What did you do at the end of war?

18th August 1995 at 01:00
Yehudi Menuhin played Bach, Ron Dearing ate stale buns, Lady Healey got married . . . memories of 1945 as told to Pamela Coleman

SIR RON DEARING Chairman, School Curriculum and Assessment Authority

"My mother, brother and I lived apart during the war in three different towns of Yorkshire, so my most vivid memory of the summer of 1945 is of the joy of the family being reunited. My other strong memory is of my mother reading the headlines in the newspaper the day after the atom bomb was dropped and saying: 'Ronald, I'm glad I'm not your age. The world is too terrifying a place for me.' "I was 11 when my father was killed by a bomb which hit the docks in Hull where he was on fire watch in 1941. My mother then let our home and got a job somewhere else in Yorkshire. I was evacuated and my brother, Malcolm, who was three years younger, went to live with relatives.

I was happy as an evacuee. First I went to live with a mining family in a village called Thorne, near Doncaster. They were so poor we only had cakes on one day a week. That was on Tuesdays when Saturday's cakes were sold off cheaply because they were stale.

"Then I went to the very well-to-do home in Doncaster of two bachelors who had been students at Doncaster Grammar School where I was then a pupil. They had a housekeeper and a maid. Both men were keen on music and one was also very keen on cricket and athletics. I was greatly encouraged. I would be given fourpence a run, a shilling a wicket and five bob for winning a race - nothing for my position in class! The summers seemed long and warm and full of cricket and, in spite of being separated from my family, they were good times.

"When the war ended and I returned home, I worried about how we would manage without a breadwinner. I celebrated my 15th birthday in July 1945 and returned to the Mallet Lambert High School in Hull where I had been for a few weeks in 1941.

"I remember the summer of 1945 as a period of readjustment for everybody. It was a time of anxiety as well as pleasure. In the summer holidays I went potato picking to earn money and my mother took in a lodger. At 16 I got a job at Hull Employment Exchange because I was anxious to help to contribute to the family's upkeep. I managed to get to university six years after I had left school. "


"I was working in the theatre in London right through the war. I had to. My husband Scottie, who had been a drummer, was a bedpan wallah (a medical orderly) in the RAF and his allowance was very low. He served overseas, but I never knew where he was; he wasn't even allowed to give his name when he phoned. We had a special code. Each time he was posted he would call me and say: 'The brown boots fit me' and I knew that meant he was about to take off again.

"Once the war was over I was so glad not to have any more of those telephone calls. I have always been grateful that he came home. I had a lot of girlfriends whose husbands didn't come back.

"I was in London when I heard the news that the war had ended. It was wonderful to be able to walk to the Tube at night and know nothing would drop - and I was overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with my husband and baby.

"Jeanette, our only child, was 10 months old when the war started and although I had the best nanny in the world, Vera, to look after her back home in Morecambe, I was very lonely for her. Every three weeks I would go home to see Jan. I took the 11pm train from Euston for the six-hour ride to Lancaster where I had a lift into Morecambe with the morning newspapers.

"Sometimes I asked Vera to bring Jan to London to see me for a few days but it always seemed that when they arrived the raids were worse and I'd say: 'Oh, take her home again' because I thought she would be safer in Morecambe. A month or two after the war ended we moved to London to the little mews house where I still live.

"Jeanette would have been about seven in that summer of 1945 when we were all reunited. My husband got a job in London and I took any part I could get and eventually got a Rank film contract.

"When Jeanette was nine Associated British remembered they'd seen her when she was three and rang up to ask after 'the beautiful little girl'. She was tested, with 50 others, for the film No Place for Jennifer and got the leading part. My husband, who was anxious that we should not be the parents of a precocious child, gave up his job to look after her."

SIR RICHARD O'BRIEN Industrialist, former chairman of the Manpower Services Commission

"In the summer of 1945 I had just flown up from Italy to join Field Marshal Montgomery's tactical headquarters in north-west Germany. I spent most of the war in the Middle East as an infantry officer serving with the Sherwood Foresters and then with the Leicesters, but for the last few weeks I was at Montgomery's headquarters as a liaison officer. I was there when the break-up of the German army began and surrender negotiations started.

"There were two sets of negotiations going on. The Germans had come to surrender their armies to Field Marshal Montgomery on Luneberg Heath. I wasn't actually present, but I was at the HQ at the time and had wind of the surrender coming. There was a lot of confusion and we didn't really know what was going to happen next. In another set of negotiations, all the German armed forces in the west were surrendering to General Eisenhower who was then in France, at Rheims.

"At that moment I was asked to take a copy of the surrender documents to the German headquarters, to Field Marshal Keitel at Flensburg, also in the north-west of Germany, to present these surrender terms to him so they would be carried out and the surrender go smoothly.

"Afterwards there was an enormous feeling of relief that the war which, at one time looked as though it was going to go on for ever, was at last over and we could turn our attention to the future. Then, of course, uncertainty crept in. What were we going to do?

"I was 25 in 1945. I stayed on in Germany for a year with Montgomery after the hostilities as his personal assistant. We were concerned then with the administration of the British zone. The desperate state of Germany after the war cannot be exaggerated.

"After I was demobilised I was very unsure what I was going to do next. The atmosphere was rather anticlimactic. As people began to pick up peacetime prospects, those who had already made the beginnings of progress on their career before the war knew what they were going to do once it ended. Tom Howarth, for example, a friend of mine at the HQ, eventually became High Master of St Paul's.

"I had got a wartime Cambridge degree and then gone into the Army. Had there not been a war, I would have taken a law degree and gone on to be a barrister. But I decided against a legal career after I came out of the Army. I became development officer for the National Association of Boys' Clubs and then went into industry."


"I was in south-west Cornwall when the war ended. For a few days we didn't know it was really over because it sort of ended and then didn't. I was climbing up the cliff from the sea with my younger son, Toby, then aged three, when somebody shouted to me that the war was over at last. I burst into tears.

"I come from a very military family - I am descended on my mother's side from the Duke of Wellington and my paternal grandfather was a general - and I was thinking of all the people I'd known who had been killed in the war and the terrible waste of lives and energies.

"Toby, however, reacted differently. I'd taken him to London during the doodlebug raids six months before to see a doctor, and he thought they were marvellous, very exciting sort of fireworks. When I told him that the war was over, he stamped his foot and shouted: 'I won't have it. I want my war. ' "In the summer of '45 I had two little boys and was living in Cornwall with a friend and her daughter who was the same age as my second child. It was her father's house and we both went there pregnant and had our own children and a lot of evacuees with us. My husband (the Irish peer, Baron Swinfen) was working in London at the Ministry of Information but we were parted by then, though not quite divorced. My second husband (journalist Eric Siepmann) was serving in the Western desert.

"After the war ended my first reaction was of huge relief that the danger was over. I lost quite a number of friends on active service as well as civilian friends. My father, who had been a colonel, was retired but my brother was in the Air Force. Fortunately he came through safely.

"I moved back to London in the summer of '45 and my children followed soon afterwards. It was a time of change and turmoil for me and for almost everybody I knew. Everyone was either changing where they lived or their jobs or their partners. There was a good old mix-up."

YEHUDI MENUHIN Lord Menuhin of Stoke d'AbernonViolinist and conductor

"1945 was an extraordinary year for me. All through the war I gave concerts morning noon and night everywhere from the Aleutians to the Pacific and South America and, of course, in England. I played for soldiers, sailors, airmen and even military prisoners. Every year I must have given between 200 and 300 performances to the US and Allied armed forces, making well over 1,000 in the course of the war.

"In 1945 I went with Benjamin Britten to Germany where I played in Belsen which had been liberated. I went to Russia where I met Oistrakh, Shostakovich and Khachaturyan and the ballet dancer, Galina Ulanova, who later came to England. I gave concerts in London where I got to know my lovely Diana, my future wife whom I had met earlier. But it was not until 1945 that our relationship developed.

"I will never forget 1945 because of the enormous relief and hope it brought to the world. It was a blessed year and, for me, very eventful both professionally and personally. My accompanist Adolph Baller went to Belgium that year to give the first post-war concerts in Brussels. In Antwerp we were given a formal dinner which I remember because no one dared to speak above a whisper because that is how they had spoken during the whole of the war. It was an extraordinary atmosphere, all the silver and lace and wine and everyone speaking in a whisper.

"A week or two before Hiroshima stopped the war, the date was set for me to be drafted into the Army. I had already had my medical and literate examination. Then I got a call from my local board in California, warning me that once I was enlisted it would take months to get out. As the war would soon be over, I was advised to wait a few days, which I did, so I was never actually drafted as a soldier.

"However, the war kept me passionately involved and, as I travelled the world giving concerts, I saw the extraordinary effect music had on men who in their normal lives would not have heard it; they would have been too distracted by a thousand other pleasant amusements. When I played in a military prison I remember the officer-in-charge telling me they wouldn't have any trouble for five days afterwards. In a hospital in the Aleutian Islands the poor men were so forlorn and lonely they were even ready to hear the chaconne of Bach, but because the piano was unusable (it was full of beer bottles) my accompanist had to give up and finally I played three Bach sonatas.

"I made my own travel arrangements so I was free to go almost wherever I wanted. I would offer to give a concert in return for transport and it always worked. Trips across the Atlantic had to be done through official channels, but I only once had trouble. That was on my first trip when I had to give up my seat to make space for some aeroplane engines.

"1945 was also the year when, on my return to the United States, I gave the inaugural concert of the United Nations in San Francisco. Recently I performed the same concert with the Royal Philharmonic to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and all the memories came flooding back."

BARONESS FAITHFULL Life peer. President of the National Children's Bureau, former director of social services for Oxford city, patron of Barnardos

"During the war I was involved with the evacuation of children and when peace came in 1945, my role was to get these children, and any mothers who had gone with them, back to their own homes.

"I was what was called a regional welfare officer, appointed by the Ministry of Health. When the war first broke out I worked in London. Then I went to Nottingham and, when the raids came on Plymouth, I was transferred there to cover Devon and Cornwall.

"There were some children who simply couldn't be billeted because of problems like bedwetting, difficult behaviour and so on, and I helped the town clerk to set up hostels for them. There were also a number of London mothers who really couldn't get on with the cottage women (and the cottage women with them) and I went round requisitioning properties (mostly big hotels which were empty at that time) and finding staff for them. It was extraordinary the powers one was given at the age of 28 in wartime.

"I was in Plymouth when the war ended. The Astor family, whom I knew, had a lovely house on the Hoe, looking across Plymouth Sound and Lady Astor invited me and one or two friends to go and stand on her balcony and watch the ships return. The battleships were dressed all over and there was a tremendous fireworks display.

"Finally I went back to London, to Islington where I had been working before the war, and was involved in a research study of the effect the war had on children. We visited the families where children had stayed with their parents and hadn't been to school, didn't have school milk and slept with their parents in the Underground and compared them with those who had gone to good billets in the country with good education and good food, but were parted from their families.

"The research showed that the children who had stayed with their families were taller and heavier and emotionally better than the children who had been evacuated. The only area where the children who had been evacuated scored over those who stayed in London was education.

"That exercise taught me as a social worker how disastrous it is to separate children from their parents.

"The evacuation scheme was the most wonderfully organised enterprise. Only the British could organise anything like it. I suppose about 5,000 children must have passed through my hands. I didn't really make a relationship with any of them; I was much more of a bureaucrat.

"I remember the war years as a time when life was compounded of laughter and tears. There was a lot that was fun and so much that was absolutely devastating."

BARONESS DAVID Life peer, Labour spokeswoman on education

"August 1945 was the first time I had been back to Cornwall for five years. My parents-in-law had a house right on the cliff edge at Polzeath and I was there for six months in 1940 before the house was occupied by evacuees from Plymouth.

"In the summer of 1945 the evacuees had left and it was wonderful to be back with my in-laws, my two sons Nicholas and Sebastian who were then aged seven and five, and a new daughter, Teresa, aged eight months.

"My husband joined us for a few days but he was not demobilised until later in the year. He was in the RNVR and served overseas, in the western approaches and in the Mediterranean for quite a lot of the war, but ended his service teaching at the navigational school in Hampshire.

"I remember going to a very moving service of thanksgiving on VJ Day in a field next to the beach near Rock. There were huge crowds there, people who lived there all the time and a great many holidaymakers who, like me, were back again for the first time since the war. I took my two sons with me and I remember wearing a rather smart purple linen dress which I'd bought in a good second-hand shop, and a straw hat.

"The house in Cornwall is still in the family. I look on it as my second home. I've been going there since 1935 so it is a long acquaintance. I was there in June 1940 when my husband was called up into the Navy and stayed on with the children and a series of visitors until November that year when I couldn't stand the gales any more and moved back to Cambridge. All through the war years I looked forward to returning.

"In the summer of 1945 I remember feeling that we were all safe at last and able to get on with our lives."

LADY HEALEY Edna Healey, writer

"In the summer of 1945 I was teaching English and history at Bromley in Kent and went home to the Forest of Dean for the summer holiday and met with Denis again from time to time.

"It was a difficult period because you had got used to the war, had adjusted to war conditions and then suddenly it was over and you had to start making decisions about the future. You had to decide whether or not you were going to get married, for instance. Did you want to get married? Did he?

"From the age of 22 until I was 27, when most young people expect to be making their way in the world, my life had been put on hold. I was 27 in the June of 1945. Denis had been away in Italy and war changes people. I was changed by the war. He was changed by the war. We weren't sure we were going to be the same people.

"He had to go back to Italy to finish a report, but was back for VJ Day. I went up to his family's house in Yorkshire and Denis, his father and mother and I all went out to a local pub to celebrate. Everyone was terribly happy and we sang Italian songs - or at least Denis did. Nobody bothered to take fares on the bus that day.

It was very much a time for taking stock; a period of readjustment - everybody had a lot of re-thinking to do. Denis had been offered a fellowship at Oxford. On the other hand, it was suggested he might like to go into Parliament - which he did. He contested Pudsey and Otley in 1945.

"It was a time of great change. Denis as a soldier had been under discipline and I had been a free spirit. We weren't too sure at first about settling down.

"That summer we took up again hobbies like going to the theatre. It was a wonderfully creative period in the arts world. We saw Laurence Olivier perform in The Critic and Oedipus on the same bill and listened to Myra Hess playing Beethoven in the National Gallery. Suddenly London was all lit up again and there was a great sense of freedom as we travelled on trains that were no longer blacked out.

"I had lost a very dear cousin in the war and many of the people I knew had lost someone close to them, so for me the best thing about the summer of '45 was that I had Denis back, safe and sound. We married in December that year."

SIR JAMES COBBAN Headmaster of Abingdon School 1947-70

"After a spell on the planning staff of Combined Operations Headquarters, I was posted to the newly-formed military element of the Control Commission for Germany where I was chosen as one of the advance party which left for Versailles on May 1.

"It was arranged for a small number of us to go ahead and identify the sites which might contain either men or official papers which might be of interest to us. It was known that in the closing days of the war there had been a mass evacuation of senior civil servants and their papers and archives southwards from Berlin. This meant that they were mainly in the area then under American control, so I and other British officers were formally attached to the 12th US Army Group at Frankfurt.

"I spent the eve of VE Day in Verdun. I always say that I must have been the only man in Verdun who went to bed sober that night.

"The following day I moved forward into Germany and there followed one of the most arduous and exciting six weeks of my life. It was a cross between a children's treasure hunt and a CID investigation. The small party of us would be given a shortlist of targets to look for and off we would go for three or four days in a carrier of some kind, with one or two other ranks to look after us. The targets would be anything from a disused salt mine, where deep underground we found masses of interesting archives, to a mental hospital where some senior officers of the Ministry of Justice were sharing quarters with the patients.

"Our job was merely to evaluate, very roughly, and then, if we thought fit, to send back a signal requesting that the appropriate experts should be sent out.

"My last official act before demobilisation in the summer of 1946 was to act as British representative at a quadpartite meeting in Berlin but that is another story.

"Among my abiding memories of the summer of 1945 are the sheer desolation of heavily bombed cities such as Kassel; in contrast, the beauty of the German countryside; the sight of all those refugees pathetically pushing their laden handcarts along the autobahn, dumbly moving westwards to get away from the advancing Russians; the discipline of those civil servants who only wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible.

"One of them I remember especially, a very cultivated man. When my German and his English failed we fell back on Latin. Many years later I was able to write to congratulate him on the honorary 'K' he received on the Queen's first visit to Germany.

"When I came home, I went back to schoolmastering. I returned to Dulwich where I had had the Classical Sixth before the war. I was 36 by then and, with the Master's permission, I began applying for headships straight away. I was incredibly lucky and I started at Abingdon in 1947."

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