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Open Features: My War - Part IV

…It was the likes of Bernard Miles, and other radio comedians such as Gillie Potter, with his weekly monologue, “The News From Hogsnorton, Spoken in English”; Rob Wilton, with his opening line, “The day war broke out, my Missus said to me ‘What are you going to do about it?’; and Tommy Handley with his fast talking weekly radio show, that brightened our lives in the darkest of times. I was such a Tommy Handley fan that I would sneak out of bed to sit on the stairs, even on freezing nights, to listen to his broadcasts. The very satire of their performances made the serious reality of the war seem ridiculous…

John Merchant recalls radio comedians who helped to boost British morale during World War Two.

This is the fourth in a series of five articles.

In typical, “make do” English style, it wasn’t long before people came up with recipes to stretch out their food allowances. One I remember consisted of whipping together butter, margarine (which was pretty unpalatable in those days), flour and milk. The resulting mixture was quite enjoyable, and preferred by some people even after rationing had ended. Interestingly, in the late 1960’s, I believe an author was seeking those wartime recipes to assemble into a cook book. I don’t know if it ever got written.

Children also received supplements of concentrated orange juice and cod liver oil. The orange juice, from government stockpiles, came in a medicine style bottle and was very acrid, even after it was diluted. I was probably the only child in Britain who preferred the cod liver oil to the orange juice, and to this day like oily fish the best. The Government also issued peanut butter in brown cardboard cartons that, looking back on it, was quite good compared with the highly processed product sold today.

Clothes rationing was very hard on some people, particularly those with growing families. I was going through one of my growth spurts at the time, and seemed to need new shoes every six months. Hand-me-downs became a way of life for the larger families. Women wore shorter skirts, shockingly above the knee, to reduce the amount of material used, and therefore the number of coupons required, and other women took to wearing men’s suits, though we suspected that many of them might have preferred to do that anyway, rationing or no rationing.

Silk stockings were unobtainable, and nylons were as yet in the future, so women painted their legs and drew a seam at the back with black eyebrow pencils. On a rainy day the paint and the eyebrow pencil ran, creating quite a sad spectacle.

Probably the most difficult thing to obtain during the war was the truth. We were led to believe that only the Germans indulged in propaganda, as practiced by the master, Reich Minister Dr. Joseph Goebels. My parents, along with most adults, believed everything they read in the newspapers and heard on the radio was true, and we kids believed our parents. Little did any of us realize that the Allied Governments had large departments manufacturing “the news’’. Only when the news was favorable did we get the truth, and sometimes not even then.

It wasn’t until after the cessation of hostilities in Europe and Russia that we learned of the debacle at Arnhem; and the deadly foolhardiness of the attack on Dieppe at the cost of 3,367 Canadian casualties, 106 aircraft, a destroyer, and numerous landing craft; and a number of other, ill planned ventures. In retrospect it’s perhaps just as well we were kept in ignorance of some of the setbacks and blunders, but it frequently has been a mistake to underestimate the ability of the British to deal with misfortune.

Prior to “D Day,” when the Allied invasion of Europe began, one aspect of the skewed information we were fed was that Britain was more or less single-handedly fighting the war against Germany. Little emphasis was given to the USA’s massive role in the supply of materiel, sea and air power, or to the vital contribution of the, then, colonies. No small wonder that we were aghast when the American, General Eisenhower was appointed the “Supremo” for the invasion of Europe. Why wasn’t it our hero, General Montgomery? In reality, Montgomery would have been a disaster, given his eccentricities and waspish personality, despite his routing of General Rommel’s Afrika Corps in the desert.

Aside from propaganda, a whole industry grew up around the creation and publishing of posters and slogans. “Careless Talk Costs Lives,” “They Also Serve Who Only Wait in Line,” “Be Like Dad, Keep Mum', and “Walls Have Ears,” are just a few I remember. We were convinced that spies were everywhere, though in reality I think no more than two or three were later known to have successfully entered the country, if that many. Ironically, one of the men we kids were sure was a spy, later became my first boss.

Three other pervasive changes in our lives that emanated from the war were the “Blackout,” “British Summer Time,” and the removal of all place names. The “Blackout” was designed to prevent the showing of even the smallest chink of light that the German aircraft could use as a target. Windows had to be covered in “blackout material” or draped with heavy curtains after sunset.

Street lights were dimmed by a slatted mask around the bulb, which was in any case only of small wattage. Trams and trains had a fine mesh glued to the windows, and blue lamp bulbs for illumination. Most public events such as church services were rescheduled so that they could be held in the daylight. In summer time this wasn’t a problem, because, with the adjusted clocks, daylight lasted sometimes until 11 pm. It was for all the world like living in Scandinavia.

At the start of the war, all place names and sign posts were removed, with the rather laughable idea of impeding an invasion and confusing enemy parachutists. In reality it was the traveling British public who were confused. Place names on railway stations were taken down, and stationmasters were prohibited from calling out the name when trains arrived, as had been customary. In a very funny radio sketch by the comedy actor Bernard Miles, he played a station master faced with this restriction for the first time. In an act of frustration, when the train arrived, he called out “All them for here get out.”

It was the likes of Bernard Miles, and other radio comedians such as Gillie Potter, with his weekly monologue, “The News From Hogsnorton, Spoken in English”; Rob Wilton, with his opening line, “The day war broke out, my Missus said to me ‘What are you going to do about it?’; and Tommy Handley with his fast talking weekly radio show, that brightened our lives in the darkest of times. I was such a Tommy Handley fan that I would sneak out of bed to sit on the stairs, even on freezing nights, to listen to his broadcasts. The very satire of their performances made the serious reality of the war seem ridiculous.

As the war progressed, and the tide began to turn in favor of the Allies, the air raids we had endured slowly tapered away to be replaced by the heartening spectacle of the “Thousand Bomber” raids on Germany. The British and American bombers were based mainly in Lincolnshire and East Anglia, but rendezvoused in the skies over Sheffield before the start of a raid. It was quite a morale booster for us to be able to stand outside on summer evenings and watch the sky fill with circling British Lancaster bombers and American B17 Super Fortresses. The noise from their engines was incredible.

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