Guest Post: ‘Set Europe Ablaze’ by David Gilman, author of Night Flight to Paris

War Through the Generations has been a bit dormant in the last couple of years, but I still read WWII related fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. There’s a new one that just hit the shelves and it has everything a reader could want from codebreakers to one man’s determination to save his family.

Today, we have the pleasure of a guest post from the author. Please welcome David Gilman, author of the new book Night Flight to Paris.

‘Set Europe ablaze.’ Churchill’s order in July 1940 when he gave the task to the Minister of Economic Warfare to form the Special Operations Executive. It was to be broad in scope, daring in its planning and execution, and created initially to specifically harass the Nazis in occupied Europe.

Night Flight to Paris was inspired by the men and women from all walks of life who volunteered for some of the most dangerous missions in the Second World War. Few had military experience, many did not. They were landed by Lysander aircraft at night or parachuted in on a supply drop from a Halifax bomber, and when on the ground they operated alone in hostile territory. Their life expectancy was short. Most were usually sent to organise, and often train, locals for resistance against the occupiers.

The French Maquis was riven with jealousies and differing political ideology and these conflicts made the life of an agent even more tenuous. And, of course, there were informers and traitors. Men and women betrayed members of the Resistance, agents and wireless operators because of fear of German reprisals, from being tortured or for personal gain. Letters of denunciation against a neighbour sent to the authorities were not uncommon. France was a nation turned in on itself in bitter rivalries, and the Nazis played to that. They used French gendarmes to round up Jews, and other undesirables for deportation and the French paramilitary unit the Milice was formed to fight against the French résistants. The French considered these men more dangerous than the Gestapo because they could operate in their communities, were familiar with the countryside where the Maquis operated and could quickly pick up an accent or dialect unfamiliar to that specific area. These units worked closely with the SS, and the feared SD (the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst – the SS intelligence agency). All these elements appear in Night Flight to Paris, making challenging demands on Harry Mitchell and the people around him.

Obituaries in contemporary newspapers recount men and women of that generation who fought the silent war behind enemy lines. Many did not speak of their exploits during the remaining years of their lives. There were only twenty-one years from the end of the Great War and the beginning of the Second World War. Young men and women who had served in the first were veterans by 1939, too old to serve for active military service (in the case of soldiers) but who could face their enemy in the most dangerous circumstances by joining SOE. When writing my books, I prefer flawed characters to make the challenge they face even more difficult. In Night Flight to Paris, I chose Harry Mitchell, a middle-aged, quiet, studious code-breaker at Bletchley Park, the British government code-breaking centre fifty miles north-west of London. He was no man of action given that he had once served as a rear echelon junior officer in the First World War. It was during this time that he was caught up in the heart-stopping horror of that conflict and became unable to inflict violence.

Not, it seemed, an ideal candidate to be trained in violent tactics and sent into France to uncover a traitor and rescue his family.

Mitchell taught at the university in Paris before it was occupied in 1940, and he and his wife had helped set up escape routes for downed airmen and those civilians persecuted by the Nazis. His contacts in Paris made him a valuable asset to SOE, and they bring pressure to bear. Mitchell carries the burden of knowing that he and his wife and daughter were separated when they attempted to escape and, for the past three years, he has been unable to make contact with them. The SOE give him the terrible news that his wife and daughter have recently been captured by the Gestapo. He has the opportunity to return clandestinely in an attempt to save them and unmask the traitor who betrayed them and others in the Resistance. Mitchell’s conflicting emotions about inflicting violence are soon put to the test when the flight to Paris goes terrifyingly wrong.

Research for Night Flight to Paris was aided somewhat by my time spent in the Parachute Regiment. The experience of jumping from a perfectly serviceable aircraft and the fear it instilled at the time is something that is easy to remember and write. Thankfully, though, what happened to Harry Mitchell was not part of my experience.

I had also reconnoitred the French countryside to seek out locations for my medieval series Master of War, and this helped take Mitchell on his journey north to Paris. Books written about code-breakers were invaluable as were autobiographies of those who had served in SOE. And for anyone interested in digging deeper into these exciting times, there is a vast amount of recently released material at the Public Record Office where information about both personal and training details of the men and women is held.

Thanks, David, for sharing the inspiration behind the novel. To think of ordinary men and women in these situations and making decisions that could affect everything in their lives is scary.

About the Book:

Paris, 1943.

The swastika flies from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Soldiers clad in field grey patrol the streets. Buildings have been renamed, books banned, art stolen and people disappeared. Amongst the missing is an Allied intelligence cell.

Gone to ground? Betrayed? Dead? Britain’s Special Operations Executive need to find out. They recruit ex-Parisian and Bletchley Park codebreaker Harry Mitchell to return to the city he fled two years ago.

Mitchell knows Occupied Paris – a city at war with itself. Informers, gangsters, collaborators and Resistance factions are as ready to slit each other’s throats as they are the Germans’. The occupiers themselves are no better: the Gestapo and the Abwehr – military intelligence – are locked in their own lethal battle for dominance. Mitchell knows the risks: a return to Paris not a mission – it’s a death sentence.

But he has good reason to put his life on the line: the wife and daughter he was forced to leave behind have fallen into the hands of the Gestapo and Michell will do whatever it takes to save them. But with disaster afflicting his mission from the outset, it will take all his ingenuity, all his courage, to even get into Paris… unaware that every step he takes towards the capital is a step closer to a trap well set and baited.

About the Author:

David Gilman has had an impressive variety of jobs – from firefighter to professional photographer, from soldier in the Parachute Regiment’s Reconnaissance Platoon to a Marketing Manager for an international publisher. He has countless radio, television and film credits. From 2000 until 2009 he was principal writer on A Touch Of Frost. He has lived and traveled the world gathering inspiration for his adventure series along the way.