Life in the immediate post war years was hardly one of reward for the victorious British. The country was exhausted and broke and everything seemed colourless and not particularly exciting. There seemed little to spice up life into a memorable peacetime mode. Rationing of food still remained, a starving Europe had to be fed, and clothes were very limited in style and material. When, as a thirteen year old boy, I had grown out of my first sports jacket I was greatly disappointed when I found that my father had bought another of exactly the same style and material.
Each returning serviceman was issued with a complete wardrobe of clothes upon demobilization. My dad arrived home with his complete with trilby hat, which he never wore, so I commandeered it. It was very useful as our visits to the cinema during long holidays from boarding school became quite frequent and wearing the hat helped me to pass as an adult to get myself and my small brother into films certified for children with adults only. Once, having left the cinema to return home we caught the bus up Wimbledon hill to return home. “Two halves please” I asked, the conductor gave me and my wide brimmed trilby hat a leery look. “What, with that bleeding great titfer on?” he replied. My embarrassment was compounded when standing on the platform at the back of the bus approaching our stop my hat blew off and bowled off down the road.
Our mother having died my 6-year-old brother and I had returned to London to stay with our Aunt Sue in her large house in Wimbledon. Brother Colin, having run wild in the Devonshire countryside during his young years, proved a problem for our aunt. She was constantly shouting at him for putting his arm around the doorway and turning the electric light on and off. The instantaneous bloom of light completely fascinated him, we had had oil lamps only back in Rousdon. Aunt Sue was also displeased when she returned from shopping one day to find her once immaculate lawn all chewed up into a muddy mess by bicycle tyres as Colin had been emulating Split Waterman, star of Wimbledon Speedway, which could be heard roaring away nearby every Thursday evening. Aunt Sue had a good sense of humour and was apparently quite amused when she eventually found out that because she so frequently fed us with fish, more easily available in those rationed times, we had dubbed her ‘Aunt smoked haddock’.
Many areas of South London had been bomb scarred, but nowhere could be compared with the scenes we were to see on cinema newsreels. There were three main cinema chains in those days, Granada, ABC and Odeon. There were two programs each week so keen cinemagoers could, if they so wished, see six different films. Each program was accompanied by a newsreel, as television was still in the wings these newscasts were our window on the world. Some scenes they showed at the time still stick in the mind after all those years. In particular I remember those terrible images of devastation the air forces of the allies had rendered to the enemy. During the final years of the war over 160 German towns and cities had been attacked by waves of bombers dropping as much as 34,000 tons of incendiaries and high explosives within a five month period. Those newsreel images showed landscapes of destruction, piles of rubble beneath remaining skeletal walls, but we were never to see the large timber funeral pyres loaded with dead air raid casualties, many children among them, being incinerated by flame throwers. After hostilities had ceased and the allied occupying powers had moved in we were constantly shown those scenes of destruction, now with chains of women strung over the debris, under instruction from the Allied Control Council, passing bricks, timber and broken concrete by hand from one to the other. 3.5 million homes has been destroyed and 7.5 million people were homeless. Those women, aged between 15 and 50, became known as ‘Trummerfrauen’, rubble women and many memorials have been erected to the memory of their efforts. At the end of the war Germany was missing 15 million men, most of them dead but many of them still missing. At the battle of Stalingrad alone 91,000 German troops had been captured, only an estimated 5,000 were to return.
At the winding up of the war 740,000 German POWs were handed over to France by US forces, and several thousand others were handed over to the Soviet Union as a ‘gesture of friendship. Many of them ended up in Siberia, the survivors among them being repatriated when Stalin died in 1953.
Despite the effect of the war to condition one to despise the enemy and everything German it was difficult not to feel sympathy when newsreels showed scenes at German railway stations of womenfolk holding high photographs and names of their missing menfolk, desperately hoping for some recognition by the repatriated POWs as they arrived back from the Russian camps.
Many German POWs had the good fortune to end up in British camps, but despite limitations set out in the 1929 Geneva Convention they were kept captive until three years after war’s end. 400,000 POWs were retained in this country, most of them being returned from camps in the USA and Canada. The last were repatriated in 1948 leaving the newly constructed Empire Way leading up to the twin towers of Wembley Stadium as a memento of their stay. British agricultural authorities resisted the return of their cheap labour force but were advised that they should recruit replacement labour from the many Poles who had been isolated in this country by the Soviet occupation of their country.
The repatriated Germans were to return to a country of those desolated landscapes, tidied up by the trummerfrauen. Probably a traumatic experience for most of them at the time, now, it is generally accepted that those vast areas of wasteland, prepared by those wartime raids of the RAF and the USAAF, were the basis for the reconstruction of industries which, within half a century, were to become the foundation of the greatest economy of Europe.
Derek Stevens is available for talks on the subject of life during World War II. Anyone interested should phone 01297 553765.