Chapter 10 (1941-1942)

The War at Sea

The Home Front and Rationing
My romance with Freda Power flourished mightily and we saw as much of each other as possible. She had a room with a delightful family called Hewitt at 23 Selincourt Road, Tooting. Her older brother, Reg, also had digs there for a short time. He had been a merchant seaman for many years but had failed his master's certificate through slight colour-blindness and now had a shore job, a fact which caused him great disappointment but which probably saved his life. I was a frequent visitor and enjoyed the cheery fellowship of Mr and Mrs Hewitt, their two daughters and a fellow lodger called Billy. The food ration had now shrunk to incredibly small proportions. Here are one week's rations per person:-

  • Meat 8 ounces or 250gm
  • Butter 2 ounces or 50gm
  • Bacon 4 ounces or 100gm
  • Sugar 8 ounces or 250gm
  • Cheese 1 ounce or 25gm
  • Tea 2 ounces or 50gm
  • Fat 6 ounces or 150gm
  • Jam 2 ounces or 50gm
  • Eggs 1 (if you could get it)

Bread, a dirty brown colour but quite wholesome though it would be stale the next day, was unrationed throughout the war. Likewise vegetables, though there were only just enough to go round in the cities and it was necessary to queue for them. Fish and offal (ie liver, heart, kidneys etc) were also unrationed but hard to get. The ration book contained "points" - coupons which could be used for small quantities of tinned food, mostly fruit, which were available when supplies survived the perilous ocean crossing. Meals in restaurants and canteens, however, somehow remained unrationed and although often of slight calorific value, eked out the supplies of those who had access to them. At a fairly late stage the Government established Civic Restaurants in most towns, where a reasonable meal could be had quite cheaply. Throughout the war, those who had some access to food, notably shopkeepers or people who lived in a farming area, could live passably well, but for everyone there were unexpected shortages. Most fresh fruit disappeared quite soon and so, oddly, did the humble onion. It is surprising how dull almost any dish becomes without one and "onion essence" was sold as a very inadequate substitute.

Larger families managed better than single persons because of the inevitable waste in preparing and keeping food. The elder of the Hewitt girls liked to take her whole week's sugar ration in two or three cups of deliciously sweet tea, after which she would just go without. The other residents looked askance at this, fearing that she would somehow get some of their own ration. Food was a constant subject of conversation and suspicion, especially shopkeepers' practice of keeping things "under the counter" for favoured customers. Cigarettes and tobacco were not rationed as such but were frequently in very short supply and shopkeepers invariably kept them for "regular customers". How to become a regular customer when one had just arrived in a district presented a distinct challenge; in a world where the majority of the population was in some measure addicted to them, cigarettes became a currency comparable with gold.

Clothes, bed linen and furniture were also on a points system. The Government created a "Utility" range for furniture on points, which was pleasingly designed and well made. It came in just light oak and dark oak, and examples are still to be found in people's spare rooms. Other furniture could still be bought legally but was shoddy and outrageously priced because manufacturers had no allowance of wood for it and used anything they could lay their hands on. But all in all, the rationing system in Britain was remarkably simple and well planned; it operated fairly and was universally accepted as such in spite of the grumbles.

Digging for Victory
My mother and I remained with Vera and Reg at 30 Glendor Gardens in Mill Hill for some time. Reg Prior was just over the age for call-up but attended his Home Guard duties diligently. Vera decided to keep chickens at the end of the garden to eke out the food ration and under the slogan "Dig for Victory" everyone with the minutest piece of land was encouraged to grow vegetables. To complete the desecration of their small garden, an air raid shelter was dug in the middle of it, to which we would all repair when the sirens sounded. Mill Hill was at the northern edge of London and not regularly bombed, but the railway lines presented an attractive target and a bomber who had lost his way would cheerfully drop his load on the offchance of hitting something. One bomb actually fell in daylight in the garden of a house on the opposite side of Glendor Gardens but fortunately the soil was soft and it did little damage apart from making a colossal hole. The plane was low and obviously lost, and some people reckoned they could see the pilot quite clearly. In these circumstances we soon realised what a burden we placed on Vera and Reg, and early in 1942 we obtained rooms in the upstairs part of a house immediately opposite, where we lived in tolerable comfort.

A Momentous Visit
Around Easter time Freda invited me to meet her family in Cardiff. The long train journey was an unfamiliar and exciting experience for me, involving passing through the tunnel under the Severn Extuary between England and Wales, in those days still a heroic struggle for the huge engine, which would pause outside the tunnel entrance to build up a massive head of steam before descending with a hideous shriek into the darkness. The lowest point would be felt by a change of level, after which the train would puff and pant ever more slowly upwards, bursting into daylight with an audible sigh of relief.

It was a momentous visit in many ways. Freda's mother lived in a delightful bungalow at 7 Glanrhyd, Rhiwbina, initially unpronounceable by me. I met her brother Reg again, who had moved there from London, together with her younger brother Peter, then studying at Cardiff Technical College. But her parents had separated some years previously and her father now lived in a pleasant flat overlooking Roath Park, where I met him and was very graciously received. He was a striking man, polished, cultured and assured though, as I later discovered, having had little formal education. It was a wonderful holiday and during the course of it I proposed to her at a headland called Lavernock overlooking the Bristol Channel, and was accepted. I was 19 and she 20, a fact conveniently overlooked when we later advised children and grandchildren on the unwisdom of too early marriage.

However, two days later we were all shaken by the dreadful news that Freda's father had had a massive heart attack and had died; he was just 54. We returned to London with very mixed feelings. Marriage could not be contemplated immediately but we went to Samuels the Jewellers at Parsons Green near Putney and bought a sapphire and diamond engagement ring.

The World in an Iron Grip
The war situation now appeared very grim. The Germans had failed to capture Moscow in 1941 as they had planned and had suffered heavy losses in the appalling cold of the Russian winter, for which they were unprepared. However, they had now recovered and had launched a huge attack on the Ukraine and Southern Russia which would take them to the shores of the Caspian Sea. In this vast area they confidently expected to find unlimited food and oil for their war machine, though in the event the Russians exercised a ruthless "scorched earth" policy which left only ruin and devastation. The Germans now held Western Europe in an iron grip from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to Turkey. 

In the East, the Japanese swept across thousands of miles of Asia and the Pacific and down to the northern part of New Guinea. Horrific tales of both German and Japanese brutality filled our newspapers - not only true but often under-stated, as we later found - and some women in Britain thought seriously for the first time of carrying weapons to defend themselves against ruthless conquerors.

But three things happened which, though we did not know it at the time, marked the end of the Japanese conquests. The first of these was the battle of the Coral Sea, in which the American Fleet, though suffering severe losses, prevented a Japanese invasion force from landing at Port Moresby in southern New Guinea, from where it would have been a short leap to an Australia whose defensive ability was severely diminished by her loyal gift of troops to reinforce the British armies in the Middle East and Singapore. The second was the Battle of Midway - as its name implies, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - which was fought entirely by aircraft flying from ships which never actually saw each other. Midway has been likened to Trafalgar in its importance to world history, yet there is no monument to its winner, Admiral Ray Spruance USN, and few people now even know his name. A combination of brilliant deduction and good fortune on his part and over-confidence and muddle by the superior Japanese force left the Japanese Navy with its four newest and most powerful aircraft carriers at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, together with their priceless aircrews. Though the struggle to defeat Japan would continue for three more desperate years and her Navy remained formidable, she never recovered from this loss and from that moment was pushed inexorably onto the defensive.

By a remarkable chance of Fate the American aircraft carriers which achieved these victories at sea had been on exercises when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. They would otherwise certainly have been destroyed at their moorings, leaving nothing to prevent the Japanese Empire swiftly extending from Manchuria to Australia and preventing the third dramatic event - the first-ever defeat of the Japanese on land at Papua, New Guinea, by Australian troops, who man-handled their guns over enormous jungle-clad mountains to confront the enemy.

Convoys to Malta and Russia
In the West, the war at sea became even fiercer as we tried desperately to keep the convoys safe against more numerous and better equipped U-Boats. In the Mediterranean, it was vital to keep Malta alive and the story of the Malta convoys has been told many times. Our losses were horrific. The net conclusion of most of the convoys was several warships and merchantmen at the bottom of the sea with just one or two battered survivors arriving at Malta with supplies, sometimes then immediately being damaged further by bombs from German and Italian aircraft based in Sicily. 

As soon as Russia was invaded, British Communists changed their tune and kept up a constant campaign for an Allied invasion of Western Europe to relieve the pressure on their comrades and paymasters, regardless of the huge losses their fellow-countrymen would suffer in a premature assault on a strongly-defended coastline. Railway bridges, walls and hoardings were daubed with the slogan "Second Front Now", examples of which can still occasionally be found on derelict or inaccessible surfaces. Churchill resisted the pressure but we did go to enormous lengths to convey masses of guns, planes and equipment to Russia, by sea through the Arctic Ocean to the port of Archangel and by road through the baking heat of Palestine, Iraq and Iran, all of which vast area was under British control.

The Arctic convoys were plain hell. In addition to terrifying cold, gales and mountainous seas, the ships faced constant attack from German submarines, aircraft and surface warships operating from Norway. Losses of ships and men were enormous with hardly any chance of survival in the sea even if picked up within minutes. One convoy, PQ17, lost 27 ships - almost the entire convoy - due to a tragically wrong order from the Admiralty. In later years I would invite young people to gaze at the wireless aeriels draped from the Admiralty's towers and tell them that from those thin wires went the signal to PQ17, hundreds of miles away in the darkness of the Arctic Ocean, containing the single word "Scatter". The convoy broke up and thereby lost what meagre self-protection the ships and their escorts could offer one another. All became easy meat for the prowling submarines and aircraft. A tragic error by someone.

Cycling to Wales
That summer, Freda and I decided we would cycle to Cardiff. Our leave consisted of three weeks in the whole year and there was no question of a seaside holiday on the South Coast: beaches were mined or covered with barbed wire and tank traps. Her home in Rhiwbina, however, adjoined beautiful countryside and there were cliff walks from which one could see the sea and the convoys assembling in Barry Roads. We were not exactly fit for an epic journey of this kind and after staying the night at Calne we weakly boarded a train which took us to Newport, whence we completed the last few miles. We were even more feeble on the return journey and took the train from Cardiff to Didcot. But it was a super holiday, and we needed it. On my return I was invited to undertake a one-day fire-fighting course by the London Fire Brigade. This was a revelation. I learnt how to lean on a powerful hose, or "branch" as the firemen called it, to avoid being hurled off the ladder when water pressure was applied; and also how to enter and leave a smoke-filled room by crawling on my stomach along the floor, and how to drop into a safety net without injury.

Back to Croydon
Shortly after this my mother and I became unsettled in our rooms in Mill Hill. The intense bombing had eased, although there were still sporadic raids on British cities. We decided that we would return to the Croydon area and after some searching found an upstairs flat in a pre-1914 house at 46 Leander Road in Thornton Heath, some distance from our old house in Berne Road and on the border with Norbury. We brought our furniture out of store and gazed at it with tearful nostalgia at the memories it evoked. We were much happier there. Mother got a job making tiny springs at a small engineering works and acquired a few cronies, while I was much nearer to Freda and no longer had to face tedious hours on the Northern Line in order to meet her in our scarce leisure time. I had disposed of the old motor cycle some months previously, having found that I rarely used it, but had kept my faithful school bicycle and could now travel to work on it if the weather was favourable. Otherwise I could go by bus from Leander Road direct to Whitehall.

On the hostilities front, one event in May caused both surprise and great cheer to the British people. The RAF launched a thousand bombers in a night attack on Cologne. We had no idea that Bomber Command could achieve this sort of operation, and such was the hatred generated by the air raids on Britain and the power of propaganda, it was universally regarded by the British as totally justified. Whatever historians and academics were later to say about moral justification, the bombing offensive against Germany was for years the only way the British could hit back directly, and it was increasingly endowed with an aura of Divine Retribution. The effect of the raid on British morale was quite enormous with sadly no thought for the victims.

El Alamein
On 21st June 1942 Tobruk fell to the Germans and into captivity went thousands of British soldiers. Cairo now appeared to be at Rommel's mercy and, if Hitler had given him the troops and support he needed, he might well have split the British Empire in half, and swept on to the Middle East oilfields which we and the USA then owned. The war would effectively have been over. However, Hitler was obsessed with the Russian campaign and his mind did not seem to run to the strategic importance of the Middle East.

Instead, Rommel outran his supply lines in the huge expanse of the North African desert and he paused in the face of a desperate British rearguard action at the tiny and hitherto unknown Egyptian village of El Alamein, not far from Cairo itself. The British meanwhile had been transporting men, tank, guns and planes thousands of miles by sea right round the continent of Africa and, under a dashing new Commander called Montgomery, were able to assemble a powerful counter-attack. The outcome, the Battle of Alamein on 23rd October 1942, saw the rout of the Afrika Korps and its pursuit back across the deserts of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia until, in May 1943, seventeen months after they first landed there, the German army was finally eliminated from North Africa. A crucial but little realised contribution to this victory was made by British submarines operating from Malta, which sank many of Rommel's vital supply ships. Only one submarine survived and after the war I worked briefly with an officer who served in it. Like most submariners I have met, he was a quiet, kindly, thoughtful, almost vague character whose deep penetrating eyes were the only sign that here was no ordinary man. Churchill wrote that a submarine commander was worth a million pounds to the country - a huge amount at that time.

Hitler’s Hopes Dashed
But the final blow to Hitler's hopes of world conquest came in December 1942 - I was drafted into the Armed Forces and entered the struggle against him. War Registry by now contained a large number of young men of military age. All were doing difficult and vitally important jobs and many of them wanted to get into the Forces; but only aircrew volunteers were allowed to leave. Owing to the curious manning system described earlier, these young people remained civilians. They could easily have been put into uniform, as happened in other Admiralty Departments, but this was not done. The Daily Mirror got wind of this and produced an article with the banner headline "Whitehall Funk Hole” implying that we were evading military service. With that courage for which bureaucrats are famed, the powers-that-be set about getting themselves off the hook. A committee was set up which concluded that all male members of staff born between certain dates should be released to the Armed Forces. The dates were chosen with such care that precisely six people out of a few hundred were actually called up. I was one of them.

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