The place where I grew up, Woodville, in World War 2

I grew up in a small village called Woodville, just to the south of Derby, in more or less the centre of England. Cue “The Orange Arrow” :

The village used to be called Wooden Box because of the large wooden box occupied by the man who operated the toll gate on the toll road between Ashby de la Zouch and Burton-upon-Trent.  The name Woodville first appeared in 1845. Nowadays, there is a roundabout where his box used to be, although the location itself is still called “Tollgate”. Here’s an old postcard of the “Tollgate” :

My Dad, Fred, told me that the majority of the people in Woodville were pretty much unaware of the existence of World War Two. It had comparatively little impact in this mostly country area, where rationing was offset by the inhabitants’ ability to grow food for themselves, and even to raise their own pigs and chickens. Food, therefore, was relatively freely available, if not abundant, and the war seemed to be very distant. Woodville seemed to be an unchanging pastoral paradise:

The twenty year old Fred despised the comfortable lives of the older people in Woodville. They would live out their humdrum lives without any risk whatsoever, while he was laying his life on the line pretty much every single day in Bomber Command:

The contempt he had for the inhabitants of the village, though, was perhaps a measure of his own fear at being asked to fly over burning Bremen or Cologne, or some other heavily defended Bomber Command target :

Young men, of course, went away from Woodville and from time to time their parents were duly informed that they would never return:

It was only too easy, though, for others to view that profoundly sad process as similar to that of the young men who might have moved away from the village for reasons of employment, or even in order to emigrate to another country.

Occasionally, enemy aircraft would fly over Woodville, identifiable by their particular and peculiar engine noise. On one dark night, on November 14th 1940, many local people, Fred included, walked up to the Greyhound Inn near Boundary :

Everybody stood on the opposite side of the road from the public house and looked south. The view from that spot stretches thirty or forty miles or more into the southern Midlands

As they stood and looked, they were able to see the bright glow in the sky as Coventry burned, a city whose centre was almost completely destroyed by the Germans. There was, though, very little direct effect of German bombing on the local area around Woodville.

On one occasion, a Heinkel III night bomber, panicking about where he was, possibly pursued by a night fighter and perhaps worried that he might not make it back to the Fatherland, jettisoned all his bombs over the nearby village of Church Gresley. Look for “der fliegende orangefarbene Pfeil” :

The bombs all landed near Hastings Road, not far from the school where Fred would teach immediately after the war. They demolished an entire row of houses which backed onto Gresley Common, and all the inhabitants, almost thirty unfortunate people, were accidentally killed.

Years later, in the 1990s, Fred was able to explain these events to a man digging in the garden of his new townhouse, built recently on the site of the Second World War disaster. The man could not understand why the soil was so full of broken bricks, bath tiles and so many smithereens of old fashioned blue and white patterned crockery:

The only other direct connection with World War 2 was the unfortunate soldier and ex-prisoner-of-war who finally returned to Woodville in late 1945 or early 1946, having spent years as the unwilling guest of Emperor Hirohito, and the Japanese Imperial Army.

The poor man was unbelievably gaunt, and he had lost so much weight that his clothes flapped on his body like sails on a mast:

He did not receive as much sympathy as he might have done from the citizens of Woodville, though, when they found out that he had actually eaten snakes in his efforts not to starve to death. “Really ! Snakes ! ! ” Here’s snake soup, a delicacy in China but not as highly prized as bat and pangolin, apparently:

Fred, of course, had a view of such events very different from that of the average native of Woodville. Almost sixty years later, when I cleared out his house after his death, there was not a single Japanese electrical device to be found. Everything came from the factories of Philips in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

 

31 Comments

Filed under History, Personal, the Japanese, war crimes

31 responses to “The place where I grew up, Woodville, in World War 2

  1. I was fascinated by the origin of the name; the pastoral pic is idyllic; I can’t forgive those emaciated images.

    • “Wooden” Box persisted for at least 130 years after “Woodville” was coined. My Grandad (1888-1970) would always say, when he was going shopping along High Street, “I’m goin’ up Box” , the “up” referring to the fact that he lived near the bottom of the single hill the village was on, and “Box” as short for “Wooden” Box.
      The pastoral picture is just taken from Google, but up to 1939, Woodville would have looked very much like that, at least on the northern side, away from the clay mines.

  2. So many views of the war. Each are interesting in their own right. Seeing a returning POW must have comparable to an alien.

    • Absolutely. The men who saw combat and were then guests of the emperor must have led lives just about as different as they could possibly be from what the villagers knew.
      One slightly surprising aspect though, is that a lot of the men who showed the ex-POW relatively little sympathy, were themselves combat veterans of WW1 and had been in the trenches for years. Getting on for 150 men from a village of around 2000 were killed in WW1.

  3. Ghastly shots of the starved and tortured combined with the idyllic countryside. What a contrast.

    • It certainly is. I suspect that the villagers’ attitudes were possibly through their own guilt. This man had suffered, for them, for years and years, and perhaps they did not know how to treat him, just retreating into their own prejudices about snakes.
      One other thing is that when this man returned from Japan he would have been very much an afterthought for the villagers. They would already have celebrated VE-Day in May, because the European War was their war, not the Far East. He would then have got back from his prison camp, possibly as late as early 1946, but he would have been the only one, and was probably unannounced, with little fuss made….except by his family.

  4. The saying sort of goes that war touches everyone. Even so, it would seem that many were oblivious to it, even with an arrogance to those very souls who were protecting them. How they could not welcome POWs back as heroic is just unbelievable. I can see why your father had such a dim view of them.

    • Yes, he wasn’t too impressed. At this time he was also dealing with his own demons. He had seen two men die horrifically in front of his eyes, carried out 19 combat missions, and had had the constant fear of death in his mind, even when he was with an OTU. And he was still only 23 when the war ended.
      For the villagers, the war was something very far away, where a lad from the village died from time to time, but overall, very little was different from pre-war life except rationing.

      • It was an awful lot for a 19/20 year old to deal with. It must surely have had an impact on his whole life. I sincerely hope he managed to deal with it.

      • Looking back, he wasn’t perfect, but I think over the years he gradually improved. He had a lot of nervous tics during my childhood, for example, and one or two outbursts of temper when I was naughty.
        He was certainly very good with his grand-daughter in the 1990s, although I suppose you could say that that does constitute a 45 year wait for him to be totally normal.

      • I just hope that within himself he came to some sort of terms with what he went through. I’m imagine you, just like me, are proud of your father and now understand the reason for any such swings in mood or temperament he may have had, however odd at the time.

  5. Enjoyed reading your story of Woodville, a place untouched by war. It’s a reminder that the violence and evils of our world do not touch us all in the same way.

    • That’s a very different, and subtle, way of looking at it. To be absolutely honest, I suppose that in what I have written, I have taken my Dad’s point of view as the one to have, but I know now from other sources that some of those villagers were touched in different ways. 41 families lost a son, for example, and many locals worked in war factories, doing ten hour shifts perhaps six days a week. After that, in the evening, they formed the local defence force, the Home Guard, or perhaps manned searchlights to protect the aircraft engine factories in Derby. In actual fact, I suspect very few of the people in the village were completely unaffected, and once you start thinking about it, and doing a little research, you come to appreciate this.

  6. A really good piece of social history. I enjoyed reading it!

    • I’m glad to hear that. I suppose that most tales of civilian life in WW2 do tend to concentrate on the blitz which was suffered in so many cities with perhaps a lot less recorded about villages such as Woodville. These must have been very strange times with the village almost, but not quite, isolated from the war. I suppose that that image, of the villagers all standing outside the Greyhound Inn, watching Coventry burn some forty miles away, sums up WW2 for Woodville, although, as I said in my reply to Rosaliene Bacchus, there may be other, more subtle points to make.

  7. Oh John. This is such a terrible story you have told. I can not imagine how anyone can have lived through those years and not felt the pain. And the lack of understanding when a survivor of the Japanese hell is not welcomed as an heroic survivor. I could say so much more but you have said it all.

  8. Well, all I can say is how my Dad felt both when he returned on leave and when he was promptly released by the RAF on November 19th 1946. As I said above, the families who lost sons, 41 of them, must have been affected, but apart from that, my Dad felt little had changed. People behaved in exactly the same way as pre-war, and there was little impact on day-to-day life.
    If I played Devil’s Advocate for a moment, perhaps the people who felt so little sympathy for the Japanese POW survivor, were simply ignorant. A lot of English people thought that German prison camps were a home-from-home, with three square meals a day, football pitches, up-to-date newspapers, and heated accommodation. Perhaps such ignorance prevented them from understanding exactly what had occurred in the emperor’s POW camps.
    In the1950s, the library in Woodville was absolutely stuffed with books about WW2. One of the most popular authors, of course, was the Australian, Russell Braddon. Judging by the battered condition of nearly all of those books, by that time, the villagers were keener to understand the sad realities of what had happened in the war,.

    • Jeff Tupholme

      There’s quite an interesting parallel here with my own family. My great uncle was a PoW in Burma, working in the mines. We’ve all heard about the railway but I imagine the mines were just as bad, if not worse. Meanwhile, his twin brother looks to have had a pretty easy ride of it stationed on Gibraltar. They seemed to have been very close before the war but more distant afterwards and their respective families didn’t mix much. I’ve wondered whether it stemmed from their very different war experiences.

      • I think you’re probably right. The only thing left to solve is which way round was it? Was Burma-uncle angry with his twin, just as my Dad was? An irrational emotion, but one that he certainly had. Or, did Gibraltar-uncle feel embarrassed at what an easy time he had had, and he didn’t want to face up to somebody so close to him who had really suffered.
        It was a great pity that neither of them seems to have initiated any peace talks, or that another member of the family made an effort to bring them together.
        Family feelings of this type can be really horrible. I have a brother six years younger than me and twenty years ago he made it clear that he did not ever want to see me again. But he offered no reason, and I do not know of any. But there’s nothing to be done about it. I know, I’ve tried!!

  9. Another fascinating perspective from history, John. Thank you for a great read all except pictures of that starving man. Those are unnerving.

  10. Chris Waller

    It is interesting to read of you dad’s sentiments towards those people among whom he had lived, and also of theirs towards returning servicemen. I cannot pretend to understand how people negotiated psychologically the situation, not of their choosing, into which they were pitched. I have heard my mother speak of that night when she stood at the back-bedroom window and saw Coventry burning. My mother only really began to appreciate the reality of war when she was sent to Derby to work on munitions. There is an unbridgeable chasm of experience between those who have lived through war and those who haven’t. To this day I still cannot understand some of my parents’ attitudes, but then I have, fortunately, never lived through a war and so probably never will understand.

    • That is a very wise answer. I think that for my Dad the basic thing was that, if you lived in Woodville, like the baker, the butcher, the next door neighbour and so on, not a lot was going to happen to you. Statistically, Dublin was bombed more often than Woodville. But my Dad had lain on his bunk in a Nissen hut and watched the special ,squad in action. Soon after a raid returned, they would come in and take all the belongings, clothes, books, pens, camera etc, of a dead man and remove them all to be sorted before they were sent to his next of kin. The bed was stripped, the pillow changed, the wardrobe cleaned and so on. And it wasn’t just one bed usually. No wonder my Dad had facial tics and was over fond of hard drink.
      I shall soon be looking at a book called “Soldaten” which talks, among other things, about the Vietnam War. One soldier said that there were two things you learnt and you couldn’t have learnt them back home in the USA.
      No 1 was “Death is for ever.” Your buddy Frank will never walk into the canteen again. Never wave to you again. And No 2 was the answer to the question “When do you realise that death is for ever ?” And his reply was, “If you go to see Frank for the last time, he’ll be in one of a good few body bags. When they zip up his body bag, Frank isn’t coming back.”
      In sharp contrast, as far as I know, nobody was killed in the parish of Woodville at any point in WW2. Young men went away to fight and were killed, but Woodville was as safe in war as it had been in peace.

  11. It is tragic to see the three men. I wonder if they recovered.

    • As far as I know, yes, they did, although it would have been a long job, with lots of plain food to begin with. One problem. though, was that their overall health was often affected by their treatment, and they tended to be more severely affected when they caught an ordinary ailment.

  12. My father-in-law used to say in the small village where he lived World war 2 had very little impact. Life went on as it had but then an army camp was established a little away and local people were always scared. There was a little rationing but in those days in villages did not buy much from shops, they were self reliant in lots of ways. Thank you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it! In actual fact, our village was surrounded by prisoner of war camps and German prisoners used to come and work on the farms and in various quarries, but I’m not sure that anybody noticed them. However, a future blog post will tell the story of just one Englishman and one German who made contact with each other…..over a nice cup of tea ( India’s gift to the world! )

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