Grandad’s Diary: 12 February 1945

Entry for 12 Feb

Smashing billet with homely people who do anything for us. Plenty of black market here earned or by a ring who control it. Sites widely scattered.

As a balloon operator, Grandad and his team would have had to attend various sites where the barrage balloons were deployed to deter enemy air attack (planes or V1 bombs). Obviously he had a lot of balloon sites to look after.

There is another insight into life in newly liberated Belgium – requiring a black market to operate. And also Grandad’s appreciation for kindness and home comforts comes out with his sentence about his billet.

Good times near the battlefront…

Grandad’s Diary. 11th February 1945

Entries from 11-17th February 1945

On Scheldt Estuary. Still plenty of water from floods. Bartering for eggs. Plenty of D bugs around. Saw British jet planes.

I’m pretty sure that the jet planes Grandad saw were the Gloster Meteor, as these were the only jet planes that saw service by the British in the 2nd World War. That must have been an exciting and encouraging sight as it was superior technology to the ubiquitous Doodlebug flying bomb that was still causing problems. I included a bit of detail about the V1 flying bomb in yesterday’s post.

I love the contrast between the rather prosaic need for eggs and this new technology – jet engines.

Grandad’s Diary. 10th February 1945

Entry for 10th Feb

Left late. Passing through Ghent St. Nicholas. Wonderfully straight roads. dogs pulling carts. St. Nich one time Jerry officials rest house. Pro-German. Landed at Doel. Warm reception with several doodlebugs close by. ‘D’-bomb alley here.

Ah. Action.

Grandad has left the comfort of touristy Blankenberge and has crossed into the war zone. And while this does not mean man-to-man fighting, it does mean the constant threat of V1 bombs – doodlebugs.

I see that Doel, close to Antwerp which was mentioned in an earlier post as a potential destination for Grandad, is now scheduled for demoliton to make war for the expanding port of Antwerp.

The V1 flying bomb had been developed by the Luftwaffe and was used during the Summer of 1944 as a ‘vengeance weapon’ for the terror bombing of London. By October 1944 however, the last V1 site in range of London had been overrun by Allied forces and so the doodlbeugs were targeted at Antwerp to stall the Allied advance. Exactly where Grandad was.

I’m intrigued by the phrase ‘Pro-German’. I wonder if it means that St. Nicholas had been pro-German, or it still was? And if the latter was the case, did the ‘liberating’ forces receive hostility and vitriol from the locals?

Grandad’s Diary. 8-9 February 1945

Entry for 8th and 9th February 1945

These people good lookers know how to dress and make up. Also very clean at least to all appearances and also very polite even kiddies alike. A big number in Blank speak English due no doubt to tourists. Getting ready for tomorrow Comforts and groceries. Peculiar state of P.S.I.

This is at least the third post in which Grandad has mentioned the ‘marvellousness of the Belgians. They are clean, have great complexions, dress well and are ‘good lookers’. It paints a picture of coming from a grim, War-Effort Britain to a ‘living-the-high-life Belgium’. That must have been a strange feeling for him and his fellows – seeing that the people they were liberating had better living standards than the people back home.

And then there’s the ‘getting ready for tomorrow’. The knowing that the battlefront isn’t that far away. A dsepite knowing that allied forces were making great advances it is the knowing that death and destruction are still ahead. It must have made the contrast with life in ‘Blank’ (Blankenberge’ quite stark.

I don’t know what he means by “P.S.I.” or even if it is that – it may be “P.S.1”. It could be that as a balloon operator he is worried about the air pressure as it would affect how the ballons go up (PSI – could mean Pounds per Square Inch – a measure for air pressure). Or it could be something else. I don’t know.

Grandad’s Diary 6-7th February 1945

Entry spanning 6 and 7th February

Saw show given by Belgians continental style – very good. Extensive black market in these places. In fact all goods through this source. Belgians keen bargainners, giving little away – very friendly people if only surface friendliness.

No post yesterday because this post took up the space for two days.

I see some interesting observations here that I think say as much about the observer as the observee. The Belgians had only been out of German occupation for four months (the liberation of Belgium began in September 1944) and so it is difficult to categorise a people after such a traumatic time.

Grandad had never been abroad and never did go again after the war – these experience of Belgium and France in 1944 and 1945 were to be his only ones. It would be interesting to hear him talk about a comparison between life in wartime England and life in Belgium. He almost seems surprised by the health, wealth and happiness of the Belgians that he might, as if he was expecting something else.

Grandad’s Diary. 5th February 1945

Entry for 5th Feb 1945

Contradictory reports as to state of affairs in Antwerp. Better wait and see. No Naafi here, only Red Cross Canteen. not efficient.

A reminder that on the 31st January, Grandad had heard that things in Antwerp were awful. At that time, Antwerp was dubbed ‘the City of Sudden Death’ because of sheer volume of V2 rockets that fell upon the city. It must have been a frightening prospect – travelling to a city where death could fall upon you at any instant.

Grandad mentioned the NAAFI back on 24th January when he was still in England. The NAAFI was the ‘Navy Army Air Force Institute’ and was essentially all of the canteen, bar, club, supermarket needs of the military forces rolled into one.

I may have been unfair to the Red Cross Canteen here. In Grandad’s earlier entry he mentioned the ‘commotion’ some his of fellow airmen caused on 24th Jan, indicating a certain lack of control or disorganisation. Here I have translated Grandad’s words as ‘not efficient’, but he could have written ‘neat & efficient’. It could be that he thinks the Red Cross Canteen is actually better than the NAAFI.

Grandad’s Diary. 4th February 1945

Entries from 4-10 February 1945

Quiet day. Visited friends. More coffee and tales. Jerry stole a lot and took all he laid his hands on.

A ‘quiet day’ for Grandad for drinking coffee and hearing stories about the oppressive regime of an invading force.

I wonder if the ‘friends’ were the people he visited three days earlier on the 1st February. Or by ‘friends’ does he mean another group of soldiers stationed nearby.

We all need quiet days from time to time.

Grandad’s Diary. 3rd February 1945

Entry for 3rd Fab

Went to Bruges. Shops full but very dear. Bought scents cosmetics. People well dressed and clean, wonderful complexions. Toured cafes at night but not worth. Beer same effect as water. Going to sites next week. People very sociable and tell of Jerry attrocities and greed.

A post of contrasts. A genteel picture is painted: prosaic shopping and contented people. Then a hint of a warning of action next week, against this background of terrible things that have happened.

After more than 2 weeks of entries, I finally see in this post that there is a word from my 70s and 80s comics – Jerry – British slang for the Germans in the 2nd World War.

The Belgians must have been watering down their beer for the various soldiers in their towns – everyone knows that Belgian beer is ridiculously strong. In fact Belgian Beer Culture has made the Unesco list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. They must have been hiding that from their visitors during World War II.

The comments about the ‘wonderful complexions’ is another hint of the contrast between occupied Europe – well off and well fed, despite the atrocities committed by the occupying forces – and Britain – deprived of vitamins, food beeing rationed and probably, in Grandad’s eyes, showing it in the quality of their skin.

I wonder if my Nanna was the recipient of the cosmetics that Grandad bought…

Grandad’s Diary. 1-2 February 1945

Today’s entry

How dear the shops are. Plenty of fancy goods in leather, glass, brass, cosmetics. Will have to take some back with me. Spent evening with local family. Told me of German greed. How happy they were when Russia only 40 miles from Berlin and millions of evacuees. Gave us coffee.

Today’s entry seemed to span two days in the diary, hence me mssing a posting yesterday.

There are some lovely observations from Grandad here. One of my perceptions of the 2nd World War is that Allied success was partly contributed to by a much greater collective effort than in Germany, wehre at the start of the war, the job of carrying out the war was just the provinve of the armed forces, rather than everyone on the country. I may be wrong in this – I am no historian – but the observation that the shops were full of ‘fancy goods’ would beack up that theory. Grandad had not seen fancy goods for 5 or 6 years – they were not needed for the war effort and so were not in the shops. By contrast, in occupied territory these goods were available.

This is the first time that Grandad hears stories of the occupation – it’s clear that he is keen to find out what life has been like, or he would not have noted it down. I suppose that when you hear a story that your enemy is greedy it helps to justify what you’re doing.

At this point Russia is only 40 miles from Berlin and everyone is happy. We see how that plays out after the war…

And coffee. I’ve just had by third cup this morning – fantastic Ethiopian Sidamo from Sainsbury’s. But my impression is that in 1945, Britain was very much a tea-drinking nation; coffee a much more European thing. I can imagine it must have been a real treat to have a fresh cup of Belgian coffee in the winter of 1945.

Grandad’s Diary. 31st January 1945

Entry from 31st January 1945

Nothing to do. Standing by. Hear Antwerp is awful. State there po buys bombs. Spent evening in Red Cross more preferable to drinking awful beer in Cafes.

I just can’t get that third sentence. The ink from the previous page has bled through making it very difficult to ascertain what the words are. I think it relates to the comment about Antwerp being awful.

And Antwerp was awful. This post from a website about the V2 rocket claims that Antwerp at that time was refered to as the city of Sudden Death. More rockets fell on Antwerp than London.

I suppose the awulness of the conditions that Grandad was hearing about made his sudden comfort in Blankenbarge somewhat incongruous, or even banaal. I can imagine that putting your feet up and drinking Belgian beer was probably not the easiest thing to do when just a few miles ago death and destruction could rain upon you at any second.

I wish understood that middle sentence!