Norway’s ‘German Girls’

After the occupation of Norway, German soldiers were encouraged to form relationships with the country’s women (left) but when the war ended, the girls face bitter retribution by their fellow countrymen (right).

In A Dangerous Act of Kindness, Millie Sanger discovers that you can’t always help who you fall in love with. During the Second World War, thousands of Norwegian women faced the same moral dilemma.

Nearly eighty years ago this month, the Royal Navy took on the Kriegsmarine at Narvik. A month earlier, Hitler had ordered the invasion of Norway but during this first naval battle, Germany lost two destroyers and retired when the third was badly damaged. The naval commanders on both sides were killed in the battle.

More determined than ever to defeat the Germans, a new wave of forces arrived in the Ofotfijord on 13 April 1940. Three German destroyers were sunk and the German crews scuttling many of their own ships when they ran out of fuel. These two battles halved the destroyer strength of the Kriegsmarine.

Despite these early victories, the Allies were forced to withdraw their defence of the country when France fell. Norway was occupied by Germany.

SS leader Heinrich Himmler approved of Norwegian women. They epitomised many of the desired attributes of the Aryan master race and occupying soldiers were encouraged to have children with them. It’s thought that 50,000 women had relationships with German soldiers. These so called ‘German Girls’ faced bitter reprisals when the war ended and they were accused of betraying their country.

In 2018 Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg apologised on behalf of the country for this mistreatment. “For many,” she said, “this was just a teenage love, for some, the love of their lives with an enemy soldier or an innocent flirt that left its mark for the rest of their lives.”

The Real Brigsie

The real Brigsie Paterson

The real Brigsie Paterson was a wartime friend of my mother’s. She wasn’t a Land Girl, she was a VAD. I remember her as a strong and independent woman. When I was creating Brigsie for A Dangerous Act of Kindness, hers was the face I had in mind.

The real Brigsie didn’t have a secret like the one in my book. My Mum met her at Boyce Barracks where they were both being trained to serve overseas. They instantly clicked and stayed chums all through the war and for the rest of their lives.

Brigsie with Mike Sutton

When they were out in Graz, Brigsie fell in love with a doctor called Mike Sutton. He was in charge of the Blood Transfusion Service and was known as ‘Blood Sutton’. They shared a love of riding. One Christmas, Mike rode his horse through the hospital, blasting away on his hunting horn to wish Brigsie a very Happy Christmas.

Unfortunately for Brigsie, Mike had a wife waiting at home. One evening in Graz, my Mum was in her bedroom and she heard a hunting horn playing Gone Away. She rushed off to find Brigsie and said, ‘Isn’t that Mike out there at the edge of the forest?’ Brigsie said, ‘Yes. He’s playing Gone Away. It means he’s leaving.’ He was demobbed the next day and she never saw him again.

Brigsie didn’t marry. After the war, she found a new life, farming in Limuru, Kenya. In many ways, she became the Land Girl of my story. I rather think my fictional Brigsie would have done the same sort of thing when the war was over.

My Mum with Graz and her litter, enjoying the summer on the banks of the River Wye.

My mother and father married and settled in Hereford. They named their first boxer dog Graz, after the town where they’d fallen in love. In 1949, Graz had a litter and one of the puppies, Ranee, was sent out to Brigsie.

Brigsie out in Limuru, Kenya with Ranee’s litter of seven beautiful boxer dog pups.

When Brigsie retired, she came back to England and settled in Southampton. I visited her during the 1980s and remember that her house was filled with exotic pottery and carvings from her time abroad. I wanted to pay homage to her in A Dangerous Act of Kindness as a thank you for all the wonderful stories and wartime adventures that she had with my Mum.

Franz von Werra

Franz von Werra with his pet lion cub, Simba

Franz von Werra was the only German prisoner-of-war to successfully escape British captivity and make it back to Germany during the Second World War. He was shot down over Kent on 5 September 1940. He told many different accounts of his capture, sometimes crediting the Home Guard with old-fashioned shotguns and at other times Tommies in full battle dress, bayonets fixed. In truth he was captured by an unarmed cook who dashed out of the kitchen of the searchlight battery near to where von Werra’s plane came down.

Von Werra was taken to the Kent County Constabulary.  Police Sergeant Harrington was on duty. He described von Werra as ‘quiet, polite and correct,’ although, ‘a bit conceited’. Von Werra claimed to be a Baron and to prove he was an aristocrat, he wore a signet ring bearing a crest and coronet. He also said his father owned several castles in Switzerland. Despite these extravagant claims, Harrington found him, ‘confident, alert and highly intelligent.’

Von Werra lost no time trying to escape. He made several audacious attempts, once managing to stay on the run for three days in the Lake District. On another occassion, he got as far as the cockpit of an aeroplane at RAF Hucknall near Nottingham, having convinced a number of people that he was a Dutch pilot trying to reach his unit. They arrested him as he  was desperately trying to work out the unfamiliar controls before taking off for France.

It wasn’t until he left Britain that he was successful. Along with many other Germans, he was shipped out to Canada in January 1941. He escaped through the window of the prison train in Ontario and made the perilous crossing to then neutral America by walking over the frozen St Lawrence river.

When he returned to Germany, Hitler awarded him the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. He returned to active duty but his plane went missing over the ocean north of Vissingen in the Netherlands on 25 October 1941.




During the Middle Ages, the practice of surgery and medicine was carried out by the clergy but at the beginning of twelfth century, Pope Alexander III banned them from performing any procedures that involved blood. As blood-letting remained a popular treatment for a wide range of illnesses, the clergy turned to their barbers. Barbers traditionally worked in the monasteries, keeping the monks clean-shaven at all times, as decreed by Pope Urban II a hundred years earlier. The barber-surgeon provided a range of services such as tooth extraction and minor operations as well as bloodletting.


The barber’s pole was originally a symbol of the pole the patient held in their hand during bloodletting, the brass ball at the top of the pole symbolising the bowl used for collecting the blood or for holding leeches. After treatment the bandages were washed and wrapped around the pole to dry, giving it the traditional striped pattern.

The Black Plague of the 14th and 15th centuries had a devastating effect on the number of university-trained physicians (with a doctorate) and in 1540, Henry VIII united the Company of the Barbers and the Fellowship of Surgeons with a royal decree, the Company of Barber-Surgeons, to alleviate the shortages. (Even today, a hospital doctor loses his or her ‘Dr’ title and becomes ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Ms’ or ‘Miss’ once he or she has acquired higher surgical qualifications.) With no formal training, many barber-surgeons resorted to quackery, and discord between the barbers and the surgeons increased, which explains Dr Argyll’s antipathy towards barber-surgeon Mr Barker in The Red and the Scarlet.


However, advances in surgery had gradually improved, pioneered by innovators such as Ambroise Paré. Originally apprenticed to a barber, this famous Frenchman served as army surgeon for thirty years, pioneering and inventing a range of procedures, in particular the treatment of war wounds. When his book Les Oeuvres was published in 1575, his ideas spread across Europe and respect for surgeons began to build until, in 1745, the surgeons finally dissolved their centuries-old partnership with the barbers to become the well-respected profession they are today.

The Forgotten Battle

Left: Battle of Blenheim, 1704 Right: Battle of Waterloo, 1815
Left: Battle of Blenheim, 1704
Right: Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Throughout my time at Blenheim Palace, I was intrigued that the Battle of Blenheim was overshadowed in English history by the Battle of Waterloo. Not infrequently visitors thought the famous tapestries showed the Duke of Wellington fighting the French whereas they show the Duke of Marlborough fighting the same foe a century earlier. Visitors were far more interested in Winston Churchill (who was born at Blenheim Palace) than in his ancestor, John Churchill who won the ‘glorious victory’ on the fields of Bavaria at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Winston himself tried to set the record straight, believing that  John Churchill’s defeat of the armies of Louis XIV in 1704 changed the axis of power in Europe more dramatically than the defeat of Napoleon.

Marlborough and Wellington are both regarded as brilliant generals but Wellington always seems to steal the march. The poet Robert Southey in 1796 wrote an anti-war poem about a skull found by children in the fields of Bavaria, highlighting the pointless human sacrifice.

Mawkish Edwardian illustration of Southey's poem 'After Blenheim' from the Children's Encylopaedia.
Mawkish Edwardian illustration of Southey’s poem ‘After Blenheim’ from the Children’s Encylopaedia.

In fact, the death toll at Blenheim was half that of Waterloo, a battle Southey praised in a later poem written in 1816. And the sacrifice at Blenheim was certainly not in vain. The victory destroyed Europe’s belief in the invincibility of the French, saved Vienna from invasion and stopped the expansionist policies of Louis XIV.

In his history of the British army, John Fortescue wrote that Marlborough, like Wellington, ‘was endowed with a strong common sense that in itself amounted to genius’ but thought that ‘there was a bond of humanity between Marlborough and his men that was lacking in Wellington,’ and yet Wellington remains in the national consciousness and Marlborough is all but forgotten.

Left: 1st Duke of Marlborough Right: 1st Duke of Wellington
Left: 1st Duke of Marlborough
Right: 1st Duke of Wellington

It’s a puzzzle. The two generals shared other attributes: they were both handsome men, although perhaps Wellington’s more contemporary look captures the nation’s imagination better than Marlborough’s (the Brian May wig doesn’t help). Another reason may be that the history curriculum in this country tends not to focus on the early part of the eighteenth century. But my favourite reason was put to me by a visiting historian. He reckoned Waterloo was more famous because it was an easier battlefield for tourists to visit, standing just outside Brussels, and because it had a catchy name that people remembered.

Smallpox and the Gothic

hill01_3607_05Horace Walpole is credited with coining the term ‘Gothic’ in 1764. The Castle of Otranto was subtitled ‘A Gothic Story’, warning the reader that his tale was from a darker age, one of barbarity and cruelty. In his ‘attempt to blend the two kinds of romance: ancient and modern,’ he believed he had created ‘a new species of romance. I was at liberty to lay down what rules I thought fit for the conduct of it,’ – a gloomy setting, a sense of imposing doom, disturbing visions or dreams, melodrama, women in distress or threatened by powerful men. Those rules still play out, restyled through the centuries to appeal to the reading public of the day and make it relevant for the times. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein contains many of those elements although she uses science as the driver. Danny Boyle’s starting point for his production of Frankenstein was his research into a time when ‘the age of science begins.’

Caricature by the English artist James Gillray: The Cow-Pock or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802). The word 'vaccination' comes from the Latin 'vaccha' for cow. Jenner's treatment did not use the live smallpox virus but the virus from the milder cow pox which also produced immunity in humans.
Caricature by the English artist James Gillray: The Cow-Pock or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! (1802). The word ‘vaccination’ comes from the Latin ‘vaccha’ for cow. Jenner’s treatment did not use the live smallpox virus but the virus from the milder cow pox which also produced immunity in humans.

The Red and the Scarlet is set at a similar pivot, the dawn of the age of enlightenment. Doctors were beginning to distrust a system of medicine based on the humours, which had guided medical practice for centuries. Treatments compromised survival among the rich (read Sir Charles Scarborough’s account of the death of Charles II) and more enlightened physicians were studying folklores to find new cures.

If the enjoyment of the Gothic comes from an acting out of irrational fears in a safe environment, smallpox offers the perfect subject. It is the only human disease ever to be completely eradicated from the world’s population and yet, despite advances in modern medicine, the horror of sickness, of things erupting from the body, of disfigurement and pain still grips us.

The Gothic tradition is continually evolving: Emily and Charlotte Brontë pitted a new type of damsel in distress, one that rises victorious from male oppression: the feisty Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the strong, intelligent Jane Eyre. In this century, Stephanie Meyer  repackaged the genre in the form of vampire Edward Cullen, an ‘Edward Rochester with fangs,’ according to clinical psychologist Dr Cecilia d’ Felice. Cullen is a man who threatens the heroine but also arouses feelings of sympathy, a longing to heal his wounded heart. D’ Felice believes that at that same time as harbouring these more lofty emotions, the teenage girl subconsciously wants to be chased and caught, absolved of the responsibility of controlling her desires.

Literary critics may be snobbish about the Gothic genre but it remains perennially popular with well respected authors creating gripping narratives within it: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) and Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger (2009).

Apothecary Box

apothecary boxEighteenth-century physicians carried their medicines in these beautiful boxes. This one is made of mahogany and would very probably have been taken on campaign because it has brass carrying handles. There are double opening doors that lock as well as a secret compartment. When the cabinet was open, it gave access to a clasp on the front right hand side. When this was pulled out, a compartment at the back slid out. It was used for storing poisons.

As well as the bottles, the cabinet contained a pestle and mortar, a set of scales made of brass with iron weights, a metal funnel and a measuring tube. The drawer handles were made of ivory.

Elizabeth Alkin


The Battle of Scheveningen, 1653 by Jan Abrahamsz Beerstraaten

This was the final battle in the First Anglo-Dutch War, a conflict that resulted in another first – the establishment of casualty reception stations. Throughout history, war has driven advances in medicine and surgery but it also brought dramatic changes to the status and condition of women. As early as the middle of the seventeenth century, Elizabeth Alkin was working with Dr Daniel Whistler to establish reception station for the injured returning from the war with the Dutch. These reception stations were based in Portsmouth and East Anglia and were the forerunners of the flying hospitals that the First Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, set up in Europe during the War of Spanish Succession.

Unfortunately, the status of women in 1653 was not high enough to provide a surviving image of Elizabeth Alkin, only one of the physician, Dr Daniel Whistler.

(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Royal College of Physicians, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Death of Charles II

charles_IIWhen Charles II of England lay dying from a convulsion which attacked him while shaving, the medicos of that day left no stone unturned in helping him along to the Great Beyond. First, he was bled of a pint of blood. Then his shoulder was cut and eight ounces more of blood was extracted by cupping.

Then followed an emetic, a purgative and another purgative. Next, an enema in which they used antimony, sacred bitters, rock salt, mallow leaves, violet, beet root, camomile flowers, fennel seed, linseed, cinnamon, cardamom seed, saffron, cochineal and aloes. This enema was repeated. In two hours, another purgative was given.

Death of Charles II. At the age of fifty-five, Charles suffered an apoplectic fit while shaving. He died four days later but may well have survived without the medical intervention of the day.

The King’s scalp was then shaved, and a blister raised on it. They gave him next sneezing powder of hellebore root; they sought to strengthen his brain by giving him powder of cowslip flowers. Purgatives were frequently repeated. He was given drinks of barley water, licorice, sweet almonds, white wine, absinthe, anise seed, extracts of thistles, rue, mint and angelica. When these did not cure him, they gave him a poultice of burgundy pitch and pigeon dung, to be applied to his feet. More bleeding, more purging; they added melon seeds, manna, slippery elm, black cherry water, extracts of flower of lime, lily of the valley, peony, lavender and dissolved pearls. When these did not do the trick, they went at it with gentian root, nutmeg, quinine and cloves. When this failed, he was given forty drops of extract of human skull. Then they forced down his throat a rallying dose of herbs and animal extracts. Then some powdered bezoar stone.

Alas, after an ill fated night His Serene Majesty was so exhausted that all the physicians became despondent. And so, more active cordials, and finally pearl julep [a heart tonic] and ammonia, were forced down the royal patient’s throat. Then he died.

(From a description by Sir Charles Scarburgh)