Upminster author: Soldiers lay down lives for hidden reasons
12:00 31 August 2014
Soldiers often lay down their lives on missions where they are not aware of the objectives.
One such instance is of the Harpoon Force that was set up by Winston Churchill on the night he took over as head of the government in the Second World War.
John Joseph Donoghue, from Upminster, was a member of the force. He was captured during the Battle of Boulogne and spent five years in a prisoner of war camp in what is now Poland.
Shortly before he died 20 years ago, aged 78, he told his son-in-law, Peter Larner, of Dart Close, Upminster, that he had been captured in May 1940 while on a mission to rescue Queen Astrid of Belgium.
Mr Larner began researching the brigade for his seventh novel and discovered to his awe that the Queen had died five years previously, in 1935. The soldiers clearly didn’t know their true mission.
“The information they gave them was often misleading in case they were caught,” Mr Larner said.
Even if the soldiers cracked under pressure, they could not give the enemy the true details, he said.
“Even now, nobody knows what the main objective was about,” he added.
“They are very quick to tell about the success, but if it fails it is never revealed.”
Battle of Boulogne
•- Allied and Nazi forces fought hard over the Channel port town of Bologne-sur-Mer during the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940.
•- British troops were deployed on the morning of May 22 to help the town’s French defenders, arriving on merchant ships and a naval destroyer.
•- The British vastly underestimated the Germans’ strength and withdrew after about a day of fighting.
•- About 200 Welsh Guardsmen were left behind, after being told in error that the evacuation was off.
•- The remaining force surrendered on the afternoon of May 22 after running out of food and low on ammunition. A total of 5,000 Allied troops were captured.
•- The French slated the British evacuation and, in his memoirs, Churchill said he regretted the decision.
The 65-year-old author decided to focus his book on the factual premise of the Harpoon Force and then speculate about what its main aim was.
Using the starting point of real events, he introduces a tale of heroism against the backdrop of those early days of the Second World War.
It is May 1940 and Churchill has just become prime minister following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and after Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary at the time, had refused the job.
That night, a combined battalion of Irish and Welsh Guards are given the code name Harpoon Force and sent on two missions. The first mission sees them rescue Queen Wilhelmina and Dutch MPs from the Netherlands.
Under heavy air attacks, they lose 11 soldiers but, in all other respects, the mission is a success.
A few days later, the same unit is sent to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France.
The purpose of this second mission has never been revealed. What is known is that the battalion, armed only with rifles and a couple of anti-tank guns, took on a German panzer division and suffered heavy losses. As many as 174 men were captured and 15 guardsmen lost their lives.
Harpoon Force tells the story of those two battles and then produces an intriguing adventure based on what the author believes may have been the purpose of the aborted mission.
Three members of the Harpoon Force find themselves behind enemy lines as the Battle of Boulogne rages.
Mr Larner said: “Using the factual events of the two missions, the story speculates on what the purpose of the second mission was. My father-in-law spent the remaining five years of the war in a German prison-of-war camp and died 20 years ago. What he told me about the mission prompted me to write the book.
“Harpoon Force has a strong plot line and characters.
“My father-in-law had died long before I started work on the story. The fact that John didn’t know the real object of the mission sparked my interest even more and prompted the background of the storyline, which is misinformation and how little the foot soldiers are told about their mission in case they are caught. It is a stirring tale and the reader can’t help but feel humbled by events and the heroism displayed.”
Harpoon Force is published on October 10 in paperback and e-book. It can be pre-ordered from amazon.co.uk