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Saturday 11 March 2023

My Weekend Guest: Jane Harlond, Bob Robbins and the British Home Front: 1939-45

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Bob Robbins and the British Home Front: 1939-45

Rationing, evacuees, the Phoney War, barrage balloons, the Blitz, ‘make-do and mend’ . . . You may be familiar with these words and phrases because they have been handed down in British family life since 1939. The reality of being a civilian trying to get on with daily life in a country at war has now, sadly, become even more familiar to us as the people of Ukraine try to survive in appalling conditions. In many ways this is how it was for those who stayed at home during the Second World War, or who came home on leave to find their houses had been destroyed and their families evacuated to a safer area.

As a post-war child I grew up with the make-do and mend mentality, but from an early age I also had a special fascination with war stories. Not so much about the tragedies of Dunkirk, or Burma, or the bombing of Malta, my interest lay more in stories about ‘fire-watching’, bags of sugar falling off the back of a lorry, GI uniforms and nylon stockings; about life on the Home Front. I went on to write an M.A. dissertation on implicit propaganda in what used to be called light-entertainment on wireless programmes and at the cinema. Next time you watch a wartime movie, notice how each person is playing – or not playing – their part in the war effort.

Depending on where one lived, the war was present in everyone’s daily routine. Anecdotes and photographs of Londoners setting up camp in Tube stations are fairly common. Less well-known is the fact that Plymouth in Devon, was so heavily bombed that whole families trekked out onto Dartmoor pushing wheelbarrows of blankets and thermos flasks each evening so they could sleep in relative safety – rain or shine. Can you imagine the conditions on the moor or on an underground platform trying to keep toddlers and ailing or elderly folk warm and fed in winter?

Rural areas, where there was less bombing, weren’t exempt from daily tribulations either. Apart from the increasingly strict rationing of food, petrol and then clothing, any family with a room to spare, regardless of economic circumstances, was expected to take in perfect strangers evacuated from industrial areas. Sometimes this worked out well, more often it was a nightmare for both host and reluctant evacuees, and it went on for years.

Coastal and rural areas may have appeared outwardly unchanged, but beaches mined, and in forests and heathland there were well-concealed hide-outs or bunkers for Britain’s resistance fighters. Few know about these unsung heroes, largely because nobody, not even wives or parents, knew anything about it at the time. Everything related to ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ was kept utterly secret to protect both the network and civilians.

From the moment war broke out, there was a real possibility that Hitler would invade Britain. So, with very minimum of fuss, British intelligence officers recruited and trained small cells of civilian saboteurs and assassins. From the Scottish Highlands to the Lizard peninsula, groups called Special Auxiliary Units consisting of four to eight men were selected from Home Guard platoons. In the event of the invasion their role was to go into Operational Bases (OB) created in disused mines, forest hide-outs or hidden bunkers near strategic roads and railways and wreak havoc.

Units consisting of carpenters, doctors, factory workers, farmers and teachers – plotted and prepared night time raids to harass and impede the invaders’ mobility by disrupting vital supply lines. Inside each OB there was an arsenal of pistols, plastic explosives, submachine guns, commando knives, plus food and water to last a month. Men volunteered knowing they would be shot if captured, and that their families and other civilians were likely to be executed in retribution.

This wasn’t the only Home Front national secret either. During preparations for the 1944 Normandy landings known as Operation Overlord, a major, nationwide decoy strategy was taking place around the United Kingdom. Operation Bodyguard was created to mislead Hitler into thinking that the Allies were planning a counter-invasion of mainland Europe via Norway and the Pas-de-Calais. Known as Operations Fortitude and Fortitude South, civilians built ply-wood bombers and imitation tanks, which were left in plain sight for the supposedly top-secret manoeuvre. Abandoned fishing boats and hulks along the east coast were disguised as naval vessels for every passing Luftwaffe pilot and u-boat to see.

There were some genuinely secret secrets, though. In the month prior to D-Day, Churchill and Eisenhower met for an ultra-secret meeting at a private home in Scotland. This meeting was not only kept from the press, other Allied leaders and politicians knew nothing about it. So how did these two men, and Winston Churchill in particular, disappear from public view for over 24 hours at such a crucial time? Answer: a decoy trip to the other end of the country. Enter DS Bob Robbins and a small brown poodle named Rufus.

This meeting was the genesis of my latest Bob Robbins Home Front Mystery, Secret Meetings. Operation Overlord and D-Day form the background to the to the plot. Churchill really did have a brown poodle named Rufus, by the way, who went everywhere with him.

The clandestine preparations by Britain’s resistance groups are in the first Bob Robbins Home Front Mystery, Local Resistance. The German submarine in the story actually surfaced off the coast of North Devon. The covert goings on at Westward Ho, underlay the story in Private Lives, and deserve a book of their own. Take a look at the illustration of the ‘Grand Panjandrum’. It was meant to be a weapon of war: you can decide for yourself how it might have worked.

(This 'weapon' had a hilarious appearance in
one of the TV Dad's Army episodes)

My aging, down-to-earth, DS Bob Robbins was hauled out of retirement in a quiet Cornish village to replace a younger man who’d joined up. This is what happened. Everyone on the Home Front had to pull their weight one way or another; housewives were conscripted to work in factories, smart girls-about-town found themselves in the Women’s Land Army or working in soup kitchens organised by the WVS. The reason young Laurie Oliver evades being called-up into the Armed Forces is revealed in Secret Meetings.

The important thing about the British Home Front, is that while not everyone had sleepless nights due to bombing raids between 1939 and 1945, everyone was involved in the war effort to a greater or lesser extent.

©J.G. Harlond

About the Book

Cornwall, Spring, 1944

A lone traveller arrives at a harbour inn carrying a satchel of weapons, then appears in the grounds of River Lodge, a typical English country house in wartime.

Except with a scandalous family history, the owner’s wife and servants hiding secrets and grievances, a glamourous trans-Atlantic socialite and an uninvited American professor in residence, there is nothing normal about River Lodge.

Then Bob Robbins arrives impersonating Winston Churchill and there is a tragic accident. Or is it daylight murder? And who was the intended victim? Was it caused by the crank stalking Churchill, or is it a domestic homicide?

Could it be related to the nearby preparations for D-Day?

Reverting to his real identity, DS Robbins investigates the crime knowing his own life is in danger.

Can cynical old Bob and keen young Laurie Oliver identify a murderer at River Lodge and ensure the outcome of the Normandy landings?

If you liked Foyle’s War and love Agatha Christie this is a must-read.

To find out more about Jane Harlond’s books go to:

Her books are available on most online platforms, or go to her Amazon Author page:

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