I felt certain the war was over, that we’d lost
Oxford Lad In 1940 I was working with my father on a building site, driving the lorry. My father had been in the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. That’s how he came to be in Oxford, because he volunteered in the 1914 War. He was from Wales. At the time of the fall of France most of the blokes on the site, including my father, reckoned we’d had it. They said the Germans had never got that far in the ’14 – ’18 war.
London Lad I’d just started work, and I was in work that day it came over that France fell. My heart really…. – I really felt frightened. Being Jewish I felt very nervous. The way France fell so easily – so quick.
Commercial Traveller I was travelling on the Tube to Edgware and people were getting up making speeches: “It’s about time we caved in to Hitler. When all’s said and done he’s doing a good job, he’s murdering all those bloody Jews.” They were probably fascists (1).
London Evacuee I saw literally hundreds and hundreds of lorryloads of soldiers coming through the village, coming back from Dunkirk. Soldiers with no uniforms, in shirts, in a hell of a state, and they would stop in the village and people would give them tea. I felt certain that the war was over, that we’d lost. Us kids were horror-stricken, not so much at the thought of invasion of the Germans, but the fact that this was the British army – ‘cos the army, as a kid was undefeatable. In my house before the war there was four regular soldiers. My two brothers and two people out of another family. No-one could defeat them in my mind. But these soldiers passing through the village were not only ragged, they were starving. The lorries were going through the village all day. Some of them were half-naked. You couldn’t believe it was an army. They were in a pitiful state. The next thing was going to be an invasion and we was going to be finished. I was sure of it.
Forest Gate, East London Woman I said to my Uncle Albert, around the corner, I said “We’re going to win the war in the end.” “What makes you think Germany won’t win?” “The right always comes out on top”, I said, “God wouldn’t let the Germans win.” “I wish I had your faith” he said.
Austrian Refugee We moved out of London because we were terrified. In those days Goering broadcast and his frequent boastful words were “We will find them, wherever they are hiding – in the East End, in Hampstead, in Golders Green.” And so one was really terrified. We moved to Welwyn Garden City. After the fall of France it was as if there was a heavy cloud hanging over you. The atmosphere of a catastrophe. I had personal friends, friends from my home town who had fled to Paris and were rounded up and were sent to Gurs, the French concentration camp. (2)
My brother-in-law was in the Pioneers. He had to change his name because they were told “In case you are taken prisoner, you must take an English name. If you are still called ——— they’ll know you’re Jewish and immediately shoot you.” So he changed his name to Kirk. Most of the Germans and Austrians who were in the Pioneer Corps anglicised their names. As far as we were concerned, we weren’t too worried about being interned by the British because inquiries were made from Mr Wallington, who knew us so well. It turned out to be so lucky that I had this connection to England.
Conscientious Objector After I had registered as a conscientious objector the Labour Exchange directed to me one job – a short job – which was hurriedly putting up pill boxes. This was 1940, in Kent. These little pill boxes were going up and they were drumming up every able-bodied person to shovel cement and carry bricks, labouring, in other words. I did three or four weeks on that job. I was with a great gang of skilled concrete mixers and bricklayers. It was my first really hard manual work. I enjoyed it.
Ex-Tramp I went down to Taunton in Somerset and got a job with Walls Ice Cream. I was given a job riding these bicycles with the boxes on the front, and they stop you and buy one. I used to ride this tricycle out to a place called Kingston, three and a half miles out of Taunton. A small respectable village. This was at the time when there were notices up all over the countryside saying “Beware of German parachutists”. Two middle aged spinster types stopped me and asked me for an ice cream block and they said to me “What’s happened to the old man who used to do this round” “What old man?” “You know, the old man that used to do this round regularly.” “I don’t know”, I said. “Everybody in Taunton knows the old man’, they said. “I only arrived in Taunton yesterday.” They asked me what my name was. I told them for I thought they were interested. I rode on into the village and coming back a police car pulled me up and two coppers asked me who I was, where I’d come from – “What’s this all about?” I said. “Two old ladies have rung up the police and have said there’s a man riding a Walls ice cream tricycle that looks very foreign, has a foreign accent, and a foreign sounding name” – Which was quite incredible! We had a long talk and I satisfied them I wasn’t a spy. A few weeks later when I went back to Bristol and called at my old digs, the landlady asked what I’d been up to, as the police had called to see her and asked if she knew anything about me. So they checked up in no uncertain manner. It was quite an unnerving experience.
1. Fascists: By the fall of France the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Mosley, had been interned, along with 700 other British fascists. Estimates quote the membership of the BUF in 1939 at 20,000.
2. Gurs was in Vichy south west France, and was an internment camp, not a concentration camp.