Here comes everybody
Triumph and tears: as the nation celebrates VE Day, we select the cream of a wartime crop - books on the final international; Jonathan Sale on a bombardment of war books
Saturday 06 May 1995
with Renate Miller
Michael Joseph £15.99
What Did You Do in the War, Mummy?
ed. Mavis Nicholson
Chatto & Windus, £16.99
The Evacuation: A Very British Revolution
Went the Day Well?
ed. Derek Tangye
Michael Joseph, £14.99
Sound the sirens! Here comes another bombardment of books about the War. Maybe the auth-orities should bring back rationing. There has certainly been some rationing of talent - though not in the case of Russell and Renate Miller, whose trawling of diaries, memoirs and interviews has produced the excellent Ten Days in May. The Millers chronicle the run- up to victory, the ten days that didn't shake the world as much as the Russian Revolution, largely because it was still a phoney peace; families like mine had relatives still stuck on the Japanese front.
One in four of the population had their doubts about whether Hitler was in fact dead, which would have put a damper on their rejoicing. Such doubts were understandable. The government had always been economical with the truth (thank God all that's behind us now) and had declared that the V2 rockets were really exploding gas mains. It even sat on the news that the Germans had in fact surrendered. Many thought that the first documentary films about concentration camp atrocities were merely propaganda; it didn't help that one of these real-life horror movies was shown in a double bill with a Donald Duck cartoon.
Still, there was dancing in the West End, some of it to the strains of Humphrey Lyttelton's trumpet. He started the evening as a solo act and was joined by a passing trombonist and a man with a drum strapped to his chest, and ended up being pulled around the West End in a handcart.
Everyone made sacrifices for peace. Women dropped their principles; one ex-virgin discovered her knickers hoisted to the top of a flagpole. In her Daily Mirror cartoon strip, Jane finally stripped competely. The MP and publisher Harold Nicolson tore his trousers in the crush on his way to Westminster. Barbara Cartland was shocked into having a sensible thought. Meanwhile, the then pilot officer Anthony Wedgwood Benn was on the Sea of Galilee: he celebrated with an orange juice and an ice cream.
Captain Alan Whicker and his army media unit were first into Milan; like many of his subsequent television viewers, the Germans were rather disappointed, since they had hoped to surrender to a more senior officer. Lord (William) Deedes would have done nicely, but he was too busy contemplating the fate of the military man in peacetime: redundancy. Even more gloomy was a wounded soldier who left his hospital for a quick pint and was locked up by some uniformed jobs-worth for not wearing his cap.
The Millers also have a fair amount of material on the Home Front, including one or two Adrian Mole-ish characters whose idea of rolling out the barrel was to stay in and listen to the wireless. One of the War's less attractive radio voices, "Lord Haw-Haw" (William Joyce) was alive on VE Day, but not for long afterwards; the Fascist broadcaster was later hanged.
Those who kept the home fires burning - or put them out if they resulted from enemy bombs - make up most of the interviewees in What Did You Do In the War, Mummy?. Mavis Nicholson has recruited an intriguing regiment of women, from Kathleen "Orlando the Marmalade Cat" Hale to Molly "Dr Finlay will see you now" Weir.
It has to be said that Ms Nicholson is no Tony Parker: she never quite gives the feeling that she has coaxed the essence from her subjects. And her toe-curling introductions to each chapter deserve saturation bombing from a great height. But her high-octane ladies still shine like searchlights in the blackout. Singer and "Forces' Favourite" Anne Shelton was saved by Workers' Playtime; her scheduled appearance on that programme prevented her from taking up Glenn Miller's kind invitation to join his fatal plane trip to Paris. Another survivor was Odette Hallowes, the British agent, who, captured by the Gestapo in France, lost her toe-nails but not her life. They all show that the War was often a liberating time for women. Even working in an ammunition factory could be a welcome reprieve from being permanently stuck at home with elderly parents.
One of her best subjects is Lady Swinfen, who was involved with the Bletchley decoding operation when it was more fashionably based at St James's. Her account here is better than The Camomile Lawn or anything else her ladyship has written as Mary Wesley. Later she moved to Cornwall, where she found the East End evacuees "really enchanting".
Two years old, suffering from measles and evacuated from Ilford to East Anglia, Bob Holman did not feel particularly enchanting. "We did not last long in Ipswich," he recalls in The Evacuation, which is laid out like the school textbook it deserves to become. "We did not last long anywhere."
The kids were often reluctant to leave the cities, sometimes because they were convinced that the Germans were waiting for them at the other end. Reception committees could be about as charitable as an SS platoon in a bad mood. "Two girls," was the request of one foster mother, adding, "Fair hair and blue eyes, please." Yet many householders were astonishingly tolerant of the small strangers dumped upon them, becoming aware for first time of the degrees of deprivation in society. Holman, a former Professor of Social Administration, sees this awareness as an early glimmering of the Welfare State.
The immediate result of VE Day meant that the remaining evacuees could all go home. Went the Day Well? is a tribute to those who never returned. It feels as if it was written a good 50 years ago and indeed it was, being a re-print of a collection of tributes to dead fighting folk by their friends, edited by Derek Tangye. The trouble with this curio is that the writers have all been afflicted with a touch of the John Buchans: "The square-jawed lad shrugged his broad shoulders." The chaps seem exactly the same: brave and perfect. No one, after all, was going to include too many of their pals' faults.
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