Second World War

Some reflections on my father-in-law…


Yesterday was my father-in-law’s birthday. If he were still alive, he would have been 103; he was already old enough to be a grandfather by the time his first child was born. My husband was the youngest of three boys, the first of whom was still-born. My parents-in-law had their children late because the Second World War intervened.

Already thirty, Dad volunteered for active service early in the war; because of his age, this was long before he would have been officially ‘called up’. In retrospect, it was a smart move: it meant that he ‘had a good war’ and, although he certainly found himself in some dangerous situations, he was not often in the forefront of the fighting. He elected to join the Coldstream Guards and was employed as the batman and driver of a brigadier who was also an aristocrat – someone whom the government wanted to keep out of harm’s way. Ironically, the brigadier was killed right at the end of the war, when the armoured car in which he was being driven to a strategy meeting in the field went over a Teller mine. By some fluke, he had taken a reserve driver with him on that day, so my father-in-law survived.

He didn’t talk much about the war or, indeed, about his own youth. I know that he was the eldest boy of a family of seven (he had one elder and two younger sisters, and a younger brother; two other siblings died in infancy). His father was a chicken farmer who was gassed in the First World War (like one of my own ancestors). I don’t know how long he survived after this, but he certainly didn’t work again. When Dad married my mother-in-law, he was still taking responsibility for his own family and continued to send his mother money regularly until she died.

He wasn’t bitter about the war, nor did he question the way it was run. He had a small fund of stories that he told, but he always related them in a matter-of-fact way, as if what happened was inevitable. For example, he was part of the second wave of D-Day landings. He said that he and his colleagues ran inland from the beach, saw a German tank ahead and ran back towards the sea again (discretion the better part etc.) – hardly the glorious unstoppable heroics celebrated long afterwards in books and films! (I remember noting the very gradual shift away from unrealistic, partisan and fictional representations of the war to a more balanced and gritty portrayal of its truths.) Soldiers were issued with cans of corned beef as emergency rations – the type that had a metal strip round its middle that you pulled to divide the can into two halves. He remembered that, when it was very hot, as soon as they pulled the can apart, the meat was covered with blowflies. But they ate it, anyway. As they worked their way up through France and the Netherlands towards Germany, one of the more amazing tasks that befell Dad was to dig daily a ‘foxhole’ in the ground for his superior; though the trench was a defensive measure, he would arrange a waterproof tarpaulin and fill it with warm water so that the brigadier could take a bath. Shades of Blackadder indeed! He also remembered the many corpses of bloated cows that littered the French countryside, dead because their owners had fled and no-one had been left to milk them. Always an enthusiastic but never obsessive gambler, Dad made modest but often successful bets on dog- and horse-racing, which still took place in various places along his route, and had to obtain permission from the brigadier to send his winnings home.

From my observation of my father-in-law and my own father and the fathers of my friends who were half a generation younger, I’d say that there was a great dividing line between those who fought in the war and those who didn’t. Dad belonged to a generation which dealt in absolutes. He believed in authority, hierarchies, decorum and The Queen. There was a way of doing things and he liked it to be observed. My husband relates that his father met him off the train after his first university term with: ‘That’s a very disgraceful pair of shoes that you’re wearing.’ He didn’t ‘get’ that his son didn’t value polished toe-caps. He always meant well, having a kindly heart, but wasn’t very attuned to the sensitivities of others. When I first met him, we drove to find him on the day’s estate shoot; at the time, I was not keen on any kind of meat, but, since he happened to be carrying a brace of duck, he thrust them into my hands as an intended kindly gesture! Later, when I revealed that I was scared of moths (a phobia that I’ve since conquered), he caught a large one and informed me: ‘Now I’m going to show you what a beautiful creature a moth is.’ When he discovered that I disliked Christmas pudding (an aversion to which I have remained constant), he lay back in his chair, shut his eyes in disgust, and announced: ‘Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas pudding.’

It interests me, though, how people can be cut off from the era in which they live by an event that those younger than themselves cannot wholly relate to. Dad survived the war by more than forty years, but he never really belonged to the era that succeeded it, which, in this case, saw the children of retainers (like himself) to the landed classes develop through educational opportunity an independence that challenged the authority of the class system. I suspect that this has also been true of others who have lived in previous centuries through sudden seismic shifts of values: from the Civil War to the Restoration, for example, or from the Regency to the reign of Queen Victoria.

I haven’t talked to my husband about yesterday’s date, but I’m sure that it won’t have escaped his notice. His father was a more remote ‘father figure’ than fathers are today, but he was loved and respected and is still remembered; indeed, his last generous act, shortly before he died, when he was not really fit to drive, was to take his car and head off to a local orchard, in order to bring us back a whole box of Cox’s apples. He lived up to his own very high standards. They were just different from ours.

Wicked Uncle Dick

Sherrard, Pode Hole

Yesterday I mentioned that I have recently bought several books about South Lincolnshire to aid my research.  One of these is Aspects of Spalding Villages, by Michael J. Elsden.  It is a book of photographs with quite an extensive accompanying text drawn from contemporary newspapers and other documents, such as old trade directories.

Among the many fascinating sections is one on Pode Hole, a hamlet between Pinchbeck and Spalding, which became important when a pumping station was set up there in the late eighteenth century to reduce the threat of flooding.  It was a place to which I often headed when out on bike rides.  Its system of sluices represents a complex and quite awe-inspiring feat of engineering.  However, of more interest to me were the rather quaint by-laws relating to the pumping station, which were posted in full on a board in front of the main building.  When I visited Spalding shortly before last Christmas, I was intrigued to see that the by-laws notice is still there. It’s a sturdy production, set in stone like a fenlands version of the Ten Commandments.

The section in Michael Elsden’s book that is headed ‘Trades and Business People in Pode Hole in 1937’ includes the entry ‘Sherrard, Rd. Albert, haulage contractor, Pode Hole’.  It leapt out at me because Richard Sherrard (whose middle name was also his father’s – I had not previously known that he also bore it) was my Great-Uncle Dick.  When I knew him, he led a fairly down-and-out existence.  He scraped a living by farming a small-holding at Spalding Common and lived in one of the short streets of council houses there.  I don’t recollect having had any meaningful conversations with him as a child; the Sherrard men were not particularly interested in girls.  However, my brother, the only boy of our generation, was regaled with all sorts of treats and confidences.  When we were both adults, he told me some of the family history that he had gleaned from Uncle Dick and his two surviving brothers (the eldest brother, John, had been gassed in the Great War and died in the 1920s).  He said that Uncle Dick had told him that he was once the owner of a thriving haulage business, with a fleet of lorries that carried vegetables and livestock across the Fens.  More roguishly, he admitted that he had plied a flourishing black market side-line during the Second World War.

I only half-believed this tale, because the Uncle Dick that I knew was anything but a prosperous businessman.  I therefore rather assumed that it had been invented to satisfy a small child’s curiosity and also to imbue his old uncle with a touch of glamour.  (‘What did you do in the war, Uncle Dick?’  ‘Oh – ha, ha, ha – I was a bit of a scoundrel; I sold stuff on the black market.  It didn’t harm anyone; I just helped people to get the things that they needed.’)  Now, however, I have found proof that at least some of Uncle Dick’s story was true: he was indeed a haulage contractor.  The question is, did he really own a fleet of lorries, or just one antiquated, clapped-out lorry that was pressed into service for the war effort?  And, if the former, what happened to them all?  Might they have been confiscated because his nefarious activities were found out?  Might the haulage business even have gone downhill because he was disgraced, or sent to prison?  I don’t suppose that I shall ever find out and, since my own version of events is probably more colourful than the truth, I’m not sure that I really want to!

Fleeing Hitler, France 1940 (Hanna Diamond)

Fleeing Hitler

Although I usually have a crime novel on the go, I read a lot of history and biography as well.  I’ve almost completed Fleeing Hitler: France 1940, by Hanna Diamond (OUP 2007).  This is an extraordinary book about the French flight from Paris after the German invasion of northern France.  Although I’ve read many books about the Second World War, I must say that I hadn’t realised the extent of the exodus that took place.  Parisians were clearly terrified; millions of them abandoned their homes, in most cases taking only the possessions that they could carry or wheel in carts or on bicycles.  A very small minority had cars or vans, but were often forced to abandon these when they ran out of petrol.

Ironically, most of the populace would have been better off staying where they were, unless they were Jewish, as the Germans had no plans to harm them wholesale; in fact, they wanted as many people as possible to carry on working to support the German war effort.  Doubly ironic is that, while Parisians and other inhabitants of northern France and Belgium were panic-stricken and took to the roads with little cause, in Berlin and other urban centres in Germany, German Jews believed that they were safe and stayed until it was too late.  I have no explanation for the extreme fear amongst the French, unless it was caused by the fact that Paris had been invaded four times within living memory, on the last occasion only about a quarter of a century previously.

Of particular fascination is Hanna Diamond’s account of how the quite sophisticated Parisians (though, in many cases, they were only a generation away from having been peasants themselves) reacted to the extremely basic lifestyles of the peasant communities in which they found shelter.  It is a snapshot in time of how two eras, the modern one and the age-old traditional one, collided.  Despite bucolic discomforts, however, a significant number of Parisians did not return to Paris after the panic subsided, but stayed in these rural communities, especially if they could find work.  Some of the wealthier départements were extremely generous; for example, the inhabitants of the Charente gave refugees ten francs each per day, even though they could obtain accommodation and food (‘including drink’!) for about twelve francs per week.  Others – especially those on major routes south, which were assailed by wave after wave of large groups en route – received them with dour suspicion and moved them on as quickly as possible.

I’m not unduly patriotic, but the account in this book of the behaviour of the French government in power at the time of the invasion makes me somewhat proud of the contrasting achievement of the British government of the day.  In Britain, the government gave everyone clear orders about rationing, evacuation of children, building of safety shelters and what to do in case of invasion.  There were also regular news bulletins (though some were censored in order not to demoralise) about what was going on in the rest of Europe.  The French government, by contrast, seemed to be incapable of organising anything at all.  The refugees received no directions besides broad advice on which areas further south they should head for, no financial support, no food, no petrol and no information.  It is hardly surprising that Marshal Pétain and the Vichy government commanded so much support when they first appeared; theirs was the only leadership on offer.

It is estimated that 100,000 people died during the flight from Paris and the subsequent bedraggled return of most of the refugees; many of these victims were children, the old, the ill and the infirm.  Some may actually have starved.  I do wonder, though, how many were murdered.  There were fights for food along the way; fathers and husbands were forced to prostitute daughters and wives in return for petrol and other basics; and returning families sometimes found that their flats had been occupied by German soldiers or by French people who had taken advantage of their absence.  Plenty of scope for nefarious deeds here, I should have thought, including a few undetected murders.

I have found much to interest me in this carefully-researched account of an aspect of the Second World War that does not usually get an airing.  I recommend it.

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