Egg and Sperm Race: Someone Else Not Me
The Extra-ordinary lottery of who we are born to, in what part of Earth, in what century, or if we are born at all
Now on Pete Grafton/You Tube
Egg and Sperm Race: Someone Else Not Me
The Extra-ordinary lottery of who we are born to, in what part of Earth, in what century, or if we are born at all
Now on Pete Grafton/You Tube
Heimatland 1938 (& Mittel-Schreiberhau/Szklarska Poreba)
Now on You Tube
I was in the first wave on D Day. It was supposed to be half past six in the morning, but we was late again! The British Army was late again! Eight o’ clock we got there.
We went from Gosport. We was kept up there for six weeks in the “cages” – a big white camp, all under canvas, and you had all your last minute secret training in there, but no-one knew when it was going to be. They was all over England these camps. The preparation was so strict, and intense, from the time we got to Gosport. You kept doing the same thing over and over again. Once a week we had to all put on our battle order – we had special assault jackets, different to the Army uniform, and we got on the lorries, took us to Gosport harbour. We embarked on our tank landing craft and they took you out into the Channel. Maybe four hours. The next week you thought: hello, what’s going on here. We were away, so we thought. But they brought you back. Back to the routine.
In the camp we couldn’t get to the pub. We couldn’t get out because of the perimeter wire – they had guards on it, Redcaps and dogs. As I say, they brought you back, back to the routine. Of course the last time they took us out I thought to myself “We’re out here a fucking long while”. And the blokes are saying “What the hell’s going on today? We want to get back”. Course they came round, the Captain, this naval officer, whatever he was, who was driving the fucking boat, he came round and gave you the word, that this was the real thing. The old Padre came at us – cor fucking hell. “I wish I’d known this, they wouldn’t have got me out”, but you were in the routine, you was taking orders all the time.
On the boat you was all split up into your little groups. They split everybody up into small groups so that in case of casualties – in case a whole lot got wiped out – you still had a unit. There was only me and a Tosh, a mate of mine – us two engineers on that one boat. Then we had an anti-aircraft gun, bren carrier, few infantrymen, few ambulance men – all mixed, so whoever got there, you had something of each.
When we were getting near France and I realised this was it I was like a jelly – nerves. I wasn’t no hero. I don’t think nobody was. Well, some were.
Where we landed was a narrow beach and the tide had started to go out. We were supposed to have got the full tide, but as we were late it was on its way out. We were about fifty yards out, but the Captain of the boat said “You’ll be alright, I’ll run you right up to the beach”, which he did. They were all doing that – banging them right up onto the beach. I hung on the barrel of the anti-aircraft gun so I wouldn’t get a wet arse. I wasn’t going into the water for no fucker.
When you landed you had all your colours – gold, red – and your boats went for that. We were getting shells. The Beachmasters landed first – blokes on the beach with flags, waving them in. They were fucking heroes – all them blokes. Them and the MPs I think. They talk about the MPs being bastards, well the Corps of MPs might have been, because they was a different branch, but you had your own MPs attached to your unit, they was alright. They’d stand on point duty, if they was putting in an attack, and the transport had to move up. They’d be standing on point duty on a branch road in the country, and they’d be getting knocked out right, left and centre. About six in one day we got killed. As soon as one got killed, they’d say to another one: You – point duty, and as they were going up there: Bang!
You had a map reference when you landed, where to go. If you were interested. Course, some went that way, and some went the other way! But where could you desert to? You took a chance whatever way you went. Everybody was on the beach. It was jammed up. They had a casualty clearing station up one end, dug in some cliffs, they was taking the casualties in there. There was a little stone wall – a parapet wall along the front and we was behind that, crouching. All of us. No fucker would move. They was all piling up behind there. It was Bénouville beach we’d landed on. Our objective was Bénouville Bridge. We had to meet up with the 6th Airborne who’d landed in front of us and captured the bridge. But we didn’t know whether they’d captured it or not! No one knew how to get to where they were supposed to go. You’d say “Where you going mate?” You walked, run or got a lift up there. We were like a load of kids on an outing.
As soon as they realised the first attack had gone in and it was serious they started slinging a few shells back. It was everyman for himself.
There was a bit of an opening where the road came down to the beach and they were all making for that. And the first thing I see, laying in the middle of the road was a green beret and a blown up bike. All smoking. Bits of rag. He got a direct hit with a mortar, this commando. They landed with them folding bikes. That was the first one I saw. I thought: Oh no. I didn’t want to know much, so me and my mate Tosh thought: Let’s fuck off and get out of it. We shot up the road into a churchyard. We sat there for a couple of hours. Had a fag. Thought: Fuck it, what are we going to do now? We gradually worked our way up.
As we were going up they came over and dropped another load of airborne troops. The 6th Airborne went in first – the old Flying Horse Pegasus. They called it Pegasus Bridge afterwards.
I was in the forward area all the time. It was a three mile area, which wasn’t very nice because you was getting the short distance shells, and you went up with the infantry.
Some of the infantry wouldn’t move without us, and we wouldn’t move without the infantry – that’s how you used to argue. It’s unbelievable. If they had to go out on a night patrol and they came up against a minefield they’d send back for us. “Fuck you”, we’d say, “We’re not going up there to get shot” – and you’re standing there arguing. That’s how the army was running. The officers would sort it out. A sapper in the RE’s was equal to an infantry lieutenant. When the poor infantry used to quake in their shoes at a lieutenant, we used to tell them to fuck off.
After a couple of days at D Day the next wave landed and they went up to take over from our division, but they ran into a counter-attack. They got there but got knocked back again. They got knocked back to where we were, on the Bénouville Bridge, River Orme, it was. We was stuck there. Our division, our infantry, had to hold on where they were. It was six weeks before we got a break, we got a rest. Our objective was Caen. First thing we had to do was to lay 2000 mines, right across our area. This was all night work. Couldn’t do it by day – they’d see you.
When we did move forwards, you had no time that was your own. You lived from day to night, day to night. Working and sleeping, working and sleeping. Sleeping in holes. I’d be sleeping in my hole and a Corporal or one of your mates would say “Come on Spot, we’ve got a job to do”. They called me “Spot” from the poem, because my name was Thorpe: “Under the Thorpe, There’s a little Town, Half a Hundred Bridges” – Tennyson’s Brook.
They’d say, we’ve got a job to do, a minefield to lay. You’d go back and get your boxes of mines on your lorry – take them as near as you could, then you’d hump them across the fields in the middle of the night. But the thing was, months afterwards, when everyone had moved forwards, you was the only who had a map of the mines, so you had to leave the forward area to come back and clear your minefields. We lost one!
I was a nervous wreck on mine clearing. You had to keep your wits about you. We didn’t use the mine detector for the simple reason that they were useless. For the simple reason, once you put those earphones on you couldn’t hear the shells, so we slung them around our necks. They was cumbersome too, they was big. They issued us with a three foot long steel knitting needle. That’s what we had. Probes they called them. With an ordinary mine you wouldn’t set it off, wouldn’t be enough weight. But they surrounded them with little shoe mines, little wooden box shoe mines. If you touched those – they was away. But you could, if you was clever, get your point in ’em and throw ’em up in the air, and they’d go off! That’s how you got, how we all got. “Get out of the fucking way!”, and they’d sling them and bang, off they’d go. They was catching quite a few with them. A half track or a small vehicle would pull up in a field, the bloke would jump out and step on one of these little shoe mines – Bang! They was all losing ankles, and it used to split your bone up your shin. They used to issue us with wellies! Wellington boots to stop ’em – wellington boots and a long bit of wire. When you found a standard mine, you didn’t know whether to lift it or to drag it. To drag it you had a grappling hook and rope and you’d hook it on the handle and drag ’em.
I didn’t get any leave until we was well in Germany, at the Dormund-Ems canal. We were supposed to put a bridge across there, but we was under fire from the other side. It was a rota system – getting leave – one at a time, two weeks. I got to see my wife and kiddies. A lot of blokes on active service was glad to get away from London when they were on leave, they couldn’t stand it, because they hadn’t experienced air-raids, being on army service, and they were getting the doodle-bugs in London. They’d say “I don’t want to know this, I want to get back to my unit”. Same as our infantry used to say to us, if they came back for a rest, they weren’t comfortable, they used to say “We don’t like it here. We want to get back to the front. All we we got to face up there is rifle and machine gun bullets”, they used to say “Back here you get shells and mortars. Up there we can keep our head down, we can dodge them little bullets”.
You see some weird things in a war. Once you get involved in a war, I don’t care who you are, if you’re up in the forward area, where there’s any action, I say everyman turned into an animal. The conversion was gradual. From the time you got there you started living like an animal, you got involved in casualties, in dead bodies and living in holes in the ground , or old bombed houses – you gradually changed, didn’t matter how timid, or what sort of person you was, you became an animal. When you first arrived at D day and you see a couple of bodies blown to bits , it turns you up, and you’re looking to see if you can do anything. Three weeks later bodies are lying there, and you just walk past them. It’s a sensation I can’t explain. After a couple of days you’re starting to get used to it. Someone’s slinging shells at you and it goes Bang, Bang, and you’re diving in holes, it becomes a matter of – like a rabbit, you come out to feed and do something, Every time the noise starts you’re down your hole. I was the fastest one of the lot!
John’s experiences are recorded in You, You & You! The People out of Step with World Two. London, 1981. Print copies are usually available on Abebooks and on Amazon.
The extended online version is at youyouandyourestored.wordpress.com
From life in the wartime British Army (Private’s Progress, 1954), through to the New Towns of the 1960s (Let’s Keep Religion Out of This, 1963, filmed as Heavens Above) and the start of package holidays in Spain (Whatever Turns You On Jack, 1972) the novelist Alan Hackney had his finger on the life pulse of Britain.
His books are so spot-on in nailing the social history and the politics of the time – but luckily, also laugh-out-aloud (with the partial exception of Let’s Keep Religion Out of This) – that they should be on any reading list for first year students doing a degree in that social history/politics post war period of Britain. And watching Private’s Progress and I’m Alright Jack would save them tedious hours of skimping through some inadequate books, which partially miss (because they were written by academics – secure in their jobs and financially comfortably off, and some of whom were also influenced by their political leanings, left or right). Important aspects and commentary on what life was like for many were missed. For instance, Arthur Marwick’s British Society Since 1945 does not mention, even in one passing sentence, the desire of many Britons to escape the class stratification of that period and emigrate to Australia on the £10 scheme. Both the Kinks and the Animals touched on this stifling class ceiling in some of their music. And many Britons, encouraged by the Australian government took the boats heading out via South Africa and across the Indian Ocean to a socially freer continent.
Meanwhile, those of us left behind could go to the pictures on a Friday or Saturday night and bust a gut laughing at the films touched with the Hand of Hackney: Private’s Progress (1956), and I’m Alright Jack (1959).
Yet Alan Hackney rarely appears when book critics mention the likes of Angus Wilson, Kingsley Amis and William Cooper in the same breath. Still, I doubt that he would have been bothered. Financially he did alright. And the novelist William Cooper rolled around the floor laughing as he read his novels, and Evelyn Waugh did that rare thing (for him) and invited Hackney down to the Waugh home in Somerset, saying how much he admired his work.
Not only do his books have a sharp view of what was happening in Britain at the time he wrote them, but they burst with brilliant dialogue, and the vernacular. The vernacular spilled over into film scripts that he contributed to that weren’t based on his novels, such as Two Way Stretch (1960).
The Film Censor giving Two Way Stretch a “U” – suitable for children – certificate didn’t notice that Alan Hackney had slipped in a choice phrase when Peter Sellers as the trustee Dodger Lane tells visiting welfare ladies in the Prison Governor’s garden that the giant marrow they are admiring was “Hand raised, as they say in the Navy”. There would have been an acknowledged titter in cinemas up and down the country, particularly from ex and serving serviceman.
His novels follow the lives of the same characters as they emerge from the war, such as the gormless Stanley, his naturist father, the unscrupulous, suave Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel (Uncle Bertie), Stanley’s wartime mate Private Cox (Coxey) who after the war re-invents himself as “Mr de Cameron”, and then Fred Kite, Mrs Kite and Cynthia as they adapt, and some do very nicely thank-you, as Britain moves into the 1970s. The shop steward Fred Kite even makes it to the House of Lords in What Ever Turns You On Jack.
In the obituaries for Alan Hackney when he died in 2009, the consensus is that I’m Alright Jack (“Private Life”) was the apex of his work with its merciless laugh-out-aloud dissection of trade unions super-glued to demarcation disputes and tussles with the Bosses and the Bosses looking after No.I whilst hypocritically spouting on about the “National Interest” (whilst lining their own pockets doing arms deals with corrupt Middle Eastern governments) and consciously provoking union militancy – strikes – for their own financial gain.
In fact, all his novels have an equal weight, but if one has to be highlighted besides I’m Alright Jack (“Private Life”), in the view of this writer it should be Private’s Progress.
Here’s a novel (1954), and then a film made shortly after (1956) that appears in bookshops and then on cinema screens, wedged in between celebrations of World War Two British courage, and examples of individual daring-do. Films, often based on non-fiction books, such as Reach for The Sky (1956), The Dam Busters (1955) and Above Us the Waves (1955).
Private’s Progress is a film that shows some Army Brass who are dodging and skiving as much as the soldiers they are commanding, and Army Brass who are involved in high scale looting of Art Works, shipped back to Blighty for private re-sale and their own financial gain.
“Shipped back” should perhaps be more accurately called “air-lifted”. There were elements in the RAF Transport Command and the USAAF equivalent who were assisting in flying back high-end loot.
The film’s dedication to “All Those Who Got Away With It” would have included British army soldiers who held Prince Friedrich Ferdinand of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, his family, and their servants at gunpoint in the courtyard of Glücksburg Castle near the border with Denmark in May 1945. They were searching for Heinrich Himmler and looted the castle at the same time. Easily pocketable items with high value such as jewellery disappeared. The British Daily Mail in May 1945 reported that “The Duchess of Mecklenburg had appealed to the King (George VI) for compensation… ‘I wrote to Queen Mary in England who is my aunt, asking her to help me and she replied she would do’.” It’s not clear whether any of the soldiers, which would have included officers were ever detected or disciplined, and most of the jewellery seemingly was never recovered.
In the film Private’s Progress Brigadier Tracepurcell and Private Cox and ATS Greenslade don’t get away with it, but in the novel they do, and they do very nicely too. The Boulting Brothers being realistic, knew the British Board of Film Censors would not allow the “culprits” to get away with it, and would refuse a certificate, and the film, therefore, wouldn’t get shown in British cinemas.
It was for the same reason that in the thriller League of Gentlemen, 1960, ex-British Army officers, and a few Other Ranks having mounted a spectacular and successful bank raid – using skills learnt during their army war training – also didn’t get away with it. Talking in 1985, the screenwriter T.E.B Clark (Hue & Cry, 1947, Passport to Pimlico, 1949) stated that in his screenplay for The Lavender Hill Mob, 1951, Alec Guinness also wasn’t able to get away with it. “The censor would not have allowed it”, he said. This wasn’t copping out – it was knowing what was, and was not allowed. The British Board of Film Censors was a self-censoring Trade Body established in 1912, and down the years had had an informal and comfortable relationship with the British Governments of the day.
In the film, every one else in Private’s Progress either does get away with it, or finds dodges and skives to make their boring, drudge-ridden and pointless army life in the Holding Unit a touch easier.
One extraordinary sequence in the film, not commented on by reviewers (and not in the novel) is when Major Hancock (Terry-Thomas) skives off and leaves the Camp, and is seen entering a Picture House in the local town. The banner poster above the Picture House entrance shows that the featured film is In Which We Serve. In Which We Serve was a deeply felt film written and directed by its star Noel Coward, at a time – 1942 – when the tide had yet to turn for the wartime Allies. When Noel Coward was finishing the films’ script in late 1941 British military were having one defeat after another, and the storyline of In Which We Serve was based on the sinking of the destroyer HMS Kelly in the Battle for Crete – a ship commanded by Louis Mountbatten. Recognising a good propaganda film, it was actively helped by the British Government’s Ministry of Information, in providing service men, and promotion. “A classic example of wartime British cinema through its patriotic imagery of national unity and social cohesion within the context of the war” – Wikipedia entry.
In Private’s Progress the on-screen credits boast that the Producers had help from “Absolutely No-One“. Richard Attenborough was in both films. (1).
The following day Major Hancock has them on a forced route march, with full kit. Sweating as they march they are brought to attention by the Company Sergeant Major. Major Hancock addresses them. “You’re an absolute shower. Practically every man in that cinema was from this company.” Cox mutters “Including you, cock.”
Terry-Thomas is rightly associated with the “Absolute shower”expression, but it was Alan Hackney who used it, having first heard it from an irate Commanding Officer in India during the war.
ABCA stood for Army Bureau of Current Affairs set up during the Second World War to “educate and raise morale” amongst servicemen and servicewomen. The railway dodges outlined by Coxey included the ATS dodge, that Fusilier Walter Morrison describes in detail, along with others not mentioned by Coxey, in Pete Grafton’s You, You & You: The People Out of Step with World War Two. (2)
In the three Boulting Brothers films based on Alan Hackney’s novels there are omissions, and, the other way around, narratives that are not in the novels.
In the novel Private’s Progress there is a section where the Stanley character is posted to India, mirroring Alan Hackney’s wartime experience. The novel also fleshes out what is only briefly touched on in the film: the London wartime world of Catherine, Stanley’s sister – a world of artists pre-occupied with producing art that is “plastic”, a stressed female vegan, a hardened squaddie who swings both ways, a Quentin Crisp type character who can’t bear the thought of having to wear “that dreadful khaki” and two dodgy art dealers, one of whom manages to “disappear” following the confusion at Dunkirk. This strand is an important – and witty – narrative element throughout the novel.
The “disappearing” of soldiers – “posted missing – presumed dead” – following Dunkirk is also mentioned in the Afterword to You, You & You.
Both the films and the novels they are based on are equally good standing alone by themselves. Alan Hackney was closely involved in the films Private’s Progress and I’m Alright Jack, even though the screen credits are perfunctory. “From a story by Alan Hackney” does not convey that it is a novel.
His Gollanz published novels have been out of print for years, though most copies – second-hand – are available at reasonable prices on abebooks. Faber and Faber in their Faber Finds series currently list Private’s Progress.
This material adapted from Len:Our Ownest Darling Girl – Letters between Mother and Daughter 1939 – 1950. Mother was Helen Bryers, Dad was Harry Bryers and their daughter was Helen (“Len’) Bryers.
Mum and Dad Bryers lived in a rented house in Coldingham Avenue, Yoker, near Clydebank. Dad was an engineer and Mum had been a seamstress.
Their only child, Helen, known as “Len” to family and friends, had worked in the latter stages of the Second World War as a shorthand typist for the Ministry of Supply at the Royal Ordnance Factory at nearby Dalmuir. Still working for the Ministry of Supply she transferred to a similar post in Cairo in November 1945. She was almost 20. At the time there was strong Arab anti- British feeling in Egypt, and contempt for the king, Farouk. Occasional demonstrations and targeted explosions at British associated Cairo buildings were occasional irritants. Otherwise Helen (‘Len’) was living in the land of milk and honey- no food or clothing rationing for her. Back in post-war Britain Mum and Dad and millions of others were experiencing rationing harsher than it had been during the war. Bread, freely available during the war, was rationed starting in July, 1946. There was also an acute shortage of houses. The weather wasn’t that brilliant, either.
I just couldn’t let this night pass without letting you know you are in our thoughts as always, our darling.
Here’s the latest re. hoose.
I called at the B.S. (building society) yesterday to pay the surveyor’s fee and the under manager told me he’d just been getting a letter typed to ask us to call for an interview with the manager, so I made an appointment there & then for 3 p.m. today. Just as we were getting ready to go out, Mrs Rae from next door called for a loan of a pudding basin as they were just about to put their plum pudd. on to steam when the basin broke. I think ours must be what is termed “a well appointed” house for I was able to produce a selection of basins for her choice.
At last we got away in a ghastly thick fog and frozen roads. We saw the B.S. manager – very efficient & polite – who phoned up their solicitor for an appointment for us and we are to see him at 11 a.m. on Thurs. They evidently got a very favourable report from the surveyor. The surveyor reported that, with vacant possession the house would easily sell for £1,750 or £2,000, so you see honey, if we can get it in the region of £500 to £800 it w’d mean a profit for us anytime we sold whilst the present housing shortage lasts & that looks like being for many many years. (The housing shortage was anticipated during the latter stages of the war by the British Wartime Coalition Government – much housing had been lost in the Blitzes, and the V1 and V2 raids – and the first prefabricated home (prefab) was erected and occupied in London in the Spring of 1945. It is reported that by January 1947, a few weeks on from Mum writing this letter, 100,000 prefabs had been built. However, there was still a housing shortage, particularly in the bomb damaged cities of Britain, most of which also had crowded slum areas.)
Dad & self then went shopping and went into Masseys. (Glasgow wide provisions stores of the time.)
There was a huge pile of mince pies on the counter & Dad asked about them & the guy serving said they were only for registered customers & I said “He (Dad) doesn’t understand all about the difficulties of shopping, ha! ha! But I’m going on holiday and he’ll get to know.”
Dad said “Yes, she is going to the land of milk & honey”, and the fella said “Where is that” & I said “Cairo, Egypt” & that started it – he was recently demobbed and said if he hadn’t been married he’d have rejoined again so as to spend another 6 months in Cairo, which he says is a most exciting city & he liked it very much. Well, we jawed & jawed & he said “Oh! I must give you some of these mince pies as you are old Egyptian friends.” He made up six lovely mince pies for us! – so you see, honey, ‘agaun fit is aye gettin’. (‘A moving foot is always gaining things’.)
We hear on the radio tonight that a bomb exploded in the Anglo-Egyptian Club but no one hurt, thank goodness. Must stop now, my sweetie pie, hope Santa puts something nice in your stocking. It’s raining cats and dogs tonight, the weather is terrible.
Boxing Day. 26.12.46.
Just look at the day it is and we never got this away to you – yesterday just seemed to go in wee bits of cooking, cleaning and shopping. (Shopping on Christmas Day: Christmas Day in Scotland historically was not as significant as it was in England. As late as 1967 it was not a holiday for blue collar and shop workers in Scotland.)
We are just off to the solicitors to make arrangements re. his getting in touch with Mrs Mac’s chap – I guess she’ll throw a pink fit when she hears our offer in the region of £500 – £800! (Mrs Mac was the owner of their home, her name fore-shortened by Mum.) It was such impudence of her solicitor to try to stampede us into £1,200.
Our kitten, Hope, is really a pet and is growing like anything, he is creamy ginger colour & so clean and dainty. How do you like his name? It had to be something beginning with “H” as is our tradition & I thought “Hope” so nice & cheerful.
There’s cards in for you from Mrs Holt and Bob Getchel, I’ll forward them in separate envelopes. (Mrs Holt was a former pre-war neighbour from Dagenham, Essex and Bob Getchel was a U.S. serviceman the family had got to know during the war.) The mantlepiece is decorated with over 20 Xmas Cards we got.
We got a most lovely aluminium teapot and silver jam spoon from Aunt Ena – they are really beautiful and just what we wanted. I got a tin of Bath Salts & tin of talcum from Joan Brandley, very sweet of her to send them. (Joan Brandley was a close friend of Helen’s and family friend) We intend to go to L.L.Y.H. at New Year – what am I to do with Hope? I’ll be running up here every few hours. (L.L.Y.H: Loch Lomond Youth Hostel. The distance between the youth hostel and the family home in Yoker was 3 miles.)
Best love in the world to you, our own one.
Cheers & love, honey girl, Mum. x.
Monday. 30 December 1946.
Dearest and Best,
We are all well and happy, but busy, boy! I’ll say we’re busy! I’m writing this in the middle of a mouthful of lunch. I note all the splendid tips in your letter re. filling in my forms and shall act accordingly, after New Year my thoughts and deeds will be dedicated mostly to arranging my trip. (Mum was planning to visit her daughter in Egypt.) The days just now are so brief and meals so many.
We are going to L.L.Y.H tomorrow – both Jack and Dad stop at 12 so we shall be off soon after. (LLYH: Loch Lomond Youth Hostel. Jack was a young lodger.) Jack is thrilled to bits at the idea of the hostels and I’m going to get a membership card for him in town today – that is to be his New Year gift from Dad & self. Jack is really a lonely soul and has not much young company so he is enthusiastic re. visiting L.L. and yesterday put on the outfit he proposes putting on for the trip so that we c’d O.K. it – or otherwise; he has a camera and films so will try to get some snaps.
We’ll be thinking of you on New Year’s Eve and wishing you all that’s Merry. May all your dreams & wishes come true in 1947.
Your own ever loving Mum and Dad.
The beginning of the year 1947 in The Old Home.
Our Darling Own One,
This is the very first letter of the year and the first one we received this year was from you – we are so happy you had such a wizard time at Christmas. We just got back from Loch Lomond Y.H. last night and oh! boy – what a time we had! It was one of merriment and fun from the time we got there on Hogmanay till we left last night.
Jack was overcome by the Membership card we gave him and some of his Norwegian Pals propose coming over to Scotland for a tour during the summer and he is to get a bike in April so he will be able to make good use of the card.
Like ourselves, he thinks Auchendrennan is wonderful and quite admires Joan MacDonald and thinks she is so pretty “like a doll” as he says, she is certainly a bonnie lassie and as sweet as she is pretty, as I told him, however Jack is so shy, he just remained tongue tied.
Before the clock struck midnight we all (about 85) of us trooped out and Henry Lindsay listened for the Chimes (this was because a piper was playing loudly) then we all trooped upstairs where Mr. & Mrs, Mac (the wardens, surname fore-shortened by Mum, as she has done with the owner of the house in Coldingham Avenue) received us with ginger wine and cake, then we had dancing & singing then Dad, Jack & self were invited into the kitchen where the fun was terrific & later Mrs. Mac. invited us all up to their own flat, it is very nice and, my! what a party – Daddy kept saying it was the best for years, it was hilarious – even riotous with fun and singing and ended up with several prostrate forms lying around, a true Scottish New Year.
At the hostel (but not at the party) there was a party of students from the International Club. Mostly Indians and EGYPTIANS (Mum’s capital letters)) and, as is my wont, I made hay while the sun shone by talking to the nicest Egyptian I could see.
Our festivities were broadcast by the B.B.C. at 8 till 8.20 on New Year and this E. I spoke to was one of two picked to ‘say a few words‘ over the mike, and I found his name is Doctor (it sounds like this) “Kiellally” – however, I’m going to invite him & his girl friend down some night – she is studying social science at the University and lives at Danes Drive, Scotstoun. The doc. is awfully interested in my trip and we talked Egypt for hours and he says what a pity I can’t wait till June to go out as he is going then and would be delighted to travel with me. I bet he knows the ropes re. that journey. He says I could go via France without bothering with Cooks and there’s a regular service of ships once a week from Toulon to Alex or P.S. It w’d be exciting to go like that, the only snag being baggage and customs, but I guess I c’d manage. Cooks make one feel so helpless, it makes me mad.
Now what I want you to do pronto is to give me your views re. travelling via France, free from any agency, I know I don’t need a visa to get into France but if I travel on my own how shall I get a visa to get into Egypt? And what about inoculations?
Re. the house, Dad & I saw the solicitor as arranged and he suggested offering £750. He further said not to worry in any case as the house (with the present legislation) is ours anyway, but that it w’d be nice to buy as one’s own house.
I have the most ghastly feverish cold, the first in years so I sh’dn’t complain – but I do!
Keep well and happy own darling, we are loving you all the time. All the best in the world in 1947.
Cheers and love, Dad & Mum. xx
Adapted From Part Two, Chapter One “Fresh and Innocent” of Len:Our Ownest Darling Girl
Photos now showing at petegraftonphotos.com Shop Windows at Night + Women in Paris.
The card was sent to a Minna Urban, living in Nürnberg (Nuremberg) in southern Germany. Within three years Nuremberg would become particularly known for the Nuremberg Trials, the prosecution by the victorious Allies of surviving Nazis such as Göring, Hess, Ribbentrop and Speer, and of German Forces commanders including Raeder, Keitel and Dönitz.
Theo’s return address is Münster in north west Germany, which in 1942 was a city with a significant concentration of German Army barracks and units. Theo was fortunate to be writing his card to Minna in Münster in December, 1942. Over a month before, in north Africa, at the Second Battle of El Alemain the seeming invincibility of the German Army was broken when German, and Italian soldiers, were defeated in battle, and thousands taken prisoner. Field Marshal Rommel on 3 November, 1942 started a withdrawal.
Later in November – the 19th – USSR mounted a counter attack against the Germans at Stalingrad in near sub-zero temparatures and by 22 November, 1942 General Paulus the commander was telegramming Hitler that the German Sixth Army was surrounded.
From Christmas 1942 onwards, although it was not immediately clear at the time, the Allies had started to turn back German National Socialism and break for ever the German military class that had helped to put the National Socialists in power in 1933. (1) The Third Reich was annihilated two Christmas’s later, in the unconditional surrender of May 8 1945.
Other Christmas letters and cards had been posted in 1942 for Allied Forces in North Africa and the Middle East.
The German National Socialists, enemies of Christians and Christianity, stripped Christmas of its Christian meaning, reverting, as they saw it, to its original German significance and meaning: a celebration of the winter solstice, the rebirth of the sun, and coming together of the community, witnessing the strength of their race. The Santa Claus was a Christian corruption of the German god Odin they claimed. The image of Mary and the baby Jesus in the manger was changed to an Ayran mother with a blond child.
We do not know whether Minna did get back in touch with Theo, or whether they survived the war.
It is late August, 1964: a dusty deserted roadside in Calabria. Either side of the road are olive trees.
Le Patron is hitch-hiking north of Reggio Calabria, the mainland port and ferry crossing for Sicily. His objective is another port, Bari, over to the east, on the Adriatic side of Italy. It is late afternoon and there is little traffic on the road. A pick and shovel repair gang a few yards up the road are occasionally pecking at the road verge. Le Patron is trying to understand a bus timetable tacked to a concrete shelter. One of the gang saunters over to Le Patron. He wears a dust stained vest and his trousers are held up by a bit of string, improvising for a belt. Le Patron splutters out pidgin Italian, but before he can finish his incomprehensible sentence the Italian smiles and says in a perfect Brooklyn accent: “Da bus goes at seven turty.” Besides the British 8th Army, American army units also travelled this road in the summer of 1943, heading north.
Twenty one years before, almost to the month, Allied forces tanks, heavy artillery and jeeps would have jam packed the road, heading north, whilst up at Salerno the main allied thrust would have been taking place. In 1943, before the bus shelter had been built, in the middle of what seemed empty countryside children and adults would appear, cannily cheering the Allies on whilst asking for cigarettes and what ever else they could get, or barter for. A significant commodity in the bartering system was sex. (1)
He’s a youngish man, in his early thirties. He’s smiling and encouraging me by gesture to take a look at the black and white studio photo of his wife and two young children, that he’s just taken out of his wallet. “My wife, Maria, my son, Roberto and my little girl, Caterina.”
There’s a fearful, threatening black curtain hanging down from the sky, claustrophobically bearing down on the growing maize.
To the left there is a hurrying, receding blue sky. The buildings on the outskirts of Bari look as if they will give no protection to the Apocalypse that is about to unleash. And then it starts: the roll of thunder, the sheet lightning and goblets of rain smashing the windscreen of the Fiat family car, the wipers working manically to clear the sheets of water distorting the view of the road ahead.
In the twenty minutes it takes to arrive at a small block of flats in the centre of Bari the rain has stopped and the black shroud is moving on to put the fear of God into people and animals in the fields from where the car has just come from.
Le Patron had managed to get a lift into Bari with a youngish professional couple and their son. The car was a new four door shiny black Fiat sedan, and at the front of the four storey brick built flats were two sodden palm trees, still dripping. Around the flats was a low brick perimeter wall with high metal railings. The entrance to the block was up two wide steps and then through a metal framed door with a full length frosted glass panel. There were buzzers for the eight flats and eight letter flaps. Le Patron followed the small family up the stairs to the first floor and was shown in to the flat on the right by the husband, the attractive wife and their young son. It was the first time he had been in an Italian home.
The floors were shiny wood parquet, and the rooms were furnished in a spare, modern way. Le Patron had never seen a home with parquet flooring before. It was very foreign, in an interesting ‘cool’ way. It was almost like one of the rooms in La Dolce Vita where Steiner, intellectual friend of Marcello Mastrianni’s character lived, or so he thought.
The husband and wife spoke enough English for Le Patron to understand, the husband more so. The wife prepared lunch, and then afterwards following the lunch the husband showed Le Patron into a room with two single separate beds for the siesta. He and Le Patron occupied the room. Unlike the husband, Le Patron couldn’t sleep. Having a siesta after a meal was not something his 19 year old British body or culture could adapt to. Lying awake he wondered where the son and wife were having their siesta. There didn’t seem any clues as to whether this was a spare guest room or the son’s bedroom.
After the siesta Le Patron and the husband went through to the living room where the wife and son were watching Little Lord Fauntleroy, dubbed into Italian, on a television standing alone in the corner, on its futuristic stick legs.
When the film finished there was a brief announcement, the logo of RAI – the Italian state TV – and the channel closed down. It was late afternoon. The TV service would begin again in the evening.
Later that night in the Bari campsite where the family had kindly driven Le Patron, he thought about the wife telling him about the RAF raid on Bari during the war, asking why they had done it. She was not angry, but perplexed. She had been 17, she said, working in the Bari Telephone Exchange when with no warning – no siren – the bombs fell on the harbour area.
It was years later that Le Patron realised he had spectacularly misunderstood the circumstances of the bombing of Bari. Looking back he realised she had been asking why the RAF didn’t prevent the bombing of Bari.
An estimated 105 Luftwaffe planes bombed Bari on 2 December, 1943, and in just over one hour sunk 27 Allied supply and cargo ships. There were 1000 deaths of Allied seamen and service personnel, and also an estimated 1000 Bari people were killed, although accurate figures for the civilian deaths are still unavailable as many Italians left Bari and went out to the countryside, staying with friends and family members, fearful of further attacks on the town, and some of those fleeing civilians died from gas poisoning. What no one knew in Bari at the time of the immediate attack (including the skipper of the boat) was that part of the cargo of the bombed U.S. John Harvey was mustard gas.
In the first 24 hours medical staff in Bari did not realise that the injured they were treating had been gassed. The full story did not become widely known until 1967. Of 628 hospitalised military victims suffering from mustard gas poisoning 83 were to die. It is believed the figures for those civilians who fled Bari, and subsequently died from mustard gas complications is higher.
The RAF command covering the Bari area though it highly unlikely that Bari would be a Luftwaffe target, believing the Luftwaffe in Italy was too thinly stretched. There were no RAF fighters based in Bari. The attack has occasionally since been referred to as a “Little Pearl Harbour”.
Mustard Gas was waiting to be unloaded as part of a potential Allied counter measure to German threats to use gas in their Italian rear-guard campaign, although the alleged German threat is disputed in some accounts. (2)
Turning to dusk, somewhere on a country road to Rome, a long, long way south of Rome, the driver of an Alfa Romeo drops Le Patron off. The earth is a terracotta colour. During the drive through olive groves and fig trees, every now and then and always suddenly, out of nowhere, a lone boy would leap out in front of the car with a fist of figs. “Fichi! Fichi!“, and just as quickly and agilely leap back as the driver flicked him to one side, driving on. It seemed a precarious and fruitless way to earn a few lire.
As Le Patron looked at his Shell filling station road map of the area he was vaguely aware of a small figure sauntering along the road towards him. He seemed to have a Dick Whittington staff slung over his shoulder, with a bundle of belongings hanging on it. As he came up Le Patron could see he was about 16. In very good English, Oxford English, he asked where Le Patron was headed for. “Rome.” “I am going to Rome too! My name is Ugo, and if we travel together we can stay in my Uncle’s flat in Rome.” Wonderful. What luck! A young Italian who knows his way around, with a relative who has a flat in Rome. It was too good to be true. In the end, that’s how it turned out to be. This was Ugo.
Le Patron never did quite work out how long he had been on the road. He was certainly travelling lightly. His technique for trying to hitch a lift was the same as the sellers of filched figs. By now it was getting dark. A set of lorry headlights approached. “I stop this, Peter” he said and threw himself into the road, waving his arms in a crossing motion. And with the agility of the fig sellers he jumped just as quickly back as the lorry bore down on him. “Son of a bitch” spat Ugo. Le Patron, a little fraught at the thought of being with this maniac until they arrived at the fabled flat in Rome, said he would try hitching the next vehicle. This suggestion had to be negotiated, as Ugo said his technique was the one that worked. He knew best. Le Patron quickly learned that with Ugo, everything – the silliest, stupidest, daftest thing had to be negotiated. Ugo always knew a better way, and couldn’t understand why you couldn’t see it. It was so clear. It was so obvious. What was your problem? And always mentioning the Uncle’s flat in Rome.
So, after a negotiation that was as frustrating and brain exploding as a UN session running into the middle of the night on a contested sub-clause, with a shrug of the shoulders Ugo finally let the Patron hitch the next vehicle.
The next vehicle stopped. Ugo said it was luck, and his method was the still the best. We were dropped off about twenty kilometres up the road, near a small camp site and we set up for the night. Le Patron had a spirit stove and soon the water was boiling and he made coffee. Having just one aluminium cup, part of a compact army type set, he offered it to Ugo who took it, sipped and, with eyes opening startlingly wide – cartoon like, as if he had been poisoned – sprayed it out at high velocity. “Ugh! That isn’t coffee!! That’s disgusting! What do you call this!”
The thing was, when he wasn’t being totally exasperating he was amusing, and sometimes interesting, particularly as a gateway into some political aspects of Italian life. Fascism, for instance.
A few days before, Le Patron had been amazed and shocked to see in a village posters advertising a forthcoming Mass commemorating the life of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had been captured in the north, and then shot by Communist partisans on the 28th April, 1945, a few days before Hitler committed suicide. His corpse was strung up, upside down, alongside that of his mistress in the suburban square of Piazzale Loreto in Milan. Le Patron mentioned the posters to Ugo and how surprised he was.
– “So? Mussolini was good for our country. He did great things. He was a great man”
– “But he was a fascist!”
– “What about Hitler? He was a fascist”
– “No, he was a National Socialist.”
– “What about Franco? He’s a fascist.”
– “Franco’s bad for his people.”
Slowly making our way closer to Rome over the next two days, the clincher came when, out of the blue, and in sight of Rome Ugo informed Le Patron that he would have to buy a suit – he too was going to buy a suit – if we were staying with his Uncle. A suit!
A suit would instantly pauperise Le Patron. His budget for hitching around Europe for three months was £4 a week, give or take: hard earned and hard saved money – £50 – from working on building sites as a labourer during the preceding 5 months. A bloody suit!!
Le Patron had been aware that Ugo’s pockets seemed to be sewn up all the while Le Patron and he had been together. The thought had crossed Le Patron’s mind once or twice that he was being taken for a ride. On reflection, the truth, Le Patron thought, was that this 16 year old from a middle class background was used to other family members paying his way. Papa, and Uncles. The good Italian coffee that he drank at home would be made by his mother, or grandmother, or sisters or aunts. He’d probably never made a cup of coffee in his life. And wouldn’t know how to. He would be proud that he would not how – that was not man’s work. This was Italy. His father had probably already wired his brother – the Uncle in Rome – the money for a suit and shoes, and what ever else was appropriate. Coming from this background – he didn’t get an Oxford English accent from nowhere – he would have no conception of a life lived differently, whether for a 19 year old from Britain, or a dusty Sicilian peasant with patches in the arse of his trousers.
Ugo could not understand why Le Patron could not afford to buy a suit. Rationality did not enter in Ugo’s understanding of the world or people. We were back to a late night session at the UN on a torturous sub-clause. “Basta! Basta!” Enough! Le Paton had had enough. It was time to part company, here and now, at the roadside.
Parting company was a melodramatic scene – How could I do this to him? Weren’t we friends? etc, etc, over and over again. And when that didn’t work, the reproachful look. The long reproachful look. The guilt inducing look.
Another side of Italian politics, besides Italian fascism, was Italian communism. Banned by the fascists in 1926, post 1945 the Italian communist party quickly became the largest communist party in western Europe. It was the opposition party to the catholic Christian Democracy party (Democrazia Christiana), and at various times controlled many Italian town and city administrations.
On 22 August, 1964, Le Patron saw large posters with heavy black borders suddenly appear in towns and villages. The Italian Communist Party leader Palmiro Togliatti had died on holiday in his beloved Socialist Motherland at the seaside resort of Yalta in the Soviet Union. The message was straight forward: “Togliatti È Morto“. Communist Party members would have been busy overnight, printing, distributing and pasting these posters. “Profonda emotion in Italia e nel mondo” – “Deep emotion in Italy and the world“ – the Italian communist daily paper l’Unità” claimed the day after his death. Outside Italy, apart from national communist parties and nervous strategists in the American White House, no one else would have heard of him, apart from maybe some followers of football who might have wondered if Togliatti had once played for Juventus or AC Milan.
The American strategists needn’t have worried too much about the Italian Communist Party and its leader destabilising the status quo in western Europe. Since 1945 all the Communist Parties in Western Europe were following the Moscow dictated “Democratic Road to Socialism”. No threat of revolution. In hindsight Togliatti has sometimes been criticised, within Italy, for following Moscow’s line, rather than supporting local political and industrial actions by his own communist party members.
“The Ties that Bind”
Another part of Italy, another side of Italy, another lift. A young man, training to be a surveyor. It had been a good ride. As Le Patron gets out, he gets out too, to open the boot where Le Patron’s rucksack is. As he hands Le Patron the rucksack he asks how old Le Patron is
-“19!! How is it you can travel around like this. Don’t your parents object?”
He is astounded, and envious, and deeply frustrated bangs the roof of his Fiat.
– “For me it would be impossible. My Mother, she would say ‘How can you do this to me? How could you do this to your sisters? You can’t leave us! For three months?’ It would never end. It would go on and on. You are very lucky.”
It took some time before Le Patron realised that there wasn’t an absence of husbands and fathers in Italian households – they were so rarely mentioned. It was always the Mother, the Sisters, the Grandmother, the Aunties. Had there been high casualties amongst Italy’s men during the Second World War?
No. The answer was, of course, this was a catholic country: Mother/Madonna ruled.
And the other side of the Madonna was the whore. And the Madonna/Whore polarity was stark in the South, particularly in Sicily. And in 1964 bringing shame on the family could end in an honour killing. It would be a daughter, a sister, or a wife who would bring dishonour to a family. A step down from honour killings would be ‘abductions’ and ‘kidnappings’, staged to circumvent dishonour to a family. Pietro Germi covered this particularly in his stark Sedotta e Abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned) 1964, and in Divorzio All’Italiana (Divorce Italian Style) 1961, he shows a cynical Marcello Mastrianni using Italian law and the honour killing of his wife to marry his young niece.
Le Patron’s planned hitch-hiking route in Italy, having crossed the Yugoslav border a few weeks before was to head for Sicily. Sicily was a potent symbol of poverty and corruption. In the Spring of 1964 he had read Danilo Dolci’s To Feed the Hungry. It had left its mark on him.
Le Patron was very ignorant about Sicily. Danilo Dolci had not mentioned Taormina in his To Feed the Hungary. Taormina was where Le Patron had been dropped off late afternoon having hitched from the port of Messina. It was an old town but buying peaches he realised something was wrong. They were double the price he had been paying elsewhere in Italy. And then he saw a poster advertising that Marlene Dietrich was playing at the local exclusive nightclub. Without knowing it, he had arrived at a favourite spot of the Med Yacht Set. The near empty campsite was on a cliff edge. Way below, in a sparkling sea – a holiday brochure blue – and so clear you could see the bottom and brightly coloured sub tropical fish, people with snorkels and flippers snorkelled, whilst in the distance Mount Etna puffed slightly threatening. Le Patron was desperately bored with the holiday brochure setting. He had come to Sicily looking for ‘authenticity’ and had ended up in a place that had as much relevance to Sicily as the English singer Cliff Richard had playing at the Sun City venue in apartheid South Africa. (Queen also played in apartheid South Africa and their lead guitarist Brian May couldn’t see what the problem was, when they were slapped down by the U.N. and the British Musicians Union).
But Le Patron was going to have to cut his search for authenticity in Sicily, and start heading back. His finances were starting to run low.
The notion of “Authenticity” is tricky, difficult to explain, and probably shot through with dubious and naive emotion and intellectual inconsistency and sloppiness. But for Le Patron in the Italy of 1964 it meant a tiny Fiat 500 stopping when he was hitching and the bulging family inside – (there really was no room, and the occupants could probably have got into the Guinness Book of Records for how many people you can get in one car) – apologising for not being able to give him a lift and pushing a bunch of white grapes into his hands for roadside sustenance until he got a lift, and waving him goodbye as they drove off; it meant a young lad telling him to hop onto the back of his Lambretta three wheel van with deliveries to a nearby campsite, and then insisting he takes some bread and cheese and fruit from the deliveries when he arrived at the site.
Or being off the beaten track in a hilly, hot landscape in what seemed a deserted village on a slope of a hill, with noonday shadows as black as death and the light as white as phosphorous – the sort of high key lighting used in Fellini’s 8½ (1963), or that came naturally in the films shot in Sicily by Pietro Germi (Divorce Italian Style 1961, Seduced and Abandoned 1964) and by Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, 1962).
It was an afternoon and a weekend. The street was very wide, with low, rudimentary white buildings on either side. Looking up and along the main street – the only street the village seemed to have – in the direction Le Patron would be travelling out of the place were Lombardy poplars stationed at the village cemetery and the cross and the statute of the Madonna.
There were no people, no cars passing through, not even a sleeping dog in the shadows. The prospects did not look good. And then, from nowhere, he became aware of a group of middle aged to elderly men in their weekend best dark suits, hands behind backs as they passed him in the middle of the road, some talking, some nodding. They didn’t seem to notice the stranger in their village. They continued in the direction of the cemetery. They reached the edge of the cemetery and then leisurely about turned and strolled back down again, passing Le Patron without acknowledgement.
After they disappeared from view – did they go into the village’s one bar? – Le Patron can’t remember – a middle aged woman in widow’s black was quietly standing beside him, proffering a chair, indicating with a hand gesture for him to sit on it. He smiled a thanks, she smiled back and he watched her disappear into a dark beaded open doorway behind him. After a while (two vehicles had driven along the street and not stopped) she reappeared and beckoned Le Patrol to follow her through the darkened doorway. He was immediately in a low ceilinged room and at treadle operated sewing machines – Singer sewing machines – young girls and older women were efficiently working. Another woman in widow’s black gave Le Patron a cool glass of home made lemon juice, and a small plate of home made almond biscuits, and there were smiles all around, including modest ones from the young unmarried girls. There was little attempt at talk, smiles and gestures were enough.
One of the women in widows black was concerned that I got back to the chair, with my lemon drink and almond biscuits, in case I missed a car. Le Patron can’t remember getting a lift, but he obviously did, and neither can he remember if or when the empty glass and plate was collected. And typing this, he wonders how and where the young girls are now. They would be in their mid to late sixties now. Did they vote for Berlusconi?
When did sewage and piped water come to their village? And Indesit washing machines, which saved them the chore of washday slapping and lathering and rubbing of clothes in the communal wash trough? How many married? How many went into a convent? How many are grandmothers? Do any still sew? Do they watch game shows on RAI, or soaps on Berlusconi’s Italia 1 channel? How many have iPhones?
And the group of men who walked up to the cemetery are now in it, six feet under.
Where was that village?
Ciao ciao bambina.
1. see To Feed the Hungry, Danilo Dolci; Naples ’44, Norman Lewis.
2. see online link to Air Raid on Bari .
Le Patron spotted this photograph in a bric-a-brac shop in Haarlem in 2005, and bought it for €1.50. For a while he didn’t realise the significance of the photograph, until he discovered that on the 10th of May, 1940,the day after the photograph was taken by an on-looker, German forces attacked Holland, and Belgium, 75 years ago this month.
It is conjecture when the person with the camera handed in the roll of film for developing and printing, and in what Dutch town this was, (it was not necessarily Haarlem) but she or he probably got the prints back after Holland had been forced to surrender on 15 May, 1940. The day before, 14 May, 1940, the Germans had blitzed central Rotterdam, and had demanded that if Holland did not capitulate they would flatten Utrecht the following day.
The photo has been printed on the Belgium made Gavaert ‘Ridax’ photographic paper. Without consulting the Belgium Parliament, the Belgium King, Leopold III, ordered Belgium Armed Forces to surrender on 28 May, 1940. Writing in his diary at the time, the soon to be Director-General of the British Political Warfare Executive Robert Bruce Lockhart wrote:
“Reynaud has spoken on Paris radio at 8.30 a.m. “I have grave news to announce. King Leopold of the Belgians capitulated to Germany this morning at 4 a.m.” A day of gloom, although Leopold has always been suspected. Frank Aveling (friend of Leopold) who knows him better than any Englishman has always told me that the King is (1) a totalitarian in his political views and (2) a Peace Pledge pacifist in his religious and sociological views!” (1)
Although a German, and with a brother in the German Army, Prince Bernhard didn’t intend to be part of a Dutch capitulation to German National Socialist forces. A keen photographer he took the following photographs “between raids” at the Palais Noordeinde in Den Haag (The Hague) the day after the German attack, on 11 May, 1940.
“During the German Invasion, the Prince, carrying a machine gun, allegedly organised the palace guards into a combat group and shot at German planes. The Royal Family fled the Netherlands and took refuge in England. In disagreement with Queen Wilhelmina’s decision to leave the Kingdom, the young Prince Consort, aged 28, is said to have refused to go initially and wanted to oppose the Nazi occupation within its borders, but eventually agreed to join her as head of the Royal Military Mission based in London. Once safely there, his wife Juliana and their children went on to Canada, where they remained until the end of the war.” – source, Wikipedia entry “Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld.”
Prince Bernhard went on from flying Spitfires in the 322 “Dutch Squadron”, to flying a variety of planes in missions over France, Italy and the Atlantic.
King Leopold III of Belgium continued to live in Belgium as the ruling monarch, with the assent of the National Socialists.
Another monarch, the war hungry absolutist Kaiser Wilhelm II, had been living in forced exile in a country mansion in the Dutch village of Doorn (near Utrecht) since 1918. When Hitler invaded Poland, and when the German forces occupied Paris, the ex-Kaiser sent letters of congratulation to Hitler. Kaiser Wilhelm II had been regarded with contempt as a military strategist by his equally belligerent German Army Officer class since 1908, and Hitler, who was anti-monarchist, shared their sentiments. When the Germans invaded Holland, both London and Berlin invited him to move to their countries. He declined. He died at Doorn in 1941.
Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard are no longer the centre of attention as the photo was taken. Note that two women in the crowd are smiling and looking at the person or people who is/are behind Juliana and Bernhard. The Queen, Wilhelmina? If so, the photographer will not have had time to wind the film on and manually cock the shutter for the next shot. Why would she or he be more interested in snapping the Queen’s daughter and husband?
It’s a warm late spring day, with the sun shining in from the left hand side of the photo, and Juliana and Bernhard are lightly dressed. The onlooking boy wears short trousers.
Who is the man walking in front of Juliana and Bernhard. A plain clothes policeman? Then why is he looking down, and not up, and alert?
Bernard has his hand on the winding arm of a 16mm ciné camera, possibly either the American Bell & Howell, or a German Agfa. Going by the shape of the camera case, Juliana has a German Leica 35 mm camera. In general, the feeling is that this is not too formal an occasion.
There are no clues in which Dutch town this is.
The date on the reverse of the snap says 9-5.1940, which gives the photograph the significance, but the detail that caused Le Patron some unease was the pollarded trees with no foliage. On the 9th of May? Other photos of the day of invasion show trees with foliage. There are shadows of young leaves, for instance, in the photo with the Royal Family resting between air raids, taken on 11 May, 1940. On 19 May, 2015, mulling this worrying detail over, on a bench by the brook known as the Dawlish Water, Le Patron looked up and almost next to him he was suddenly aware of a tree that was showing similar characteristics, when all the trees around him were well in bloom, and even the characteristically late ash trees were pushing out foliage. He took a couple of photographs of this tree and sent them to a horticulturist friend. This was his reply:
“Definitely either a Black Poplar (Populus nigra), or alternatively an Aspen (Populus tremula).
Having consulted my Hilliers reference book, both these are “late “ to come into leaf, in the U.K.”
This isn’t to suggest the pollarded trees in the “Juliana & Bernhard 9-5-1940” photo are black populars, but does show that some trees can be very late, compared with others.
After the Allies had landed in Normandy in June 1944, in anticipation of their advance, Heinrich Himmler ordered that the Belgium King Leopold III and his family be moved to Germany. When the war in Europe finished on 8 May, 1945, in anticipation of serious political instability in Belgium the Allies did not allow him to return and his brother Charles acted as Regent. When he was allowed to return in 1950 the country was violently divided, with three people shot dead by Belgium police at a demonstration during what has been described as the most violent General Strike in the history of Belgium. The King was forced to abdicate to his son, Baudouin.
Because of a cruel twist, western Holland (including Amsterdam and Haarlem) remained occupied until the end of the war (with a dreadful famine in the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945 that is estimated to have killed 18,000 people). Prince Bernhard arrived with liberating forces and was closely involved in the surrender negotiations of the occupying German forces in Holland in 1945, and deliberately chose to speak Dutch, and not German – his native tongue – in the surrender negotiations with the occupying German forces.
Queen Wilhelmina had remained in England during the war, and returned to liberated Holland in May, 1945. Princess Juliana also returned, from Canada, to Holland in May 1945. The Dutch Royal Family were feted by crowds where ever they went.
The Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter), besides the estimated 18,000 deaths, had a permanent effect on the growth of many young people (including Audrey Hepburn), pregnant women, and their babies. Many people were forced to eat sugar beet and tulip bulbs, although not, as far as is known, tree bark, that had happened in the famines in the Ukraine and China.
1. The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, Volume 2, 1939 – 1965. Macmillan, 1980.
Len: Our Ownest Darling Girl is a collection of letters, mostly between her Mother and her only child, Helen, dating from the late 1930’s through to 1950. The bulk of the letters were written between Mum in Yoker, Glasgow, and her daughter, working first in Cairo as a shorthand typist for the Ministry of Supply (1945 – 1948), and then working as a Personal Assistant at Porton Down, Wiltshire, the Government Biological and Chemical Warfare centre.
Len: Our Ownest Darling Girl will be published online from September, 2014, in weekly instalments.
The letters with accompanying photographs and ephemera present a vivid micro and macro picture of Britain and some of its citizens in the immediate post-war years, in the case of Mum and Helen, aspiring to a better Britain, and a better personal life.
Reproduced here are two wartime letters from one of Len’s friends, Joan Garnett, typed undercover in the Spring of 1941, at her workplace. She was a similar age to Len. In the Spring of 1941 Len was fifteen, and fearful of the Luftwaffe bombing of London, her Scottish Mother had persuaded Len’s Dad to move to the supposed safety of Yoker, near Clydebank. Len’s Dad was an engineer and had worked at the new Fords plant in Dagenham since its opening in 1933. In Glasgow he worked at the Royal Ordnance Factory in Dalmuir, where the main production was anti-aircraft guns.
(Attempts to locate Joan Garnett through the Barking & Dagenham Post in 2009 and 2011 have so far been fruitless. The author would like, as would Helen (‘Len’) to hear of her, or from her family. The same applies to another teenage friend, also from the Barking and Dagenham area, Joan Brandley.)
Thank you very much for your letter that I received over a week ago. I wasn’t pleased to hear about the bombing, I expect everything looked a mess but it is sure to be cleared up now. I read about it in the papers and especially about the man who was buried for a week and brought out alive. (1) I am writing this at work in spells when I haven’t anything to do, so if it looks a bit untidy you will know it is because I have to keep taking it out and putting it back in the machine.
We had quite a packet the other night, Saturday week to be exact some bombs fell in our road and has made about forty houses uninhabitable. A bomb fell in the middle of the road and blew all the fronts of the houses in and some bombs fell in the back gardens knocking all the backs down. Two bombs in the back gardens were direct hits on Anderson shelters and blew the backs out another two. Four people were killed and fifteen injured. Bombs were also dropped in the next street, Howard Road and Morley Road.
Dad was down at Beckton that night and incendiary bombs dropped on two gas holders and you should have seen the gas burning, it made a terrific blaze. H.E.’s also dropped on Beckton that night and one dropped outside the building where my Dad was working, blew off the roof, blew in the windows and blackout and whirled my Dad round the room and cut his hand. He had to go on working the engines to see that the gas was pumped through, in the dark.
Then the next Tuesday we had another bad raid. We had some more bombs but not very near, but they also fell at Beckton again that night, and funnily enough Dad was there again. Just after the raid began some of the men he works with went off to get something to eat and didn’t come back so those that were left had to do their own work and these others. They couldn’t keep it up so they had to let the gas pressure go down and we got no gas until dinner time when the gas pressure went up again so I had to cook my breakfast over the fire
Last week they dropped bombs all the way up the line and I had a job getting up to town for a few days. One day it took me three hours. Whitechapel Station received a direct hit and for a few days trains could not stop because some of the platform was not there, but it’s alright now. On one side of Bromley Station there is a hospital and on the other side a workhouse and they were both hit. All along on each side of the line between Plaistow and Bow Road have been fires in the last week.
Last week the line was up from Barking to Aldgate East and the line of people waiting for buses started from the top of the Station hill and went down the hill to the Rio, down Salisbury Avenue to the bridge over the railway, round the corner and past the second turning. I was an hour lining up in that queue. Another time last week or the week before the trains were not running between Aldgate East and Mansion House so I caught the tube from St Pauls to Liverpool Street and at six o clock at night people were on the tube platforms ready for the night.
I went to the Rio last Saturday and saw The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. I liked it ever so much and stayed in and saw it twice round. Also I saw Just Tempted with Hugh Herbert and Peggy Moran. Was it funny!
The week before I saw Gas Bags with the Crazy Gang and did I laugh. I went with my friend June who lives next door. I usually go with her and she laughed so much she went hysterical and screamed at the top of her voice and everybody looked at us, I did feel daft. With it we saw Dr Kildare Goes Home with Lew Ayres.
I had to work last Saturday it was my turn in again. I have been here almost three months now. Three months is up on the 6th of April which is not far away. I should be getting a rise soon in a couple of weeks or more.
Here there are seven of us who sit near to each other and one of us has to book out the drivers of the vans and give the boys their fare when they take parcels anywhere. One of the boys came in the other day and while Paddy was booking him out (Paddy is the pet name of a jolly girl called Miss High) asked her for the name of the girl in blue. She said she didn’t know. Winnie, the girl in blue, said she wasn’t to tell him her name, so when he came in the next time she said her name was Miss Wilhelmina Wigglesbottam and that set us off laughing and we could not stop. One girl had tears rolling down her cheeks. Good job the head of our Dept. was out and the girl who is in charge of us. What makes it funnier still is that Winnie is fairly good looking and David ……. (Le Patron’s edit) is a fully looking freak.
I managed to get some chocolate the other week and bought it while it was going. The result was that I ate over two shillings worth over the weekend. I have managed to get a few bars since then but don’t go thinking I can get plenty of chocolates because I can’t.
Fancy having a few nights without raids, quite refreshing. Hope it keeps on like this. We had a warning at nine o’clock this morning that only lasted ten minutes. It is not often we get raids in the daytime. (2)
They had a couple of land mines up at Scrattons Farm Estate and killed quite a few people. Some people who used to live on the end of our street moved up there and they were all killed except two babies. Their pictures were on the front page of the Daily Mirror.
Well I suppose I had better stop using the firm’s paper, wasting the firm’s time and wearing out the firm’s typewriter and say I’ll close now.
Yours ever, Joan.
p.s. Don’t forget to write soon.
1. Two weeks before, Clydebank was blitzed between 13 – 14 March. 528 died and out of 12,000 houses only seven, it is claimed, remained undamaged. 35,000 people were made homeless. Anti-aircraft guns, it is alleged, failed to shoot down a single German bomber. ROF Dalmuir, where Len’s Dad was working, and Len was to work was hit but re-opened within three weeks. The immediate area where Len was living in nearby Yoker was not seriously damaged.
This is how a Brodick farmer on the Isle of Arran, in the Firth of Clyde, remembered the Clydebank Blitz in the forthcoming Chapter 8: Blitz, from the online version of You, You & You! The People Out of Step With World War 11.
Arran Farmer The nights of the Clydebank Raids there was an incendiary bomb dropped on the island. They were coming overhead, over the island – a terrible racket, hundreds of planes coming over. Some appeared to be coming in and some appeared to be coming out over the island. On the second night of the bombing, which was the worst, there was a heavy mist, and the whole mist was flickering, right across the channel, and all our windows in the farm were rattling. It was a hell of a night. Goodness knows what those people in Clydebank went through.
2. This is another experience of a London daylight raid, from You, You and You!, recounted in the forthcoming Chapter 7: Battle of Britain and Invasion
Conscientious Objector When I was ploughing up land for the Kent Agricultural Committee I was often out in the middle of a field when the air-raids came over, and some of them were pretty bloody scarifying. These were daylight air raids, when the Nazis started their big heavy raids again, this was around ’41. I was out in the Kent marshland and I was driving along in my tractor, ploughing, keeping an eye on the ground and suddenly was aware of some different noise, in the air, and I looked up and there were about a hundred bloody great planes – you could see the Swastikas on them! God. I stopped the bloody tractor and dived underneath it, and peeped up at these buggers. Not a fighter, not a gun going off, absolutely nothing – they were just sailing up the river towards London, as if the place belonged to them.
Thanks very much for your letter I received last week. Sorry I have not written before but I have not had much time, either at home or at work.
Congratulations on your new job, I was rather surprised, as I wasn’t expecting it. Glad to know that you are getting on so well. Do you like it better than at College? (1)
You remember the wedding I attended last August, well I had half-a-dozen copies made of myself and Pamela and I wondered if you would like one of them, just to remind you what my dear face looks like, so I am enclosing one for you.
Also, do you realise that I have nothing at all that shows me what your dear face looks like. If you have a photograph I could have, I should be pleased.
I bet you cannot guess who works here, someone who used to go the “Tec” (2)
When I first saw him I wondered where I had seen him before and after a few discreet enquiries I found out that he went to the Tec, but I can’t for the life of me remember which Form he was in. Perhaps you do.
He said he doesn’t remember me either.
I’d love to ask him about the Tec, but he seems so shy, and as you know I am rather shy myself. He often gets in my train at night but he never says anything or even recognises me. Can you remember which form he was in?
We have had a few bad air raids since I last wrote to you. A week ago last Wednesday we had a bad air raid but it was mostly in the City. I expect you heard on the radio that the City Temple and Wallis’s was completely burnt out. A land mine was dropped in Cannon Street between Mansion House Station and St. Pauls, talk about a mess, the road is still blocked. A land mine was also dropped in Fleet Street but the parachute caught on the telegraph wires so it failed to explode and it was safely taken away. I expect you also heard about the bomb on St.Pauls.
A bomb fell right on Blakes Corner destroying the clock. From the Gas Light and Coke Co. all round the corner to the first chemist is a heap of bricks. A roof spotter was buried under there for days and even an oxygen pump failed to bring him up alive.
The following Saturday night the attack was centred on the suburbs. We had a land mine in Morley Road at the back of the Catholic school. We had been laying under the table all night as bombs were coming down thick and fast. Then there was a mighty crash, glass breaking and everything seemed to be falling on top of us. It was the land mine, and it switched on a couple of the lights, so Dad got out from under the table and switched them off. Dad said we had better go down the shelter as we couldn’t stay there for the moment, window frames, glass and plaster all around us. Pam hadn’t got any shoes on so we sat her on the armchair while we found them and she said, “Oh! I’m sitting on glass”, so we quickly took her off. We got halfway through the scullery when we couldn’t go any farther.
I thought a bomb had fallen on the back of the house and blocked the way but Dad shone his torch and we saw it was the back door split in half and laying right in the way. When we came out after the all clear had gone the place was properly in a mess. All this happened at ten to four in the morning so we didn’t have to wait long for daylight. We knew the time because it stopped all the clocks.
We had the workmen round and mended the windows and doors and yesterday the surveyors came round to see what was to be done inside the house, as we have a big hole in the scullery ceiling and plaster down in all the rooms and even a few cracks.
Glad to know you enjoyed your Easter Holiday. I had to work Good Friday but we got paid double and had Easter Monday off. On the Saturday we went to the Rio and saw North West Mounted Police. On Easter Monday I went to the Capitol and saw Down Argentina Way with Betty Grable and Don Ameche. Also Michael Shayne, Private Detective with Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon and Ruth Hussey.
I have some good and bad news for you. I am going to get a holiday after all on the 12th of July to the 21st. But I am afraid my Father won’t let me come to you as he said the threats of invasion and gas attacks would only worry them while I was away. So perhaps after the war. I hope it won’t last long.
Are you ever going to come back to Barking or are you going to stop in Scotland after the war?
I am finishing writing this in my dinner time as I am afraid we have been rather busy lately to do much typing for oneself. It is nearly two o’ clock so better close now hoping to hear from you soon with the photograph. I have to take this home to address as the photograph I am sending you will not go in the firms envelopes.
1. Len’s first job, at the age of fifteen, was in the offices of Drysdales, pump makers, at 16/- a week (80 pence).
2. The “Tec” was the South East Essex Technical College Day School.
This is Chapter 12 The Conscientious Objectors from the restored full version of You, You & You! The People out of Step with World War Two. Chapters are being published every Friday morning. Click here to go the restored book: youyouandyourestored.wordpress.com
Those interviewed for Chapter 12 were Phil Sansom, Joe Jacobs, and Douglas Kepper. Douglas Kepper was interviewed by Ros Kane. In this new version there is, in particular, a fuller account from Douglas Kepper, not included in the 1981 published book. The interviews took place in the mid 1970’s.
My Mother simply said to me “I didn’t give birth to you to have you killed at the age of 23 so good luck to you”
Commercial Artist I was 23 when the war broke out. I was a ripe age for it. I was extraordinarily lucky because I had a whole set of lucky circumstances which led me to take my position against the war. It went back before the war.
I had an ordinary kind of education at an elementary school and secondary school in Forest Gate, London. I then went onto art school at the West Ham Tech’ and it was there that my education in thinking began to develop. There wasn’t much political thought going on but we began to think about Life, with a capital ‘L’, and getting into all that sort of thing. There was a young feller there who was, in fact, black and he was the only black boy in the school. He got very interested in politics and became a pacifist. In fact, he took me along to a meeting of the old ILP, which if I remember rightly was in Poplar Town Hall, where I heard Jimmy Maxton speak. This feller started me thinking, and started us all discussing pacifism. We had a little group of four who were very close friends. We used to go everywhere together, do everything together.
At the time of the Munich crisis I was thinking “Oh God, I should get into the Home Guard” or do something – prepare myself for what was obviously coming. (1) In the intervening year, by the time war broke out, three of the four of us had become conscientious objectors. We all split up in different directions and my lucky chance grew out of the fact that in June 1939 I’d gone for a holiday in the country – down in Sussex – and had fallen in love with a farmer’s daughter. Fortunately, she reciprocated and so when it all happened in September ’39 she said ” Come down here.” She had a caravan ready for me to go to, so I went and lived down on the farm. I lost my job. I was sacked a week before the war broke out.
I was working in the studio of a printers in Chiswell Street, just off Finsbury Square. I had left school ’36. Our little group had carried on after we’d left school. I had ambitions to be a painter and I had asked for an extra week’s or fortnight’s holiday from my firm to do this – unpaid, of course. It had to be, in those days. The boss said “No. If you want it, other people will want it.” When the war broke out however, a week before, he called me in: “Well, Sansom, you can go and do your painting now. We don’t need you any more.” Piss off! And that was that. I was on the dole.
I just switched my place of residence down to this farm, which was at Cowden, near Edenbridge. My parents were, I think, a little shocked that I had decided to be a conscientious objector. My Father had just been too old for the First World War. He may have swung the lead a bit – I don’t know. He was self-employed and I think he just about kept himself out of it by virtue of having his little wood-working business to keep going. So he had no great feelings about that. My Mother simply said to me “I didn’t give birth to you to have you killed at the age of 23 so good luck to you.” In the event, later on, she turned out to be quite a support in that sort of way.
I started doing odd jobs for the farmer and got into farm work, whilst still drawing unemployment pay. It was very nice. I just had to cycle into Edenbridge one day a week and they posted my 17/- a week to me and I was able to live on that, living cheaply in this caravan. The time came when I felt I had to make a move. I saw an advertisement for training tractor drivers in the Kent War Agricultural Committee Committee. (2) I went over to Maidstone and did a fortnight’s course in tractor driving and after that I was able to be offered jobs as a skilled agricultural worker.
By this time my age group had come up and I had registered as a conscientious objector. I went and lived on two or three farms out in Kent, in the Sheppey area, driving tractors. I became, I think I can say, a skilled tractor driver. They actually trusted me with one of the first yellow Caterpillars in the country, when they began to come over on Lend-Lease from America. (3) I was very proudly going up and down with a four furrow plough, harrowing and cultivating and doing all that bit.
Farms in those days had a lot of people working on them, not like now where you can get hundreds and hundreds of acres run by six men with machines. They still had horses. My big tractor was the first one to be introduced. The guy who got it eventually became Sheriff of Kent. Man called Doubleday. He got a knighthood for his services of ploughing up hundreds of acres of marshland, getting £2 an acre subsidy, just for getting me to work on it for him.
There were a lot of people working on the farm. There were about twenty men lining up at ten past six in the morning. They were exempted. Most of them would have been of military age. I’m sure there were quite a few of them who were bloody glad they were exempted. There was no patriotic talk.
In the meantime I had been called up for the Tribunal. I was turned down. I had no history of having belonged to either a religious body or political group which had a recognised position that they could accept. My objection was based on my wishy-washy humanitarian, pacifist, aesthetic objections. An ‘artist’, you know – can’t have anything to do with this. That didn’t go down very well with the Tribunal! I was turned down also at the Appeal. The Labour Exchange then approached me and they said “We understand this is your position – would you be prepared to go in the Fire Service?” I thought around that for a couple of days and said “Yes, OK, I will accept the Fire Service.”
The Blitz had come and gone and there just wasn’t the demand for firemen anymore. I was never called up
I submitted myself for a medical examination which, if you’re going in the forces, is the crucial thing you must never do. Once you’ve been through a medical they reckon they’ve got you. I went through the medical on the strictest understanding (I signed a thing) that it was for the Fire Service, and stood back, expecting to be called up. By this time it was 1941. The Blitz had come and gone and there just wasn’t the demand for fireman any more. I was never called up.
Whilst I had been on the land I had had a very interesting set of experiences simply by being a useful worker and being highly thought of by the farmers who had never really thought of me as a ‘Conchie’. In fact there was one point where I had to disclose it. I think it was when I had to go for this medical. I said to the foreman “You know I’m a conchie, so I’ve got to go and do this for the Fire Service.” He was surprised. “No”, he said, “I didn’t know”, and I think his attitude changed towards me a little bit then. I kept my beliefs to myself. It usually never arose. I’d got married in the meantime, though not to the farmer’s daughter. My wife’s family knew. The brother-in-law was a bit hostile. He wasn’t in the army, but he was in the Home Guard and was as patriotic as all people are who are not doing very much. My brother was very hostile too, until he got called up. He flirted with the British Union of Fascists before the war and was a bit patriotic. He was very ashamed of me in the first instance.
He was a lot older than me and he’d worked in an insurance office all his life, going to and from Rickmansworth, where he lived, to the City of London. He was called up and drafted first to Kettering where he had a hell of a time. He told me afterwards he very nearly deserted because it was so rough. He managed to get himself in the Pay Corps and lived at home, going from Rickmansworth to the City an hour earlier than the one he used to get up to the office before.
After I got married we got fed up where we were and we moved back to London and I got a job as a gardener/handyman. An old friend of mine had been off to Scotland, on the Forestry. Up there there was much more of a group of conchies working together. They had a lot more discussion and the whole thing was getting politicised. He’d got onto Herbert Read’s writing which was a contact between us art students and radical ideas. (4) He introduced me to Poetry and Anarchism and then the Philosophy of Anarchism. These both turned me on. And from there I just made the trek up to Belsize Road, which was where the Freedom Press office was in those days, and introduced myself and started going to their meetings. That was 1943. It was three and a half years of the war before I worked around from wishy-washy, simple personal opposition to the war to sewing all these things together, in terms of what I now see as the pointlessness of objecting to war without objecting to the state which depends upon war.
I was in Ipswich casual ward the day war broke out. I sensed that this was an end of an era, that the whole thing was coming to an end
Tramp Most of the casual wards were closed down because they were wanted to be used either as additional hospital accommodation or as ARP centres. I suppose, also, the authorities thought there would be no longer any need to provide accommodation for dossers, but all through the war years there were still people on the road – not so many, but certainly a certain number.
I went back to London and I went to live at a place called the Hostel at 57 Mount Pleasant. It was a hostel run by the London County Council to get men off the road and to help them try and get jobs. I stayed there a couple of months, but the situation didn’t improve, and I went off on the road again for a short while with a couple of chaps and ended up in Stoke on Trent, where I got a job in a hotel. It was the Grand Hotel, Hanley. It was then that I wrote to the ILP and asked them to send me two copies of their weekly paper each week, and wrote to Peace News and asked them to send me two copies of Peace News every week. I had decided to be a conscientious objector.
In 1939 when I should have registered for military service I didn’t go. I’d made up my mind I wasn’t going to register and that I was going to go to prison, but people in the movement talked to me about this and said it was rather silly going to prison – you can’t achieve anything in jail. So several months after I should have registered I came to the conclusion they were right – that you could do much more useful work outside prison than inside, so long as the country allowed you to do anti-war activity. I have a great respect for those conscientious objectors who did go to prison though. They stood their ground, the absolutists, and I think they were very wonderful and very brave people.
They used to bring them in, put ’em in a cell, strip them naked, throw a uniform in, and that’s it. You put it on or you don’t, and in the middle of winter, that’s no joke
Detention Centre Inmate The most interesting group in the Detention Centre, for me, were the conscientious objectors. They were separated from us by the authorities. Unlike us they were kept in single cells and of course, they wouldn’t do the military training, which was the main programme for most of the inmates.
When you registered the normal procedure was the following: If you had a long record to which you could point to as a pacifist in civilian life, and all the evidence was produced at court, you could be registered as a pacifist or for non-combatant duties. But most people who decided to be conscientious objectors never had any record to prove it. You suddenly say you’ve got religion, or you suddenly say “I’m opposed to war”, or you might even get one who says “I’m a fascist, I don’t want to oppose Hitler.” A large proportion of these type of people could not be registered by the Tribunals as conscientious objectors, and they were liable for call up. If they refused to submit, and refused to put the uniforms on, it was an automatic six months.
What they did was, they used to bring them in, put ’em in a cell, strip them naked, throw a uniform in, and that’s it. You put it on, or you don’t, and in the middle of winter that’s no joke. To reinforce the point, like as not, they’d put a hose on him, wet the whole bloody place out, including the uniform. Every pressure was used, but some of these people were incredibly hard. OK – some of them would eventually submit and put the uniform on, but make it clear that they were only wearing as clothing, and not as a mark of acceptance. They weren’t stupid. They knew in the first few months there was no point in making life too difficult.
At the end of the six months they would come up again and if they still refused it would be another six month. But they got to know that the third time, possibly the fourth time, the authorities would finally give in, and register them. All of the ones I came across knew this procedure. They were prepared to suffer a year or eighteen months rather than submit to being called up. To reinforce their position vis a vis their statement that they were conscientious objectors they used to play up rough a month before the end of their sentence, so to have evidence to show they were sincere. What was interesting was the way they used to cut up.
You’d file round to pick your meal up, which was in a diet tin. Everything would be splashed into the one can – your befores, middles and afters – it was horrible. The first few days I couldn’t eat the stuff. After three days it tasted like a banquet, because you were so hungry. You used to parade after the meal from your association rooms in straight lines with your diet tins. You had to put them on the floor. The order never was “Quick march!” – the order was “Pick up your diet tins – quick march!” You could always tell when these boys were going to start cutting up rough because they’d put their tins down, and as the order came to pick them up, they’d kick them straight across the bloody floor. They’d be picked out and pounced on. But it made clear that they weren’t accepting military discipline. Even if they got a beating for it, they wouldn’t submit.
You very rarely had a chance to talk to them. When you did you only had time to get that they were conscientious objectors. I never came across in the snatches of conversation that you could have, in the situations where you met them, where they could explain in any detail whether they were religious, political or whatever.
There were three press men there and they were smiling with relief because they had all these religious objectors and at last they had a political objector
Tramp Having failed to register in 1939 I changed my date of birth and registered. You placed your name on the Provisional Register of Conscientious Objectors, and you were given a card saying you were provisionally registered and you were given a form on which you were to state your reason for being a conscientious objector. This form had to be sent in to the clerk of the Tribunal. I wrote “As a socialist I have pledged myself to oppose to the utmost of my ability any war started by the capitalist class in the interest of the capitalist class.” This was at Stoke-on-Trent. I had my tribunal at Birmingham. I was given a railway warrant to travel to Birmingham.
The Tribunal consisted of a County Court judge, a university professor and a Trade Union official, who was absolutely hopeless. When I got to the Tribunal I was the only person there who who hadn’t got a witness with him. All the young men there seemed to have a clergyman with them. There were three press men and they were smiling with relief because they had all these religious objectors and at last they had a political objector.
The judge said to me “What do you mean you have pledged yourself to oppose capitalist war?” I said “I made a vow to myself that I would never fight in a capitalist war.” “What about Russia? Is that not a socialist country?” “No”, I said, “I don’t think it is a socialist country.” “What about a perfect state in which there were no capitalists? Would you fight then?” “That remains to be seen” I said, “but I’d like to think that in a perfect state without capitalists there wouldn’t be war.” He and the university professor then withdrew. This was the first time they’d done that, that morning. They hadn’t withdrawn for any other case. The Trade Union official then woke up and said to me “What about Russia?” I said “I answered that question once.” When they came back the Judge said “We’re satisfied your objection is conscientious. We want you to stay in your present work.” I’d said I was a cook.
When I got back to Stoke on Trent that evening, right across the back page of the Evening Sentinel it had “Socialist Objector at Tribunal – To Stay in Present Job”, and gave a full report of what I had said, and ended by saying “Kepper, who is a cook at the Grand Hotel, Hanley, is to stay in his present occupation.” This upset my employers terrifically. I wrote to the Tribunal and pointed out that this wasn’t the condition – it was to stay in my present occupation – not my present job. There was quite a to-do over this, but it blew over. When I wanted to leave Stoke on Trent I just left, and ignored the Tribunal decision.
Because I had broken the condition laid down by the Birmingham Tribunal I had a second tribunal in Bristol where it was laid down that I was to work “on agriculture, horticulture, forestry or work appertaining thereto or ancillary therewith”. I was out of work and I got a job with the Gloucestershire War Agricultural Committee. These were originally Land Drainage committees of County Councils which were taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture and War Agricultural Executive Committees. Each county had its own War Ag and they had farmers on the Advisory Committee. Most of them were farmers who were on their last legs or farmers who didn’t know their jobs and loved telling other farmers who were more successful how to do their jobs. They could take a farm away from a farmer if they thought he wasn’t farming it properly. They had terrific powers. They also took on labour and opened hostels, sending out gangs of workers to different farms. The farmers paid the War Ag and the War Ag paid the workers.
All of a sudden I’m conscious of being surrounded by all these big hefty Irishman, all holding out their sandwiches. I said “What’s the matter?”
At first I was at a hostel at a place called Horsely. This was a very old house which had been taken over by the Committee as a hostel. The warden was a rather ruthless sort of martinet who didn’t like COs because they demanded their rights. When I moved in the COs there had already complained about their food, and didn’t like being sent to bed at 10 o’ clock at night and lights out. Eventually all the COs, including me, were moved to a place called Sezincote, near Moreton in the Marsh, in the north Cotswolds. Sezincote was the name of an estate. It was the home of the Dugdale family. It was a big house, built in the Moroccan fashion. Horrible looking place. It had enormous grounds all ’round the North Cotswolds. We had a specially built hostel – a nissen type hostel – in the Dugdale grounds.
At Sezincote we had a load of Irishmen come over from Southern Ireland to work for the War Agricultural Committee. Some of them couldn’t speak English. Some of them were Gaelic speakers from the West Coast, from Galway. They were classed as “Friendly aliens”. “Enemy aliens” would have been kept under close arrest. Friendly aliens were allowed in the country but they had to fill out certain forms. There were about twenty five of them and I filled their forms for them and sent them off for them. Many of them had families at home and they were allowed extra money from the Labour Exchange for their families. They got about £1 five shillings for their dependants, so I filled these forms in for them too. I got on very well with these Irish lads.
We used to go out in gangs of four or six or eight to work on the different farms. There was one very elderly Irishman – Pat Brick – and when we got to the farm Pat would say “Now you sit down – you’re not to do any work. I’ve talked to the other lads and I’ve told them we’ll do the work.” They wouldn’t let me do a thing! – Because I’d done different jobs for them, like filling in the forms.
I formed them into a hostel committee – properly constituted hostel committee. I got them to join the Agricultural Workers’ Union first. We had a dreadful new cook arrive, Mrs —–, from Chipping Sodbury. She was a dreadful woman. A really ignorant working class woman. One day she gave us what were supposed to be sandwiches (we used to take sandwiches out for midday). We went up to the kitchen counter to get our sandwiches, and I’d put mine in my bag, not paying any attention to them. All of a sudden I’m conscious of being surrounded by these big hefty Irishmen, all holding out their sandwiches. I said “What’s the matter?” They said “Look at this.” And it’s two thick hunks of bread, completely dry, nothing in between. They said “We’re not going out to work with this.”
I went to Mrs —– and said “What’s the idea of giving us this as sandwiches?” She said “You’ve got bread, butter and jam there.” “Where’s the butter and jam?” “You’ve got enough there.” I went to see the warden. “I’m not having anything to with you – you’re a trouble-maker.” “Well”, I said, “you’d better have something to do with these men, because we’re not going to work until we get proper sandwiches.” We all went back to our dormitory. About an hour later the Chief Labour Officer turns up – a little rat of a man named ——, who’d been to Cambridge University and had got out of the army because he’d been a clerk in an office, and the Chief Labour Officer had moved up, and he got the job. The Gang Labour Officer, who was really in charge of us was a man named ——-, who in his spare time used to run a dance band under the name of Al ——. He said he had been exempted from military service because he’d been in a corn chandlers shop before the war and so he knew all about agriculture! Really – it was pathetic! They used to talk about us conscientious objectors being cowards yet they were all exempt from military service on the flimsiest of grounds.
The warden came to see me and said “Mr —— is here and wants to see you.” I went into the office. He said “Good morning, Mr Kepper. Sit down.” “No”, I said, “I don’t sit down.” He said “You think you’ve got a gang of ignorant Irishmen out there who you can do anything with, don’t you? If I were to go out there and talk to those men they wouldn’t know why they were at home from work.” “Wouldn’t they?” “No, they wouldn’t.” “Alright”, I said, “out you go.” He went out and he came back in quicker than he went out! I stayed in the office and let him get on with it. We soon got better sandwiches, and off we went to work, much happier.
The Detective Sergeant threatened me “How dare you write these letters to the paper”
I was eventually moved from Sezincote, because I was considered a trouble-maker. They moved me to a place called Nupend, a village near Stonehouse in Gloucestershire. This was a hostel comprising a house called Sunnycroft, where the dining room, kitchen and warden’s office was, and three empty cottages in the village in which the residents lived. I think it was the loveliest place we ever had.
Living there were some refugees from Germany and Austria, and some Italians who had come to this country in the 1920’s. Most of them were business men who had cafes in South Wales – in Pontypool, Cardiff, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil – ice-cream parlours, and so on. These men had been interned on the Isle of Man because they were Italian. Their wives were interned if they were Italian, but if they’d married English women the English wives were at home, carrying on the business.
The warden was a Mr Cumrick Mitton-Davies. He was ‘awfully’ public school. ‘Awfully’. A devout Christian. The hostel was run by the YMCA. He interviewed myself and a chap named Jack Bennet who’d been moved with me. He told us that he felt it was his sacred duty to look after these refugees.
The Germans and Austrians had been released from the Isle of Man on condition that they did land work and they were only allowed to go five miles from the hostel. The Italians could get permits to go home to South Wales for week-ends. But one man whose home was in Cardiff couldn’t go because Cardiff was a protected area, even though he’d lived there from 1920. There were a couple of Irish men there, as well as some Finns. The Finns’ ship had come into port in England and they had been interned.
I had a room in one of these cottages that I shared with one of the Finns. A great big tough chap who had actually fought the Russians when Russia invaded Finland. The other person in this room was this Jack Bennet. In the next rooms was a Bulgarian. His first name was Bela. He was an ex-second mate on board ships – tramp steamers. He was a man in his forties who always had a jolly smile. I had no difficulty in getting them to join the union. Mitton-Davies was horrified, and he threatened to get in touch with the police. He said these people had been released from internment and had no right to join a union. I wrote to the union about this and they took it up with the Ministry. When I organised a union meeting in Stonehouse, which was just over the five mile limit, Mitton-Davies tried to stop them going on the grounds of the five mile limit, but I got that stamped on as well.
The Finnish seamen were very anxious to get back to sea – it was their profession. They had written in their own way to the Home Office and had no response. At the time Eleanor Rathbone was an independent member of parliament. (5) She was a really hard worker for refugees and I wrote to her. She wrote back saying she would see what could be done, but she didn’t hold out much hope. Then the lads heard, and told me, that the other Finns, who were still on the Isle of Man, were managing to get back to sea. But they, who had been released from internment couldn’t get back to sea. Naturally! They were doing a useful job of work on the land! So they mis-behaved themselves and got re-interned, and thus back to sea!
In the case of the big Finn who slept in my room, he got involved in what appeared to be a brawl at a dance hall in the nearby village of Whitminister, one Saturday evening, and got arrested. I didn’t hear about it until he had been released on bail. He appeared in court on the Monday and a report appeared in the two local weekly papers in which it was said that he stated that he couldn’t understand English. He was alleged to have got drunk and done some damage. He said he couldn’t understand what people were saying. The Detective Sergeant was reported by the paper as saying that when he arrested the Finn he spoke perfect English. He was fined. This infuriated me.
I wrote to the two local papers and said he sleeps in the same room as me and that I know he can’t speak perfect English. It was impossible. The Sergeant was wrong. Neither of the papers published my letter. But I did get a visit from the Detective Sergeant concerned. He threatened me. “How dare you write these letters to the papers.” I asked “How did you get hold of these letters?” “Never you mind how I got hold of them. You’ve no right to write to the newspapers criticising me.” “I’ve every right to do so. This isn’t a fascist country.” “Don’t do it again”, he said. I was so furious I wrote to the National Council for Civil Liberties, which in those days was Communist Party dominated.
The Secretary of the NCCL wrote back after a lapse of time and showed me copies that had been received from the Stroud News and the Stroud Journal. It was the Stroud News that had shown it to the police. “Yes, we did send it to the police because we thought it was breaking the Defence of the Realm Act.” Which was ridiculous! And then she started to lecture me on the rights and wrongs of writing letters to the newspapers on matters like this, in wartime. “We’re all fighting fascism and these people are enemy aliens.” I wrote back saying that I wrote asking for legal advice, not for a lecture, and that if that was the best she could do, I didn’t think much of her organisation.
That was the sort of thing you had to put up with. Together with being constantly harassed in a mild way by the police during those years. It wasn’t as bad, though, as it was for COs in the First World War. They had a really terrible time. Just as I was due to leave my job the War Agricultural Committee were thinking of having me prosecuted for sedition, but it never got to that, as I got off the land on medical grounds. I went to Bristol for a few days and then onto London, where I got a job in Westminster Hospital as a porter. A job I liked very much.
1. The Home Guard was created after the war started. This is obviously a slip for ARP (Air Raid Precautions)
2. For the role of the War Agricultural Committees, see further down.
3. Lend Lease. War and war effort related material supplied by the USA to the UK, the USSR, China, the Free French and other allies.
4. Herbert Read, 1893 – 1968. Art historian and critic, poet and anarchist.
5. Eleanor Rathbone, 1872 – 1946. Campaigner for women’s rights. First elected to the House of Commons in 1929, as an independent for the Combined English Universities seat. A vocal opponent of British government appeasement to Nazi Germany, she campaigned during the 1930’s for the government to grant entry to the UK for Jews, dissident Germans, and Austrians.