Apart from the text-speak title – seriously, BBC, “WWII”?! – this was a fascinating hour’s television showing “home movies” from the Second World War and the years immediately preceding it, including coverage of the Sheffield Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuations, the work of the Home Guard, munitions factories and even German preparations for war filmed during holidays in Central Europe in 1937-39. It also showed film of the Yealand Manor Evacuation School in North Lancashire, where Elfrida Vipont, children’s author and fellow Old Girl of my old school 🙂 , was headmistress.
People probably thought that they’d be using their exciting new cine cameras to film days out and celebrations with family and friends … and then ended up with all this instead. Personal history is very “in” at the moment, especially with interest in genealogy growing all the time, and relatives and friends of the people who’d shot the films were interviewed and gave additional insights into what’d been going on. Most poignant was the film of members of the RAF Coastal Command, which had been lost for years because the film maker hadn’t been able to watch it, because it featured so many friends who hadn’t survived. Official films are interesting, but there’s an additional element to those made by ordinary people, with no agenda. So much information about the Second World War has been lost, because those who lived through it didn’t feel able to talk about. These films are still here, and they’re very precious.
Chillingly, early on we were shown a recording of a British Union of Fascists march through London. Then it moved on to film shot by a dentist from Middlesbrough during a series of holidays on the Continent in 1937 and 1939 … charming shots of stunning views, pretty buildings and people in traditional dress, but, in amongst that, signs of the danger ahead. His son told about how he’d had some of his film confiscated after filming at a railway station in 1937, because it was considered a sensitive zone. He’d also filmed some of the anti-Jewish notices in public places, horribly shocked by them. As the son said, we’re used to seeing everything on film and photos now, but that’s pretty new. I remember, during the Gulf War of 1990, finding it quite a novelty to be pretty much seeing live TV coverage of what was going on. After seeing all that in 1937, I don’t think I’d have been going any further than Blackpool for my next holiday, but this man and his family went to Belgium in 1939, and were actually able to film the building of the Siegfried Line. How frightening – but how interesting to have witnessed that, and recorded it.
It then moved on to films of evacuees. Pictures of children saying goodbye to their parents at railway stations are quite common, but this also included film of the school for evacuees opened at a Quaker Meeting House near Lancaster. I was slightly uneasy when they started talking about testing out new social and educational ideas, but the children all seem to have been very happy there, and to have received a good education as well. I was surprised that it didn’t explain that Elfrida Foulds was the author Elfrida Vipont, but I suppose her books aren’t that mainstream. She went to my old school for a while, before moving to a Quaker boarding school. Most of the kids were so young, and it must have been such a shock to be in such a different environment from what they were used to. A lot’s been written about the positives and negatives of evacuation, but, at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. As well as evacuees from Manchester and Liverpool, most from Quaker families but not all, the school took in a number of Jewish refugee children from Nazi-occupied countries, and the film shows one of these children playing in a tree. There were a lot of flowers there. It looked like a happy place.
But then it was on to actual war coverage – one man had even been able to film the Dunkirk evacuations, and planes flying overhead during the Battle of Britain. People who were interviewed spoke about being quite convinced that an invasion was imminent. The Home Guard recordings were shot in the Yorkshire town of Thornton, which I pass through if I’m heading over to Skipton or Ilkley or Bolton Abbey. It’s nowhere near the cost, but people feared invasion by parachutists. There was a story about how people thought they’d seen a parachutist landing, but it turned out to be a pilot dropping some fish and chip wrapping from Harry Ramsden’s out of his plane! That was amusing, but the superb films of Sheffield during the Blitz were just distressing. I’ll never forget the upset of seeing the mess in Manchester city centre after the IRA bombing in 1996. That was just one area, with thankfully no lives lost, few injuries, and the damage confined to business rather than homes, and that was bad enough. How horrific to see your city centre just reduced to rubble – and, worse, the damage to residential areas. And, above all, the deaths – all those lives gone, just like that. A man who’d been 9 at the time recalled how his father and brother-in-law had helped to dig people out. And how a 200lb bomb had dropped on his house, but, miraculously, had failed to explode. Strangely, he said that he wasn’t scared, and it all seemed quite exciting … until his brother-in-law, to whom he’d been very close, was lost at sea.
Next up came film of women at war – in the Armed Forces and a munitions factory. That was rather rushed through, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Then a film, shot in Belfast, of young men in the RAF coastal command. The niece of one of the film makers explained that he’d found it too distressing to watch it later years, because so many of the friends who featured in it had been killed. He’d told his commanding officer that he didn’t think some of the planes they were using was safe … and, for his pains, had been taken off active service.
These are ordinary people’s recordings of extraordinary times. There aren’t many of those, going further back into history. OK, obviously cine film didn’t exist until the late 19th century, and was way too expensive even for the middle-classes until the 1930s, but, even in terms of written records, there’s very little to tell us what the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker actually witnessed during the Norman Conquest, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Hundred Years’ War, the Reformation, the Civil War or the Glorious Revolution, and not that much even from the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, we record everything – although I’m not sure how future historians are going to go on, seeing as they won’t be able to access decades’ worth of people’s social media timelines or e-mails! Films, photos, diaries, letters … they’re all so important. It’s wonderful that this film coverage is now being made available on national TV. Thank you, BBC 4. This was great viewing.