I know I was born after the war, but it was recent enough to enter into my early memories. The Second World War lasted from 1939 to 1945 and was born in 1946. You may notice that I have referred to it several times as ‘The War.’ That’s what we called it and I shall stick to that name.
None of my family were killed, wounded or prisoners-of-war in the Second World War – and the same is true for the First World War. My grandfather served in the Navy and returned safely from WW1 before dying a few years later. One of my uncles died in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, which killed more people than the First World War.
I have strong memories of the War and I have to start with this picture, the Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red, exhibited at the Tower of London in 2014 on the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War 1 – with 888,246 ceramic poppies, one for each British and colonial death. I went to see it – a memorable experience!
My parents and grandmother (who lived with us) had lived through the War, so it is no surprise that sometimes they talked about it. Actually, they did not talk about it. It was not the sort of experience you would talk about to a young child. (They didn’t say much about it to me when I was older.) Perhaps they wanted to forget much of it. But so often things were dated by it – something happened ‘before the War,’ or ‘during the War.’ As very young children that was all we ever heard. But the aftermath affected us in many ways.
With millions of men returning from an absence of up to six years there was a significant effect on the demographics of the UK (and the World) about nine months later, as there had been after the First World War. Births in 1946 reached a peak that put me in a cohort where steps had to be taken to cope with large numbers.
My first school, Grange Hill Primary School, was built as a temporary school to cover this boom. My Secondary School, Ilford County High School (the subject of one or more later blogs) used to have an intake of four classes of 32 pupils into its First Form every year. When I joined they had to cope with six. We were ‘the bulge,’ which continued through my education.
(You can see from the graph that this boom reappears when the first boom years reach maturity. The United Kingdom experienced a second baby boom during the 1960s, with a peak in births in 1964, and a third, smaller boom peaking in 1990.)
We even had our own boxed set of Trivial Pursuit
Waste Not Want Not
Times had been hard during the war. Just after the War, we grew up in a period of relative austerity. The reason that we had so little choice available in the shops was not just our primitive technology and economy. We were recovering from the war situation. It was my grandmother who most often used the expression, “Waste not, want not.” She had lived through two World Wars. It was certainly seen as a sin to leave food. Sometimes the admonition was that there were people starving in Africa who would appreciate it.
We composted food waste. Actually, food was not wasted but we had a lot to compost – potato peelings, pea pods, and all the bits of vegetables that are removed in preparation. (Now they are removed before the produce reaches the shops.) They all went on to our compost heap. We crushed eggshells before doing the same with them. This is one of the reasons that virtually nothing went into our dustbin. (What we used before wheelie bins. US: trash can.)
There was extensive rationing during the War. I don’t remember it, but it continued until the early fifties. It presumably was one reason why we were not given sweets or confectionery as young children. (They were rationed until 1953.) We had evaporated milk and condensed milk but we also had proper bottled milk freely available. Powdered eggs had been used in the war – I remember a tin in the garage – but we could get real eggs just as easily as milk.
I do remember orange juice and school milk.
There was a government supplied orange juice. It came in a small, glass bottle and was a very dark orange colour. It was concentrated orange juice. I suspect it was the only form of orange juice available. I don’t think it tasted very nice. I don’t remember drinking it much but it was there in the larder.
Milk was supplied, free, to all children at school. It came in bottles of one-third of a pint and we had it during our first playtime [US: recess]. We drank it through straws after punching a hole in the foil top. At primary School we all drank it together. It was still there at ICHS but had become optional. By then I had lost the taste for it – it was full cream milk. (In those days it was not homogenized. The top centimetre or two was even creamier.)
(I did look on Wikipedia, which informed me that ‘Free School Milk’ is the first album by the English band Tiny Dancers released in 2007, not quite what I was looking for!)
I also remember tea. My mother liked tea and bought a quarter-pound packet every week to drink. (I will say more about tea later.) But she obviously remembered times of hardship in the War and from her limited housekeeping budget she would buy an extra packet every week. We had dozens in the sideboard – just in case!
And I remember: Cod liver oil and malt. There was a time when we had a spoonful of this every evening, taken a bit like a daily dose of medicine. I’m not sure quite why we had it. It was like a dietary supplement, perhaps for vitamins, perhaps to make up for foods not easily available during the War or under rationing.
Radio and Television
With the continuing Cold War, there were troops in Germany and we had a constant reminder of post-war armed forces in Two-Way Family Favourites every Sunday. (Sorry, that was a backward reference but I have just shuffled the order posts will go out. Family Favourites now comes later!)
There also seemed to be constant reminders on television. I remember some extensive series about the War and about Winston Churchill. One such series, based on Churchill’s memoirs, was the Valiant Years, broadcast in 1961. It ran for 27 episodes and used the voice of Richard Burton.
(In my early years, Churchill was still familiar as Prime Minister. He will crop up again in future blogs.)
Comedy series about the war continued for many years. Dad’s Army, about the Home Guard ran from 1968; It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, from 1974 was about entertaining the troops in India and Burma; and ‘Allo ‘Allo, from 1982, satirized the French resistance. I liked all of these – yes, I know, they go a bit later than the sixties!
I can’t claim to have seen any of these when first released but the following, all made around 1960, were repeated enough on television to show something of life in the War – The Colditz Story (1954), Above Us the Waves (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Ice Cold in Alex (1958), The Longest Day (1962) and The Great Escape (1963). They were all very dramatic portrayals.
We had Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at our secondary school. Cadets came in uniform on Friday and went out on parade for the last period, while the rest had private study in our form rooms. In our class, there were two cadets. One of them often told me that he was looking forward to his call-up for National Service – an extension of the conscription that had operated in the War. Boys at age eighteen had to serve for two years in the Army, Air Force or Navy.
I did not look forward to the prospect. As a pacifist I would have declined the offer of National Service. Fortunately it ended in 1960 so I just missed it.
I have remembered something else. Just by our local Police Box (a blue telephone kiosk like the TARDIS in Doctor Who,) was a loud siren mounted high on a telegraph pole. It was occasionally tested. Perhaps it was an Air Raid Siren left over from the War.
I still feel, at times like Remembrance Day, that I am just about old enough for the War to be much more significant to me than to my children and grandchildren and people born later than me. There have been wars since then but they are very different.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning;
We will remember them.