World War II, According to MeINTRODUCTION
In the year 1939, my family, the Boyds, lived in the village of Duntocher, population 3,000, just north of the industrial town of Clydebank, population 48,000. Clydebank is, of course, on the banks of the River Clyde. Our home was situated at the northern edge of a subdivision, facing a stand of beech trees which were several hundred years old, a much more ancient Roman Road, then a farmer's field, beyond which wild land of gorse and heather, rising 1,800 feet above, the Old Kilpatrick Hills. These were named for St Patrick, whom local tradition insists was born there into a family of Roman citizens and kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of sixteen, in the year 405 AD. But that's another story.
Each building in our subdivision accommodated four families, two upstairs, two downstairs. We lived downstairs and our downstairs neighbours were noisy, the unruly kids being in the habit of bouncing a golf ball off our mutual brick wall for hours. Or it seemed like hours. Diagonally upstairs from us the neighbours were particularly quiet, he being a second story man, a burglar.
Of the 3,000 people in Duntocher, about 2,800 were Roman Catholic of Irish background, the rest being Scottish Presbyterians. For Protestants, Presbyterian was your only option, since the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was the official national religion. The unofficial religion of Scotland was and still is soccer, at whose stadia thousands enthusiastically worship each weekend, while churches stand empty.
MEMOIRS: WORLD WAR II, ACCORDING TO ME
I was born in the middle of the Great Depression, the fourth child in my family, a surprise and an accident, just like you. Mother was quite concerned about having another mouth to feed, but my Father quite cheerfully said "Don't worry. He'll bring us luck." A lot of responsibility on my young shoulders. My Father was out of work at this time, but within a couple of years he had found a job and the Great Depression was over. I was doing well, but there was more to come....
I had just turned five and started going to school when war was declared. Our Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had been sucking up to Adolf Hitler and came out of a session with Adolf in Munich, waving a signed treaty and claiming "Peace in our time!" I don't remember much about that, but Hitler immediately invaded Poland. His excuse for doing so was that troops in Polish uniforms began shelling the Germans. It turned out later that those troops were Germans, sneaked across the frontier so he could justify attacking Poland.
Anyway, they invaded Poland, and the dashing, bold Polish cavalry looked fine but however courageous they were, did not make much headway against the German Panzer tanks. Germany had been preparing militarily for years while the rest of Europe hoped for peace. The British Empire was a powerful economic engine at this time but ill prepared for a modern war. The world was just some thirty years removed from the end of World War I. That was supposed to be the "war to end all wars."
Britain had a mutual agreement with Poland, don't ask me why, that in the event that an attack each would step up to protect the other.
My personal memories of war start in September of 1939, at the dinner table in our living room. The whole family was there, sisters Betty and Isobel, brother Bobby, Mum and Dad, and yours truly, the baby of the family. Even the cat Kitty Whiskers was under the table. I remember its name because all the cats we ever had were called Kitty Whiskers. All were listening to the BBC six o'clock news on the radio. Electricity had been quite recently installed at our house, before that, illumination was by natural gas in a mantle. Our radio was powered by an old car battery and nobody had television. I remember the announcer, in suitably somber tones, announced that war had been declared. September 1939. I could see my family took it very seriously, but it didn't mean much to me. No big deal......
Anyway, Britain soon dumped Chamberlain and brought out a new champion, Winston Churchill. Winston had been involved in wars going back to 1898 when, as a journalist, he was taken prisoner in South Africa by the Boers, during the Boer War. He escaped and left journalism for politics.
It was said of Churchill that he marshaled the English language and sent it to war. Even as a child I remember hearing him speak when he entered parliament on May 13, 1940, replacing Chamberlain. Apparently Churchill received a lukewarm reception while the outgoing Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was lustily cheered. It happened while the Nazi army led by the brilliant General Erwin Rommel was roaring across Europe, seemingly unstoppable, conquering country after country, and the survival of Britain seemed very uncertain.
Churchill made this brief statement which has been described as one of the greatest calls-to-arms ever uttered. It must have been powerful because I still remember it 68 years later.
"I say to the House..... I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.Even although I was only five years old, I remember hearing the part about having nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. That sounded pretty cool to me, but the term "cool" would not be coined for another fifty years.
Now that war was underway, food was rationed as German submarines were sinking supply ships coming into Britain. The shipbuilding industry was going flat out but the U-boats were sinking them as fast as they were built. (Years later, my father in law Jim MacPhee told me he was chief engineer on a cargo ship in the early war years. On one run he went to bed after three sleepless nights of air attack, being bombed and shot up, and fell sound asleep. He was in a convoy of seventeen ships. When he awoke in the morning three ships were left. The Germans had invented magnetic mines.)
Not only was food rationed but, tragedy, candy was too. Gas masks were issued. Everyone had to carry them as well as identity cards. Posters went up everywhere saying "Is your journey really necessary?" and "Loose lips sink ships." All railway stations had candy bar machines which now stood empty and forlorn.
On May 10, 1940, Germany began a massive attack against Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Defending those countries was the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) along with the French, Belgian, and Dutch armies. The B.E.F. had been quickly thrown together and shipped off to stop the German army. The B.E.F. were ill equipped, and poorly trained with incompetent leaders. Their generals thought they could run things by staying well to the rear of the action and communicating by hand delivered messages, just like in World War I. Their main line of defense was the Maginot Line, a string of defensive forts along the French-German border, from Luxemburg to Switzerland. They were sure the Germans could never break through. Never!
Yet the high speed, mechanized German 'blitzkrieg' continually caught the Allied armies off-guard. Rommel did not try to break through the Maginot Line but sent his Panzer tanks through the "impassable" Ardennes Forest, circled north, and surrounded the Allied armies in Belgium. German morale was very high.
The "Miracle at Dunkirk" occurred next. 338,000 British and French soldiers were picked up along the coastline by over a thousand vessels, including Royal Navy destroyers and a flotilla of small boats of every shape and size, civilian as well as military, anything that could float. The entire country had thrown itself into the war to save the troops from annihilation.
After just a few weeks of battle, Hitler's armies had experienced stunning victories on all fronts. Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium had capitulated in less than a month. Paris fell on June 14. Three days later, France sued for peace. Europe had collapsed like a house of cards.
In this speech to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill discusses the disastrous turn of events in Europe with the realization that Britain now stands alone against the seemingly unstoppable German military juggernaut.
"...the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions...... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward.... If we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.Europe had been conquered and Britain was left to fight alone. In August 1940 Reichmarshal Goering, supreme commander of the Luftwaffe and deputy to Hitler himself, initiated a great offensive against Great Britain, Operation Eagle, convinced that he would drive the RAF from the skies and secure the surrender of the British by means of the Luftwaffe alone. The Germans commenced bombing strategic targets and airfields when an audacious bombing raid by the British on Berlin infuriated Hitler and caused a change of plans. The Luftwaffe made a fatal, tactical error at Hitler's insistence, when they switched to massive night bombings of London in September, 1940, just when British fighter defenses were reeling from losses in the air and on the ground. This move saved the RAF control stations from destruction and gave the British fighter defenses precious time to recover. The failure of the Luftwaffe, which Hitler never forgave, caused the abandonment of Operation Sea Lion, the planned invasion of England, and began the political eclipse of Goering.
The people of London were hammered by planes based in newly occupied France, Belgium and Holland. London was ablaze, yet the King and Queen refused to leave London, daily visiting bombed areas to comfort survivors. Fire departments and hospitals were overwhelmed, and often fire trucks and ambulances could not navigate the streets because of rubble from destroyed buildings. Air raid shelters were few and many people were sleeping under ground in the subway stations, but instead of being demoralized, their resolve increased.
The British Royal Air Force, quite limited in men and machines, strove valiantly against the Luftwaffe's fleets of bombers and fighter escorts invading. A bombastic Reichmarshall Goering, a former World War One hero, had assured the world that they would totally destroy the Royal Air Force in four days in preparation for invasion. Residents of southern England were treated daily to "dog fights" as British Spitfires and Hurricanes engaged the Heinkels and Messerchmidts of the Luftwaffe in deadly combat overhead. Pilots were scrambled and flew around the clock with little rest. This was known as the Battle of Britain and Hitler found that he could not overwhelm the country even with massive air superiority. They were turned back by this handful of heroes. Instead of winning the battle of Britain in four days, they lost it in one month.
Churchill rewarded Britain's young pilots with praise as only he could. I remember part of his speech saying "Never in the annals of history has so much, been owed by so many, to so few."
Now it became personal. Hitler, frustrated in the south of England, turned his attention northward, sending planes from occupied Norway into the industrial heart of Scotland, the Clyde Valley, where the great Cunard ships, the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth had been built. Shipbuilding yards on the Clyde produced over half of Britain's tonnage. The Singer Manufacturing company with its 16,000 workers had switched from manufacturing sewing machines to machine guns and light weaponry, and further down the river where my Dad worked, huge guns were being manufactured at the Royal Ordnance Factory. They all knew they would be a target as soon as the Germans could reach the area.
In preparation for an attack, "barrage balloons" were installed at the outskirts of towns. Their purpose was to prevent attacks from low flying aircraft. They were unmanned dirigibles flying at an altitude of 300 metres and anchored to the ground by steel cables. An anti aircraft gun battery was in a farmer's field just outside our village. We found out afterwards that a fake town had been built in the Old Kilpatrick Hills, to attract planes to drop their bombs there instead of on industrial targets. A series of oil filled smokepots lined a nearby highway. I don't know if their purpose was to hide the road or attract bombers away from the nearby River Clyde and its many vital targets. Blackout was enforced and every window had blackout curtains so no light would be visible. Each home had a bathtub full of emergency water and a bucket of sand for firefighting. A Home Guard had been organized of men who were medically unfit for service or too old. My Dad had been in World War One and was now considered too old for military service, so he served in the Home Guard.
Personally, I found all this activity rather exciting and enjoyed it all.
My brother, Bobbie, was an apprentice Die Sinker. This was considered a trade vital to the war effort and he could not get permission to join the military. He tried many, many times, and once was told by the General Manager, "There are three hundred die sinkers in the Clydeside. I will be damned if there will only be two hundred and ninety-nine." Eventually he gave way and Bobby was able to join the Royal Air Force in 1943.
We were blessed with having Anderson Shelters. These were almost like a culvert, made of corrugated metal, half buried in the ground and covered over with sod. They were almost invisible from the air and could withstand all but a direct hit. In towns with tenement buildings, there was no room for these individual family shelters. There were some above ground sturdy brick shelters but these could be destroyed by a blast from a nearby bomb explosion. Most people in town had to take shelter in stairwells, closets, and on lower floors. Before we got our Anderson Shelter I remember one raid we had to take cover in a closet that had no windows or outside walls. It was pitch black and in the darkness, waiting for the bombs to fall, I did not feel any particular fear but in my imagination I could see rockets, just like Flash Gordon had, coming towards me, one after the other, all in white.
The Anderson shelters, being underground, inevitably accumulated water on their dirt/mud floor, so my brother installed a wooden floor and built a strong wooden door for it. I saw it as a new playhouse and my friends and I incorporated the shelter into our games.
Here are some extracts from an official report [source not cited. -J.W.]:
"On the nights of the 13 and 14 of March in 1941, the Luftwaffe executed a brutal attack on Clydebank, and dealt that town a devastating blow from which it never completely recovered. Clydeside as a whole had prepared itself for an expected onslaught from the beginning of the Second World War. Clydebank with its industrial profile expected it would be marked as a prime target. Some believed that the iron in the mountains around Clydeside would interfere with the compasses of aircraft, making reliable target navigation impossible."Good luck with that. Our home village, Duntocher, was in the Clyde Valley and on the outskirts of Clydebank.
"At 9 pm on the clear frosty evening on Thursday the 13th of March, beneath the light of a full moon, a "bomber's moon," with snow on the ground, the eerie wail of air raid sirens echoed through the Clyde valley. The sound faded, replaced by the drone of heavily-laden bombers.Meanwhile down on the ground I was roused from my sleep. Dad, who had great faith in the prayers of children had assured me if I said my prayers, the German bombers would not come over. As I was bundled in my 'siren suit" and carried to the shelter by my sister Isobel, I shouted some words I had picked up on the street, "And I said my #**# prayers." (This childhood experience led to a lack of confidence in the effectiveness of prayer which still haunts me today.)
Mother showed up carrying the "shelter bag" holding important family documents in case the house went up. I had a good laugh at Dad who, running across the back lawn in the dark, was flattened by a clothes line which caught him around the neck.
The first bombs were small - 50 kg high explosive, oil bombs and incendiaries, with the intention of starting fires to act as a beacon for the main force, already en route from bases in France, Holland, Denmark and Germany. According to Germans, who kept good records:
"On the first night the Luftwaffe dropped 1,630 containers of 1 kg incendiary bombs. Each container weighed 70-250 kg; a total of 105,300 bombs. Made of magnesium alloy with a filling of "Thermite" and ignited by an impact fuse, they burned fiercely with a heat sufficient to melt steel. Dropped in a variety of containers designed to open as they fell, bombs could be spread in patterns with devastating efficiency."After they made sure we were safe, Bobby and Dad went out and started fighting fires caused by incendiary bombs. These would land on a roof, then burn through that, through a ceiling and into the upstairs home, setting things alight.
Bobby spotted a home where an incendiary had burned through the roof. He broke down the extremely heavy front door and found an incendiary burning in a horsehair stuffed armchair with a great deal of smoke. With great difficulty he wrestled the chair downstairs but was taken by surprise when he reached the outside air and the bomb flashed in his face burning his eyebrows and hair. The house was saved but the resident, a fussy old bachelor who stayed safe in his shelter, complained later about the mess Bobby had made.
Bobby later saw an incendiary that had become trapped in the eaves trough of house and ended up hanging by one hand and swinging a pickax in the other to break the bomb loose.
Here is an excerpt from the official account of the event:
"The first major blazes began at Yoker Distillery to the east of the town. Set on a hill above the town to the northwest, Auchentoshan Distillery was blasted, setting ablaze a warehouse containing the equivalent of 1 million bottles of whisky. From the resulting inferno, whisky poured into the nearby burn creating a line of fire that stretched to the River Clyde."These Nazis had no conscience.
"Schools and churches fell easy prey to the hail of incendiaries. Three huge oil tanks were bombed and one set on fire at Dalnotter, close to Auchentoshan. The 40 acres that comprised Singer's timber yard, which was stocked full was set ablaze. In every street a fire had taken hold. The town, now an inferno, beckoned the incoming formations and the heavy bombs and parachute mines began to fall.After the "all clear", I stood with my father looking at the huge oil tanks blazing two miles away, lighting up the sky. "Do you see that?" he said. "That's man's inhumanity to man."
Again from an official account:
"The Burgh was evacuated. 48,000 refugees, set adrift and spread afar, many never to return. Clydebank was still burning that evening, when the bombers returned to complete their task. When the drone of the last bomber had faded, 528 lay dead and over 617 had been seriously injured. Many hundreds more were wounded by shards of flying glass.I remember coming out of the shelter after a few hours when the "all clear" sirens blew. The ground was partly covered by snow and the house across the way was gone as was the building three houses further along our street. Dad and Bobby had saved those in between. There were many incendiary bomb burned out casings lying around on the ground each about eighteen inches long with fins to direct them to my back yard.
When we entered our home we found that the blast from our own anti aircraft guns had blown out all the windows on the north side of the house and they were lying, frame an all, on the beds. The cat, Kitty Whiskers, was sleeping in the empty frame where one pane had been. Cool cat.
The soldiers manning a battery of anti aircraft guns, by a farm on the outskirts of our village, had a nerve shattering experience. A large land mine landed upside down beside the battery and did not explode. After a bit, the gunners, resumed firing and were fortunate that the bomb did not go off.
We gathered in our living room, warming ourselves around a coal fire after the "all clear" sounded. We were joined by our upstairs neighbour, Cathy Boyd (same surname as us but no relation.) Cathy's husband was in the army and away from home. Mother was making the "cure for any problems," a cup of tea. Nobody in our family showed fear, but Cathy wept profusely. She was very pregnant and her face was wet with tears. Suddenly a huge blast occurred, probably caused by a land mine which had not detonated when it landed nearby. Soot came shooting down the chimney and Cathy's tear soaked face, was totally blackened. After the suspense of the air raid we were all ready for a something to break the tension, and Cathy was able to join in with the rest of us who were totally unable to suppress our laughter.
There were numerous air raid warnings, with sirens setting our nerves on edge, and other bombing raids, but we never again experienced one as severe as the raid that came to known as the Clydebank Blitz. During one air raid, a friend, George White, was caught with many others in the La Scala Theatre, a very large and fine movie house. George ended up in the crowded basement and there was a lady who was extremely thirsty and most anxious for a drink of water, but none was available for the water main was off. . George left the safety of the basement to see what he could do, He returned with a glass of water and when asked later how he had managed to get it when everything was shut down, he explained he had got it from a toilet tank.
Only two fighter planes were available to attack this armada, the rest being held in southern England to defend London. Up those two went against that huge armada with all its escort fighters. One pilot, a New Zealander was killed, the other was shot down but survived. I have often wondered at the courage it must have taken to get into that one sided fight.
The second night of the blitz, the Germans dropped the heavy land mines. I remember the whistling sound they made while falling, then a few seconds of silence, followed by a huge earth shaking explosion. They would leave a crater about thirty feet in diameter and fifteen feet deep. Where these landed in a "burn" (small stream) they caused a lovely fresh water pond where in later years I was able to install minnows.
A number of crows (that's called a "murder of crows!) had nests in the beech trees that bordered our street, Beeches Avenue. I have heard that crows are fine mimics and I remember that these crows learned quickly to mimic the whistling sound of a falling land mine. The families living on Beeches Avenue were subjected to that noise made by the crows and braced themselves for that huge explosion that never came. This continued for some weeks after the blitz and proved to be quite stressful. I, for one, did not like that suspense.
It wasn't all bad news, though, for I found out that my school had been destroyed. I was going to have some months off while they replaced it with temporary buildings. Dad decided that my mother and I should be evacuated to a safer location away from the industrial area. I remember well, him standing on the boulevard with his rifle held crossways and stopping a private car and asking (demanding?) the driver to take us to Garelochhead on the coast, where an uncle lived, my mother's brother Angus, and his family.
We were only gone for two weeks but when we returned we found out that my tender hearted sister, Betty, had fed mother's precious hoard of canned goods to local abandoned cats. "They were starving," she said.
Shortly after the Blitz a bomb disposal crew, about seven men, arrived in our community and disarmed all of the unexploded bombs they could find. I remember Mother appreciating the risks they took on our behalf and bringing them in for several cups of tea to warm up. They were most grateful as it was cold, damp and windy.
My family volunteered to have various members of the military, who were far from home, spend their leaves with us. I remember many sailors from Newfoundland, Canadian soldiers, and US airmen who stayed at one time or other. Some came back for further visits. Some went away and never returned. I remember one quiet Canadian paratrooper, Arnold, lost in the abortive raid on Arnhem. A Canadian soldier, Johnny Walker, entertained us playing "Turkey on the Straw on his "fiddle." It was marked "Stradivarius" inside and he told us he had found it outside a museum in Belgium. Who knows? (At war's end my sister, Isobel, married an American airman, a Staff Sergeant in the 8th Army Air Force, and moved to Indiana. My other sister, Betty, married a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy from Newfoundland and moved there for a year before they returned to settle in Scotland.)
Then I was in uniform. Hitler had better watch out now. The First Duntocher Wolfcub Pack. I quickly got fed up with marching and tying knots. Years later knots became of great interest when I took up mountain climbing.
When America entered the war in 1943, the ships Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, with a top speed of 30 knots, became troop ships, carrying 18,000 men at a time, the men sleeping in shifts. These ships were prime targets but sailed without escort, relying on speed and a zig-zag course to evade German U-boats.
Here is something from an official account:
"The D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, was the largest seaborne invasion of all time, involving over 156,000 troops crossing the English Channel from the United Kingdom to Normandy.On D-day and the allied forces landed on the beaches in France and began to slowly, painfully push the Germans back. Eventually the Germans capitulated a year later, unconditional surrender, on May 7, 1945. This came to be known as VE Day.
We followed the war in the Pacific on a large map on the living room wall. The map was there to cover a stain on the wallpaper caused when a bread crust spread with margarine bounced off my sister Isobel and hit the wall. She often irritated me and we occasionally had our own private war. Three months after victory in Europe, on August 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered. Finally, it was all over. In my village we celebrated with a huge bonfire and in school a grateful nation awarded me a bag of sultana raisins with seeds and a quarter. All the other kids got the same.
My Dad faced stomach cancer bravely but died in 1951 at the age of 53. In Dalnottar Cemetery close by my father's grave is the mass grave of over three hundred people who died in the Clydebank blitz, and whose remains could not be identified.
Hitler sought world domination. In the end he did not even need the traditional six feet of ground everyone is allocated. He did not wish to be captured, so poisoned himself, and by his own request, his remains were consumed by fire from flamethrowers. He would probably fit into a matchbox after that.
72 million people lost their lives in World War Two, the greatest loss of life in any conflict since the beginning of history. The Allies lost 61 million dead, the Axis, 11 million. Many more than that were wounded. 47 million of the dead were civilian casualties, the greatest number of these, women and children. Military losses were 25 million dead. Between five and six million Jews lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps, as did five hundred thousand Gypsies, two thousand Roman Catholic clergy, and ten thousand gay men. 40 million died in prisoner of war camps. Of the various nations, Russia and China suffered the greatest losses with ten million war dead each. The United States of America had five hundred thousand war dead.
As Robbie Burns said:
"Man's inhumanity to man, makes countless thousands mourn."An official summary of this tragedy:
Prisoner of war deaths in Nazi captivity totaled 3.1 Million. 600,000 in Soviet captivity. POW deaths in Japanese captivity totaled 539,000. Detailed by country: China 400,000 ; Indochina 34,000 ; Netherlands 25,000; U.K. and colonies 24,000 ; Philippines 27,300, United States 10,700 and Australia 8,000. Civilian Deaths - Includes losses from military action and war related deaths caused by famine and disease.