How armed forces kept cheerful at Christmas during the Second World War
PUBLISHED: 11:28 08 December 2014 | UPDATED: 11:28 08 December 2014
© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy
The dark days of the Second World War meant that celebrations might be limited, but both civilians and the armed forces did their best to keep cheerful. John Leete tells us more
‘Please let me go home, I want to be with my Mum’. This is an extract from a note written by a young evacuee who, with a number of other children in the same age group, had been entrained to Berkshire from cities in the south of England.
Evacuated to the county in late August 1939, George did not return home as many children had in the early months of the phony war. Soon he would spend his very first Christmas away from his Mum and his elder sister Doris, who was serving with the Women’s Land Army in Buckinghamshire, and his young siblings who had also been evacuated to Berkshire, somewhere he thought was called Hungerlord (Hungerford). George’s dad was serving on ships, that’s all he knew.
Christmas for George was not going to be the same as the wonderful ones he had enjoyed before. As much as he had loved adventures, this was one adventure that he wanted to escape from. It was not the sort he expected or had previously experienced. Getting up at 5 o’clock to help his foster parents doing jobs that he thought were not the sort of thing kids of his age should be doing, well that was just the start.
Was this going to be the worst Christmas he had ever known in his young life? He just felt odd, almost as though he was having a bad dream. Soon he hoped he would wake up and he would see his mum and run towards her as fast as his little legs could manage and she would give him the biggest cuddle ever.
Evacuee George and his sisters were taken out of their Berkshire ‘homes’ by their mother in mid-1940 and they spent the rest of the war together in Cornwall. George returned to Berkshire many times after the war and although his experience of evacuation was not a happy one, he did fall in love with the county and its people.
Away from family
Meanwhile, 25-year-old Bob Coup from High Wycombe had joined the Services and spent his first Christmas at a camp ‘in the frozen north’ as he often remarked. Common among his comrades, almost all of whom were new recruits, most of them younger than him, there was a feeling of resignation that Christmas 1939 was going to be a turning point. They were facing up to the fact that there would be much death and destruction and if they and their families survived, the world would be a vastly different place to the one they had known. So although Christmas might be a welcome break, it could not distract them from what lay ahead.
In preparation for what was to come, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire became hosts to more than just evacuees, for plans were already well advanced for both counties to contribute to the needs of the Armed Services and to prepare to serve their communities under war conditions. By Christmas 1939 for example, Booker civilian airfield in Great Marlow had been requisitioned and the London Hospital Scheme set up to deal with emergency cover after air raids. It embraced outer stations in the home defence regions spanning Berkshire and Buckinghamshire.
By Christmas too, over 48 sites had been surveyed and identified as being suitable for ‘development’ as Anti-Aircraft sites and instructions had been issued for an extension to the Pillbox network.
The newspapers were doing their bit to help readers deal with the ‘new emergency’ by publishing stories of glad tidings and stories of Christmases past. The late Joan Hankin recalled reading about the men crewing the Trinity House Lightships around the coast. ‘They were moored off the coast, vulnerable to attack from the air and away from their loved ones. The lightshipmen were regarded by many as symbols of a burning hope and beacons of an un-darkened faith’. In carrying on their lonely task, they are preserving for the rest of us, the very spirit of the Christmas season’ wrote one journalist.
King George VI was not a competent speaker, yet through his December 1939 broadcast he succeeded in galvanising his people when he ended his speech with a quote from a poem written in 1908. ‘I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, Give me light that I may tread safely into the unknown. And he replied, Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be better than light and safer than a known way’.
Terry Waters, who was part of a heavy construction team working on building projects in Buckinghamshire, spent his first Christmas with a local family who ‘…. treated me like a son and helped me cope with being away from my family. But everyone was in a state of numbness because although war had been declared several months earlier, there had been no bombings and a lot of inactivity, yet we were already on ‘actions stations’. Around the Christmas table that year, we said prayers and spoke about everything and nothing as cheerfully as we could. Little did we know what lay ahead.”
And so this was Christmas 1939, the first Christmas of many under war-time conditions, although as people sat round the table at home or as in the case of many service personnel, in a cold barrack block miles from family and friends, they wondered what was to become of everyone and everything they loved.
Although rationing did not come into force until 1940 and food for Christmas 1939 was plentiful, here is the ration recipe for ‘mock duck’. Use 1 lb. of sausage meat, 8 ounces of cooked apples peeled and grated, 8 ounces of onions, grated and one teaspoonful of chopped sage. Spread half the sausage meat into a layer in a well greased baking tin or shallow casserole. Top with the apple, onion and sage. Add the rest of the sausage meat and shape this top layer to look as much like a duck as possible. Cover with well greased paper and bake in the centre of a moderately hot oven, of 190-200 degrees centigrade. Enjoy your Christmas feast…