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Unique perspective of World War II

A new book called Monica was launched on Saturday 7th October at Cowbridge Town Hall in South Wales. It tells the story of a family who fled grinding poverty and endless wars in 1920s Poland to start a new life in France. France had suffered heavy losses in World War I and needed immigrant labour to work in the mines. This family were part of that solution but shortly after moving found themselves living under German occupation in World War II.

The story is told from the perspective of the youngest member of the family.  A little girl known as Monia at home, but Monique to her French school friends. She finally becomes known as Monica when the family settled in the South Wales coal field after the war. She recounts day to day life under occupation and beyond. She also embodies some recurring themes throughout the story. The mass movement of people across war torn Europe and the breakneck pace of change in the 20th century. One of her uncles glibly comments over dinner that he was born before the Wright brothers had achieved flight but had lived to see a man land on the moon. A remark which so aptly sums that up.

At the launch, the author Graham Loveluck-Edwards talked about the very real people the book is based on. A little-known history which is part of our story of diversity in Wales.

At the end of the second World War, it was Britain which had lost so many men that additional workers were needed to fill jobs in the mines. Soldiers of the Polish Free Army had fought alongside the British. After the war they were given a choice: Return to their country of residence or stay in the UK to work in the mines here. And that was the story of this family. So, the book also deals with first impressions of South Wales in 1948, and the uniquely Welsh things which made it feel like home.

Graham also revealed at the launch that he is a lot closer to the story than people might realise. “The principal character; Monica is based on my own mother. And this is all based on the history of her family”. He went on “people who knew her from the days when she ran Sacha Boutique in Bridgend in the 1970s and the Elle Dress Agency in Cowbridge in the 1990s may remember her as a rather glamorous and flamboyant lady. They might be surprised at her humble origins in a family of Polish peasants whose existence was so precarious, they measured a good winter by the fact that everyone in the household had survived”.

Even without any personal connections, readers will find the book absorbing and the story it tells fascinating and at times, amusing. Graham who is better known for writing about ancient Welsh legends and stories about pirates and highwaymen said “you will find the stories in this book every bit as entertaining as anything I’ve ever written about pirates or mythical beasts. The difference is, there are plenty of people dotted around the UK who share this history and will see their own family history reflected in what I have written”.

Monica’ is now available to buy from this website as well as on Amazon and all good book shops.

Watch a video of the book launch event in full

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New book out in October | ‘Monica’

I am excited and at the same time, intrepid about the release of my latest book.

So, what’s it about you may well ask?

Well in summary, it charts the movement of a family across Europe as they try to escape from war but who inadvertently keep getting caught up in it. They start off in Poland, settle in France, then some of the men go to fight in Spain, then France,  Africa, Italy, France again and eventually Germany. Then after the war end up in Pontypridd. Meanwhile the women of the family try and maintain some semblance of normality in the wake of disappearances, food shortages and the oppression of living in an occupied country.

The central character and narrator of the story is a character called Monica Devilliers. Her story begins by charting the unique set of circumstances that led to the family ending up in France in the first place. It introduces the reader to each member of her family of larger-than-life characters and the part they played within the family and her upbringing. It also covers what it was like day to day, living under occupation for a family of ordinary working-class people. All of whom were quite resourceful.

Her father and uncle managed to get out of France, and both fought in the Polish Free Army. A perspective of World War II which is rarely told so the book also deals with what they had to face and the impact it had on the war and more significantly on them as individuals.   We also get to relive what it was like for a 10-year-old girl to come to Britain for the first time after the war and somehow make a new life for herself in the mining communities around Pontypridd and Caerphilly in South Wales, and how she used her academic capabilities to escape everything that entrapped her.

So why the intrepidation?

Well as much as this might sound like a whim of fantasy, the fact is, this is a true story and 90% of what you read in this book, no matter how spectacular, actually happened. The other reason for the sleepless nights, is that unlike my folklore and history books where I am recording the fruits of research, on this occasion I have some skin in the game. Because the life of Monica is based on the memoirs of my own mother. And the revelations in this book lay bare to the world not just a lot of interesting and amusing stories but also a lot of skeletons and scandals.

So why have I written about them?

Good question. And I need to pause for a moment before answering. There is an oft quoted maxim that runs at the heart of the answer. And that is; if every time you read about history you feel pride then you are not reading a very thorough history. In fact, it sounds like you might be reading propaganda. Yes, history contains lots of victories, successes and heroes. But they are all equally balanced by pain and disgrace and other things that are not quite so positive.Every family tries to hold up a veneer of respectability. But the truth is every family has its fair shares of alcoholics, depressives, criminals, and vagabonds. And I really mean EVERY family. So why would it come as a surprise to anyone that mine does too?

Having said that, I have changed every body’s name in this book so none of the characters share the name of who they are based on. I also may have merged a few relatives into one or attributed what happened to one person to another. Basically, because as much as I wanted to tell this story, I do not want to embarrass or humiliate any relatives or their descendants. And for that reason I moved a few villages to neighbouring villages too. Just to make sure.

If you want to know more about the book, and the stories, people, and history in it, I am holding a public event where I will discuss all and take questions from the audience. It will be held in Cowbridge Town Hall on Saturday 7th October 2023 starting at 6pm. Tickets are £5 each but that includes entry, a glass of wine and a buffet so pretty good value I’m sure you’ll agree. Tickets are available here.

The book is now available to buy here, and at Amazon and all good bookshops.

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More than just a Great Escape – The history of Island Farm in Bridgend

We have just had a very significant anniversary in Bridgend which many local people may be forgiven for not having noticed. But it is a remarkable story that bears repeating until everyone is aware of it.

It was 10th March 1945, and the world was in the closing stages of its second World War. Earlier in the day, the people of Bridgend, much like those everywhere else in Britain, were glued to the evening news on their ‘wirelesses’. Reports were coming in that the last remaining German forces west of the Rhine had retreated. They must have been jubilant and gone to their beds with a spring in their step. The horrors of war would have seemed far away. Surely the war is now nearly over?

In the bigger scheme of things, these thoughts would have been quite justified. But events were to unfold that very night that would give the people of Bridgend one last fright.

The lead story on the midnight news must have had people shocked to their cores. 70 German prisoners of war had broken out of Island Farm Prisoner of War camp in Bridgend. The single biggest breakout of German POWs of the entire war in Britain. Soldiers and Police were being drafted in from surrounding areas to try and track them all down. People were warned to stay indoors and keep their windows and doors bolted shut.

Eventually all 70 had been rounded up. Most seemed to see the escape as just some high jinks as 23 of them only went as far as the dunes in Merthyr Mawr before stopping to set up a camp. A couple more were altogether more adventurous. They stole a doctor’s car in Bridgend but without the keys they had trouble starting it. Then some off duty soldiers came across them. The escaped German POWs convinced the soldiers that they were Scandinavian engineers working in Bridgend and persuaded the soldiers to give them a push. With a wave as they disappeared into the distance, they drove the stolen car until it ran out of fuel in Gloucestershire. They then boarded a train that took them to within a few miles of Birmingham where they got off and hid in a bush near an airfield to plan their next move. They potentially could have made a ‘home run’ if it were not for a curious herd of cows who surrounded the bush to investigate who their new neighbours were. The farmer raised the alarm, and the last remaining fugitives were captured.

There is a small group of volunteers who are determined to keep this story and all the other history wrapped up in the Island Farm camp alive. They call themselves the Hut 9 Island Farm Preservation Society and they are custodians of the last remaining hut on the camp. The one from which the Germans tunnelled out and that tunnel by the way, 78 years later, is still very much intact. German engineering you see – there’s nothing like it.

In most people’s minds, Island Fam Camp is synonymous only with just one event. But as momentous as it was, there is a lot more than that to discover.

Island Farm Camp was originally planned as a dormitory for the ladies working in the vast munitions factory in Bridgend during WWII. At its hight employing over 40,000 people (mostly women) from all over South Wales. This was the biggest factory in the UK at the time.

In the run up to D-Day it was commandeered by the US army to house American Infantrymen. And after D-Day, when German soldiers started to be captured in their thousands it was needed to hold prisoners of war.

In this video I talk to Brett Exton from the Hut 9 (Island Farm) Preservation Society. We look at the background and the fall out from the largest break out of German Prisoners of War ever on British soil when the eyes of the nation was on South Wales.

We look at how the camp came into being and its full life cycle in four very different phases. Including the period immediately after the war when it was used as a holding bay for top German brass awaiting trial at Nuremberg.

We also take a look at the work being done today to keep the history alive and to give members of the public the opportunity to visit the camp and see what life was like for those who lived there.

I hope you enjoy this video. And if you do, please subscribe to this channel and share on social media.

Written, produced and hosted by Graham Loveluck-Edwards for Bro Radio.

The history of Island Farm explored