Friday, November 20, 2015



            When Nadezha Popova a heroine of World War II died at the age of 91 in Moscow on July 8th 2013, no flags flew at half mast in recognition of her brave wartime services. In fact, the Night Bomber Units of the Russian Air Force had quietly slipped into oblivion after the war.
            Nadezha was born in Shabanovka, Ukraine on December 17th, 1921. She was not particularly interested in Academics but loved outdoor activities. At the age of 15, she joined a Flying Club to learn how to fly. Within a year she was able to take her first solo flight and also make a parachute jump. Later, she trained at an Aviation School in Kherson, Ukraine.
            During the war, German soldiers invaded her home and turned it into a Gestapo Police station. Her brother was killed and the family left homeless.  Overhead, German planes strafed innocent civilians indiscriminately and gloated over the havoc they created. It stirred up anger in this young girl and a desire for revenge.
            Women were not inducted into the Russian Armed Forces until 1941 because ‘no one wanted to give women the freedom to die.’ But realizing how women could be put to good use in the war effort, Stalin established three all-women Air Force units. One of these was the 588th Night Bomber Regiment.
            Nadezha was 19 when she enlisted. Most of the other girls who joined the regiment were also in their teens. They were ill equipped for this mission. Even the uniforms they wore were hand-me-downs from the men.
            The planes these young teenagers were expected to fly were obsolete two-seaters – the 1920 vintage Polikarpov PO2 planes. These had ply wood frames with canvas stretched across, and had the most rudimentary instruments.  No guns, radios or parachutes. The girls had to chart their course with compasses, maps and stop watches. Each plane had two bombs strapped under their wings. So the girls had to make several sorties during the night, as part of their duty. The planes had limited speed and had to be flown at low levels to escape detection by radar. They cut their engines before gliding over a target and releasing the bombs. Then they re-started the engines and flew away.
            The peculiar whooshing sound made by the engines sounded like witches riding in the sky on their broomsticks. So the Germans christened them ‘Night Witches.’ These dare devils caused a lot of damage to German military encampments, supply depots and isolated air bases. The Night Witches did about 30,000 missions in four years, and dropped 23,000 tons of bombs. Any German who shot down a Night Witch was decorated with the Iron Cross.
            The planes usually flew in formations of three. Two advance decoys were followed by the third plane which dropped the bombs. Each plane took turns in the bombing routine.
            These young women were fearless. Fired by a spirit of patriotism and hatred for the Germans, they were hell bent on doing as much damage to the enemy as their puny planes would allow. Many times they flew through walls of enemy fire. Some were shot down and lost their lives. Germans spread the rumour that these witches were given injections to improve their night vision.
            Nadezha Popova was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. She was active in 852 missions. Though she came under fire many times she was not badly hurt.
On one occasion when she was shot and forced to land, she found herself in a group of retreating troops and civilians. It was here that she met another pilot Semyon Kharlamov, who was also shot down. They saw each other several times during the war. In 1945, at the end of the war, they were both in Berlin and signed their names on the wall of the Reichstag.
            Nadezha and Semyon were married soon after and lived a happy life until Semyon’s death in 1990. Post-war, Nadezha went back to being a flying instructor. She was decorated with several honours – The Soviet Medal of Honour, Order of Friendship, Order of Lenin and Order of the Red Banner.

            Nadezha joins the ranks of the many brave women who risked their lives for their country in World War II.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015


            If creativity and madness are two sides of the same coin, it is well exemplified in the life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. She was a painter and writer whose best work was done within the confines of psychiatric institutions, where she spent most of her adult life. Some called her illness Bipolar Disorder. Others thought she was a schizophrenic. But at John Hopkins, doctors thought she had no mental illness but her mental state of mind was due to a destructive relationship with a paranoid alcoholic husband. It was probably his subversive tendencies that added to her syndrome of schizophrenia. Zelda wanted to be a writer, painter and dancer. Her husband Scott Fitzgerald discouraged her creativity. He was domineering and jealous and tried to restrict her movements.
            Zelda was the daughter of Judge Antony Dickenson Sayre a prominent judge in Montgomery, Alabama. Zelda therefore belonged to the higher echelons of society. She was named after a gypsy heroine portrayed in a novel of 1874. The quirks in her character were evident even as a teenager. She would smoke, flirt outrageously with anyone she fancied, and loved to dance, sometimes in the nude. She was the darling of the Jazz Age and her friends even formed a fraternity called Zeta Sigma, where they took an oath of devotion to her.
            Scott Fitzgerald was in the Army in 1918 and was 21 years old when he met Zelda Sayre all of 17 years and just out of school. She was beautiful, feckless and undisciplined. But he married her in 1920 as soon as he was discharged from the Army. He took up a job in a New York advertising firm, and also started writing in earnest. His first book “This side of Paradise” brought success and social exposure. Their all-night parties and drinking sessions led to debts but Scott blamed this on Zelda’s poor housekeeping.  As he progressed in his writing, they moved between America, Paris and the Riviera. Theirs was a rocky marriage from the start. Scott wanted seclusion for his writing but Zelda craved for the good things of life. There were times when he locked her in their house because of her erratic behaviour.  Some suspected him of domestic violence. His alcoholism increased. How he managed to write his famous novels including ‘The Great Gatsby’ in his state of mind is quite surprising. Though he blamed Zelda for his alcoholism, he was already an addict when he married her.
            Zelda accused him of stealing her diaries and using her dialogues in his novels. She was the inspiration for many of his heroines, and the remarkable lines she uttered were appropriated from her diaries. She fuelled his insecurities because he was always afraid that she would expose him. She called it ‘plagiarism at home.’
            Zelda wrote many short stories but authored only one full length novel ‘Save me the Waltz.’ It was published by Scribner in 1932. Scott tried to prevent this ‘autobiography of an unstable marriage’ from being published, but didn’t succeed. However, the book didn’t make headlines.
            Though they were estranged in 1934, they were never divorced. Zelda spent the last years of her life, between 1936 – 47, as an inmate of the Highland Hospital, Ashville in North Carolina. Various therapies were tried out on her with little success. Due to the shock therapy she received, she had no recollection of her early years. She continued to alternate between periods of depression and spells of high energy and creativity. Her best paintings belong to this period. Unfortunately several of them were destroyed by fire.
            Zelda outlived her husband by seven years. She died at the Ashville Hospital on March 10th 1947. Pluto called creativity ‘Divine Madness.’ Byron said, “Creativity and genius feed on mental turmoil,” which is very true of Zelda’s life.
            The couple had one daughter Frances Fitzgerald in 1921. But the marriage of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald was taken right out of the Devil’s Dictionary.
            “They stood before the altar and supplied
              The fire themselves, in which their fat was fried.”
The Scott and Zelda Museum in Montgomery is an interesting place to visit.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Christine Granville Britain’s first female Special Agent of World War II, was Churchill’s favourite spy. A woman who loved adventure, her exploits and espionage work during WWII are truly mind boggling.
"Krystyna Skarbek" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -
Born Krystyna Skarbek, this young Polish woman was the Beauty Queen of Warsaw at the age of 19. But she was well aware that “Beauty has a short lived reign.” Early in life she realised that life was duty and only intelligence and resourcefulness could bring true fulfillment and self esteem.
Krystyna was born on the 1st of May 1908 in Warsaw, to Roman Catholic Count Jerzy Skarbeck and a wealthy Jewish heiress from a Banking family, Stephanie Goldfeder. She was greatly influenced by her father who encouraged her to be a tomboy, and created in her a love for the outdoors. Horse riding and skiing were skills she acquired from a young age.
But Count Jerzy Skarbeck loved the good things of life and squandered the wealth of his wife, leaving the family in straightened circumstances on his death in 1930. To support the family, Krystyna took up a job in a Fiat dealership company. She had to give it up within a few months as she developed severe allergy to the automobile fumes. On medical advice she spent more time outdoors and became an expert in hiking and skiing in the Tatra range of mountains in southern Poland.
Krystyna’s first marriage to Gustav Gettlich a businessman on 21st April 1930 fizzled out within a short time. Her second marriage was to Jerzy Gizycki a wealthy brilliant eccentric who shared her love for adventure, on November 2nd 1938. He was sent to Ethiopia as a Polish Consul General, where he stayed till September 1939. But when WWII broke out and Germany invaded Poland, the couple moved to London, where Krystyna offered her services to the British Secret Intelligence. In 1940 she became a Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was given various tasks of sabotage and undercover missions for the Allied forces in Europe. The SOE was involved in espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage missions. Krystyna started using the pseudonym Christine Granville in 1941. (Later in 1946, when she became a British citizen, she legally adopted the name.)
Christine became an Intelligence Courier skiing over the Tatra Mountains at night, in temperatures sometimes as low as -30C, to dodge the Border Patrols. With her bravado and cunning she was well suited for the job. She took British propaganda into Warsaw to bolster the spirit of the Polish Resistance. Then she skied back over the mountains with secret information about the deployment of German SS and Wermacht units stationed around Warsaw. She helped organize a system of Polish couriers who brought Intelligence from Warsaw to Budapest.
In 1941 she was arrested by the Gestapo along with a Polish Army officer Andrzy Kowerski, and faced torture and death. But with her penchant for cunning, she bit her tongue to make it bleed and pretended to be suffering from Tuberculosis. Terrified of contracting the disease, the Gestapo officers set both of them free. Kowerski the one-legged Polish hero and Christine had a long and serious relationship since they met in Budapest in 1939. They worked together in Budapest, Poland and Cairo. This however did not prevent her from having affairs with other young men. She even dated Ian Fleming for over a year. He was so impressed by this brave lady who travelled with a knife taped to her thigh and a suicidal pendant around her neck, that his heroine Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale was modeled on Christine.
Christine’s greatest exploit was shortly before the Allies invaded France in 1944. She parachuted into France as Madam Pauline Armand, to assist the French Resistance fighters in advance of the American ground invasion. Francis Cammaerts and his men of the French Resistance were caught by the Nazis and faced execution. Christine stormed the office of the prison guard in Digne, posing as a British agent. She announced that Digne was soon to be bombed and the Allies were advancing rapidly. The guard could only save himself by releasing the French prisoners and seeking pardon. He took her to the Gestapo officer who was in charge. Christine threatened him with death at the hands of the French mob when the Allies attacked. She also offered him a bribe of two million francs. Cammaerts and his men were released and went on to be the key liberators of France. Her daring act restored Christine’s political and military reputation, as there were some in British Intelligence who suspected her of being a German spy. She was the only female subaltern who was promoted to Captain. She worked in Europe till the end of the war.
Post war, Christine was not absorbed into the British Intelligence Service but was discharged with five months of severance salary. Because of the Anglo-American betrayal of her country at the Yalta Conference in 1945 to Stalin’s ruthless regime, Christine was rendered stateless. The British dragged their feet over her citizenship until 1946. By now she was divorced from her husband. With no financial reserves to fall back on, this once flamboyant anti-Nazi agent took on a low paying job as stewardess on the Union Castle Line. She booked into the cheap Selborne Hotel in Earl’s Court on June 11th !952. She was stabbed to death in the lobby on 15th June, by a man named Dennis Muldowney whose advances she had spurned.

By Dobry77 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Christine’s planned meeting after the war, with long time lover Andrzy Kowerski never took place. This brave woman who was once a law unto herself was interred in St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, North London. Kowerski died in Munich in 1988 and his ashes were flown to London, to be buried at the foot of her grave.
Christine was awarded the George Medal for her exploits in Digne. In May 1947, she was made Officer of the Order of the British Empire for her war work in conjunction with British Secret Service. The French decorated her with the Croix de Guerre for her contribution to the liberation of France.

One is left with the feeling that this daring Polish espionage agent in spite of being Churchill’s favourite spy, was eventually short changed by Britain.

Monday, March 30, 2015



            A small sign “Elsa Brandstrom Street” near the Rhine in Bonn piqued my curiosity. Who was this woman? I learnt that there were many schools, institutions and streets named after her in Germany and Austria.
            Elsa was a Swedish nurse and philanthropist. She was born on March 26th, 1888, in St. Petersburg, when her father Edvard Brandstrom was posted as Military Attaché, at the Swedish Embassy in Russia. But she grew up in Sweden and completed her education at the Anna Sandstrom Teachers’ Training College in Stockholm.
            Years later, when her father now a General, was posted as Swedish Ambassador to the court of Tsar Nicholas II, Elsa returned to Russia and volunteered as a nurse in the Russian Army, during World War I.
            In 1915,Elsa was sent to Siberia under the Swedish Red Cross banner, to care for German and Austrian prisoners of war, as they were treated very badly by the Russians. This tall, blue eyed, blonde young woman brought solace to many ill and demoralized soldiers who suffered from malnutrition, Typhoid, and other diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. It earned her the name “Angel of Siberia.” Elsa also started a Swedish Aid Organization for prisoners of war. But her work was curtailed during the October Revolution of 1917 -1918. However, she made many trips between Sweden and Siberia, but was arrested at Omsk in 1919, and convicted to death by a firing squad. To her good luck the death sentence was later revoked, though she had to languish in jail till the end of 1920.
            Back in Sweden, Elsa’s concern for the POWs saw her actively involved in fund raising for them. She soon moved to Germany and served at a Rehabilitation Centre for POWs in Marienbom-Schmekwitz. She even spent her own money and bought a mill (Schreibermuhl) surrounded by vast property, close to the Rehabilitation Centre. The fields, meadows and forests were used to grow potatoes and other crops, so that these men could earn their livelihood by cultivating the land.
            She was tireless in her efforts to better the lives of these men who had suffered in the war. In 1923, she went on a fund raising tour of the United States for six months, in her Swedish Red Cross uniform. People were interested to learn of her experiences in Siberia, during and after World War I. They were generous with their donations.
            In 1924, she started ‘Neusorge’ a home for orphaned children of POWs at Mitteida. It had the capacity to accommodate 200 children. But when she married Professor Heinrich Robert Ullich in 1929, she had to move to Dresden. So she sold the mill and donated the money to a welfare organization. She also handed over charge of the orphanage, when assured that they would run it efficiently.
            Elsa’s burden was always for the soldiers who had been prisoners of war, and who needed to be rehabilitated into civilian life. When she moved to Harvard with her husband for a few years, she continued to help German and Austrian soldiers who arrived in the United States as refugees, looking out for opportunities whereby they could work and sustain themselves.
            During World War II, Elsa raised funds for the starving and homeless women in Germany. Two organizations started by Her (CARE- Cooperative for American Relief in Europe, and CRALOG –Council of Relief Agencies Licensed for Operation in Germany) brought in sizeable donations from Germans and Americans. ‘Save the Children’s Fund’ was also another of her interests. She travelled all over Europe giving lectures on the plight of children and their various needs.
            Elsa was honoured by the Silber Badge of the German Empire, The Royal Order of the Seraphim from Sweden, and was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times. She died of bone cancer in 1948 and was buried in Sweden.
            At the Arne Karlsson Park in Vienna, after the XXth International Conference of the Red Cross on September 6th, 1965, a monument was erected here in gratitude for Elsa’s work among German and Austrian prisoners of war. The sculptor of the monument was Robert Ullman. Professor Hans Weiland an old POW, who had experienced her goodness, highlighted her life and work among the prisoners. He said, “It is in love for her neighbour that she perceived salvation for humanity.”
            The war brought many heroines in different nations. But Elsa’s unflinching devotion to soldiers, who spent the best years of their lives in the trenches of war, was something unique. She was worthy to be honoured.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015



Aston Hall is an old Jacobean mansion that was built between 1618- 1635. It is located in the inner city of Birmingham and is an interesting place to visit. It belonged to a local squire of Warwickshire Thomas Holte, a wealthy, vain, ambitious and influential man, who was knighted by King James I in 1603. In 1611, he bought for himself the title of Baronet.
The palatial mansion and property was sold by his descendants in 1868, to the Corporation of Birmingham, as it was too expensive to maintain. It is now under the administration of the Birmingham Museum Trust, and is open to the public during summer months.
Aston Hall is surrounded by well maintained parkland and extensive gardens. A guided tour through the mansion with its stunning interior, acquaints us with the magnificent history of the building and its original owners. But what makes our hair stand on end is the tragic story of Mary Holte, the daughter of Thomas Holte, an arrogant and heartless man. He was known to have disinherited his first son Edward because he married a girl of lower social status.
After we have seen enough of the magnificent interior, the opulence of the furniture and the large portraits of the early owners, our guide promises us some excitement. As we negotiate our way through narrow tortuous steps leading to the servants’ quarters, he points to a dark, windowless box like room where Mary Holte was held in solitary confinement for sixteen long years, because she fell in love with a servant and tried to elope with him. This cell is smaller than the ones which the Nazis used for solitary confinement of prisoners in their concentration camps. The spooky tales that follow makes one break out in cold sweat. Some say she died of malnutrition; others thought she escaped from her prison, ran down those narrow treacherous steps and broke her neck. Still others say that she ran out of the mansion and flung herself into a pond on the property which was filled with fish.
Ever since, Aston Hall is supposed to be haunted by the grey ghost of Mary Holte. She does not confine herself to the servants’ quarters but has the run of the entire mansion. She is in good company as there are two other resident ghosts in Aston Hall. One is of a house keeper who worked there in 1645. This ghost is always seen in a green dress and has her favourite reclining chair in the kitchen. The other is of a house boy who hung himself in the servants’ quarters because he was accused of stealing.

Every two years, a Christmas celebration called “Aston Hall by Candlelight” is held. Actors dress in period costumes and re enact 17th century festivities. Mary Holte is the uninvited guest at these celebrations. She moves among the actors in her grey faintly odorous gown. Her hurried footsteps and mournful voice may be lost in the noise of the festivities. But there are always a few of the actors who swear that their cheeks have been pinched.

Saturday, January 10, 2015



The Hotel Godesburg sits atop the highest hill in Bad Godesburg, Bavaria, and overlooks the Rhine. It was built on the remains of a 13th century fortress owned by the Archdiocese of Cologne as a symbol of the power of Catholicism. It gives a gorgeous panoramic view of the surrounding towns and on a clear day one can see as far as the spires of the Cologne Cathedral.
The hotel has an interesting story to tell about the old fortress, and the War of Cologne during 1583-1588, between the Catholics and Protestants. The involvement of a woman called Agnes of Mansfeld-Eisleben was what triggered the war.
Love came unbidden to this canoness who lived in a religious community at Gersheim near Dusseldorf in the 16th century. Though this was a cloister, Agnes had not yet taken her perpetual vows. She was therefore at liberty to move outside the convent and visit her family.
During one such visit to her sister Sibella and her husband Peter von Krichingen, she was introduced to Archbishop Gebhard of Walburg-Truchburg of the Cologne Electorate. It was love at first sight and the beginning of a liaison that led to the War of Cologne between Catholics and Protestants which lasted from 1583 to 1588. Agnes’ brothers Heyer and Ernst insisted that the Bishop marry their sister.
They were married in December 1582. Agnes was a staunch protestant and the Bishop unmindful of the consequences, converted to Protestantism. The Roman Catholics considered Calvinism a heresy. The parishioners were afraid that the Bishop would convert his Electorate to Protestantism. He declared from the pulpit that Catholicism and Protestantism enjoyed equal parity in his diocese. But he became an iconoclast and encouraged the destruction of many statues and images.
The Pope excommunicated Gebhard in 1583 and appointed a new bishop for Bavaria. But Gebhard refused to relinquish office and secured himself in the Godesburg fortress which was strong and impregnable and situated on a high mountain peak, 400 feet above the ground. However the new bishop got together an army of Catholic soldiers who tunneled their way into the base of the mountain using 1500 pounds of dynamite, and took possession of the fortress. Gebhard was forced to relinquish office in 1588.

The couple moved to Strasbourg in France, which was a stronghold of Calvinism. They were safe here. Agnes had no qualms about the part she indirectly played in the War of Cologne. Gebhard died in 1601, leaving Agnes with a generous lifetime annuity. His brother Karl was her guardian. But when he died in 1593, Agnes came under the protection of the Duke of Wurtemburg. She died in 1637 and was buried in Sulzbach.