Thursday 9 February 2012

Blog Tour: Author Elizabeth Wein on the real-life people who inspired Code Name Verity.

Please welcome Elizabeth Wein to the blog today as part of the blog tour for her new book Code Name Verity. Set during World War II Code Name Verity is a story of friendship against the odds and the struggle to survive during war time. I'll be reviewing the book soon, but until then, read on for Elizabeth's post on the real-life inspirations for Code Name Verity.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Egmont.
Release date: February 6th 2012.

I have two weeks. You'll shoot me at the end no matter what I do. 

That's what you do to enemy agents. It's what we do to enemy agents. But I look at all the dark and twisted roads ahead and cooperation is the easy way out. Possibly the only way out for a girl caught red-handed doing dirty work like mine - and I will do anything, anything, to avoid SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden interrogating me again.

He has said that I can have as much paper as I need. All I have to do is cough up everything I can remember about the British War Effort. And I'm going to. But the story of how I came to be here starts with my friend Maddie. She is the pilot who flew me into France - and Allied Invasion of Two.
We are a sensational team.

Guest Post: Elizabeth Wein on the real-life inspirations for Code Name Verity

The problem I have in listing ‘real people who have inspired me’ is narrowing it down.

I think that the two most obvious inspirations for Code Name Verity are Annette Berman and John Moffat.  In civilian life, Madame Berman was my French teacher throughout high school, and John Moffat was a fellow pilot and board member when I was on Scottish Aero Club’s Executive Committee.  During the war, as a teen, Mme Berman (we just called her Madame most of the time) worked for the French Resistance.  Her Jewish family lived in Paris as the war began and were later hidden by friends in a country village where they pretended to be Roman Catholics.  The young Annette was pretty quickly discovered to be a natural translator - she was fluent in French, German, Polish and English; the local Resistance cell also used her as a courier.  Her tales of delivering dynamite in her bicycle basket were the stuff of legend during my school days.  Although we lived 4000 miles away from each other in later years, I remained in contact with Mme Berman until her death in 2008 - long before I ever thought about writing Code Name Verity - and I even made sure my children got to meet her.  She was a hugely talented, generous, unassuming, funny, and inspiring person.  Nothing in Code Name Verity is directly based on her life; I felt that would be intrusive.  But her influence on me is a lasting one.

John Moffat was never a personal friend in the way Mme Berman was to me, but he was certainly an inspiration as a pilot.  He has become quietly legendary as ‘The Man Who Sank the Bismarck’.   While it is true that he makes occasional media appearances (such as the BBC’s National Treasures Live and Shipwreck Ark Royal) and co-authored the book I Sank the Bismarck, I first knew him as a modest and venerable member of the Scottish Aero Club.  My personal encounters with John were limited to committee meetings, aero club events, and evenings in the pub, and it always bewildered me a little trying to reconcile in my head the young Swordfish pilot who delivered the crippling blow to a German warship with the witty octogenarian who was occasionally flamboyant when performing a suggestive song in the pub or at the annual club dinner.  Well into his eighties John was still flying a humble little Piper Colt incorporating the word ‘ARK’ in the registration after the Ark Royal, the aircraft carrier he flew from during the war.  To my certain knowledge, John’s career as a pilot spanned more than 60 years.

Annette Berman and John Moffat are people I knew personally - indirect influences on the plot of Code Name Verity.  The direct influences are all people I know through reading their amazing life stories: the real men and women of the Air Transport Auxiliary and the Special Operations Executive.  I’m not sure I can make a comprehensive list because there is always someone else.

So here’s an idea:  Mapping the two main characters from Code Name Verity to a few of the many people whose lives inspired me to create their fictional representatives.

‘Verity’ has her origins in a number of Special Operations Executive agents.  The ones whose stories hit me hardest were Noor Inayat Khan, Alix D’Unienville, Violette Szabo, and Odette Sansom.  Two of these women survived the war; all four of them were captured, tortured, refused to give up any information and were eventually deported to concentration camps.  The stories of Noor Inayat Khan and Violette Szabo are the most gut-wrenching because of the truly horrendous circumstances of their deaths (both were executed in captivity).  None of them were over thirty.  Violette Szabo, a young mother, was captured in a furious gunfight; Noor Inayat Khan, a gentle, lovely, determined daughter of an Indian and an American, author of children’s books, was betrayed and unwittingly gave away most of the rest of her circuit because she didn’t know she was being watched.  Alix D’Unienville and Odette Sansom’s stories are inspiring because of the horrors they endured and yet managed to survive.  Alix D’Unienville went on to become a writer herself - her 1949 book En Vol (‘In Flight’) is a moving, perceptive and gently mocking travelogue which to my mind rivals St. Exupery for its honest and appreciative experience of the wonders of flight in the first part of the twentieth century.   Violette Szabo and Odette Sansom both had films made of their wartime experiences:  Carve Her Name With Pride (starring Virginia McKenna of Born Free fame etc.) and Odette, which features a curious cameo of Maurice Buckmaster, head of the French section of the Special Operations Executive, played by himself.

My own character Maddie Brodatt of the Air Transport Auxiliary has several different roots as well.  As well as being based on stories of ATA women, some of Maddie’s experiences are also based on those of Hugh Verity (no relation!  The name is a coincidence - I didn’t discover this fellow till halfway through writing the novel).  Hugh Verity was an actual Moon Squadron pilot, who successfully flew over 30 landing missions into occupied France (possibly more than any other pilot).  Fortunately for me, he wrote about it, meticulously documenting his and his squadron’s wartime scrapes and successes in the book We Landed by Moonlight (1978).

Some of Maddie’s flying adventures are based on Hugh Verity’s, and some are based on those of other female ATA pilots, such as Betty Lussier and Diana Barnato Walker.  Betty Lussier was an American university student of British ancestry who was determined to make a contribution to the war effort, and her tales of training with the ATA and begging flights with bomber crews would sound very familiar to anyone who’s read Code Name Verity.  Lussier herself left the ATA in 1944 to become an agent with the newly formed OSS - she was disappointed that ATA women weren’t being allowed to fly in continental Europe!  She often remarks that she’d like to be a combat pilot in her autobiography, Intrepid Woman (William Stephenson, British spy famously codenamed ‘Intrepid’, was her godfather).

My experience is that most women ATA pilots didn’t feel they needed to be in combat, but they were disappointed at not being able to ferry aircraft in Europe.  The first woman ATA pilot to fly to France after the Allied invasion of Normandy did so in September 1944.  This was Diana Barnato Walker, and her flight was not-quite-above-board, so an awful lot was resting on its success.  She got lost in fog on her way back to England, hit a clear patch in the right place at the right time, and got VERY LUCKY.  (Later in life she became the first British woman to break the sound barrier.)

If I tried to make a complete list of the amazing real-life stories that went into my head and came out as Code Name Verity, it would be about a mile long.  Many of the minor characters have their basis in real historical figures also.  Like me, they are inspired by real people.  But, also like me, my fictional characters are their own individuals leading their own lives.  Ultimately, I made them up.

More about Annette Berman

More about John Moffat

His book:

More about the SOE Agents

The following blog entry includes portraits and bios of most of the SOE women I mentioned, except Alix d’Unienville:

For a brief bio of Alix d’Unienville:'Unienville

Her book:

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein is out now from Egmont , £7.99


  1. Oh wow! It is fascinating to read how people from the author's life have influenced the story. I am really excited by this book.

  2. Wow, this is a really interesting interview! If I didn't already want to read Code Name Verity, I most certainly would now! Her teacher worked for the French Resistance, how freaking awesome is that?!I guess I have to wait a few more months for the US release, but I am looking forward to it:)

  3. Wow, that's an amazing story. Thanks for telling us about your inspiration for your book.

    Wendy @ at The Midnight Garden

  4. Wow, fascinating post. I love reading who and what inspires an author. I love the sound of this book!!

  5. It's certainly a pleasure to be here - thanks for commenting, people! Yes, my French teacher was really a very amazing lady. She was also a fan of my other books - I'm really sorry she won't be able to read this one.

  6. What an amazing French teacher! It must be great to have known such inspirational people throughout life. I always love finding out what influenced authors to write their books. Great post - thank you :).

  7. Fascinating post! It's nice to know some of the real people who inspired your writing. I'm so glad that each post for the blog tour tells us something different about Code Name Verity and the writing process behind it.


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