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Wartime Experiences

by BurfordACL

Contributed by 
BurfordACL
Location of story: 
Nuremberg and the Cotswolds
Article ID: 
A2661581
Contributed on: 
24 May 2004

In January 1939 a leaflet was being distributed exhorting everyone to join something to be prepared to do their bit “in the event of war”. I was only 17 so the choice was restricted to being a nurse or being a land girl. Nursing didn’t appeal, but I thought driving a tractor might be fun. I therefore joined the Women’s Land Army — and promptly forgot the whole thing for the next eight months.

I was at the time preparing to go to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and more specifically practising to go in for an organ exhibition which the College was offering.

On September 4th (the day after war was declared) I was called up at 24 hours notice and told to report at the Midland Agricultural College in Leicestershire. I arrived together with 100 other North Londoners, 90 of whom I should think had never been out of London before.

For some reason, a high proportion of the new recruits were hairdressers by profession, and had come down in their best outfits; this was unfortunate because, although we had been told “uniforms will await you”, it was we who waited for the uniforms, which arrived item by item over the next few weeks. Meanwhile high heels, satin blouses and tight skirts are not ideal for mucking out pigs.

The proper students of the College had been banished to Wales before we arrived. The Director took one look at 100 North Londoners and decided, with only a month to get results, that we must specialise: arable, horticulture, dairy, poultry and pigs. I chose arable and managed to spend much of the time tractor-driving. After my training I didn’t get near a tractor again until four years later when I was in the WRNS and cut a field of barley for a local farmer in Cornwall, where I was stationed. (Tractor-driving was the last thing a farmer would hand over, especially to a girl.)

The trouble was that in late autumn the harvest was in, there was no great need for extra labour in the winter, and no farm workers had been called up. There was not much call for a Land Army — not just yet. I think HQ must soon have realised their swift call-up had been a bit precipitate, because a nice lady in twin-set and pearls was sent down after a couple of weeks to explain that of course we could always go back to London on the dole. The College did its best for us but was not prepared to repeat the experiment and our batch were the only ones to benefit from a “college” training. Thenceforth land girls learnt the job on the farm.

In 1940 the family had moved from London to the Cotswolds and I started working on a local farm. This was still early days for the Land Army and the local land girls nearly all lived at home or indeed worked on their own family farm. The days of hostels and organised groups of land girls were to come in the later grimmer years of the war, when the WLA had got its act together and forgotten about twin-sets and pearls and being on the dole.

Bicycling to work from home each day suited me very well; I could still carry on with my academic studies, balancing the brawn of the day with a bit of brain in the evening. In fact the two were not so strongly divided; land work has long stretches of solitude and repetitive tasks, when a bit of thinking can alleviate the boredom (and the backache). Threshing too had its advantages. Although more of a communal activity (this before the days of combine harvesters) it was too noisy for any conversation. I spent the time learning poems by heart (I was heavily into French poetry at the time). Whenever the threshing machine stopped — because the string had broken or rats had gummed up the works — and we had a respite from feeding the monster with sheaves, I would take the paper out of my pocket to read the next stanza. It was of course assumed that I was re-reading the latest letter from the boyfriend (more likely Charles d’Orleans).

This was the time I should have been at Oxford. I had got my organ exhibition, but St Hugh’s had lost its organ, since the college buildings were taken over as a Head Injury Hospital and the college spent the war years elsewhere in Oxford. But with Oxford in abeyance until after the war, I still regard those three years as my student years. I am convinced that it is what one does and the experiences one has between 18 and 21 which make a lasting impression and mark one for life. It seems one is both more perceptive and more receptive, eager for new experiences and not yet habit-bound.

New experiences came for me in abundance: leaving London (although I remain at heart a Londoner), seeing the country for the first time in winter (and 1940s winters were COLD) , completely different work, new people to work with and new friends to make - and a new language to learn (Cotswold, Burford variety). It was all very different and quite new. And the important lesson I learned was, first, that there are other ways of doing things than the way you are used to and, secondly, that those other ways are not necessarily worse ways - a lesson well worth remembering in this multicultural world.

One thing that was undoubtedly necessarily worse was the living and working conditions of the agricultural worker. [I spent some days planting 3000 cabbage seedlings, watering them — fetching water some 100 yards in a water-cart— and replacing those that had succumbed to heat and drought. Had I been paid more than a pittance, cabbage prices would have been prohibitive. And for me it wasn’t my life’s work.] One can say that the plight of the farm-worker is happily more acceptable now, but perhaps truer to say that the species has virtually disappeared. Farming has changed. It’s a different world I am looking back on. I was struck by the same thought on a recent visit to the old Midland Agricultural College (now part of Nottingham University) when I saw that what we knew as the chicken house is now labelled “Department of Avian Physiology”.

Ill-health put an end to my agricultural education. After a while I joined the WRNS in a category called Special Duties (Linguists) for which the one qualification was a knowledge of German. We were something of a select bunch, not only because there were not many of us but because what we did was very hush-hush . We worked in small stations around the South and East coasts, intercepting any radio signals in plain language or letter code from German ships off the coast. Much of this was sent to what we knew as Station X, now better known as Bletchley Park. I can’t say that any one of us overheard a message which led directly to a naval victory but we did produce much vital information.

Our opposite numbers in the WAAF had a bigger task on hand; they had the Battle of Britain to cover and much other activity to monitor. To get the numbers the RAF were not too fussy whom they recruited, Sudeten Germans, Belgians, Poles, so long as they knew German. The Navy, on the other hand, insisted that their Wrens were at least second generation British. This meant that to qualify you were probably a diplomat’s daughter, had travelled widely or had read languages at University. We were therefore an articulate lot, not easily cowed and not very good at keeping the rules, even if we knew what they were. On our small stations there were very few rules, but whenever we had to go to a bigger centre, there was trouble. We were not popular.

After D-Day it was suggested that a station be set up on the Normandy coast and in August 1944 five of our category were among 50 Wrens who crossed to France. Unfortunately, however, the frequencies we were concerned with were very high and the range consequently restricted to about 30 miles. By August 1944 things were moving with some speed and very soon we were out of range and had to be content with skip-traffic from tanks on the Russian Front. No way were the WRNS authorities going to allow five maverick Wrens to roam about the battle zone. They dealt in batches of no fewer than 50, and 45 could not be expected to twiddle their thumbs while a mere 5 got on with their hush-hush job, so after some weeks we came home.

The same lack of purpose was naturally affecting those of us who were still in the UK. As stations closed down we converged on London, a gang of under-employed individualists who could not be demobbed because the war was not over. So they incarcerated us in a large mansion in Wimbledon (unheated) and gave us anything German they could find for us to translate (I had information on the rate of pay for naval widows in 1923).

Help soon came in the shape of 50,000 files, the German Naval Archives, discovered by the advancing Army in a castle somewhere in Germany and shipped to the basement of the Admiralty in Munich beer crates. Jobs for linguists at last! We were bit by bit transferred to the Admiralty basement to cope with this mammoth task — not so much to translate the material as to evaluate the contents of each file.

As in the Land Army training, we were specialised into groups of 4 or 5, dealing with such specialist subjects as V2 fuel, generators, torpedo heads and other fearful things. I was fortunate to be assigned to a newly formed group on War Crimes, where I felt common sense would be able to compensate to a greater extent for lack of technical knowledge.

By this time the long drawn out discussions and negotiations between the USA, Britain, France and the USSR, which had had a stormy passage had resulted in a plan for the aftermath of the conflict. There were to be trials and for that evidence was required. So, the five of us were let loose to find it. It is ironic that those Munich beer crates contained a mass of evidence against the Nazi leaders, not only the admirals but more general information contained in the minutes of top-level meetings with the Fuehrer. In true teutonic style everything had been kept, and it is said that the German staff at the castle turned up for work on the day it was captured and possibly helped to load up the beer crates.

My first find (not really concerned with the Nuremberg trials but encouraging none the less) was a series of memos from early 1940 which described mysterious meetings between Raeder and Rosenberg and a Herr Q and a Herr H from Norway. There were several meetings, for one of which either Raeder or Rosenberg (I forget which) had hurt his foot and couldn’t get his boot on so the other had to meet Q and H on his own. The implication of these memos was that Mr Q (Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian collaborator) and Mr H (whoever he was) had conspired with the Germans before the invasion of Norway. This was evidence that the Norwegians were hoping for, which would make the case against Quisling much more serious than mere collaboration. I took this information to the appropriate liaison officer who, I sensed, was getting heartily tired of our many “glorious allies” but he did consent to send the information to Norway and their great satisfaction was announced on the BBC news that night.

Our prize of the German Naval Archives caused a good deal of envy; the RAF had found nothing comparable and airmen kept snooping around. The Americans, too, were very attentive, particularly with our little group — understandably so for the trials, for which a vast amount of documentary evidence needed to be assembled, were to be held in Nuremberg, in the American zone of occupation. A very tall handsome US Navy lieutenant worked with us and after a while suggested that we go out to Nuremberg where they were extremely short of translators. Of course we were keen to go but would have to have the permission of the Director WRNS. He undertook to go and see her and, with his not inconsiderable charm, there wasn’t much doubt about her answer. So we went.

All this excitement at work was mirrored by the excitement outside the Admiralty basement. VE Day had come and gone, VJ Day was upon us. General euphoria, riding on the roofs of taxis, singing outside Buckingham Palace, greeting complete strangers. For once one could bask in the present, not thinking of the past or the future.

For me, London in 1945 was a musical paradise. Proms, National Gallery lunch-time concerts and Wigmore Hall concerts where many French musicians appeared for the first time for years: Francis Poulenc, Pierre Bernac, Ginette Neveu and others. We yelled, we jumped on the chairs, we clapped. The staid Wigmore Hall had never seen anything like it.

Perhaps my musical career was going to take off after all. But a long stretch at Nuremberg came first.

Much has been written about the Nuremberg Trials, by VIPs, by lawyers, by historians, by journalists who came and went, and by anyone else who wanted to be in on the act. Little mention is usually made of the gang behind the scenes who kept the show on the road, in our case by translating.

Since the Germans themselves had provided most of the documents produced as evidence by the prosecution, that meant that an English translation had to be made of any material used in court. [The English version of course did for the British and Americans, French and Russian versions were supplied by the other delegations, except that the Russians were suspicious of our efforts and preferred to duplicate all translations by their own people. The curtain between East and West may not yet have been iron but it was certainly there].

The translated versions were very useful to the court interpreters who could then read from a script when a document was referred to. That left their skills at simultaneous translation to cross-examination and legal quibbles where there was no advance warning. The defence lawyers had of course not much of a leg to stand on and made the most of any opportunity to nitpick. This only added to the inevitable longeurs of a court session, and we were glad we were not stuck in court all day. We were, however, allowed into court when any document we had worked on was produced which was most gratifying — then it was back to the grindstone in Room 122 of the Court House.

Since our secondment to Nuremberg had been arranged by our charming American lieutenant, we became part of the US delegation with little contact with the British there. We 5 Wrens in Room 122, which was enormous, were therefore joined by a motley collection of other translators recruited from the USA. The trials were due to start a month after we arrived and so many more translators were required that anyone with a knowledge of German had to do. They were, naturally, mostly Germans who had fled from the Nazis in the 30’s and settled in America. Some had only basic English and - I didn’t think that possible — some had almost forgotten their native tongue. The situation was illustrated by one character who informed us from time to time : “Twelf years already I am liffing in America and all ze time I am spikking two lenkwitches poific”. (All translations were checked by a special panel to abstract the worst howlers.)

We found that there were great advantages in being a temporary American. Apart from the PX, where the weekly cigarette ration was a pack of 200 costing 2/6 (not much incentive to give up smoking)., we were housed in great style in the Grand Hotel for the first few weeks, until the arrival of the judges and other dignitaries. There was a very strict rule that no “other ranks” were allowed to set foot in the Grand Hotel, yet our group consisting of one Officer and four Petty Officers were never challenged; the American guards could not distinguish the different badges on our tricorns so let us in. Some British officers, however, who saw us there, were very sniffy.

In preparation for the trials the Americans had more or less created a mini-USA in the middle of the remains of the town of Nuremberg. Everything was provided to make the American personnel feel at home: transport, PX, stores, entertainment, a free coca-cola fountain in the Court House, and food, all imported.

We benefited from all this, but the Grand Hotel meals were a problem. The Americans may have been used to such abundance and variety, but we hadn’t known such gastronomic luxury for years. A four-course dinner sounded a good idea after a hard day’s work, but once in the Hotel you were met by the blast of the central heating (another American essential we were not used to) and, by the time the food arrived, our appetites had definitely shrunk. We tried manfully to eat up, and this presented another dilemma. If we left food on the plate we knew that the German waiter would take it home for his family, but it looked as though we thought it OK to waste food. The alternative also had its pros and cons.

It was small incidents like this which characterised the unreality of life at the trials and insidiously ate into one’s soul. We were living between two artificial worlds: the Americans had created their material environment for themselves without any hinterland. On the other side, the ordinary Germans were getting on with their lives as best they could, but making no contact with the Allies. We lived among them but as we passed them in the street we saw blank faces. What lay behind? Fear, hatred, guilt, anger, arrogance? What did they think of the trials? It was impossible to tell.

For me music again came to the rescue. “Call-Me-Harry”, an American whose surname I never knew, had discovered some German musicians and arranged for a few of us to go and listen to them playing chamber music, and join in if a suitable instrument was available. There at least we could make some human contact.

And in the middle of this were these momentous trials. We were all involved in something quite outside our normal experience. We worked hard; the Americans expect a good day’s work: 8.30 start (not 8.35), half an hour for lunch and no tea breaks. Finish at 5.30 unless a document was wanted in translation next day, and then it could last until the early hours (we worked out that on service pay the rate was 4d. per hour). Nobody minded, it was important, it was interesting, and often it was urgent. And I am sure that it was this imposed momentum which prevented our quite grasping some of the gruesome things we sometimes had to translate. In fact the full impact of our work only became clear when the pressure subsided as the trials went on, even more so when I got home 9 months later and could focus from a greater distance.

What did I think of the Nuremberg Trials. Of course the legal basis for such a trial when the victor judges the vanquished is bound to be shaky, but the greatest justification for the whole process, in my opinion, was the future existence of the transcript of the proceedings and the record of all the evidence. So often we had come across the Versailles Treaty being held responsible for all that had gone wrong in Germany in the 1920’s; the Treaty did have some nasty seeds in it, but it was used indiscriminately as a convenient excuse. This time there would be a record of everything that happened and had happened, and the fact that the Germans themselves provided as much of the evidence against them made the case even clearer.

No more excuses, no more denials — or so I thought. We are not very good at learning from history. And now, it seems, we are reluctant to teach history to children. What sort of future are they going to have, without a past?

As for me, Oxford eventually had a hard time matching my future to my past.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

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Posted on: 29 July 2004 by Paul Wigmore

I greatly enjoyed reading your piece - it was good to read something well-written on this site. A fascinating story, too. Turning to more permanent matters - I wonder if I ever heard you play? I work with composers of choral music - I'm a words man. But, if language is my food and drink, music is my oxygen. I'm doing a Christmas piece at present with Malcolm Archer and it promises well.

Best wishes.

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