put it down. I felt I was there on the moors, being watched by the unseen’


What would your reading group guide say about The Coffin Path? We’ve produced this reading guide to aid your discussions! 

The Coffin Path reading group guide

The Coffin Path is out now