The Second World War: My Part in Our Victory

Professor Ashley Jackson, Defence Studies Department

While perhaps unworthy of a title echoing Spike Milligan’s Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, the fact that I have a Second World War ‘experience’, despite being born over a quarter-century after VE Day, says something about the conflict’s resonance in British society.[1] What was it that brought the war into the humdrum life of a child growing up on a remote moorland farm? It was a mixture of family memories and shards of received knowledge picked up from everyday popular culture – telly, comics, books – spliced with war-related artefacts, toys and games. Taken all together, references to the war were numerous and powerful, and as typical for those born in the 1970s as they were atypical for those born from the ‘90s, testament to the march of time.

‘My war’ began long before I started taking an academic interest in the subject. It started with my ex-Tank Corps grandfather (who died when I was seven) and a childhood impression of the Western Desert campaign in which he’d served (sand and shorts). This awareness was reinforced by the occasional sight of war artefacts, revered objects seldom seen, and then only after special pleading. There were glimpses of his medals, the clock from the Sherman he’d driven, a khaki army shirt, his ‘housewife’ (a standard issue sewing kit), and black beret. There was also an army camp bed and a bedroll, known as the ‘colonel’s comforter’. There were a few looted German items, too, maybe taken off dead men, I couldn’t help but think: these included swastika-imprinted belt buckles and a splendidly-crafted knife-fork-spoon canteen. A Japanese officer’s sword hung in Grampy’s study, acquired by a friend whose war had taken him east. Treasures leave powerful impressions on young minds, and, in my case, they were impressions of war and of history.

Also emanating from the grandparental household were occasional references to Nan’s war. This had involved cycling round bomb craters in Bristol on the way to work (making parts for RAF aircraft) and fire-watching. Nan had her own stock of occasionally-deployed wartime phrases and sayings, such as ‘When war broke out, my old man said to me, ‘What are you going to do about it?”’. I had a vague awareness of Bristol city centre looking like it did (unsatisfactory, in short) because of bomb damage, which tallied with similar knowledge based on family shopping expeditions to Plymouth. When I visited my grandparent’s home in the summer holidays, we’d go and see Nan’s brother and his German ‘war bride’ Auntie Elsie, with her unforgettable German-cum-Bristolian accent. Their son, cousin Nicholas, was to play his own part in the development of my wartime ‘memories’.

Artefacts and war stories sprung from the paternal side too, small, small things, but the things that form the personal archaeology of memory and historical imagination. My biological father left a gold pocket watch behind when he returned to his native Canada, presented to his father by the Vickers Company of Canada on retirement in 1944. My step father’s father, meanwhile, had injured a leg during a trial for Wimbledon AFC in the 1930s. No longer able to bend the leg at the knee meant he was unfit for military service when war came round, so he joined the ARP instead. On one occasion in Brixton, sighting a German ‘V’ rocket, he dived for shelter in a doorway but was unable to retract his damaged leg quickly enough and consequently had his shoe blown off. Dad, born in 1943, remembers being amazed at the devastation when looking at bombsites from a train going into central London. So, family memory of the war formed a solid reference point. Everyone knew we’d fought the Germans and won in grandad’s day, and most people, even as kids, knew a good deal more than that.

Our knowledge was substantially supplemented, indeed, given animation, by cultural references, primarily derived from books, comics, films, and television programmes. I can’t recollect when I first saw an episode of Dad’s Army, but it was a reference point from very early on in life. I distinctly remember watching It Ain’t Half Hot Mum too, and mum and dad being transfixed by the serialization of Das Boot in 1984, a programme I recall for its subtitles and the dramatic tension aboard the eponymous U-boat (as well as the exciting prospect of staying up after bedtime to watch if I sat quietly). Uncle Albert’s ‘during the war’ refrain from Only Fools and Horses was sufficiently well-known to be a family joke, and the kind of reference point, reinforcing the war’s ‘presence’, that was known to just about everyone else too. Albert’s phrase, and Rodney and Del Boy’s exasperated reaction to it, was amusing because everyone had heard someone say ‘during the war’ as a prelude to a potentially-tedious story, often an admonitory one about how much tougher things were back then and how much easier people had it now. There was then Tenko, a drama set in a Japanese internment camp accommodating female Australian, British, and Dutch civilians captured at the fall of Singapore. A joint BBC-ABC venture, three series ran between 1981 and 1984. My mother was a fan, and therefore so was I.

Other memorable ‘war TV’ was provided at school. All three classes at St Breward County Primary would assembled in the hall to watch a series called How We Used to Live, which centred on the lives of an ordinary British family and featured strong wartime ‘home front’ themes. Just as important for installing default war knowledge and associated visuals was the steady stream of films devoted to the subject. Even if your telly was black and white and the size of an IPad, as ours was for many years, one couldn’t help but notice, even if not actually watching, that every other film seemed to be about the war, courtesy of the Hollywood conveyor belt and the output of British studios.

In terms of literature, I was an avid fan of Second World War-dominated comics such as Battle Picture Weekly, Warlord and Commando, back issues gratefully received from cousin Nicholas. ‘Union Jack Jackson’ shooting ‘Jap’ snipers and helmeted Nazis screaming ‘achtung’ were absolutely ubiquitous. Here, in this potent genre of juvenile literature, there was nothing but the war. As a young teen, the war stories of authors such as Sven Hassel, Len Deighton, and particularly Jack Higgins became staples of the literary diet. Even those books I tackled that weren’t, ostensibly, about the war, like Mario Puzo’s The Dark Arena, were very much about the war, the monumental presence of the century in which the authors wrote, and a conflict in which they had been involved and that cast its shadow over the literary landscape.

Then, of course, there were toys. Toys, toys, toys. Thanks to Nicholas’s enormous plastic army, I was cutting swathes through massed ranks of German infantry using Dinky missile launchers from the age of seven or eight. I was also collecting, to the extent that strict finances permitted, certain types of Second World War toys. There were a few Matchbox vehicles, boxes of tiny Airfix soldiers, and the occasional model kit, which allowed me to misassemble a Spitfire or a battleship, cover it with beads of glue, and then fail to paint it. Of greater significance were Britains ‘Deetail’ soldiers and military vehicles. These included Afrika Korps and Eighth Army figures, American, British, and German infantry from the European theatre, mortar units, heavy machine-guns, scout cars, and field artillery. Then there was Action Man. My eagle-eyed chap had all manner of items of uniform, weapons, and kit, and drove an armoured car. My elder brother’s more lavishly-equipped figure cut about in a tank and even procured a helicopter, Action Man’s habit of mixing weapons and vehicles from different conflicts failing to annoy me then as much as it would now.

In addition to toys – indeed, sometimes involving them – there was the whole business of playing war, which very definitely drew on a Second World War mindscape. Growing up on a farm surrounded by moorland and having three brothers made this very easy. Geographical features to defend or assault were everywhere; tors, stone hedges, boulders, outhouses, woods and streams – it was all there for us to scamper over, followed by a collie and carrying kitbags and rope while clutching wooden machine-guns made for us by Grandad, or the prized plastic rifle (with detachable bayonet) which I briefly owned until someone sat on it and snapped the barrel off. My first watch, a Timex, was of a military pattern, and Clark’s ‘Commando’ shoes added to the incidental militarism of life.

Then there were everyday things and places that were part of the neighbourhood and that triggered Second World War thoughts and connections. An old Anderson air raid shelter was moved to the field known as ‘Top Strap’ to provide cover in inclement weather while we waited for ‘Auntie’ Joyce from the farm down the road to collect us on the school run. Not far away, there was a colourful sign pointing the direction of the memorial to the 43rd Wessex Division on Rough Tor (the prominent hill having been given ‘to the nation’ to mark the Division’s post-D-Day dead). Occasionally, the family would drive out to the disused Second World War Davidstow airfield with its runways, control tower, and other abandoned buildings, a very evocative place for an imaginative child to visit. There were even strong war themes in places of entertainment. Somewhere in Cornwall was an idiosyncratic theme park known as Flambards, which boasted a memorable ‘Britain in the blitz’ walk-through ‘experience’. Here, lucky children could enjoy an air raid, sitting in a shelter while the locals sang ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ to keep their spirits up as the earth shook and the smell of burning met one’s nostrils. It was an eerie and powerful experience.

Perhaps strangely, I have no recollection of the Second World War as a part of the secondary school curriculum. For ‘O’ levels, I was put in the social and economic history stream, all spinning jennies, Norfolk four-course crop rotation, and workhouses, though suspect that those in the politics and foreign affairs stream covered the war. I did at this time, however, develop an intense interest in wartime uniforms and insignia that, fortunately, proved to be transient. ‘A’ levels, and the turn from toys to the less innocent pursuits of teenagers on the verge of adulthood, brought the obligatory ‘Europe of the Dictators’ and ‘British Foreign Policy’. It was to be a few more years before university led me in the direction of a deeper and more formal interest in the Second World War. But by the time I reached that point, I’d already had a good war.

[1] Spike Milligan, Hitler: My Part in His Downfall (London: Michael Joseph, 1971) was followed by more war memoirs including Monty: His Part in My Victory and Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall. The first volume was made into a film, released in 1973.

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