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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Conal O'Donnell
User ID: U1040122

I am a retired BBC journalist and former newspaper reporter.I am also a Fellow of UCE in Birmingham specialising in broadcast journalism.I was born in Norfolk five year after the war, and its influence seemed to permeate every part of life at least in my early years.

Everyones' mum and dad had been in it;all our comics were still full of its derring- do; "Dunkirk" and "The Dambusters" were endlessly on at the cinema.And the drabness lingered on as well , despite rationing fading away.Cars all seemed old and black.One always enjoyably came back from the railway station absolutely filthy with smuts and soot after running over the bridge as the steam locomotives,all of them pre-war, chuntered through. Mother,still washing by hand then,was predictably distraught.

And eating out remained a disappointment.Thick tough cuts of mutton-always tepid-swimming in a ghastly gravy with congealing grease on the top, rather like a discharge of oil from a U-boat I used to think , with my over heated comic strip imagination.Soggy,soggy sprouts , and over cooked potatos that fell apart without waiting to be cut , completed the unappetising picture.Doubtless there were some good restaurants around, but we never found any until we went abroad for the first time as a family in 1959.It was a revelation.

Wartime Anglo -US rivalry was also alive and well in the local school playground .American kids from Sculthorpe and North Pickenham were pupils before proper US base facilities were developed.Fights broke out in the school yard over whether Britain or America had done most to beat the Germans,or who held the world air speed record,or who had invented the jet engine.

The there were the international crises.My father, and his great friend Ralph Howell later a Tory MP, both sent a telegram to prime minister Anthony Eden pledging their support over his Suez policy and offering to re-join the colours despite the fact that my father was over 40.

He even tried his old uniform on again . It still fitted but the call never came.Shortly afterwards the battledress was smouldering on a bonfire.The same crisis-Suez-saw the nervous break down of a US service friend of the family who became convinced the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising was the prelude to all out nuclear war .He was sent home.

When the Cuban missile crisis broke fisticuffs were again exchanged as children from RAF Marham went for Americans from USAF Lakenheath."Why should our dads die for yours?" complained the RAF kids

.An American friend at school had me on perpetual jealousy tenterhooks.Not only did he have a check lumberjack jacket and proper Levis with turn-ups,but his Pa flew a B47.

One birthday party his father arrived late and a little flustered.He'd just crash landed his plane but came onto junior's celebration just the same.It was just like being with a real John Wayne.!

Gradually the immediate ,vivid impact of the war years faded to be replaced for me at any rate by the rebellious,irreverant sixties.While one respected what my parents generation went through one didn't want to be constantly reminded about it either.Especially when the clear implication a lot of the time was "you couldn't have stuck it like we did".

To this day I am terribly ashamed of a little altercation with my father.As I ran away from him I jeered "bet you had to run faster than this at Alamein".Quite justifiably charged with the extra adrenalin such an insult might provoke he surged towards me as if rocket propelled.I got away-just!

It was a dreadful thing to say and I'm humbled to recall that I admired him for being at Alamein .The only time I ever seemed to generate any respect from my kids was when I told them I'd seen Jimi Hendrix play live.The two aren't remotely comparable of course.

(For my father's war record seeSOE-the Irish agent and the Greek massacre (A3206837) )

For me the wartime generation gap was bridged in rather a stimulating and unusal way.I went to stay for a weekend with one of the Dambusters!

It was late summer 1972 .One of my friends was going out with Stella , the daugther of Air Marshall Sir Harold Martin-"Micky" Martin of 617 Sqdn fame ,described by Max Hastings as "one of the three great bomber pilots of the war" .The other two presumably being Gibson and Cheshire.

He was then a senior commander in the RAF in West Germany living in an imposing headquarters at Rheindhalen. He entertained us royally dispensing liberal quantities of scotch and wisedom-"don't join the RAF its too desk bound and rigid for a young man to-day.I only stayed because I had nothing else to do !

He talked to us as equals , and was quite happy to bat questions about the dams raid including the fact that post war research showed the damage had been exagerated at the time."It was a fantastic technical triumph and a marvellous morale booster.Wars are won by things like that not post war hindsight!" was his emphatic verdict.

After a sumptious dinner Lady Martin and their daugthers retired to another room leaving the menfolk to more scotch and conversation to the background of endless Vera Lynn records , which he insisted on playing in a quite unselfconcious way.

"Its not that I'm sentimental or stuck in a time warp"he explained."I just like her voice!"I

In our very early twenties I hope we to a very small extent lived up to the company he kept when he was our age.I was annoyed when my friend and Stella no longer saw one another.No more Rheindhalen!

Later I worked as a reporter on the Eastern Daily Press in Thetford where I came across the fascinating story of the Stanford Battle Area.Three villages Stanford ,Tottington and West Tofts were cleared in 1942 so the army could use live ammunition on manouevre.About a thousand people were compulsorily evacuated.They left on the understanding they could return afer the war,but the post war Labour government changed its mind and the MOD have held it ever since with no indication it'll ever again be open to public access .

For a fuller account see A3258362 - Breckland exodus-the forced evacuation of the Norfolk Battle Area 1942:Part 1 and A3258407 - Breckland exodus-the forced evacuation of the Norfolk Battle Area 1942:Part 2

I went into the area during the 1970s on a couple of reporting assignments and became spell bound by the poignancy of the ruined villages and the beauty of the land they'd left behind.In my spare time I interviewed as many of the former residents as I could find.They were very thin on the ground even then.I suspect only a handful who'd been very young at the time now survive .
I had intended to put their experiences in book form but being plunged into my own mini battle area called "life" -divorce,career,single parenthood etc -it all went by the board.I felt very guilty that I'd never made use of the accounts so freely given-guilty that I like everyone else had let them down really.It became embarrassing when they asked "any progress on the book?"Then I moved out of the area and ties were severed for good.I hope in a very small way I've made it up to them by these WW2 People's War accounts.

Conal O'Donnell added messages to the following stories

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