Chapter 17 (1944-1945)

The End in Sight

The Baedekker Raids
One advantage of living in London was that I could catch a train easily to Bath to see Freda and we had several very pleasant weekends in this most elegant of cities, although it had  been sadly damaged in German “Baedeker” raids earlier in the war. The Baedeker Raids, named after the famous German travel guides, targeted historic towns in Britain and were a reprisal for the RAF bombing of Lübeck and other historic towns in Germany in early 1942.

Art.IWM ART LD 3052 (Bath)

Fire Blitz on Bath 1942, by Wilfred Haines (Imperial War Museum)
Read about the Baedeker Raids in Wikipedia(Opens in a new window)

At the very beginning of the war, most of the Admiralty’s technical departments had been evacuated to sites on the outskirts of Bath and have in fact remained there ever since. Freda worked at the Empire Hotel, an imposing Victorian building which still graces the centre of the city. From Bath, we could also reach Cardiff quite easily and we had a week's leave at her mother's bungalow at Rhiwbina. Then, towards the end of March, I was sent for by the Divisional Officer for the Naval students at the College, who curtly conveyed to my incredulous ears that the Admiralty had recalled me from the Navy. I was to be returned to civilian life at once and to report to an office in Whitehall. “I’ve got my ticket”, I gasped to the other students, using the traditional expression for being released from the Navy. They gazed at me with envy and frank disbelief. But true it was, and a week later I was back at home for good, with a warrant to purchase a complete outfit of civilian clothes.

The end of the war was now clearly in sight and the Admiralty were preparing to demobilise thousands of Naval personnel and send them back to civilian life. In many ways this was much more complicated than the original call-up. I and several others were hauled back to help organise it. I duly reported to the Amiralty in Whitehall, as I had done in 1939, and the feeling of starting out on life again flashed back momentarily. But the reality was so different - dingy streets and buildings sadly needing repair; people with worn, tired faces and clothes to match; and many empty, roped-off spaces and rubble where famous buildings had been. And in the Admiralty itself there was frantic activity in dirty, dusty offices. Yet the people clearly had the bearing of victors in a desperate struggle and were impatient to see it ended.


Bombsites and damaged buildings

Back to “Civvie Street”
I spent a few weeks doing simple clerical work, presumably to allow me to adjust, but was then sent to a Branch dealing with detailed legislation and arrangements for what was called "release and resettlement" of Naval personnel, as the personal assistant to a young man called Richard - later Sir Richard - Griffiths. It was my first acquaintance with the brilliant, dedicated administrators who formed the core of the British Civil Service at the seat of Government. I have since worked with many of them; it is a fortunate, and rare, country which has such people.

From my days on signals distribution, I knew a lot about the structure of the Admiralty organisation; but just how the enormous and complicated machine actually did its work was a closed book. There was so much to learn and so much to do, but I leapt into it vigorously. The system of placing an incoming letter in a flimsy cover called a "docket", wherein it was circulated round various Branches for their comments, was designed to ensure that every aspect was properly considered. It also could result in non-operational correspondence taking time to result in any visible action, which in pre-war days did not matter too much but was now quite unacceptable. But you cannot change the working methods of any large organisation overnight, any more than you can decide that a steam engine will from next week run on diesel power, and much of my time was devoted to trying to short-circuit the “usual channels” so that swift answers could be given to members of the public, whose letters now began to surge into the office as if someone had opened a floodgate.

My particular concern was with arrangements for repatriating the thousands of men from the Dominions, Colonies and many foreign countries who had joined the British Navy. There was still an enormous shortage of shipping and few of the complex pre-war ocean lines between countries all over the world remained. It would first be necessary to find what ships were going where and then have priority lists for those wanting to get on board. Understandably, most would be desperate to get home and it was a tricky business treating them all fairly.

Final Days of War in Europe
The war in Europe was now rapidly drawing to a close and on 28th April Benito Mussolini, the Italian Dictator who created Fascism and whose subjugation of Ethiopia exposed the weakness of the League of Nations and led Hitler to risk war, was executed by partisans. Then two days later, on 30th April, in the face of the Russians' conquest of the city, Hitler shot himself in his bunker in Berlin, together with his mistress - and for the last few days his wife - Eva Braun. On May 8th 1945 VE Day - Victory in Europe - was declared, after a war with Germany which had lasted 2,074 days.


The front page of the Daily Mail


Crowds in Trafalgar Square


and in Piccadilly Circus


People dancing in the street

The joy and relief cannot be expressed in words. The sky, for so long a source of danger, fear and sudden death, returned to the birds, the clouds, and to God. 


But as our troops swept deep into Germany they uncovered the concentration camps. It was like delving into an enormous, reeking cess-pit, and the ordinary man's hatred of the Germans, already inflamed by the war, became a deep and abiding loathing which took a generation to subside and even now remains in some people's minds in spite of the realisation that most of the German people really had no idea of the horrors perpetrated in their name.

The Lights Go On Again
On the evening of 7th May, the lights of London were switched on. First to appear was the light at the top of Big Ben, signifying that the House was sitting and that freedom had returned to Britain. Then all the street lights. Cautiously at first but then boldly, people removed black-out curtains, many of which had become part of the fixtures of their houses. I walked out of the house and into the street. It was quiet, no shouting, cheering crowds yet, just a few dazed people staring in disbelief at the fairyland of streets lit brightly after six years of rigidly enforced blackness, when a torch and batteries for it were almost as necessary as food.

Red phone box

Sharp and clear in my mind to this day is the sight of the telephone boxes, whose humble little bulbs had remained dead and neglected for six whole years yet who now sprang into glorious life, unharmed and ready to proclaim the world's return to sanity. How different from their fate a generation or so later, when they would be stolen or smashed for fun together with the instruments they illuminated.

The Windjammers Swingtette
In the next road lived a school-friend of mine called Bruce Cowles, who played the saxophone. He was keen to start a dance band and suggested we place an advertisment in the local paper for like minded musicians. This was answered by three young men of our own age, also ex-servicemen - Ron Biggs, who played the piano, Freddie Lockhart on drums and Johnnie Austin on trumpet. 

Together we formed a group calling ourselves the Windjammers Swingtette. One of our first assignments was to play at a street party somewhere near Brixton to celebrate VE Day. As I recall, it was bitterly cold in spite of the month, and our fingers would hardly move. We were joined by another pianist, Doug Broadhurst, on release from the Army. I had already played my guitar in numerous Navy messes and even for the odd dance, but now began my “semi-professional” musical career, as part-time musicians were pleased to call themselves.


The Windjammers Swingtette
Left to right: Ralph Smith, Freddy Lockhart, Johnnie Austin, Ron Biggs, Doug Broadhurst.

Somewhere to Live
Freda was now pregnant and it became imperative to find some where to live and get her back to London. Accommodation, which during the air raids had often been available for a song, suddenly became like golddust and prices rocketed accordingly. By a stroke of luck, I obtained a furnished room over the garage of a large house in Namton Close, a select cul-de-sac near Leander Road. It was quite large and was adequate for our needs. The problem was the rent, which was two pounds ten shillings a week, or £2.50 today. My salary was £17.10s.0d a month (£17.50), which meant that in a five-week month there was very little surplus for food or travel. However, there was nothing to be done about it. Freda had to resign from the Civil Service but she came back to London and we spent four very happy months in our own home. She managed to obtain temporary work with the Admiralty for a short time, which helped our finances, and fortunately I had been entitled to receive part of my civilian pay while I was in the Navy, as a consequence of my having sneaked into permanent employment just three months before war broke out. This, though small, had accumulated to a few hundred pounds, to which was added something called Post War Credits, a small and mysterious sum, incomprehensibly calculated, which the Government had promised people in recompense for the heavy taxation they suffered during the war. As a sailor, I was also entitled to Prize Money, based on the value of ships captured or salvaged during the war and shared out among the whole Navy - a relic of the laws of a nation of pirates and seafarers (i.e ourselves, the British!) who for centuries had seized or looted their enemies' ships. It amounted to very little but these modest nest-eggs together with my occasional band earnings, enabled us to live then and in the following years, though Freda was at one time reduced to selling a gold and ruby bracelet which she had inherited from her grandmother.

The Far East War Suddenly Ends
Meanwhile in the Far East the war dragged on and although it was clear that Japan would be beaten, the cost of invading their homeland would inevitably be enormous - it was estimated at half a million Allied lives and countless Japanese. The Russians reckoned they had suffered about 100,000 casualties subduing an utterly devastated Berlin between the 16th April and the 2nd May 1945, so it was estimated that the fanatical Japanese would take many more months to overcome.


Their spirit was demonstrated by the attacks on Allied war ships by Kamikaze or suicide pilots who fearlessly flew their planes, laden with high explosive, straight into the bridge or deck of the largest warship they could find.

But on 6th August 1945 an American plane dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another on Nagasaki on 9th August. The effect of this unbelievably awful weapon and the threat of its further use were enough for the Japanese Government and on 15th August 1945 they gave in. The official Japanese surrender took place on the American Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2nd September 1945. A message from the US Naval Commander-in-Chief read “The war with Japan will end at 1200 on 15th August. It is likely that Kamikazes will attack the Fleet after this time as a final fling. Any ex-enemy plane attacking the Fleet is to be shot down in a friendly manner”.


Hiroshima - devastation a month after the Atomic Bomb
and the mushroom cloud that formed when it fell.

Bombing - Rights and Wrongs
There has been much criticism of both the conventional bombing of German cities and dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. The former was certainly seen, with hindsight, as an inefficient way to use the masses of material and young lives which it cost, since it left large areas of German production unscathed and - as the British ought to have known - did not lead the civilian population to demand an end to the war. On the other hand, horrible though it seems today, it was immensely important to British morale at the time and, speaking as one who lived through those terrible days, I can say that no amount of pious argument would have affected the British people's determination to hit back at Germany in any way possible. There is also the plausible view (which my parents' generation took) that German readiness to enter a second war had been encouraged by the fact that their territory escaped almost untouched in the First World War - a view which History seems to have confirmed. From a practical viewpoint, the anti-bombing argument also invariably omits the immense effort the Germans had to put into anti-aircraft defence, estimated at a million men and countless guns, shells and planes. These could have crucially improved the Germans' ability to subdue the Russians during the many long months of finely balanced struggle, and Albert Shearer, the German munitions minister, later described the British bombing campaign as equivalent to a second front. As to Japan, one can only say to critics "You were not there; your life was not at risk". The atomic bomb unquestionably saved untold thousands of lives, including innumerable prisoners of war in Japanese hands who were destined to be massacred as their captors retreated. The father of my future daughter-in-law was one of these, and had already prepared to dig his own grave. Although just one bomb was said to have killed or injured some 100,000 Japanese, one must realise that conventional war can be just as horrifying and in fact 1,000,000 people are said to have died during the two-year German siege of Leningrad - ten times as many as at Hiroshima.

The Official End - and a General Election
Thus officially ended the Second World War, exactly six years after it began on 3rd September 1939. I, who had entered it virtually a schoolboy, emerged fatherless, with a wife and shortly a child, having lived through experiences which I had never dreamed of, though fortunately without a scratch. Not so some of my friends - Martin Matthews, Peter Charman, John Heap, Wilf Jacques and several others died in the RAF or Fleet Air Arm. A schoolmate from the “B” Form, Charles Taylor, survived no less than 44 missions over Germany when the normal life of an Air Gunner was measured in weeks, but was finally shot down on his 45th. 

Britain suffered around 500,000 military and civilian casualties compared with millions of Germans and Russians who perished. I doubt if historians will ever really know why Hitler invaded Russia when he did instead of first finishing off Britain. Or why the Japanese took on the might of the USA at Pearl Harbor instead of falling upon a Russia already on the brink of defeat. Or why – and how –when virtually all of Europe was under German domination, General Franco of Spain kept the Iberian peninsular free and neutral, leaving Britain controlling Gibraltar and ultimately the Mediterranean. But these incredible and totally unexpected events meant that I and many of my countrymen lived while so many others died. Freda and I were still only 23 years old in 1945 and laughter came easily to us. Life had got to be good from now on and we set about making the most of it.


Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill photographed together in 1943

America and Britain had both been blessed with leaders of great genius and perception, truly outstanding men with gifts which seemed to have been timed by Providence to appear at their countries' time of greatest need. Franklin D. Roosevelt, stricken by polio as a young man and desperately ill through most of his last years, dragged his country out of the Great Depression of the 1930s and master-minded the U.S. victories in Europe and the Far East. He died on 12 April 1945, less than a month before the war in Europe ended. He was succeeded by his Vice President, Harry Truman, who also proved to be a courageous leader and on whose shoulders fell the ultimate awful decision to drop the atomic bomb. For our part, Winston Churchill, the maverick who unexpectedly became the nation's leader in his 60s, forced his countrymen into determined and unshakeable resistance by the sheer strength of his personality and character.

In Britain, Churchill called a general election in July 1945, even before the war with Japan was over, and the coalition Government of all Parties which had served us so well during the war was disbanded. It was replaced by a Labour Government under Clement Attlee, who had been Deputy Prime Minister throughout the war and now replaced Churchill as Prime Minister. Joseph Stalin, the Dictator of Soviet Russia, alone remained of the three giants of the war years, sucking his pipe and utterly bewildered by the strange workings of democracy. He immediately set about turning the situation to his own advantage - but of that the ordinary British citizen then knew little and cared less.

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