I was born in England on 17 September 1940, the very same day that Herr Hitler decided to abandon his plans to invade England. Later, when that fact became known to me, I couldn’t help but secretly feel that my birth somehow influenced the course of the war. Of course I have never tried to claim any credit for saving England from the marauding Hun, but that private knowledge has given me the ability to face, with courage and humility — especially humility — the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune I have encountered throughout my life.
I grew up thinking it was quite normal for almost everyone in my world to be wearing a uniform, including on occasions my father, who, being in a reserved occupation, ‘did his bit’ by joining the local Home Guard. One other important thing Dad did for the war effort was to ‘Dig for Victory’. Britain has always been obliged to import food to feed its population, and during the war, with German U Boats sinking many of the ships carrying that food, growing our own food wasn’t an option, it was an absolute necessity. Everything was on ration; if you didn’t have a ration book with the right coupons, you didn’t get anything. Rationing certainly didn’t end on VE Day; many items were still rationed in the 1950s.
My father had always had a modest vegetable garden, but during the war he not only converted our front and back lawns for food production, but also commandeered a piece of waste ground at the rear of our house, fenced it off and used it for further production. We had row upon row of potatoes, carrots, turnips, cabbage, beans, peas and other everyday vegetables, but also things you don’t see in back gardens these days such as gooseberries and blackcurrants.
As a kid I wasn’t aware of rationing until one little incident that brought it home to me, quite painfully. I must have been about five or six, and although the war was over, rationing certainly wasn’t. One day I decide I wanted to play Tarzan. I managed to tie one end of a piece of string to a window latch and the other end to a cup hook on the Welsh dresser on the other side of the kitchen. My intention was, by standing on the dinner table, to swing out into space holding on to the string, like Tarzan holding a creeper vine. Unfortunately, the top of the Welsh dresser wasn’t connected to the bottom part, or to the wall. So, as I swung out, my puny weight was enough to pull the top — containing all the plates, cups and assorted crockery that our family possessed — out and down on top of me.
There was one enormous crash, followed by a loud scream from my mother, who later admitted, “I thought the Germans were bombing us.” Eventually, with the help of Betty, the lady from next door who had heard the ‘German bomb blast’, I was extricated from the remains of the family crockery, had my few scratches kissed better and was tucked up on the sofa to recuperate.
However, sometime later my mother found the string tied to the cup hook and with threats of having ‘my liver shaken out’ I admitted what I’d done and suffered the inevitable walloping. Now the point of me admitting this sad saga, which does tarnish my ‘Saviour of England’ image somewhat, is to make the point that not only was everything edible on ration, but also that everything else was very scarce and hard to come by. For a long time after that incident it was not possible for the whole family to sit down for a meal together, simply because there just weren’t enough plates. Most of what had survived the ‘bombing’ were army tin plates, with tin mugs to drink from. And of course everyone knew whose fault that was.
In those days the pattern of eating meals and even the food was different than today. Breakfast was just bread, but sometimes it was broken up in a bowl with an Oxo cube and hot water — this was called bread slops. On very rare occasions we had porridge, but as sugar was strictly rationed we had it with salt or nothing. The midday meal, called dinner, was the main meal of the day. It usually comprised lots of potatoes, vegetables and, if we were lucky, some meat. This could have been such exotic things as tripe, heart, liver, whale meat, rock-hard dried fish, or everyone’s favourite, sausages. Years after the war a scientific study revealed that children of my age ended up as adults one inch shorter than they should have been, due to their deprived diet, although quite healthy because most of what they had eaten were vegetables.
About 4 o’clock, when the kids came out of school, the English liked to stop for afternoon tea, which comprised mainly bread and sometimes jam. There was very little butter, but there was margarine made from whale oil and a variety of little pots of paste: fish paste, meat paste and, if Mum had been in the front of the queue at the grocer’s, turkey paste. If you were lucky Mum might have made some scones, or if you were really lucky there might be roly poly pudding. If you’d been running about all day a couple of bits of jam roly poly would soon slow you up and glue you to a seat all evening.
There was also the last meal of the day, supper, which again was bread in some form. But if you had a bit of cheese you could make what I recall as the best meal of those years, cheese on toast. Or, to give it its posh name, Welsh rarebit. In the later years of the war we had, still on ration but in greater supply from America, powdered egg, Horlicks powder and, best of all, tinned Spam.
Living in rural Devon there was always plenty of milk and eggs to be had, even though these things were on ration elsewhere. The local farmer milked the cows then came up our road in a pony and trap with a churn of milk. Mum would go out with some jugs and the farmer would draw off what she wanted using a one-pint dipper. She could also buy eggs from the farmer and very occasionally a boiling fowl. These were old chickens that had stopped providing eggs, so were sold for the pot and had to be boiled because they were so tough.
I still remember my mother buying one that was still alive. In my innocence, I thought we were going to keep it for a pet. My mother, who I had mistakenly always thought of as being a kind, gentle and caring woman, turned out to be a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character where pet chickens were concerned. No sooner had she got my new feathered friend in through the back door than she held it up by its legs, draped its neck over the chopping block and, with one wham of the wood axe, bingo! One headless chook. I was so shocked as I watched Mrs Hyde bending over the dustbin, feverishly pulling out entrails and plucking feathers, that I couldn’t bring myself to protest. I did, however resolve to treat my mother with a great deal more respect from then on, just in case my mischief should switch her back into her alter ego of Mrs Hyde.
There were no refrigerators back then, so if you wanted to, for example, keep some milk for breakfast in the summer months, you would need to scald it that evening. This would require the milk to be poured into a saucepan and brought just to the boil, then allowed to cool before being covered and put on the bottom shelf of the larder. Every home had a larder, a small room off the kitchen where food and all the cooking pots were kept. If you were lucky, the bottom shelf was made of marble, a stone that was reputed to be always two degrees colder than its surroundings.
My father kept all his Home Guard equipment in his and our mother’s bedroom, so my mischievous brother Alan and I would go in there when things were quiet to fiddle with the rifle and play swords with the bayonet. One day Alan informed me he had acquired a live bullet and that we were going to fire it from Dad’s rifle, out of the bedroom window.
When the coast was clear we went into my parents’ bedroom and ‘Alan the Mischievous’ got out the rifle and pointed it out the window. Then from his pocket he took what even I knew was a live bullet, poked it up the barrel and closed the bolt. ‘Alan the Dangerous’ decided to fire at a bucket in the next-door garden, took careful aim, then squeezed the trigger. The rifle clicked, but there was no obvious discharge. “What happened?” I asked. ‘Alan the Fibber’ said “I hit it and there’s a hole in the bucket.” So that was that and we went back to throwing the bayonet to see if we could get it to stick into the floor and wearing our gas masks pretending to be divers. It was many years later that the rifle incident came back to me and I understood that a .22 bullet cannot be fired from a larger-calibre 303 rifle.
Of course, in those days there was no television, no internet and no cell phones, although we did have a radio which would only run off a sort of battery called an accumulator. This always seemed to run out of power at the most interesting time of some programme, such as Dick Barton, Special Agent.
I recall once my sister was sick and she asked my mother to walk the half mile to the nearest public telephone box and tell her employer she wouldn’t be in. My mother was not only fearful of modern things like telephones, she also had my little brother Rob in a pushchair and ‘Alan the Troublesome’ and myself to look after, so we all four set off for the phone box. When we got there, Mum read the instructions out loud. “Place pennies in box, dial number, when caller answers press button A and speak.” However, down at eye level of ‘Alan the Meddlesome’ there was another button which said, “Press button B to get your money back.” So of course that is what the little twerp did. My mother never did get through. She was so flustered by the bells and whistles that she grabbed her returned pennies and fled, marching us all back home again, nudging, so the family legend goes, ‘Alan the Troublesome’s’ head every step of the way home.
During the war years, no one went on holiday. Firstly, ordinary working families with children, such as ours, could not afford to stay in hotels. Secondly, the seaside, which was only a few miles away, was definitely out of bounds. All the British beaches were defended with barbed wire and concrete anti-tank fortifications, and the actual beaches were planted with anti-personnel mines. My first holiday at the seaside was some years after VE Day, in a tiny caravan at Lulworth Cove in Dorset. Although the barbed wire and mines had been cleared away, there were still two wrecked steel landing craft on the rocks at the eastern end, casualties from the many D Day practice manoeuvres that took part in that area just prior to the Normandy landings.
I have two enduring memories of the ‘real war’.
The first is visiting Exeter with my mother just after a day-time bombing raid, or what became known as a ‘nuisance raid’. Across the road from where we got off the bus was an obviously bomb-damaged and smoky building. Standing on the pavement was the intact tail of a German bomb. What has remained with me all these years is the smell: a mixture of brick dust, cordite and smoke.
My final memory of the war is of my mother and I sitting in a bus in the square at Axminster, waiting to go somewhere, when Betty, our next-door neighbor, came over and tapped on the window. My mother opened the window and said, “Hello Betty. What’s the matter?” Betty said, “I’ve just got a telegram from the War Office. Jack is missing somewhere called Arnhem.” My mother spoke kind words to the grieving wife and finished by saying, “I’m sure they’ll find him and he’ll come back to you.”
He never did, of course. He was just one of the many soldiers of the Parachute Regiment to die at Arnhem. I felt so sorry for her that I nearly blurted out to her, “Aunty Betty, it wasn’t me, it was ‘Alan the Sharp-shooter’ that shot the hole in your garden bucket.” But then I thought, I’ll tell her later.