A peek at the past: Extracts from a reader’s memoirs

Guest Post: Chapter three:

World War 2.

The beginning of the end.

Scarborough | Sea Britain
Sea Britain

When I was 12 my parents sold our house and we moved to Scarborough, a seaside town.

It was a small fishing port and there were Victorian buildings but many were much older, even dating back to the 15th century. There was a Spa there also.  The town at that time had a rather “select” reputation, having obviously grown during Victorian times as the use of the Spa became fashionable.  It had two bays, and on the cliff separating them stood the ruins of the Castle, which was actually shelled during WW1.  Also on the cliff was St. Mary’s Church and that dated from Norman times.

There were many large hotels, the most prominent of which was a large Victorian edifice, “The Grand” which overlooked the seafront from its splendid position on the cliff.

A broad road known as The Esplanade ran along the sea front. Then there were rolls and rolls of barbed wire separating the beach from the road.   Concrete pillboxes were much in evidence, and tank traps on the narrow streets leading up from the seafront into the town proper.

It was planned that my parents would take over my Uncle’s restaurant and he would then retire.  To that end, we lived in the apartment above the said restaurant, and my mother and elder sister worked in it as they learned from my Uncle.  My father took the job of manager of the Futurist Bar on the seafront. Shortly after we moved there my parents separated.

Never having lived in a town before, I remember being shocked by the possibly drunken soldiers in the street below singing rude songs which we could hear as we lay in bed.    “Roll me over in the clover. Roll me over, lay me down and do it again!”   (Nowadays one hears much worse on National Radio and on the TV!)

Every hotel and boardinghouse in the town was packed solidly with the allied military. They were of every nationality.  British, Poles, Americans, Free French, Canadians, – you name it, they were there.  Of course, the restaurant owners and the older girls loved it.  I was much too young, but I do remember whispers at school about one 14-year-old girl who “went with the Free French sailors”.

We would watch the soldiers load onto landing barges in the small harbour and then sail around to the beach.  There, the doors of the barge would drop down and the men would dash up the beach, rifles held above their heads, to fling themselves down on the ground in a firing position.  They would then march along to the harbour to reload on to the barges and do it all again.

One summer lunchtime, walking home from school I passed the newspaper offices and saw outside the notices saying “ SECOND FRONT OPENS.”   It was 6th June 1944.   The Allies had invaded France in the most massive operation ever.  Very quickly the names of beaches and towns in France became familiar as we followed the progress of the fighting.

The town had emptied of men, and there began to be a feeling of relief that it would soon be over and the threat of invasion had passed for us.

Once again the names of places across Europe became as well known as those in our own locality. There was such jubilation as we watched the newsreels at the cinema and saw how in the various countries people greeted the soldiers who came to free them from German occupation.

There had earlier been landings at Salerno in Italy and under General Eisenhower, American and Allied troops had fought their way up the country. Now a sort of pincer movement ensued. The Russians, who had a terrible time of things, were fighting back the Germans from their direction.

Even though the bombing in our part of the country had ceased, Germany was still sending over unmanned rockets called colloquially “Buzz Bombs” These fell at random and there was little defence.  People in the cities of the South would hear the engine stop and before they could even take cover it would fall, causing a huge number of deaths.  Of course, they were just aimed at the civilian population as there was no directing them to military targets.

I will never ever forget the newsreels when Allied troops reached the German concentration camps.  The hollow-eyed, skeletal men and women survivors in their striped uniforms with their shaven heads.  The heaps of bodies. The gas ovens.  The horror is still so vivid in my mind.

The German civilians said that they knew nothing about it, which must have been an impossibility. I read that they were forced by the occupying troops to help clear the bodies. The guards at the camps must have gone on leave sometime. The locals must have seen the incoming cattle trucks and viewed the smoke from the chimneys as the victims were incinerated.  They MUST have known!

Finally, the war in Europe came to an end, and there was great rejoicing. Street parties were held, coloured bunting was produced from nowhere, and there was a great celebration.

My sister and I were allowed to go into the town (we had moved away from Scarborough to the inland city of Bradford after my parents separated) All we did was go and stand near the Town Hall and cheer, but it was a great feeling. It was called VE Day. (Victory in Europe)

The war in the East still had to be won, but one day came the news that some huge bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima in Japan, causing enormous devastation.  I admit that we were pleased, and horrible though it was, we felt it was all they deserved after the atrocities committed against so many people, including prisoners of war. At least the atom bomb, as it was called, brought the war to an end.  Emporer Hirohito’s generals signed a surrender pact. They called it VJ Day.  It was all finally over, and we could get back to normal.

However, I could hardly remember what “normal” was, as it had all started when I was only seven.

Europe was in a terrible state of ruin.  There were hundreds of thousands of “Displaced Persons” to be fed and cared for and somehow returned to their (probably now non-existent) homes.  The soldiers had to be gradually demobilised and found civilian housing and jobs. Food was still scarce. Rationing was still in force, although to a lesser degree when I married in 1953.  So, like so many others, because of war, we had endured hardships and lived frugally for 14 years but at least we lived. We survived.


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