On 6 June, 1944 the Allied troops have landed at Normandy and are fighting their way across Europe. While contrary to received opinion, I don’t remember where I was, or what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated, I do remember that I first leaned of the D-day landings while standing on a tube platform. people hurry down into the station, several brandishing an evening paper, the headlines announcing D-DAY! A whisper travels along the platform "D-day, D-day, D-day....." and I am electrified by the tremor of excitement which shoots sparks along the track, rushing through the darkness of the tunnels...."D-day. D-day D-day."
For months, if not years, certainly since the Soviet Union had been invaded by the Nazis is 1941, the Communist Party had been holding rallies in Trafalgar Square OPEN A SECOND FRONT NOW! Rallies which filled the Square, for the middle-class had poured into the Commu7nist party in support of the Soviet Union whom the press presented at that time as ‘our gallant ally’. And it goes almost without saying, that this sudden mass party, was also an indication of the country’s move leftward politically. with regard to the Second Front, a middle-aged French prostitute who was a customer in my father’s shop, a good-natured woman who always returned magazines to my father for resale, on hearing the above slogan, told my father that business was so good, she wished she too could open a second front! Having survived the war, and served the troops and others, after the war she is to throw herself underneath a lorry which, under its bulk, crushes her to death.
On 50th anniversary of D-day 1994, the Evening Standard runs a headline ON THIS DAY AT THIS HOUR and continues:
"it is 6.20 a.m. on 6th June and at the exact time that the invasion landing began half a century ago, soldiers hit the beach again at Arromanches, in the swirling mist of a grey dawn. But no guns greet the men who bear the standards in the surf. Only history."
A large photo shows two soldiers carrying Union Jacks, wading through the sea. an inside page story is headlined WHERE THE SEA RAN BLOOD RED.
The Observer issues a replica of their 6th June, 1944 edition:
FRANCE REVOLTING AS ALLIES ADVANCE - TANK BATTLE NEAR CAEN - NEW GAINS ALONG WHOLE FRONT
Stories in other newspapers and on radio tell of how Normandy villages were destroyed in the mistaken belief that they housed the German army. some 15,000 civilians killed, their houses collapsing upon them, masonry falling, chunks of macadam bursting upwards, peasants in the field exploding with their crops. earth, stone, brick, flesh darkening the villages. What is now called ‘collateral damage’. C’est la guerre!
In September 1944, British and American paratroopers drop from the skies in an attempt to seize the bridges over the lower Rhine. a mission which is to end in defeat, for the troops are cut off at Arnhem by the German army and forced to retreat over the Rhine. Of the 10,000 Allied troops involved, only 2,400 return.
Now, as the war draws to an end, one Allied victory follows another, an impetus that has been put into motion and feeds upon itself. But I myself continue to be caught up by daily living. For during these months, I am working at the offices in Marylebone of the Royal College of Nursing. This, because on returning from the Banbury agricultural camp, I have volunteered for the Women’s Land Army, an organisation which functioned during both World Wars. Entrants receiving training in farm or horticultural duties, following which they were sent to work for individual farmers or market gardeners. The uniform consisting of belted breeches, green pullover, buff shirt, green tie, long woollen socks, sturdy shoes, topped by a hat with a small brim. I volunteer because I feel fit and well from my work in the countryside and the catarrh always with me in the City, has dried up. But in the meantime, I must find a temporary work. I am sent to the College of Nursing by Fines Agency in Praed Street, Paddington for a temporary appointment as a shorthand-typist.
When I try to recall the general office, I see it as a church where I sit in a pew with others, none of them speaking to one another - we are all strangers. Of course, I must have sat at a typewriter, for I remember an angry boss - an ex-Matron - a large middle-aged, middle-class woman calling me into her office and shrieking at me a stream of invective as she tears up a letter I have translated from my shorthand notes. She has always behaved abruptly towards me, but this is something else. At the back of my mind lurks the suspicion that someone has reported to her that I read ‘Commie’ literature during the dinner hour. Wage Labour and Capital and Value, Price and Profit, both by Karl Marx. For I know there is nothing wrong with the letter which she is attacking so violently. Here, at the Royal College of Nursing, the military tradition of Florence Nightingale prevails, left, right, left, right, right, right, right, turn, sit, type. There is no stand easy, that is not part of the prescription. At the end of my three-month temporary employment, I am not asked to stay on, nor would I have wanted to do so, in spite of the fact that I have been turned down by the Land Army on the grounds of poor health. dr. Blackburn has submitted a medical certificate similar to the one he provided for me previously, at the time when I had wanted to take the job with the Surveyor in Chancery Lane and escape work of ‘national importance’. But, on leaving the RCN, I am at a loose end and once again ‘assist’ my father in the bookshop. I have continued to be involved in Common Wealth, manning a committee Room during a bye-election. Now I reply to an appeal for volunteers in the office at 4 Gower Street and on reporting for duty, am sent across the road to two rooms on an upper floor, managed by Arthur Carr and his future wife Jo Dalliston. Arthur, short, dark, Brylcreemed hair, black eyes, a square face which wears a brooding expression. Jo, tall, slim, auburn-haired.
I have typed a few letters and dealt with some filing, when Mr. Carr asks me why I am not in employment. I murmur about working for a Surveyor, a Tory... and Mr. Carr jumps to a conclusion. "He sacked you for being a socialist!" I do not disillusion him. "We’ve got jobs going here. Go across the road and see Mr. Barham. I’ll phone him while you’re on your way over." That’s how I come to work for Arthur Carr and CW in a department maintaining contact with members in the Services. Common Wealth had played a part in the Cairo Parliament at which servicemen and women had met to discuss their hopes for the peace. Until the parliament was disbanded as ‘too left-wing’. Arthur Carr is not an easy man to work for. He believes in keeping employees on their toes and then treading on them heavily! Ouch! I don’t think that I ever typed a letter he didn’t criticise! Arthur is a working-class lad who had grown up in Hull; joined the Royal Navy, sailing the seven seas and a couple of oceans, the whole time resenting the imposition of discipline by Officers who had no other recommendations than their haw, haw, haw, voices! It makes him angry when he reads a statement of a Director, or a Minister, "we are building" or "we are mining" - "they’re doing nothing of the sort!" he says "It’s others who are on the site, or down the mines, doing the work!"
Back to the war! In February 1945 Dresden is reduced to rubble by day and night bombing by the American and British Air Forces. Lancaster bombers deluging the city with tons of incendiaries and high explosives. A destruction continued ued by over 400 American B17s which appear over the smoking ruins to resume the destruction. Estimates of the dead vary from 60,000 to 130,000, many of them refugees. For Dresden, famed for its 17th and 18th century baroque and rococo art and architecture, had presented itself as a safe haven. Later, Kurt Vonnegut who is a prisoner-of-war in Dresden during the fire-storm, cowering within an abattoir together with other prisoners, is to write Slaughterhouse Five about the destruction of Dresden, and yet not about it. For it is not possible to set out on paper the shattering and terrible events of those days, and so Vonnegut contents himself with a story of science fiction. In the streets of London, or in the queues for vegetables or other comestibles, women shake their heads at the sound of British and Allied planes overhead on their way out over the Channel. They remember the London blitz and say sardonically "some poor devil’s going to get it!"
The Allied troops cross the Rhine. From my cousin Woolfie, in the RASC, we receive letters which give graphic descriptions of the Battle of the Rhine. Letters in which we can hear the booming and the clatter of gunfire, the roar of explosions, the heavy movement of tanks, hear the crackle of fire, be overcome by its acrid smell and blinded by its orange flame and thick concealing smoke, hear the cries of the wounded and the dying. All take their toll on my cousin and on his return to England, he joins a number of his fellows, all dressed in blue overalls, reminiscent of the RAF uniform, in the military wing of the Colney Hatch Asylum. a blue uniform which Woolfie would have preferred to wear if he had not failed the eyesight test for pilot in the RAF. Now he is dressed in hospital blues. Sadly, these letters to my parents are long lost, but the battle and Woolfie’s experience of it, was kept alive for many years in letter sent to my cousin Flo, until some time during the 1990s she committed them also to the flames.
The Soviet troops take over the Balkans. Soviet troops march into Austria and also into Berlin. The Soviet Union has lost 20,000,000 of their people during the war. Hitler shoots himself and his mistress, Eva Braun, take poison. The Duce and his mistress, Clara Petacci, are shot by Italian partisans and strung up by their legs in a public place. Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies in September, 1943, following which, it had not become an ally, but a co-belligerent! As a result, Italy had been occupied by the German army.
The Third Reich having crashed about his ears, General, General Alfred Jodl, German Army Chief of Staff, surrenders in a Rheims school which has been made into General Eisenhower’s HQ. Count Schwerin von Krosig, the German Foreign Minister, has broadcast over Flensburg radio that to continue the war would "only mean senseless bloodshed and futile disintegration." The Germans had delayed signing, in order to allow as many soldiers and refugees as possible to give themselves up to the Western Allies, rather than to the Russians. Three days earlier in Field Marshal Montgomery’s tent on the desolate Luneburg Heath, south of Hambury, ‘Monty’ had received the surrender of all German forces in North-West Germany, Holland and Denmark.
VE-Day: 12 May 1945: During the past week high wooden gates have been erected around the West End in order to control the expected crush of merry-makers:
"Mother may I go and maffick,
Dash around and stop the traffic?"
Now, a public holiday has been declared. Pat and I travel by tube from Highgate to Leicester Square, where we join the drifting crowds. Newspapers report:
Britain took to the streets to celebrate the victory...by mid-day Whitehall and the Mall were packed with a crowd...50,000. people went wild with joy, shaking hands at first then kissing and hugging strangers, dancing, blowing whistles, throwing confetti and forming impromptu parades, a massive ‘hokey-cokey’ snaked round Queen Victoria’s statue..." (25) (55)
The Daily Mail Golden Jubilee Book 1896-46 shows a photograph taken from above, the packed crowd in Trafalgar Square, The plinth of Nelson’s column covered on the two sides by large placards: VICTORY OVER GERMANY 1945 and GIVE THANKS BY SAVING. Pat and I caught up in the crowds, move slowly. At one time we are in Piccadilly Circus where a drunken American sailor and a girl stagger in an attempt at jive. The crowd gathers around them, hoping to be entertained and, when the sailor and the girl at last stop their antics and collapse against each other, their eyes glazed, the crowd wanders off to find other amusement. We pull out of the crowd into Little Newport Street, where I find that the window of the camera shop, next door to our bookshop, has been smashed, the remaining glass forming a jagged hole. Again with the crowds, we find ourselves at the front of a building on the balcony of which American GIs trumpet out jazz. "Play Land of Hope and Glory" shout one or two voices and the cry is taken up, but the band do not know the tune. A man in the crowd starts the hymn and it is taken up by the crowd, the band doing its best to improvise a backing:
Land of hope and glory,
Mother of the free...
Now we are in front of Buckingham palace, hemmed in on every side, the statue of Queen Victoria scaled by several youths whose legs dangle from her head. A call goes up "we want the King, we want the King!" The cry ripples through the crowd until far above us on the balcony, several figures can be seen, at which the cry changes to a roar of approval.
Later in the evening, Pat and I are on the tube, the Northern Line to Highgate. Every seat taken by other foot-weary passengers, we, with many others, sit above the seats on the window-sills, feet hanging behind the backs of those on the seats. No one remarks on this arrangement. It happens and is accepted. At Highgate we struggle up the steep hill leading out of the exit and once on the pavement take off shoes from our hot and aching feet to walk home in the dark barefoot. the paving stones cool beneath our feet. I have mixed feelings about the end of the war. My mind is split into several directions.
During the last year of the war, Ann and I within the political atmosphere of the International youth Club, have become anti-war. Fascism, which we agree is endemic to capitalism, cannot be ended by it. Workers of all lands must unite to bring about co-operative socialism under which poverty and racism will be a thing of the past. And yet, I do not want the Nazis to win the war and destroy the Labour movement and all the vestiges of democracy. And, apart from these considerations, their victory would mean a concentration camp for me and my family. But, of course, if the nazis invaded Great Britain, the people would fight for their freedom and defeat the Nazis on the streets, or would our government capitulate and leave us to form partisan groups as had happened in France? So the argument goes back and forth:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went. (56)
Now the war is coming to an end with victory to the Allies, and I wonder how I will adjust to peace. After all, as I say to Ann, we are the true children of war for we have grown up in its shadow. What would take its place? The siren might come as a threat, but it was also exciting when on the street, to respond to its warning by hurrying into a tube station, to join those almost permanent residents bedded down on the platforms. An underworld, a world within a world, a shelter community. Entertainment and sing-alongs part of the nightly terror. For my generation the war had become a way of life. A security of insecurity. such are the vagaries of our psychology, which changes more slowly than political, economic and even personal fortunes.
Also, I know that during WW2, for the first time in living memory, or perhaps since WW1, the working-class have been given a sense of importance. No longer are we the lower-classes, the uneducated, the great unwashed! We are essential to the war effort, brave fighting men, munitions workers; "the woman behind the man who mans the gun!" No longer merely persons employed until employers consider us as expendable. we are heroes and heroines of labour and what is more, we stand firm under nightly bombing, our morale unbroken. radio and newspapers and government, all tell us what wonderful people we are, us, the British working-class! how will we be pictured once the war is ended?
The first General election since 1935 is held on 5 July 1945 with a resounding victory for Labour. CW had campaigned for the updating of the electoral registers and in 1943, as a result of the Vivian Committee, this had been agreed. At the age of eighteen, I was not entitled to vote. At that time it was necessary to be twenty-one. out on an errand for Arthur Carr, I return to the office, walking across New Oxford Street, to read the placards proclaiming a LABOUR LANDSLIDE. I am happy, for the Tories have been rejected, this in spite of the massive campaign to thank Churchill for winning the war by voting Conservative! His picture, many times life-sized, and complete with cigar, on every hoarding. An advertising campaign which is counter-productive, for many people, praised for so long by government and media, bridle and ask "What! On his own! What were we doing?" Of course, the Daily Mirror had struck a blow for Labour by issuing its now historic edition calling, in large black headlines on the front page, for the population to support ‘the boys’ by voting Labour. The population has returned to Churchill his own ‘V’ sign, but the fingers turned the other way around! "Up yours!" The people do not want to return to pre-war unemployment and poverty and even the middle-class are willing for the working-class to have a greater share in the fruits of their labour. Labour has won 393 seats against the Tories 213.
But it is the Labour victory which is to lose me yet another job. For the elected and re-elected Common wealth MPs, now that the political truce has ended with the election of a Labour government, decide to join Labour. Finances are tight and I suspect that financial backers had withdrawn. Mr. Barham calls the staff into the main office, in which one woman is sitting with a hessian sack upon her lap. the room is crowded in this well-appointed building, carpets upon the floor, light pouring through the large windows. I sit down on a wooden chair and listen to Mr. Barlow who is humming and ha’ing, but in the end we get the message. Common Wealth is retrenching. It can no longer afford to maintain a large office and large staff "but the movement will go on" Mr. declaims with fervour, a statement which does not impress the majority of the staff, for whom this is merely a job. A brave soul enquires why Common Wealth had been taking on staff up to a fortnight previously and Mr. Barham hums and ha’s once again.
I leave almost immediately, but it is some weeks before others go and later, when Arthur Carr has left his office and opened a personal Service Bureau to provide secretaries for Labour Members of Parliament - a bureau for which I am to work occasionally, unpaid - he tells me that staff had walked out with typewriters and other office equipment. When he had attempted to intervene, he was told to mind his own business. Now only two small offices, once occupied by Arthur, remains to Common Wealth and Arthur’s and Jo’s places are taken by two young men recently discharged from the Services, a young woman acting as Secretary. She calls these young men by their first names which, when on a visit, takes me aback, for CW had maintained the traditional formalities and titles between bosses and staff.
Common Wealth limps on and I am a nominal member, attending at the odd meeting or rally, where I sometimes see Ann. By now she is working for a middle-aged, wealthy, silver-haired man who is a member of Common Wealth. He owns a bookshop in Victoria Street and, I seem to remember, another in Crouch End. His bookshop the antithesis of my father’s, for it is a book store, the shelves tidy, all labelled neatly. When I had first met Ann, she was a cub reporter on a North London newspaper and I envied her this job. I saw her work as exciting and varied and, after all, it was writing! But she found court work boring, and often induced a male reporter to take notes for her while she slipped out with a friend for coffee. Now, she works as a bookshop assistant at very low wages. She doesn’t win any medals from me when she says "if Mr. Wilson paid better wages, the shop might have to close."
Temporarily out of work, I decide to go again to an agricultural camp. For the life of me, I cannot recall in which part of the country this camp was situated, all I can remember is that we shared it with a group of Royal Marines, a body of troops trained to serve on land or sea. Each morning and evening, we line up outside an outbuilding to receive over the counter our meals from marine cooks who smilingly ladle out whatever is on that day’s menu. we collect our sandwiches from the same hatch before setting out for the day’s work. I expect to hear trumpeted "Come to the cookhouse door boys - and girls!" There is a saying during the Second World War "tell it to the marines", meaning that only they will be stupid enough to believe it. A popular song at the time ends:
You can tell it to the navy, tell it to the army
and tell it to the marines!
Well, I guess there’s always a section of the population picked out to be stupid, it convinces the rest of the populace that they have the exclusive right to intelligence! Maybe this is a spin-off from imperialism and colonialism, for the conquered are always said to be more stupid and less human that their conquerors! The marines whom I meet are a cross-section of the conscripted male population. Short, tall, thin, broad, young, nearing middle-age, bright, dull and, for the most part, friendly. They share with us a recreation hut lit by a paraffin lamp which has to be pumped up whenever the light dims and we are amused to see adult men sparring like little boys. We go out dancing to the local hop with the marines and I can remember, on the way home, a short, but handsome marine, black hair and bright blue eyes which look into mine, standing with me by the hedge outside the camp and putting the argument as to why I should go to bed with him. Although, to this day, I am not clear as to whether he truly desired me, or was merely going through the motions of what a man has to do! I refuse. I am not aware until later that the cooks are in the cookhouse cleaning up and hear every word! A bluff, hearty cook compliments me on being a ‘good’ girl! He tells me also that from the camp there had been marriages between marines and campers. in fact, only the previous week a marine had married a widow with six children!
They shouldn’t have dropped those Atom bombs on Japan!" says a marine to me hesitatingly. tall and fair, he is a shy boy, not an easy talker and his face is red with the effort to express his feelings. We have been together to the cinema and are returning to the camp by bus. "I don’t agree with it" he says, troubled.
A-BOMB VAPORISES JAPANESE CITIES
shout the headlines. Shadow towns, the outlines of formerly living, breathing people, men, women and children, burned onto walls. Illnesses, mutations to the end of the century and beyond.
Aug 9: For the second time an atomic bomb fell upon Japan today, obliterating Nagasaki, the shipbuilding centre on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Smoke and dust clouds completely covered the town and rose five miles high in a giant mushroom shaped cloud. Japan claims that 70,000 perished and more are dying daily. (25)
The Japanese had tendered their surrender seven weeks previously, but the Cold War was under way and Truman wanted to impress the Russians with the weapons of annihilation held by the West. the Cold War, which was to be used to crush dissent and demands for social justice. A world predicted by Orwell who warned that governments would always keep the populace under control by building up belief in a supposed foreign enemy - or the enemy within!
I am to hear the sentiments of the marine voiced by many when I return home, which is to be shortly, although I had intended to stay until October. As it happens, I am almost thrown out of the camp for the Manager has taken a dislike to me. Whenever I pass the caravan used as an office, or have to go to this office for any reason, he glowers at me and answers my queries shortly, as if he cannot bear to waste words upon such as me. The young woman, formally his assistant, a tall, fair-haired woman barely glances my way and yet her disregard is tangible. Soon I am creeping past the caravan in the hope that if I make no sound and close myself down as small as possible, I will not attract attention.
By now, we girls have moved out of the bell tents into a long wooden hut, to sleep dormitory fashion in two long lines, a passage between us. On one morning, having been out late, I cannot face getting up for work. Suddenly, the Manager appears with his girl-friend as chaperone. He stalks down the centre gangway. "Why isn’t she up and ready for work?" he demands. Two girls with whom I have become friendly, both of them students at Nottingham University, do their best to defend me. "She’s not been well" one says weakly "she’s got a headache". "She’s been feeling sick" said the other, backing up her friend. I keep my eyes tight shut and pretend to be asleep. I hear the Manager muttering and my friends assuring him that I am "a very heavy sleeper." At last he, and his girl-friend retreat from the hut. However, when a day or two later in answer to my application for an extension of my three week stay, the Manager calls me into the office, he sneeringly refuses my request. "People of your race always want everything" he says. This leaves me confused. Is he referring to my German surname, or does he assume that I am Jewish? I have been attending the local Catholic Church on a Sunday for Mass, for it provided a toehold on my childhood, but the Manager is not deceived. He knows I am a Jew. this at a time when the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps are opened to the world! Great heaps of naked rotting corpses, skeleton survivors, gas chambers, the ovens. Buchenwald, Dachau, Belsen.... I am thrown off balance. I do not know how to defend myself and my anger does not begin until I return home a day or two before VJ Day. And then other concerns take over.
15 August: VJ Day is a repeat of VE Day - the crowded West End surrounded by high wooden gates to control the crowds, the drifting together with masses of people from one place to another, the ride home in the over-crowded tube train...
While VJ Day signals the end of the war between the Allies and Japan, it does not signal the end of war in China, where Chiang Kai-shek has been fighting the ‘Communists’, leaving the Communists to fight the Japanese! And this war between Chiang and the Communists is not over until 1949 when Chiang and the Nationalists are forced to retreat to Formosa. But, as a result of the Cold War, it is not until 1971 that the Communist government is recognised by the West as the government of China. Chiang having been backed by America and the West. And, it goes without saying, that the ‘Communists’ having forged their government by warfare, continue to maintain a martial control over the population. a totalitarianism which is to lead in June 1989 to students being mowed down by tanks in Tiananmen Square. A technological advancement over the severing of heads by the broadsword in the year of my birth, 1927!
As World War Two comes to an end, my father says "Peace has broken out!" and I know that I must learn to live with it. But the changeover from war to peace happens slowly, so for some two or three years men in uniform form the majority of men on the streets, or in the dance-halls. It is only gradually that the civvies appear among them and at last take over. The youth clubs flourish, as does the International Youth Centre, where I continue to spend much of my time. From an ethos of enthusiasm for winning the war, we are not enthusiastic to win the peace by the introduction of the Welfare State -the National Health Service, secondary schooling for all, decent housing, full employment... A consensus between the political parties that this is what the people deserve and Council, whether Labour, Tory or Liberal, vie with one another to build the greatest number of Council houses, while out in the countryside new towns of rented housing rise from out of the fields. Not that I ever deceive myself that this is socialism, but it is a beginning - better than what went before. And, in this way, something of the urgency of war-time continues to imbue our daily lives.
Agricultural camps also continue to be held every year and it is while I am spending a fortnight’s holiday at one of these in 1947, before starting a job with the Independent Labour Party journal The Socialist Leader, that I receive a note from my father that Bill Howley is to return to America for demobilisation. I write Bill a very sad letter, for he has become part of our lives and in those days America seemed to be so far away. Of course, in the interim, the development of modern means of travel has brought other countries and continents ever closer. But it is some years before we are to meet again.
On to Afterword
Get You Back Home