Sunday, 3 September 2017

Seventy eight years on

I was born in 1950, less than five years after the end of the Second World War ... and it is somewhat sobering to think that as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, that war started seventy eight years ago today.

I remember my relatives talking about what it was like during the weeks and months leading up to the outbreak of the war. They all seemed to express two emotions; one was regret that, regardless of what the politicians did, war seemed inevitable ... and the second was a sort of relief when it actually started.

My father's family lived in the East End, and he was attending East Ham Grammar School. He was not evacuated, and his education sort of petered out once the Blitz started, and as he was old enough to leave school, he went to work during the day in an office in the City and became a Home Guard (and later a Fireman) at night.

My mother's family lived in Bushey, Hertfordshire, and my maternal grandfather travelled from there to his job at the De Havillands aircraft factory. Because he was in the Territorial Army he had been mobilised just before the war started, and soon afterwards he and his unit were on their way to France as part of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). My grandmother did not like living in Bushey, and soon after the outbreak of war the family returned to the area of south London where the rest of her family. Like my father, my mother's education gradually came to an end, and she went to work, eventually becoming an airbrush artist for Warner Brothers.


It is also sobering to re-read the words that Neville Chamberlain spoke on that morning seventy two years ago.

'This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin, handed the German government, the final note, stating that unless we heard from them, by 11 o'clock, that they were prepared at once, to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now, that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is now at war with Germany. ... We have a clear conscience; we have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given by Germany's ruler could be trusted, and no people or country could feel itself safe had become intolerable ... Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things we shall be fighting against—brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression, and persecution—and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.'

I think that my parents placed great store in getting a good education because theirs had been incomplete. For example, my mother was a very good artist, but because she did not get any qualifications, she was never able to progress further in her chosen career. Likewise my father had to strive very hard when he returned from his time in the Army, and I can remember him going to night-school to get the qualifications he needed to become an accountant.

Incidentally, whilst my mother was working at Warner Brothers she met one of their actors ... a certain Ronald Reagan. My brother has a photograph of the two of them shaking hands, and I understand that he took it with him to the US when he worked there during Reagan's presidency. He tells me that showing that photo to people was a great way to break the ice with Americans that he met.

30 comments:

  1. Interesting reading, Bob. New Zealand's role in the war always puzzled and rather annoyed the Germans, apparently. They couldn't figure out what it had to do with us. I was born in 1951, just 2 days after my mother's 21st birthday.

    I was never clear about what my father did during the war. I know he trained in bombers in Canada in 1943, but he never had much to say about his war service. I don't know what sort of operations he flew on, if any, where he served or any of that. I think that was the way he wanted it. I have sometimes wondered, though...

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    1. Archduke Piccolo,

      Being on the other side of the world, I can imagine that the Germans just did not comprehend why New Zealand would take part in a war that didn't directly affect them. For a country seeming obsessed with race and kinship, that indicates a lack of understanding of the relationship that existed between New Zealanders and the British.

      Our parents' generation is of an age when their memories of the Second World War will be lost if the haven't been recorded. Over recent years there has been plenty of coverage of the death of the last participants from the First World War, but anyone who was 18 in 1939 is now 96 ... and there are fewer and fewer of them around each year,

      I don't know what the situation is in New Zealand, but in the UK it is possible to get hold of a deceased soldier's military record. All you have to provid is a death certificate, proof of kinship to the deceased, and payment of the search fee,

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Thanks Bob. I have no idea whether there is such a service in this country.
      Cheers,
      Ion

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    3. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

      I would be very surprised if something like it did not exist. Have a look at the New Zealand Armed Forces websites; it might give you a clue where to look.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. Bob,

    72 years ago? Surely you mean 78 years?

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    1. Phil Dutré,

      Thanks for pointing out the error. I have now changed the blog entry so that it has the correct number of years in the title and the main text.

      I really ought not to write blog entries when I've had a bad night's sleep and my brain is not quite in gear.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. The experiences of both the Great Depression and then World War 2 deeply shaped most people of our parent's generation. The experience of WW2 must surely have ben different for everyone, and certainly enduring the bombings made it very different in the UK from here in the US. My father was finishing a degree in Engineering at NYU when Pearl Harbor brought the entry of the US into the war. Along with most of his class, he volunteered, and traveled to the UK by troop ship. He spent enough time there in the months prior to D-Day to acquire a considerable British accent, which stayed with him throughout the rest of his life, as well as being fond of the British expression "chaps", seldom used by Americans. He was fortunate to survive landing at Omaha beach... an experience he never, ever, talked about.

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    1. Gonsalvo,

      The 1920s and 1930s were tough times for ordinary people pretty well everywhere, and the UK still had considerable unemployment when the war broke out. For many people wartime rationing and military service ensured that they ate healthily for the first time in many years.

      It is understandable that your father would have been reluctant to talk about the landings on Omaha Beach. I understand that quite a few survivors latterly expressed feelings of guilt at having got through it when so many others did not.

      Some of us still use the expression 'chaps' ... but it is fast falling out of use. That said, a friend of mine is Indian, and when he goes home his uncles use the term quite a lot, and take him to task because his spoken English is not as good as it should be! (Indian English seems to have resisted some of the worst changes that have happened to the language in the last seventy years.)

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. My father was drafted in the U.S. Army in 1942. He served in the Pacific Theater with the 271st Field Artillery BN, part of the 1st Cavalry Division. The oddest thing I remember him saying was that he was trained and deployed as an infantryman. However once in theater his unit was moved and trained as artillery.

    He also told a story of how Japanese soldiers would steal uniforms from dead Americans or Filipinos. They would don the uniform, sneak into an American camp and get in line for chow. However we had a Filipino sergeant who would go down the chow line and would apprehend them.

    I had several terrain hexes from the MtG miniatures game that I was about to toss into the bin but your recent venture with Heroscape terrain changed my mind. As always good reading Bob.

    Cheers,
    Jeff

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    1. A. Jeff Butler (Jeff),

      Your father's career in the US Army sounds pretty typical of the sort of apparently illogical way people are allocated to arms of service. My father (a Londoner) was intitally trained to be an infantryman in the Durham Light Infantry (a unit based in north east England). When they found out that he could do trigonometry, he was transferred to the artillery ... and ended up in 6th Airborne Division!

      I've heard stories about North Koreans trying to get fed by UN units during the Korean War by wearing 'recycled' uniforms, but not that the Japanese did it during the War in the Pacific.

      Good luck with your terrain hexes. My Heroscape project is progressing slowly but surely.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. Both my parents were old enough to serve. My dad was in the Cameronians (although had wanted to volunteer for submarines!) and narrowly avoided Arnhem (52 Lowland Division were to have been flown in to Deelen airfield), instead fighting through Holland into Germany. My mother was in the Land Army (to avoid being conscripted into the ATS!); had she not done so it is unlikely my parents would have met.
    BTW relevant to Germany and NZ, the Afrika Korps called the Kiwis "the men with false teeth" as apparently so many had their own extracted (as indeed did my mother, it being the epitome of dental hygiene in the 1930s it seems).
    Neil

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    1. Neil Patterson,

      There is quite a lot of difference between being an infantryman and a submariner! I dont know how the survival rates compare, but I suspect that being an infantryman was marginally safer ... and you're more likely to meet Land Girls!

      My father-in-law had all his teeth removed and replaced by dentures in the 1930s for much the same reason. You wouldn't get away with doing that nowadays!

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. You were right about New Zealanders' fashion for having their teeth removed. I haven't the slightest idea why. My mother got all hers done, my father just the top ones. Apparently there was some deficiency (fluoride) in the water supply that left Kiwis with chalky teeth.

      I have been very fortunate in having very good teeth, and apart from having one crowned ten years ago, and a root canal in another that I cracked on a plum stone about 4 years back, still have my original choppers.

      Wholesale teeth extraction has long since gone out of fashion in this country...

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    3. Archduke Piccolo,

      As I have aged, some of my bottom teeth have been removed and replaced by a denture. They are a bl**dy nuisance ... but they are better than having a somewhat unsightly gap in the front of my mouth! (When I had them removed I had to wait for the gums to recede and settle before I could have the dentures made and fitted. I forgot how horrific I looked ... and caused more than one small child to scream and run off when I opened my mouth to speak. It appeared that I looked rather like a vampire whose mouth was upside down.)

      All the best,

      Bob

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    4. Actually my dad was a driver in a "Wasp" flamethrower carrier.....I assume due to being able to drive ( the family business being lorry haulage and cars, later buses).

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    5. Neil Patterson,

      Driving a 'Wasp' flamethrower must have been a very dangerous job! I seem to remember that the crews had little protection if the fuel tank got hit.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  6. My parents are a bit younger, having been children during WW2. I didn't have any direct relatives who served in the armed forces during that war. One grandfather had been an underage soldier in WW1 (I don't know what he did during WW2 and he passed away way back in the early 70s). My other grandfather worked in the aircraft industry as a civilian and didn't really talk about anything directly related to the war (although he did work for a few months in a place in New Mexico, which he said nothing about other than he couldn't or wouldn't take my grandmother and mother there).

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    1. Fitz-Badger,

      It would be interesting to find out what your grandfather did during the First World War, and whether he made it to France.

      It sounds as if your other grandfather must have had some specialist skills to avoid the call-up ... and working in New Mexico would seem to indicate that they must have been very specialist ones! Very intriguing!

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Family lore is that he was infantry and got sent to Europe where he got exposed to mustard gas, but I don't how much of that is true. Maybe I should try tracking down some info, but I wouldn't know where to start. I never got to know him very well.

      I did get to know my other grandfather much better (he lived a lot longer). He was an airplane mechanic working in the aerospace industry. Quite knowledgeable about prop-driven planes. In later years he often worked as a consultant for things like legal cases and investigations into plane crashes, advising people who raced planes on how to get the most performance out of their engines, and stuff like that. He told a few stories (except for the NM part), but never bragged.

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    3. Fitz-Badger,

      Mustard gas! Now that is a very, very nasty weapon ... and if your grandfather survived that without long-term injury, he was very lucky.

      There must be some way in which you can find out more information about his service. Perhaps the American Legion, Veterans Administration, or even the Department of Defence have some records. Nowadays Ancestry.com or Findmypast have quite a lot of records online that you - or someone with a subscription - can access.

      It sounds as if your other grandfather was more than just a mere mechanic and far more like an aircraft engineer ... but if he never bragged much about what he did, he may well have downplayed his expertise. In my experience real experts often do.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  7. Thanks for sharing this Bob and reminding us of the anniversary. Both my grandfathers served during the Second World War, in very different capacities.

    My paternal grandfather was in the Royal Artillery and saw action at Anzio although, to my knowledge, he never talked of his wartime experiences to the family. His experience in Italy must have been harrowing and the only time I ever heard him speak about his time in the war was at a Sunday lunch when he met a friend of my maternal grandfather who had also been in the Royal Artillery. I was too young at the time to remember much of the conversation but they talked at length about their experiences; perhaps my grandfather was only comfortable talking about them to someone who had been through something similar.

    My maternal grandfather on the other hand worked as a chemical engineer for ICI (at the works that discovered polythene) and, as such, was in a reserved occupation so his only military service was in the Home Guard. Sadly, his lack of war service caused my mother many problems at school as some children (no doubt inspired by their parents attuitudes) implied cowardice on his part and she felt a profound sense of guilt for many years afterwards about her father being alive when so many others did not come back from the war.

    I think that, too often, those who didn't serve in the military during the war are forgotten (such as those men who were conscripted but ended serving as coal miners). Both my grandmothers also served (one in a factory, the other as a nurse) and I believe we owe a debt of gratitude to all those who contributed to the victory over the forces of tyranny.

    Kind regards

    Rob

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    1. Cincinnatus,

      Both my maternal grandfather and my father were Gunners ... and my wife's family's association with the Regiment goes back to the late eighteenth century! My father did not talk about what happened during his time in the army until I was in my early teens, by which time he had suffered a bout of what would now be called PTSD. Previously he had talked to other veterans about their shared experiences, but not very much to his family. I think that the treatment he had for PTSD encouraged him to talk to us in order to help him cope.

      When people talk about the concept of 'total war', I don't think that they realise just how much the entire population of the UK was involved in the war effort. There were only a very few people whose lives were not drastically affected by things like rationing and the expectation that you would serve your country in whatever way that you could.

      I live in Woolwich, which was one of the most important arsenals in the UK. Many people in this area - both men and women - worked in the Woolwich Arsenal and they were civilians ... but they were just as vital as any front-line fighter. Your maternal grandfather certainly 'did his bit' ... and I suspect that he was not allowed to tell anyone what he was working on, thus giving the impression to the stupid and ill-informed that he was in some way shirking.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  8. My father's exploits during the war were more :careful" than "heroic". He volunteered for the Army Air Corps, figuring it was safer than being an infantryman. Being a bright fellow, he was sent to Officers Candidate School, but after a year, someone figured they had enough officers, so he was asked what else he wanted to do. He thought being a tail gunner sounded cool (this was the guy who thought being an infantryman was unattractive!), but a gunner could not be taller than 6'. He was 6'2", so he slouched when taking the physical, and somehow fooled everyone. After training was over, it was discovered he was too tall to fit into a cupola; there went another 8 months of the war. He was then trained to be a radioman, and after more training and a very long trip across North Africa, he entered duty in India, where he was assigned to help fly supplies and soldiers over the Hump to China.

    He saw no combat action per se, although he joined others in killing a 15' python that crawled into camp. On the very day he was grounded because of a bad head cold, his plane never made it back to base, wiping out all of his comrades. He never talked about it, but it haunted him to the end of his life.

    Best regards,

    Chris

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    1. Chris,

      'Careful' sounds good to me! Mind you, choosing the Army Air Corps might have seemed safer, but I doubt if it was, especially if you were sent to one of the Bomber Groups flying daylight missions over Occupied Europe.

      The supply runs over the 'Hump' were equally as hazardous, and it sounds as if your father might have played down how dangerous it was. This might well account for the way he felt about missing that fateful flight.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  9. Fascinating stuff reading through the above comments, made me think what a difference a few years made. I am just 8 years younger than your good self Bob (born 1958) and my Father 'missed' the War, doing his National Service (REME), just after the end of hostilities, his claim to fame was playing for the Army Football team! However my Grandfather certainly did his bit and I am lucky that his service record survived, signing up in 1914 for 3 years with The 'Buffs' East kent Regiment, and being able to see both his signature and that of my Great Grandfather on a 100 year old document still sends the shivers down my spine!
    http://napoleonictherapy.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/touching-history.html

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    1. Lee,

      The comments have been exceeding interesting, and make you realise how necessary it is for us to do what you have done, and get hold of copies of those important family documents such as attestation forms.

      I didn't miss National Service by many years ... and I do sometimes wonder what it would have been like. As the British Army was involved in all sorts of conflicts during the postwar period, I might well have ended up getting my first taste of foreign travel care of HMG!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  10. Lee's comments reminded me - my father was just a bit too young for the Korean War, and I just missed the Vietnam War, fortunately. Although, all through my teen years when we didn't know when it would end it was something we all thought about.

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    1. Fitz-Badger,

      My father left the British Army in 1948 ... and was a Reservist when the Korean War broke out. I understand that he was warned that he might be called up, but because I had just been born he avoided it.

      I had the chance to work in the US during the latter part of the Vietnam War, but was warned not to go as I would be liable for the Draft. In the end I stayed in the UK.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  11. You are right about the resonance of Chamberlain's broadcast. Thankfully we never had to hear the words that Peter Donaldson had recorded for the BBC to use -

    "This is the Wartime Broadcasting Service. This country has been attacked with nuclear weapons. Communications have been severely disrupted, and the number of casualties and the extent of the damage are not yet known. We shall bring you further information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, stay tuned this wavelength, stay calm and stay in your own homes."

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    1. Nigel Drury,

      Some years ago the National Archives had a special Cold War exhibition, and played the recording as part of the exhibit. It was very chilling because it sounded so normal.

      All the best,

      Bob

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