In every country there is a visual entrance that tells the traveller when they are arriving back on home ground. For instance, in New York harbour, it's the 'Statue of Liberty' and in England, it's 'The White Cliffs of Dover'.
This weekend in Haworth is the 1940s weekend. It is the time of year when, we in Haworth, through our nostalgic celebrations remember those ‘Second World War’ years between 1939-45 when Great Britain clawed its way back to victory from the jaws of defeat after the German Luftwaffe had gained aerial superiority at the start of the war. The Luftwaffe rained down destruction on the heart of England during the early stages, and yet, despite the superiority of their deadly flying machines, it was the sheer courage of the British and Ally pilots who eventually won the battle of the skies in feats of bravery hitherto unseen.
As the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said of them on the 20th August 1940, ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by many to so few’. He was referring directly to the heroic efforts of the Royal Air Force crews who were fighting the 'Battle of Britain' against the odds; the most pivotal air battle of the war that was primarily instrumental in preventing the anticipated German invasion.
I was a war baby at the time as the war was being fought. These were years when the English man, woman and child all pulled together in sacrifice, suffering and a dogged belief that our country would eventually win through. Despite the harshness of the times, aggravated by nightly war raids on our major cities and ports, every family across the country were daily rationed with their food supplies. But the greater the sacrifice was asked of our soldiers, seamen, pilots and civilians, the graver the adversity they faced, the stronger grew their patriotism and community spirit and a belief that we would win through.
As the men mostly filled the serving ranks of the Army, Navy and Airforce, the womenfolk of the country were put to work on farms, in munition factories, clothing factories and in all areas of wartime manufacturing. Children, being children did what they have always done; they played out when the school day was done before every house in the land was ‘blacked out’ in the evening, when curtains were drawn to prevent the light below being seen by the German night raiders and bombers up above.
When the German planes flew over, air sirens would alert the community and the families would leave their houses and conceal themselves in sheds and protective bunkers until the siren hooted loudly again to signal that the attack was over and it was okay to return to the house (providing, of course, it hadn’t been bombed to smithereens during one’s absence). A commonly used home shelter known as the ‘Anderson Shelter’ would be built in house gardens and equipped with beds and a few essential items as a refuge from air raids. These shelters offered a modest level of protection but were probably crucial in offering much psychological comfort to the masses, apart from sheltering the inhabitants from the nearby debris of bombed houses and buildings.
As the Germans bombed London and other British cities relentlessly, night-after-night between 1940-41, the skies would be lit with a lightning bolt of exchanged warfare as their planes were fired upon from British guns below. This became known as ‘The Blitz’. The Germans conducted their mass air attacks against ports, industrial targets, towns and cities, with London taking the brunt of their bombing missions. During such night attacks as buildings and house were bombed and flatten, the noble firefighters continued to work in the open air, quenching the fires and rescuing the trapped and the dead from beneath rubble remains. They carried out their work as gas mains around them exploded and water pipes flooded the furnaced ground. All around them, smoke filled their lungs and the putrid stench of burnt bodies pervaded their senses. Still, with little thought about their own safety, they carried on.
Such men and women were called ‘Angels of the Night’ (a term that came from ‘World War One’ and the original term ‘Angels of Mons’). This was a popular legend about a group of angels who supposedly protected members of the British Army in their first major engagement of the 1914-18 World War, in the 'Battle of Mons', and where the British were heavily outnumbered.
After the ‘Second World War’, all the children of Great Britain were taught and reared with the values that their fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles had practised throughout their war experiences. This is probably the greatest character asset any British person over 65 years of age inherited from their immediate ancestors. Whatever our parents had or hadn’t, they shared with their neighbour during times of need. Whatever they could never have or get, they learned to do without and ‘make mend and do’. They could be bombed to bits, forced to bury their dead with their own hands, see their loved ones killed by enemy bombs in front of their eyes, get up hungry and go to bed hungry, wear holed shoes and hand-me-down clothes: they could lose everything material around them but they would never lose heart or pride in self and country! Not one English person was ever ashamed to patriotically fly the Nation's flag.
There was one wartime account I shall never forget being told as a young boy by an aged person. It was of a woman whose husband had been killed abroad in the battle trenches and who reared their 7-year-old son on her own. One night, the widow and her young son stayed over at an aunt’s home in a different part of London. They had been visiting the aunt in the late afternoon but had stayed too late to get back home before the blackout. The woman and her son returned home the next morning before the boy’s school day had begun, but when they turned the corner of the street where they lived, they saw that half the houses in the street had been bombed and demolished in the night-time air raid. The woman’s first thought of “Dear God! Where’s my house gone?” was quickly converted to “Thank God we weren’t there and are still alive!”
A passing neighbour saw her in the rubble ruins of her home. She was scratting around among the ruins to see if there was anything left to salvage. After she had washed her son at a neighbour’s house, she kissed him and sent him off to school for the day. When the passing neighbour spoke with the widow, he found her trying to locate her doorstep in the rubble, so that she might clean it, whiten it and put it in its proper place when she next had another house!
When asked why she should have done such a thing, the story narrator simply said, “Nay Lad, what else was she expected to do. She did no more or no less than any of us would have done in her circumstances. She knew that the best way to beat the tyrant, Hitler, was to ‘carry on’ with the day ahead in the best way possible!”
The account moved me so much that I included it in one of the many books I was to write in later years (Robin and The Rubicelle Fusiliers).
There were two national figures during the ‘Second World War’ years that helped to generate the 'hope' of the masses. Churchill did it with his mastery of the English language, but Vera Lynn did it through the wartime songs she broadcast to soldiers fighting overseas. While Prime Minister Winston Churchill helped to protect the land we occupy today, Vera was able, through her songs to preserve the image of England that each soldier had left behind and was fighting to return to.
I have been personally blessed to have been a friend of Vera for the past thirty years and over the next three days of the ‘Haworth 1940s Weekend’, I will be singing one of three of Vera’s songs that are her most famous and best remembered all day long as Sheila and I walk down the Main Street and soak up the atmosphere of the 40s. Please sing along with me in your own homes as we give thanks to all the men, women and children (soldier and civilian: alive or deceased) who fought to preserve the freedom that England enjoys today. God bless you all.
Love and peace Bill. xxx