Stories from World War Two
Created | Updated Dec 14, 2011
Below you will find a compendium of memories from World War Two - from those who fought to those who are fed memories from relatives who were there. A breadth of experience is represented - from civilians under attack, to children being evacuated and soldiers fighting at the front. The testimonies also chronicle events on land, sea and in the air from many countries that played a role in the war. It was a war on a global scale and is being commemorated here by a global community.
These snippets are by no means the entire contents of the Conversations but they do reflect the content therein. Take the time to browse through the Conversations in the forum below as each holds a story which is as unique as the war was vast.
The Story of Gunner Kenneth George (Kelly) Mosson
The following story is typical of many Canadian stories to emerge from the Second World War. For some it was their first time abroad and for many it was tinged with human tragedy on an unprecedented scale.
Dad's joke for the reason he joined up without waiting to be called up was $1.10 a day and a new pair of boots. Times were hard on the Prairies of Canada. Knowing dad, the real reason was to stop a maniac who wanted to rule the world.
After an extended time spent terrorizing England, trying to drink his way across London (!), running an army motorcycle into a brick wall during a blackout, visiting relatives in England and Scotland (where he had to try and behave), dad landed in France on D-Day plus four. Green as grass, he went across a wheat field to Capriquet Airport. The man walking beside him was killed. There he encountered the 12th SS Hitler Youth, and took a Norwegian knife from an officer. We still have it. By D-Day plus seven he was in Caen.
From there it was off to Nijmegen. In the movie A Bridge Too Far, dad showed me which field gun was his. He was billeted in a farmyard near Bergen Op Zoom, and he enjoyed his time there, loving the family who owned the farm, especially the children, who got all his chocolate. In September-October 1944 he was in Antwerp. He took part in the battle at the entrance to Walcheren Island, where the Canadians broke the dykes to cut off the Germans.
Through reading, our son thinks he was at Dachau concentration camp, just after it was liberated. Dad's only comment was that you couldn't tell him the Holocaust didn't happen, and he handed his grandson a book.
His outfit visited a Hitler Youth and SS training school, Bad Tolz, we think. There was a huge bronze swastika on a pole in the yard. Someone got the bright idea they should take it down, and ship it to Ottawa. When it came down, it half-buried itself in the ground. There it stayed.
The Finnish Winter War
One often overlooked fact of WWII is that regions of Europe where handed over to various other nation states in order to appease aggressors or fulfil promises made in international treaties. The following is what happened in Finland.
In the Moscow 'Peace Treaty' that was the result of the Finnish Winter War (part of WW2) the Soviet Union nicked a considerable piece of mainly south east Finland, known as Karelia.
Over 10% of Finland's agricultural area was lost where 12% of the Finns had their homes. Over 60% of them made their living on farming and 84% of the farms were small (below 10 hectares) owned by independent peasants.
My father's parents were among those, and they left (as did practically all the Finns living in that area), leaving lands and farm and animals behind, choosing to lose everything when moving to what was left of Finland, rather than become Soviet citizens.
My father did his best to join the Finnish Army, and managed to worm his way to the front before they realised he was a minor. It was too late to send him back, so instead he was put to guard Soviet soldiers that had been taken as prisoners of war.
The days were long, and to pass the time he started speaking to them because, as he said, they were just common people, just like he was. This is the reason my father came to speak Russian pretty fluently, but it wasn't until much later in life that he decided to also learn the grammar and to write Russian (surprising the teacher by his knowledge of spoken Russian).
Many of the Finns that left never looked back, but made themselves new lives instead - it wouldn't have been much point in going to Stalin whining about lost lands.
The Bombers and the Rat
The following is a heart-warming story that illustrates that there were things even scarier than the threat of being bombed by the enemy...
I never met my grandmother (dad's mum) or my great-grandmother on his side come to that, but the one story that I've heard several times is of the bombers versus the rat.
My great-gran and my gran were living together in London during the Blitz. Gran had been out and was returning home one evening as the air raid sirens sounded. She was nearly home so she carried on along the streets to reach the house that had a cellar rather than using a public shelter.
As she turned into the top of her street she saw my great-gran outside the house leaning over the gate. By this time there were enemy aircraft overhead and bombs were falling. She shouted down the street to find out why great-gran wasn't down in the cellar and the reply came back, 'I'm not going down there, Jack's (one of the family dogs) caught a rat'.
The Desert Rats
The modern day Desert Rats have hit the headlines with the recent action in the Gulf. The following comes from the daughter of one of the original rats, under the command of Monty himself.
I never knew my paternal grandfather as he died shortly before I was born. By all accounts he was a very moral man who brooked no nonsense and didn't suffer fools at all. He was an exceptionally strong man who continued to fight in the desert after the incident described below. I feel very proud and exceptionally humble of his experience, an event I only learnt of recently. Here's his story related to you by my mother:
'My father had to leave to go to war with the 8th Army artillery division (The Desert Rats) on my birthday. He was aged 39. His name was Geoffrey Charles Proctor. I was named as near as possible to him, Georgina.
'When he was back from the front, he did not talk much about the war but one of the things we did find out was the reason his centre crease in his tongue had a split in it about 1/4 inch wide. Here is a snippet of his war life.
'The 8th army were advancing through the North African desert and dad was in a trench that he had been digging out and it was quite deep with shoring. A bomb dropped close by and the trench collapsed, burying him. It was fortunate that a piece or pieces of the shoring supporting the trench walls kept him from being totally buried as this stopped him being crushed to death. He started to try and dig himself out which was successful - albeit the time taken to do this was three days.
'When he managed to free himself of the earth, he discovered that he was now on his own as his comrades believed him to be dead and had had to advance even further to track Rommel's Spook Division. In order to try and catch them up, and to survive the desert heat and sand, there were certain things to do that he knew would help keep him alive. He had a piece of muslin into which he put an amount of sand, then he had to urinate into the sand and let it filter into his mug. This had to be done at least three times to semi-purify it, and then he would drink it (he ran out of purifying tablets). He also had to eat, so the only thing that he could do was to catch lizards etc. He dared not light a fire to cook them as this would have brought attention to his whereabouts, so he had to eat them raw and this coupled with the lack of clean water, I believe, was the cause of his tongue splitting.
'Another thing that happened as a result of being buried alive like that was it affected his writing. Before this happened he had beautiful handwriting but, afterwards it was awful to see him try and write anything. His grip on the pen or pencil was so extreme that they would snap in his clenched hands. His writing was straight-lined instead the lovely flowing script that he had before this incident.
'Life was never the same after the war, he went down with a stricture within 12 hours of being decommissioned and went on to suffer from this for the rest of his life. It is thought that the water purifying tablets that they used caused this stricture as other Desert Rats suffered the same illness.'
The Story of Tommy Mac
The following Researcher experience chronicles what happened to many children during the war - from evacuation, to returning to cities and culminating in VE Day. The Researcher is a lucky so-and-so though, not for any near miss, but for a brush with a star of international respect.
I don't know where to start. But here is a synopsis. On 3 September, 1939, the day the war started, I was nine years old. My father being a territorial soldier was called to the army at 9am. Two hours before the war was declared. He came into my room dressed in his uniform carrying his rifle, put his arms around me and said 'Well son, that's me away to the sojers'. I didn't see him again for three whole years. The same day, we were notified to attend at our school and to bring only whatever was necessary. As my sister was only three, my mother was allowed to go with us and we were packed away to be evacuated to a village in Perthshire called Ballinluig.
Here I was separated from my mother. So on the one day I lost my father, my mother and my home, even though it was a tenement building in Glasgow. All this I was told was to save us from the dangers of war. Yet nine years later I was conscripted into the army, sent overseas where I lost my leg as a result of 'active service'.
To tell the story of how I lost my mother on the same day as my father, I must lay down some background to set up the story. As I said, we lived in a tenement in Glasgow, but it was a fairly big tenement. Two rooms and a kitchen. This was considered quite luxurious and not at all overcrowded.
In the kitchen was a recess bed, or as we called it 'the hole in the wall bed'. My dad and my Uncle Tommy were brothers, and my mum and my Aunty Mary were sisters. The two brothers married the two sisters, so we were all like a complete family. I was the oldest, age nine. The other Tommy (my cousin) was eight, my younger sister Betty was seven, my other cousin Michael was six, leaving my then youngest sister Mary, aged just three. So when my dad was called up, my Uncle Tommy, being a Marine Engineer was kept back as his was a deferred occupation. Upon evacuation, my mother was put in charge of the five children. This was until we arrived at our destination, Ballinluig.
From there we were marched to a nearby hall in the village of Logerate and the locals walked around and hand picked whatever evacuees they wanted. At this point, someone discovered that Tommy and Michael were brothers and therefore a separate family from ours.
So of course they were separated from us. But Michael began screaming and shouting, 'I want to stay with my Auntie Lizzie' (my Mum). He screamed so much that the authorities decided it was best to let him stay with my mother and, as I was the oldest, I should be evacuated along with my cousin Tommy. Thus it was I was taken from my mother and placed in the home of a Mr and Mrs Campbell, leaving her with two evacuees named Tommy McSorley.
So what did they do? They decided to call me 'Big Tommy' as I was the oldest and the other was of course 'Wee Tommy'. Now despite this being 64 years ago, to this day I am called 'Big Tommy' and the other is still 'Wee Tommy'. To make things more confusing, I am just 5'2" tall and Tommy is 5'8". But that is how Mrs Campbell ended up with two evacuees named Tommy McSorley and how I got separated from my mother.
Tommy Mac Getting Used to the Countryside
One morning Mrs Campbell (the lady we were billeted with) sent my cousin Tommy and I down to the next farm with a sort of bucket to collect some milk. Dutifully we went on our way to walk the half mile or so to the farm.
There the farmhand took the bucket from us and began milking the cow straight into our bucket. When he was done he asked us if we would like to take a drink from the bucket.
'What!?' said Tommy and myself in unison, 'do you think we are daft? There is no way under the sun we are going to drink cow's pee.'
Tommy Returns Home
Our evacuation did not last of course. There was no way that City dwellers could ever take to the country so when it was announced as the 'phony war' we decided to come home six months after leaving. Although it did give me a taste of the countryside, but just for a holiday never for permanence. So home we came.
It was when the Yanks were billeted over here in Glasgow at Abbotsinch Airlield near Paisley. Anyway they loved their movies as you will no doubt be aware. But the only time off they had was on a Sunday. At that time it was against the law for a cinema to open for profit, so a well known Glasgow eccentric named AE Pickard, who owned the Norwood Cinema in St Georges Road used to open it to everyone for what he called 'a silver collection'.
It was a con made for we young fly guys. We used to take an old farthing and cover it in silver foil to pretend it was sixpence, throw it in the tub and made our way into the cinema... but don't tell anyone.
A Brush with Fame
At this time I worked as a delivery boy, age 13, as was allowed during the war, for a Baker's Company called Scotts Bakery in High Craighall Road (by the way, this was also the street where my first ever love lived). Now part of our delivery sometimes was to the aforesaid Abbotsinch Airport. The cookhouse was manned entirely by black American Air Force personnel. This was the first time in my life I had ever met a black person.
After making my deliveries of bread I was standing looking around when I was lifted bodily by a giant of a man. An American sergeant. I was so small, he simply lifted me and put me on a table like a doll. Then he shook my hand and gave me some chocolate with a big smile and off he went. I was amazed at the size of him so I asked some of the other Airmen who he was. They looked at me as if I was mad. 'Sonny' one of them said. 'Don't you recognise him? He is the Heavyweight Champion of the World, that is the great Joe Louis himself, the Brown Bomber'.
I had seen him a few times on the newsreels and all I knew was he was big and he was black. I got home and told all my pals 'I have just shook the hand of Joe Louis himself' and I didn't wash my hand for days.
Now I am not exactly sure to this day whether or not it really was the great man himself or if the rest of the black men were fooling me. But I don't care. I have made myself believe it all these years and I still firmly believe I shook the hand of the greatest boxer in the world - Joe Louis in person.
Tommy Celebrates Victory
The most memorable day in my life - VE Day. The war was over. Like every other city in Britain, Glasgow was bursting with excitement. We knew the war was over and were just awaiting official confirmation. Then, in the morning came the voice over the radio of Winston Churchill. Words to the effect of: 'Although the enemy in the Far East has yet to be conquered the war in Europe is now over, God Save the King'.
The entire city went a little mad. Works and schools were closed for the day. It was a day of celebration! I was 14 at the time and wanted to join these celebrations too, but not by myself. I looked around and took up with the nearest female at hand.
She was an older girl. Perhaps 16 or so. Still she was to be my companion for the rest of the day. We made our way hand-in-hand from where we lived in the Cowcaddens part of the city in order to find the main celebration in George Square.
Every street we went through was holding some party or another. The tram-cars in Hope Street were filled with servicemen of all nationalities: American, Canadian, Australian, European... All of them commandeering the trams and singing and dancing up and down the length of Hope Street, singing all kinds of songs I had never heard before.
But at the bottom of the street the dance was the 'Eightsome Reel', this of course took precedence over all the other carousing. This was Scotland's national dance, although everyone could join in. The music was relayed from the old Kemsley House, former home of the Glasgow Daily Record who also supplied the lighting for the parade. To see the lights go on again was a miracle in itself. I didn't see too many drunks, now that I think on it. There was no need. The spirits were lifted high enough as it was.
It was quite wonderful to see all the men and women in uniform hugging, kissing and generally flirting with the civilian population. During all this time I never once let go of my companion's hand. I danced with her, hugged her. Kissed her too, I don't know how many times. I never did find out what her second name was. All I knew was, her name was Norah, my lovely Norah.
In all my life I have never forgotten her, and although we were as close to being intimate as was possible, there was never any impropriety. We actually stayed together until 4am, when we finally kissed and said goodbye each hugging the other. I have never seen her again, and to this day I wonder sometimes whether or not Norah remembers as well. My lovely Norah, with you I shared the most memorable day in my life. My thanks forever to you.
Doodlebugs and V2s
The Doodlebugs and V2s struck indiscriminately at the hearts of Britons for years. They rained down over many cities, leaving a trail of fear, devastation and death in their wake.
My Mother remembers days when doodlebugs (V1 flying bomb) flew over her house in Dorking, Surrey, England, on their way to London. The anti-aircraft (Ak Ak) gun sights weren't set correctly for the speed of these things so you would often see these flying bombs buzzing through the sky followed by a trail of small black puffs of smoke. The Spitfires used to fly alongside them and clip their wings to knock them off course. Not so great when one was knocked your way.
The V1 flying bomb was designed to keep going until it ran out of fuel, so the Germans relied on intelligence to tell them whether they were falling short and would adjust the quantity of fuel accordingly. Legend has it that we were able to feed them false information so that the bombs started to fall short, and they never knew.
The dreadful deep droning noise of the doodlebug engine would be bad enough, but then it would stop, and you would wait for perhaps one minute as it dropped out of the sky and hope to God that your number wasn't up.
The V1 rocket was very cheap to produce but the Germans decided to go for development of the much more expensive V2 rocket which was virtually impossible to stop. Due to their cost not many V2s were launched but had a devastating effect when they hit. Whole rows of houses could be destroyed.
With the arrival of war came waves and waves of troops from home and abroad. It was these troops that gave many an English child their first glimpse of someone from another corner of the planet.
There was a regiment of Canadian troops stationed in the woods on Ranmore, near Dorking. During their leave, they would wander down to the pubs in Dorking High Street and drink whisky (amongst other things). It would appear that many of them weren't used to the strength of English spirits and would quickly get paralytic and sometimes violent.
My mother's father was in the Home Guard. One of his jobs was to patrol the High Street armed with a cosh (rubber tube with a lead weight at one end) and would drag these poor souls on to a truck and send them back to camp.
When their time came, they went to fight on Operation Jubilee1 and due to some error of command did not get the support they needed. It might have been that they landed at the wrong beach, not sure.
However, they never came back. The whole regiment was lost. Dorking town was never quite the same after that.
The German bombers usually came at night in their hundreds. Their target was London. The bomber crews would be looking for any sign of life below, which meant the residents of towns and cities had to ensure that all lights were switched off or covered so they could not be seen from above. It really didn't take much, just a brief glimpse of a light and the bombers would drop their load and run for it back to Germany. It was the ARP wardens whose job it was to patrol the streets looking for such leaks of light and fine people accordingly.
Many German planes were shot down and sometimes the crew were able to bail out and parachute to safety. However, on landing, they were often confronted by angry lynch mobs who would not hesitate to string them up if given the chance. If they were lucky, they would be captured and protected by the army or police.
The parachutes were made of silk and often made their way through the black market into civilian hands to be made in to things like wedding dresses. Times were hard and absolutely everything was used as much as possible. Nothing went to waste.
Other precautions against air raids was tape over the windows to avoid glass being blasted everywhere if a bomb landed nearby.
A good indication an air raid was coming was household pets running for cover and hiding under tables well before any sirens went. They seemed to have a sixth sense about these things.
Air raids on the whole were the most difficult thing to cope with during WWII. They instilled terror on a daily or nightly basis for years and it made civilians feel very much involved in the war.
Modern warfare does not seem to bring this home to the civilian population as bombing of this nature is no longer possible, and so seems far more remote.
The Collection Starts
The following story serves as an inspiration to us all. It tells how one boy's fascination resulted in a collection of war memorabilia being exhibited in a reputable museum.
My father as a teen watched the skies with fascination as the Second World War raged, and he started collecting the bits of shrapnel and cartridge cases that often rained out of the sky. As time went on his collection grew and started to include bits of aircraft and in some cases, live munitions which he defused himself.
In one such incident he removed blue phosphorus from an incendiary bomb. Without thinking he threw it on to the fire and got caught in a small fireball. Not seriously hurt though.
This is how his museum started. His father was a great help and managed to bring back incendiary canisters and complete (already defused) bombs, etc. The bits of aircraft recovered started to include significant parts such as a fixed mount German machine gun complete with ammunition clips.
Before you ask, yes, all of this was strictly illegal and held stiff penalties if you were caught, but boys will be boys and neither this nor the inherent danger ever stopped him.
In later years, the museum would grow to an enormous size. Big, that is, for a private collection. Items would include uniforms, replica weapons, medals and the heaviest radio equipment you could possibly imagine.
Some of the prize pieces included a complete parachute, an r1154/t1155 radio transmitter-receiver for the Lancaster Bomber, purchased from an army surplus fair, and a Magnetron which was the central piece that produced high-powered radar waves. Interestingly enough, a modern microwave uses a magnetron to cook food!
My parents, after their retirement decided to move to the Isle of Man. The whole collection was offered to the Imperial War Museum but they were not interested, so being half-Belgian, my father offered the entire collection to the Belgian War Museum instead. They gladly accepted and this collection will be put on display in the next few years after treatment and various displays being built.
My father has passed away now, but would be greatly interested and inspired by pages like these.
A Life Destroyed
We have seen how some people's resolve was strong when faced with such adversity and misery. However, for many of those who survived the war, it was a very different story.
My biological father died in 1944 in Russia. Mother married again, my second father, who was a wonderful person. He was young when Hitler took over Germany and took part in the brown-shirted Hitler Youth which was the highlight of his young manhood. He was leader of a group of other young men and they went on a bike tour down the river Rhein and up again. They camped, took pictures and enjoyed life. He had never felt so important before.
He went into the war to fight for Hitler's cause, which, after all, could not be wrong, could it? He fought in Norway and got hurt in the knee and returned home to be treated. But the years in war permitted him to see the uselessness of all the killing, and the truth of what was behind it all nearly made him give up all hope in humanity. He had wanted to be a medical doctor and at first he tried to continue his studies but there was no money. The funds his grandfather had left in a bank for him to study were useless and he never saw them again. Instead he went out with groups of men to cut turf for heating and later was explored by sharpies so that only many years after the war he was able to earn enough money to live a little better financially. But by then his psychologically caused asthma was so bad that he lived only till 50 years of age. He was a sensitive man and never recovered from the disappointment he had suffered through an evil man called Hitler.
Don't Stop the Wedding
With war looming, thousands of young, fresh-faced lovers did what many self-respecting youngsters are shy of doing today. They got married... and how!
My parents were married 9 August, 1942. Mom and dad had known each other for years. Dad grew up in the small village of Alexander, Manitoba, and mom, from Winnipeg, used to vacation at her Aunt's out there. They were engaged while dad was training in Winnipeg.
In the summer of 1942, dad was in Brandon, preparing to ship out, but not expecting to go till Fall. Mom was cooking at a Fresh Air Camp for underprivileged kids up at Gimli on Lake Winnipeg. Their wedding date was set for the end of August, mom's gown and going-away suit were being made. Then dad phoned mom at the camp and told her they had to get married right away, he was leaving earlier than expected.
Mom's suit was finished, so she cancelled her gown, bought a beautiful hat, and she and my nanny got on the train to Brandon. On 9 August they were married at the 'New Chapel' at A-4, the barracks in Brandon, by dad's Padre. No flowers were available, so mom carried her old auntie's Anglican prayer book. 17 days later they said good-bye for 2 1/2 years. Mom wore a yellow ribbon all that time for her 'Gunner in the RCA'. She kept it in her handkerchief box after the War.
They weathered that, forgave and forgot anything that happened during the war, and got on with their lives when Dad came home. For their 40th anniversary my sister-in-law had one of their wedding snap shots done into a portrait, which I now have. Dad in his battle dress, and mom in her lovely suit and beautiful hat. They had been married 43 years when mom passed away, raised two kids, and had three grandsons.
Blitz in Hamburg
The following is a recollection of how life was for families living in Hamburg at the time that city was being blitzed by Allied forces.
I was born in 1937 and lived with mother and my younger sister on the outskirts of Hamburg. Father was off fighting the war in Russia believing he was defending his homeland. Hitler's propaganda machine worked so well, that father and his comrades thought Poland had started the war. In his letters he talks about his duty to defend his home, wife and children. He loved to photograph and sent the exposed glass plates home to mother. I have some of his pictures of strange places he saw during the war. He nearly made it. He was killed in 1944 in Russia.
I remember one night sitting on the kitchen table, mother putting shoes on my feet, getting me ready to be taken into the bunker. We used to sleep in long pants and pullovers, and the other children from our building were brought down to sleep on mother's big bed with us on the ground floor while the adults waited for the siren to sound its warning wail to pick us up to go to the shelter. Once mother lifted the curtain for me to see all the pretty coloured markers in the garden the reconnaissance plane had dropped so the planes that came after would know where to throw their bombs. The minute she lifted the curtain a bit, there was a loud shout echoing in the night, 'Lights out!'. We were lucky, our block remained intact.
The building across the back yard was burned out and I sat on the ground in the garden with some other kids while the women ran back and forth carrying buckets of water to put out the fire. Once I had to vomit while we raced to the bunker, which ran the length of the back yards of our block, half underground, half above and planted over with beans and peas and flowers. Mother left me to carry my sister and her ever-ready suitcase to the bunker and said she'd be back for me. I remember our neighbours running past me and finally being the last one to go too.
I used to stand in line for the only available bread, which was yellow and made of corn. Mother used to say she cooked, fried and stewed so many turnips during the war that she never wanted to see another one again.
I spent my first year at school in a home in a small town outside Hamburg. What amazes me is that once I turned six I had to go to school, war or no war, and to school I went! German bureaucracy functioned no matter what.
When there was no water in the houses, a water truck came regularly and everybody stood nicely in line to fill buckets and pots. Mother used to get old clothes from neighbours, turned them and made new ones for her two daughters.
There was a lot of destruction in our neighbourhood and I shall never forget the bombed-out buildings that looked like empty shells, their doorways and windows black holes in the evenings, looking like death.
One interesting fact though, in 1969 I moved to a house near an airport and I had to fight the feeling of danger, of doom, that came over me every time a plane flew low over us. Only then did I realise how strongly the planes in the war had affected me.
From the German Anti-Hitler Underground
While the Allies were bombing Germany, trying to rout Axis forces, there was a strong-willed, anti-Hitler underground operating in Germany who lived with the daily threat of exposure, denunciation and execution. Here is one of their stories.
My mother was a teenager in Germany during the war. She was born in Glaz, which is now in Poland. She married my father (an American) after the war and moved to the United States. She used to talk about the war a lot. Here are some of her stories:
My grandfather was in the anti-Hitler underground, although she didn't know about it until after the war. Among other things, my grandparents 'covered' for my grandfather's boss while he escaped into Switzerland with his family. My grandmother was always afraid someone would find out and denounce them to the authorities.
They lived with fear: fear of being betrayed by a neighbour, fear of dying in an air raid, fear of starving, fear of catching TB. My grandmother was always airing out the house to kill germs (my mother did the same thing when I was a kid).
My grandparents weren't 'allowed' to be members of the Nazi party because they refused to give up their religion (Roman Catholic). My grandfather noted that there are some groups it is an honour to be kicked out of. On the other hand, if you were 'invited' to be a member of the party, your options were to either accept the invitation or to run for your life.
Anyone who disagreed with the Nazi party tended to 'disappear'.
The Nazis were a humourless bunch. My grandfather was arrested once because he called a local SS bully an 'ass****'. My grandfather used to invite the parish priest to dinner, and they'd take a bottle of wine into the study, where nobody could hear them, to tell Hitler jokes.
On the other hand, many in the German army hated Hitler. A lot of the plots on his life originated with army officers. My mom thinks one of her uncles was part of one of these plots because he died under suspicious circumstances. Mom also met a number of the officers who were part of von Stauffenberg's failed attempt on Hitler's life. She met them at a party about a week before the attempted assassination and she couldn't understand why they seemed so happy. One of the fellows told her not to worry, that the war would be over very soon. A week later, she realised why he'd said that (and then she was scared to death that someone would come after her because she'd been seen 'in the wrong company').
Mom worked as a German army nurse. At one point her sister, who was on the run from the Gestapo, worked at the same army hospital essentially impersonating my mom. Mom would work a 12-hour shift, give her uniform to Aunt Irm, and then Aunt Irm would work a 12-hour shift. The army medics didn't care - they needed every available medical worker to handle all the wounded and dying. Unfortunately Aunt Irm had no training or medical ability. She fainted whenever she had to give a shot. God knows what happened during surgery.
My mom's family ended up in West Germany after the war because when it appeared that Germany was about to lose the war, my grandmother wanted to be in the American sector when the end came. So they started walking west...
After the war, everybody starved. Chaos, no infrastructure, refugees from the east...
My mom was able to get a position as a nurse with the American army, and the GIs would make sure she and her family got enough food. Mom said that the American army saved their lives.
Life at sea was rough - not only did sailors live with threats from all directions (submarines, planes, and boats), they also had to cross some of the most treacherous stretches of water. The following is what happened to SS Saugor.
My Uncle Archie was killed in action on 27 August, 1941. He was 18 years old.
He had joined up earlier that year in the Royal Artillery but received a posting as a marine gunner attached to Atlantic convoys. He was serving on the armed merchantman SS Saugor which was carrying stores of 28 disassembled Hurricanes, spares and munitions to the Far East Theatre. Uncle Archie was one of the two gunners on board responsible for manning the 4.7" naval gun mounted on the freighter. In addition to the gunners the ship carried 80 crew and officers.
59 of these were to perish when the ship went down during the voyage.
En route from Oban in Scotland to Capetown the convoy was steaming in five columns and SS Saugor was the rearmost ship in the second column from the starboard side.
Just before 1.00am on the third night of the voyage in very rough seas SS Saugor was hit in the engine room by a torpedo fired at her by a German U-Boat. With the loss of electrical power the ship was plunged into darkness causing great difficulties for the men trying to flee the stricken vessel. The high seas caused the few lifeboats that were launched to be smashed against the sinking ship, further contributing to the loss of life.
SS Saugor finally slipped below the waves some 16 minutes after being hit.
Uncle Archie was one of the men that didn't make it. He would have been 80 years old this year.
For some, war was all a matter of perception...
Although I was an unfertilised ova for more than 30 years after the war ended, most of my family members lived through the days of World War Two... and almost every one of them is a storyteller of extraordinary endurance.
My grandfather was an air raid warden during the Japanese occupation in Malaysia - needless to say, he was witness to a great deal of action. (He actually saw one famous Buddhist temple get blown up to bits by a mosquito - the plane, not the insect). He had a lot to tell about the Japanese which, contrary to the war stories you usually hear about them, portrayed them in a wholly different light.
During the occupation, all the government servants were required to learn Japanese. The Japanese, to their credit, encouraged this learning process by offering pay rises to those who passed the proficiency tests (there were, what, five or so levels?). Grandad (who was a clerk), of course, did very well - heck, he'd been learning Tamil and Arabic from his friends for yonks - and mind you, a $100 raise meant a lot back then. Needless to say, he got along pretty well with his employers. There was this one time when one of the Japanese accountants, after watching grandad at work for some time, challenged him to a friendly math competition where they added up whole columns of figures using an abacus. Grandad won both the contest and the guy's abacus (which, if I remember correctly, was made of good wood and gold). They would later become friends... I'm not sure if grandad won anything else off him.
Also, during that time a lot of Japanese moved into my grandfather's neighbourhood - one of whom was this guy living in the house right next to their's who had a fondness for children, and who apparently stopped by the house almost every evening to visit my grandad's family and take my mum out for a walk (my mum was an infant at the time. I assume he had to carry her).
Of course, having spent my childhood listening to stories like these, I'd never really thought of the Japanese as actual enemies. It wasn't until I read history books that I found out just what they'd been doing in Nanking, etc. I guess it all depends on who your neighbours are...
While war ravaged much of Continental Europe, those back in the UK muddled on as best they could - making the most of what they had and a little bit more...
My parents were 17 when WWII started. In a way, they feel that they were robbed of a carefree youth. Life was so precarious and many friends were lost.
My mum lived and worked in London and tells how uncertain life was - you never knew if you'd survive the day, or if your home and family would still be there in the evening. She was first aider in her building and saw many people injured from bomb blasts. Once she was sitting on the toilet when a bomb fell nearby, blasting out the tall window behind her! She recalls how they used to dye their legs with potassium permanganate and draw a line up the back, to look like stockings. They still managed to have fun, as young people will, but the war years certainly had a huge impact on their lives.
They feel that war was an evil necessity at that time. They bear no animosity towards Germans in general.
It was only recently that I discovered my uncle was a conscientious objector, but as he was in a protected occupation, merely carried on working. I gather this was regarded with disfavour by the family, but not to the extent of shunning him.
In the post war years, when my parents married, rationing and general shortages meant having to be economical in most areas of life. They were grateful for any second-hand furniture they could get - much of it was still in use during my childhood. Maybe it's my mum's character anyway, but she sometimes says that it was living through those years that has made her resourceful and able to cope in a crisis.
Playing in the Band
Some people, for whatever reason, never saw active combat. The following relates how one American soldier dealt with this both during and after the war.
My grandfather was a third-generation German-American and German was still the primary language at his family's farm.
He was drafted into the army but contracted pneumonia in late May 1944. While he was in hospital recovering, his unit shipped out and was essentially wiped out during the D-Day invasion.
When he recovered, the army didn't have a unit to send him to so they stuck him in a band where he played the French horn. He never saw combat.
I believe he always felt guilty about this. All of his friends did their part and were killed or wounded and I really do think he might have suffered from 'survivor's guilt'.
As children we were never allowed to play 'war' or watch war movies when he was in the house and I never really understood why at the time.
But he loved to watch Hogan's Heroes. I guess making fun of the war without showing any violence was OK...
He died before I was old enough to really talk to him about all of this, but after my grandmother died and we were cleaning out their house we found a lot of military paraphernalia and my mother told me about his 'role' in the war.
The London Blitz
The Blitz, as we have witnessed from this entry, wreaked havoc on a massive scale and in the midst of all this devastation it is all too easy to lose sight of the private tragedy it can entail.
My Grandpa passed away last year but he had a few good stories about the blitz.
He was a chemist in East London, and so obviously had to deal with a fair bit of rationing. Anyway, one day at the end of his opening hours he got a delivery of Brylcreem (the sticky stuff that men used to use to slick back their hair). He stacked it up in the shop and went off home, mentioning to a few people he passed that the Brylcreem had arrived. The next day he pitched up for work as usual to find that word of mouth had done the rounds - there was a queue stretching from outside his shop, down the street and round the block. Just shows the funny things that people will crave after...
The other story he used to like to tell was of the time he got the last ever letter from his local postman. One morning he met the postman as he was leaving for work, got a letter from him and then headed off towards his shop. Shortly afterwards he heard an explosion from a little further away. He later learnt that the explosion had been a bomb falling on the local postie, and the letter that my Grandpa had got was probably the last the unfortunate chap ever delivered.
No 151 Repair Unit (Aircraft), Wevelgem, Belgium
In September 1944, three Queen Mary lorries, each loaded with an aircraft engine test bench, and a Hillman Utility loaded with emergency rations, arrived at Wevelgem Airfield, near Brussels in Belgium. This was an advance party from No 151 Repair Unit (Aircraft), a detachment of the 2nd Tactical Air Force.
Wevelgem itself had had a pedigree flying history, having been used by German flying ace Baron Von Richthofen during WWI, and from 1942 by the 'Top Guns of the Luftwaffe', the JG26, under the jurisdiction of legendary Jagdgeschwader General, Adolph Galland.
But in 1944, Wevelgem was back under allied control. By the time the main unit of the No 151 Repair Unit (Aircraft) arrived in October 1944, the advance party had already established three aircraft engine test benches in position and ready for work. Eventually, there were six benches;
- The two for the Merlins
- One for Wright-Cyclones
- One for a Pratt and Witney Twin Wasp
- One for a Lycoming
- One for Griffon engines (for the Spitfires of 610 Squadron)
In addition, a Hawker Typhoon EJ693 was adapted by 151 RU (Repair Unit) as a test bench for Napier Sabre engines. Standard propellers were used with a depression box to take the engines up to their rated altitudes. Notably, this was the only engine test bench facility in the 2nd Tactical Air Force and played a vital role in keeping the aircraft flying. And from the first engine test in November 1944, the two Merlin benches worked three shifts a day, day-in, day-out, until beyond VE Day (8 May, 1945).
Harry Jacobson, who formed part of the advance party arriving at Wevelgem from RAF Odiham in September 1944, revisited Wevelgem Cemetery on 18 May, 1997, laying there a wreath to commemorate those who lost their lives during WWII. Over 2000 RAF and Commonwealth aircrew are buried in Belgium, some of whom share the same Flanders soil as their relatives who died in 1914-18.
Snaefell Disaster, Isle of Man
At around 11:25am on 1 January, 1940, an RAF 7 Squadron Handley Page Hampden P12602 on a navigational exercise from its base at Upper Heyford struck, in bad weather, the mist-shrouded summit of Snaefell, at 2036ft - the highest point on Britain's Isle of Man.
And as the rapidly disintegrating aircraft bounced down the mountainside, one member of crew, Cpl Ted Brightmore, was miraculously tossed out before the aircraft exploded.
I remember a terrific thump and tearing sound, being drenched in petrol, a big explosion, rolling into some snow which must have put out my personal fire and saved my life.
- Cpl Ted Brightmore (in a 1990 letter to Harry Jacobson)
After badly-burned Corporal Brightmore struggled in the snow, eventually reaching the farmhouse home of Mrs Jessie Cottier some two miles away, a search and rescue party from Isle of Man airbase, RAF Jurby, including Harry Jacobson, was mobilised to find the downed aircraft. With the assistance of the same Mrs Cottier, who directed the rescue party, the party were able to locate the wreckage of the bomber, which was strewn across the mountainside, and where they found the charred bodies of the three crewmen who had not survived the crash:
- P/O Horace McGregor - Pilot
- Sgt. Thomas Dennis - Navigator
- Sgt. Robert Bailey - Navigator U/T
Some weeks later, while Harry Jacobson was recuperating in the camp sick bay from the pneumonia he had contracted that night3, Ted Brightmore was brought in and placed in the next bed.
This badly burned airman was put in the bed next to me. I watched the orderlies dress his hands with vaseline gloves every two hours. We both left hospital on the same date. He had his mother with him and that is the last I saw of him.
- Harry Jacobson, 1995
But then, as a result of Brightmore's 1990 letter to Harry, the pair met again 55 years later, in 1995, when together they paid a visit to Snaefell where remarkably they were also able to meet again with Jessie Cottier, then 92 years-old. The Director of Snaefell Mountain Railway gave permission for the train to stop near the summit, where they laid a wreath and where pieces of the aircraft had remained to that day.
A Tramp in Gloucester...
When I lived in Gloucester (in the mid-80s) there was a tramp who lived on the street. He seemed a cheerful enough fellow always ready with a drunken smile. He always had a milk bottle with tea in it and a bottle of whisky. I felt sad for the guy (as you do) but it was only after his story appeared in the local paper that I always ensured I said 'Hi'. He never begged and just sat on the street.
He had a council flat, his pension etc... there was no need for him to live on the street. Basically he'd been one of the British soldiers caught, and mistreated, by the Japanese. His experiences left him claustrophobic which is why he lived where he lived. It brought home to me Churchill's 'Never has so much been owed by so many, to so few'.