from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: General Montgomery and my Mother

General Montgomery
My Mother

July 6.  In his Memex 1.1 blog yesterday, my friend and colleague, John Naughton, reproduced the letter sent by General Montgomery to the troops about to launch the D-Day landing in 1944, which has turned up in the papers of his wife’s father.  ‘The time has come to strike the enemy a terrific blow in Western Europe’ it begins.

I too have seen a copy of the message, sent not to my (as yet unmarried)  father, who was on a ship off the coast of West Africa, but my mother, who spent the war in an anti-aircraft unit, plotting incoming planes and V-bombs* – you may have seen the films in which uniformed young women push models across a map on a table before the order is given to the anti-aircraft gunners.  She was moved down to the south coast as part of the preparations for D-day and was sent the letter.

Her technical role in the war always puzzled me.  During her life as my mother she never once showed the slightest interest in, or affinity for, machines or science.  Her OU degree taken in her retirement was in literature and the social sciences.  I once asked her how she had been recruited for such a role.  She told me that when she was called up, she was given an aptitude test, which was to construct something out of Meccano.   She had spent her childhood playing with her younger brother’s set, made a model in no time, and was sent off to track aircraft. 

In the same way my father, a civil servant in later life with no responsibility for radio technology at work and no competence in it at home, was a chief petty officer in the navy specialising in the arcane skill of listening to Japanese Morse code.   Global conflict took people to places they never visited again, and caused them to learn capacities which died upon the instant peace was declared.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from this wartime experience.

Either we humanities people have deep inside us a technical capacity which it requires a well-organised world war to bring out.   I have my doubts, but who knows.

Or major technical ventures, think of Bletchley Park, think of NASA, succeed by bringing together all sorts of skills, some scientific at a high level, but many others which have nothing to do directly with the science but nonetheless are crucial to the outcome  of the project.  My new book, The History of Solitude, is dedicated to an aunt by marriage, who died not long ago, and who was at Bletchley Park in the war.  Later in life she was, again, a literary woman, who eventually published books of fiction, poetry and memoir.  She was sent to Bletchley because she was (a) very bright, (b) had security clearance, and (c) had fluent German.  Not a codebreaker, but, along with many others in the huts, critical to the outcome.

So, perhaps, with the skills discovered or mobilised to counter Covid-19.  Except, as world wars go, this has not been well organised.   That is to say not by the British.  The Germans have beaten us hands down.

*A propos my last post on cherries, I discover that V-Bombs were colloquially known in German as ‘kirschkern’ – cherry stones.  I don’t know why.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: lest we forget…

Leonard Leader Brereton 1896-1917
Wilfred Reginald Smithyman 1921-1942

‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.’

Today is Anzac Day in Australia. We are not a very religious country but you could argue that this day, 25 April, is close to a sacred day for all Australians. This was the day in 1915 that the ANZACs landed in Gallipoli Cove for the disastrous invasion of the Dardanelles. The campaign, which lasted till January 1916, had no effect on the war either way. There were 8,159 ANZAC deaths and over 26,000 casualties. It is remembered for the dogged determination and heroism shown, not for the ultimate campaign failure.  ‘Lest we forget’ is the major call of this day. All wars in which the ANZACS fought are commemorated.

Normally this is a huge day for celebration, the taking out of family medals, the dawn services followed by crowded parades, formal speeches and the laying of wreathes to remember the fallen. It is noteworthy that every city and tiny town in Australia has a memorial to the war dead – to the war that was meant to end all wars. Australia suffered a huge number of deaths in the First WW relative to its population.

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.’
(John Maxwell Edmonds)

My family did not fight as Australians but we bear the stories of young men killed senselessly in war. My great-uncle, Leonard Brereton, was a 21-year-old engineer with the 5th Bedfordshire Regiment and was shot and killed by a Turkish sniper in April 1917 in the Second Battle of Gaza. He is buried in Cairo.
My uncle, Wilfred Reginald Smithyman, also 21 years old, was a pilot in the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command, flying Typhoon planes. He was killed in the wasteful and failed Dieppe Raid in August 1942. He is buried in Abbeville, France.

This Anzac Day, 105 years since the Gallipoli landing, was like no other. It has been called the “People’s Anzac Day” as thousands rose before dawn to stand on their driveways holding candles and poppies: old men and women dressed in uniforms with polished medals, young kids bearing their family medals and holding faded photographs of those who served and those who died. There was a drive-by honouring a 98-year-old veteran sitting on the kerbside. There was music and poetry too: from backyard buglers and people in the street speaking the famous lines, ‘We will remember them’.

One old veteran, standing tall in the early light, was asked what his thoughts were. He said, ‘sadness and reflection’.

There are no glories in war, only the sadness of those left to mourn through the generations. And I feel that this year, with the overhanging threat of a pandemic, Australians have devised humble memorials to the senseless loss of their young men and women that are more poignant than the marching crowds and noisy bands.

‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.’ (Laurence Binyon.)