|How Potato Pete and Bletchley Park helped save the world.|
Bletchley Heath. A place that has earned it’s place in the history of war by negating the attempts of the large battalions of the enemy to function in a way that would bring increasing destruction to the good guys. Enigma, the Nazi encoding device which was supposed to give orders from the High Command complete security, was shown to be nothing more than a sophisticated parlour game. Alan Turing and his team of mathematicians, crossword enthusiasts and assorted eccentrics, gathered together at Bletchley, did the impossible and decoded the un-decodable. This gave the Allies a massive advantage and saved thousands of lives. So successful was the Bletchley crew that a department had to be set up to find ways of explaining why the German U-Boats and troop movements were known to the British and American forces without blowing the secret that every message sent was being read by Allied Intelligence. It was assumed that the information was reaching the Allies through a network of spies buried deep within the German high command. A lot of time was wasted trying to hunt them down.The British war time experience was a closed book to me. During that time, from 1939-45, I was a passive but involved, unwilling guest of Adolf Hitler. So when I saw the Bletchley Park exhibition at Wembley I was instantly intrigued. Not with the basic premise of the Enigma and code breaking but with the fantastic PR job the government of the day did to get public opinion on their side and behind the effort to thwart the Hun.
The first thing that struck me when I begun to look more closely at the PR campaign fought every bit as fiercely as the shooting war, was how simple and direct were the messages the propagandists were posting. Propaganda could be hitched to the word ‘spin’ that is so popular, or unpopular, now. Posters were bright and clean. No fudging the issue with florid artistry which took the eye away from what was being communicated. Take Potato Pete for instance. Food was short in Britain. Daily thousands of tons of shipping was being sunk by U-Boats.So the population was urged to grow as much food on the land as they could. This meant that all over the country roadside verges showed a resurgence of mediaeval strip farming. One of the easier crops to grow was potatoes. Unfortunately the minute rations that the Brits were receiving at that time meant that there was very little to go with the potato. The recipes thought up by the Ministry of Food and collected in Potato Pete’s Recipe book elevated the humble spud to a dish for connoisseurs. You could even make cakes with them.
The brilliant TV series, Dad’s Army, popularised post conflict, although playing it for laughs , showed just how much the speeches by the war leader Winston Churchill inspired the nation. “We shall fight them on the beaches……..We shall never give in.” Recruitment for the home defence battalions was brisk and the recruits ancient. They were taught how to fight off mechanised units with broom sticks and hastily dug holes. It didn’t matter that there was little chance of getting a Panzer Tank commander to do exactly what was necessary to get them in a no win situation. It was the spirit that counted and this was exemplified in countless posters and speeches.
To involve the population, if they needed any encouragement, housewives were encouraged to give up their metal kitchenware to defeat the Nazis. The public response was magnificent. But it was Churchill who turned a nation staring down the barrels of Hitler’s long range cannon on the French coast, into a fighting force. And that meant civilian as well as military. The clever way he manipulated public opinion cannot be underestimated. When Russia and then, belatedly, America, entered the war, Germany’s fate was sealed. But it was Churchill who pumped the British up to believe that in spite of the odds, they could win through. “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat” delivered in Parliament and to a nation seemingly on the edge of defeat, was inspirational. It marked the difference between the way Churchill saw his role and that of the Nazi leader. Churchill said if Britain was going to win through they had to do it themselves – and he knew they could do it. But it was going to be hard and dangerous. Hitler told his people that they were supreme and everyone else was inferior. Conquering Europe and later the world was going to be a walk in the International park.Which was great when they were bladderworting through Poland, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourge, France etc but knocked the kingpins out of their war machine when the invincible Luftwaffe was decisively blasted out of the sky in the Battle of Britain. Then there was Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein followed by the disaster of Stalingrad. Shattering blows to the Herrenvolk who had been told that victory was assured. But Churchill could not do it alone and it was left to the Ministry of Information to popularise his thoughts. And this they did magnificently. In spite of food shortages, in spite of the Blitz and in spite of fears that the vaunted German military machine would soon be chuntering up the Mall.
Total war meant total effort. Everything was bent to the need to keep the country functioning in spite of nearly four years of intense bombardment and the devastation of the Merchant Fleet bringing essential supplies. The Blackout was total. And there were ARP Wardens to make sure it stayed that way. “Oi! Put out that light”, became a catchword that comedians seized on with relish. But it didn’t embarrass the tin hatted Wardens into abandoning the command. Posters warned that ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives”, the way ahead was to “Dig For Victory” and that tatty old cardigan or frayed shirt became part of “Make Do and Mend”. Which meant that kids wore some peculiarly coloured and bizarre garments to attend school. Even such things as cigarette cards were pressed into service to broadcast information about what should be done if you found a German aviator hiding in the outside loo. And how to spot that he was a German and not one of the hordes of displaced fighting men from such places as Poland, France, Norway and all the other countries now under the Jack boot of the conquering Nazis. (‘Under the Jack boot’ was a very popular phrase during hostilities) Other cards series explained how to make your windows shatter proof with sticky brown paper or how to prevent potential holocausts with a hand operated stirrup pump and a bucket of water. Gas masks were universally hated. They were hot, smelly and uncomfortable to wear. Millions of them were issued and it was obligatory to carry them in the early stages of the war. They still turn up in house sales and the ubiquitous boot sales.
Early in the war mandatory National Identity Cards were issued and it meant a night in the slammer at the least if you were found out and about without it. As soon as the war was over the Identity card was one of the first things to be ditched. Not so the Ration Book. Everything you wanted to buy was controlled by the Ration Book. When the war came to an end in 1945 everybody was prepared to chuck the hated books on the Victory Bonfires. If they did they were in for an uncomfortable time. Rationing in England didn’t entirely die out until 1953.
One of the main, non-martial battlefields was between the American G.I Joes and the indigenous Tommy Atkins. The British Tommy was badly dressed and poorly paid. When the G I’s were drafted in to build up the army for the Second Front, D-Day, the invasion of Continental Europe, they had money to burn, nylon stockings and an appetite for British women. The ‘over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ image grated on the British soldiers and battles raged in towns that played host to both armies.
The fighting forties was the era of the Juke Box. Foremost amongst these was the mighty Wurlitzer. It was a sensation in its time and virtually invented the Hit record. They now change hands at thousands of pounds and anyone who was lucky to pick one up for a few pounds in the early sixties is assured of a retirement jackpot. Films of the time very often featured a close-up of the miracle of the Juke Box changing a record. Films provided a massive part of the propaganda industry. Films like IN WHICH WE SERVE, MRS MINIVER, THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN were heavy on dastardly Nazis and often short on story line. In the music industry a few WW1 shellac disks were dusted off and assured departing service men and women that is was a “Long Way to Tipperary’ . Then there was Vera Lynn, a Grand Dame now, and still going strong. Her rendition of When the Lights Go On Again was guaranteed to bring a tear to the steeliest eye. It helped that radio was the main means of instant communication and the right attitude could be maintained with a song, a bon mot or a message from the Prime Minister. As the recent conflict in GULF WAR 2 showed, radio should be the Government’s main outlet for what is going on. Pictures, edited any which-way, tell too much – or not enough.
Spies were a big problem in the war. Well, stories of spies anyway. There was a story that a nun handed a ticket to a bus conductor who realised that the hairy hand holding the ticket was that of a man and promptly had him arrested. The story, apocryphal or not, would play better if the nun had turned out to be – a nun. This was the rumour end of the propaganda machine working. The serious side was reserved for the men taken into occupied territory in the night by the specially adapted Lysander aircraft. Once on foreign soil they were at the mercy of luck, their own initiative and the local Resistance. The gadgetry they took with them wasn’t the sort of gear that Q would have provided for 007. A battery powered transmitter with a life of two hours, tops. If they were expected to get hold of really sensitive material they might be weighed down with one of the cumbersome Cipher Machines and a list of operators that might or might not be Nazi doubles. In many ways Allied airmen had much more sophisticated evasion equipment. Maps drawn on silk so that they could easily be concealed, compasses hidden in uniform buttons or cigarette lighters, letters addressed to the enemy telling them to treat them right or take the consequences. An idle threat in the early days of the war but one that became increasingly potent as time went by. Although these aids to escape were produced in their thousands, until recently not many have come onto the market. More are surfacing now as, sadly, the gallant young fighters of sixty years ago die and their possession are sold off. Sad really. If the war really was Britain’s finest hour, as Winston said, that the bric a brac of every day life that made the time what it was will just become another interesting piece of historical junk. Unless preserved by enthusiasts who understand the relevance of each nostalgic piece.
MM December 2003