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Terrific Fun – The Short Life of Billy Moss: Soldier, Writer and Traveller by Alan Ogden

“Billy” Moss with his Russians

With grateful thanks to Alan Ogden and Gabriella Bullock for permitting me to share this with you. It is the first extensive attempt at a biography of William Stanley Moss MC, known to us as “Billy” Moss, the second-in-command to Paddy during the Kreipe kidnap, and also author of a number of books including Ill Met by Moonlight and its sequel War of Shadows.

A full pdf of this with extensive footnotes is available to download and print here. A slightly shorter version, edited for the 2018 Coldstream Gazette, and also downloadable as a pdf is here.

by Alan Ogden

The Fates had at first been kind to Billy Moss. Born into a privileged background and brought up by devoted parents, he was good looking, athletic and a precociously talented writer; he had penned his first book Island Adventure by the time he was fifteen. With a languid charm and a playful self-deprecation typical of his era, Billy had every chance of succeeding in whatever career he chose to pursue. Then, three months after his eighteenth birthday, a reluctant Britain declared a state of war with Germany and his future was no longer a matter of choice; it was a day that was to impact on him for the rest of his life.

Childhood, boyhood and youth

Billy’s father, Stanley Moss, was born in Japan in 1875. The son of Charles D. Moss , the Chief Clerk and Registrar of H.B.M.’s Court for Japan, Stanley was a successful businessman, making and losing a fortune three times over. At the age of forty, Stanley married Natalie Galitch, a Russian national eighteen years his junior born in Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, at that time a busy port in Eastern Siberia. Her father at one point was the mayor of Harbin, a city of 60,000 which had been built during the construction of the Chinese Eastern Railway [1897-1902] that linked Vladivostok with Chita.

An only child, Billy was born in Yokohama on 15 June 1921 and two years later, after a devastating earthquake levelled most of the city – ‘the house was wrecked and after spending one week on the hill above the house with no protection and sleeping in the open air [we] were taken off by American destroyer’ – the Moss family made their way to Kobe, then to Shanghai and from there to England. It was to be the first of many such journeys; by the time he was a teenager, he calculated he travelled two and a half times around the world, including a return journey to Japan in 1927/28.

Schooling started for Billy at the age of five; at The Hall School in Weybridge he was viewed as ‘a most promising child’ and at St Dunstan’s School in Finchley Road, he received a similar appraisal the following year. From there, he was sent to Lydgate House School in Hunstanton in Norfolk where he made an excellent impression. On his leaving, the headmaster wrote to his parents that ‘he had been a fine little fellow, has proved himself most capable and loyal as Head Boy’. With a wide range of interests such as art, theatre, cinema, and music, together with sports such as cricket, football, boxing, and tennis, Billy soon settled in to his public school, Charterhouse, set in the Surrey countryside outside Godalming.

In his final year at Charterhouse, with the help of two friends, he produced Congress, a school magazine to which he invited illustrious Old Carthusians to contribute. Many accepted with the exception of Robert Graves who wrote a testy letter of refusal – ‘Dear Mr Editor, Sorry: I have no story and don’t write articles and the chief connexion I have with the school is a recurrent nightmare that I am back there again…’ The one and only issue with a print run of 1,000, and illustrated by Billy, was by any standards a considerable success. It included fiction by Richard Hughes of High Wind in Jamaica fame; a history of the Boer War by Lord Baden Powell; humour by Ben Travers and W.C.Sellar of 1066 and All That; reminiscences of actors Aubrey Smith and Richard Goolden; articles by golfer Henry Longhurst and travel writer Henry Baerlein; and Lieutenant-Commander Scourfield’s account of the mining of HMS Hunter off Spain.

Stanley Moss, having lost his first fortune in the Yokohama earthquake disaster, had worked hard to accrue a second, only to lose it in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. A third foray into Japanese mining proved successful until the Japanese government sequestered his assets. Stanley died suddenly in 1938. They had been a close-knit family, travelling together to many parts of the world. Billy found he felt the loss of his father more acutely as time went on than he did at first.

He and his mother were left in relatively straightened circumstances and the fees for his final year at Charterhouse were paid by his uncle, the diplomat Sir George Moss, later Adviser on Chinese Affairs to SOE’s Delhi Group.

On leaving school in July 1939, Billy accompanied his mother together with her sister, Olga, and her brother-in-law on a trip to Riga. Leaving Tilbury on 3 August, they arrived in Gothenburg and after a brief stopover in Stockholm, they reached Riga on 7 August. Almost immediately they found themselves caught up in the chaotic events that surrounded the British declaration of war against Germany on 3 September. Running perilously low on money, they left Riga on 7 September and reached Stockholm where they caught a train to Oslo. After several adventures in search of a ship, they ended up in Bergen where they found a passage to Newcastle. Their ship, The Meteor, once the Kaiser’s yacht, sailed at 11.30 p.m. with over 200 passengers on board, most of who slept on deck in fear of being torpedoed by a German U-boat . The very next day Billy started work as a trainee accountant with The British American Tobacco Company , which had recently relocated from London to Egham after the Ministry of Supply had requisitioned its Westminster Head Office. After finding digs in Staines, Billy worked for the company until the New Year of 1941 when he joined the Army.

Off to war with the Coldstream Guards

Enlisting in the Coldstream Guards, one of Britain’s oldest and most distinguished regiments, Billy started his military career at the Guards Depot in Caterham, the home of ‘spit and polish’, and moustachioed Sergeant Majors with a variety of encouraging phrases. Accepted for officer training, he progressed to Sandhurst in April and by the beginning of August was gazetted Second Lieutenant Emergency Commission . Soldiering on the home front at that time was somewhat akin to peacetime; King’s Guard at St James’s Palace, cocktail parties, deb dances and a spell with the holding battalion at Chequers . In his diary, he noted ‘it had been wonderful staying at Chequers at a time when every word spoken by Churchill was gospel and thrilling to see him “off duty” and to speak with him and eat and drink with him and understand him and his ways’. A period of guarding Rudolf Hess at Mytchett Place in Surrey was followed by a posting to the 6th battalion before finally being sent overseas in August 1942 to join the 3rd battalion. As Billy put it, ‘there had been the blitz, and yet we had all been so gay – theatres, night-clubs, restaurants and riotous weekends’. Continue reading

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Relaunch of A War of Shadows by Billy Moss

A War of Shadows

A War of Shadows

In 1952 Billy Moss published his second volume of war memoirs, focusing on his activities after the Kreipe kidnap which he had described so vividly in Ill Met by Moonlight.War of Shadows has recently been republished by Bene Factum and I was honoured to have been invited to the recent launch party at the RAF Club.

A War of Shadows is a darker book than Ill Met. It starts with a discourse on death in its many forms, variety of impacts, and importance. Billy is in reflective mood as he describes the last year of his war, during which time he engaged in ambushes in Crete with his Russians whilst Paddy was recuperating from his illness in Cairo. There were even plans made to repeat the kidnap with the replacement General!

From Crete, Billy is deployed to Macedonia where he encounters a more cynical form of resistance. As the war in Europe passed on towards the shrinking Germanic core, Billy volunteered for SOE operations in the Far East and was parachuted into Siam, where he saw out the dog days of the war, occasionally listening to test matches on the BBC World Service.

The launch of the book represents a significant triumph for his family, especially his daughters. There is a view that Billy’s part in the Kreipe kidnap has been played down over time with more attention on Paddy’s role. It is important therefore to Billy’s memory that his role is recognised and that people know that after the kidnap Billy continued to engage in fierce operations against the Germans and Japanese, showing tactical skill and great bravery.

Billy Moss at a book signing in the early 1950's

Billy Moss at a book signing in the early 1950’s

I read A War of Shadows a couple of years ago (I managed to find a first edition) and it is a very enjoyable read, offering us more detail on the Crete operations and an interesting perspective on the way the war ‘wound down’. The new paperback edition has a delightfully personal introduction by Billy’s daughter Gabriella, and closes with an end-piece by acclaimed SOE writer Alan Ogden which is to all intents and purposes a short biography of Billy. So if you want to know more about this extraordinary man you should buy a copy of the new edition of A War of Shadows.

Liely Bullock at the recent relaunch of A War of Shadows

Liely Bullock at the recent relaunch of A War of Shadows

Billy’s whole family are very much involved in preserving his memory. Proceeds from the book will go to support various charitable activities on Crete. At the launch, Billy’s granddaughter Liely gave a wonderful speech honouring his memory. She wore a beautiful jacket of silver thread depicting Mongol horsemen at the charge with bows taut; this jacket belonged to her grandmother Sophie, the woman who dominated that vibrant community of heroes and free thinkers in Cairo that was Tara. The jacket was hand-made in Cairo from cloth that Sophie bought in the souk. The text of Liely’s speech follows.

You can purchase War of Shadows in all good book stores but if pressed for time click here to buy from Amazon. A War of Shadows

 

Thank you Anthony, on behalf of all my family, for your kind words – and for all you have done: this evening celebrates the first reprint of A War of Shadows since 1952, and I want to take this opportunity to say how enormously we appreciate your unstinting dedication in bringing this book back into the light.
For us it is a very special occasion, and I want to thank all of you for coming this evening – my family welcomes you all.

We have just returned from Crete where, 3 weeks ago, we commemorated together the 70th anniversary of the Special Operation Executive’s abduction of the German General Kreipe – the only successful such kidnap of the war – carried out by Paddy Leigh Fermor and Billy, with the help and support of a great swathe of the Cretan population. It was Billy’s diary, written in the field, which became the book, and then the film, Ill Met by Moonlight. Paddy and Billy spirited the General by boat to the Middle East.

From this point – or rather, from the point of his treasured friendship with Paddy – A War of Shadows takes up the story of the rest of Billy’s SOE war : in Crete for a second time, then Macedonia and the Far East. It is a candid observation of the times, places, personalities and politics. It liberally mixes humour with stark reality. Never melodramatic, it is at times a sobering and thoughtful book on what it actually means to be a soldier, dealing with death. At times it is also a very personal account : the answers to many questions lie within its pages.

Billy’s life, from the moment he was born, was extraordinary in so many ways but it was tragically short. He died in 1965. We his family carry him within us always, but it seemed that, as the decades passed, he would largely be forgotten by the world at large.

It is impossible to describe what it was to find, in Alan Ogden, Billy’s ultimate champion. Alan had already written about Billy and other SOE agents in his books Sons of Odysseus and Tigers Burning Bright. My parents first met Alan at the Special Forces Club in January last year, and it was he who absolutely insisted that Billy’s story should be told, and so he introduced them to his publisher, Anthony Weldon!

Alan threw himself into writing a short biography of Billy which is now published as the Afterword to A War of Shadows. ALAN, we are just so grateful for everything you have so generously done for Billy’s memory.

There are myriad ways in which we have felt support, and we owe a debt of gratitude to all of you whom we have gathered here tonight.

There are so many strands, and some of you have very particular links to my grandparents. ONE of you was a baby in wartime Cairo : SIMON, your mother was a marvellous and lifelong friend to them both. ONE of you is the son of their fellow Tara inmate, and named after another Tara inmate : XAN, your father was ever the dearest of friends. ONE of you, as a girl, knew them – and even knew Pixie the Alsatian – when they were living in Ireland in the 1950s : MERCEDES, you have vivid memories of Billy having to rescue you when Pixie had you pinned against a wall.

As I mentioned, we have just visited Crete. Some of us had been before, and for some of us it was the first time. It is hard to find words to express the experience, or our heartfelt gratitude towards the people there, or to say how much we are moved by their generosity of spirit.

There is also the most extraordinary of Cretan links: during the operation known in Crete as the Damasta Sabotage, one brave man was hit by an enemy shell full in the belly, and it seemed he could not possibly survive ; but survive he did – all this is described in A War of Shadows; and tonight one of his twelve grandchildren is here – a research biologist at Glasgow University – our dear EMMANOUELA.

So on behalf of Billy and all his family, we thank all of you for coming to share this evening with us. Let’s raise our glasses in Cretan fashion: Eviva!