The Last Two Years of War (1943-45)
By the middle of 1943 Britain had become what was facetiously called "an aircraft carrier anchored off the coast of Europe". Our native population had been swelled by millions of Canadian, Allied and American servicemen. The United States Army Air Force (as it was then called) shared the many airfields up and down Eastern England with the RAF. Nottingham formed a natural focus for relaxation and recreation for all the service personnel for many miles around. Her reputation as "Queen of the Midlands", the fabled beauty of her girls, the number and variety of hostelries and her night life, all acted as powerful magnets. Ask any wartime soldier, sailor or airman what he remembers of Nottingham and he will immediately say "The Black Boy", "the Old Corner Pin" (both now sadly demolished), "the Palais de Danse", or "the Market Square and Long Row".
To put the last two years of the war into context, one has to go back to the beginning of this conflict which lasted a full six years. The late 1930s were an uneasy time. As a schoolboy I vividly remember listening to the wireless and hearing Hitler screaming out his speeches at Nazi gatherings in his thick German dialect before the outbreak of war. It made one's blood run cold to hear him. At school every month brought a new Jewish face, newly arrived from Austria, Germany or Czechoslovakia. I marvelled at the speed and ease with which these boys acclimatised to strange new surroundings. At that age I didn't realise that their ancestors must have been through the same bruising experience many times over centuries past.
It should also be remembered that the inter-war years were really only a truce, and it was just twenty years between the ending of one war and the start of the next. In 1939 nearly every man between the ages of 40 and 60 had served in the armed forces between 1914 and 1918, and was accustomed to military discipline, readily adapting into the special police and fire services, and ideally suited to be an air raid warden or to form the nucleus of the L.D.V. - later to become the Home Guard (or "Dad's Army" as we now call it).
Although the first six months from September 1939 to March 1940 provided a somewhat bewildering pause, except at sea, it came almost as a relief when Norway was invaded and hostilities began in earnest. The morale of the British civilian population remained remarkably high throughout the war, and it was clear that adversity brought out hidden reserves of strength in the national character. In this respect it was an advantage that the Nazi régime was known to be an evil one, though how evil no-one could have imagined at the time. Although this may now seem incredible with hindsight, the idea of surrender after Dunkirk was unthinkable to the man in the street. Churchill's carefully prepared oratory at critical periods had a magical effect on everybody, even in the darkest hours. To hear him speak lifted one's spirits in a way no-one else could have done. The example the King and Queen gave in staying in London was another great morale booster. Added to all this, the duel in the skies over the South of England and its successful outcome during the Battle of Britain, carried the hopes of the country through the setbacks and disasters of the next two years. These were punctuated by occasional flashes of light in the gloom, such as the success of the early days of fighting in the Western Desert.
I consider that there were three principal factors contributing to good morale. Firstly there was a National Government of all political parties. Food rationing was speedily introduced, being up and running by Christmas 1939. It was efficient and seen to be fair, despite the inevitable queuing. Bread, potatoes and vegetables were never rationed. The Black Market was never more than a minor irritant. Secondly, there was an extremely effective censorship and propaganda machine set up very quickly, obviously benefiting from experience in the previous war. The enemy's efforts of subversion through propaganda, mainly channelled through Lord Haw Haw's adenoidal and rather constipated tones via Radio Zeesen, were greeted with derision and amusement. The general public were shielded quite skilfully from the truth on at least two occasions. One was after Dunkirk, and the other was in the early months of 1943 when U-Boat tactics in the North Atlantic were at their most successful. To those of us serving on convoy escorts it was plain that our losses of merchant ships could not go on as they were doing. Quite regularly a third of vessels in a convoy were being sunk. In those days, all oil fuel and petrol was refined abroad and brought by sea. The loss of adequate supplies of that, not to mention the weapons of war and food coming from overseas, would have forced the country to sue for peace in a matter of months. Fortunately the tide of victory turned against the enemy after May 1943 with the use of new ahead-firing underwater weapons fitted to the escort vessels and the advent of escort aircraft carriers in the Atlantic, but it was a close run thing. The third factor producing good morale was that bombing civilians stiffens their resolve rather than sapping it, contrary to expectation. Modern day terrorists would do well to note this curious fact. It was certainly a lesson lost on Bomber Command. I was at school in South London during the winter of 1940-41 when air raids were a daytime, then a nightly occurrence. I was astonished how people reacted so well to a traumatic experience that left one in six of the population of London homeless at one time or another, and left only one house in ten undamaged.
Based on previous experience in 1914-18, the Government introduced a complete planned economy, only previously dreamed of in a Socialist Utopia. By 1943 every fit woman under 40 was directed to some war work, be it only chopping firewood from war-damaged timber or washing Army shirts; more likely it would be in the Land Army (which had a most attractive uniform), platelaying on the railway, as a postman or "clippies" on the buses, or delivering milk, as well as in the more publicised jobs in munitions, engineering or aircraft production. The W.V.S. (now the W.R.V.S.) was founded at the beginning of the war and was engaged in the vital task of feeding and housing the "bombed out", among many other tasks. My mother was a founder member in Beckenham. She was a rather timorous driver in her little Austin 9, but nevertheless she was appointed chauffeur to the local L.D.V. commander - an exceedingly corpulent man who seemed to bulge out of the tiny vehicle on all sides. It really was shades of Dad's Army!
Women occupied their time in the shelter by knitting for the forces. Woollen jumpers were unravelled and remade into socks, balaclavas and gloves. There was a certain lack of talent in some of their productions, as the sea boot stockings and other woollen comforts I received at sea were of very peculiar shapes and sizes in some cases.
The evacuation of children from cities to the countryside ebbed and flowed like the tides of the sea, and was regulated by the severity of the bombing. As a schoolboy I was evacuated twice; once at the time of Munich in 1938 and again from September to Christmas 1939 in Tonbridge. After this the school gave up the struggle and we remained in South London thereafter. However, this was not typical of most schools. As well as London, Coventry and Liverpool also suffered from intensive bombing, closely followed in severity by Sheffield, Plymouth, Southampton, Bristol, Hull and Birmingham. When I came on leave to Nottingham and discovered St Peter's for the first time, I was mystified why the city had escaped so lightly. With a large river close by and containing an Ordnance Factory and a large Army Depot at Chilwell, it seemed a prime target. I was intrigued to see a curious activity on Derby Road from Canning Circus down to Lenton. On an alert sounding, Royal Engineers lit oil in contraptions rather like overgrown paraffin stoves placed at close intervals all down the hill. This provided a dense smokescreen, and presumably was effective with the wind in the right quarter. The only bomb damage I could see was on the Moot Hall Inn at the junction of Friar Lane and Wheelergate. I believe, however, there were a number of incendiary raids on the city as well as scattered bombing.
The total blackout, sternly monitored by air raid wardens and police, spread its dark hand on all outside activity after sundown. When leaving the brightness of an artificially lit building or house, the resulting temporary blindness rendered it difficult to avoid cannoning into people and objects outside. Service uniform was of necessity unobtrusive in the dark, but civilians were able to carry something light-coloured with them. At the outset of the war, men were officially advised to leave their shirt-tails hanging out to improve their visibility in the dark! Lamp posts and the like were painted with white stripes, as were kerbs. What few cars there were on the road had their headlamps covered and emitted a slim pencil of light pointing downwards. How drivers could see their way in the dark was a mystery to me. All, or nearly all, civilian cars were off the road from 1942 onwards, resting on four columns of bricks in the garage. After all this blackness I will never forget the wonder of seeing the lights of Morville, a little Irish town on the River Foyle downstream from Londonderry, and also the lights of Gibraltar which were never darkened.
Despite the blackout, there were never so many dances as there were in wartime Britain. All servicemen, American Canadian Allied or British, were far from home and appreciated female company. Girls too were keen to see them entertained. Dresses and outfits were patched and renovated, or even conjured up from curtains or other things. Parachute fabric was in great demand for underwear. In the absence of stockings I have seen legs painted with gravy browning with a line up the back skilfully drawn with an eyebrow pencil.
Vera Lynne and other female singers were deservedly popular with everyone, and were great morale boosters in the services and the factories. Many catchy tunes with good lyrics were broadcast, and we were not above borrowing Lili Marlene from the other side.
I spent the last two years of the war abroad, first in the Mediterranean and then in the Indian Ocean and Burma, where I was when the Japanese generals flew in to Rangoon to surrender. What was dimly known about the effects and devastation filled us all with revulsion and horror. We were on the brink of the invasion of Malaya, as it was then known, and it was plain that this and succeeding amphibious operations would be accompanied by very heavy loss of life on both sides. This seemed preferable at the time to the use of the atomic bomb to shorten the war, but who can tell, given such a fanatical enemy?
As a postscript, I visited Cologne in 1966. For a distance of half a mile around the Cathedral everything was still flattened from bombing. The magnificent Gothic building still stood untouched among the desolation. Remembering the miraculous escape of St. Paul's in the blitz on the City of London in 1940, it seemed that here was the finger of God surrounded by the folly of men.