Tag Archives: Bomber Command

Stories about my Dad (3)

In 1946, my Dad, Fred,  gave up his exciting job as a Brylcreem Boy of Bomber Command and signed up to be for what was called at the time “emergency training” as a teacher. It has always intrigued me as to how many veterans of Bomber Command became teachers. And I have my own ideas about that! Fred finished up getting a job quite near to his home, at a school in Hastings Road in Church Gresley. The school was built in 1898 for 420 children. Fred taught there until the mid-1950s.

Here’s a modern map of the area. The Orange Arrow points to where Hastings Road School used to stand before it had to be demolished in the late 1950s, lest the subsidence problems made it collapse completely with the teachers and children inside :

When my Dad, Fred, worked there, the vast majority of the children were the sons and daughters of miners, both of coal and of clay. They were all what you would call “rough diamonds”.

Most of them, therefore, were far from sophisticated, either in their knowledge or their behaviour or, indeed, their hygiene. Fred used to tell the story of having a boy in his class called “Stinky Roberts” . At the beginning of the school year, Fred was given the helpful advice by his colleagues never to let this particular boy sit next to a hot radiator under any circumstances. If he sits next to a radiator, then make him move!

Whether it was because Fred did not believe the other teachers, or whether it was because, in the absence of any particularly obvious hygiene problem, he quite simply forgot their advice, remains unclear.  But on one unfortunate day, when “Stinky” did get to sit by that scorching radiator, the wisdom of his colleagues became manifest, as the unbelievable stench of long unwashed filth and ancient, uncontrolled urine wafted inescapably around the room. In this way, Fred learnt one of the most important basics of teaching, namely that no boy is ever given a nickname without very good reason.

At one point, Fred had a bet with another teacher that he could leave his class working quietly while he went down to Lloyds Bank in Swadlincote to draw out some money. The pupils were told to behave themselves properly while he was away, and to continue with their work. This they duly did, and Fred won the bet.

In another variation of what was obviously the same story, Fred did not go down to the bank in Swadlincote, but instead, went to post a letter at the Church Gresley Post Office, a destination considerably nearer to Hastings Road School, and, from the point of view of unsupervised children, a much shorter, and therefore, perhaps, a more plausible time to be away.

One of Fred’s more pleasant jobs was the fact that he ran the school football team. He was partnered in this by his young friend, Vernon Langford. We do actually have a misty photograph of the staff at Hastings Road. Here it is :

The teachers are (back row), Mr Morris, Mr Roberts, Mr Baker, Mr Picker, Mr Goodall and Mr Knifton. The front row comprises Miss Rowe, Miss Smith, Mr Handford, Mrs Errington and Mrs P Middleton.

Fred’s teaching career at Hastings Road reached its pinnacle when he was conducting a lesson in Physics. At this time all secondary school teachers, even those who were trained to teach Geography, were expected to be able to turn their hand to more or less anything.

Fred’s brief was to demonstrate the effects of air pressure, so he took a pint glass, filled it with water, and then put a sheet of card over the top. He then explained that in a moment, when he turned the glass upside down, the contents would not spill out, because the air pressure on the card, which was equal to hundreds of pounds, was pressing down and keeping it in place. This news was received by the children, of course, with immense scepticism.

When Fred turned the glass over, however, perhaps as much to his surprise as anybody else’s, the rather unlikely result was that the card did actually stay in place, and the water did not spill out. The children’s reaction was astonishing. They were all totally amazed. One boy stood up, and shouted at the top of his voice, “A miracle ! A miracle ! Mester Knifton’s worked a miracle ! ” And then he ran out of the room and around the school, still shouting

“A miracle ! A miracle ! Mester Knifton’s worked a miracle ! ”

I believe that this incident was the closest that Fred ever came to being regarded as divine. Here’s a video of a mere mortal man trying out this trick:

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Stories about my Dad (2)

In 1946, my Dad, Fred,  left the Brylcreem Boys of the RAF and Bomber Command, and signed up to be trained as a teacher. He finished up getting a job quite near to his home in Hartshorne Road, Woodville. It was at the school in Hastings Road in Church Gresley. He taught there until the mid-1950s. In the 1990s, when I used to go and watch the local football/soccer team, Gresley Rovers, I met one or two of his erstwhile pupils who all remembered him, as a very strict teacher who brooked no nonsense. That might well have been because the teenage sons of coalminers at Hastings Road would have been a tough proposition to keep under control in classes of more than forty, especially for a first time teacher. I can quite well imagine that Fred would have had to employ what DH Lawrence, faced also with teaching the teenage sons of coalminers, called “three years’ savage teaching of collier lads”.

Here’s Hastings Road School. I have used one of the reprinted Victorian maps of England sold by Alan Godfrey . Hastings Road is in the middle of the eastern edge:

Notice how many “Old coal shafts” there are, even in this small area. Just after the war, there were up to 17 coal mines active in the area, as well as numerous vast open cast clay mines. Just try to imagine how small a human figure would be on this postcard, if those are full sized factory buildings in the background. Open cast clay mines were really gigantic…….

All of these activities, of course, left the entire area prey to subsidence. I found a very short article about this particular area on the internet. It said that

“…….the subsidence here was so severe the town’s plight became a national embarrassment. Schools, libraries and even entire streets were either propped up or knocked down as the town sank at an alarming rate.”

As a little boy in the late 1950s, we often used to drive up to Church Gresley to see the houses which had been damaged by the subsidence, which was produced by a 150-odd years of intensive coal mining. These houses were easily recognisable, being  propped up with huge beams of wood or extra long railway sleepers. Here are some of the less serious supports in a picture from a 1949 newspaper. I can remember enormously thick beams of wood when I saw them in the late 1950s. The houses must have been in an even worse state by then. Most of them had, in fact, been evacuated.:

The caption reads:

“SOME OF THE HOUSES IN CORONATION STREET” Built between the two great wars, and therefore comparatively new, as age is assessed in terms of bricks and mortar. There are nearly 50, supported by great baulks of timber, like those shown above and bound together with iron rods. Two are empty, being quite uninhabitable, and in others ceilings are falling, windows cracking and doors refusing to function.”

If the the houses were built in a coronation year, “between the two great wars” they can only date from 1936 and were thus only thirteen years old at  the time of the newpaper photograph. There is a very short video available.  The title refers to “Swadlincote” which is the name of the local area:

Thirty, forty years after my Dad had left Hastings Road School. I went to Hastings Road to take some photographs of the school. Alas, the buildings were no longer there, and had clearly fallen victim to the subsidence that I knew had claimed so many local houses. I began to investigate but I couldn’t find anybody who knew for certain the true detailed story of the demise of Hastings Road  School. Perhaps one day, the beams arrived, and the next day, before they could be put into position, the whole school fell down. That must have cheered up all those “collier lads”. Here’s the school today. Today’s pavement would have been directly in front of the school’s front wall:

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POST NUMBER 600: Two brothers fighting fascism (5)

This is my 600th post. Enjoy !!!

On Saturday, February 13th 1943,  Robert Renwick Jackson was flying his Boston III Intruder, serial number AL766, towards Nantes in western France:

His mission was to drop propaganda leaflets for the occupied French, so they could read the real truth about the war for themselves.

Alas, Robert Renwick Jackson died that night along with his navigator. The upper and rear-gunner, Sergeant TS McNeil, survived and became Prisoner of War No 27276 at Lamsdorf, then in German Silesia but now in south-western Poland. Here’s a typical POW camp:

And here’s a hut nowadays:

The second casualty in the Boston was Peter John LeBoldus, the navigator, who would have been sitting in the nose of the aircraft. His name is virtually unknown in England, but he is better known in Canada. His parents were John LeBoldus and Regina LeBoldus née Weisberg, German Catholic immigrants who had six sons and six daughters. John was a hardware and implement dealer. The family lived in Vibank in Saskatchewan. One of the highlights of Peter’s very short life must have been taking tea with the Queen Mother and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret at Windsor Castle with a group of newly arrived Canadian Airmen in England.

On this particular night, Peter John was preparing for the mission and his brother Martin, also a member of 418 Squadron, but working as a mechanic, had helped him put on his flying clothes and his parachute harness. This was the last time the brothers ever saw each other. This is Peter LeBoldus:

Peter John LeBoldus is buried next to his friend, Robert Renwick Jackson, in Grandcourt War Cemetery.

Sadly, Peter John was not the only member of the LeBoldus family to die in the war. John Anthony “Johnny” LeBoldus was a member of 142 (RAF) Squadron, where he was an air gunner in a Vickers Wellington Mk X, serial number LN566, squadron letters QT-D, “D-Dog”. They took off from RAF Oudna in Tunisia on November 24th 1943 to bomb a ball bearing factory at Villar Perosa near Turin, at the very limit of their range. Extreme weather with wind, cloud, fog, rain, and ice caused the loss of 17 aircraft and 73 men were killed. “Johnny” LeBoldus was one of them:

The third LeBoldus brother to die was Martin Benedict LeBoldus, the same man who had helped his brother, Peter John, with his flying clothes and his parachute harness before his death in Boston AL766. Martin Benedict was killed on February 20, 1944 at the age of 31. He was the flight engineer in a Handley Page Halifax Mark II of the Canadian 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron in Bomber Command, serial number JD114, squadron letters VR-V, “V-Victor”. On February 20, 1944 he and his colleagues took off at 23:12 from RAF Middleton St George near Darlington to bomb Leipzig and they were never seen again. Six other men, with an average age of twenty four, were also killed. John Leslie Beattie, Thomas Gettings, Alfred Harvey Hackbart, Donald Clifford Lewthwaite, Douglas Keith MacLeod and John Ralph Piper.  A total of 79 bombers were lost that night. Here’s Martin Benedict LeBoldus:

Mr Leboldus wrote a very bitter letter to the Secretary of the Department of National Defence for Air about the death of his sons:

“Other boys spending their time of war in Canada, yes hundreds and thousands walking the streets of Canada for years, and all our three boys were in the front line of attack. I have my doubts whether this is right and just. Plenty of those who offered three four years ago never seen any fighting nor smelled any powder, why all mine have to do it?”

Certain other Canadian families no doubt felt the same way. They included the Cantin family, the Colville family, the Forestell family, the Griffiths family, the Kimmel family, the Lanteigne family, the Milner family, the Reynolds family, the Rich family, the Rivait family, the Stodgell family, the Wagner family and the Westlake family, all of whom sacrificed three sons to the cause.

Nowadays the LeBoldus brothers are not totally forgotten. Canada is a vast land so it is comparatively easy to give names to hitherto unnamed geographical features. They are called “geo-memorials” and there are now more than four thousand of them. Leboldus Lake in north-western Saskatchewan is named after Peter John Leboldus. The Leboldus Islands there are named after Martin Benedict Leboldus. The link between Leboldus Lake and Frobisher Lake is called the Leboldus Channel after John Anthony Leboldus. What a pity that we don’t do that over here in England.  What a pity there are no streets in either Nottingham or Solihull named after Robert Jackson, killed at the age of 22, fighting for his country.

(Picture of the black Boston borrowed from wp.scn.ru.)

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Poems in “The Nottinghamian” 1922-1946 (2)

Last time I showed you some of the poems which were published in the school magazine, the Nottinghamian, during the period of 1922-1946, although, to be honest, most of them were about the Second World War. Many of the poems are of a remarkably high standard, and give us quite an accurate snapshot of how boys saw events unfolding in an increasingly terrifying adult world.

During the war, countless thousands of children from British cities were evacuated to the peaceful countryside. Frank Alan Underwood of 51 Charnock Avenue, Wollaton Park, wrote this first poem, “Evacuated”, which appeared in April 1942. Frank was the son of a lecturer at the University of Nottingham. He left the High School in July 1943. He went to university with a State Bursary for Science:

EVACUATED

O for the City Smells once more,

For the asphalt under the rain,

For the harsh, unceasing, clanging roar

Of city streets again.

 

I am tired of cows and senseless sheep :

All is too quiet to let me sleep ;

But think of the harsh-hushed city din

That comforts me as sleep steals in.

I don’t know whatever happened to Frank, although I did find that a paper entitled “Textures in Metal Sheets” was issued in 1962 by Dr FA Underwood. Further googling yielded further results in the same field.

As the war dragged on, the shops seemed to have very little to sell. This is reflected in a poem entitled “Triolet” by Frederick Brian Perkins, a member of the Second Form A who lived at “Kingsley” in Egerton Road in Woodthorpe. His father was a timber merchant

What is a “Triolet”? Well, it’s an eight-line poem (or stanza) with a rhyme scheme of ABaAabAB. It is apparently very similar to a rondeau. Here’s one:

TRIOLET

In the shops nowadays,

There’s little to buy ;

We alter our ways ;

In the shops nowadays.

They have empty trays ;

And we all stand and sigh,

In the shops nowadays,

There’s little to buy.

The same tale of woe had been told by Donald Arthur Gospel of the Upper Fifth Form Classical in April 1942. Donald was the son of a departmental manager and lived at 70 Whitemoor Road in Old Basford:

VARIATIONS ON A WELL KNOWN THEME

Sing a song of chocolate:

The shoppers formed a queue,

Four and twenty people—

Soon everybody knew ;

When the shop was opened

The folk began to push ;

Now wasn’t that a silly thing,

To start another crush.

 

The profiteer was in his house,

Counting out his money ;

His friend was in the Black Market,

Selling jars of honey.

The folk were paying double

To have some extra cheese,

When off they went in a “Black Maria,”

Despite all their pleas.

 

In case you were unaware, this poem is a beautiful re-telling of the old nursery rhyme, “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

You can find the lyrics and a link to the video with the tune, HERE

Donald Gospel, our author, seems to have fought in the Indian Army in World War Two, moving from there in 1945 to be in the Sherwood Foresters and then the Queen’s Regiment in 1949. Donald passed away in 1995.

There was very little faith that there would be anything in the shops, or indeed, any end to the black marketeers, even eighteen months after the war’s end.

This poem was written by James Derrick Ward, born on December 19th 1933, who lived at 22 Windermere Road in Beeston. His father was the Chief Chemist in a Works Laboratory, possibly connected with one of the military depots at nearby Chilwell. The poem appeared in the Nottinghamian of December 1946. James left the High School in August 1950.

NOVEMBER 5TH, 1946

No squibs, no rockets,

Money in pockets

No fireworks in shop,

My spirits drop.

November.

 

No clothes for “Guys,”

Oh, hear my sighs !

No crackers leap,

My sorrow’s deep.

November.

 

No fiery wheels,

Nor thundery peals,

No happy night,

No bonfire bright.

November.

Fortunately, when victory had come almost eighteen months previously, there had been no shortage of fireworks in Moscow. Or people, if you look closely :

A lot of the High School boys had brothers or fathers in the forces. A rather pessimistic ditty occurs quite frequently in the Nottinghamian, with variations, regarding which particular branch of the forces and whether the location was the High School or a college at Oxford or Cambridge. Here we go. The first two refer to an Oxford or Cambridge college, where the main entrance is permanently manned by the college porters :

Nine little Undergrads, at the Porters’ Gate,

One is a sailor so now there are eight.”

And, a very similar poem:

 

Nine little Undergrads, at the Porters’ Gate,

One joined Bomber Command so now there are eight.”

But there is definitely one little poem which refers specifically to the actual High School in Nottingham:

“Nine Nottinghamians,

At the Forest Road gate,

One went to Bomber Command,

And then there were eight.”

And so on. And sadly, so true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two Old Nottinghamian brothers fighting fascism (1)

There is an interesting letter in the School Archives which begins:

“On December 10th 1988, my son, daughter and myself were visiting Nottingham to see my granddaughter who is at Trent University. We arrived on the Saturday morning, and found my old school, opposite the Forest but with locked gates. Then we suddenly noticed the gates opening. It was one of the teachers preparing to drive out before locking up. We were warm in our anoraks but although he was only wearing light clothes, this kind teacher offered to show us around the outside of the school buildings. The site of the former “Fives” court was, he told us, blocked by a newer building. Memories began flooding back.”

The writer was John T Jackson who left school in 1935 at the age of twelve. His father’s job was transferred to Birmingham and he and his brother transferred to Solihull Grammar School. Here are the school gates on Forest Road in 1932:

Here are the two fives courts, now replaced by the Sports Hall:

When young John Jackson attended the junior school, Mr Day was the headmaster. One day the boys were all taken outside to see the flight overhead of the new airship, the R101.

The buildings had not changed much as the little group all walked towards the front of the school. Mr Jackson remembered that the steps at the front of the school led to the Headmaster’s room. Then they saw the War Memorial. Mr Jackson had not realised that it would contain so many names. Over two hundred had died to halt fascism. He scanned the names, picking out his brother “Jackson RR”. He was very grateful to see this tribute to the courage and sacrifice that he and his fellow pupils had made.

Robert Renwick Jackson served in the RAF as a pilot in No 40 Squadron based at Chelmsford and flew on low level night intruder missions against enemy targets. In 1943 he was shot down in the coastal area of northern France. He and his observer are buried at Grandcourt in France:

After taking a few photos, John Jackson returned to his car, thanking the teacher for his kindness. When they found the gates locked they had been ready to accept that the best they could manage was to look from outside.

John Jackson had a far luckier war than his brother. He trained as a navigator in the RAF and was stationed at Kinloss in Scotland. His captain was Mac Hamilton, and they survived two tours in Bomber Command. After ten trips to Berlin with 619 Squadron, the whole crew volunteered to join 617 Squadron after Gibson’s successful raid on the dams. 617 was then commanded by Leonard Cheshire who had a precision way of marking targets with special bomb sights. They carried the Tallboy bomb weighing 12000 lbs and attacked special targets such as the U-boat pens, certain tunnels and canals, and rocket sites. Their last two operations were against the Tirpitz battleship. It took a total of three attacks to sink the Tirpitz.”

To be continued………..

 

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What would you do ? (12) The Solution

“What would you do ?” used to figure on the cover of a boys’ comic called “Boys’ World”. This was a publication, obviously, aimed at boys, and first appeared on January 26th 1963. There were 89 issues before the comic was merged with Eagle in 1964. The last issue of “Boys’ World” came out on October 3rd 1964.

I used to buy “Boys’ World”, and this was mainly for the front cover which always featured a kind of puzzle. It was called “What would you do ?” and was based on somebody being in what Ned Flanders would call “A dilly of a pickle”. Here’s the situation:

And here is the puzzle:

And as we turn quickly to page two, we find out that:

“There is only one thing the fighter pilot can do. Sweeping down out of his dive he flies alongside the V.I., maintaining the same speed. Then, he gently manoeuvres his wing-tip under the wingtip of the deadly bomb. With a gentle pull on his stick, he turns his plane away, his wing whipping the V.1. over. Its delicate gyro-compass thrown off-course, the bomb hurtles earthward, to explode harmlessly in open countryside.”

So now you know!!

The people who throw around their accusations  about Bomber Command, aiming them chiefly at Bomber Harris, as if he was the Number One in the RAF rather than someone subject to a whole chain of superior officers and politicians, they forget both the V-1 and the V-2, which were pilotless and aimed only in the most general of terms. The V-1s were all aimed at Target 42, London, and more precisely, Tower Bridge. They never hit Tower Bridge or even got particularly close. V-2s were even more random and indiscriminate. In efforts ordered personally by Hitler to blow up the bridge over the Rhine at Remagen, no V-2 got within 900 yards but they did hit Cologne (still German at the time).

The statistics are not very precise but 22,880 V-1s were fired at targets in England (8,892) and Belgium (11,988). Around 4,000 V-2s were launched at targets in England (c 1,400) and Belgium (2,342). The main target in Belgium was the port of Antwerp. Hitler was determined to deny its use to the Allies. Overall,  V-weapons killed approximately 18,000 people in England and Belgium. Nearly all of them were  civilians.

Here’s a V-1 and a Spitfire playing nicely:

And here’s a V2 setting off to annihilate as many civilians as possible in London. It was designed by SS Sturmbannführer Werner von Braun, soon to be an American citizen and certainly not a war criminal responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of slave workers, most of them Russian or East European, particularly Poles. Hopefully though, like the Führer, he loved his dog:

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (8)

In his book, “The Relentless Offensive”, Roy Irons does not forget to discuss at great length, the huge losses of both aircraft and aircrew suffered by Bomber Command:

Even on night raids, bombers were shot down in great numbers, both by flak and by nightfighters such as the Junkers Ju88:

In part, this was because aircraft such as the Whitley, the Hampden, the Blenheim, the Manchester, the Stirling and the Halifax were to a greater or a lesser extent, just not up to the job. The Lancaster, in contrast, was an outstanding aircraft, although even the “Lanc”, despite being the bomber of choice of the vast majority of Bomber Command aircrew, was itself still shot down in large numbers.

Casualties, in actual fact, were enormous.

In the First Phase of the bomber war, the Battle of the Ruhr (March 1st to July 1943), Bomber Command lost 1,038 aircraft, some 4.3% of their total strength.

In the Second Phase, the Battle of Hamburg (July 24th-August 3rd 1943) 139 aircraft were lost.

Unlike the First Phase, however, the Second Phase was a total victory for the RAF. Some forty thousand Germans were killed and a million fled the city. As Albert Speer realised:

“Six more like that and all war production will come to a total halt.”

The Third Phase was the Battle of Berlin (August  1943–March 31st 1944). Bomber Command lost 1,778 aircraft as Harris’ promise “to wreck Berlin from end to end” went terribly, terribly, wrong.

During these three phases, 396 days had passed, and 2,955 bombers had been lost. There were seven men in each one of them and on average no more than two ever escaped alive.

The problems were, as we have already said, that the bombers, on very single one of those 396 days, had had defend themselves with rifle calibre bullets. Secondly, escort fighters at night were almost completely unknown. The ranges of every single RAF fighter except one were largely inadequate , and in any case the Mosquito night fighter was way too fast to fly alongside four engined bombers:

To these two factors can be added the ten thousand plus anti aircraft guns  protecting the Reich. The majority of those guns were the deadly “8.8 cm Flak”, known universally to the hundreds of thousands of people involved in operating them as the “Acht-acht” (“eight-eight”).

Overall, though, Harris was right. Bombing worked. It destroyed both factories and living accommodation and at the same time, it kept hundreds of thousands of people tied up, busy defending Germany. Were it not for Bomber Command, those hundreds of thousands of people, and their ten thousand plus anti aircraft guns, would have been on the Eastern Front, knocking over T-34 tanks, and putting a brake on those huge Soviet advances into the Reich.

And that’s without counting the actual damage the bombers did. Albert Speer, for example, stated that through the activities of the RAF a minimum of 35% of tank production had been lost and 31% of aircraft production and 42% of lorry production.

Over the course of the conflict, though, it must be admitted that the war-winning aircraft of Bomber Command had actually been found to be “pitifully vulnerable”.

During the very rough total of 2000 days of war, Bomber Command had lost the equivalent of four heavy bombers on every single one of them:

The people who decided the tactics, with the notable exception of Harris, had initially attached far too much attention to the old doctrine that “the bomber will always get through”, a war-cry which dated back as far as the distant days of the Spanish Civil War when the Legión Cóndor had invented area bombing by its carefully planned attack on Guernica:

Perhaps Bomber Command losses might have been cut if they had taken a leaf out of Fighter Command’s book. The top fighter pilots always turned themselves into fabulous marksmen by one means or another. Constant shooting practice, they found, was a good method to try. This method was “completely ignored in the training of bomber gunners” and the top brass actually suggested that the standards of gunners’ eyesight should be lowered, because of the shortage of gunners.
The net result was that Bomber Command did not shoot down too many enemy fighters. As the author, Roy Irons, states, the air war in the West won by the 0.5 calibre guns of the P-51s and the B-17s. In 1944, the Luftwaffe lost 914 night fighters, mainly to Bomber Command. In the same period of time, 6,039 dayfighters were shot down by P-51 Mustangs.
Here’s the Luftwaffe’s cutting edge night fighter, the Heinkel He219, with a fantastic array of radar  aerials.

And finally, if you enjoy discovering more irreverent truths about Bomber Command’s war, you might enjoy “Britain 1939-1945: The economic cost of strategic bombing” by John T Fahey. It is available on line here although it may take a long time to load.

There is a very interesting discussion about the book here.

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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.

 

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (7)

Mainly because Harris was in charge only of Bomber Command and not of any of the various other civil service departments that he dealt with, there were continued and repeated failures to produce a variety of the equipment which was needed to fight the war effectively. In his book, “The Relentless Offensive” by Roy Irons, he discusses the most important examples of the many failures by the Ministry of Supply:

As we have seen, they included the aluminised bomb, the 0·50 machine gun, the cluster bomb and the high proportion of ordinary bombs which failed to explode on contact with the target. Such failures were so frequent, that Harris said that a huge number of the civil service departments should all have the motto “Non possumus”  (“We can’t do that.”).

The most basic problem was that the proportion of warriors “at the sharp end” continued to decline throughout the war, as an increasingly large number of fairly useless and largely impotent civil service departments exerted their enormous influence on events. As the author says:

“The tail, in Bomber Command’s war, was wagging the dog, and often forgetting the dog altogether in its own day to day programme.”

Just look at the contrast between the American “Can-do” and the English “Non possumus”. In the USA, the prototype for the P-51 fighter was produced one day early,  after only 119 days. Imagine that. Somebody sharpens his pencil to start working on the design of a new aircraft, and 17 weeks later, it’s off down the runway on its maiden flight:

For the 0·50 machine gun, the British Civil Service Armament Department gave an estimate of 15 years before it could be brought into use. And the cluster bombs of fifty or a hundred 4lb incendiaries, in actual fact, never did appear. If they had, Bomber Command might have been able to fulfil the macabre prophecy of Albert Speer, “The Nice Nazi”, after the firestorm had destroyed Hamburg in July 1945:

“Six more like that and all war production will come to a total halt.”

Hamburg was devastated by the inadvertent creation of a fire storm, the first ever produced by the RAF:

There were to be only two more. They were, if my memory serves me well, Dresden and Darmstadt. Who knows to what extent the war might have been shortened had Harris had access to cluster bombs of incendiaries? How many fewer casualties would the RAF  have had? And how many fewer Germans overall would have died? And where would Stalin’s hordes have got to? Minsk?

Perhaps even more deplorable was the frequency with which British bombs failed to detonate. Around 20% of bombs were “flat strikes”, which means that they quite simply didn’t go off. For most of them, it was because, as they fell, their fins were supposed to make them spin, and this spinning would arm the bombs so that they would explode on contact with the ground. Except that very often, far too often, no spin meant no bang ! Presumably these are the hundreds of “unexploded bombs” which are still found on a regular basis all over Germany on a regular basis:

Every time the Germans try to construct an urban motorway or lay the foundations for a skyscraper of some kind, they seem to unearth a few more. And the tragedy is, of course, that these WW2 duds are still continuing to kill or maim the completely innocent and enormously brave young Germans who are tasked with defusing them.

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Bomber Harris, not a happy man (5)

According to Roy Irons in his splendid book, “The Relentless Offensive: War and Bomber Command”, Arthur Harris hated the Short Stirling, but he reserved his finest vitriol for the Handley Page Halifax. Here’s a Mark I:

The Mark I had Merlins and a front turret but the Mark 2 had the Merlins and a different nose:

The Mark III has the familiar nose, but has a different tail and Bristol Hercules radial engines:

Harris was not alone though in his hostility towards the Halifax. It was well known fact that the Halifax could not lift its bombload up to 20,000 feet and that its range was too short to take any 0f the longer, more evasive routes as the Lancasters did. Per hundred tons of bombs dropped, the Lancaster lost only one third of the personnel who were killed in Halifaxes. Overall, three Halifaxes were lost to every two Lancasters and those two Lancasters dropped almost twice the weight of bombs dropped by the three Halifaxes.

Harris knew all of these basic facts about the Halifax but he also knew a great deal of other information which nobody else was given. Most of it came from the captured pilots of Junkers Ju88 nightfighters.  They reported that they “could normally approach our aircraft well within gun range and even up to fifty yards without apparently being seen at all”.

Here’s a Ju88 night fighter:

To prove the point, Harris borrowed a Bristol Beaufighter and its crew from 25 Squadron at RAF Wittering and had a Halifax bomber put to the test. The two crewmembers in the Beaufighter found that the Halifax bomber they were chasing had “inadequate exhaust dampers” which meant that the flames from the bomber’s engines were visible to the Beaufighter one and a half miles away. In contrast, the rear gunner of the Halifax could only see the Beaufighter if it was within 1100 yards, just over six tenths of a mile. And that was looking back in level flight. Harris found that the Halifax rear turret possessed “blindness in all directions, and especially downwards”. He stated that the turret was “80% angle iron and 20% scratched perspex”.

Only in 1944 did a turret which has the kind of visibility that is required become available. It was actually designed by Bomber Command themselves. This was the Rose turret, mentioned previously, which was designed, at the specific demands of Bomber Harris, by Air Vice Marshal Edward Rice.  Rice was one of the senior Bomber Command station commanders, and had travelled with Harris to visit Rose Brothers at the start of the project. He subsequently led No. 1 Group RAF. Here’s a Rose turret being fitted. Bigger, longer guns and no metal in the line of vision:

Harris called the Halifax “a deplorable aircraft” on more than one occasion. He thought that the aircraft and its dreadful Bristol Hercules engines were particularly well suited to each other and that these awful engines should be reserved exclusively for the Halifax, because “it’s useless anyway”. Harris despaired that:

“nothing whatever is being done to make this deplorable product worthy for war”.

Harris was no fool, though, and realised that:

“the two strongest motives of Englishmen in the aircraft industry are patriotic devotion and commercial gain. They will never think of new designs when more orders for the old ones are to be had. To obtain or maintain an order book, aircraft companies will promise anything”.

Occasionally, Harris put it more bluntly:

“Nothing will be done until Handley Page and his gang are kicked out, lock, stock and barrel.”

This could not be done though, and instead Handley Page continued to make Halifaxes and to sell them to the RAF, whose use of “this deplorable aircraft” was limited to attacking short range targets. The reason for this was that if the Halifax was abandoned, six months’ bomber production would have been lost, because all of the extra tools and facilities for producing Lancasters would have needed to be put into place.

Harris was convinced that the Bomber Command offensive was vital to winning the war. He had no patience whatsoever with any of the board members at either Handley Page or Shorts:

“Unless we can get the heavy bomber programme put right, we are sunk. We cannot do this by polite negotiation with these crooks and incompetents. In Russia it would long ago have been arranged with a gun, and to that extent, I am a fervid Communist.”

Just to make it 100% clear, the “crooks and incompetents” were Handley Page and his gang and Oswald Short and a good many others in his firm. And Harris wanted them all put against a wall and shot:

 

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