Parents’ story inspired debut author

The story of a couple’s wartime romance has been recreated by their daughter who, at the age of 67, has just published her first novel.

Lily’s War is a book that has taken seven years to write and is based on Wirksworth-based Shirley Mann’s parents, David and Eileen Johnson. Her mother became a WAAF wireless operator in Bomber Command and her father was a tank transporter driver in the Eighth Army and their relationship blossomed despite a 2,000-mile gap between them. 

A journalist, based in Derbyshire, who worked across newspapers and BBC radio and television, Shirley’s research involved interviews with other WAAFs after her mother died in 2014. 

“My father had died much earlier and then, when my mum died, I decided I wanted to recreate that young couple who’d always had such a twinkle in their eyes but the truth was I’d left it too late to ask enough questions.”   

Desperate for first-hand accounts, Shirley travelled the country talking to WAAFs who were in their 80s and 90s and has fictionalised some of their stories into the novel. 

“As a journalist, it was imperative to me that I got the research right,” she said. “I wanted people to  know what the minutiae of everyday life was like for young people during the war. It was important to me to make the book a tribute to those who lived through it, but also I wanted a younger generation to really feel what it must have been like to live in such extraordinary times.”

The detailed research included the fact that all WAAFs carried a penny piece with them at all times as rubber plugs were scarce; that, with limited water supplies, hair washing involved Eau de Cologne and that women used soot as eye shadow as there were few cosmetics available. 

“These facts just fascinated me,” Shirley said, “but I did get a little carried away and spent two days trying to find out whether they had ginger biscuits in the war, before I realised I could make them garibaldi biscuits.”

Shirley Mann’s second novel, Bobby’s War about a female Air Transport Auxiliary pilot will be published next year. 

Lily’s War’is now available as a paperback, as an e-book and also an audio book in selected supermarkets, bookstores and online.