1st December 2009
The Imperial War Museum Sound Archive has a wonderful collection of recordings of people’s memories of what they did in the Second World War and after.
I’ve been listening to all those I can find recorded by men and women who were between 18 and 32 years old when the war ended in 1945 and were in Germany between 1945 and 1948, either in the British forces or working in some official capacity for the Control Commission.
After researching what the Military Governors and some of the most senior British officers aimed to achieve in Germany after the war, (see earlier posts on this blog on Field-Marshal Montgomery, Marshal of the RAF Sholto Douglas, and Generals Brian Robertson, Alec Bishop and Brian Horrocks), I thought it would be interesting to study what some much younger men and women remembered of those times. Unlike the Military Governors and senior officers, (who typically were born before 1900, had fought in the First World War and served in the British Empire, in Africa, the Middle East or India between the wars), these young men and women had very little, if any, adult experience apart from their service in the Second World War. How did they react to the transition from war to peace in 1945 and the two or three years afterwards, when they were living and working in the country of their former enemy?
So far, I have listened to recordings from nearly 20 people; some officers, some ordinary soldiers; some in the army, navy or air force, and some civilian members of the Control Commission. The range of experiences and memories was huge. Some spoke in detail about the work they did, which they took very seriously; others spoke mostly of how they had a good time now the war was over, or of their memories and experience of the black market.
One of the pleasures of reading or listening to the archives is that every now and then something appears that seems to be interesting, new, or different. Over time, a pattern emerges and it all starts to fit together. It’s still too early for me to identify the most significant themes and issues which have emerged from this collection of recordings, but here is one example: the memories of a naval officer who spent his time after the war minesweeping off the North Sea coast of Germany.
He was born in 1923, and so was 16 years old at the outbreak of war in 1939. He joined the navy as an ordinary seaman, took part in the arctic convoys to Russia, trained and was commissioned as an officer in 1943. He then worked on MTBs (motor torpedo boats) in the Mediterranean and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
When the war was over, there was no great need for torpedo boats, so he volunteered for a minesweeping course, as this was the only naval opportunity available. After 6 weeks training in Scotland, when he met his future wife, he was promoted to chief instructor. He was then given command of an old paddle minesweeper, which he sailed from Scotland to Southampton and worked for a time clearing mines off the coast of Holland.
He spoke of how he found that minesweeping was boring as much as it was dangerous. Because some devices, such as magnetic mines, allowed a certain number of ships to pass before they blew up, the minesweepers had to cover the same ground 16-18 times. They could do that for days on end with nothing happening and then suddenly a mine would go up in their wake.
A year or so after the end of the war he was demobbed, but uncertain of what to do next, he discovered that there was a need for “people like him” to work in Germany for the Control Commission, but “under Admiralty orders”. So still only 23 or 24 year old, he found himself running a flotilla of minesweepers “manned by Germans, officered by Germans” but under overall British command.
It was “an odd experience” soon after the end of the war, as all he was given for his own personal protection was a revolver, which wouldn’t have been much use “had the German seamen wanted to chuck him over the side,” so he got rid of it.
“I have to say this. They work impeccably and were very fine seaman, and I had no problems of any kind at all. They seemed to accept me. I got on well with them. They were very correct.”
“We operated as if it were a British minesweeping flotilla except they were all Germans. Most incredible. And the reason it was civilianized or run as a civilian operation is that the Russians – this is hearsay but I am told – that the Russians were afraid that we were going to maintain a nucleus of the German Kriegsmarine and Ernie Bevin negotiated with them – he was the Foreign Minister at the time – that we would run it as a civilian force. But I can tell you that the discipline and everything connected with it was just as if they were still in the Kriegsmarine.”
As an aside, he then spoke of “one interesting highlight at that time … in 1948.” His wife had joined him in Germany, they had a little house and he had become involved with naval intelligence. It was thought they could land agents in the Baltic on the Russian or Finnish coast and several days or weeks were spent planning the operation in great secrecy in the cellar of his house, where his wife would bring them all coffee. Eventually a couple of Motor Torpedo Boats were brought across from England and, with the help of some of the Germans in the minesweeping flotilla, they did manage to land some agents. He was disappointed he couldn’t go with them himself.
He didn’t elaborate further on who the “agents” were and what they were meant to do once safely landed in Finland or Russia.
He stayed in Germany until 1949, when his first children were born and then decided to come home, where he found a job and stayed with the same company until he retired aged 70.
Imperial War Museum Sound Archive
George Philip Henry James
Accession no. 14837