The October Meeting 2018

The Home Front in Two World Wars

Kenneth Ballantyne

Acting President, John Turner, introduced Ken who began his talk by explaining a little of his background.   His father was a career army officer who had served throughout World War II, as had his mother, who after training as a nurse, joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.  He spent his early years playing amongst the bomb craters left by RAF Bomber Command in post-war Germany.  At the age of seven a visit to Reichswald Forest War Cemetery  made a great  impression on him about the human cost of freedom – a memory he never forgot and which led to his current  research.    Ken subsequently became a police officer and then trained as a solicitor.

  On retirement he met with a group of veterans who served on the Home Front and in the Armed Forces in the World Wars.  Their true stories have now provided the basis for a series of books, which are an important part of the historical and social record of the times.

As a member of the Bomber Command Association and the Shropshire Aircrew Association, Ken went on to give a brief history of the early days of aviation and bombers.   As early as 1690 an air balloon was designed which had the capacity to deliver bombs from the air.  Fortunately this was unable to fly because of the weight of the projectiles and the comment at the time was that such a destructive machine would never be viable as ‘God would never let man invent it’.   However hot air balloons were later developed giving rise eventually to the Zeppelin airships  and the quest for flight in  heavier than air machines.

In December 1903 the Wright brothers made the first successful powered and controlled sustained flight and from then on there was rapid development.  It was found to be easy to take off but landing was more problematical.   However by the start of World War1 manned flights were used for reconnaissance over France and even for attacking ground positions.   Pilots from the newly formed Royal Flying Corps were sent over the war zone with a pistol, a block of cheese and some biscuits.  Parachutes were not allowed as it was felt they might encourage the pilots to bail out when trouble loomed and the aircraft would be lost.

On the home front Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby were attacked by the German navy on 16 December 1914.  The attack resulted in 592 casualties, many of them civilians, of whom 137 died. The attack caused public outrage towards the German navy but also against the Royal Navy for its failure to prevent the raid.   

By 1916 after combat losses in France, it became apparent that the Sopwith Pup and Triplane could  no longer compete against the German Albatross.    Chief Designer Harry Smith recognized the need for a new fighter to be developed and the legendary and faster Sopwith Camel, which became the most successful fighter in World War 1, was produced in large numbers at factories in Britain.  As many men were otherwise occupied in France, women abandoned their traditional roles and set to industrial work – one of the first steps towards emancipation. 

 

The men who survived in the trenches in France endured extreme hardship, with the cold mud and the consequent trench foot was a particular hazard.   Women at home spent much of their spare time knitting thick socks which were sent out to the troops, but as one veteran recounts they could not escape the wet and their boots and uniforms never dried out.  Opportunities for ‘rest and recreation’ were few but some did manage to enjoy the delights of Poperinghe, a small railway town about 14 miles from Ypres, known as the gateway to the battlefields. The Reverend Tubby Clayton established Talbot House,(TOC H) , also at Poperinghe, as Every Man's Club, where all soldiers were welcome, regardless of rank. It was promoted as "an alternative for the 'debauched' recreational life of the town".

In 1916 a group of Sherwood Foresters on the Ypres salient discovered an old printing press.  One of their number was a printer in civilian life and together they published a satirical newspaper, the WipersTimes, to cheer up the troops and boost morale.   Poems, reflections, wry in-jokes and particularly lampoons of the generals and military situation the Division was in proved very popular.  As the Battalion moved the title changed according to location but the generals and the politicans constantly remained the butt of much dark humour.

In 1918 what was expected to be the last edition, no. 23, was hopefully called  ‘Better Times’.  However edition no 24 was published in 2016 by a German newspaper called The Fritz Times. Whilst attempting to explain humorously some aspects of the German character, its main focus was a plea from Germany to  Britain urging us not to leave the European Union!

Ken then went on the tell the story of Roderic Hill (later Air Chief Marshal Sir Roderic Maxwell Hill) who enlisted as a private soldier in 1914 and then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and became a most accomplished pilot.  As a result of his experiences he realised that a more substantial aircraft was needed for success in the war.   On his return to Farnbourgh he organised an aerobatic display to convince the design team there to produce the SE5.  This plane was capable of carrying very small bombs.  The observer was armed with a rifle and hand grenades and even small rocks which could be dropped on enemy positions.   Subsequently the planes were developed to accommodate a rear gunner with a machine gun and to carry larger bombs.

  

The Royal Flying Corps was getting larger and such a force required a great deal of ground and technical support throughout the war, much of which was recruited from local populations.  Commercial road vehicles were commandeered for use in the supply chain, still bearing their company logos, such as Bovril and Lazenby’s Sauce.

By 1918 the Royal Flying Corps, with its range of activities had become the world’s first and largest dedicated air force and was granted its independence from the Army and became the Royal Air Force.  After the war the future Lord Trenchard quelled the Somaliland rebellion with one air squadron and trouble in Iraq, Iran and Egypt was similarly overcome.  The value of the RAF was evident and its future was further secured by the establishment of the a mail run to the Far East.

In the 1930s, although times were hard for ordinary working men and women, developments in aviation allowed the very rich to travel widely by flying boat.  Flights to the Raffles Hotel in Singapore were very popular where the upper classes could enjoy a ‘Singapore Sling’ and sample the delights of the Far East.   Long distance and altitude records were also established by the RAF with a flight to Darwin in 1937.  The Germans continued to develop huge air ships but ceased production of these following the Hindenberg disaster in 1939.

Throughout the later 1930s the political establishment in the UK was divided about the threat posed by the rise of the National Socialist party  in Germany and the ambitions of its leader Adolf Hitler.    Neville Chamberlain and Staley Baldwin were in favour of appeasement but Winston Churchill and Lord Beaverbrook pressed for re-armament. 

 

Steps, however, were taken to minimize the effects of a future conflict on the civilian population and the first gas masks were issued in 1937.   These came in various forms with Mickie Mouse masks for children and special ones for dogs and cats, who after 1939 even had their own designated air raid shelters.

 

 

Sir John Anderson was put in charge of air raid precautions in 1938 and more than two million shelters, named after him, were issued to urban families with instructions how to dig them into their back gardens.   These were very ‘cosy’ and some larger persons found access somewhat challenging!

(Image shows Anderson shelter still existing in a Whitton garden.  It has proved impossible to remove due to its heavy concrete base)

Throughout 1938/39, the Royal Air Force was preparing to defend British air space   A Heinkel He 111 was the first casualty of the first German  attack in October 1939, having been downed by a squadron of Spitfires over East Lothian.  Two crew members survived the crash landing at Humbie, 14 miles from Edinburgh.   Wounded, they surrendered to the local policeman, who cycled to the crash site to capture them.  Subsequently villagers flocked to the site and took away parts of the aircraft as souvenirs of the event, much to the annoyance of the RAF who had been hoping to learn some of the Heinkel’s secrets from the wreckage.

On the Home Front, the production of food was a priority.  The Land Army was established, with women taking the place of the absent men who were conscripted into the army,   Ornamental gardens and parks were turned over to growing vegetables.  Rationing was introduced and queueing for some foods became the norm, whilst the Royal Navy valiantly protected the Merchant Navy running these supply lines in the North Atlantic.

With petrol rationing many private cars had to be taken out of service for the duration of the war and black-out restrictions meant that those who did drive had many difficulties due to the lack of street lighting.  Pedestrians too had problems on dark nights and a solution was eventually found by painting white stripes on the kerbs and other obstacles – something which was taken to extremes in some places, as white stripes were even painted on black cows.

The Timber Corps was established in Scotland to provide much needed wood.   Large communal air raid shelters were built.  Many personalities from the theatre, radio and literary worlds enlisted in the forces and served with distinction.  These included Jimmy Edwards, Michael Rennie, Roald Dahl, Kenneth Moore and David Niven.

In 1940 with the threat of invasion ever present, the home front became the defensive front line as the Battle of Britain was fought out in the skies over the country.  There were jobs for everyone including fire watching, aeroplane observation (The Observer Corps) and servicing the many air fields dotted across the country, particularly in East Anglia.  Women again returned to the factories which provided the hardware for the war machine.   Spitfires and Dakotas were further developed and the elderly Lysander proved particularly useful in delivering agents to occupied France and on return flights bringing home some unobtainable luxuries, such as perfume and chocolates

Many brave airmen managed to survive the Battle of Britain and the subsequent bombing campaign over Germany, nursing their damaged aircraft back to the UK.   Some crash landed and pilots were given 24 hours leave and then went straight back to operations.      One of the most notable airmen was Eric Locke whose 26 victories made him the eighth most successful pilot of WW2.  Unfortunately he did not survive the war.

   Finally, the Home Guard (originally named the Local Defence Volunteers) played an important part in life on the Home Front.  Operational from 1940-44 it  comprised 1.5 million local men otherwise ineligible for military service, such as those too young or too old to join the regular armed services, or those in reserved occupations such a coal mining.  Their role was to act as a secondary defence force, in case of invasion.   In 1940 they had no weapons as most of the British army’s supplied had been left behind when the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk.  Gradually they acquired weapons and uniforms and continued to guard the coastal areas of the United Kingdom and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores until late 1944 when they were stood down. 

Ken illustrated his talk with fascinating stories from the veterans whose reminiscences he had recorded in a series of books published by Laundry Cottage Books.  Email: cenneach@westcoast13.wanadoc.co.uk

At question time Colin Kyte asked what was meant by ‘Rhubarb’ missions.  Ken explained that these were low level reconnaissance flights staffed by the RAF over enemy territory to check on troop movements.  This information was then forwarded to the Army. 

Winding up,  John Turner said it gave him great pleasure to thank Ken for such a well-researched and interesting talk which members had thoroughly enjoyed. 

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