1942 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1942.

This set of pages is intended to give you some idea of what life was like in the second half of the 20th century by describing my life in the context of the history, technology, and cultural background of the times. I'm a fairly average Englishman, and you'll find out more about me as we go along.

I will attempt to make the trip as light hearted as possible, but that won't be always be the case. In some places it might be a dry read, because an average life is not always exciting, and in parts there'll be more history than life. This applies particularly to the early years before my memory kicks in - the period of WW2. I believe though that it's essential in describing these times to have a feel for that epic struggle. It affected everything that followed. There will not be a test, so feel free to skip any parts of it that are not up your street. If you can't stomach WW2 history, skip to 1947.

Also be aware that I shall not change names to protect the innocent. Nobody's innocent - it's just that some are less guilty than others. I am not proposing to pull any punches, so if you see yourself coming up, and this bothers you, then talk to me. I'm an old man, and therefore the people involved are not youngsters any more either, and I'm hoping they'll survive me telling the truth as I remember it.


Your eye was born inauspiciously on the 30th of April, 1942, at a small maternity hospital in an English town called Shipley, in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire. In this respect, I coincided with few people of any note, the only ones I've been able to recognize being:
  • Carl Friedrich Gauss - the mathematician,
  • Franz Lehar - the writer of light operas,
  • Joachim von Ribbentrop - one of Hitler's cronies,
  • Two queens of the Netherlands,
  • Willie Nelson - country musician and a noted sex acrobat,
  • Bobbie Vee - a died-young rock singer.
On the same day in previous years, a few things of note had happened:
  • Jesus of Nazareth was crucified - I'm not sure how they work that date out, something to do with Easter, the phases of the moon, and various different calendar systems I should think.
  • Henry VIII and King Francis of France signed the Treaty of Westminster.
  • George Washington took office as first elected U.S. president.
  • The U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million - probably the deal of all time!
  • The republican patriot and guerrilla leader Giuseppe Garibaldi repulsed a French attack on Rome
  • Engineer Casey Jones was killed while trying to save the runaway train "Cannonball Express".
  • The George Washington Bridge, linking New York City and New Jersey, was opened

Bingley, Cottingley, and Shipley area.
My Birthplace.

Shipley is about two miles down the valley from my childhood home at 11 Main Street in the village of Cottingley - also in the West Riding. The term riding, incidentally, comes from the Vikings, many of who used to live in Yorkshire. In Old Norse, it means a third part. The West Riding was the third that formed the south-west of the county.

Shipley, and Cottingley, and the other nearby town Bingley, of which Cottingley is technically a part, are in turn close to the city of Bradford, notable then for its woollen cloth industry. This area forms the north-west of the industrial conurbation comprising Bradford, Leeds, Huddersfield, Halifax, Batley, Morley, and so on, which these days is to a large extent a single urban area. In 1942 there were still gaps of sorts between these towns and cities.

To the north and north-west, now as then, lies the Yorkshire Dales country, a large expanse of moors, small mountains, and river valleys, stretching more or less to the Scottish border in the north, and to Lancashire and the Lake District in the west and north-west.

Bear in mind that this map is much more recent. Cottingley is bigger now than it was then, and the road labelled "Bradford Road" was the main road in those days. The section labelled "A650" did not exist.

The underlying geology of Yorkshire.
Bingley, Cottingley, and Shipley are in the valley of the river Aire, one of a system of five rivers flowing generally west to east from the Pennine chain of hills that runs down the centre of the north of England like a spine. From north to south, the rivers Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, and Calder, run into the river Ouse, which in its turn runs north to south, then turns east and runs into the North Sea through the Humber Estuary.

The local geology is such that the valleys of the Aire and the Calder are in sandstone, or the coal measures, while those of the rivers to the north are mostly in limestone country. It's the limestone country that is usually thought of as the Yorkshire dales. This change in the exposed rock happens because the predominant geological pattern is an upper layer of limestone, a layer further down of sandstone - officially Millstone Grit - and under that, a layer of mixed shale and coal. The strata slope upwards from the north west to the south east; and since the effects of weathering, glaciations, etc, has been to wear everything down more or less to a level; the limestone is on the surface in the north-west, and the coal measures in the south east, with the Millstone Grit in the middle. Bingley, Cottingley and Shipley are pretty much on the junction of the Millstone Grit and the coal measures. But that's enough of that.
Dark Days.

In 1942 Great Britain was locked in mortal combat with Hitler's Third Reich, and during the previous three years, nothing had gone particularly well.

Rationing of most things you'd want to buy had been introduced at the beginning of 1940. The Wehrmacht invaded France, Belgium and Holland in May that year, and the British Expeditionary Force was driven out of France via the miracle of Dunkirk within weeks. France had surrendered in June. Later that year, by the skin of their teeth, and with the help of a couple of bad decisions by the German high command, RAF Fighter Command had denied the Luftwaffe air superiority over the English Channel and southern England, and thus prevented Hitler's planned invasion. I suppose one has to considered Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain to have been good things, but only in the way of avoiding total disaster. After the Battle of Britain, as compensation, the Luftwaffe proceeded to blitz the shit out of major English cities. We even had an odd stray bomb on Bradford.

The Battle of the Atlantic had gone badly, largely unknown to the populace, since the news was so bad that Churchill ordered it to be suppressed. The merchant navy that provided Britain's lifeline from the USA was losing ships and cargoes as a result of U Boat attacks at a rate that could not be sustained. The British Army was getting its arse kicked by Rommel in North Africa. The pride of the British Navy, the battleship HMS Hood had been summarily sunk by the Bismark with the loss of all but three of the souls on board, and so on, and so on. To be fair, we got the Bismark a few days later, and also in late 1941, the Japanese made the fatal mistake of bombing Pearl Harbor, thus bringing the USA into the war - in the words of the Japanese admiral Yamamoto "awakening a sleeping giant".

Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, and the Philippines was about to.

The domestic technology of these days was generally pretty basic. Your average working class family had a vacuum tube/valve radio set. Cars, fridges, washing machines were in the province of the rich. A working class man like my father might have had a motor bike, possibly with a sidecar for his girlfriend or wife. By now though he would probably be in the army, and if not he would probably not be able to get petrol.

Cavity magnetron - courtesy www.hcrs.at.
Most technological development at the time was for the military, driven by the war. There were some startling developments in progress, and some significant achievements. The British had simple radar technology as early as 1940, and this had been a tipping factor in the fight against the Luftwaffe in 1940. That year, John Randal and Harry Boot, of Birmingham University, developed the Cavity Magnetron - a vacuum tube/magnet combination that functioned as a microwave oscillator. This allowed the development of small radar sets that could be carried by aircraft and placed on the superstructure of ships. Such sets enabled better gunfire control at sea, and for anti-aircraft guns, and made possible the navigational radars used in bomber aircraft.

The British were also developing the jet engine that had been invented by Frank Whittle before the war. Details of both of these inventions were given to the Americans in the hope that they might help in the war effort.

German Panther tanks.
In terms of on-the-ground military equipment, Germany held the technological lead. German tanks like the Panther series were far superior to anything the Americans or British had at this time, though for a moment in 1941 the Russian T34 tank had been significantly better. The German 88mm anti-tank gun - often used as a more general purpose field gun - was probably the most feared artillery weapon of WW2.

In January of 1942, a 'Metallurgical Laboratory' was created at the University of Chicago. This obscurely named faculty was to create the first graphite moderated, uranium fuelled reactor. At about the same time a physicist called Robert Oppenheimer set up a program to study neutron physics at Berkeley. Later, in the summer of that year, Oppenheimer, working for the US Office of Scientific Research and Development, convened a summer study to examine the principles of atomic bomb design. Based on Oppenheimer's previous work, research results presented by the British, and numerous other sources, the group of scientists involved quickly determined that a bomb based on nuclear fission was feasible.

One of them, Edward Teller, went further and postulated bombs detonated by a fission bomb that would release the energy available from nuclear fusion.
In September, a forceful army engineer, Leslie Groves, was put in charge of a project to realize the nuclear fission bomb. He gathered existing projects under an umbrella called "The Manhattan District" - later more widely known as the "Manhattan Project" - and proceeded to buy land in obscure places to build research and production centres.

By the end of that month, he had arm-twisted approval by the US War Production Board to use the highest emergency procurement priority in existence (AAA) when needed. At the same time, the British and the Canadians colluded to move the University of Cambridge heavy water neutron research team from Cambridge to Montreal - out of the reach of Nazi bombs, and to acquire a uranium mine called Eldorado in Canada's Northwest Territories from which the Americans were now ordering materials like they had gone out of fashion.

The British were also working furiously on 'Bombe' devices to break codes generated by the German Enigma cypher machine at this time. These electromechanical devices simulated the action of Enigma rapidly and repeatedly, and could eliminate a large number of possible setting that could have been used on the Enigma machine. If you were lucky it was then possible to break the cypher using more traditional human mind-game techniques.

All that I have mentioned here does of course pre-date my memory. But I think it is necessary to set a context. Such detail as there is, until about 1945, was filled in for me later by my mother.

My father, Sam Teale, was away somewhere with the British Army. Fortunately for him, he'd had the sense to join the Territorial Army before the war, and had got some technical training. Consequently, when he was called up into the regular army, he got into REME - the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers - rather than ending up in the infantry to be cannon fodder. He used to maintain ant-aircraft guns, and doubled in his unit as a truck driver.

So my mother brought me up in my early years with the help of her mother in law, Grandma Teale, who lived on one side, and with the company of her friend Mrs Wordsworth, who lived on the other, and who also had a son at about the same time.

My mother would have had little in the way of entertainment at the time - probably just the radio. The BBC broadcast 'The Light Program' - comedy shows and popular music of the time, 'The Home Service - news and more serious stuff, and the 'Third Program' - classical music, serious drama's, and so on. Alternatively you could listen to German broadcasts by 'Lord Haw Haw' as the British called the group of announcers who used to broadcast English language propaganda on the 'Germany Calling' program. If she got to the movies, the most famous film she could have seen would have been 'In Which We Serve' - a war film about a bunch of survivors clinging to a life raft in the Atlantic, and their individual flashbacks.

In popular music she'd have listened to recordings of swing bands like Glen Miller's "String of Pearls", Two Vera Lynn songs were around. "We'll Meet again" - a 1939 hit that

was on the radio again because Vera Lynn made a film of the same name, and its competitor for the most nostalgic WW2 song "White Cliffs of Dover" that she made in this year. The everlasting "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby, was also made in 1942.

Midway - aircraft carrier Hiryu under attack.
Glimmers of Hope and Fear.

After I was born, by some mere coincidence, or perhaps because I was so fated, things began to get a little better. Bomber command (poor sods) launched the first 1000 bomber raid on Berlin a mere 30 days later. With hindsight I'm glad that my dad was not in that outfit - your chances of survival in the bombers were pretty thin.

In June, the Japanese Navy's advance across the Pacific was halted when the US Navy defeated it decisively at the battle of Midway in the Pacific. This was one of those battles where the ships involved never even saw each other - a clash of aircraft carriers.

The Australians inflicted the first, admittedly small, defeat on Japanese ground forces at Milne Bay in Eastern New Guinea in September.

The tide turned in North Africa in November as US and British forces invaded Algeria and Morocco, and the Desert Rats - the British 8th Army - finally clobbered the Afrika Corps at El Alamein. The Africa Corps were forced to make a long and dangerous retreat. This was a highly significant action. El Alamein was the British last stand in North Africa. If the battle had been lost, the Germans would probably have gained access to the oil of the middle east, and would have had control of the Suez Canal.

My dad was there or thereabouts in the role of a truck driver, frying chips in Castrol (engine oil) when they could get potatoes - it kept you regular.

In December, the team at the 'Metallurgical Laboratory' in Chicago, headed by Enrico Fermi, announced to President Roosevelt that the first self-sustaining nuclear chain-reaction had been achieved.

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