When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1940s

Promise To Be Good

1947: After dusk on 7 April, a search party of coalminers recovered the body of 4-year-old Glyndwr Parfitt from the River Afan in south Wales. The boy’s hands and feet had been tied with bootlaces. The police charged a 9-year-old playmate with murder. When questioned, he admitted the killing but promised, “I won’t do it again.”

Source: David James Smith, The Sleep of Reason, p. 5

Hyperinflation

1946: In July, hyperinflation in Hungary reached a monthly rate of 13,000,000,000,000,000 per cent. Put another way: prices doubled every 15.6 hours. By the time the pengő was replaced by the forint at the beginning of August, the Hungarian currency was so devalued that the dollar value of all the Hungarian bank notes in circulation amounted to just one-thousandth of one cent.

Source: www.cato.org/zimbabwe; Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), p. 87

Direct Hit

1945: “Command post moved to Potsdamer Platz station,” a German officer noted on 27 April as Soviet troops fought their way into the centre of Berlin. “Direct hit through the roof. Heavy losses among wounded and civilians. . . . Terrible sight at the station entrance, one flight of stairs down where a heavy shell has penetrated and people, soldiers, women and children are literally stuck to the walls.”

Source: Tony Le Tissier, Berlin Then and Now (1992), p. 226

Tom, Dick And . . .

1944: On 24 March, in what was dubbed the “Great Escape”, 76 Allied prisoners of war scrambled to freedom through a tunnel under the perimeter wire of Stalag-Luft III. A year earlier, the prisoners had begun work on three tunnels: one had been discovered by the Germans, one had been abandoned, and one had been successful. Their code names were Tom, Dick and Harry.

Source: Anton Gill, The Great Escape: The Full Dramatic Story with Contributions from Survivors and Their Families (2002), p. 106

Farewell Flight

1943: The Royal Air Force lost 55,000 men during the bomber offensive against Europe, and the Americans, 26,000. Aircrews were gloomily aware of the odds against them. “If you live on the brink of death yourself,” the pilot Denis Hornsey pointed out, “it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination. And . . . you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), pp. 220–2

Maize Monopoly

1942: In European colonies, white settlers used their political clout to reshape economies for their own benefit. Discrimination was thinly disguised. Kenya’s chief native commissioner described the colony’s monopoly on the marketing of maize, introduced in 1942, as “the most barefaced and thorough-going attempt at exploitation the people of Africa have ever known since Joseph cornered all the corn in Egypt”.

Source: Paul Mosley, The Settler Economies: Studies in the Economic History of Kenya and Southern Rhodesia 1900–1963 (1983), p. 100

Unexpected Visitor

Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy and self-appointed peace envoy

1941: In May, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, flew to Scotland on what appears to have been a misguided peace mission. Hess baled out of his aircraft and parachuted down near a cottage where David McLean, a ploughman, lived with his mother, Annie. The ploughman checked the airman for weapons, and then escorted him to the cottage. Mrs. McLean, meanwhile, had responded to the excitement by making a pot of tea. Hess politely refused the tea but asked for a glass of water.

Source: Roy Conyers Nesbit and Georges van Acker, The Flight of Rudolf Hess: Myths and Reality (1999), pp. 70–1

Culinary Expertise

1940: Clement Freud began his culinary career as a trainee chef in the “huge dank dark” kitchen of the Dorchester Hotel. The vegetable cook was an elderly Frenchman, a heavy-drinking garlic chewer who garnished dishes by stuffing his mouth with chopped parsley and spraying it through the gaps between his teeth. This technique, Freud reported, was “particularly effective with new potatoes, where the evenness of his aim made the dish look impressive”.

Source: Clement Freud, Freud Ego (2001), pp. 35, 36

Nobs And Spivs

1949: Visiting Cannes, on the Riviera, Nancy Mitford found herself hobnobbing with a sizeable contingent from the British working class with their “Rolls Royces & luxury yachts – the black marketeers I suppose”.

Source: Nancy Mitford, The Letters of Nancy Mitford: Love from Nancy, ed. Charlotte Mosley (1993), pp. 233–4

“Comme Les Autres”

1948: Charles de Gaulle’s tender love for his family contrasted sharply with the cold dignity he displayed towards the public.

De Gaulle was especially devoted to his second daughter, Anne, who suffered from Down’s syndrome. She was different from de Gaulle’s other children, different from other parents’ children, and de Gaulle loved her all the more because of it. Anne reciprocated his love; sometimes she squeezed his cheeks so hard she left red marks and the only word she could apparently say properly was “papa”.

At the age of 20, she caught pneumonia. Her body hadn’t the strength to fight the illness, and she died on 6 February. At the graveside, de Gaulle consoled his wife, Yvonne: “She’s like the others now.” (“Maintenant, elle est comme les autres.”)

Source: Jonathan Fenby, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (2010), pp. 90–1, 337–8

Culinary Queen

1947: Marooned in a provincial English hotel with dispiriting winter weather outdoors and dispiriting food indoors, Elizabeth David’s mind wandered to memories of southern sun, colours and flavours. Writing about Mediterranean cookery offered a way of escape.

The memories and words tumbled out: “The saffron, the garlic, the pungent local wines; the aromatic perfume of rosemary, wild marjoram and basil drying in kitchens; the brilliance of the market stalls piled high with pimentos, aubergines, tomatoes, olives, melons, figs and limes; the great heaps of shiny fish, silver, vermilion or tiger-striped, and those long needle fish whose bones mysteriously turn green when they are cooked.”

Source: Elizabeth David, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950), p. v

Wells’s Sex Appeal

1946: How did H.G. Wells become the Don Juan of 20th-century English literature? How did a short, rather portly man with a receding hairline, a tired moustache and a squeaky voice attract a string of lovers that included the writers Rebecca West and Elizabeth von Arnim, the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and the Russian baroness Moura Budberg?

“Fat and homely” was the way William Somerset Maugham described Wells, and he once asked Budberg what it was that attracted her to him. His smell, she said; his body “smelt of honey”.

Source: Andrea Lynn, Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells (2001), pp. 19–21

Dangerous Driver

Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris photographed at his desk

1943: The area bombing of German cities and the people in them was inextricably linked to Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command. Harris was very energetic, very forceful, very blunt. When stopped late one night for driving his Bentley at high speed, the policeman rebuked him: “You might have killed somebody, sir.” To which Harris replied: “Young man, I kill thousands of people every night!”

Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), p. 135

Giveaway Vegetable

1942: The poet Robert Graves, living in south Devon, had his application to join the special constabulary blocked by the village policeman. Three reasons: first, because of Graves’s suspicious German middle name, von Ranke: second, because Graves had been heard “talking a foreign language to two disreputable foreigners” – refugees from Franco’s Spain, as it happened; and third, because someone had scratched the words HEIL HITLER! on a marrow in his garden.

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 281

Peace In Wartime

1941: “You hear people say that fishing is a waste of time,” wrote the novelist and keen angler H.E. Bates. “Can time be wasted?” he pondered. “In a hundred years it will not matter much whether on a June day in 1941 I fished for perch or devoted the same time to acquiring greater learning by studying the works of Aristotle, of which, anyway, I have no copy. The day is very hot, and there are thousands of golden-cream roses blooming on the house wall in the sun. Perhaps someone will be glad that I described them, sitting as I am forty miles from the German lines at Calais. Perhaps someone will wonder then at the stoicism, the indifference, the laziness or the sheer lack of conscience of someone who thought roses and fish of at least as much importance as tanks and bombs.”

Source: H.E. Bates, The Country Heart (1949), p. 30

Mouldy Clothing

1940: If the Wehrmacht crossed the English Channel and German jackboots got as far as Oxford, the Australian Howard Florey and his team of researchers at the university planned to destroy their work on penicillin to prevent it benefitting the enemy.

Hoping to salvage something from their efforts, they intended to rub Penicillium notatum into the fabric of their coats, knowing that the spores of mould could survive for years. Then at some time, somewhere, they might be able to resume their work.

Source: Eric Lax, The Mould in Dr Florey’s Coat: The Remarkable True Story of the Penicillin Miracle (2004), pp. 4, 158–9

Change Of Career

Ernesto

Failed entrepreneur Ernesto “Che” Guevara, photographed in 1951

1949: Before he discovered his vocation as a revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara studied medicine in Buenos Aires. Like many university students, he was strapped for cash, which led him into a series of ingenious but impractical commercial ventures. The most spectacularly unsuccessful was a scheme to manufacture domestic cockroach killer by mixing locust insecticide with talcum powder. Guevara set up a “factory” at the family home, but a nauseous smell soon pervaded the house, he and his “commercial partners” fell ill, and the venture went belly up.

Source: Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997), pp. 57–8

Ambidextrous

1948: When a grenade shattered the right hand – the shooting hand – of Hungarian Takács Károly, it threatened to end his career as a pistol champion. Undeterred, he learned to shoot with his left hand and won gold in the rapid-fire pistol competitions at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.

Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 959

Snails, Stamps And Potted Meats

1947: The death of Matthew Connolly was a major loss in the field of gastropod studies. He was the author of The Land Shells of British Somaliland and A Monographic Survey of South African Marine Molluscs, as well as learned papers on such arcane malacological matters as the giant snail from Ceylon that licked the paint off window frames. Connolly discovered about 30 snails,

snail-shells-65358_960_720

six of which were named after him and one after his son, the critic and writer Cyril Connolly. He was also a keen philatelist, hailed by Stamp Collector as “the greatest authority on Railway Parcels stamps”, and an acknowledged expert on potted meats and pâtés.

Source: Jeremy Lewis, Cyril Connolly: A Life (1997), pp. 7–8

Mother Knows Best

1946: For his 11th birthday, Elvis Presley’s mother bought him his first guitar. Elvis wanted a bicycle, but his mother was worried he might get run over, so she bought him a guitar instead.

Source: Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (1994), p. 19

When Writers Meet

1945: War correspondent George Orwell was delighted to find that Ernest Hemingway was staying at the same hotel in Paris. The two men had never met. Orwell went up to Hemingway’s room and knocked. A voice bellowed at him to come in. He opened the door and said sheepishly, “I’m Eric Blair.” The American was standing on the other side of the bed, packing suitcases. “Well, what the –ing hell do you want?” he shouted. Orwell spoke again. “I’m George Orwell.” Hemingway pushed the suitcases to the end of the bed. “Why the –ing hell didn’t you say so? Have a drink. Have a double.”

Source: Paul Potts, Dante Called You Beatrice (1960), p. 82

First Things First

1944: Able Seaman Ken Oakley’s job on D-Day was to organise the men and machines disgorged from landing craft at Sword beach. “More and more craft were coming in continuously, and I was directing them. The trouble was, when the soldiers came ashore, their first reaction was, ‘Let’s group up and have a little check, and then we’ll have a cup of tea.’ ”

Source: Max Arthur, Forgotten Voices of the Second World War (2004), pp. 314–15

“The Smallest Children Lay Like Fried Eels”

1943: Operation Gomorrah was the code name for British and American air raids that inflicted biblical destruction (“brimstone and fire from . . . out of heaven”) on Hamburg.

For 10 days the bombers returned again and again. In the early hours of 28 July, incendiary bombs unleashed a firestorm in the densely populated city. Many thousands of people perished in many hideous ways: sucked into blazing buildings by hurricane-force winds; torched by blizzards of sparks; trapped and suffocated in basement shelters; stuck fast in melted asphalt on the roads.

Their bodies, charred and shrivelled by the intense heat, piled up in the cellars and littered the streets. “How terribly must these people have died,” lamented one woman. “The smallest children lay like fried eels on the pavement.”

Source: Martin Middlebrook, The Battle of Hamburg: Allied Bomber Forces against a German City in 1943 (1980), chap. 15

Devastated residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg.

Devastated residential and commercial buildings in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, viewed by a Royal Air Force photographer

Mice Disable Panzers

1942: As the battle for Stalingrad reached its climax, both sides hurled men and machines into the fray. West of the city, though, the German 22nd Panzer Division didn’t budge; its tank engines wouldn’t start. Not because of harsh weather, or Soviet sabotage, but because field mice had sneaked into the tanks and nibbled through the electrical insulation.

Source: Henry Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler (2003), p. 114

Dirty Tricks In French Rugby

1941: Rugby union and rugby league have never seen fully eye to eye. In France, rugby union slumped in popularity in the 1930s as spectators deserted it for the newly introduced rugby league.

Following the military defeat of France in 1940, rugby union stooped to dirty tricks against its sporting rival. Officials lobbied the Vichy government, and in December 1941 rugby league was banned.

Although rugby league was rehabilitated after the downfall of Pétain, it never recovered its prewar vitality and remains a minority sport.

Source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interdiction_du_rugby_à_XIII_en_France

Caught On The Hop

1940: The speed with which the Wehrmacht lunged across northern France caught P.G. Wodehouse on the hop; he was trapped in his villa at Le Touquet.

Two months later, the Germans decided to intern all enemy males under the age of 60. Wodehouse was given ten minutes to pack. Ethel, his wife, went “nearly insane” and couldn’t find the keys for the room with the suitcase. Plum went into captivity equipped with “a copy of Shakespeare, a pair of pajamas, and a mutton chop”.

Source: P.G. Wodehouse, P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters, ed. Sophie Ratcliffe (2011), p. 295