Articles tagged with: WW2

Christmas Behind the Wire

on Saturday, 16 December 2017. Posted in Archives, Military

George Sweetman’s Diaries, 1942-1945 (3560/10/22/2)

When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.

On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
 
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.

Trooper George Sweetman (3560/10/22/2)

As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.

If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.

On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.

Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:

Contents of George’s Christmas 1942 Red Cross parcel (3560/10/22/3)

Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.

In The Line Of Fire – Wiltshire’s Role During German Air Raids

on Tuesday, 11 July 2017. Posted in Archives, Military

One of the documents in the Wiltshire Constabulary archives held here at the History Centre includes the Wartime Police Control Room Log (F5/270/2) which was used during 1944 and 1945. The Wiltshire Police Control Room was based at Devizes Headquarters and was and still is the central hub of communications for the force. At that time, the Devizes police station was in Bath Road. The new police HQ was built in 1964 and was a considerably larger building.

The log book not only registered downed aircraft, but firing practices, air raid warnings, evacuee arrivals and other war related incidences.

F5/270/2

I have looked at two individual incidents which were logged in March and April 1944. Both incidents involved crashed German aircraft, I’ve added extra detail which I have found archived elsewhere. The first incident happened on March 14th 1944.

14/3/1944 2345 hours; initial reports of a plane crash about halfway between Alton Barnes and Devizes reported to Marlborough Police by an Orderly Sergeant at RAF Alton Barnes.

2355 Inspector Shears is dispatched to All Cannings as crash believed to be in vicinity.

15/03/1944 0100 confirmed that a plane, believed to be a German aircraft had crashed in a field adjacent to the canal at All Cannings. The plane had burnt out and bombs were in the field. They were unable to say if occupants were trapped. The RAF was guarding the scene and an Ambulance was en route from Devizes.

0120 Confirmation received that the aircraft was a German one with twin engines, model unknown at this stage. There was no trace of any crew ‘but feared from odour and fierceness of conflagration they have been trapped inside.’

0420 aircraft was identified by flight Lieutenant Rickitto as a J.U.88. (This aircraft a Junkers 88 no. 141152 was part of the Luftwaffe which had blitzed London that night. The crew had had specific orders to bomb Buckingham Palace and Whitehall. The plane had been pursued westerly out of London and experienced engine failure as it reached Wiltshire.)

Junkers 88 (Used with kind permission of The Battle of Britain Historical Society)

0710 Major Hailey US forces at Tidworth reported that he had a German airman in custody. The prisoner had supplied descriptions of three other crewmen who had bailed out at the same time. RAF Lieutenant Ricketts (Interrogation Officer) requested that the prisoner be brought to Devizes Police Station for interrogation.

Two other German crew members were detained; one in Patney and the other in Bulford. Both were taken into custody in Devizes.

16/3/1944 1745 the body of the missing airman, the last of the crew, was found in a field in Patney, about 1 and a half miles from the crash scene. A parachute was attached to the body. (German Officer Unteroffizier Hans Schonleitner was buried at Haycombe Cemetery in Bath- local schoolchildren had found his body with a partially opened parachute).

There is a full narrative of that fateful flight on http://indianamilitary.org/ by the surviving tailgunner on board, Gerhard Grunewald (he was subsequently interred as a POW in America).

History's 'Hidden Wealth'

on Wednesday, 08 March 2017. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Since joining the team at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre as a ‘Transforming Archives Trainee’ with The National Archives, life has certainly been full! Over the last 5 months I’ve been involved in several HLF funded projects, completed a university module on Education and Outreach, have undertaken various in-house training sessions on traditional archive skills, as well as attending training conferences in London, Bristol, Manchester, Warwickshire, Gloucester and Dorset. In a few weeks I’ll be off to Edinburgh for another ‘basecamp’ week, training with The National Archives and Scottish Council on Archives. How time has flown!

Something that has struck me deeply over the course of my traineeship so far, which I’d like to share here, is a realisation about the vast importance of learning from our history - particularly the individual lives and stories of people who have gone before us.

Working on the ‘Wiltshire at War: Community Stories’ project, which focuses on the lives and culture of Wiltshire and its residents during WW1, has brought this home to me most of all. Traditionally, when remembering the World Wars, historians tend to concentrate on military or political strategy, and we subsequently have a multitude of movies, books and magazines concerned with the armed forces and the battles they fought. Whilst this is all fascinating information, the Wiltshire at War project seeks to collect and share the stories and memories of the individual people across Wiltshire, who lived through the troubled times of 1914 -1918. We feel it’s equally important to understand how the Wiltshire community adapted during this time, how life continued, and what individual sacrifices were made. What support did Wiltshire provide to the war effort? How did people across the county ‘pick up’ their lives again, once peace was declared? How did they cope with so much change? The project seeks to bring all this community history back into the community, and to share those stories through our fantastic website and ongoing exhibitions.

 

Young Freddie Butler. Shared with permission from Sarah Reay ©

Recently I was publishing a story which came to us via our Wiltshire at War Twitter feed. It’s the story of a young farmer’s son called Freddie Butler, who grew up on Rookhaye farm in Bowerchalke, and tragically died in a flying accident whilst serving with the Royal Flying Corps. I was looking at a photo of Freddie as a child feeding hay to one of the horses, happy as can be. I wondered about that child – his hopes, dreams, memories... In that one moment captured through a camera lens, he, like all the people around him, had absolutely no idea what was to come. I wondered too about Freddie’s mother, shown in a separate photo – how did life continue for her, after the loss of her beloved son?

Looking at some of the family photos that have come in with other recent stories - some dating back as far as 1905 - I find myself peering at each individual face, pondering the complex network of unique memories, life experiences, struggles, choices and relationships that each, single person represented. Was it even possible for those individuals to comprehend that, in the not so distant future, these photos and associated stories may be all that’s left to prove that they even existed? Questions then arise in me that are fundamentally about the human condition: What lessons can we learn from these people and their experience - fellow human beings who lived 100 years before us, in circumstances even more challenging than our own? If I consider that in another 100 years, researchers might be sitting at a desk and pondering photos of me and my family, reflecting on the lives we perhaps lived – might I now choose to live mine differently? What legacy would you choose to leave?

Wiltshire's Enemy Aliens (Part Three): 'Roulette'

on Monday, 06 February 2017. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

As the Second World War drew on numerous other nations entered the conflict, both with and against Britain: Britain formally declared war on Finland, Hungary and Romania on 7 December 1941, the same day as Japan entered the war with the attack on Pearl Harbour; more countries joined the war as time went by. These new entries into the conflict made enemy aliens out of thousands of foreign nationals living in Britain, enemy aliens whom the government believed needed to be controlled. The way these people were dealt with by the government can tell us much about how the final stages of the internment process unfolded in Britain, particularly Wiltshire, and about everyday life for foreigners during the war.

In Wiltshire after the summer of 1940 the aliens who most concerned the police were Romanians. On 8 November 1940 the Home Office issued a letter to all British police forces outlining that in the event of war with Romania, any Romanians in Britain would automatically become enemy aliens, at which point the government planned intern those who were male and between the ages of 16 and 65. We don’t know exactly how many Romanians were living in Wiltshire at this time, but it wasn’t many. According to a census undertaken by the police in March 1942, out of a total of 624 aliens living in Wiltshire there were only six Romanians, two men and four women.

1 List of Male Romanians in Wiltshire, 8 November 1940 (ref F5/530/7)

 On 12 November the police in Wiltshire drew up a list of names of male Romanians in the county who were to be interned under these orders. They were a 31-year old living in Swindon, and a 16-year old living in West Lavington. In a note at the end of the report the police recorded that “both are physically fit”, meaning that they were not exempt from internment due to poor health. The Home Office had asked the police to keep this list continually updated, and on 13 February 1941 the older man’s name was removed and replaced by another 18-year old living in Hullavington, also described as ‘physically fit’.

2 List of Male Romanians living in Wiltshire, 13 February 1941 (ref F5/530/7)

These lists present us with something of a puzzle: the Arandora Star was sunk in July 1940, resulting in a public outcry against mass internment and supposedly the government’s abandonment of the policy. Yet here we have evidence that police in Wiltshire, on the orders of the Home Office, were actively maintaining a list of people eligible for mass internment as late as February 1941. The reality is that the government’s change of internment policy was only a very gradual process, one that was set in motion by the sinking of the Arandora Star but not one that was completed quickly.

Malmesbury and the Evacuees of World War II

on Monday, 16 January 2017. Posted in Archives, History Centre, Schools

Two visitors to the History Centre, a grandfather and his grandson were very interested by what they discovered in the school log books of two Malmesbury schools during WWII. We were so impressed by Ben’s research on the topic, we thought you would be too, and he kindly agreed to let us publish it as a WSHC blog. Many thanks to Ben Tate, age 11.

Malmesbury and the Evacuees of World War Two

Westport Church of England Boys’ School

Westport CofE Boys’ School was a primary school for boys which was running during the second world war. This historical article on it includes many real accounts from the school’s log book in the time of world war 2, which can be located at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre.

1939 In 1939 alone, 32 evacuees (and also their teachers) attended Westport, 14 of which were from London.

Due to the breakout of war, the term began a week late on September 11th 1939, rather than September 4th 1939.  Within 2 weeks of the start of term, 2 evacuees had already gone back home and 2 more had just arrived. This shows the real instability for schools managing evacuees.

At Westport they had separate registers and separate classes for evacuees and local children (as order of the attendance officer).

Something I found fascinating was that at the start of the term (September 1939) they had 32 evacuee pupils but by October 1939 they only had 16 left as the rest had gone home. This again shows the instability of schools trying to manage evacuees.

1940 The headteacher of Westport wrote in the school’s log book on 18th January 1940 that 9 local boys and 5 evacuee boys from Westport had sat a public examination.

A few weeks later in February, the headmaster wrote that Mr. Ellis (one of the teachers who had come with the boys) had had to go back to his house in London as it had been burgled.

In May that year, the headteacher wrote of how 2 evacuee boys were up against the court for crimes like robbery and vandalism.

I worked out that by May 1940 the evacuees had been integrated into one class with the local children at Westport. (That was only the first record I could find in the log book. It may have been earlier, but I haven’t found evidence).

Later that year, in June, the headteacher wrote that there was a possibility of more evacuees going to Westport but the headmaster had said that unless the top floor was brought into use, the school was going to have a real problem finding accommodation for the extra pupils. I failed to find out whether they ever opened the top floor, but I did find out that later in June, 71 evacuees and 3 teachers arrived at Westport, all from east London.

A couple of weeks later, the headteacher wrote about two evacuees who had tried to escape their foster parents and run back to London by road. He went on to say about how they had robbed their foster parents and had only got as far as Swindon when they got caught.

A couple of days after that, the headteacher recounted that Mr Murray (a teacher) had been called up for war service.

On 8th November 1940 the headteacher of Westport wrote about how he had had to keep getting new teachers as they were being called up for service and teachers who had come with the evacuees kept going back home. I found an account of this in June 1940 when the headteacher of Westport wrote, 4 new teachers arrived at the start of June: “The month isn’t even out and 1 of them has already gone back to his home in Essex”.

Something I found interesting in the Westport School’s Log book was on November 15th 1940 the headteacher wrote that bombs had been dropped on Hullavington (obviously due to the air base). He went on to say that a couple of children had been frightened but it was ‘quickly forgotten’. I was personally surprised at that.

1941   In January 1941 the headteacher of Westport wrote in the log book that all evacuees at his school currently had spent Christmas with their foster parents.

The headteacher wrote in the log book on 4th April 1941, that before the holidays the school had 130 evacuees, yet after 2 weeks holiday, they only had 117. On the 25th April 1941 he wrote about how 2 boys had gone back to their homes in Tilbury. He went on to say exactly: “It’s turning into a slow and steady flow”.

1942             I could find no references to evacuees, though I am not saying there weren’t any. I believe there were references to evacuees that I read, it was just that the headmaster had not specifically said the boy is an evacuee. I think this because by now evacuees were not a new thing and they were more integrated and accepted in the local communities.

1943 The same thing happened for 1943 as it had done in 1942.

1944 In 1944 again I had trouble finding accounts saying the child was evacuee although I found a reference talking about how the older boys at the school – some of whom must have been evacuees – were being allowed afternoons of school to help with the potato harvest.

1945 On 8th May 1945 the headteacher of Westport wrote in large writing – very unlike his usual, neat style – ‘VICTORY DAY! WAR IN EUROPE ENDED TODAY.’

Shortly after that (25th June 1945), he wrote that since the war in Europe was over, many evacuees had gone home. Therefore he had had to shuffle around the classes, as many of the students had been evacuees.

The last account that I found in Westport Church of England Boys School Log Book I’m going to tell you about was written on 10th September 1945 which simply said – in large handwriting – ‘THE WAR IS OVER. THE JAPANESE WAR IS OVER!’

Wiltshire's Enemy Aliens

on Thursday, 11 August 2016. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

The Second World War has always fascinated me, especially the home front – I’ve always been curious about what life was like for those away from the front lines, particularly outside of the major cities in largely rural places such as Wiltshire. In particular the story of immigrants (called ‘aliens’ at the time) living in these areas has always been a major interest of mine. It’s an often overlooked fact that there was a substantial European population living in Britain by the 1930s – including large and long-standing German, Austrian and Italian communities. There was also a considerable influx of people into the country after 1933 as those persecuted by the Nazis sought shelter here. Some of these people came to live in Wiltshire: by mid-1942, in addition to the wider immigrant population there were more than 200 people with official refugee status living in the county, about 75% of whom were German. When Britain went to war with Germany these people automatically became “enemy aliens”, and I wanted to find out more about what happened to them after this. I was surprised to discover that there was a suspected German Nazi party official living in Salisbury!

As the possibility of a major European conflict grew towards the end of the 1930s the government became increasingly concerned about the number of people living in Britain from potentially hostile nations, particularly Germany and Austria. These people fell under suspicion as potential spies and saboteurs and the government, particularly the Home Office and MI5, reacted by putting into place plans to arrest and imprison suspect enemy aliens should war break out, a process known as internment. Initially only those who the security services felt were a threat to national security were interned. In practice this was generally limited to those who were members of German political organisations, as there was serious concern that these people might help any German invasion. For example, pictured is the MI5 file card for Rudolf Habla, a Czechoslovakian living in Chippenham, indicating that he was a member of the Deutsch Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) and as such was wanted as a potential saboteur.

 

Whilst MI5 drew up the lists of potential suspects, it was left to local police forces to locate and arrest these people, and in Wiltshire the process was no different. We are lucky enough to have the records of Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre and these contain many references to the arrest and internment of Wiltshire’s enemy aliens. These documents tell the story of the internment process during the war, not just for Wiltshire but for the country as a whole.

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