Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Lusitania Passengers Norah & Betty Bretherton

Roll Back the Clouds, my new novel about the Lusitania, releases on March 17. Many of the passengers aboard the ill-fated, final voyage appear alongside main characters, Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard. I’ll be profiling several of them here. This week, meet Norah and Betty Bretherton.

        Norah Bretherton immigrated in 1910 to join her fiancĂ© in Santa Monica, California. Five years later, she sailed on the Lusitania with her two young children because she wanted to introduce them to their grandparents. Norah was 32, her son Paul was 3, and daughter Betty was 15 months.
At the time the Lusitania was torpedoed, Norah had been on the stairs between B and C decks. She retrieved Betty from a nursery on B deck and took her up to A Deck, where the lifeboats hung. Paul was napping in their cabin on C deck. Norah failed to persuade anyone to fetch her son for her, and finally thrust Betty into the arms of a man and hastened downstairs. When she and Paul returned to the boat deck, the man no longer had Betty. It is unknown if he placed her in a lifeboat that capsized.
Norah placed an advertisement in the Cork Examiner:

Missing: A baby girl, 15 months old, very fair hair, curled, rosy complexion, in a white woolen jersey and leggings. Tries to walk and talk. Name Betty Bretheron. Please send any information to Miss Browne, Bishop’s House, Queenstown.

Betty’s body was recovered four days after the sinking, and is buried in a convent in Cork, Ireland.

In Roll Back the Clouds, Rosaleen Bonnard, longing for motherhood, enjoys playing with babies in the nursery. Betty was one of her little friends.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Lusitania Passengers Lady Allan and Her Daughters

Roll Back the Clouds, my new novel about the Lusitania, releases on March 17. Many of the passengers aboard the ill-fated, final voyage appear alongside main characters, Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard. I’ll be profiling several of them here. This week, meet Marguerite, Lady Allan, and her daughters, Anna and Gwen.

        Lady Allan was the wife of Canadian shipping magnate, Sir Hugh Montagu Allan. They had four children: Marguerite Martha (known as Martha), Hugh, Gwendolyn, and Anna.
            When the Great War began in 1914, the family planned to spend the war years in England. Sir Montagu set up a hospital for Canadian soldiers wounded at the front. Lady Allan would work at a convalescent hospital and with the Red Cross.
Daughter Martha secured a nursing qualification, bought an ambulance, and went to France a month ahead of her mother. Lady Allan took along Gwen, 16, and Anna, 15, along with their two maids and eighteen steamer trunks of belongings. Her husband remained in Montreal to finish up some business.
When the Lusitania sank, the Allans went into the water together, but were separated. A family friend, Frederick Orr-Lewis, was with them and later stated that explosion of the boilers sent him to the surface. Lady Allan suffered a broken collarbone, either from debris or the keel of a lifeboat, and may also have broken an arm or hip. Gwen’s body was recovered and buried in the family plot in Montreal. Anna was never found.

Two years later, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Hugh Allan was shot down and killed while flying a patrol over German trenches in Belgium. His sister, Martha, died in 1942. Sir Hugh and Lady Allan outlived all four of their children.
In Roll Back the Clouds, Rosaleen Bonnard meets the Allan ladies and feels intimidated in her simpler attire, but the girls admire her embroidery and set her at ease.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Lusitania passenger Alfred Vanderbilt

Roll Back the Clouds, my new novel about the Lusitania, releases on March 17. Many of the passengers aboard the ill-fated, final voyage appear alongside main characters, Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard. I’ll be profiling several of them here. This week, meet Alfred Vanderbilt.

Tall, lean, and elegant, 37-year-old Alfred Vanderbilt was the richest man onboard. He had inherited the bulk of the family fortune because his elder brother Cornelius Jr. had angered their father by marrying a woman reputed to being “fast.”
Alfred had a weakness for women, which led to scandals. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1908 due to his adultery aboard his private railcar with the wife of Cuba’s attachĂ© in Washington. Six years later, the woman committed suicide. Alfred had remarried in 1911, but the death cast an unwanted spotlight on him.
His second wife, Margaret, had divorced her husband in 1910 on the grounds of drunkenness and cruelty. He threatened to sue Vanderbilt for alienation of affection, but the case was settled out of court. Alfred and Margaret shared a passion for horses.
Horses are what prompted Vanderbilt’s voyage to London on the Lusitania.  The outbreak of war the previous year caused the cancellation of a meeting of the International Horse Breeders’ Association, but Vanderbilt would direct the meeting in 1915. While in England, he also planned to offer a fleet of vehicles to the British Red Cross. His wife and two young sons remained behind in New York.
When the Lusitania was torpedoed, Vanderbilt assisted women and children with lifebelts and getting into lifeboats. He did not try to enter a lifeboat himself, even though he didn’t know how to swim.
A $5,000 reward was offered for the recovery of his body, but it was never found.

Taken a few months before the sinking, Vanderbilt with his three sons: William H. Vanderbilt 1st (far right), Alfred Vanderbilt jr. (left) and baby George W. Vanderbilt.

In Roll Back the Clouds, Rosaleen Bonnard bumps into Vanderbilt at the ship’s concert on Thursday evening, benefiting Seamen’s Charities.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Lusitania Sails in March!

In the early afternoon of May 7, 1915, the Lusitania, greyhound of the Cunard Line, fell victim to a single torpedo fired by German submarine U-20. After the torpedo exploded within the Lusitania’s hull, a second explosion rocked the ship. Whether caused by the boilers, coal dust, or contraband ammunition, the explosion ripped open a gaping hole that allowed the ocean to flow in. The Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes.

The beginning of the Great War the previous year had called all seasoned sailors into the military. Passenger liners were left with inept crews lacking familiarity with emergency procedures. The war also claimed priority on coal, causing Cunard management to close down one of the Lusitania’s boiler rooms, cutting down her vaunted speed, although this was not made public.
Concerns over sailing into the war zone were disparaged by Cunard, Captain William Turner, and the British navy. The Lusitania torpedoed? Ridiculous! The passengers were not instructed in the use of lifebelts. They were not told which lifeboat they should head for in the event of trouble.
On the day the Lusitania left New York, the German Embassy placed a notice in the papers, warning against sailing on belligerent vessels. Many passengers did not see the warning. The Germans considered the passenger liner a legitimate target, suspecting it carried contraband. And so they destroyed it.
Out of 1,962 souls on board, 1,201 perished, including 128 of 159 Americans. The war, however, was claiming millions of lives. New horrors regularly came to light, including the barbaric new weapon of poison gas. The Lusitania faded into history, better remembered for the controversies of whether it carried munitions, what caused the second explosion, and whether the British Admiralty played a part. For the passengers, the sinking was life changing, if not life ending.

My new book, Roll Back the Clouds, releases in March.
Geoff and Rosaleen Bonnard receive a once-in-a-lifetime voyage to England aboard the fabled Lusitania in 1915. Europe is embroiled in war, but that shouldn't affect a passenger liner.
As they approach Ireland, a German submarine hurtles a torpedo into the grand ship. Rosaleen and her new friend Constance scramble into a lifeboat, but where are their husbands? She searches the morgues in Queenstown, heartsick at recognizing so many people. Geoff is finally located in a Cork hospital, alive but suffering a back injury.
While waiting for him to recover, Rosaleen is thrilled to meet her mother’s family, but a dark cloud hovers over her. The battered faces of dead babies haunt her. She sinks into depression, exasperated by Geoff’s new interest in religion. Her once happy life seems out of reach.

Several of the actual passengers cross paths with Geoff and Rosaleen. In the coming weeks, I’ll introduce you to them here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Convoy PQ-17

If you’ve watched World War II movies about German U-boats, you’ve seen them torpedo merchant ships which explode in a huge fireball. How could anyone survive such a catastrophe?
Supply convoys consisted of slow, lightly defended ships venturing into the war zone where they were easy pickings for U-boats or German surface vessels and bombers. Guns were installed on merchant ships and manned by a naval Armed Guard, but they provided scant protection. (The Navy Armed Guard’s motto was “We aim to deliver.” Unofficially, it was “Sighted sub, glub, glub.”) The real protection came from the escort force of warships.

In June, 1942, convoy PQ-17 sailed from Hvalfjord, Iceland, for Archangel in North Russia, a distance of 2,150 miles, a ten-day voyage. At this time, the German battleship Tirpitz terrified the Allies. Its mere presence in Trondheim, Norway, caused the British to tie up a fleet of their warships on standby to make sure it didn’t break free and wreak havoc.
First Sea Lord Dudley Pound, Admiral of the Fleet and operational head of the Royal Navy, considered the convoys a most unsound operation. They benefited the Russians and diverted American aid from the British. They’d already lost two cruisers on convoy duty, and the threat of Tirpitz endangered more of their dwindling fleet.
On July 3, a British fighter overflying Trondheim noted the Tirpitz was missing from its anchorage. A decoded German message announced the arrival of their heavy cruiser Admiral Hipper in Altenfjord in northern Norway. Pound feared the Tirpitz was about to pounce on convoy PQ-17 and its escorts. The next day, he issued the order to scatter the convoy.

The first message sent to the convoy read, “Cruiser force to withdraw to westward at high speed.” The escorts assumed this meant the Tirpitz was fast approaching and they were to intercept it. A clarifying message read, “Convoy is to scatter.” Each ship was to head off on its own and hope to reach Russia.
The merchant mariners were stunned to watch the warships speed away. Convoy PQ-17’s escort consisted of a core escort of six destroyers and fifteen smaller ships: four corvettes, two antiaircraft ships, two submarines, three rescue vessels, and four armed trawlers. These ships would take the convoy all the way to Archangel.
A second part of the escort force had four heavy cruisers and a group of destroyers that would follow the convoy until they came within range of German bombers in Norway. Then they would turn back.
A third layer of “protection” included a British aircraft carrier accompanied by two battleships and a dozen destroyers that trailed hundreds of miles behind. If the Tirpitz attacked and came far enough west that German bombers could not protect it, the British aircraft would attack it.

That morning, the convoy had already come under attack by German bombers. Three merchant ships sank. The U.S. destroyer Wainwright had put up a 4th of July fireworks display that caused half the attackers to drop their torpedoes early and flee. Now the merchant ships were alone with only a German long-range reconnaissance plane circling, reporting their whereabouts.
Officers on the warships that had abandoned the merchants listened in agony. They had now learned that the Admiralty had scattered the convoy on flimsy intelligence, assuming the Tirpitz was near, and felt betrayed. Officers on one British destroyer, the Offa, had considered reporting a mechanic problem and sneaking back to protect the merchants. One recalled, “There must always be a sense of shame that we did not do so.”
The corvettes from the core escort group resented being ordered to stay with an antiaircraft ship instead of the defenseless merchants. They had reached the Russian island of Novaya Zemlya. One corvette, the Lotus, turned back to the sinking ships and rescued 81 men.
Only eleven of the thirty-five merchant ships reached Archangel. (Two had turned back to Iceland shortly after setting out.) The human casualties were surprisingly low. One hundred and fifty-three men died out of over 2,500 in the convoy. More than 120,000 tons of war supplies were lost.

For a complete account of convoy PQ-17, I recommend The Ghost Ships of Archangel: the Artic Voyage that Defied the Nazis by William Geroux. The focus is on the three “ghost ships,” the American merchants Troubadour, Ironclad, and Silver Sword, along with the British trawler Ayrshire, that sailed into the polar ice to escape the Germans.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

During my visit to New Zealand in 2007, I spent a morning at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. When I wrote Where My Heart Resides, I determined that my characters needed to visit the park too.
Wai-O-Tapu features erupting geysers, spitting mud pools, colorful scalding hot pools, and the stench of sulphur.
Join me for a quick tour.

The Lady Knox Geyser erupts sporadically every twenty-four to forty-eight hours, but that means you never know when to be present. So the park rangers help it out. The story goes that, a century ago, convicts discovered how to cause an eruption when they washed their clothes using soap powder. Imagine their surprise when their laundry shot up into the air.
Below the ground are two layers of water of differing temperatures. The soap breaks the tension between the two, and an eruption occurs. On a good day, it can go up twenty meters.

The harsh conditions around steam vents allow no vegetation.

Sulphur deposits paint the steaming lakes in various bright colors.

Mineral terraces offer more color.

If you ever have the chance to visit New Zealand, don’t miss it.

Friday, October 4, 2019

RIP Nine-O-Nine

A B-17 crashed in Connecticut last Tuesday. Seven of the thirteen aboard died. The B-17 pages on Facebook have been full of shock and sorrow.
Nine-O-Nine was built in 1945, too late to fly in World War II. It had no notable history of its own, but was named for a previous Nine-O-Nine. Many people have no opportunity to see the old warbird where they live. The Collings Foundation brought their “museum” planes to the people. Nine-O-Nine toured the country, providing thrills and excitement for the thousands who took a ride. For most, it was a hands-on introduction to the iconic airplane previously only seen in movies or books.
Pilot Earnest “Mac” McCauley spent 300 days a year touring with Nine-O-Nine as a volunteer pilot. He is quoted in Plane & Pilot, saying, “The B-17 is a very stable, nice-flying airplane, but it’s so big that it’s like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track. It’s all cables, so it’s slow on the controls. And the trickiest part of flying the B-17? It doesn’t like crosswinds. You have this huge mass that wants to swap ends with you all the time.
He died at the controls of the plane he loved. “I realize how lucky I am, and it is an honor to fly it.”

I did not fly in Nine-O-Nine. I flew in Aluminum Overcast. But I did explore the interior of Nine-O-Nine. My family had no connection to the B-17. When I wrote Friends & Enemies, I put Paul Braedel in a B-17 to get him into Germany at a time when the only American military personnel in Germany were downed airmen.

The crash of a B-17 today is newsworthy. It’s a rare event. It wasn’t during the war. My research revealed too many instances of bombers crashing on take-off. Full of fuel. Full of bombs. A massive explosion. Fragile bodies torn apart and charred.
Scores of WWII veterans, now in their 90s, are dying every day. Nine-O-Nine may not have been a veteran, but it allowed us to glimpse the past, and now it is gone from our lives, too.

If you have a moment, please vote in the next two days for my e-novella Where My Heart Resides in a Cover of the Month contest at