Old Citizen, Duncan Barrett's book 'Hitler's British Isles' launches today


14 June 2018
Old Citizen (1994 - 2001) Duncan Barrett’s non-fiction book, Hitler’s British Isles is released today, 14th June, by leading publishing house, Simon & Schuster. The latest in a string of Sunday Times bestsellers by Duncan, Hitler’s British Isles tells the story of life under German rule in the Channel Islands during World War II.

Described by Saran Montague of BBC Radio 4, herself a Guernsey girl, as ‘...a brilliant job of reflecting the peculiar challenges that existed for those living under occupation,’ his writing brings to life the day-to-day reality of Nazi occupation, a fate mainland Britain came perilously close to experiencing itself.

To capture this extraordinary period in British history, Duncan spent three months in the Channel Islands during the summer of 2016.

“I managed to interview more than a hundred islanders who lived through the Occupation,” he said.  “To get the ball rolling, I contacted the local papers on both Jersey and Guernsey and persuaded them to run articles about my research, and I also spent an hour on BBC Radio Guernsey, encouraging people to call in with their stories.  Once I had a dozen or so people to interview, it began to snowball – everyone I spoke to suggested two or three more people.  Fortunately, the Channel Islands are small and transport between them is fairly manageable, so I was able to get to pretty much everyone who responded in that three-month period.”

This was followed by several more months “transcribing and sifting through all my interviews for the most interesting stories, and then trying to work out how to fit them all into a unified narrative. From beginning to end, I worked on this book for about two years. First comes the research, then the planning, which can take as long again. In terms of bashing out the actual words, I started just before Christmas 2016 and submitted my first draft at the start of August the following year, so about seven or eight months later. Then there are the rewrites, editing, and so on and so forth. The final version went to press in March 2018.”

Having written a couple books about life on the Home Front during WW2 – GI Brides, about English women who married American servicemen stationed in Britain in the run-up to D-Day, and The Girls Who Went to War, about women who signed up for the forces themselves, Duncan said, “My focus is always on how ordinary people step up to the challenges of that kind of total war – the Blitz spirit, make-do-and-mend, and so on. 

“In some ways, the Channel Islands experience is the ultimate Home Front story: the story of 70,000 British civilians who were forced to live side by side with ‘the enemy’.  Other books on the subject written for a mainland audience have often focussed on the darker, more compromising side of the Occupation – collaboration, appeasement by the local governments, the passing of anti-Semitic laws, and so on.  I was keen to find out what it was like for the ordinary men and women who lived through the Occupation, rather than their leaders – and in many cases, I think they managed admirably, showing their own equivalent of the Blitz spirit in their determination to get on with their lives and make the best of things.” 

Duncan described how his time at CLS influenced his choice of career: “I was really lucky that the History Department was extremely vibrant and inspiring. In particular, there were a lot of young, energetic teachers – Helen Pike, Noeleen Murphy, Paul Letters, Matt Fuller and Paul Kilbride – who between them made the subject seem exciting and relevant. Miss Pike in particular, really pushed those of her students who had an interest in the subject, organising lunchtime reading groups of quite advanced academic history essays and so on.  Although I ended up studying English rather than History at university (something I regret now, given my current work!), all those teachers, and their enthusiasm for learning about the past, made a lasting impact on me.”  

After CLS, Duncan studied English at Jesus College, Cambridge and then trained as an actor. “I spent five years auditioning and doing the odd small-scale theatre or TV job, but at the same time I was beginning to do freelance editorial work for publishing houses as well.

“In 2010 I edited the memoirs of Ronald Skirth, a conscientious objector of WW1, which was published by Macmillan as The Reluctant Tommy.  The book was a success and I ended up with a literary agent off the back of it.  A couple of years later, he came to me with a brief from an editor at HarperCollins – it was around the time that Call The Midwife was in development for TV and they wanted to publish a book on a similar subject (working-class women’s lives in the post-war East End) that would come out at the same time as the show.  I mentioned it to my partner Nuala, who was then working as a journalist and was a big fan of the Call The Midwife books, and she suggested we could do it together.  We pitched them a book called The Sugar Girls, which would tell the true stories of some of the thousands of young women who worked in Tate & Lyle’s East End factories during their heyday in the 1950s.  They liked it, we wrote it – extremely quickly, given the timetable we’d been set – and, partly I suspect because of the unprecedented success of the Call The Midwife TV show, it became a big bestseller.  HarperCollins signed us up for two more books in a similar vein and I handed in my notice at my acting agency.  The next two books (GI Brides and The Girls Who Went to War) were both bestsellers as well, and when our contract with HarperCollins came to an end in 2015, we decided to move to Simon & Schuster.  Our son Leo was born around the same time, so I researched and wrote Hitler’s British Isles myself, but the next book will be another joint project with Nuala.”