Category Archives: Wartime memories

Wednesday 20th September and the Victoria Cross:

The Victoria Cross was introduced in Great Britain on Saturday 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria. Its ‘role’ was to reward acts of valour during the Crimean War. The VC takes precedence over all other Orders, Decorations and Medals and may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.  The first presentation ceremony was held on Thursday 26th June 1857 when Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in Hyde Park.

The Battle of the Alma took place just south of the River Alma and is usually considered the first battle of the Crimean War. It was on this day – Wednesday 20th September 1854 – at that Battle, that Edward Bell & Luke O’Conner of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and John Knox, William Reynolds (the first private to be awarded the VC), James McKechnie & Robert Lindsay of the Scots Fusiliers Guards each earned their Victoria Cross. All survived the war.

63 years later, on Wednesday 20th September 1917 Second Lieutenant Hugh Colvin of the 9th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiments won his VC during an attack east of Ypres in Belgium. He took command of two companies and led them forward under very heavy machine gun fire. He then went to assist a neighbouring battalion. In the process he cleared and captured a series of ‘troublesome’ dugouts and machine-gun posts, some on his own and some with his men’s assistance. He personally killed several of the enemy and forced others – about fifty in all – to surrender. His Victoria Cross citation concludes ‘Later he consolidated his position with great skill, and personally wired his front under close-ranged sniping in broad daylight, when all others had failed to do so. The complete success of the attack in this part of the line was mainly due to Second Lieut. Colvin’s leadership.

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A lady records a wartime scene in England’s conflict in 1941

Mrs Nella Last of Barrow-in-Furness was one of the many volunteer members across Britain of the Mass Observation Archive team – a community that had been set up in 1937 to observe British life by recording a day-to-day account of their everyday lives. These archives now give us a unique insight into the stories and experiences of British civilians going through a time when their country was at war.

This is from her diary for Saturday 13th September 1941 and Nella simply records seeing a child:

‘He was undersized, dirty, tousled and ragged. His poor little eyes were nearly closed with styes and when I touched his cheeks, his flesh had the soft, limp feeling of malnutrition.’

The war was having an impact on people no matter what their age.

War in England & Golf in America – two countries soon to be ‘playing together

On this day – Thursday 29th August 1940 – the Daily Sketch headlined: NAZIS RAID LONDON – AND 13 TOWNS.  The sub-headings said that ‘Mr. Churchill Sees Coast Battles’.  However, it was the ‘INSIDE INFORMATION’ piece that caught my eye.  The following are just three pieces from that information:

Many complaints are being made to the Minister of Home Security about the profiteering in the construction of brick-and-concrete bomb shelters.  Questions are to be asked when Parliament reassembles.

Anderson shelters are no longer obtainable.  Certain builders are taking advantage of this.  They are demanding – take it or leave it – from £30 to £50 for small family shelters which could be built at a profit of £20.

Frau Goebbels is becoming regal-minded.  She is going to Versailles to spend two weeks’ holiday at the Royal Palace.  A suite of rooms where once the King of France lived is being prepared for her.

 

The Sketch is not all ‘War Related’ though.  On page 10 we find the following ‘Caddie’s Nightmare’.  The caddie who carries the world’s heaviest golf bag is to get a rest.

Densmore Shute, American Ryder Cup golfer, has been rushed to hospital with appendicitis.
Denny’s bag was for long a caddies’ nightmare.  The heavyweight affair he had for the unofficial World Championship match with Henry Cotton at Walton Heath (UK) three years back was a fearful and wonderful thing.
It contained 20 clubs (6 woods & 14 irons), loads of golf balls, woollies, an outsize umbrella and golf shoes, and the victim, who I think used to carry the late Lord Lurgan’s clubs, estimated the weight at 50lb.
With the coming of the fourteen-club rule, Shute’s bag lost some corpulence, but I don’t think it’s true that his home caddy still offers to carry for both players when Shute goes out for a round.

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.