Commando to Colditz was conceived in the kitchen of my brother-in-law, the historical motoring writer Gordon Cruickshank, in Wimbledon. When visiting London I shamelessly free-load on Gordon, who lives an hour’s tube journey from the archives and libraries I use there – the Imperial War Museum, the British Library and, above all, the National Archives. I get up early, in order to be on their doorsteps at opening time, so I usually breakfast alone, and so read while I bolt my toast or cornflakes.
In July 2004, when I was in London researching Quinn’s Post, Gordon happened to be writing an article about the 1920s racing car driver Tim Birkin. Birkin had published an autobiography in 1930, but it had actually been ghosted by an Oxford drop-out named Mickey Burn. Coincidentally, Mickey Burn had just published his autobiography, Turned to the Sun, and I read bits of it at breakfast. I was intrigued. Here was a journalist, poet, mussel-fisherman (unsuccessfully in the latter occupation) who had served as a commando and received a Military Cross for his conduct in the raid on St Nazaire. He was also a man who had swung from a vague fascism to a committed communism in the 1930s, and had been a life-long homosexual who had married a woman for love. This was a complex, interesting man.
The chapter that caught my attention was called ‘Remember!’ Only six pages long, and told the story of his commando troop in the St Nazaire raid. Of his 28 men, 6 Troop lost 14 dead and of the other 14 half were captured, as was Mickey. He had asked his parents, Clive and Phyllis to keep in touch with his men’s families, and in the fearful aftermath of the raid they forged bonds of care and concern that lasted as long as the war. I realised that this was a story that needed more than six pages. On spec, I wrote to Mickey and asked whether I could learn more. Six months later I happened to be in Britain (filming Revealing Gallipoli) and took the opportunity to visit him, in the cottage in North Wales where he still lived.
As I describe in the Prologue of Commando to Colditz, Mickey shared his story with immense and immediate generosity, allowed me to take his precious records to copy and start research to understand the larger context. I was to meet him several more times and in 2008 was able to sit with him as he commented on the penultimate version of the manuscript. While he expressed concern at some of my chapters, he also confirmed and clarified other aspects, and when the book finally appeared in October 2009 – exactly a year before his death at 97 – he felt that it did justice not just to him and his men, but especially to Clive and Phyllis, whom he felt he had not appreciated sufficiently when that had been alive.
In some ways I think that Commando to Colditz is my best book, in that I shaped the story rather than relying on chronology, the narrative of events or the availability of sources to tell the story, and that it dealt with powerful emotions – love, comradeship, loyalty.
I very much liked the look of the book, designed by Hugh Ford of Murdoch. My only regret in the process was that I allowed Murdoch’s marketing staff to argue me out of my own title – it had always been called ‘Far Side of Tears’, a line from one of Mickey’s poems. That title suggested to me Mickey passage from grief to acceptance.
In all I was extraordinarily glad that I met Mickey Burn, a man who aroused intense loyalty and affection in those who knew him. I will always feel privileged that he entrusted me to tell his story.
‘Stanley writes sensitively … Commando to Colditz is about … the power of humans to come to terms with the death and absence of those they love. Highly recommended’
Richard Trembath, Canberra Times, 7 November 2009
Buy at Murdoch Books