Monday, 13 February 2012

The first Englishman to sail across Europe?

Those of you who read my blog of Nov 2110 – Isabel and the Sea may remember that its author George Millar was a recognized WW2 war hero who after the war sailed his boat across France and into the Mediterranean.
I mention this only because Merlin Minshall the subject of this present blog seems to share some of the same characteristics as Millar. They both for example set off on their voyages from Southampton,both had exciting and adventurous war careers and above all they were both ,that very rare thing today ,larger than life characters with a strong sense of individualism and self reliance.
Apart from his epic voyage across Europe Merlin Minshall’s chief claim to fame and the one by which he his more popularly remembered is that he was the inspiration for the character of James Bond the fictional spy created by the author Ian Fleming.

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Merlin Minshalls autobiography. 1st Edition published in 1975.
The son of a wealthy newspaper owner and educated at Charterhouse and Oxford University, Minshall soon tired of his initial career as a trainee architect and in 1932 after reading a magazine article about ‘Water Gipsies’, decided to buy a boat and explore the waterways of Europe. Sperwer was a small motorised Tjalk Boeier,10 tons and 27ft on the waterline and with her 1000sq ft of sailing gear still intact when the author found her.  So together with his first wife Minshall set off on what was to become a legendary and unique voyage in more ways than one.
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Minshall intended to take his boat right across Europe by  way of the Seine,Marne Rhine Canal,R Rhine, Ludwig's Canal (still just navigable at this time) and then to voyage the whole length of the Danube to the Black Sea. This trip had been accomplished many years before in an English boat with an American crew and the results published in book form as  Across Europe in a Motor Boat by Henry C Rowland.Across Europe in a Motor Boat 1907
Title page of Across Europe in a Motor Boat. 1st Ed 1907.
Rowland’s boat the Beaver had been built especially for the trip which followed almost exactly the route to be taken 30 years later by Minshall with the Sperwer. They had intended a round trip of over 7,000 miles returning from the Black Sea via the Mediterranean and the Canal du Midi across France but a storm in the Black Sea wrecked the boat and put paid to that idea.
Literary accounts of travel down the Danube are in fact quite common and for some unaccountable reason the authors are usually Americans.Longer trips across Europe are much more rarely described.Negley Farson (another American) did one such trip in 1926 His book Sailing Across Europe describes a journey with a departure point in Holland. The accolade for pioneering trips by Englishmen must surely go to Donald Maxwell who took his boat Walrus from a Dutch port to the Black Sea in 1906 the voyage was published in book form as A Cruise Across Europe.Sailing Across Europe 1926First Ed 1926 A Cruise Across Europe 1906
English Author Donald Maxwell's book of 1906.
Merlin Minshall’s journey of over 4,000 miles on Sperwer in fact took 2 years to accomplish and the result was published in the National Geographic Magazine in May 1937. At a time of rising tensions in Europe and the 2nd World War imminent, the journey was naturally and to say the least very adventurous. It is an almost unbelievable account of meetings with the top Nazi Goering, of seduction by a glamorous German Counter Intelligence spy and his subsequent entrapment in a  Nazi spy ring. Interestingly the 16 page article in the National Geographic omits all the above excitement and just deals with a factual account of the voyage .This article is, as, as you would expect for the N G magazine profusely illustrated with photos of the voyage.

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 Two photographs from the National Geographic Mag showing Sperwer in the Ludwigs Canal. One of the smallest Continental canals.Guilt Edged 1 Ed092
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Map inside cover of ‘Guilt Edged’  1975
Minshall’s accounts of his exploits with women including the glamorous German spy would lead one to believe that he was the possessor of a huge ego and that he was almost certainly guilty of exaggerating events that had occurred during his life especially in retrospect and in preparation for his autobiography Guilt Edged  published in 1975.
Subsequently he became a member of the Royal Navy’s Intelligence Division and during WW2 ran Operation Shamrock which monitored German U Boat traffic in the Gironde estuary and later fought with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia as a member of the Allied Naval Mission.
Ian Fleming the creator of James Bond had Minshall taken on by British Naval Intelligence who promptly sent him back to the Danube to investigate the possibilities of blocking this route for German Oil Barges. Later he was said to be the first secret agent to be sent to France by submarine. He was closely involved with both the Bismarck and Graf Spee actions and the Japanese whilst he was with the Royal New Zealand Navy. With al this glamorous and exciting clandestine activity it is little wonder that Fleming based his James Bond character on Merlin Minshall.
Guilt Edged is an unusual book full of daring do as is Isobel and the Sea. For me the latter book has the edge being a factual and sober account of a journey by boat across a Europe ravaged by war. However if glamour and excitement is your thing then Minshall may be your man. Both books are available inexpensively as paperbacks but if you want a first edition of Guilt Edged be prepared for a quite expensive purchase as Minshall’s connection with Fleming and his identification as the real James Bond has meant that his autobiography is well sought after by collectors of Ian Fleming and James Bond artefacts,books and ephemera.
Incidentally the 100 year old Sperwer finally found a home in the Dutch National Maritime museum at Einkhouzen in 1975.
If you missed my blog on George Millar's book Isabel and the Sea I am republishing it to follow this present blog.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

‘Isabel and the Sea’ by George Millar. (1948)

Paperback edition of ‘Isabel & the Sea’
Publisher- Century 1983.

A few years ago whilst selling books at a book fair in Penzance', I was approached by an obviously nautical ‘character’ and asked if I had a copy of Isabel & the Sea for sale. I had never heard of the book but eventually managed to find him a copy. The guy told me that he lived in Penzance during the winter and spent his summers exploring the Mediterranean in his boat after having sailed it over from England and down through the French waterways. He wanted a copy of Millar's book because the author had made the same journey through the French canals many years before but in vastly different circumstances. It was ,he said, ‘ one of the most entertaining accounts of travel through the French canals ever published’. My interests were aroused and I was not disappointed.
I suppose the unique character of the book lies in the extraordinary circumstances in which the journey took place, for Millar’s canal trip took place in the immediate aftermath of war torn Europe. There is as far as I know, no other book remotely like it. It seems to have everything – excitement, adventure and social reportage being just three elements in a book written by an acknowledged war hero.
The author had just published his war memoirs when at the age of 35 and in 1946 he bought an old Cornish lugger with the proceeds from the sale of his book. In June 1946 after some initial fitting out difficulties in the continuing wartime conditions of rationing and emergency laws he set sail for France with his wife who knew nothing about boats and suffered from constant sea sickness. He himself had sailed dinghy's as a child and had taught himself navigation whilst a prisoner of the Germans during the war.
Provisioning of the boat was accomplished with a cooked chicken, 6 lbs of strawberries and many cartons of cigarettes which they intended to barter for food on their journey.
Millar’s boat must have been one of the  first boats to attempt a journey through the French waterways after the war. The conditions were appalling! They made Le Havre safely only to find the harbour full of sunken wrecks and only a handful of houses left standing in the town. On their canal journey they were shocked by the half gutted villages and the general privations of the population. The book abounds with conversations with the locals and especially the working boat community. Common topics were the food shortages and the black market. Passing through the Canal de Loing, Briare , Loire lateral and Canal du Centre canals they were surprised at the amount of horse drawn boat traffic they encountered. Evidently this was as a result of the German requisitioning of all the ‘automoteurs’ during the war.
Encountering barges full of German prisoners he comments that the prisoners were not being treated very well by the French, in marked contrast to the treatment afforded to the prisoners in American hands they saw at Le Havre. Not unsurprising one would have thought considering the devastated landscape through which they were passing.
Difficulties in obtaining supplies,spare parts and fuel are all discussed in some detail. They visit famous people of the time including Somerset Maugham and Lord Beaverbrook. Millar is called to Paris for presentation of a war medal by General de Gaulle. On their arrival in Marseille they progress into the Med where ports of call include Antibes and San Remo. Every harbour is found bomb blasted and littered with wrecks. The journey through the canals occupies a large part of the book before they journey onto Italy and beyond.
One little incident serves to inform us of the constant reminders they had of the all too recent war. The wine that accompanies their meal in an Italian restaurant ‘comes with the compliments of the Wehrmacht’ their Italian waiter informs them with a wink.
Throughout the book the author gives occasional hints of his involvement in the war. When I researched further I found that he was in fact a well decorated war hero.George Millar  was a journalist living and working in Paris before the war. On the outbreak of war he returned to England and enlisted. He was captured in North Africa and sent to Italy. When Italy surrendered he was sent by the Germans to a POW camp in Germany and it was on this journey that he jumped from a train and started back across France where he encountered a POW escape line to Spain. After much hardship and many adventures he made it back to Britain where he was promptly enrolled as a secret agent and parachuted back into France. All of these exploits are described in his two books ‘Maquis’  and ‘Horned Pigeon’. For a fuller account of his life go to the war he farmed in Dorset, sailed and wrote more books about his sailing adventures.
In the 1948 edition ,’Isabel and the Sea has a photograph of the Lugger as a frontispiece but no other illustrations.The book was reprinted by Century in 1983 as an unillustrated paperback.After the authors death in 2006 the Dovecote press published a hardback edition with 4 pages of photographs found at P Millar's home.
A really great read.