The story of Bawdsey Manor’s unsung WWII heroes brought to life in new novel
PUBLISHED: 10:58 31 March 2020 | UPDATED: 10:58 31 March 2020
Author Liz Trenow’s new novel brings to life the story of the men and women at Bawdsey Manor who were pivotal to Britain’s victory in the Second World War | WORDS: Catherine Larner
Spending family holidays at Felixstowe Ferry as a child, Liz Trenow would sit on the shore and gaze across the water at the fairy tale towers of Bawdsey Manor peeking through the trees, longing to visit.
It was still considered a military establishment then, and out of bounds, but years later a family friend rang Liz to tell her he’d bought the manor from the MOD and proposed to relocate his business there.
It meant that every few weeks, and each New Year’s Eve, Liz went to stay and was invited to roam rooms, gardens and buildings that had been untouched for decades. All the time she gathered information about its fascinating past.
“The mansion is remarkable in itself, but its importance in World War II and its extraordinary military history makes it irresistible,” she says. “It’s brimming with stories but nobody had set a novel here, until now.”
A former BBC journalist and reporter for the East Anglian Daily Times, Liz started writing fiction when she retired. “Some people run a marathon or climb Everest when they retire,” she says. “My little Everest was to write a whole novel.”
She undertook an MA in creative writing in City University London and, through a series of fortunate events, succeeded in securing a two-book deal with leading publishing house, HarperCollins.
That first book was The Last Telegram, a wartime story based on Liz’s own family history in the silk trade in Sudbury.
“The tutor on the course said I shouldn’t write a historical novel because I wouldn’t get the research done in the time, but I’d already been looking into my family history, and this was my unique story.”
That first book was a great success, nominated for a national award and published in several languages. Five more historical novels have followed and they, too, have proved very popular.
The Forgotten Seamstress reached The New York Times top 20 bestseller list. Under a Wartime Sky is published this month and in it, Liz at last turns to the story of Bawdsey Manor and its role in developing radar.
“I always had it in mind to write about what happened there and had done all the thinking and reading, planning and plotting,” Liz says. “Now the time was right to return to it.”
Her story begins in 1936 when, with the war looming, the country’s brightest minds were gathered in this remote gothic Victorian mansion on the coast in Suffolk.
They were tasked by Winston Churchill to develop radar, an invention that would prove vital in winning the Second World War.
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When war was declared, the manor became the first of dozens of radar stations along the south and east coasts of Britain which were on the front line as German bombers approached.
Despite the contribution of radar, particularly in the Battle of Britain and during the Blitz, the work of the thousands of radar operators, who were mainly women, still isn’t well recognized.
“And it’s really interesting,” says Liz. “That Robert Watson Watt [who pioneered the use of radar] suggested that women would make the best radar operators because they had the greatest attention to detail.”
The novel focuses on a group of men and women whose top secret work changed the course of history. The characters are fictional but some aspects of the story are based on real events, and it is a fascinating insight into this remarkable place and all that was achieved here.
“Writing the book, I knew nothing about early radar and, in truth, not many people do. So when I needed answers to specific technical questions, it was a challenge.”
She called on the team of volunteers at the Bawdsey Radar Trust for information and benefited from visiting the buildings which now house the museum, and listening to the oral histories collated in recent years, from people who worked there.
“It was a gift for me in terms of my research because here were these wonderful voices from the past,” she says.
“The trickiest aspect of research is knowing when to stop, though. Research can destroy your imagination in many ways. You have to use it as a launchpad. Take copious notes, then close your notebook and put it to one side.
“I didn’t like history as a child. The way it was taught at school was deeply dull. But as an adult I started reading historical fiction and it opens up worlds that I never knew existed. And it puts other aspects of life in context.”
Liz hopes that this year, the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, people will remember the enormous courage of those who fought, and those who, like the radar operators, supported them.
“I think Bawdsey ought to have more recognition,” she says. “Certainly in the run up to the war, it was hugely influential.”
And for the story she tells in Under a Wartime Sky, she says, “I hope it will interest people enough to look further, to find out more.”
Under a Wartime Sky is published by Pan Macmillan on February 20.