Sunday, 8 May 2016

May 8th 1945 - VE Day.



 

Chapter 1

 EVERYTHING WILL BE BETTER - 1945

 

“Everything will be better when the war is over.”

If I heard my mother say those words once, I must have heard her say them a thousand times. They were the constant, inspirational rallying cry, which helped our little family through some of the darker days of World War 2.

I heard her shout them loudly, nervously and repeatedly as we huddled together, shivering with fear, in that tiny cupboard under the stairs whilst the very first German bombs of the Bristol blitz exploded around us.

I heard her whisper them quietly in my ear as she tenderly kissed my head, and roughly rubbed the Wintergreen ointment onto my troubled chest.

I heard her speak them softly but reassuringly as she knelt at my feet before applying the Zam-Buk to the fiery chilblains on my toes.

I heard her murmur them, almost silently, as we giggled uneasily whilst we hid under the dining table to avoid the prying eyes of Mr Meredith, the rent collector.

“Everything will be better when the war is over.”

It was the early spring of 1945, and I was preparing to celebrate my rapidly approaching eighth birthday. Eight seemed such a big number to me back then, and I felt very grown up. I suspect I had become a rather cocky little kid who thought he knew it all. I suppose that was one of the prices one had to pay for being the ‘man of the house’ at such an early age.

It was just before my birthday when the Russian troops marched across the border into Germany. Suddenly, the tone of the Nine o’clock News changed and listening to it became an exciting event.  Alvar Lidell was now bringing us good news on a nightly basis. We sat listening to his calm and authoritative voice with ever mounting excitement as the Russians continued their seemingly unstoppable advance through Europe. Adolf Hitler, Eva Braun and their entourage committed suicide amidst the ruins of Berlin; the German forces surrendered to General Montgomery at Luneburg Heath; the German High Command surrendered to the Allied Generals at Rheims, and that was that; it was all over. The long, brutal, bloody war in Europe was finally ended.

  “Everything will be better now.”

 Mum was wearing her old smile again, the one which I hadn’t seen for ages, and she had a brand new spring to her step.

Oh, how we celebrated. The grown-ups headed up the hill to the Kingsdown pubs, and then danced jigs on the cobblestones of Halsbury Road, and on the rooftops of the air raid shelters. The men drank beer until they were either staggering or falling over. The women delicately sipped port or sherry from tiny glasses, and then raised their skirts above their knees as they sang and danced like chorus girls in a Hollywood musical.

As if by magic, long lines of wobbly tables and chairs appeared in the street. Those tables were filled with vast quantities of food, the like of which we had never hitherto witnessed in our young lives. There were sandwiches of every description. There was bread and jam, bread and spam, bread and cheese, and even that rarest of all delicacies, bread and corned beef. There were plates of fairy cakes and biscuits, and dishes of jelly, trifle and blancmange. The feast was washed down with glasses of lemonade. I ate and drank until I was violently sick, and then I started all over again. But as life had already taught me, all good things come to an end and nothing lasts forever. All too quickly the men were folding up the tables and chairs; taking down the flags, the bunting and the banners, and life returned to normal.

 “This is your victory. It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best,” slurred the unmistakable voice of Mr. Churchill on the wireless.

“Troubled times lie ahead, but soon, we will all enjoy the fruits of victory,” said another voice. I quite liked the sound of that, particularly the ‘fruits of victory’ bit, and I settled back in preparation for the next feast. After all, we had won the war and all the talk was that rationing would soon be over, and food would be plentiful.

As usual, however, the reality was far removed from the fantasy. The only things we had plenty of were queues and shortages. Within weeks the coalition government announced a reduction in our bacon ration, and a drastic cut to the allowance for cooking fats.

“There won’t be enough for any cakes or pastries,” said Mum as she showed me the tiny one ounce block of lard, which was the new weekly allowance. I felt cheated and angry. It was as if someone had played a dirty trick on me.

“We need a Labour Government,” said Mum and it wasn’t long before the politicians declared a General Election.

“Everything will be better now that we have a Labour Government,” Mum was pleased that Mr Atlee and the Labour Party had swept to victory in the July of 1945, but I remained unconvinced. Winston Churchill was my boyhood hero. After all, he had led us to victory, and I liked him. I liked his big smile, his big speeches, his big cigars and his V signs. Mr Attlee, in contrast, looked like a startled rabbit caught in the headlights, and both he, Mr Dalton and Mr Cripps sounded much posher than their Conservative counterparts.

“Labour will give the working classes a new life,” Mum sounded sure of herself. “We will have Nationalisation, a Welfare State, and you will have the chance of a decent education.”

I didn’t feel that I needed any of those things. All I wanted was an extra piece of bacon on my plate for my Sunday breakfast, and the return of my beloved cakes and pastries. As far as I was concerned I was already getting a decent education; Miss Lynch was seeing to that. My writing was steadily improving, and we had now not only finished reading David Copperfield, but we were now well into Oliver Twist. I liked Oliver Twist a lot; I could understand and relate to his constant hunger, and his need to ask for ‘more soup’.

On the 6th August 1945 the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima; on 9th August a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. We young boys sat in the front stalls of the News Theatre, troubled and slightly fearful, watching the Pathe news in a stunned silence. The film showed clearly the awesome power of the bombs and the enormous, towering mushroom clouds. There was a sharp intake of breath at the terrifying images of both old and young people wandering semi-naked around the devastated wasteland that had once been the familiar surroundings of their homeland. The scenes cast a shadow over us, a shadow that has lasted for an entire generation. For a change, I left the cinema in silence, for I knew instinctively that should I ever have to live through another war, my beloved tunnel beneath the Avon Gorge wouldn’t be able to save me again.

The Japanese surrendered and we had more street parties, but this time the tables were set up in the spacious gardens of Marlborough House. This time around the celebrations were a little muted and half hearted. My own day ended in disgrace as I was forcibly ejected from the premises for attempting to scale the apple tree. That tree had been a source of temptation for many years, but had been safely out of my reach behind the large stone walls.  Now, I was on the other side of the walls, and I quickly succumbed to temptation. My attempt to scale the tree was quickly foiled by a man with lots of pens in his breast pocket, and I was expelled. I was led  away, but not before I had managed to secrete one of the juicy apples in my trouser pocket before I made the escorted, red faced walk of shame.

Mum was unimpressed with my apple stealing exploit, and gave me a couple of slaps to the back of my thighs with the flat wooden part of the hair brush. Just to rub salt in the wounds, the shiny, beautiful, red apple was full of maggots.

“Everything will be better when your father comes home from the war.  When he gets back we will have some decent money coming into the house, and there will be no need to steal anything.” She went on to explain that Dad only earned fourteen shillings a week as a fighting man, whereas civilian workers were earning over £3 a week.

“That’s not fair.” I could scarcely believe it.

“Life isn’t fair,” replied Mum.” Sadly, one day you will discover that yourself.”

 

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” shouted Father Crehan from the pulpit of St Mary on the Quay church. I still attended the nine o’clock mass on a regular basis. I was determined to avoid another caning from ‘Jasper’ Barnidge. Father Crehan had taken over from Father Doyle for our house visits. He was a tall, thin man with bushy, black curly hair, and wore thick horn rimmed spectacles. I don’t think he was Irish. In fact, he had a very posh voice, was very serious, and spoke in short, sharp clipped tones. His voice reminded me of a ‘Tommy Gun’, and I always referred to him as Father ‘Tommy’. Mum laughed at my little joke. It always made me feel good when I was able to make Mum laugh.

“The lord giveth”, whispered Granny Kelly, when I asked for an explanation of Father Crehan’s words. She sat with her eyes closed, gently rocking in her chair, and playing with her rosary beads, before she continued. “It’s from the book of Job, and it means that everything we have has been given to us by Jesus.” She made the sign of the cross as she said the word ‘Jesus’ and I copied her, as I always did. “And the Lord taketh away”, she continued, after a short pause. “There are times in our lives when we are not using things for the reason we are supposed to, and the Lord takes them away. He takes them not as a punishment, but just to remind us that they are not more important than him. In his infinite wisdom and goodness he will then often give us something new to compensate.”

As I walked home along Eugene Street, with the echo of Granny Kelly’s words in my head and the rough touch of her whiskers still tingling on my cheek from the goodbye kiss, I suddenly understood what Granny and Father Crehan were trying to tell me. The Lord had taken away a piece of my bacon, my cakes and my pastries, but had in return given me cricket.

Within weeks of the war ending, pre-war normality returned to the English summer, and cricket resumed. I had read a lot about cricket I had studied the grainy images of the great players on the backs of cigarette cards, and watched them in action on the Pathe Newsreels. I had read their abridged biographies and knew everything about them, but there had been no live cricket during my brief lifetime. Now, on May 18th, just 10 days after VE Day, and on the eve of my birthday, thousands of excited spectators were queuing in the sunshine to gain entry to Lords for the first of five Victory Test matches between England and an Australian XI. Most, but not all of the great pre-war English heroes were already demobbed and on show, but the Australian team was packed with unknowns; Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen who just happened to be stationed in England. The Daily Express   explained that the Australian team was not strong enough to play a five day Test match against the might of our great English side. The one sided contests were unlikely to last for five days, but as the Express pointed out, ‘the matches would be played with a palpable sense of relief and gratitude and a celebration of a fabulous game that could be played freely rather than under the looming threat of the swastika’.

I sat with my ear glued to the wireless and listened to the cultured, refined tones of Rex Alston as he described the ‘closing overs before lunch’, and the ‘final overs of the day’. In the event, the confident prophetic words in the Daily Express proved to be wildly inaccurate, but were ironically half correct. The match was indeed over before the close of play on the third day, but it was the Australian team of unknowns who triumphed, and not the might of England.  The Australian X1 won by 6 wickets. The man of the match, the hero of the hour, was Keith Miller. Mr Miller was a young Australian fighter pilot, based in London. He was an all-rounder who starred in that game with both the bat and the ball. We young boys sat in silence as we watched the highlights of the game on the Pathe News. The great man was interviewed after the game. He had thick, long, flowing black hair, a ready white toothed smile, and was blessed with film star good looks. He lounged casually in a deck chair as he was questioned. He sat with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, and was surrounded by a bevy of beautiful, fawning, giggling young ladies who just couldn’t keep their eyes or their hands off of him.
“Were you feeling the pressure?” enquired the interviewer, as he discussed the match.
“I’ll tell you what real pressure is,” replied the great man, speaking in a strange twangy Australian dialect which was foreign to my ears, “pressure is when you have a Messerschmitt up your arse; this was just a game of cricket.” In the space of just a few seconds and with a smile and a few casual words, Keith Miller had won a place in a young English boy’s heart. I had discovered a new hero. I decided there and then that when I grew up I would be an International cricketer.