Chapter 7 (1939)


The outbreak of war was received with subdued emotions. My parents’ faces were miserable. Most people had hoped a miracle would happen but had realised that war was inevitable and were resigned to it. I suppose a few looked forward to a change in dull or tangled lives, but there was none of the euphoria which greeted the declaration of war in 1914. The overwhelming reaction seemed to be one of sorrow, disappointment and a deep sense of failure. Our house was being painted at the time by a young man whose father had been killed in the previous war and who had just received his call-up papers for this one.

The Prime Minister's statement had no sooner ended than air raid sirens sounded across London. We all trooped with our neighbours into a large shelter nearby and waited anxiously for the waves of German bombers which films like H.G.Wells’ “Things to Come” had led us to expect. My father would have none of it but hovered moodily outside the shelter impervious to urgent pleas to come inside. In the event, the sounding of the sirens proved to be a mistake and after a short time the “All Clear” sounded and we returned thankfully to our Sunday dinners. 

now at war

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announces on the radio that Britain is at war with Germany

Click here to hear the full announcement on YouTube 
Broadcast on BBC Radio at 11:15am, 15 minutes after the British deadline for Germany to withdraw from Poland had passed. It is followed by instructions about changes to be implemented
e.g. closure of cinemas and air-raid sirens.

The Phoney War
It was a long time before most of us saw anything of Germany or the Germans. Except, that is, for those at sea. I reported for duty at the Admiralty at 9pm for the night watch on that first day of the war and shortly before midnight received an immediate message saying “Athenia torpedoed and sinking”. The Athenia was a liner carrying school children to the USA for safety. A U-Boat was lying in wait and 112 people, including many children, were drowned. Afterwards the U-Boat Captain was appalled by what he had done, saying “Why was she sailing without lights? How was I to know?” It was the start of the war at sea which, unlike other spheres, continued throughout every hour of every day until the last moment of the enemy's surrender. The German Navy for the early part of the war acted with as much honour and humanity as the business of sinking ships allowed, and would give crews time to take to the boats and even occasionally radio their position to the British. It was part of the Code of the Sea, sadly not matched in the actions of much of the German Army. Later, both Navies developed a hatred and callousness which inevitably resulted from years of desperate struggle.

Sinking of SS Athenia September 1939 HU51008

Survivors being rescued from SS Athenia’s lifeboats by an American cargo steamship 

There was a flurry of activity on the Home front for a few weeks. Important public buildings were sandbagged, the blackout was strictly enforced and petrol rationing was introduced. Everyone had been issued with a gas mask in a square cardboard box and it was an offence to go out without it. Pictures of those early days show people with bowler hats, umbrellas and pinstriped trousers going to work in the City, with their cardboard boxes slung over their shoulders by a piece of string. News bulletins were broadcast on the radio every hour and for the first time newsreaders gave their names. Traditionally, they had always been anonymous, impeccably-spoken voices introducing themselves simply with “This - (reverent pause) - is the BBC”. The reason, we were told, was to prevent the public being misled by spurious announcements from Germany using BBC wavelengths. The most popular man (there were no women announcers) was Alvar Liddell, whose name few people could catch at first. But there was hardly ever any news worth hearing and after a time the bulletins went back to less frequent timing.

The Army sent an Expeditionary Force to France where they settled in but did not undertake any offensive operations. The RAF actually struck the first blow at Germany by bombing warships at Kiel on the 4th September - ineffectively - but thereafter they mainly dropped leaflets urging the Germans to give up; a futile activity if ever there was one. Historians later asserted that if Britain and France had attacked Germany there and then while she was fully stretched in the Polish campaign, the war would have been over in weeks since our combined forces greatly outnumbered theirs. But I think this view ignores the feeble state which Britain's Army and Air Force had been allowed to fall into and the deplorable inefficiency and leadership of the French Army.

Thus Germany was allowed to finish off Poland and by the beginning of October 1939 the so-called “Phoney War” on land and in the air had begun, where both sides sat watching and saying rude things about each other. Factories rapidly turned over to war production, the blackout was even more strictly enforced and a massive programme of evacuating school children from London was carried out, while behind the scenes the machinery for total control of the country and its whole population was put into place. But for the most part people made the best of the new situation, preserving as far as possible the fabric and trimmings of the British way of life. Hitler actually made a peace offer on 6th October which would allow him to keep all his gains, but the British and French rejected it.

The school was evacuated to Hove, on the South Coast, for a short time but when the expected air raids did not occur they, and many others, drifted back.

* * *

Teenage Life
My school friends had taken their exams and either gone into the Sixth Form or left to take jobs. We were all too young for military service yet and we met frequently at each others’ houses or at local cafes. Pubs were then out of bounds until one reached the age of eighteen; but in any case they were designed for drinking rather than socialising and were universally stark, noisy and dreary. Not for more than another generation would they become the comfortable, welcoming premises we know today, to which a lady might gladly be taken or even visit with their own friends. Few of us had girlfriends then but in the society of the late 1930s dances were the recognised and acceptable way for young people to meet. We went to as many as we could, though I had to accommodate them within my curious watch-keeping regime. They were almost exclusively simple “hops” at local church and school halls but a popular venue was the Grandison dance school at Norbury which had a proper sprung dance floor and a good band. 

We occasionally ventured to the Locarno at Streatham but at the time its ambience was rather adult for us, with numbers of servicemen and practised dancers. Songs like "Roll Out the Barrel" and "We're Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line" were highly popular. The Siegfried Line was a series of fortifications facing the French border; the French had a similar system of great depth and sophistication called the Maginot Line, facing Germany.

Motor Cycle
I visited Vera and Reg quite often, with their two delightful children, Julie and John. In spite of their small house being rather full, they offered or were required to accommodate a Polish airman, a cultured, sad man who tried his best to be sociable among people whose world was still intact and who could not then appreciate the emptiness in his heart. As I was 16 years old, I was entitled to drive a motor cycle and with my father's aid obtained an old single-cylinder Ariel 500cc machine with a massive sidecar, together with a provisional licence. Driving tests had been suspended for the duration of the war, so this was to all intents a normal licence. The strict limitations on petrol for private cars meant that motorcycling, probably for the last time ever, came into its own as the most glorious, exhilarating, but above all cheap recreation that a young man could wish for. Even so, the vagaries of weather and the common recklessness not to say idiocy of young males ensured that there were plenty of hazards and then, as now, one needed luck to escape unscathed. In spite of some narrow squeaks, I had the luck.

(photo of BSA Motorcycle)

Within a very short space of time I had shed the sidecar and savoured the joy of solo motorcycling. This new-found mobility I employed to visit friends over a wide area, especially Rex Cotterell and Bert Sargent, both of whom were working at Horley, on the road to Brighton. One or two young ladies from the office were persuaded to ride on the pillion; and I even once took my mother from Thornton Heath to Mill Hill on it, a journey right through Central London, but never again. I also sometimes used it to travel to work on a night watch but the aged machine had a rooted objection to being left out all night and would often refuse to start in the morning until I had dismantled and cleaned its magneto, which provided the spark for its single cylinder. The method of starting was to stand with one’s whole weight on one leg on a cranked pedal called the kick-start, which turned the engine over. While kicking down, one had to pull a lever on the handlebars which lifted the exhaust valve and reduced the compression, which otherwise was quite strong enough to withstand a normal person’s weight on the kick-start. At the bottom of the kick, the lever had to be released and the engine was supposed to burst into life, which to my surprise and relief it eventually did, though sometimes only after many back-breaking leaps on the kick-start. An injudiciously early release of the lever to full compression could bring one’s downward journey to an abrupt and painful halt, sometimes causing the massive cylinder to fire backwards and changing the rider’s motion to a violent and even spectacular upwards direction. This pastime I found less than enthralling after a 12-hour night watch with no sleep and I usually stuck to public transport.

Local Life
Cinemas were still well attended and were the most popular form of entertainment. Britain had been the first country in the world to open a public television service and shortly before the war I had persuaded my parents to take advantage of a local radio shop's offer of the free loan of a television set for demonstration purposes. It was a massive machine but gave a good picture and I remember Peter Aris, a classmate, sitting glued to the Test Match portrayed live on this miracle device. However, the service ended when war came because German planes could home in to London on the transmissions.

Pubs were then out of bounds until one reached the age of 18; but in any case, they were designed for drinking rather than socialising and were universally stark, noisy and dreary. Not for more than another generation would they become the comfortable, welcoming premises to which a lady might gladly be taken or even visit with her own friends. Croydon was still a pleasant County town, with its own civic buildings and extensive library. Three large Department stores, Grants, Kennards and Allders, flanked the High Street, and the imposing structure of Whitgift Middle School lay in its own grounds along one side. Some ancient almshouses at the farther end also added grace to the main thoroughfare (and, it must be added, considerable traffic congestion because of their protected position). Towards South Croydon had been built the Davis Theatre, renowned as the largest cinema in Europe at the time, with a huge organ whose thunderous tones filled the space between programmes. It had a large foyer and a balcony Tea Room, where a number of us ventured to attend The Dansant to the accompaniment of a small orchestra, in those few brief months of carefree young manhood which were all we would have.

I also enjoyed visiting my father’s garage at Merton frequently where petrol rationing had sadly affected car sales but repairs and servicing were still going on. Mrs Clare Phillips, our landlord's wife, had by now started work in the office. She was a large blonde lady, not unattractive, and always very pleasant to me (which, in my younger days, could not have been easy). I think my mother was suspicious of this arrangement but I confess I never observed anything she could have taken exception to. My friends would sometimes accompany me, and Derek and I received rudimentary instruction on how to drive a car. There were some magnificent machines in the small showroom: I particularly remember a massive Daimler saloon, the radiator of which stood as high as I did.

* * *

Reality of War at Sea
Between these periods of pleasant adolescent activity in the company of my friends and in a Britain not yet greatly changed by war, I would return every 24 hours to keep my watch at the Admiralty, where the bitter and merciless struggle at sea filled every moment. The Admiralty had immediately established a naval blockade of Germany, which included an extended line of warships patrolling a vast area of the North Sea from Norway, out past Greenland and down to Scotland, with the object of intercepting German shipping and reporting the presence of German warships trying to break out into the Atlantic to threaten our convoys bringing vital supplies to Britain. There were daring forays by our ships against the German Navy and German-held ports, and our submarines ranged along the whole North European coast. But the Germans also possessed a number of new and very powerful capital ships and the old aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was sunk by two of them as early as 17th September 1939; while the Armed Merchant Cruiser Rawalpindi, an ex P & O liner fitted with guns, met the German heavy cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on 23rd November and was sunk after a gallant action which saved her convoy. Also imprinted clearly on my mind is the face of an officer from the Operations Room inquiring desperately if we had received a message from the destroyer HMS Glowworm. We hadn't. Glowworm had met some German warships and was now lying at the bottom of the icy North Sea.

The British also used their sea power to establish a Naval Control of Shipping organisation which enabled them to keep track of neutral merchant shipping movements all over the world. The Navy's task was to intercept any ship on the high seas to see if it carried supplies intended for Germany. If so, it would be commandeered or sunk. This stranglehold on Germany's access to sea-borne supplies was enormously effective and must have been a key factor in Hitler's later decision to try to seize the vast resources of Russia.

Command of the Sea
Today it is hard to appreciate the size of the British Empire. By the time Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, she had become ruler of the largest Empire in the history of the world: eleven million square miles of territory in Europe, Africa, America, Asia, Australasia and the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, with 372 million subjects then but very many more by 1939. Over 40 countries which now have seats in the United Nations were then part of it, together with others such as Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Israel which were under British protection. The Empire had been made possible by Britain's sea power and was held firmly together throughout the nineteenth Century by the Royal Navy's total command of the sea. British entry into the First World War was said to have come about partly because Germany was engaged in creating a large Navy which was seen as a threat to British supremacy.

After that war, a series of Naval treaties, which Britain and the USA observed but Germany did not, substantially reduced the size and power of the Royal Navy. Even so, in 1939, though smaller than in its heyday, it still boasted a Home Fleet, Mediterranean Fleet, East Indies Fleet and China Fleet, plus Squadrons covering the South Atlantic from South Africa to South America; a total of 250 battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers with another 64 under construction, together with five or six hundred smaller craft. Only the Pacific beyond Japan was not regularly patrolled - that was the USA's "backyard". From the Admiralty, tentacles of wireless and cable communication linked all these far-flung ships and naval bases together with an intelligence-gathering network which encompassed almost every country in the world. And War Registry was its gateway to the powerful Admiralty Board and the British Government.

The Threat from Below
However, a Navy designed and stationed to police a far-flung Empire was not what we now needed. Britain herself was utterly dependent on food, fuel and materials brought by sea from the Middle East, Australasia and the New World to feed her people and her war machine; and the Royal Navy in spite of its size was severely stretched to protect this lifeline. With her capital warships constantly threatened, Germany applied a blockade of her own through the deadly and effective U-Boats, for whom the lumbering merchant ships were easy prey. The USA was still a neutral country and the Royal Navy simply did not have enough escort vessels to cover the huge expanse of the Atlantic even when ships were organised in convoys for safety. Anti-submarine weapons and, more particularly, skill is using them were lacking, while sea-borne radar was in its infancy and aircraft cover non-existent. Among the many "If only" theories of the war was the plausible one that if Germany had devoted a little more effort to producing U-Boats, Britain might not have survived the first two desperate years of the war. Just why the British did not have the foresight to devote adequate resources to protecting themselves against this mortal threat, which they knew had nearly finished them in 1914-18, one can only guess.

Merchant shipping losses mounted and at our desks in Whitehall we received endless distress signals which conveyed nothing of the agony and despair of thousands of brave seamen left to die in freezing storm-tossed waters. By the end of 1939 the country first began to face serious shortages. Then the Germans introduced a dire new weapon, a magnetic mine, which they laid in British coastal waters from aircraft and which we could not sweep up. The effect was devastating; ships could not enter or leave our ports without risk of being sunk and blocking harbour entrances. For a time, our major ports were closed and the supply of fuel and raw materials dropped to a trickle. Then by what seemed the intervention of Providence a German bomber let fall its mine on the marshes at Shoeburyness where the sand cushioned its impact and also left it high and dry at low tide. It was duly examnined and gingerly dismantled. It contained several booby-trap devices but by another miracle the fall had dislodged a vital wire and they were not activated. The mine's ingenious secrets were discovered and the remedy, winding miles of wire round every ship's hull to neutralise its magnetic field, put in hand. This process, known as "degaussing", continued throughout the war.

And on the Surface
Potentially as dangerous as the U-Boats were the German "Pocket Battleships", with 11-inch guns able to sink an entire convoy and its destroyer escorts with impunity. To counter these, the British Home Fleet stood on permanent alert at the great anchorage of Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands. Once such a ship had escaped into the Atlantic it could be almost impossible to find. The Graf Spee did just this and created havoc among British shipping all down the coasts of North and South America. If you take a decent-sized map of the world and stick a pin in it, the hole represents about as far as one could see from the masthead of a ship in those days before effective ship-borne radar. But by good fortune and some brilliant intelligence work the Admiralty eventually guessed where the Graf Spee might be heading and on 13th December 1939 the old cruisers Exeter, Ajax and Achilles found her off Brazil. Though their 6-inch guns were no match for their opponent's and they were all badly damaged, they attacked with such fierce determination that the Graf Spee was forced to seek refuge in neutral Montvideo for repairs. International Law permitted her to stay there for only three days and the British mounted a huge campaign of disinformation to lead the Germans to think that a powerful fleet awaited her departure. It was quite untrue, but the Graf Spee crept out of harbour and blew herself up rather than face the ignominy of defeat.

So the increasingly bleak scene in 1939 ended with one victory which Winston Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, described as “warming the cockles of the British heart”.

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