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Somerville’s War – a new, New Forest novel

Featuring one of the 160 ATA ‘Spitfire women’ who was a very local lady

Somerville's War author Andrew DuncanIntroducing local historian Andrew Duncan and his new book Somerville's War - which features not only infamous spy and traitor Kim Philby but also Andrew's own mother, who along with other courageous women played an important role in the Second World War.

"Getting a first novel noticed in your late 60s can be as hard as winning the Round the Island Race in a pedalo.  However, a local setting for the story may, in theory, help you off the starting blocks.

Somerville’s War begins and ends in 1940-41 at Beaulieu, renamed Somerville. Lymington, its neighbouring town, renamed Milton, comes into the story together with a cast of Somerville residents. Its main female character is a local girl who gets caught up in a tense Spitfire dogfight over the heath to the north of Beaulieu and Lymington, escaping over the Solent and round the Needles. Dan Snow has described the story as one for ‘anyone who loves the New Forest’ – however its scope is much wider than just the Forest, the action moving to London and then occupied France.

1940s Beaulieu River ATA girls sailingMy family have lived at Beaulieu since the 1920s so I could rely on some local knowledge and insights. The main male character, Brigadier Maxwell, has a house on the Beaulieu River and is loosely based on my grandmother (yes, trans-gendered into a man) who also lived on the river. He is captain of the local sailing club, and although odd – he almost never speaks and when he does it’s an agonizingly slow drawl – no one suspects that he is leading a double life. Instead of going back to London each week to the War Office, he is doubling back unseen to help set up a Special Operations Executive (SOE) finishing school for spies, agents and saboteurs in the woods behind the Beaulieu village.

SOE Beaulieu is far from fictional: among its graduates are some of WW2’s most famous men and women agents including Odette Churchill (pictured right) who survived torture by the Gestapo, Violet Szabo who died in a Odette Churchillconcentration camp and Ben Cowburn, hero of at least four dramatically successful missions.

One of the SOE Beaulieu lecturers was none other than master spy and traitor Kim Philby (pictured below left). This is moderately common knowledge, but not the fact that his subject was black propaganda and subversion. Even today, historically aware Beaulieu residents find it extraordinary, perhaps a bit creepy, that this supremely dangerous man spent time in Beaulieu. His fictional counterpart in the story is Adrian Russell who, bored with teaching (as Philby was – he itched to get back to London) decides to amuse himself by subverting the local sailing club.

Kim PhilbyThe fictional possibilities of Maxwell and Philby seemed to me to be interesting, and gave me a start with the plot. To add some spice Maxwell’s daughter Leo, who is training to be an ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilot is also having a romance with one of Maxwell’s trainees Labrador, a mysterious Pole, at the spy school.  My mother (who died 1988) was one of the 160 ATA ‘Spitfire women’ and as far as I know the only one to have grown up in the New Forest, so I had some first-hand material for that strand too.

Leo has another admirer, Henry Dunning-Green the son of a wealthy local family, whom she finds dull.  Unknown to her, he is also training as a saboteur at SOE Beaulieu.

Somervilles War book coverHow she, Labrador and Henry end up under the same roof in occupied France on a do or die mission is for you to discover. People are saying that it did keep them turning the pages. 

So if you want a story with strong local interest that – as the reviews put it – is ‘enthalling’, ‘high-octane,’ a ‘great read’ and a ‘sensitive story of relationships’ then Somerville’s War may be for you. In the best tradition of intelligent thrillers it’s intended to be not just a compelling read but a psychological tale which may help you understand why humans are so prone to obsession."

Somerville’s War by Andrew Duncan can be purchased from bookshops and online.

For more information and a video see the book’s website, www.somervilleswar.com

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