2020 has been marked by multiple anniversaries commemorating events from World War Two. The VE Day celebrations on 8 May, marking 75 years since the end of the war in Europe, could not go ahead as planned because of lockdown. It was a Bank Holiday, but with schools closed (and pubs, restaurants and most shops) most days felt like Bank Holidays back then. Here in the UK, there was even less attention paid to VJ Day (Victory over Japan) in August. The 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, in September, received far more press coverage.
As each of these commemorations approached, I planned to draft and post something about my family’s World War Two experiences, in particular the time spent by an uncle who signed up to fight for the British Army in 1939. Here, finally, at the end of October, is a version of it. As far as I know, the publication of these words does not coincide with the anniversary of any the war’s major events.
My parents were hardly affected by the war for two main reasons: they were too young, and they were in Ireland, which remained neutral throughout. My father was 14 when the war ended, and my mother was 9. My father’s father fought in France with the British Army in World War One, and even signed up for more in 1918, fighting on the Eastern front during the Russian Civil War. He was pensioned off, and was too old to enlist in World War Two. I believe that one of my father’s uncles worked in a munitions factory in Coventry, but I don’t know anything more about him than that.
Only one of my uncles (an uncle by marriage) saw active service between 1939 and 1945. He married one of my aunts after the war. The story he told me in the 1980s, a few years before he died, may have had parallels for thousands of other recruits.
He had moved to London from Ireland in the late 1930s and was working for London Transport. When war was declared he and his colleagues were encouraged to enlist for the British Army. They were told that anyone who had started work at London Transport before 1 March (as he had) would be entitled to his regular pay in addition to his army pay when the war ended, on their return from active duty. The knowledge that he would have this nest-egg waiting for him sustained him through over five years of service, including two years in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. During that time he contracted TB and lost a third of his body weight. When he finally returned to London, expecting to be set up for the post-war years, he got his old job back, but his employers denied that he was entitled to any back pay. They told him to provide evidence of the offer. He had nothing in writing. He felt cheated, understandably, and that feeling remained throughout his long and, ultimately, successful career with London Transport. He took early retirement in the 1970s and the resentment about how was treated at the end of the war never diminished.
I wonder how many other soldiers went through the war believing that if they survived they would return to several years of back pay, only to be cheated out of it in peacetime. And how many others, sustained by the promise of a nest-egg on their return, didn’t make it back at all.