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War stories of WWII

Historian Daniel Todman coalesces various aspects of military history and the personal narratives from those who were in battle. Linking the strategic, political, and cultural sides of war, Todman aims to capture the true consequences of WWII. The excerpt below, from Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941, illustrates the fluidity of history by telling the stories of the author’s two grandfathers, both veterans with their own respective views on the war. As he reflects on their experiences, Todman highlights how questioning and analyzing personal stories can find new meaning in history:

Tucked at the back of my desk drawer, in an old hearing-aid box, are the medals that could have belonged to my grandfather. The War and Defence Medals and the 1939–45 and France and Germany Stars were the sort awarded for service, rather than valour – and they match the three years that Charles Todman spent driving tanks and trucks in the UK before, transferred to a machine-gun battalion, he was sent out to North-west Europe at the start of September 1944. Their metal shines and their ribbons are unfaded. These are medals that have never been worn.

For most of the time that I knew him, Grandad showed no sign of thinking of himself as a veteran. He never went to the Royal British Legion, or belonged to a regimental association, or went to ceremonies on Remembrance Sunday. As a child, I was not regaled with his war stories. Only with reluctance could he be persuaded to name the guns wielded by my Airfix plastic soldiers, and when the film A Bridge Too Far made one of its frequent appearances on television, my grandmother, Nanny, told me to turn it off because it was too noisy. The medals he had actually received for his wartime service had been lost: given to his sons to play with, they had disappeared into the cracks that had opened up in the sun-baked garden of their Metroland house one summer in the 1950s. That seemed to sum up how he had decided to treat the war. Judging by the pictures they kept on their walls, he and Nanny were much keener on celebrating their post-retirement holidays, their grandsons, and the awards given to their home-made wine than on marking their participation in the Second World War.

The 1977 British-American war film A Bridge Too Far follows British Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning [above] during Operation Market Garden. Though unconfirmed, Browning is credited as saying, “I think we may be going a bridge too far” during the operation. Image credit: “Browning observes paratroop training at Netheravon” by War Office official photographer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet the war had been the defining moment of their lives. How else would a trainee accountant from London and a miner’s daughter from Tyneside ever have met, if military service hadn’t brought them both to a dance in the sergeants’ mess at the army camp at Barnard Castle? They first met when he picked her up after she fell on the floor, but in their wedding photos, Grandad in his uniform looks like the one who might be about to topple over. Her father had drunk him and his mates under the table the night before. Husband and wife obviously made good use of the last moments before he was sent to Europe, because their first child, my father, was born exactly nine months after his embarkation leave, at the start of May 1945. The Russians were in Berlin, the war in Europe was in its final days, and the midwife insisted that the boy would have to be called Victor to mark the occasion, thus ensuring that he would spend the rest of his life as a war memorial.

His parents never used that name in my hearing: they always called him Bill, his second name, instead. This was probably not just a matter of preference. Years later, Grandad was still angry that, although the fighting had finished, he had not been allowed home to see his new son. Instead, he was stuck in a recently surrendered Hamburg with his unit, waiting for further service in the Far East. The end of the war with Japan saved him from that, but he didn’t get a leave long enough to come home again until the end of October 1945. Unlike a lot of families, they didn’t have to deal with bereavement or disability, but the anxiety and the pain of separation – during the pregnancy, then during the first year of my father’s life, because Grandad wasn’t demobbed until May 1946 – must have been terrible. When he returned home, they put the war behind them and got on with their lives.

Yet they were also interested in, and proud of, their grandsons. After my first book was published, Grandad decided that it might be nice if I could have his medals. When the Ministry of Defence explained that they didn’t issue replacements, he bought new ones from a dealer to pass on to me. In a letter, he recalled some of what he had experienced during that final, bitter campaign, including the terrifying day that rocket-firing Hawker Typhoons mistook the target marking and attacked his unit rather than the Germans. My brother and I bought him a copy of the regimental history for his birthday, and he read it with apparent interest. After all these years, he said, it was good to know what had actually been going on.

The France and Germany Star created and awarded by the British Government for operational service on land in France, Belgium, Holland or Germany after the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 until 8 May 1945. Image credit: Col André Kritzinger. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast to Grandad Todman, as I was growing up my maternal grandfather, Frederick Spackman, seemed to talk about the war every time we saw him. Fred had been a fitter with the London Transport Passenger Board and, having joined the Territorial Army in 1938, he spent the war repairing vehicles in workshops in Britain and Egypt. It was without doubt the most exotic thing that ever happened to him. The studio portraits taken by a wartime photographer in Cairo show Fred doing his best to look like Errol Flynn, but there wasn’t much swashbuckling in his stories. They were always the same. The motorbike accident that had put him in hospital, as one of the war’s first British casualties, on 3 September 1939. The time he knew more than the officer who had to test his mechanical knowledge. Keeping a chameleon, learning to repair watches and counting to ten in Arabic. The working of the Wilson epicyclic gearbox in the Daimler Armoured Car.

These tales were so familiar that we could repeat them word for word and, to us if not to him, they became something of a joke. Only at the end of his life did it become apparent that he could have told a different set of stories. The hasty first marriage conducted in the shadow of impending war. The wife who then told him that she was carrying a child and that she was not sure if he was the father. The belated divorce. All this had been written out of the family’s history: the strength of the taboo such that my mother, his daughter by his second marriage, had known nothing about it at all. While Fred was abroad, his estranged wife continued to draw an allowance from his pay, his father died and all his possessions were sold. On demobilization, he had to rebuild his life completely from scratch. Like most men of his generation, he did not enjoy unrestrained displays of emotion. Perhaps it was not surprising that he liked to keep his memories of the war closely controlled.

I tell these anecdotes not just as a means of paying tribute or claiming inherited authority, but also to make a point about the complexity and fluidity of our relationship with the past. What we put in and leave out of our history matters, but what we think we know can always be subject to change. Eighty years on from 1939, with the war disappearing over the boundary of lived memory, we can still question and rework the stories we tell about it, finding new meanings and turning the familiar strange.

Featured image credit: Pilots of ‘B’ Flight, No. 33 Squadron RAF” by Royal Air Force official photographer. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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