CURBING YOUR ENTHUSIASM
I hope I’m not alone when I suggest that writers with a passion for history can get so carried away with a story they imagine the whole world needs to read it. It has an epic backdrop and a cast of colourful characters. The dusty archives have served you up a handful of diamonds. It has all the human elements for ‘a good read’. Surely, this could be more than a book? Possibly a movie, a radio programme, and most of all, a TV documentary.
For example, TV, from Channel 5 through to BBC4, Discovery, Yesterday and History appear to have an insatiable demand for new angles on everything from WW1 to the Third Reich. As for the latter, it is amazing that the Reich lasted a mere 13 years yet the Nazis have been goose-stepping across our screens for almost 80. Hitler promised ‘a 1,000 year Reich’. Well, in entertainment terms, he seems on target. So, with the absence of the Waffen-SS, how does a writer delving into other epochs convince producers that his yarn is a possible gem?
In 1999 I was asked over to Kalmar in Sweden to discuss the possibility of scripting a TV documentary about wrecks in the Baltic. I was shown footage of a series of wrecks which had all been sunk by one British submarine, HMS E19. Five had been sunk in one day, October 11 1915. Back in the UK I checked this with the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport. They sent me a one page document outlining the career of HMS E19’s commander, Francis Cromie. I had inadvertently discovered a true ‘Boys Own’ charismatic naval hero. The editor of Saga magazine, Paul Bach, went for my proposal for a feature, which would run in two episodes. Saga funded a trip to Russia accompanied by the photographer Graham Harrison. After a lot of research my agent landed a book deal with Airlife of Shrewsbury. The story had everything. Submarine warfare, the Bolshevik Revolution, an illicit love affair, byzantine espionage with the ‘Ace of Spies’, Sidney Reilly, all culminating in Cromie’s murder in the British Embassy in Petrograd on August 31 1918. As I have quipped facing up to many potential backers – ‘What’s not to like?’ Nothing, it seems.
Hailing from Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire, Francis Newton Allen Cromie CB DSO RN (1882-1918) was one of the pioneers of the Royal Navy’s submarine service. Handsome, tee-total, non-smoking, he was a watercolour artist, a musician, brilliant orator and mediator. He was commanding a submarine in his 20s when he received the Royal Humane Society’s medal for saving a sailor from drowning. He was sent in charge of 5 subs in 1915 to support the Russians and join Commander Max Horton’s successful Baltic flotilla based in Reval, Estonia (today’s Tallin). 200 British sailors shared their accommodation with the Russian navy on board a decommissioned Russian battleship, the Dvina. During the winter, when the Baltic froze over, action was impossible. But before the ice arrived, Cromie had sunk a dozen vessels, including the German Cruiser, Undine. He was decorated by Tsar Nicholas, invited to dine on the royal train. He soon mastered the Russian language and although married with a child at home, he was the consummate ladies’ man, seen regularly with other women, including a Baroness Schilling, and the mysterious Moura Budberg (ex-Liberal leader Nick Clegg’s aunt and later mistress to H. G. Wells.). During the Russian winter he was feted wherever he went, making this speech to artists, writers and musicians at the Duma in Moscow:
“Gentlemen; you are creators. What you create will live long after you. I am only a simple sailor. I destroy, but can say truthfully that I destroy in order that your works may live.”
This impressed Britain’s envoy in Moscow, Robin Bruce Lockhart.
Cromie toured the Russian front line and became increasingly aware of the growing tensions between the aloof Russian officer class and the ill-equipped, ill-fed ordinary soldiers. Back in Tallin, after months of tension between the oppressed, jealous Russian sailors and their well-treat British counterparts, revolution was in the air. During this fraught period Cromie spent time at the British Embassy in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). There he fell in love with a beautiful young socialite, Sonya Gagarin.
When the revolution began in March 1917, the Russian navy mutinied, killing hundreds of officers overnight. Cromie had a difficult task in keeping his own men apart from Russian politics, whilst he often intervened on behalf of hapless Russian ratings who had been accused and condemned by the sailors’ revolutionary committees of failing to support the struggle. In Moscow, Bruce Lockhart was joined by master spy Sidney Reilly (the original inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond). A plan was hatched to depose Lenin.
By 1918 with the Revolution in full swing, Britain’s embassy staff in Petrograd, led by Sir George Buchanan, feared for their lives and returned to Britain, leaving Cromie as acting Naval Attache in the embassy. He could have gone home, but his love for Sonya Gagarin kept him there. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia was no longer fighting the Germans. Cromie’s submarines and men were no longer required. His sailors were sent home via Murmansk. Cromie, out of his depth in espionage, made a fatal mistake of joining Reilly and Bruce Lockhart’s plans to bring an Allied force to Russia to defeat the Bolsheviks. Cromie met with representatives of Lenin’s Praetorian Guard, the Latvian regiment, who promised to join the Allies against Lenin – for a price. But Cromie, Lockhart and Reilly had been duped; the Latvian approach was a sting organised by the Cheka, the fore-runner of the KGB.
On August 30th 1918 Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd Cheka was assassinated. This was an excuse to round up anyone involved with the Allies, especially the British. The following day, Saturday August 31st, Red Guards raided the British Embassy. Cromie, aged 37, revolver in hand, went down fighting. He is buried in an unmarked grave in St. Petersburg. Sidney Reilly vanished until 1925 when he was shot dead in Russia.
In the 16 years since I completed Cromie’s biography, Honoured by Strangers, I’ve given lectures on Cromie at various venues including the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, but I have lost count of the meetings with TV companies. Many of them feigned enthusiasm. Between 2016 to the present the Cromie package has gone out to 18 production companies, but none could sell it to the networks. It’s also been lodged with various history figureheads such as Dan Snow, Max Hastings, Michael Palin, Melvyn Bragg, Ian Hislop and even Jeremy Clarkson. To their credit, both Palin and Hislop had the manners to reply and turn it down. “Too busy”.
Cromie was awarded a CB posthumously by King George. Churchill referred to him as ‘a man of great ability’. And I always like to think, in cinematic terms, of the melodramatic coda to an imaginary movie (yes, I even wrote a screenplay). The heartbroken Sonya Gagarin left Russia in 1927 and emigrated to America, where she married a Russian émigré called Rovskosky. She died, childless and alone in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1979. She never visited Russia again.
Churchill also said ‘success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’ However, as the unsung centenary of a heroic death sails silently by, at last my enthusiasm has been curbed.
CURBING YOUR ENTHUSIASM