Peter Macfarlane Shankland

Centenary - June 15th 2001

by his son, Michael Shankland

Peter Shankland

Peter Macfarlane Shankland, M.B.E

Born: Highgate, London, 1901

Died: Poole, Dorset, 1995

Writing a commemoration of my father's life is an honour. This is a strictly personal account; my father had four children: John and Catherine were from his marriage to Janet Shankland, nee Gunn, (who died in 1989), while myself and my brother David were from his marriage to Marion Shankland nee Ehlers (who died in 1997). Moreover my father had other close relatives and friends and acquaintances that have different, but still treasured, memories of him. I am aware that I have no exclusive right to present a centenary.

Peter Shankland

My father's family was from Strathclyde, though he was born in Highgate, North London, on 15th June 1901. He had a varied career and a distinguished war record, made some impressive documentaries, and finally wrote a series of historical books. Into his 80s and 90s he carried on writing and working at his antiquarian book business, conducted from the Georgian family home in Poole, Dorset. He was particularly proud of his Word-Processor and seemed to have little difficulty, in his 90s, in learning how to use it. I remember his overall love of life, his optimism, and his incredible interest in History, Current Affairs and Spirituality. My father also had the ability to forge his own independent opinions, and to strive hard to make the most out of every single moment of the day. The latter gift made him take delight in a Summer's day, an interesting conversation, the flowers in the garden, and to never underestimate the joys that life had to offer.

My father saw some of the innovations and the horrors of the 20th century. He worked in the film industry in the late 1920s in the United States. On returning to Britain and finding his own film projects seemed unable to gain backing, my father received an offer of travelling to the Soviet Union with Albert Coates, the internationally acclaimed orchestra conductor, in 1931. The first hand experiences of Communism were harrowing: I can remember my father telling me of the hoarding boasting of how many million kulaks (peasants who might own a cow or small strip of land) had been liquidated. A memory to haunt him for the rest of his life was of walking down a side street and being suddenly surrounded by dozens of citizens kneeling on the ground begging for bread, in this country which had once been renowned for its grain exports. This scene would give my father nightmares in future years, but also make him sceptical of so called 'intellectual' opinion which opted out of confronting the brutal reality of totalitarian government.

In the mid 1930s my father had spells of work in Germany and Britain. Whilst working at a film studio in Germany he witnessed a visit made by Dr. Goebbels and his entourage. His first hand experiences of seeing the Soviet system and National Socialism made him fear a possible war should the two monoliths ever combine. On his trips back to London he had befriended an Indian medical student, Pushpa, whom he married in 1934, to the dismay of some of his immediate family, though with the full support of his younger brother John. As the 1930s unfolded my father still seemed to be fearing war. Unlike many of his generation he was not at all moved by the Spanish Civil War. I remember discussing this subject with him, and learning that his opinion at the time was that although the fascist military had rebelled, the Communists were in fact days away from launching an uprising in Spain. On August 22nd 1939 the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed.

My father described his attitude to war in his own words:

I had no desire to kill anybody; neither did I want to leave all the dirty work to others. If everyone opted out on religious grounds, who was going to tackle the man with the bloody axe? He was still only in our neighbour's house, but he was getting uncomfortably close.

Peter Shankland

Again, from remembering conversations, I can recall that my father could not accept pacifism on the grounds that it was selfish, a pacifist was relying on other people to kill and to die for him. Yet it was his reluctance to take human life that drew him to minesweeping, which he saw as saving life.

As I approach my own 40th birthday, I compare my life with my father's. It is so easy to use the expression 'The War' - this event which was to fundamentally alter humanity's collective destiny. As I wonder how to treat myself for my 40th birthday, my father, at the same time in his life, was wondering if Britain really could survive the next few months without being invaded by the Nazis. This great tempest which burst in to my father's world cost him dearly. Amongst the war dead was his brother John, whom he loved the most out of all his family. In the tumult of war he did not even have the opportunity to mourn properly, but I remember him telling me how, on the first day of Peace, he managed to find somewhere quiet and wept for hours to think that John had not managed to see the end of the War. His marriage to Pushpa did not last the course of the war.

At the start of the war, my father worked removing mines from the River Thames. At the end of 1941 he went with the Mine Sweeping service to protect an aid convoy going to Murmansk in the Soviet Union. Though an incredible adventure in itself, the next mission in 1942 was to overshadow this. The mine sweeping vessel that my father served in as an officer, HMS Speedy, was ordered to the relief of Malta. My father's interpretation of history was that there was the famous crisis point of 1940 where Britain stood alone, facing possible Nazi invasion. Yet he also stressed that 1942 was also a very dangerous year for the Allied cause. The American entry into the War was not immediately turning the tide against the Axis. The Nazi stranglehold on Europe was still strong, and it was by no means certain that the Soviet Union would survive. A great fear was that Nazi success in North Africa would mean that they could turn their forces to Palestine and ultimately to the oil-producing countries, perhaps even attacking the Soviet Union from the south. The fact that Malta still remained in Allied hands was of great benefit. HMS Speedy was despatched with a convoy to assist the beleaguered island of Malta. Against all odds and much suffering, relief got through. My father's personal recollections were the basis of his first (and most successful) book, co-written with Anthony Hunter, Malta Convoy, published in 1960. Interestingly it was my father's brave and selfless minesweeping activity in newly liberated Belgium in 1944-1945 that led to his MBE award. One of the most interesting anecdotes that he had about the War years was that in June 1944, whilst on leave, he had obtained tickets for the House of Commons public gallery. My father thus found himself present on the day that Winston Churchill announced to the House that the liberation of Europe had begun.

Peter Shankland

My father could not settle to peace time. He began filming documentaries in Germany. His marriage had collapsed and the war had scarred his psyche. He admired Winston Churchill and was simply unconvinced by the Attlee regime. His most renowned documentary Asylrecht (right of asylum) from 1949 was filmed on the border between the Russian and British zones of Germany. The documentary showed clearly that some refugees from the Russian zone were being turned back. Some optimism and ambition at last began to enter my father's life. A documentary interview with Gustav Jung was being planned. Jung was someone my father looked up to as someone who could explain to mid-20th century Europe the impulse which drives humans to persecute 'minority' groups. But my father had fallen foul of the Attlee regime. At a special screening of Asylrecht (in English) in front of assorted British officials, problems resulted. One MP shouted that in the House they had been told that no refugees from the Russian zone had been turned back from entering the British zone. The Foreign Office did their utmost to suppress Asylrecht and to divert projects away from him. In Hamburg my father met Janet Gunn, his second wife. Their marriage was turbulent, and would end in an acrimonious divorce, and he was unsuccessful in gaining custody of their two children, John and Catherine.

My father met my mother Marion whilst working in Barnet. They married in October 1960 and settled in Poole, Dorset. My father devoted a great deal of time battling to save the house that he had bought, and other 18th century properties, from being demolished by the local council. He also worked as a language teacher. Once myself and my brother David were of school age, my father retired to concentrate on his writing, and my Mother went to work. There was friction at times within their marriage, yet my father knew that my mother worked hard to establish their home and their social network, and her love and care enabled him to be still writing in his mid 90s.

Peter Shankland

My father's written work is impressive. His first work was related to 20th century naval history, then moved on to 18th century naval history. My father then made the change to legal history and concentrated on lesser known trials that he thought highlighted important points of law but also gave an insight into human psychology. His 20th century history was published in the former Axis and former Allied countries, a great tribute to his impartiality. I can recall him admiring H G Wells' attempt to write a completely objective history of the World, which would be so non-partisan that it would lead to better relations between the nations. Living as a child through World War 1 and seeing active service in World War 2 made my father very pro-EEC, and he relished the thought that countries which had once fought wars against each other could find common interest. He was delighted to find that he had lived long enough to see the end of Communism in Eastern Europe. Moreover, my father used his talents as a historian to try to shed new light on different subjects. Byron of the Wager concerned the grandfather of the famous poet and his naval expedition. Beware of Heroes tried to give the career of Sir Sidney Smith a fair re-appraisal. I remember being allowed to read the proofs of this book, printed out on strange long printers' paper, at 13. The sales of his work declined, though not the calibre of the writing. His last book, Gemma, remains unpublished. Just before he died he wrote his autobiography, Events and Shadows, which my Mother did her best to circulate as much as possible before her own death 15 months later.

Peter Shankland

The lack of success of his later work sometimes rankled. A change of publisher, a wariness of using agents, settling in Poole - a place with few literary connections - did not help matters. At the encouragement of his publisher, my father started working with other authors. The most notable of these was Sir Michael Havers, Attorney General in the 1980s.

Yet my father died in his mid 90s, content, loved and respected. His funeral was well attended and messages of condolences seemed to pour in. He added to many people's lives in various ways. His life saw horror and tragedy, yet he found an inner serenity and creative ability in the last decades of his life.

As a historian my father resented 'hack' writing. His work was researched by himself, his sources well credited, and he seemed to seek out subjects that historians had neglected or individuals that had not received due credit. He always wished to add to our overall knowledge of history, rather than regard the study of the subject as a career opening. I still get a great feeling of pride when I see his books on the shelves of libraries or second hand bookshops.


Michael Shankland, June 2001

Books by Peter Shankland