15th July 2010
I’ve recently read the book Demobbed by Alan Allport, which described the problems faced by many British servicemen when they were demobilised at the end of the Second World War.
Although this book is not directly relevant to my own work on British people in occupied Germany, I’m interested in exploring the way people coped with the transition from war to peace, in particular the ‘interlude’ in their lives between the end of the war and returning home, which was usually 12 to 18 months or more.
Alan Allport quoted the reactions of two British servicemen in Germany when they heard that the war was over, commenting that, in contrast with the celebrations at home in Britain: ‘It is not surprising that for men in the thick of battle, the end of the war – the end of being shot at by strangers on a day-to-day basis, the end of expecting each morning to be one’s last – was not easy to come to terms with.’
A Corporal in the Coldstream Guards wrote that while ‘There should have been a great sense of relief – we should have all gathered round and raised our mugs and said “here’s to the Poor Bloody Infantry”,’ in fact ‘There was no grand celebration at all … I sat down on the grassy stretch of the aerodrome at Cuxhaven and tried to collect my thoughts and all I could think of was well, that’s the end of that. We don’t have to dig slit trenches and hear the awful sound of the Nebelwerfer, the multi-barrelled mortar. No more shells screeching over.’
And a paratrooper wrote to his parents shortly after hearing the news of the surrender: ‘I suppose I should feel elated, but I feel tired and disgusted, and I can’t get the smell of Germans our of my mouth no matter how hard I clean my teeth. Disgust, contempt and a little pity mix ill. What now, I wonder.’
The way the system worked was that the older people were and the longer they had served in the forces, the earlier their release. Two months service counted as one year of age. At first release was fairly slow, with only one million men, out of the five million or so serving in the forces on VE Day (8th May) demobilised by the end of 1945. It speeded up considerably in the first half of 1946 and by the end of the year four out of five of those serving on VE Day had been released.
In contrast with the chaos that followed the end of the First World War, when the original demobilisation scheme had to be abandoned and a new one improvised which provided for more rapid release, the system worked relatively smoothly, but not without problems. There was a brief mutiny on a troopship moored in Singapore harbour and various other acts of insubordination and protests at what seemed to be unreasonable delays and unfairness in the way the system worked. According to Alan Allport, the end result was that instead of the ‘fair deal’ the system was intended to provide, many servicemen felt they received ‘equivocation, denials and indifference – in other words, the kind of runaround they had always experienced in the Forces. It was a first bitter little taste of disenchantment with postwar life that would be replicated many times again in Civvy Street over the months and years to follow.’
Once they arrived home, a few servicemen received the rapturous welcome, from friends and family, portrayed in pictures in the popular press. Others found difficulty adjusting to home life, suffered from jealousy at the, real or imagined, infidelity of their wives or husbands while they had been away, or had problems when they returned to work.
Many of the young men who worked for British Military Government or the Control Commission for Germany, in the first year and a half after the end of the war, were soldiers waiting for their demobilisation.
A little while ago I wrote a post on this blog about In Another Country, a novel by John Bayley, Warton Professor of English at Oxford University, based on the time he spent as a young officer in Germany, in which the country appeared to the hero, Oliver, as almost a make-believe place, in the interlude between the war and his inevitable return to England:
‘But Germany was like the films, or a story about exposure in lifeboats or thirst in the desert – neither mind nor body really believed it. Perhaps it was bad for you not to believe. Perhaps they were laying up trouble for themselves at home. As he talked with his colleagues Oliver had often wondered about that, and half dreaded his approaching demobilisation.’
I was also reminded of the comment an elderly gentleman, who worked for many years in Germany, made when I interviewed him in 2007. He was born in 1920, had worked in an accountant’s office before the war, volunteered to join the army in 1939 and fought in action in Greece, North Africa, Normandy, France, Belgium, Holland and across the Rhine in to Germany. When asked why he decided to stay in Germany and join the civilian Control Commission, when he was demobilised towards the end of 1946, he replied that:
‘I was offered a job over there which was considerably better than I could have expected over here. It would have been drudgery over here to start all over again. After all I was just 19 when I was called up and I was then nearly 27 …
I was far too old to start again for accountancy or anything like that. I had no other qualifications apart from my basic educational qualifications. I was no good to anybody really.’
In fact he had a successful career in the Civil Service, but life cannot have been easy for young men and women in 1945 and 1946, now the war was over and they had to decide what to do for the rest of their lives.
Alan Allport, Demobbed, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009)
See also Alan Allport’s website
John Bayley, In Another Country (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)
New edition with an introduction by A.N. Wilson
See also the post on this blog on John Bayley: In Another Country
Imperial War Museum Sound Archive, interview with J.M.G. Thexton, accession no. 30895 (2007)