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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sepia Saturday - A Wartime Winter's Tale

Sepia Saturday give bloggers an opportunity to share their family history and memories  through photographs.

I  had to be inventive in responding to this week's prompt, as all my snow photographs date from the 1970's and no-one in my family has ever taken part in winter sports.  

But I had two snowy photographs in my father's collection, recalling his time in Luxembourg in 1944.  So, here is his wartime winter tale, told in his own words.

Dad  served in the RAF Codes & Ciphers Branch and was indoctrinated into the mysteries of Enigma and the One-Time Pad code, with training at Bletchley Park and Whitehall. London.  He then became part of the Special Liaison Unit, a team of analysts formed by  Frederick Winterbotham to scan, digest, and file the messages, with channels established for forwarding key messages to the appropriate field commands. 

After training, Dad   was seconded to General Bradley’s US 12th Army Group HQ. He landed at Omaha beach just after D-Day and advanced via St. Mere Eglise, Avranches, Versailles, Paris, Verdun and Luxembourg through to Wiesbaden in Germany. 
"We arrived in Luxembourg.  General Bradley's Hotel Alpha was opposite the badly damaged railway station.  We had a good hotel at the back and were able to buy some very good cakes in the town. I became friendly  with a former member of the government [Mr Battin]  and was invited to his house. He produced champagne from his cellar and served them with lovely cakes with kirsch in them"

Dad (left) with Mr Battin and his daughter - 1944

 A rare chance to sample some home life in time of war!
Dad on the right with the Mr Battin's daughter.  

A picturesque scene of  Luxembourg, found in Dad's album.
Two more photographs below from the same album  .

Dad maintained contact with the Battin family for a long time after the war, exchanging Christmas cards etc.  In 1961  we moved to York and he named our new house  "Arlon" after  a place  in Luxembourg which obviously held fond memories for him.

His story continues......

A Meal of five Boiled Sweets

"It was now December 1944 and bitterly cold – lots of ice and snow. Out of the blue at 4a.m. on December 16th came a major attack on the American front.  It was pandemonium...... This was the Battle of the Bulge.  We carried thermite bombs in a safe in our operations vehicle to be used to destroy our codebooks and machines. We had rifles fully loaded with us at all times.......Anyone moving around that night not giving the correct password (which was Betty Gable), was shot on the spot......The weather did improve somewhat. We were dropped supplies of food and more important the GIs got further weapons and ammo. supplies. 

At one stage we  were being served up five boiled sweets for one meal!"

This meal of five boiled sweets became an, often repeated,  apocryphal family story.  It was only much later that I came to realize it masked the awful scenes he must have witnessed.  

Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved

 Click HERE  to read other snowy tales from Sepia Sepians 


  1. Interesting story. Even after looking up "boiled sweets," I'm still not clear whether they are like American hard candy.

  2. I'll bet those cakes he enjoyed with Mr. Battin with kirsch in them were rather good! I had to look kirsch up - a kind of dark cherry liqueur. Sounds yummy - especially if the cakes were chocolate? But you're so fortunate your father survived the war - given the places he found himself during that time.

  3. Very interesting story about your father's wartime experience, and a beautiful snowy view of Luxembourg. Boiled sweets are nice, but hardly a dinner substitute!

  4. Oh gee, I will have to google the 5 boiled sweets, although your father's gripping and most telling comment on their goings on was quite fascinating. War is just a sad and horrible experience that any of our men and women must endure for our freedom, and safety as well. Your photos are just beautiful too, the Luxembourg one is special to me, as I recall that place from my own family!

  5. Boiled sweet definition, hard candy See more. ... Cut five medium-sized cold boiled sweet potatoes in one-third inch slices. I got this off Google, do you think they used a sweet potato? I could see them being rather delicious.

  6. Thanks for sharing your history, an interesting story.

  7. Analyzing messages -- code books -- General Bradley. WOW! Your dad was probably never at a loss for a story to tell. As others have said, the snowy scene in Luxembourg is beautiful.

  8. What a fascinating wartime job your father had. I;m wondering if you have inherited his code skills and are an expert at cryptic crosswords ! I particularly enjoyed the "with family" photos. I haven;t often seen ones like those.

  9. A super post. The winter of 1944 was memorable snow indeed. You have reminded us that once upon a time instead of computers, real people had to make codes, calculations, and translations using only paper, pencil, and their brains.

  10. Thank you to everyone for such kind comments. This was a post that I pulled together at the last minute as I thought I had nothing that fitted the theme - just one of the beauties of Sepia Saturday in encouraging us to be inventive and come up with something that others find interesting.

    I had not realized that "boiled sweets" might be an unknown term cross the Atlantic and had never heard of sweet potatoes being used. We still have them - round hard coloured sweets wrapped in cellophane. I guess they were made by boiling sugar and flavouring it - definitely for sucking not biting. . I value my teeth too much to eat them now.

    To Boundforoz - no, I am afraid I have not inherited my father's code breakign skills and am hopeless at cryptic crosswords.

  11. Pleased to see that you had a snow scene. My first trip abroad, not counting National Service, was to Luxembourg in the 1960s. In the Army I was an electronic technician working in the cipher centre at SHAPE for a short while.
    Your Dad's wartime experiences were interesting but there must have been much left unsaid.

  12. Truly fascinating reading for me...I am sure as with my late Uncle your Dad did not communicate the darker side of the War, I think somewhere in my collection I have the same photo of Alpha hotel on a small black and white. I especially admire the veil over the lady's face ion the family photo and the Luxemborg snow scene would be a wonderful Christmas card.

  13. Fascinating story. What a heritage you have! I was fascinated with the Bletchley Park and Enigma part. It was the hard work and dedicated service of men and women like these that kept our world free.

  14. You must be so proud of your Dad's wartime contribution. I've always thought it was so important and of course, hush hush. Wasn't it great that he had a lovely Xmas reprieve from the daily horrors he saw. We've just been watching the latest Foyle's War and his involvement with SOE, so of course the two thoughts came together.

  15. I'm still not clear on the 5 boiled sweets for dinner. I thought at first that they boiled down a bunch of candy. Now I think they just gave them 5 pieces of hard candy and told them that was dinner and keep moving.

    1. Hi, Kristin - I think language differences come into play here. I think you are right and it was what you call "pieces of hard candy!. Am I right in thinking what we call "sweets, you call "candy" and "sweets" to you means "desserts"? The perils of different English!

  16. What a story this is : family history meets world history. A great post with some memorable photographs. It is the kind of post that makes Sepia Saturday what it is.

  17. I really enjoyed reading your blog. My dad also was at the Battle of the Bulge. He was there in the winter also but didn't share much about it with us.

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  19. Very interesting history of your Dad. My mother also worked at Bletchley (Hut 6 i believe), so perhaps they knew each other. Her maiden name was Beryl Howard. Even more of a coincidence is that she knew Bob Featherston, identified on an associated blog by Jo Featherson. Small world.


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