By Eugene Byrne
From The Hidden History of the Occupation, first broadcast by BBC Radio Bristol, October 1995
A few years ago, my daughter, who teaches French in school, took us to France on holiday. First time I’ve ever been abroad. And we were sitting in this café, having a glass of wine and a bite to eat when I noticed that an elderly gentleman sitting at the table next to us had a little lapel badge. The cross of Lorraine. Now I knew that meant he’d been in the French Resistance, so I nods at him, smiles and raises my glass to him, saying ‘Resistance’. He smiles back, raises his glass back and we start to chatting. If you can call it chatting with our Jenny having to translate everything.
This old lad, he said something I’ll never forget. He said the French can forgive the Germans for what they did to French, but they can never forgive what Frenchmen did to other Frenchmen.
And that’s exactly true about what happened in England, too. If I met a man now who’d been in the German army in the war, well, as long as he’d not shot any innocent people or the like, then I’d happily take a drink with him. But an Englishman who’d collaborated with the Germans during the Occupation? No. I’d spit in his face.
* * * * *
Avonleigh Road, Bedminster, Wednesday, January 10 1945
Ruby Cottle dried her eyes. She got up from the dining-room table and went to look at the fire. It was very low, and it was cold outside. She put another shovel of coal on it. Ted would be home from work soon and liked to come in to a bit of warmth.
She sat down at the table again where the letter lay. All the prisoners – hostages, Ted called them – were allowed was one letter on a flimsy little piece of paper every three months. Jimmy’s handwriting was tiny, to try and get as much news in as possible. She had to put on her spectacles to read it again.
L/Cpl J. Cottle, 2 Btn The Gloster Reg’t. Stalag Luft 118, Strasbourg (that’s how the French spell it! And it’s their town really!)
Well, it’s not turning out too bad all things considered. They sent us all out for a few weeks before Christmas. Off in little gangs to a place near the Rhineland. It’s called the Hun’s Ruck, or something like that. Me, Ginger, Bert, Tom, and George Bailey ended up in a little village called Shabback (probably spelled that wrong!) working on the farms.
Major Daniels said this was okay and not against the Geneva Convention. Said we should refuse to do anything that might be a direct help to the war effort. That didn’t arise, though. So we spent a couple of weeks doing farm work, though there’s not much to do this time of year.
To be honest, it made a nice change. The people were mostly okay. Some of them looked on us like we was dirt, but most were allright. And we got plenty of eat for a change. Some of these farmers and their wives treated us very well. Soup and sausages and spuds and even a bit of pork. Sorry, I’m drooling on the paper! Of course we couldn’t speak to them much, nor them to us as none of us has each other’s lingo, but one of the ladies spoke a little English and told us that she had two sons fighting in Russia and hoped that if they were taken prisoner there then some Russian mother would treat them the same way she was treating us. At least I think that’s what she was trying to get across. If it was, I reckon she’s kidding herself.
I’ve even got a little bit of scandal! My mate Ginger, who is famous throughout the battalion for being a right ugly so-and-so, had a bit of a romance with a young German girl. If her father ever found out I don’t like to think where he’d have put his pitchfork!
Well we were back in camp in time for Christmas. To be honest, I’ve seen better ones (no chance of any turkey!), but we all manage to stay cheerful. The Major is a great man for keeping us busy and stop us having gloomy thoughts.
We reckon the goons gave up censoring our letters ages ago, so let me tell you something else that keeps us cheerful … The Huns are probably going to lose the war. We always suspected as much, but our couple of weeks out of camp convinced us. In that village there were no young or even middle-aged men aside from those who’d been invalided out of the war. Men in wheelchairs, men blinded or with arms and legs missing. This was a small village, but I counted at least five men who’d been maimed in Russia. It’s hard to hate these people until you remember what they and their leaders have done to our country. And then you just end up thinking well wouldn’t it be for the best if we all just went home and got on with our own lives and left each other alone?
Your letters and parcels keep me cheerful, too. I know that times must be hard back at home with those Jerry swine taking everything, so I am grateful for the little creature comforts you send. If you can – and you mustn’t go to any trouble, Mum – can you get me a needle and some thread (any colour, but black, navy or Khaki would be best). The old uniform isn’t quite as spruce as it used to be. But like I say, don’t put yourself out, love. Only if you can spare them from your sewing-basket.
They’re still on at us to go and work in German factories, telling us what a cushy number it is. Or how we should all join this stupid Legion of St George thing and fight the Russians. I reckon any man who joins that is a traitor to his country. Either that or an idiot. Both, most like. The way we see it, we’ve not lost the war. The Major says that by not helping Hitler, we’re still fighting, only in a different way.
Mum, Dad, Sis, I want you to remember this. If I don’t come back (but I will of course!), I want you all to remember that I didn’t sign up to do Hitler’s dirty work for him, and never will. And nor will anyone else here. Not one man of the Glosters has volunteered, nor ever will. We’re not stupid, and we’re not traitors. Tell everyone back home that. Don’t ever let anyone forget it.
Your loving son and brother,
Ruby sighed, folded the letter up and replaced it in its envelope. She stood up from the table and put it on the mantelpiece next to the clock.
She’d already started collecting what few bits and pieces she could get for Jimmy’s parcel. This time, it would be a good one. She had laid out them on the table in front of her … A toothbrush, a packet of needles and two reels of thread, a couple of the paperback detective stories he and his pals likes so much, three tins of corned beef and two of jam, a pound of barley sugars, a big bar of Swiss chocolate and six packets of German cigarettes.
She should be happy that she could send him so much this time, but if he knew how she had come by most of them he would probably refuse them.
Just like his father, was her Jimmy. Stubborn as a mule.
Well, a lot of things had changed in the last few years. Now, they just had to make the best of things.
An icy blast of air cut through the room as the door burst open. Ted Cottle entered in a flurry of cursing at the cold, pulling off scarf, cap and tattered overcoat.
"’Lo love. What’s for tea, then?"
"Ooohh, shut that door please Ted! It’s freezing out. Yes, I’ve got us a bit of mutton. I’ve made a stew."
"Mutton! I can’t remember the last time I had mutton! Bloomin’ marvellous!"
He rubbed his hands together and strode over to the grate to try and get some warmth from the few coals smoking and sparking in it.
"Letter from Jimmy on the mantelpiece, love," she said.
"How’s he doing?" said Ted, picking it up.
"Same as ever. Putting a brave face on things. How was work?"
Ted shrugged. Years ago, when he’d first got a job with Great Western, he had good reason to think he was made up for life. Shortages of coal and shortages of things to transport – people and goods – had put paid to that.
"They’re putting us on half-pay again at the end of the month. Shouldn’t wonder if I get laid off sooner or later. They’ve already got rid of nearly half the lads, as well you know."
"Oh Ted!" said Ruby. "Are things ever going to get better for us?"
"Yes love," said Ted quietly, holding Jimmy’s letter close to his eyes to read the tiny writing. "One day. On the day when Hell is the only place you’ll hear the German language spoken. That day, everything will be fine again. And if you ask me, that won’t be too long now. They’ve bit off more than they can chew invading Russia, and now the Yanks have the Japanese beaten, it’s only a matter of time before they come to liberate us and grind Hitler and his scum into the dust … Hah! What did I tell you? See! Jimmy says the same in his letter here!"
Ruby sighed again. No-one ever expected life to be easy, but this was nearly more than she could take.
Ted read to the end of the letter, silently nodding to himself and smiling. "I’m out this evening. Important, ah, darts match. It’s over St Weburghs way so I’ll have to start out early. We’ll write back to him tomorrow. I’ve got to tell him how proud we are of him, and the rest of the boys out there. You think we’ve got it hard, well at least we can still go for a walk in the park on a sunny day, at least I can grow vegetables on the allotment, at least we can go down the pub and get a drink, even if it has to be cider ‘cos they got no beer. Poor Jimmy and his comrades can’t do any of that, can they?"
"No Ted. We should count ourselves lucky I suppose. But I’d give everything to have him back again."
Ted put his big, calloused hand on her shoulder. "Aye, love. Me, too. But there’s no point in getting morose about it. Now why don’t we have some of that lamb stew you’ve made? It smells delicious. Doris’ll be home from work soon, won’t she?"
Ruby nodded. It was important to keep cheerful. You were letting folks down if you got too glum. Ted was right. And tea this evening would be very good.
"What’s all these goodies here, then?" said Ted, noticing all the things for Jimmy’s parcel on the table for the first time. "They’re for our lad, are they?"
"Yes," she said, standing up to go to the kitchen to peel the spuds.
Ted whistled approvingly. "You’ve done well, love. A much better haul than the last time. Hey! Chocolate! And all those Jerry fags! How on earth did you get all this?"
"Ted, I …"
Ted’s eyes narrowed.
"It came from the same place as I got the half-pound of lamb we’re having in the stew. The same place as I got us a big lump of cheddar cheese."
Ted shook his head, puzzled. "Okay, love. You’ve got me stumped, I admit. Have you come into some money, or something?"
"No Ted. I didn’t get any of this. Doris did."
Ted’s face darkened.
"Now, Ted, you mustn’t jump to conclusions. And you must promise not to get angry with her. I … I couldn’t bear any more strain on the family."
Ted sat down at the table and started to inspect one of the packets of cigarettes. She sat opposite him and took a deep breath.
"Doris is seeing a young man. He’s a nice man, a little bit older than her, but only a year or two. I’ve met him. She brought him round last night when you were out at your dominoes match. He brought these things with him."
"Ruby, I wasn’t born yesterday. A bloke comes round and gives you all this stuff just because he’s sweet on Doris? That’s a likely bloody story, that is! And what do you think she has to do for him in return, eh? Tell me!"
Ruby was surprised he wasn’t more angry. He sat there with a face like thunder, but he wasn’t yelling or smashing the crockery or anything. It was as though he half-expected his daughter to turn into a brass.
"Nothing, Ted. And I’d’ve hoped you’d have thought better of Doris. She’s a good girl. The boy is likes her and that’s all there is to it."
"So what is he then? How’d he get all this stuff? Did he thieve it? Is he some sort of spiv? A black market dealer?"
"No? Then what? For goodness’ sake, woman. What’s all the mystery?"
"His name is Werner Friedrich. He’s from Hamburg. A soldier. A corporal, just like Jimmy. His father’s a railwayman, just like you."
Ted said nothing for a long time, then shook his head and slammed his massive fist down on the table. "So this is what we’ve been reduced to! Just to get our hands on a few of life’s little necessities, my own daughter has taken to whoring with bloody German soldiers! Christ almighty!"
"Ted, please don’t use that sort of language! She likes the boy!"
"And what sort of language should I bloody well use? Tell me! Look at all this! All these things were stolen from us in the first place! If we were still a free country I’d be making a decent wage and all these things would be in the shops for us to buy with honestly-earned money. Instead we’re living on the edge of bloody starvation, with our son stuck in a prison camp and now I find my own daughter has turned into a dirty little whore!"
you know what they call girls who go with Huns? Do you? Well do you? Jerrybags.
That’s what our daughter has become, a filthy bloody Jerrybag!"
* * * * *
Terrible times, just terrible, ‘specially in the first few months after the Jerries had taken over. Kids today don’t seem to know the story too well, but us old ‘uns remember it like it was yesterday.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t. The capture of nearly the whole of the British army in France as they’re desperately trying to fight their way to the beaches to be taken off by the Navy. The fact we had little or no army left back at home, and nothing in the way of tanks and guns. The German aeroplanes bombing the airfields and knocking out most of our warships with their dive-bombers. The invasion. Old men and boys trying to fight off tanks with nothing more than Molotov cocktails or a carving-knife on a stick.
We never stood a bloody chance.
In ’40 I’d’ve been 28. I was in the army, but before the War I’d been working on the Ashton Court estate. Because of that I was invited to join what was called an Auxiliary Unit. There were loads of these all over the country. Men with detailed knowledge of the local countryside were supposed to settle into these secret hideouts and give the Jerries a hard time. So what actually happened was that I was sent back to Civvy Street to my old job, but that was just my cover story.
We trained in marksmanship, demolition, unarmed combat, first aid, living off the land, and the like. We were issued with all sorts of weapons, including the first ever Tommy guns and plastic explosives to reach England. And we had these secret hideouts where we hid our weapons and food and radio sets, first aid kits and so forth.
There was a group of five of us, and we had two hideouts. One was a big hole in the ground on the Estate, and the other was the cellar of a pub in the middle of Bristol.
Nowadays, people think that Mr Churchill set up the Auxiliary Units to be a kind of resistance movement for after the Jerries took over. But that wasn’t the idea at all. We fought the Jerries while the invasion was actually going on. Carried out acts of sabotage behind their lines, blew up railway lines, picked off stragglers. The way the generals figured it, the more German troops had to deal with our lot, the fewer soldiers they’d have to spare to fight the British regulars on the front line.
Interviewer: How did you rate your chances of survival?
Zero. Less than zero. Though we didn’t worry too much about it. I’m not pretending I was a hero. There were plenty of braver men than me. But we had a job to do and that was that. And of course all my other comrades did get killed. Three of them in an ambush on a group of German ammunition convoy that went wrong, and another one who was captured and shot right away.
By the end of October I was left on my own and by then I knew the Jerries had won. So I just covered over the hideouts where I had plenty of ammunition and explosives left, and melted back into my pre-war life. The boss and a few others raised their eyebrows, and I’m sure they wondered what I’d been up to, but no-one asked any questions.
Interviewer: Did you have a family?
Aye, well, I was married, but we didn’t have any kiddies, like. Not back then. In the Auxiliary Units we weren’t supposed to tell anyone what we were up to. For their own safety as much as ours. Violet knew I was involved in something but she never knew what. I’d already warned her that if the balloon went up I’d have to go and do my duty, and she wasn’t to expect to see me again. So when I reappeared she got the shock of her life. I’d been living off the land for two months and probably looked and smelt like a scarecrow. Well, she was happy to see me, of course, but she knew better than to ask any questions.
When the Jerries took over they rounded up loads of people and put ‘em into camps, or just shot ‘em. But quite a few people slipped through their net, either by going into hiding, or because they’d never been on the Jerries’ list. Also, they’d conquered so many countries so quickly, and Hitler was so desperate to get on with the business of invading Russia, that they didn’t make as good a job of it as they could have.
Anyway, early one Sunday evening – summer of ’41 it would have been - I’m sitting at home, minding my own business. I was reading a Charles Dickens novel. Great Expectations, I think, which I suppose you’d call ironical. I’d have liked to be listening to the wireless, but the Jerries had confiscated them all. They were worried that we might be listening to the Free British propaganda programmes from Newfoundland, even though you needed a shortwave set to pick them up.
Some people managed to hide their radios and would listen to them very quietly. That was a common thing during the Occupation. It was also common, I am sorry to say, for people to report their neighbours for having a radio. I had one. A military set. But that was down under the ground in my Ashton Court hidey-hole.
Anyway, there’s a knock at the door. I opens it and it’s Albert Dando. Him and me had been pals at school but I hadn’t seen him for a while. I knew he worked down the docks and had been a staunch trade union man. Him being a unionist and all, I assumed the Jerries had him, and I was quite surprised to see him now.
He was on the run, of course.
Anyway, he’s got another bloke with him. A lot older than him. I invites them in and apologise for not being able to offer them a cup of tea. We’d not seen any of the blessed stuff for weeks.
Forget it, says Bert. Listen, I’ll get straight to the point, says he. We know what you were up to during the fighting, and now we need your help. I don’t know what you’re talking about, says I. Well, for all I knew, this old bloke with him might have been Gestapo or something.
So Bert lowers his voice and says, look Bernie, you’ve got to trust me on this. For old time’s sake. We know what you did during the fighting, and now we need you again.
Then the old man cleared his throat and looked at me. He had these thick spectacles and the most intense stare you ever saw. Not unfriendly, more like a father or an uncle who you knew you couldn’t have any secrets from.
It was only then I realised who he was. I’d seen him years before when I was a nipper. My father and mother took me to hear him speak. He was a lay-preacher, you know. ‘Course I might have recognised him from the newsreels anyhow, but I’m none too sure. He was a lot thinner and, strange to say, younger looking. Maybe he dyed his hair as a sort of disguise, I don’t know.
Mr Iles, he said, people say you’re a good man to have on your side in a scrap. Well we’re going to have a hell of a scrap on our hands when the time is right. Your country’s people need you. Are you with us?
Well, I was flattered, I can tell you. All the more so when I thought about it afterward. He’d risked his neck coming out in broad daylight to come and see me. Well, I suppose back then with my hides full of guns and ammo and the military radio, I must have been a bit of a catch.
Anyway, he just had this, I don’t know, this aura to him, this air of authority, you know? I couldn’t have argued with him even if I’d wanted to. I said I was with them. He held his hand out and I shook it.
And that was how I met the Glimmer Man. Nobody ever called him by his real name during the Occupation. And that was how the Bristol Brigade of the resistance got started up.
* * * * *
Dr Angela Theobald, University of the West of England
The problem with researching anything about the resistance is that the documentary materials are very thin. Resistance members, for obvious reasons, didn’t do much in the way of paperwork. There are some records in the German archives. The British police papers and the records of the British Action fascist militia were all destroyed at the end of the Occupation. So you largely have to fall back on the memories of those involved, and a certain amount of guesswork and speculation.
What we can say reasonably safely is that there was almost nothing in the way of organised resistance for about a year after the German take-over. The Germans had managed to stage a successful invasion because they’d captured most of the British army intact on the beaches at Dunkirk, and had then systematically destroyed the RAF and the navy with their air force.
When they invaded the opposition they met was often unbelievably courageous, but it was an opposition starved of the right equipment. Once they had won, the Germans rounded up virtually every man they had found in a uniform and shipped them off to prison camps in France and Germany. They did the same thing to the French. By the end of 1940 they had probably a million and a half young British males in these camps. They were kept in captivity to stop them causing trouble at home, but really, they were hostages. Of course later in the War the Germans tried to persuade these captive soldiers to work in German factories or to fight on the Russian front.
Back in Britain, the absence of these able-bodied young men had another effect. It meant that any young man still on the streets of Britain was conspicuous. There were plenty of them, of course – those who’d been medically unfit for the forces, or those who had been working in vital industries. But there weren’t as many as you’d expect to see, and at every security checkpoint they were regarded with particular vigilance by the Germans.
As if all this had not been shock enough, the trauma of what the Germans did in the first few months of the Occupation was even worse. Within hours of the arrival of German troops in any major town, the SS’s so-called Action Groups would move in to round up politicians, trade union leaders, intellectuals and anyone judged a likely troublemaker. Some of them were simply shot on the spot. But most of these were herded into makeshift concentration camps where they were deliberately mistreated, and later released. Something like 200,000 Britons died at the hands of the firing squads or in the camps. This was alongside thousands more Europeans who had fled to Britain to get away from the Nazis.
And that, by the way, is before we even start talking about the Jews. The policy of sending Jews to extermination camps had not yet even started although their civil rights were withdrawn more or less from the moment the Germans took over. Jews had to wear the yellow star and known homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle.
The Germans also made it clear that armed resistance would carry a heavy price. For every German soldier who was killed, several British civilians would be shot in reprisal.
Now all these traumas are bad enough, but you have to add the less measurable ones in as well. Great Britain had been humiliated and its Prime Minister had died working a machine-gun in Whitehall. All of the country’s leading politicians had either fled, or been killed by the Germans, or, as in the case of Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, had shot themselves. In its place, the Germans installed a puppet government of political non-entities and deranged fascists.
In those circumstances, it was not in the slightest bit surprising that it took a long time to organise a resistance movement.
* * * * * *
SS Irish Elm, Bristol Docks, Friday January 12 1945
Captain Arthur O’Regan just had time to arrange the bottle of Power’s and two glasses on the table of his cabin before the expected knock.
He was mildly surprised that the man who entered was in uniform, a field-grey overcoat and peaked cap with a fair amount of gold lace scrambled egg on it. He had been half-expecting a plainclothes man from one of the half-dozen or so different police and intelligence outfits that the Germans had. The Fuehrer, the word went, liked to keep all these different organisations too busy intriguing against one another to plot against him.
"Good morning, Captain." A smile.
No Heil Hitler or master-race arrogance. O’Regan wasn’t sure if he liked that or not.
"Good morning, ah …"
"Mueller, Leutnant Heinrich Mueller at your service." He held out his hand. O’Regan shook it.
The man was Wehrmacht, and very old for a Lieutenant. In his early fifties. Handsome after a fashion, but not a big fellow. He walked with a limp.
"Your English is very good, Herr Leutnant. I was hoping to practice my German. Come, sit down. You’ll take a drink."
He tried to make it sound like an order.
"Well, just a little one to keep out the cold."
O’Regan’s cabin was large, and he’d done his best to make it as comfortable as possible. Outside, it was grey and cold and miserable. In here he had all the lights blazing and a decent amount of heat being piped up from below. He had prints and photographs of other ships on the walls, and, though he was not a particularly religious man, a picture of Mary as Stella Maris, the star of the sea, the sailors’ friend. All sailors needed a friend even if they were just on a glorified tramp steamer.
Mueller sat on the bench seat at the table, which was big enough for most sea charts, although O’Regan had long since stopped needing charts for his regular run from Waterford to Bristol.
He sat on a dining-chair opposite Mueller, pulled the cork from the bottle and poured them both two fingers’ worth.
I’ll let you propose the toast, thought O’Regan.
Mueller raised his glass to the dull grey light coming from the porthole. "Irish Whiskey! I do like it. I was in Dublin many years ago when I was a student. What is the expression now?"
"The hard stuff?"
"The hard stuff! That’s it! Well, here’s to your health, Captain!"
"And to yours, Herr Leutnant."
The gap between them was too wide to touch glasses. They drank.
"So," said O’Regan pouring the German another generous glass. "Where did you learn such good English? Have you been in the country for long?"
Mueller laughed ruefully. "No. I spent some time here when I was much younger. But I actually perfected my English in a prison camp here during the last war. Until six months ago I was an English teacher in a school in Leipzig. Then …" He shrugged.
Then he got called up. Meaning that even though the Germans prize education above all things, even though he’s in his fifties and walking around with a bit of Great War vintage British shrapnel in his leg (or something), despite all that he’s been called up for military service.
"I normally deal with Captain Harmann," said O’Regan. "I take it his regiment has been moved on?"
Mueller nodded. "All our most able manpower is needed for the coming year’s campaign in Russia. We old men and invalids have been assigned the garrison duties. I never imagined I would be putting on a uniform again. Still, it is an interesting adventure, even though I miss my family."
He said it all with a straight face. The man was worried.
He produced a clipboard from inside his overcoat. The formalities were about to begin.
"You have come from Waterford in the Irish Free State … "
"… That’s not an expression we use much over there, Herr Leutnant."
"My apologies, you have come from Eire."
He pronounced the word as "error".
"I have notes here from Leutnant Harmann. You come over here regularly with general cargo. Agricultural produce, flour, and return with …"
"With anything useful Herr Leutnant. Although there’s not much to be had in this country anymore. I would sell my mother for a hundredweight of coal, a pound of tea, a couple of bicycle tyres or a wireless."
Mueller laughed, and looked at his clip-board again. "Your cargo this time, Captain. It is most unusual."
"The first shipment of the stuff we’ve ever tried. We won’t make much money out of it, but it’s better than staying idle."
"I am curious, Captain. What does one do with this commodity?"
"One burns it, Herr Leutnant. Or tries to. Awful stuff, it is. I don’t mind telling you that when Germany conquered Britain three years ago, I drank to your brave army and air force for giving the Brits a well-deserved come-uppance. But I do so miss their coal, and a decent fire. In Ireland we’re not allowed to burn coal in the grate. It’s all reserved for the gas and rail companies, and shipping of course. There’s times I go down below and stand in the engine room just to remember what the heat of coal feels like."
Mueller smiled. "Well then, perhaps we can, ah, come to an arrangement. Back at my quarters we have plenty of coal. Naturally the needs of the garrison forces take priority over the locals." He eyed the whiskey bottle.
"I’ve got two dozen bottles that size. What could you do me for that?"
"Oh, let us say ten tonnes. Metric. Is that agreeable?"
O’Regan’s eyes bulged. "You have that much coal to trade?"
Mueller smiled. "We take most of the production of Britain’s mines. Some of it is for our war industries, but we like to keep our men comfortable."
"Mister, you have a deal." O’Regan stood up and reached across the table to stretch out his hand. Mueller shook it.
O’Regan poured them both another glass. This was working out grand. He’s have traded the whiskey for say two tons, but ten metric tons represented unimaginable wealth, even if it was second-rate stuff, which it probably was.
"Well then, that explains why there’s a gentleman here in Bristol wants to buy Irish turf. He told us the folks here couldn’t get enough coal anymore and were getting desperate."
"So this material will burn? It is just soil, is it not?"
"It’ll burn if you stick enough kindling into it, and if it’s dry enough. It’s hard to get comfortable with a turf fire though. As soon as you’re relaxed, it’s time to go and fetch another load to fling onto it."
"I see. But tell me Captain, do they not have turf here in Britain that they could dig and burn. It strikes me as very curious that they have to buy Irish turf."
"I imagine there are lots of places in Britain where they could dig up turf – peat, they call it here – suitable for burning. But it’s hard to transport. Over in Ireland the government encourages everyone to dig it up for fuel. There’s a few hundred tons lying on the Quay at Waterford so the company bought some and brought it over. There is a place near Bristol which used to be famous for its peat. Down in Somerset. The flat bit. What do they call it?"
"Ach, ja, the Somerset Levels. I see." He smiled, slightly embarrassed. No-one could dig up peat from the Somerset Levels because they were now constantly under water. The defenders had blown up canal banks and locks and pumping stations back in 1940 in a last desperate effort to stop the advancing German tanks.
"Well now," said O’Regan as Mueller knocked back the last of his drink, "will you be after taking a look around?"
"No, Captain, I do not think that will be necessary. You may have seen the English ship which arrived in front of you this morning. All my men will be busy searching that one. And there is a U-Boat also on a courtesy visit. We shall have to arrange a guard of honour."
"Oh well. I don’t think your fellas would enjoy rooting around in all that turf anyway."
Mueller smiled. "I am sure you are right." He stood up, scribbling something on his clip-board, tore a piece of paper off and handed it to O’Regan. "Here is your permit to unload. See the Harbourmaster when you wish to leave. I shall have some men bring the coal tomorrow. They can collect the whiskey then."
"Thanks." He held out his hand. Mueller stretched across the table, shook it, and left, looking a little less steady on his legs than before.
O’Regan tidied up the glass and bottle and picked up his unloading permit. All that turf had taken a lot of back-breaking work to load, and would take the same to unload, with the difference that dockers in Bristol were nowhere near as well-fed and healthy as the men back in Waterford. The Germans, like with Mueller and his coal, helped themselves to the best of everything, and that included food.
O’Regan supposed he felt sorry for the English. The Germans were doing to them what they’d done to Ireland. That was why he was helping them.
The door opened without a knock. "Well that was a fine specimen of the Master Race, I must say."
A slight figure in courduroy trousers, woollen hat and battered duffle-coat blazed in, uninvited, like a small tornado. "We’d heard that the garrison here had been replaced by a hernia-battalion. Just 1000 old and sickly Huns between London and Penzance! Lord what I wouldn’t give for just a dozen commandos!"
"Miss Gresham. What a lovely surprise. Do come in," drawled O’Regan irritably. "I won’t offer you a drink."
"Because I don’t like you."
"Nonsense man!" she barked. "You need some fresh air in here!" she said, and started trying to open the porthole next to the cabin door.
In her all-enveloping sailors’ gear, Miss Gresham (and that was certainly not her real name) could pass for a man at a distance.
"Miss Gresham, Behind that curtain over there is my bunk. Under the pillow I keep a revolver. If you persist in trying to open that thing I shall fetch it and shoot you."
"How very un-gallant of you!" she turned and smiled sweetly and sat herself down noisily at his table and started to fidget with the glass ashtray in the middle of it.
She had a skittish, boyish charm to her, of that there was no doubt. She was very intelligent as well. Not like most of the in-bred aristocrats he’d known in Ireland. All the way over she’d followed him around, whether he was on the bridge or eating in his cabin, talking about history and literature and heaven knows what else. But she was still a British aristocrat, just like the kind he’d fought a war 20 years ago to get rid of.
"Miss Gresham. We’ve arrived. We’re in Bristol. The garrison might, as you say, be a crowd of old men, but they’re more than a match for you. Quite apart from the Germans there are also several hundred English Nazi militia here as well. Their official title is British Action. Though I’ve heard fellas in pubs here call them by a lot of other names under their breath. From what I hear, they make the Black and Tans look like the Little Sisters of Charity.
"And in case you weren’t informed, the Gestapo are here too. They have a little office just up the way in Nelson Street. Now you’re young, and proper little Lady Muck that you are, I don’t doubt you think this is all a jolly game. But I’ve been visiting this place once a week for five years, and those jokers are more than a match for you and your merry little band of cut-throats. So from now on I’d appreciate it if you started acting like there are thousands of men out there who would dearly like to torture you and then shoot you."
They had come up the Avon and through the Cumberland Basin locks at dawn, following the visiting U-Boat. Miss Gresham had stood next to him on the bridge all the way, gazing lustfully at it though his binoculars and muttering something about how she’d give up everything for "a six-inch gun with just one shell up the spout."
"Sorry skipper," she grinned. "Mum’s the word from now on. My boys and I will keep our heads low until nightfall, then we’ll be off."
"You’ll need all the right permits and papers to leave the docks."
"All taken care of," she said breezily.
"And the cargo? That’ll take a few days to shift."
"That’s taken care of, too. Our buyer has a lot of friends among the dockers and draymen in this town. They’ll work through the night."
* * * * *
Lady Elizabeth Walton, alias ‘Miss Gresham’
Well now, even in ’45 our operations could be horribly amateurish. On the one hand, we had Captain O’Regan to help us. He was a man with a colourful past, and some of it included trying to kill British soldiers. But if you need a gun-runner, you go to the experts, and O’Regan was an expert.
But you see none of us realised how idiotic we were being by trying to smuggle in the arms in a cargo of Irish turf. It was luck, pure dumb luck, that the officer in charge of security at the harbour was new to Bristol.
Bristol is built on an awful lot of coal. There’s even a place nearby called Coalpit Heath, which sort of gives the game away. Now while the actual coal-mines throughout Britain were being worked by middle-aged and elderly men who were forced, often at gunpoint, to hack it out mostly for the benefit of the Germans, people in Bristol were digging it up out of the ground, literally out of their back gardens in some cases, in order to keep warm. You’d see them at weekends or carting the stuff around. Sometimes even in prams.
I am not suggesting for one moment that every home in Bristol had a blazing fire in the hearth burning constantly during the Occupation, but I am saying that no-one there froze to death. Some starved to death, and many died of malnutrition, but that’s another matter.
Anyway, thank goodness, we got away with it. Down in the ship’s hold, hidden in the turf, we had a load of rifles, tommy guns, a few Bren guns, as well as hand grenades, pistols, explosives and ammunition.
When the Glimmer Man found out, he nearly had a fit. If the German officer in charge of security at the docks had been in Bristol for more than a week, we would have known that there’d be precious little demand for Irish turf in Bristol, except perhaps as garden compost.
Interviewer: How did you become involved in the resistance?
It was dashed hard work. I was just a weak and feeble woman, wasn’t I? In 1940, my brother Gerald, who was a Conservative MP and Churchill supporter, wangled me a place on HMS Exeter and ordered me to leave the country along with Mummy and Daddy. Exeter was a fast cruiser and we left from Scapa Flow. It was only years afterwards that I found out that the King and Queen and the two princesses were on it as well.
And that’s how I ended up in Canada. I got a job as a secretary in the political intelligence department of the government-in-exile, but eventually I heard that the Huns had shot Gerald.
That made my blood boil. I was jolly well determined to do something, and there was a lot that I could do. I’d grown up in the country and was jolly sporty. I suppose I was a bit of a tomboy. Daddy taught me to shoot. And I was a very good shot. Still am.
Eventually I got a meeting with Mountbatten, who was the government-in-exile’s head of special operations. I told him that there was nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, that I was not prepared to do to get a crack at the Hun. I’d have willingly slept with Hitler himself if it gave me half the chance to cut his throat. Mountbatten was frightfully polite but not terribly encouraging.
You have to add to this the fact that the government-in-exile was a wretched shambles anyway. The most awful mess. An awful lot of what you might call establishment figures were in it, and they were all Conservatives. But the Tories had no political credit left at all. On the one hand, Chamberlain had appeased Hitler, and then another Tory, Churchill, had lost the war. So you see really, the whole thing was a joke. A ridiculous, squabbling little Ruritanian court in Toronto – not Ottawa; it was far too much of an embarrassment to the Canadians.
Everything changed when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in ’41 and the Americans came into the war. Hitler declared war on the United States and suddenly we became part of the war effort. President Roosevelt sent some high-powered people up to knock heads together and so we got a coalition government run by slightly younger, more able people like Attlee, Butler and Morrison.
Now we were part of the American war effort. Money, weapons, explosives, everything we wanted, poured in. I had a phone call from Special Operations and was given a rail pass and found myself in a camp in deepest Wyoming where we spent months learning about the cloak-and-dagger trade.
The brass had realised that my being female had its advantages. For one thing, I would be able to get around a lot easier. The Gestapo and German forces and their British stooges assumed that resistance was the work of men and I could be a lot less conspicuous.
At the end of ’44 a submarine put us ashore on the south coast of Ireland. I was in charge of four men, and our job was to help organise, train and arm the resistance. The other chaps were to go elsewhere in the country, but I was to work in the Bristol area. There was already a resistance cell there, but they had rather limited resources. My job was to turn them into an army that could meet the Germans on something approaching equal terms. The shipment of guns was organised separately. All I had to do was meet Captain O’Regan. I don’t doubt that he was working with the sanction of the Irish government.
Makes me shiver now to think of all the responsibility I had – I was 24 years old at the time – but at the time I was absolutely thrilled to bits. At last I was going to get a crack at the swine who had occupied my country and shot my brother, and a lot of my friends. And I didn’t care tuppence if I got killed or tortured or maimed in the process.
Gosh! That sounds frightfully brave of me, doesn’t it? I wasn’t brave. I was young, reckless and very, very angry.
* * * * *
Avonleigh Road, Bedminster, Sunday January 14 1945
"Another cup of tea, Werner?"
"’Course he’ll have another cup, Ruby," said Ted. "Unless, that is, you’d prefer something a little stronger, Werner? I’ve got a flagon of cider out the back if you’d like a glass. Have you tried our local cider yet?"
The young German’s eyes widened in alarm. "No, thank you Mr Cottle. I must not drink alcohol."
"It’s bad for his stomach, Dad," said Doris. "He mustn’t touch strong drink."
"More tea would be very nice, please Mrs Cottle," said Werner.
"Oh well," said Ted, disappointed. "More tea, then."
Ruby smiled at Werner and poured him another cup. It was all going very nicely, even though she couldn’t understand her husband’s change of heart about Doris’s young man. He’d screamed blue murder the other day when he found out his daughter was walking out with a German soldier. When she came home, he threatened to throw her out of the house if she didn’t stop seeing him. He’d gone off that evening on his bicycle to his darts match, and by the next morning he was all sweetness again. He’d even suggested that they ask him over for tea at the weekend.
No, she didn’t understand it at all.
"Bad for your stomach, you say? How’s that then?" Ted asked.
"Oh, it is nothing serious," said Werner. "I was wounded in the stomach in Russia two years ago. The operation to remove the – what do you say? Pieces of shell?"
"Shrapnel?" prompted Ted.
"Shrapnel, ja. The operation was a serious one. When I came out of the hospital I was told that I would no longer be in a front-line regiment."
"So does that mean that most of your comrades stationed here in Bristol have been wounded?"
"Yes. Many of us. We are garrison soldiers, you see. If I had made full recovery I would be fighting in Russia again."
The German soldiers were always so polite and well-mannered, you often had to pinch yourself to remember the awful things they’d done. Ruby worried that Doris was too young to realise. Doris hadn’t seen those English Nazi thugs burning down the Synagogue on Park Row, or seen men covered in blood and bruises being dragged through the streets by the German troops. She’d not seen the Lord Mayor of Bristol and a dozen aldermen being shot by the soldiers on College Green in revenge for someone trying to dynamite the Gestapo headquarters.
Or the business of the poor Jews. Ted had told her that last year his manager at the station had been told about the special trains that were coming in to take them away. The man had gone home, pretending to be sick and had sat up all night with the telephone directory calling everyone with a Jewish-looking name and warning them to go into hiding. A few had managed to get away.
"Well I’m glad you’re not in Russia, Werner," said Doris, who was obviously very sweet on him.
Ruby didn’t know what was right and wrong anymore.
There was this nice, kind, nervous young man sitting at the table with them. And then there were the things that other young men in the same uniform as him had done. She was sure that Ted had seen some even worse things. Ted had been a union man before the war. If they’d known about it, or if any of his mates had split on him, he could have ended up in the labour camp near Bath, or something worse.
"So where are you stationed, Werner?" said Ted. "At Whiteladies Road?"
"Yes, at the Kaserne there. It used to be a British army barracks, I think?"
"Something like that, son," said Ted. "Are there many of you there?"
"About two hundred. There are not many German troops in Bristol these days. The Wehrmacht is too busy in Russia. Besides, England is fighting against the Russians beside us now."
"Are we fighting the Russians, Ted?" Ruby asked. She always relied on him for political information.
He was up to something. She’d been married to Ted for 28 years and knew him better than she knew herself. Ted hated the Germans, and could see that having one of them under his own roof, sitting eating and drinking at his own table (even if the boy had provided the precious quarter-pound of tea) was a terrible strain on him.
And she knew he’d hate the whole idea of Britain being at war with the Russians. Ted was always going on about how the Russians were standing up to Hitler and how much he admired them. "Technically, yes, love. The first act of the new provisional government that the Germans so helpfully installed for us in 1941 was to follow the German declaration of war against the Soviet Union."
"There are British troops fighting the Reds alongside us in Russia now," said Werner. "You must have seen the Legion of Saint George in the cinema news."
"Werner, I can’t go to the ruddy pictures these days without seeing the Blessed Legion of St George," said Ted, slapping Werner on the back heartily. "The Legion marches through Whitehall, the Legion goes recruiting among prisoners-of-war, the Legion gets its flag blessed by the Bishop of Ely because the Archbishop of Canterbury is too busy to do it. I tell you, son, you see so much of the Legion at the pictures that anyone would think they were desperate for recruits."
Ruby could see the look of alarm on Doris’s face. She knew as well as anyone when her father was being sarcastic. Fortunately, Werner didn’t seem to have noticed.
"So then Werner," said Ted. "Tell me what it is that you and your comrades do with yourselves all day? What’s your daily routine?"
* * * * *
Westbury-on-Trym Parish Hall, Saturday April 28 1945
They weren’t all amateurs. There was a very fine baritone coming from somewhere in the middle of the group, but most of them had no interest in singing at all. But for all that, to the accompaniment of old Mrs Perkins on an upright piano, they belted it out with gusto …
For in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!
He remains an Englishman!
She joined in.
"Very good, everyone," she said, striding onto the stage. "Guy, would you do your bit now please?"
Young Guy Jackson strode over to the doors and closed and bolted them. Then he closed the old blackout curtains on the doors. The windows were too high up to offer any snoopers anything interesting.
The blackboard beside the stage said,
HENLEAZE AND WESTBURY LIGHT OPERATIC SOCIETY
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
AUDITIONS 3pm TODAY
The board had never been displayed outside the hall. It was here as the merest figleaf, their last bit of cover if any Germans, or more likely British Action came calling. Not that that seemed very likely. These days, with the papers and the picture houses all full of German lies, puppet government lies and officially sanctioned entertainment, every parish hall and public house upstairs room was booked solid with people rehearsing and putting on plays and shows to amuse themselves and their families and friends.
The singers had all grabbed wooden chairs from stacks at the back of the hall and gathered in a semicircle around the front of the stage. They waited quietly and attentively. Not a single cough or chair scraping on the floor.
Young Jackson peeped through the blackout curtain and made a thumbs-up signal to his mate who was keeping watch at the main door. He turned to her and nodded.
The boy had slicked his hair back with some sort of oil or grease. Amid the riot of pimples on his face he was trying to grow a moustache. He was evidently trying to ape the Zazoos, those youngsters who dressed as flamboyantly as possible and listened to jazz, a form of music that British and German Nazis alike considered ‘degenerate’. The fashion had come from Paris, and was definitely not officially approved.
She would have to have a word with him. She was all for petty acts of sartorial and musical rebellion, but not among members of the Resistance. They would only draw unnecessary attention to themselves.
"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen," she said, leaning on the little table which had been set out for her at the front of the stage. There were about three dozen people in the room, the heads of the main cells in the North-West Bristol sector. This was about the biggest meeting they would ever risk. If they got captured and tortured they could eventually give away the names of 300 or more fighters in the city. That was why they were organised on a cell structure where they only resistance members they knew were the other cell members. If they got caught then the worst that could happen was that they would give away only a few others.
If they did get caught, the idea was that they were to try and hold out against torture for 48 hours to give the others enough time to make a getaway.
If any of them knew one another, they didn’t let on. After this, they wouldn’t be meeting again until H-Hour.
Good cross-section, too, she noted. Middle-aged men in both suits and working clothes, a few younger chaps. University students, perhaps. And quite a few women, from the prim and matronly (but unbelievably bloodthirsty) Mrs Perkins to a couple of very delicate-looking young ladies. Well a nice gel from the suburbs can shoot just as well as any man.
"My name is Miss Gresham. And I must say how gratified I am to see such a splendid turn-out today. I feel sure that if we all learn our lines properly and rehearse our parts to perfection, we will be staging quite the most memorable production that the district has seen for many a year."
It was a corny line, but they smiled anyway.
"I’ll get straight down to business as we have a lot to do and we don’t have much time. In a moment, I hope we’ll be having a brief visit from someone far more important than me, but first I want you to meet a very special friend of mine. Excuse me one moment."
She dipped behind the closed curtains and picked up the long, thin canvas bag that she had laid on the floor. She brought it out and placed it on the table with a flourish.
No-one in her audience said anything, but she could feel the frisson of excitement. They knew that was coming.
"No, I’m not going fishing, though I don’t mind telling you I’d sell my grandmother for a nice piece of salmon. In here …" She started to undo the buckles on the bag, "I don’t have any rods." The walnut wood inside caught a slight glint from the harsh sunlight coming through one of the upper windows.
"This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of a very large order that our friends at the Savage company of Utica, New York, have manufactured under licence for us."
She pulled out the rifle and held it aloft.
No clapping or cheering. They were far too discreet for that. But they grinned and nodded at her and to one another. Now we’re in business.
"The point-three-oh-three inch Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, ladies and gentlemen. A few of you here will already be familiar with her. Anyone who fought in the Great War will know her well. We could have brought over a load of American guns, but we reckoned that if we have little or no time to train our volunteers we’d be better off using a weapon that at least some of you know about. Furthermore, our very good chums in British Action have been armed by the Jerries with old British Lee-Enfields. They will be providing us with further armaments and ammunition, either voluntarily or, for preference, over their dead bodies."
Nods and murmurs of agreement.
"In the next few days, we will see to it that each of your cells are issued with enough rifles and ammunition for every able-bodied volunteer. This afternoon, I am going to give you all a crash course in shooting a rifle and, just as importantly, keeping it clean and in good working order. Each cell will also be issued with two tommy guns and some hand-grenades and some of you will be chosen for training in … "
From his vantage point at the door, Guy gestured that someone was coming. She pushed the gun back into his canvas case.
Guy held his thumb up and grinned. From beyond the door came the sound of tinkling bicycle bells and a gruff voice began to bellow out in only an approximation of a tune …
"There’s nothing so lonesome nor morbid nor queer, as to stand in the bar of the pub with no beer …"
Guy opened the door and half stood to attention as the man strode in.
When you met him in person, as she had done a couple of times now, he always looked smaller than you expected. He was heavily-built, but years of wartime rationing had seen to it that he was no longer fat. Poor diet had done his looks no good at all. His neck looked horribly scrawny and his already lived-in face was even more wrinkled.
Two heavy-set men followed behind him. The Glimmer Man was not permitted to go anywhere without his bodyguards.
He strode straight onto the stage and stood beside her. She stood back to let him speak.
"A very good afternoon to you ladies and gentlemen," he said. His voice was gruff, but there was something pleasing about the soft vowels of his Somerset accent.
His audience sat bolt upright and wide-eyed. For most of them, this was the first time they had ever set eyes on him in the flesh. They’d read his words, heard about his exploits, had even seen a much fatter, younger-looking man on the newsreels years ago, but now here he was among them.
"Much as I love the sound of my own voice," he said, "I’m not allowed to linger here too long, so I’ll just tell you a few things. First, our day of liberation will soon be at hand. The Americans have given the Japanese the hiding of their lives and have turned their attention to Europe. The American navy, with the help of the few Royal Navy ships and men that got away in ’40 have secured control of the Atlantic ocean and will soon be sending a mighty army. The Americans and our fellow-countrymen will soon be landing somewhere in England to kick the Jerries and their stooges out for ever."
No smiles from the audience, but heads nodded in grim satisfaction.
"As you can imagine, they are taking a massive risk in attempting to land an army in an enemy-occupied country. They would not be undertaking this if it were not for the heroic efforts of the people of the Soviet Union, which has been bleeding the Nazi war effort white these last few years. As well we all know, there are fewer Germans occupying our country these days, but please do not imagine that they will necessarily be a push-over. Some of them might have gammy legs and what-not, but they are still professional soldiers, while precious few of us are. And Hitler might still summon up reserves from somewhere to strengthen his garrison here.
"In fact, the Germans might turn out to be the least of our problems. Ever since they arrived here they’ve been working hard to infect the minds of gullible young Englishmen with their Nazi poison. The British Action militia are armed, and not all of them are stupid. They know that once the Germans have been kicked out there are a lot of people who’ll want their blood. Their backs will be against the wall and they’ll fight like cornered rats."
For a man who had been a trade union leader and a Baptist lay-preacher, he was a surprisingly poor public speaker. He was sometimes hesitant, often he fumbled to find the right word. But he had a huge charismatic presence that had everyone paying closer attention than a class of 12-year-olds being awarded a half-holiday.
"Our job is simple. We’re the vanguard. As soon as we get the word, we rise up, we take control of strategic points and we and make life as hard as possible for every kind of Nazi, British or German. And believe me when I tell you that for very good reasons of strategy what happens in the west of England is very important. More important than London, even. The harder we make things for the Nazis here, the easier it’ll be for the British and American armed forces. We will harass the enemy, disarm him where we can, we will collect intelligence and we will cut telegraph and telephone wires, blow up railway lines and bridges to prevent enemy reinforcements arriving. When the time comes, all of you will receive your orders.
"But there’s something else. The most important thing we’ll all be doing is fighting to restore our pride. If we do nothing, then in years to come, people will say that Britain was set free by American soldiers, American ships and American aeroplanes, with the help of a handful of men who accompanied them from Canada.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we must not allow that to happen. The British people deserve better than that. It is our job to make sure that our children and grandchildren say that we set ourselves free. When the Yanks and Free British march into Bristol, I want us all standing out there in our Sunday best as the welcoming committee. Thank you."
He nodded to them and breezed out of the room.
When he had gone, everyone stood up and applauded politely. They would have cheered fit to bring the roof down, but that would have been indiscreet.
* * * * *
Lady Elizabeth Walton, alias ‘Miss Gresham’
Interviewer: Tell me about this nickname of his. The Glimmer Man.
You see, everyone was reluctant to use his real name out loud. If the Gestapo knew for certain that he was in England, they’d have spared to effort to hunt him down. They’d have put a price on his head and I don’t doubt that sooner or later some nasty little collaborator would have betrayed him for the reward money. As it was, they were never a hundred percent sure whether he was in Britain or Canada. In fact, he had escaped from England at the same time as me with his family. But once his wife and daughter were safely ensconced in a modest town house in Toronto, he came back. He said he had to be among his people, which makes him sound like some sort of Old Testament prophet, but that really was the way he saw it.
So he returned in the summer of ’41. Via Ireland I assume. And he came to Bristol, where he’d lived for several years beforehand. Politically, he played a vital role, because he arrived just before the Germans invaded Russia. If he had not been around, the leadership of the Resistance would have been taken over the Communists, and their primary loyalty was not to Britain but to the Soviet Union. A lot of Communists would have followed Stalin’s order to rise up against the Germans, and of course they’d have all been killed in the process, along with thousands of innocent British civilians who’d have been shot in reprisals and it wouldn’t have achieved a single thing.
So he arrived just in time to stamp his authority on the Resistance and take control. He made it absolutely clear that there would be no armed uprising until such they stood a chance of actually winning. In the meantime, the business of the Resistance was to shelter important people and get them out of the country, to prepare for the eventual uprising, provide intelligence to the government-in-exile and the Americans, and wage a propaganda war.
In the Resistance he was always known as the Glimmer Man. Oddly enough, that’s about coal as well. Legal coal supplies were very low you see, and it was hard for the gas companies to make enough of the stuff. So they only supplied gas at normal pressure for a few hours each day. The rest of the time, it was kept at very low pressure. Now, they couldn’t turn off the gas supplies altogether for some technical reason beyond my understanding, so if you turned on your stove during an off time you could always get a very small flame which could boil a kettle in an hour or two, but this was dangerous and it was illegal. So the gas companies had men going around various neighbourhoods to make sure that people weren’t using gas at off-times. They could demand admission to your house, or would peep through your windows. They were looking out for the glimmer of a flame on a cooker.
So they were known as Glimmer Men. Mr Bevin was known as the Glimmer Man because early on, when he was organising the Resistance in Bristol he disguised himself as just that. It gave him an excuse to ride his bicycle all around town without attracting attention from the authorities.
It think it was also because he offered the British people a glimmer of hope that they might one day be rid of the Germans. That was the Glimmer Man.
* * * * *
This is the Free British Broadcasting Corporation. Here is the news for Wednesday the sixteenth of May 1945 and this is Alvar Liddell reading it.
This news bulletin is being broadcast to you from on board the Free British warship HMS Hood from a location close to British territorial waters.
In the early hours of this morning, Free British, American and Canadian forces landed in the South West of England. Fighting was reported to be heavy in many areas but all of the first day’s objectives have been achieved and the enemy is said to be in retreat.
Speaking from the cabinet offices in Ottawa, the Prime Minister of the Government-in-Exile, the Right Honourable Mr Herbert Morrison called on the British people to be resolute and that they will soon be delivered from the evils of Nazism.
The British Resistance is in the forefront of the fighting. In a statement from his headquarters in the south west of England, the leader of the Resistance Mr Ernest Bevin has called on all non-combatants to stay at home and keep the roads clear for the liberation forces.
* * * * * *
As soon as we got wind that the invasion was imminent, we all knew what we had to do. Miss Gresham and Mr Bevin - the Glimmer Man - had made the plans. Miss Gresham was in charge of the Bristol area, while Mr Bevin had to pay attention to what the Resistance was doing elsewhere in the country.
In the early hours of the morning, everyone reported to their assembly points and went off to their objectives. Everyone was wearing white brassards, or just a hankie tied round their arm, so’s we could tell friend from foe.
We cut the phone wires around the enemy barracks, then moved to take control of the council headquarters, the local papers, the police station, the Harbour, the Gestapo HQ, the railway station, the telephone exchange and so on. Oh, and the airfields at Whitchurch and Broadfield Down, which is what they used to call Lulsgate airport. Most important of all, we had to take Avonmouth docks. It was essential that the Allies got hold of a port quickly in order to ferry in men and vehicles and food and ammunition and so forth.
I led the Avonmouth operation. We started out there at one in the morning on our bicycles. There were quite a few Germans there manning checkpoints and machine-gun posts and an anti-aircraft battery, but they weren’t expecting us.
They didn’t know what hit them. We just got stuck into ‘em. A lot of the older chaps had been in the Great War, so they knew what they were doing, even if they were doing it a lot slower than before. Most of those Jerries didn’t have any fight left in them anyway. By half past three they’d all surrendered. We lost a few men wounded, but no-one killed. It’d gone a lot better than I dared hope.
I telephoned Miss Gresham with the news, and she must have radioed back to the invasion fleet because three hours later we heard the noise of all these motor-boats. At first we thought they must be Germans, but they weren’t. The next thing I know is that there are these big hard-looking men in green uniforms and American-style tin helmets swarming all over the place.
British and Canadian commandoes, they were. Very businesslike. They rushed around setting up machine-guns and mortars and so forth.
Oh yeah, and newsreel cameras, too. Can you believe that? In the very first wave of soldiers there’s men with cameras. So naturally we had to have our pictures taken with them. Shaking hands, slapping each other on the back, having a smoke, having a tot of rum, running up the Union Jack and such.
Marvellous day. Wonderful.
By lunchtime there were ships unloading jeeps and artillery and men. Most of them Americans. The British who’d come in first were only a tiny part of the force. But it was important symbolically that the first men to land on British soil should be British, see?
I rang up Miss Gresham again and she said it was going well, but there was still a lot of fighting going on in some places. Most of the Jerries had been captured or killed, but some were still holding out around Nelson Street and the narrow alleyways near it. That was when the Dutch House – a beautiful old medieval building in the old part of town - got burned down.
She said the fighting was more serious at Temple Meads and told me to go there and take charge of the situation.
So we borrowed ourselves a couple of German trucks from the dockside, and one of them little German jeep things and headed into town.
We went the long way through Shirehampton and Stoke Bishop and such. I figured it’d be dangerous to go along by the river as there were a lot of places overlooking the road where we could be ambushed.
So off we went, Union Jacks flying in the breeze, and into Bristol.
We didn’t know what to expect. People would be either taking shelter under their stairs from the fighting, or they’d be dancing in the streets.
What we actually found was that it was Sunday morning quiet, but no more than that. Driving through Stoke Bishop, especially, you saw a lot of people packing things into cars, or bicycles. People walking off smartly with suitcases and such.
Well, of course these were people who would never been able to afford a big house in Stoke Bishop until the Jerries came. Collaborators. Crooked businessmen, spivs, fascists and such. They were getting out.
Shame we didn’t have time to sort them out.
Things were a bit of a mess at Temple Meads.
* * * * *
Yes, I was in British Action. Thought about volunteering for the Legion of St George, too. I would have gone and all, but our Mum wasn’t too well and needed looking after.
I was a fascist and I was proud of it. Still am. Nothing to be ashamed of. I’d been in the British Union in the 1930s when I was just a kid. We’d fight the reds on the streets of Bristol from time to time.
When the War with Germany came we were all very upset. We were convinced we were fighting the wrong country. Britain and Germany should have fought against Russia side by side. I mean, look at what Hitler had done for Germany. Gave the country its pride back, gave millions of starving people food and work.
It didn’t please me one little bit that our country was defeated by the Germans but my comrades and I felt that we deserved that defeat and we were very thankful that it had involved so little bloodshed of decent British patriots.
So the Germans came in and they cleansed the country of the trade unions and the communists. Britain was a better place for them. I’m only sorry it had to be the Germans that did it.
Interviewer: But living conditions for most people were appalling under the Occupation. Shortages of everything, people being sent to forced labour camps, the shootings of hostages.
All of it was necessary. Hitler’s vision was of a Europe united against communism. We all had to make sacrifices for the greater good. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and you can’t create a new world order without breaking a few heads. As for the shortages, well, while troops were giving up their lives for the fight against the Bolsheviks in Russia, the least that people could do here was go without food sometimes.
Interviewer: But isn’t it the case that members of British Action were given extra rations.
No more so than any other soldier. It was our job to keep England free of communists and defeatists while others fought at the front. We had to be fit to do that job.
Interviewer: And what about the looting? What about the stories of how British Action would make up charges against innocent people in order to confiscate their property.
Communist propaganda. Never happened.
Interviewer: Before the Occupation you’d worked in a laundry. After the liberation you were imprisoned for 20 years for murder, kidnapping and extortion and …
Trumped-up charges and lies. I never saw my poor mother again. She died when I was inside.
Interviewer: And yet when you were released after eight years as part of an amnesty, you moved to this very pleasant villa in Spain. How were you able to afford it?
Came into some money, didn’t I? What are you insinuating?
Interviewer: That you stole or extorted money from a number of people in the Bristol area between 1941 and 1945.
If you broadcast that you’ll hear from my solicitor.
Interviewer: And the Jews?
What about them?
Interviewer: Did you know about the death camps?
No such thing.
Interviewer: But you took part in the forced deportations of Jews from the Bristol area.
They were sent to labour camps to work for Britain and the German Reich. Nothing more. All that stuff about gas chambers is just lies. It never happened. The Fuehrer would not have allowed it, and nor would British Action.
I’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. I am proud of my Anglo-Saxon blood and I am British patriot who did not, and does not, want to live in a country that’s been ruined Commies and Yids and darkies. Now p*** off before I set the dogs on you!
* * * * *
You could tell our people were a bit jumpy at Temple Meads because when we showed up in our German wagons they started shooting at us, even though we were flying our home-made Union Jacks. Fortunately no-one was hurt.
When I got in, I could see it was a tricky situation. There were a few Jerries in there, but mostly it was British Action types. As soon as they’d heard about the invasion, their boss, an evil son of a whatsit named Sid Prout decided they were goners if they stayed in Bristol. He took it into his head that the quickest way to safety was to commandeer a train to London. He knew that if most of the ordinary folk of Bristol got their hands on him and his mates, they’d be torn to pieces.
So he marched about 100 of them down to the station before our people could secure it properly and took control of it. But now we had them more or less surrounded. They were like cornered rats.
There’s not a single day gone by since then when I’ve not thought about what happened next. To my dying day, I’ll regret not being more firm with the lads there.
Right, I said, we’ll just sit tight. These monkeys aren’t going anywhere. We’ve got them hemmed in in the middle of the station. They had positions on the main platforms and controlled both ends of the underpass that goes across the station. Some of them were wounded, and they were running low on ammunition. We had the area surrounded, and we had more people coming in all the time from other parts of town. We controlled the railway lines at both ends and could blow them if needs be. Nobody was going to rescue them. All we had to do, I said, was wait. In a few hours’ time, the Americans or Free British forces would arrive and flush them out. Leave it to the proper soldiers, I said. We’d done our bit and we’d done very well. There was no harm in calling it a day.
But the boys there were having none of it. Most of them were railway workers, in fact. The man in charge of them was a railwayman called Ted Cottle. I knew him vaguely. He was adamant that we should attack. He said it was a matter of pride to them. They should be the ones who liberate their workplace. Also you have to remember just how much these British Action collaborators were hated back then. These boys’ blood was up.
Very well, says I. If you’re determined to do it, we’d better try and do it properly. No great strategy or anything. We just set up men with machine guns at either end of the platforms and said it’d be a free-fire zone in which we’d shoot at anything moving. Meanwhile, the rest of us would come at them simultaneously from both sides. Eventually, we reckoned, they’d be driven into the underpass where they could be finished off.
Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The men coming in from the far side started off too early. Then some of the others rushed straight into a machine gun they’d hidden in the ticket office. Another bloke was shot as he was about to throw a grenade and he dropped it, killing three of his comrades.
In less than two minutes, eight of our men were killed and twice as many injured.
I shouted at Cottle that we had to stop there and then, but he wasn’t listening to me anymore. We re-grouped and started in again, a lot more carefully this time.
At that moment, Miss Gresham arrived with a hundred or so reinforcements in lorries and cars.
* * * * *
Lady Elizabeth Walton, alias ‘Miss Gresham’
Oh, Temple Meads was a bit of a cock-up I’m afraid. Very tragic.
The thing about a place like that is you’ve got to take it quickly, all in one go, because if you don’t it’s so full of cover - all that ironwork and brick and all manner of nooks and crannies to hide in - that determined defenders can hold it quite easily.
Ted Cottle and Bernie Iles had started their second attack when I arrived. If I’d got there a moment sooner I would have tried to stop them, although I’m not sure they’d have listened to me. Chaps those days weren’t in the habit of taking orders from women, although there were plenty of women fighting that day.
So we just fought for the wretched place, inch by blasted inch, grinding the Jerries and the BA diehards slowly down.
Finally, after a couple of hours, they threw in the towel. Not because of any great martial skill on our part, but because they were running out of ammunition. We squeezed them into an ever-tighter corner. In the end, what was left of them took shelter in that tunnel that passes under the platforms. Well, that wasn’t a particularly clever move. All we had to do was throw a few grenades down at them. Bernie Iles and I yelled at them to surrender or be slaughtered.
So they ran up the white flag. There was a handful of miserable-looking Germans and a few dozen very frightened British Action militia, including the Bristol area leader, Sid Prout. They’d fought so stubbornly because I imagine they thought we were going to shoot them anyway, or hang them from lamp-posts. It was what a few of them deserved. But we disarmed them, herded them into our trucks and sent a detachment to escort them to Horfield prison.
The prison was empty by then. We’d opened it up and let everyone out. What a glorious day that was! Our people released 20 resistance fighters and political prisoners, along with 200 rapists, murderers, thieves and burglars.
That wasn’t quite the end of the story, though.
We were moving through the various station buildings making sure that the place was secure, and checking to see if all our people were accounted for.
Ted Cottle, myself and a couple of others went through the underpass and we found a wounded German soldier. He was in a fairly bad way, with a bullet in his chest and blood frothing out of it.
When he saw this Jerry, Ted’s face went black and he started shouting at him. Something about his daughter. Then I realised this must have been the Jerry his girl had been seeing. He’d come and told me about it a while before. He was furious that his daughter was walking out with a Hun, but I told him to make the most of it. But having a real live Jerry soldier in the family could be useful, I said. I told Ted to be nice to the chap and get as much information as possible from him.
So there was Ted, screaming blue murder. He raised his rifle to shoot him. All the while the boy is groaning and calling out for his mother. Awful business.
"What the blazes do you think you’re doing?" I said to Ted.
"I’m going to kill the bloody Jerry who’s violated my daughter," he said.
"Don’t be ridiculous," I said. "If we start acting like barbarians then we’re no better than fascists ourselves. Besides, this fellow is going to die soon anyway."
I knocked the rifle out of his hands. I’m not that strong, but Ted was in an awful state. He was upset that so many of his comrades and workmates had been killed and injured, so he was meek enough. He just collapsed on the ground.
I turned to the others to tell them to get a stretcher and get the German to the first aid post we’d set up in the pub across the road.
When I turned around again, Ted was kneeling by the German, holding his hand, saying over and over again, "I’m sorry, Doris … So sorry …"
I left Temple Meads at about six in the evening and walked out into glorious sunshine and the sight of American jeeps and tanks and trucks roaring through the city. Off in the distance, from the middle of the town, there was this curious noise.
I had to walk a lot closer before I realised it was the sound of tens of thousands of people cheering themselves hoarse.
* * * * *
Avonleigh Road, Bedminster, Friday October 12 1945
Jimmy had been home for four hours, but it was hard for the family to have him to themselves. The news had spread through the neighbourhood and people kept knocking on the door to come and wish him well, welcome him home, shake his hand, or just get a gawp.
Now he sat at the head of the table with his feet in a tin basin of hot water, which Ruby topped up from time to time. Doris kept offering to do it, but she wouldn’t let her. For nearly five years she’d daydreamed about making a big fuss of him, and now here he was.
Besides, Doris mustn’t strain herself.
"Have some more cake, Jimmy," she said as Ted was seeing the last of the callers out of the front door.
"I couldn’t, Mum. Can’t eat another thing."
"But you’re so thin, son."
"Aye," said Ted, coming back into the room, "you need to get some meat back on you, doesn’t he Doris?"
Doris, sitting by Ted’s favourite armchair by the fireplace, nodded agreement and carried on with her knitting.
"I know what you need, lad," said Ted, going out to the scullery.
"What I need," said Jimmy, "is about six weeks’ sleep. I’m about fit for the knacker’s yard."
"Ha!" said Ted from out the back. "Did your mother ever tell you about the time we had to walk back from Weston when we were courting? Bank Holiday it was, and we missed the last train back. Her father nearly killed me."
"Oh Ted," said Ruby. "That was just a stroll compared to what Jimmy’s done."
Six weeks ago, Jimmy and his comrades had woken up to find the prison camp gates were open and the Germans were gone. Since then he and his pal George Bailey had made their way home, cadging lifts in cars and military trucks and farm-carts some of the way, but mostly on foot. They had managed to get a lift on a fishing boat to the Channel Islands, and from there had traveled on a shipload of Germans being taken to Britain as prisoners of war.
Jimmy was already sick of telling the story.
"Here you are. This is what you need," said Ted, putting a mug of cider in front of him.
"Well," said Jimmy, "I reckon two sups of this and I’ll pass out. I’ve not had a drink in ages."
"Oh do be careful now," said Ruby. "You don’t drink it if you don’t want it."
"Happy days," said Jimmy.
"Happy days," said Ted.
Jimmy hadn’t said anything about Doris yet. About how unhappy she looked, how she just sat there a lot of the time. Or the other thing. The obvious thing. But he kept looking at her from time to time.
Doris had been happy to see him. She’d even smiled for the first time in ages, but anyone could tell she wasn’t her usual self.
"Ahhhh! That hit the spot, Dad," said Jimmy. "You got any more?"
"No, that’s the lot. Tell you what, though. I fancy another one. We don’t dare go out to the pub on your first night home. Your mother’d kill us. You sit tight, and I’ll nip out and get us another drop."
Ted got up to get his coat.
"While you’re there," said Ruby, "ask if they’ve got any milk stout."
"They hardly ever do," said Ted. "It sells out the minute they get any in. But I’ll ask."
"We should try and get some. Be good for our Doris in her … you know. Build her up, it will."
Jimmy looked at her, and then at his sister.
"Allright, you can tell me this is none of my business, but I’m dying to know. Doris, whose baby is it?"
Ted walked over to where Doris sat and put his hand on her shoulder. "Hers. The baby is hers, Jimmy. And now it’s ours as well."
ENDS © Eugene Byrne 2002
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