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!

Grandad’s Diary. 30th January 1945

Entry for the 30th Janurary 1945

Hotel de la Paix. likely to be our billet for some time. This town full of hotels and cafes must have been a popular resort. Strange my reference to D-Day re: hotels coming true

I can’t find a ‘Hotel de la Paix’ that exists in Blankenberge today. I can find an 1892 postcard for the ‘Grand Hotel De la Paix’. And there is a website that has an image of the seafront full of hotels at Blankenberge showing that Grandad was right – it was, and still is a holiday resort. I’m not sure if the hotel he stayed in still stands. You’ll have to click the links to see the images, as I don’t have permission to re-use them.

Grandad did make a reference to D-Day on the 27th January, but it didn’t seem to contain any hint of hotels. I wonder if that comment just reminded him of some earlier statement he had made about D-Day. I wish I know what it was though – he made a reference concerning hotels and D-Day that came true. What was that reference?

Grandad’s Diary. 29th January 1945

The entry for 29th January

Tied off Ostend at 10:30 AM but didn’t land till 7.0PM. Much confusion during day. Nobody knowing what is happening. Drive to Blankenberge. Good meal and bed in hotel.

Looking at the last few posts, it seems that Grandad has spent almost three days in a boat, for a journey that could have been just a few hours. But then, I suppose, he isn’t on holiday.

I wonder how the men would have used their time in those tedious, cramped conditions. If Grandad had had a bigger diary he would have all that time to fill it, but then he would only have been filling it with observations of soldiers being bored, so it’s probably a good job the diary is as small as it is.

Grandad’s Diary. 28th January 1945

The pages with entries from 28th January to 3rd February

Still tied up. Set of A.M. but tie up off Southend. So cold and all of us stay below. Probably loose this midnight.

I mentioned when introducing my Grandad’s Diary that my experience of World War 2 as an eight-year old (I was 8 when Grandad died), was limited to the Warlord and Commando comics. Not only were these rather jingoistic, portraying a rather one-sided view of World War II, but there was no waiting. No boredom. In Commando, war was immediate, full of action and exciting.

Grandad’s Diary is clear: war is often long periods of mind-numbing boredom. Whether Grandad’s waiting was punctuated by periods of action, tragedy and excitement, I am yet to see. I haven’t got to those pages yet.

Grandad’s Diary. 26th January 1945

Entry from 26th Janurary 1945

Saw Widders and Bill Knight. Rather overjoyed at seeing old mates. Life deadling waiting. Usual duff gen that trip may be off yet.

It’s good to hear Grandad talking about old friends. It helps him transcend the Grandad I knew as an eight-year old into more of a real person.

A couple of words I wasn’t sure about here. Firstly the word ‘waiting’ – I’m presuming that because the phrase ‘life deadly waiting’ makes some kind of sense to me as that of it’s so boring and tense waiting for something as dramatic as going overseas to fight for your country… However I could be completely mistaken and it doesn’t actually say waiting.

The second is the phrase ‘duff gen’, which I thought makes no sense, until I discovered that there is an entire dictionary of RAF slang and it’s all on Wikipedia. ‘Duff gen’ is slang for incorrect intelligence. I love that insight into the rumours flying around that the next push into Europe might not happen, and also the fact that Grandad was on to them – he was wise enough to recognise a rumour for what it was, i.e. duff gen.

Grandad’s Diary. 25th January 1945

Entry from 25th January 1945

Here we march miles for meals. Billeted in P.A. Institution often get lost in building. Picture shows arranged. Huge numbers of men here for over.

I admit I struggle with the last word in this entry. It looks to me like ‘oval’, but I think it might be ‘over’ and I’m assuming that it may be short for ‘overseas’. I’m happy to be advised.

The PA Institution building which Grandad reports is easy to get lost in was an old workhouse. By this point workhouses had been renamed ‘Public Assistance Institutions’ and were often in the process of being renamed again as hospitals.

Grandad’s Diary. 24th January 1945

The entry from 24th January

Left Halton. Boys made commotion in NAAFI. Upheld our bad manners. Saw where rocket had fallen at Dagenham. Arrived at Hornchurch in Essex.

Grandad’s journey to his second overseas posting continues. You’ll know from the introduction that he wasn’t properly overseas until 27th January, so we still have three days of travelling to get to France. They didn’t have the Channel Tunnel back then.

There’s a lovely insight into the banter and camaraderie of the wartime military. The NAAFI, I think, was a kind of supermarket for the military. I wonder what level of a commotion it means? Would it be someone throwing a sandwich? Or throwing a punch. My Grandad was gentle man and so I should imagine that he would have looked down upon any unseemly antics.

And it doesn’t take long to find out that V2 rockets did fall on Barking and Dagenham just ten days earlier than this entry. This report from 2015 says a little about the impact they had. It must have been a reminder to the soldiers returning to the conflict that they had to get the job done.

Grandad’s Diary – Introduction

It is a tiny book. It measures 10cm in height and 7cm in width – perfect for fitting into a small pocket in an army uniform or pack. Its pages are an especially thin-type of paper that means the ink my Grandad used can sometimes be seen through the back of the paper it was written on. This makes it difficult to read in places.

My Grandad’s Diary: a very small book.

On the first page is written, quite simply, the dates that Grandad served overseas. It is strange that only ‘overseas’ service seemed to ‘count’. There isn’t much of a record of service in this country in either this diary or his service book – only time overseas is recorded. I had thought that by winning the ‘Defence Medal’ it would mean that Grandad had served significantly in this country, and that may be true, but it turns out that all members of the Armed Services who served were eligible for the Defence Medal.

The first page of my Grandad’s diary, including his own handwritten note of when he served.

You can see clearly how Grandad noted that he served overseas from the 5th June 1944 until 29th September, then from 27th January to 13th May. This shows that he was overseas the day before D-Day on 6th June 1944 and was still overseas on the 13th May 1945, 5 days after VE day on the eighth.

I have no record of his service in the first stint, nor indeed why he came back home in September. I wonder when he found out about D-Day. There must have been quite an element of secrecy to keep the date a surprise from the Germans. And I wonder what his experiences were in those days. Like many, I have seen the visceral ‘Saving Private Ryan’. I wonder, as an RAF balloon operator, how close he got that kind of action.

I will probably never know. But what I can find out as an insight into his second stint. I have his diary and can begin looking at his story from 23rd January 1945, the date of his first entry.

That’s the next post.

What my Grandad did in the War

My Grandad Bill died when I was eight.

I knew that he had fought in the Second World War, but it was not until the end of my Nan’s life that I understood more about the effect it had had upon him and the impact it had on my family.

More about that another time.

In the top drawer of my desk, his Release Book and a little diary have sat for many years. Ensconced carefully in their wrapping they have hidden their secrets until now. That is, now I am hoping to digitise and translate them over the next few days and weeks. By digitise, I mean scan. By translate, I mean that Grandad’s delicate script on tissue-thin paper is a little difficult for me to read at times. But still, I’m going to give it a go. I mean to coincide the diary entries with the dates that they were written 75 years ago, and the first was written on 25th January 1945.

Firstly then, the Release Book. It is a standard Royal Airforce Service and Release Book and it looks like this.

Next post I’ll take a look inside.

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