Category Archives: Wartime memories

A curmudgeonly accountant records…

George Taylor – described as a curmudgeonly accountant from Sheffield records on Monday 22nd July 1946:

‘As I am saving up current Readers Union books for my holidays I have been looking over old issues.  It is only last November that I read the anthology ‘This Changing World’ and I was astonished at how little detail I remembered.  I think the political trends in the book dismayed me even more than in November.  I, for one, do not wish to live in a world where everything is planned: I would much rather have liberty to make a fool of myself than become an ideal citizen by regulation.’

An extract from ‘Our Hidden Lives’ by Simon Garfield – published by Ebury Press in 2004

Post-war Britain in 1947

On Wednesday 2nd July 1947 Edie Rutherford – a South African housewife and Socialist now living in Sheffield, England – recorded in her Mass Observation diary:

Chinese laundry near here has a new notice up, ‘a few customers taken in.’

She also recorded that:
‘Today, for the first time for years, I opened the door to a  ‘Will you buy something from a disabled ex-serviceman?’ man and he opened his case with alacrity.      He seemed to have nothing I wanted, but, as I have done door-to-door selling, I always buy if I can. So I took two pairs shoelaces and bodkin, 10d the lot.
He then offered me elastic but, as I have enough just now, I declined with thanks. He was young and looked fit enough. One had hopes that this kind of thing would not follow the war this time.
Husband has sent to Selfridges for sports coat advertised at 48/-. Prices here around are £5 for a coat worth buying, and thirteen coupons.

It will take many years for Britain to recover from the conflict – but they would succeed.

The day Pegasus delivered a bridge

One of the great films of my time is the 1955 story of ‘The Dam Busters’ – a British 2nd World War film that starred Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. The film recreates the true story of 1943 when the RAF’s 617 Squadron attacked 3 German dams with Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb.  What is rarely mentioned though is Richard Todd’s involvement in the war itself.  He had volunteered the day after the conflict had begun and, in May 1943, was posted into the 6th Airborne Division.  He later admitted that he had kept his pre-war job as an actor a secret because he wanted to do useful things in the war itself rather than being transferred to ENSA.

His first practice jumps were from moored balloons but he was soon doing practice jumps from Whitley bombers.  This training was the lead-up to parachute jumps into enemy territory – and this became fact for Richard on D-Day Tuesday 6th June 1944.

It was on that day that Richard Todd – and a great many more – dropped into Normandy to help change the course of the war.  He and many others were there to defend a bascule/moveable bridge built in 1934 that crossed the Caen Canal between Caen and Ouistreham in Normandy and was a major objective of the British airborne troops during Operation Deadstick.

On the night of Monday 5th June 1944, a force of almost 200 men, led by Major John Howard, took off from an airfield in southern England in six gliders to capture not just this vital bridge but also “Horsa Bridge”, a few hundred yards to the east, over the Orne River. They were to land, take the bridges intact and hold them until relieved. The attack was successful and played an important role in limiting the effectiveness of counter-attacks in the days and weeks that followed.

It was following the success of D-Day – Tuesday 6th June 1944 – that this whole successful attack was renamed Pegasus Bridge in honour of the operation – the name being derived from the shoulder emblem worn by the British airborne forces – the flying horse of mythology Pegasus.

Evacuate and fight another day

On Monday 27th May – the first full day of the evacuation – one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active and Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards seeking small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour.

In this same day the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations.  Water supplies were knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished and an estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town.

In the air the Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on Monday 27th May while losing 14 of their own aircraft. Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo.

The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

The Challenge begins

On Saturday 25th May 1940, the Luftwaffe focused their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens.  They did not attack Dunkirk.
Calais was held by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and surrendered on Sunday 26th May. 

On that same Sunday 26th May 1940, at 15:30, Hitler ordered the Panzer groups to continue their advance, but most units took another 16 hours to attack. The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defenses vital for the evacuation and prevented the Germans from stopping the Allied retreat from Lille.  The Halt Order has been the subject of much discussion by historians, many of whom considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. Another called it “one of the great turning points of the war”, and a third described it as “one of Hitler’s most critical mistakes”. Hitler himself believed that once Britain’s troops left Europe, they would never return.  The retreat itself was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction.

Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicized. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on Sunday 26th May, which was declared a national day of prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers “for our soldiers in dire peril in France”. Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.

It was just before 7 pm on Sunday 26th May that Winston Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation code-named also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk – to begin.   Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation.  As it turned out only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day.

The Dunkirk attack begins

On Friday 24th May 1940 Hitler paid a visit to Army Group A headquarters and endorsed the order of the previous day.

The German forces had captured the port of Boulogne and had now surrounded Calais. The engineers of the 2nd Panzer Division had built five bridges over the Canal Line and only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk.

Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe (aided by Army Group B) finish off the British, to the consternation of Franz Halder, who noted in his diary that the Luftwaffe was dependent upon the weather and air crews were worn out after two weeks of battle. Rundstedt issued another order.  That was sent un-coded and was picked up by the RAF at 12:42: “By order of the Fuhrer … attack north-west of Arras is to be limited to the general line Lens-Bethune-Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. The Canal will not be crossed.”

Later that day, Hitler issued Directive 13, which called for the Luftwaffe to defeat the trapped Allied forces and stop their escape.

Franz Halder was a German general and the chief of the Army High Command from 1938 until September 1942, when he was dismissed after frequent disagreements with Adolf Hitler. Until December 1941 his military position corresponded to the old Chief of the General Staff position, which during World War 1 had been the highest military office in the German Imperial Army.

The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk 1940

The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk in the 2nd World War is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.  Over the next few days I want to tell you the story. 

Our story begins on Thursday 23rd May 1940 when the German Field Marshal Karl Rundstedt ordered his Panzer units to halt, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the question of supply to his forward troops.

He was also concerned that the marshy ground around Dunkirk would prove unsuitable for tanks and he wished to conserve them for later operations.  Even so, in some units, some 30 to 50 percent of his tanks were lost.  Hitler was also recorded as being apprehensive.

None-the-less – a dye was cast.

It’s Monday 21st May 1917 and Nellie Lant has to write an essay on Allotments

She writes:

One of the most patriotic a man can do in the present crisis is to work on an allotment. It is wonderful to see the amount of land now being cultivated, which in prewar days was used for pleasure or wasted.
The allotment holder has one great advantage over other men, this great advantage is health.  Health is a precious jewel nowadays, a man who has health is far more able to be of use to the country, if he has such a belonging, than a man who has not.
At the bottom of my garden there is an allotment, and every evening I watch the men, and even their wives busy working, resembling bees in their activity.  The man who before the war used to get up just in time to hurry to his work, now gets up about five o’clock in the morning.

I think that allotments are one of the greatest boons of the war.

I think this young lady will go far.

A Snippet from 5th May

30 years ago, on Tuesday 5th May 1987 saw the death of Wing Commander Robert Roland Stanford-Tuck – one of Britain’s greatest fighter piolets of the Second World War conflict.  Born on the 1st July 1916 in London, England he became one of the highest-scoring fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain, having taken over the leadership of 257 (Hurricane) Squadron at the height of the battle in 1940.

After leaving school he joined the Merchant Navy before moving to the Royal Air Force in 1935.  He gained his Wings in 1936.  When the 2nd World War broke out he was with 92 Spitfire Squadron, bringing 8 enemy aircraft over Dunkirk.  He later moved to 257 Squadron and built up its morale to make it a powerful force in the Battle of Britain.  He went on to become a Wing Commander flying out of RAF Biggin Hill.  He was forced to bail out several times during operations and was captured in 1942 after crash-landing in occupied territory.  He escaped – on his third attempt – in 1945, returning to England. He retired in 1949.

The above is based on text from the 1988 Britannica Book of the Year.
In 1956 a biography of Stanford-Tuck, ‘Fly for Your Life’, was published.
Other stories can be found on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Stanford_Tuck  and http://www.historynet.com/robert-stanford-tuck-world-war-ii-raf-ace-pilot.htm

Buster Crabb and a note of his past

It is interesting how one thing can lead to another – and that the ‘other’ can be in the past rather than the present.

On Wednesday 19th April I posted the first part of the Buster Crabb story and promised that the next step would appear on Saturday 29th April.  That promise remains – however I’ve found a few bits about his past that we may find significant in the present.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Buster was an army gunner.  However, in 1941 he joined the Royal Navy and went to Gibraltar where he worked in a mine and bomb disposal unit.  This involved the removal of Italian limpet mines that enemy divers had attached to the hulls of Allied ships!

On Tuesday 8th December 1942, during one attack, two of the Italian frogmen died, probably killed by depth charges. Their bodies were recovered, and their swim-fins and Scuba sets were taken and used by Commander Lionel Crabb and a colleague. Lionel was awarded the George Medal for his efforts and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander.

In 1943 he became the Principal Diving Officer for Northern Italy and was assigned to clear mines in the ports of Livorno and Venice.  He was later given an OBE for these services. By this time he had gained the nickname “Buster”, after an American actor and swimmer Buster Crabbe.

After the war Buster was stationed in Palestine leading an underwater explosives disposal team removing mines placed by Jewish divers during the years of Mandatory Palestine. (see note below)

Buster was demobbed in 1947 and moved to a civilian job where he could use his wartime skills. He explored the wreck of a Spanish Armada galleon near the Isle of Mull and then located a suitable site for a discharge pipe for the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. He later returned to work for the Royal Navy and twice dived to investigate sunken Royal Navy submarines.

In early 1955 he and frogman Sydney Knowles went to investigate the hull of the Soviet cruiser ‘Sverdlov’.  They were going to evaluate its superior manoeuvrability and, according to Knowles, they found a circular opening at the ship’s bow and inside it a large propeller that could be directed to give thrust to the bow. In March 1955 Buster was made to retire due to his age.

By this point his heavy drinking and smoking had taken its toll on his health, and he was not the diver that he had been in World War II. But a year later he was recruited by MI6!

NOTE
This was an area that was treated as a geopolitical entity under British administration having been carved out of Ottoman Southern Syria after the First World War.  The British civil administration in Palestine operated from 1920 to 1948. During its existence the territory was known simply as Palestine, but, in later years, a variety of other names and descriptors have been used, including Mandatory or Mandate Palestine, the British Mandate of Palestine and British Palestine.